Friday, November 29, 2013

You don't eat meat?

Dear Theophilus,

A few weeks ago I was honoured to attend an event being held for a good friend’s brother. With my friend being of Italian heritage, there was quite a spread set out when it was time to eat: lasagne, alfredo pasta, veal, sausage, rapini, Caesar salad, and on the table went. Unfortunately for me, it was Friday, but I still quietly loaded up on the vegetarian options. As I got to the end of the table, an older gentleman asked me, “What, no veal? No sausage?” To which I simply answered, “Hey, it’s Friday.” After he had swallowed his amazement, my new found friend replied, “Yeah? I try to do that too.” That was all that was needed to be said, and then we went our separate ways.

I know the Catholic Church no longer obliges the faithful to fast and abstain from meat on Fridays. In fact, the only obligatory days of fasting and abstinence are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (cf Youcat #345, CCC #2042-2043). In Canada, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops teaches that although Fridays are still considered a day of abstinence, if one performs a particular act of charity, penance or piety outside of their normal behaviour, this can replace the act of abstinence.

Still, I try to follow the old rule of abstaining from meat on Friday. It may seem archaic, but I see it as doing my part in keeping God’s covenant. Despite all of my sins and shortcomings, I know God still loves me, and He forgives me through the sacrament of reconciliation. So really, is going a day without meat too much to ask on my end?

Much like Eleazar, who refused to even pretend to eat swine’s flesh to save his own life (cf 2 Macc 6:18-31), I too could probably fake it. Use my morning prayers as a sign of piety, or drop $5 in the poor box so I can have wings with my Friday beer. But I’ll know, and more importantly God will know that I’m just looking for a loophole in his Covenant law.

Although it may be awkward at times, I’ll continue try to be like Eleazar, trying to keep up my end of the Covenant. However, as a seafood lover, the difficulty won’t be in the abstaining from meat, but rather in the explaining why.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Strengthening Our Faith to Strengthen Our Children's

Dear Theophilus,

Kids say and ask the darndest things. That’s why we need to be ready for them when they have deep, penetrating questions about the faith. Because, if we’re not ready to answer them with the Truth, then they’ll go looking for answers in all the wrong places: the internet, television or the school yard.

I realized how important this is earlier this week when my 9 year-old son popped a big one from the backseat: “How do we know God exists?” Forgetting that he’s only 9 and not my high school religion class, I started into a discourse on St. Thomas Aquinas’ Five Proofs. When we pulled into the driveway all he could muster was a feeble, “My head hurts.” Even though I was ready for his question, I had forgotten how to answer it so he could understand. 

Although it’s important as a parent to be ready to answer our children’s questions about the faith, it’s even more important for Catholic Educators. 

A couple of weeks ago I was in the midst of preparing a workshop for Catholic high school teachers when I came across the following quote: 

However else the responsibilities of Catholic Educators are defined, the legitimate expectation of professional colleagues, of parents, of the church community and of the school board is that they say something about God. Msgr. Dennis Murphy (The Catholic Register, Aug 21-28, 2005).  

At the end of the day, this is the crux of Catholic education. This is the reason why parents send their kids to Catholic schools. This is our vocation as Catholic educators. I remember thinking this the first time I read this quote so many years ago, and was reminded that it remains pertinent even today. 

But are we ready to say something about God?

It has been my experience that many Catholic educators, especially those outside of the Religion Department, will shy away from the subject of God and His teachings through the Catholic Church. This is usually due to a feeling of insecurity in their ability to answer the big questions our students ask. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

The first step is getting Catholic educators the tools they need to comfortably teach Catholic doctrine. This could be done simply by getting a copy of the Youcat into the hands of every Catholic educator. They don’t need to read it from front to back. It can even collect dust on their classroom bookshelf. However, it will be there for them to blow the dust off when a student asks a tough question on what the Catholic Church really teaches about homosexuality, going to Mass on Sunday, or is Jesus really present in the Eucharist. I know that, for myself, the Youcat is my go-to resource when students ask questions I’m not comfortable answering on my own. 

Like with most things, the more we have, the more we want. I find that it’s the same with our knowledge of the faith. The question then is, where do we go next to deepen our knowledge of Catholicism?

Of course there’s a wealth of resources on the internet; way more than I could possibly list here without missing a quality Catholic resource. Some of my favourites include this online searchable catechism, Catholic Answers, Word on Fire, and the source of Catholic sources: The Vatican. If you’re more inclined to surf over to Youtube, two channels that I go to on a regular basis are Fr. Robert Barron and PatrickSullivan. 

Our Catholicism is also a communal faith. A faith where we are called together to witness to our faith to each other. Nothing strengthens our Catholic faith quite like being in a large group of Catholics all witnessing their faith together. Fortunately, there are a number of Catholic conferences where our faith can be fed. My favourite semi-annual conference in Toronto is put on by Catholic Chapter House, where I’ve heard such renowned Catholic speakers as Dr. Scott Hahn, Dr. Peter Kreeft and EWTN’s Marcus Grodi. Another conference I want to get to one day is the Defendingthe Faith conference in Steubenville, Ohio, which features these names amongst a who’s who of Catholic speakers. 

Of course there is a smattering of conferences for Catholic educators out there, but they seem to be few and far between. Although conferences geared toward the laity as a whole help us sustain our Catholic faith, it would be nice to have some more targeted to the needs of Catholic educators. There’s an internet survey for Catholic educators here to find out what they would like to see in Catholic Professional Development – please share it with the Catholic educators you know. Also, if you know of any conferences for Catholic educators (or for the laity in general), please share the details in the comment box below. 

Working together we can help one another strengthen our faith and enrich our knowledge of the Truth and beauty that is Catholicism. With the right resources, we can grow our confidence in our ability to answer our kids’ questions. We will be ready to say something about God.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Taking on the Yoke of Christ

Dear Theophilus, 

In times of struggles and suffering we’re often told to “Offer it up for Christ.” We’re repeatedly reminded that if we don’t take up our Cross and follow Him in suffering, then we can’t begin to hope to have a share in His glory. So, we grit our teeth and persevere, often realizing with hindsight that we’ve become a much better person for it all. 

At the centre of all this, though, is ourselves. We see this as our victory over suffering, our own personal gain of God’s promised grace. Perhaps this is why we find our burdens to be so difficult, we’re focused on ourselves and our suffering, rather than on God and the grace that pulls us through. 

That’s why in time of struggles I like another image, that of the yoke of Christ, better. 

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Mt. 11:28-30) 

With a yoke, there is still struggle, there is still a burden. Just watch a team of oxen straining to pull a cart through the mud, and you can see just how burdensome a yoke can be. Yet the Yoke of Christ is different; He promises us that it will be easy and light. 

When the world is crashing down around our ears; When the burden we carry seems more like the Cross of Christ and the hill we are climbing is that of Calvary; When we seem to be as lonely as Christ crucified; When we are weary and carrying a heavy burden; how can we find rest? 

Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; 

Yes, the wood of the yoke is heavy and rough. You may not even want to be constrained by the yoke. But take up the yoke, because it is easy and light. 


Firstly, with a yoke you are never alone. Just as oxen are always yoked in a team, we too are yoked with another – Christ. Jesus is not the driver, whipping us to coerce more out of our struggles. He is yoked beside us, helping us to carry the burden that, if carried alone, would be too much for just one individual to bear. If we listen to Him and learn from Him, our burden, and His, will become easy and light. 

Also, ox drivers will tell you that, although the oxen are yoked together, there is always one who takes the lead; one who carries most of the burden, leading the other in the direction the driver wants them to go. When we focus on our struggles, trying to find a way to carry our burden ourselves, we take the full weight of it, and often more, on our shoulders. It’s when we look to Christ, allowing Him to lead us in the Father’s will, that we can endure what has been asked of us. 

In his book How toListen when God is Speaking, Fr. Mitch Pacwa tells a story of how St. Jerome came across a yoke that was said to have been fashioned by the hands of Christ. Since St. Joseph was a carpenter it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that, as an adolescent, Christ would have learned the trade of His earthly father. What St. Jerome noticed, and what bears witness that Christ’s yoke will make our burdens easy and light, was that one side of the yoke had been carved distinctly larger than the other, and that the wood there had been worn smooth by the animal that had shouldered it. 

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The 5 P's of Prayer

Dear Theophilus, 

Like most people, I like having routine in my life. In fact, the older I get, the more I cling to routine to get through the day. As a Catholic school teacher, I see on a daily basis how necessary routine is for children to get through theirs. That’s why a short while ago I wrote about how we all need to have a prayer plan in place if we want our prayer life to be fruitful. If we don’t have a plan for our prayer life, a prayer routine, the wheels quickly fall off and we begin to see prayer as useless. 

In an attempt to deepen my contemplative prayer life, I came across one of my favourite prayer routines last summer reading Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s How to Listen When God is Speaking. Since reading Fr. Pacwa’s book and trying to incorporate many of his ideas into my own prayer life, I’ve done some research into the Ignatian Spirituality concept of the 5 P’sof Prayer. Although you will find a few variations that differ slightly, in a nutshell the 5 P’s are: 

Ø  Prepare
Ø  Place
Ø  Posture
Ø  Passage
Ø  Presence 

We need to prepare to pray. Although some prayer happens spontaneously; deep, spiritual contemplative prayer requires effort and preparation. This can seem daunting at first, but once you get into a prayer habit, preparing to pray will come as naturally as your spontaneous prayers. Begin by having a prayer purpose: thanksgiving for the simply things in your life, a special petition, for someone you love, in worship of God’s greatness … the list is infinite. Think of a passage in scripture that speaks to your purpose: a moment in Christ’s life (think of the Rosary Mysteries), a parable, something from the prophets; find that specific moment in scripture (our memory isn’t always true to the Word of God). Finally, have a time and place planned out for your prayer. Contemplative prayer is very different from spontaneous prayer, and where and when you prayer will have a direct effect on the fruitfulness of your prayer. 

Your place of prayer can be just as important as your prayer itself. God speaks to us in the silence, and if you find you are distracted from your prayer by your surroundings, then your entire contemplative prayer effort will be in vain. I’ve written before about finding the ideal place for prayer, but I think these ideas could bear repeating. Pick a quiet place, away from worldly distractions (television, computer, smartphone). Find a place that will elevate your thoughts towards God – in RediscoverCatholicism, Matthew Kelly writes about how church is the most ideal place to pray; they were designed and built for prayer. If you can’t make it to your church, however, I’m sure most of us can find a corner in our home or garden that is conducive to prayer. 

Although the Catholic Church teaches that there is no one ideal posture for prayer, it is important to find the proper position for your prayer. Most people relate kneeling with prayer, and although kneeling can help focus your mind on your prayer, it may not be the most suitable for longer periods of contemplative prayer. You want your posture (kneeling, sitting or prostrate) to be comfortable; yet not so comfortable that you begin to dose off (another distraction that can lead us away from prayer). I find that my posture needs to suit my prayer purpose to allow my prayers to be most effective: kneeling when in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, sitting comfortably when contemplating God’s will for my life and prostrate in those rare moments of extreme humility before the greatness of the Lord. 

Reading and meditation on a passage of scripture will help you to understand God’s will for you at this particular moment of your prayer life. If you are seeking specific guidance on a particular issue, find a verse from the Bible that speaks to that issue – use the Catechism to find the Church’s teaching on this issue, along with related Scripture verses, or simply google your prayer purpose and Bible verse. If you want to meditate more deeply on God’s will, I would suggest the daily Gospel reading – there is a reason why God has called the Universal Church to meditate on that particular reading today, leading you to unexpected and joyful revelations about His will in your life.

Finally, put yourself fully and completely into the presence of God. Prayer is the means by which we develop our personal relationship with Him. If we cannot be fully and completely present to God in prayer, when can we? Listen to what God is saying to you – it won’t be with a shout, but rather in a whisper of silence. Once you listen to what God is saying to you, you will wonder how you didn’t hear Him in the first place. This fifth P of presence flows naturally out of the other four, but is essential to bringing fruit to our prayer life.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Daily Examination of Conscience

Dear Theophilus, 

During the summer months I like to catch-up on my reading list (and blog posts), getting to the books that have been piling up on my bedside table since Christmas. Having more time in the morning to devote to reading helps, but I also like to choose one or two lighter titles to help move things along. One thing I try not to do is sacrifice quality for quantity. That’s why I was happy to come across The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whisky and Song. 

As the title suggests, this book takes the reader on a journey through the relationship Catholicism has had throughout history with alcohol, weaving in the odd recipe and drinking song for good measure. What I wasn’t expecting when I picked up John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak’s book was how true it stayed to the orthodoxy of Catholic teaching. Subtitled From Apocalypse to Zinfandel, there’s a whole lot that The Bad Catholic’s Guide covers, way more than just one blog post (perhaps that’s why it’s a book). As my post title suggests, I want to delve a little more deeply into one of the ideas I found there. 

A few times scattered throughout The Bad Castholic’s Guide Zmirak refers to the Dominican monastic order. He talks about their devotion to prayer, their work ethic and the marvelous wines and liquors these devout monks have gifted to us. The one aspect of Dominican life that intrigued me, however, was the daily examination of conscience. At the end of each day, Dominicans are called to reflect on their daily experience, how they glorified God and how they sinned against Him. 

The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize what a wonderful idea a daily examination of conscience is. Since reading Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism and returning to a more frequent practice of the sacrament of Reconciliation (though never as frequent as I should), I’ve discovered how much more in tune I am with my own shortcomings, with my tendencies to sin, and I try to make a much more concerted effort to avoid what brings me to sin (you can read about my ongoing struggle here). If examining my conscience and getting to Confession every couple of months helps me to sin less, I figure that examining my conscience daily will help me even more in my quest to be perfect as my Holy Father is perfect. (cf Mt 5:48) 

When approaching the Sacrament of Confession, a thorough examination of conscience is needed (Youcat 232, CCC 1450-1460). To be done properly, the examination should be done in prayerful silence since we need to reflect on our thoughts and actions over a longer period of time. Your examination of conscience can never be exhaustive, but you must approach the confessions of your sins with a contrite heart and the resolve to sin no more. 

Although a daily examination of conscience looks at a shorter period of time, it needs to be just as thorough as though we were preparing to celebrate the sacrament. Each night, as I end my day I try to honestly answer these questions, asking God’s forgiveness for where I’ve fallen short: 

  • What have I done to glorify God?
  • What have I done to attack the glory of God?
  • What have I done that I know is a sin?
  • Did I have any thoughts that could have lead me to sin?
  • Have I done or said anything that is hurtful to others?
  • Have I seen someone in need and not stopped to help?
  • What have I done to witness to God’s will?
  • How have I helped others grow closer to Christ? 

The list is not exhaustive, and the order and answers change from day to day. What I do find, is that by going through this daily examination of conscience, I resolve to be a better person tomorrow; and when I wake in the morning, I pray to God for the grace and strength to be that better person.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Making a Plan for Prayer

Dear Theophilus, 

Prayer takes work. 

It’s true that even the youngest child can prattle off a prayer learned by heart, and many adults will mumble through the prayers at Mass while mentally going over their grocery list or thinking about what they’re going to order at Sunday brunch. But real prayer, truthful prayer, the kind of prayer that enriches your soul; that kind of prayer takes effort. 

In many ways, that’s the problem with prayer. It’s hard work, and to get anything out of it takes consistent effort on the part of the person praying.

Too often we’ll hear people say, “I don’t pray anymore because I got nothing out of it. It was just a bunch of words learned by rote, and I don’t know if God ever heard me, because He never answered.” For these people, prayer outside of the memorized Mass responses involves complaining: “God, why is this happening to me?” or asking: “God, please let me win the lottery.” For many people prayer is a one off event, when it’s convenient for them. They aren’t willing to enter into a dialogue with God, they would rather tell God what’s up and expect Him to jump. Then they act surprised when God remains silent, much the way they do when family and friends are demanding in the same way with them. 

And when God is silent, they refuse to keep the conversation going. 

The funny thing is, I’ve found that the deepest, most meaningful conversations I’ve had have been with people I’ve known for a long time. Our best conversations were never the first ones we had, but rather after numerous conversations where we learned to trust one another in both words and silence. Gaining that mutual trust took work, it took an effort to get to know one another intimately. The relationship took time, growing in baby steps. 

Prayer is like that; it takes time and effort, growing in baby steps. 

Once you have decided to enrich your prayer life and deepen your relationship with God, you will need a plan. Recognize that it will take time and effort, that you won’t hit the contemplative jackpot overnight. Here are a few points that can help you create a plan for you how you’re going to take those prayerful baby steps. 

Like any change you make in your life, if you want to change your prayer life, you will need to set goals for improving your prayer life. However, make sure the prayer goals you set are attainable. There is nothing more discouraging than wanting change, making the effort then falling short. Trying to add hours of contemplative prayer on obscure scripture passages is a sure fire to ensure you give up on prayer.

Instead, start by adding an amount of prayer that is feasible in your life; Matthew Kelly suggests 15 minutes a day, while Peter Kreeft would say to start out with 10 minutes of prayer a day. If you don’t already do it, adding prayer to your day could be as simple as saying grace before every meal. Once this new habit takes root, you’ll be surprised that you’re spending more time in prayer each day than you originally intended. Remember, even the greatest saints didn’t become a super contemplative overnight.
Make sure you have a routine to your prayer. If you set out to spend 10 minutes in prayer every day, but only do it when it’s convenient on any particular day, you’ll find yourself lying in bed, exhausted and upset that you didn’t get your prayer time in that day. Once you’ve skipped a day or two, it will conveniently grow to a week between prayers, then months. 

Pray at the same time and place each and every day, especially when you’re starting out. Look for opportunities to incorporate time for prayer into your current daily routine. I find the best time for me is first thing in the morning, saying the Rosary while I walk the dog. You may even find that you need to wake up 15 minutes earlier to add prayer to your daily routine. It’ll be tempting to his the snooze button the first few days, but once you’re in the habit, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t gotten into the habit sooner. 

Share your prayer plan with other who are also striving to deepen their relationship with God. You’d be surprised by how the challenges you face are the same challenges they find in their own prayer lives. Think of it as a prayer support group. Seek encouragement from others who have gone down the path before you. Everyone’s relationship with God is unique, but when you’re not sure where to start your prayer life, listening to what has worked for others will give you some ideas of where to begin. It’s also comforting to hear that those who we think have a deep spiritual life also struggle from time to time. Knowing you are not alone will give you the courage to continue praying. 

Once you’ve established a prayer routine and you are comfortable with your new prayer life, challenge yourself to deepen your relationship with God. Be careful, however, that a little bit of success doesn’t breed overconfidence. Jumping from saying the Rosary daily to praying the Liturgy of the Hours is only asking to stumble and you will find yourself right back where you started from, or even further away from a rewarding prayer life because of disillusionment.  

Add slowly to your prayer life. Pick and choose how you want your prayer life to grow. Start going to Mass once a week during the work week; read and reflect on the daily Gospel; spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – the options are endless, and only you and God know how your prayer relationship is intended to grow.
Once you have a prayer plan, stick to it, and you will be amazed by the blessings it bears.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Making Prayer Personal

Dear Theophilus, 

Our God is a living God. 

If we cannot or do not believe in the Resurrection, then our belief in Christ is not only in vain (cf 1 Cor 15:1-2), but outright heretical. For if Jesus did not rise from the dead then he is not the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. 

As Christians we are called to have an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But how can we build up this relationship so that it is vibrant, joyful and life-giving? 

The answer is quite simple, the key to having a vibrant relationship with God is the same as our relationships with others: good communication. Where our human communication can take on many forms (conversations, e-mail or text), we communicate with God through prayer. 

Prayer is turning the heart toward God. When a person prays, he enters into a living relationship with God. (Youcat 469; CCC 2558-2565) 

The notion of entering a relationship with God through prayer opens up a whole intimate and personal dimension. Just like there is a personal dimension in all of our human communications (yes, there’s even business letters have a level of personal investment), there is a personal element in how we communicate with God.  

We need to make prayer personal. 

I’m not stating that there needs to be a dramatic shift from a public prayer life to a predominantly private prayer life. Rather, what I am saying is that there is a need to develop a deep personal investment in our prayer life as a whole. There must be a balance found between both public and private prayer life, each feeding off of and into the other, and both stoking the deep, personal and intimate relationship that we have with God. 

The question arises then of how do we do this? How do we make prayer personal? Especially when it’s our private prayer that seems deeply intimate (our nighttime prayers and personal supplications before God), while our public prayer seems dry and remote (usually responding by rote at Mass). It won’t be easy and will take some effort, but like all things in this life, when we put in the effort to deepen our relationship with God, the rewards will be exponential. 

At this point I’d like to put forward the very non-scientific argument that the overwhelming majority of practicing Catholics (i.e.: those who attend Mass on a regular basis, beyond Easter, Christmas and family celebrations) only have a public prayer life. They attend Mass on Sunday and leave feeling they’ve met their end of the bargain in their relationship with God. My experience is that many of these people don’t have a very strong private prayer life, and thus feel that their relationship with God is lacking somewhat. Often these very same people will ask me how they can engage their children in the Mass, to which I reply with some rhetorical questions (I make sure they understand I don’t want or need to hear their answer, I just want them to reflect on the questions): What is their prayer life like at home? Do they incorporate prayer in their daily routine? Do they make a habit of frequenting the sacraments (Eucharist and Reconciliation)? 

As for those who don’t go to Mass regularly (or at all) many will argue that they don’t need to go to have a relationship with God; that they can communicate with God any time they see fit or need Him. Here I would argue that most of these people don’t even have this personal relationship with God that they claim to have, mostly because they see themselves as the centre of this relationship and not Christ. 

Again the question comes up: How do we make prayer personal? How can we get our public prayer to the next level and enrich our private prayer so as to deepen our relationship with God?

For myself, it started with going beyond the rote responses at Mass. It took a concerted effort to concentrate on what was being said and sung and seeing how it related to me in my life at that particular moment. It was done in baby steps. I didn’t take on the whole Mass all at once. I began with closing my eyes and focusing on the words of the Gospel. Once I had mastered concentrating on the Gospel, I added the readings. Soon I was able to make the connections between the Old Testament and New Testament readings. Over the years I’ve been doing this I’ve slowly added a new part of the Mass to concentrate on with the others, to the point where I spend most of the Mass contemplating on what is happening and being said. 

The Mass, a very public prayer, has also become a very personal prayer. 

Since I’ve been doing this, my private prayer life has also grown. With the natural ebb and flow of any personal relationship (with my relationship with God this is all due to my own failings), I have added new aspects to my prayer life. Some of these are traditional rote prayers: daily Rosary or prayers before every meal; while others are more fluid in nature: personal supplications or a daily examination of conscience. 

What I have found is that by making prayer personal, my relationship with God has grown deeper and strengthened my resolve in Christ.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Keeping the Commandments in Order

Dear Theophilus, 

The more I read and the more I sit back and watch the world go by, the more I come to realize that we’ve got our priorities backwards. By we I mean a generalization of those of us blessed enough to live in western society (Europe and North America); and by priorities I am referring to our Christian commandments. 

I know it’s never a wise thing to make sweeping generalizations, especially of such a large population base. There will always be exceptions to the rule. I also acknowledge the large gamut of experiences, opinions and actions of such a large group of people makes it impossible to shade them all with one colour, particularly when you get out to the fringes. Still, I think a little bit of self-reflection (myself included) would help bring things into greater focus when it comes to following the commandments in their proper order. 

When we think of God’s commandments, our minds usually jump to the image of Charleton Heston holding two stone tablets etched by the finger of God. As well, most of us can also recite from memory (in some form or another) the list from Exodus 20:1-17 

1.      You shall have no other gods before Me.
2.      You shall not worship idols.
3.      You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain.
4.      Keep the Sabbath holy.
5.      Honour your father and mother.
6.      You shall not murder.
7.      You shall not commit adultery.
8.      You shall not steal.
9.      You shall not bear false witness.
10.  You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or goods.

As Christians, however, when we think of the commandments, we need to think of the commandments that Christ gave us. And for those who are like myself and have troubles with memorizing such a long list as was given to Moses, we’re all pretty happy that Jesus was able to summarize the Ten Commandments quite nicely in just two: 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt 22:37-40) 

Here is where my generalizing of western society starts to kick in. 

It’s been my experience that when we look at the Old Testament commandments, we have numbers 5 to 10 down pat; and when we come to the New Testament commandments, we seem to skip over the first and overuse the second. We seem to have forgotten numbers 1 to 4, or, according to Christ, the greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God. 

Love your neighbour as yourself or Treat others as you would want to be treated. It’s a common refrain that helps keep us from falling into complete anarchy. As a parent I try to drill this into my son’s psyche. As a teacher, I try to guide my students to live by this principle. As a society we use this mantra to keep everyone on the right track. But without the first commandment, it’s an empty philosophy without foundation. 

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good gets done in the world because of this commandment. As Christian’s, however, we need to follow this second commandment out of commitment to the first. As numerous Catholic authors (such as Matthew Kelly, Peter Kreeft and George Weigel) have pointed out: if we love our neighbour without loving God first, then we become nothing more than an NGO, a charitable organization, or a branch of the government dedicated to helping others. 

As Christians, it’s only logical that Christ’s first commandment will flow into the second. If we truly love God, then of course we will love our neighbour whom He made in His own image.

The challenge is this, dear Theophilus, not to simply do good because it is good (most of us do this already), but to find ways of deepening our love for the Lord so that goodness can flow from that love. By right-ordering God’s commandments, by putting God first, our strength and commitment to do good as a witness to God in the world will grow exponentially.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Quintessential Question of our Faith

Dear Theophilus,

In this past week’s Gospel reading (Lk 9:18-24), Christ asks the quintessential question of our faith:

“Who do you say that I am?” (Lk 9:20)

Our entire faith hinges on how we answer this very pointed question.

If, like Peter, we answer: “The Christ of God.” (Lk 0:20), then everything else should fall neatly into place. There can be no further questioning of our faith. There certainly should be no further questioning of what we believe in or how we act morally and theologically.

Christ is asking us to either accept him for all that he is, or to reject him.

It’s on this question that the arguments of our Christian brethren that feel they can pick and choose Christ’s teachings that are relevant to them begin to fall apart. For, if they cannot accept all that Christ teaches, then how can they consider him to be The Christ of God?

How can we not consider the Eucharist to be the source and summit of our faith when Christ told us “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (Jn 6:51) if he is not The Christ of God?

If Jesus is truly The Christ of God, then how can we not consider the teaching of the Catholic Church to be divinely inspired when, appearing to the disciples after the Resurrection, Jesus said to them “’Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ When he had said this, he breathed on them, (Jn 20:21-22) a commissioning that continues to this day in the conferring of the sacrament of priesthood. A priesthood in the Catholic Church commissioned when Christ said: “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18)

The teachings simply fall into place once we truly understand what it means to answer Christ’s question like Peter did at his institution as the fist Pope: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt. 16:16)

The list of what becomes indisputable when we answer this question, Who do you say that I am? is too lengthy to discuss in a blog post, there are 2865 paragraphs in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It’s all there, and if Jesus is The Christ of God, then each of those paragraphs makes perfect sense.

As Fr. Robert Barron puts it so well (as he always does) in his Catholicism Series, if we do not answer like Peter, then there is very little to differentiate Christianity from the other world religions. If Jesus is not The Christ of God, then he is little more than a prophet, like Elijah or Mohammed, who have had (or claimed to have had) a revelation from God. If Jesus is not The Messiah, the Son of the living God, then he is little more than a new Buddha who has fond another path towards enlightenment. If Jesus is not The Christ of God, then could he be the next incarnation of Vishnu, come to teach us how to attain Moksha?

This is the quintessential question of our faith. How you answer it forms the core of what you believe and compels you how to act on those beliefs. So,…

Who do you say that He is?

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

The Living Rosary

Dear Theophilus,

Over the past two weeks I’ve had the opportunity on a few different occasions to take part in a very unique experience: The Living Rosary.

The premise of The Living Rosary is quite simple – each participant becomes a living bead of the Rosary. The levels on which The Living Rosary brings the participants closer to Christ are much more complex.

Developed by a member of the Catholic Women’s League at St. John the Evangelist parish in Whitby, Ontario; the Living Rosary is designed not only to teach about the Rosary, but also heighten praying the Rosary through the five senses.

The first thing that struck me as I entered the chapel at school (and again later in the week at the parish hall) were the lights and colours in the centre of the chairs set up to be our Rosary. A statue of Mary stood at the foot of a Cross studded with white Christmas lights and was surrounded by rope-lights of yellow, blue, white, red and green. It was explained that these colours came from St. Mother Teresa’s Rosary that she used to pray for world peace and conversion, each colour representing a continent (yellow-Asia, blue-Oceania, white-Europe, red-the Americas, and green-Africa). In the parish hall, candles were also lit to signify each bead of the Rosary as that prayer was said.

Before the Living Rosary began, roses were passed around to arouse our sense of smell. The sweet scent of the roses reminded us of our mothers, and of Mary as the Mother of God. They also served as a reminder of the great responsibility God has given us as stewards of the earth. As for myself, the roses reminded me of the roses on Mary’s feet when she appeared to St. Bernadette in the grotto at Lourdes.

Listening to others lead the Rosary was also a special treat. I find there is nothing more edifying for my faith than to hear young children recite prayers. Added to this was the multitude of languages used to lead different parts of the Rosary: English, French, Spanish, Tagalog and Slovenian – really making this a Rosary for world peace and conversion.

As each Hail Mary of the Rosary was recited, each person/bead attached a rough cord onto a larger rope, noting that that prayer had been said. The rough cords symbolized Christ’s suffering before he took up his Cross, and that each of us needs to confront suffering in our lives. For those who lead the Our Father, a soft cloth was draped over their shoulders, signifying God’s comforting forgiveness.

Once the Rosary was completed, there was a brief social to talk about our experiences where participants in the Living Rosary were invited to partake in a cookie Rosary, tasting the sweetness of God’s love.


I was so moved by my original experience with the Living Rosary at school, that I took my wife and son to the parish Living Rosary a week later, and they too shared in the joy and excitement I felt in praying this way.

If you want to learn more about the Living Rosary, you can check out the CWL website at St. John the Evangelist parish in Whitby here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Re-sensitizing Ourselves to Sin

Dear Theophilus,

I was listening to a talk by Matthew Kelly published by Lighthouse Catholic Media the other day and I was struck by the imagery he used to describe how our souls can become desensitized to sin.

We treat our souls, it seems, much like we treat our cars.

When we wash our cars and clean out the backseat, for the first few days we’ll do whatever it takes to keep it clean. We’ll swerve into oncoming traffic to avoid puddles and forbid any kind of food in both the front and back seats. Each spring, once I’ve vacuumed a winter’s worth of grunge and dog fur out of my Volkswagen, my son is forced to endure a whole new set of stringent car rules with the promise that this year is going to be different and they will be enforced henceforth.

The problem is, Matthew Kelly points out, is that once the freshness of clean has worn off, we tend to let things slide a little. The dog will jump in the back seat, leaving behind fur and muddy paw prints that I promise myself I’ll clean on the weekend, but I never get to it. The empty water bottle used to refresh myself on a long car ride gets tossed into the back seat with the notion to dispose of it at my destination, but is forgotten once I get there. A coffee cup can languish for days in the cup holder. After awhile it’s no longer small bits of garbage, but sheets of paper, books, gym bags with even my hockey bag having spent a night or two in the back.

Each item, no matter how small, stands out like a sore thumb in a newly cleaned car, but becomes hidden, no matter how large, amongst all the other junk cluttering up my car. I’ve become desensitized to the mess that surrounds me.

Our souls are the same. A small venial sin will stand out on its own, but will soon seem inconsequential when it’s hidden among a host of other – seemingly inconsequential sins. What happens, though, is that all of these inconsequential sins will help make larger sins also seem inconsequential. We become desensitized to the mess that fills our soul.

The best way to remain sensitive to the clutter in our car is to keep it clean – heading to the car wash on a regular basis.

We can re-sensitize our souls to our sin in much the same way – keeping them clean by going to confession.

The Catholic Church stipulates that we go to confession at least once a year, but most of us will wash our car more often than that. On average, we go through a car once every 5 to 10 years, but our souls are for eternity – which should we keep better care of?

I’ve found that making a good and regular confession has re-sensitized me to my sin and I’m now much more aware of even the small, venial sins that I never considered to be sins before. If you haven’t been to confession in a while, I urge you to return to this grace-filled sacrament, using this examination of conscience as a guide. If it’s been so long that you feel intimidated by the experience, be not afraid, be up front with the priest and he will gently guide you through the process to help you refresh the cleanliness of your soul.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Burn of God's Love

Dear Theophilus,

The other day, I was asked for my opinion on what heaven and hell are like. As is par for the course in my classes, my answer seemed to leave my interlocutor more confused than when we started our conversation.

Good or bad, I explained, we are all called to spend our eternal lives with God.

With a puzzled look, I was then asked to clarify if evil people go to heaven. I don’t think my answer: “Yes and no,” really helped much, so I tried to clarify my perspective of heaven and hell, gleaned from Fr. Robert Barron’s Catholicism.

I find it always raises an eyebrow when I state that hell (along with purgatory) burns with the fire of God’s love.

The reason is this: those who are in a state of sin or who have turned away from God are not prepared for the light of His loving embrace in eternal life.

I’ll generally use two parallels to demonstrate my vision of purgatory and hell:

Purgatory is like a smelter. To transform a metal, such as gold, from the ore that’s mined from the earth to its pure form that we wear around our necks or on our fingers, the impurities need to be burned away. Our souls are like gold to God, and before He can adorn Himself with the brightness of our love for Him, the impurities of our sins must be burnt away – purged. Although I do my best as a human, I’m still a sinner, and I look forward to the burning fire of God’s love in purgatory so that I can rejoin the Lord that much quicker.

As for the souls in hell, they too burn at the touch of God’s love. I see the darkness of evil as much like the darkness of a movie theatre. Over the course of a film our eyes adjust to the darkness of our surroundings so that we can see not only the screen, but the others sitting around us. When we leave the movie theatre on a bright summer afternoon, we shield our eyes from the sun’s blinding rays – the same way that the light of God’s love in heaven is blinding to those who chose to live in the darkness of evil.

Put in these concrete, earthly terms, I find that most people begin to understand my original thought of how everyone is called to be in the presence of God, it’s just a question of how prepared we are for the light of His love.

Needless to say, I was struck dumb when, the day after this conversation, I read the Gospel reading of the day:

Jesus said to Nicodemus: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

“And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

“But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (Jn 3:16-21)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Facing Temptation - Turning our Humanity Towards God

Dear Theophilus, 

Lent has only begun and already I feel the temptation to break with my Lenten promise. I shouldn’t be surprised really, my whole life I’ve noticed that the more I deny myself of something, the more desirous for it I become. 

Perhaps I should cave in to temptation. I’m only human after all, and these are human inclinations I’m feeling. The world tells me that to not succumb to my human nature would make me less than human – or at least incomplete in who I am as a human. 

Christ tells us the contrary – that by not giving into our temptations, we become elevated above humanity. By not giving into our temptations, we are bringing ourselves closer to reunification with God. 

Jesus knew all about temptation and how succumbing to it would lead us away from the Father instead of towards the greatness he intended for us: 

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. (Lk 4:1-2a) 

What we tend to forget in this well-known story of the temptation of Christ is that Jesus was not only divine, but he was also completely human in nature as well. Although his divinity gave Christ the fortitude to overcome temptation, his humanity suffered from it. When the devil tempted Christ during those forty days, his human flesh was just as tormented as yours and mine during this Lenten season. 

He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone.’” (Lk 4:2b-4) 

Here Christ is tempted, like we are, to fulfil our materialistic desires – to become a Messiah of earthly things. For most of us who live in the comfort of western society, we’re no longer tempted by hunger, except to excess, yet we still hunger for material things. Once one desire has been met, we quickly move on to long for the next great thing that promises us happiness. Like Christ, by saying no to all our materialistic whims and fancies, we acknowledge that our existence isn’t about this world, but the next. That we must prepare of hearts not for the bread of this world, but for the bread of eternal life. As Damian Goddard so profoundly stated: He who refused to turn stones into bread, rolled away the stone to become our bread. 

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, and it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” (Lk 4:5-8) 

Wouldn’t life be easier if we had power and authority over others? Wouldn’t it be grand if we could have others be at our beck and call? Sure, but at what cost? How many others must we step on to climb the ladder of success? With great authority comes even greater responsibility – can we handle that in our human frailty? How many times have we heard someone in a position of authority bemoan that life was so much easier when they were a simple servant? Did Christ not show us by washing the feet of the Apostles that the path to greatness is through servitude? When confronted by Pilate’s statement of authority, did Christ not calmly rebuke him by explaining that all earthly power is given because the Father has willed it?  

We need to remember that Christ is not an earthly Messiah, come to liberate us from the political ties that bind us. Christ’s authority is far greater than our earthly realm, and if we are called to an allegiance to our earthly leaders, how much greater should our allegiance to the source of their power be? When pride calls us to search out a position of authority, we need to be like Christ and humble ourselves to a role of servitude. 

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his Angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Lk 4:9-12) 

In our cynical age seeing is believing. If it can’t be proven through modern science or if we don’t see it with our very eyes, we call into veracity the matter at hand. How foolhardy we are, though, in that we ignore Christ’s 2000 year-old teaching to St. Thomas: Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe. (Jn 20:29) 

Keep this in mind when the sceptics tell you that it’s humanly impossible for anybody to keep their Lenten observance. You don’t need to prove it to them by announcing your Lenten promise to them, rather cherish your belief in Christ with the inward, silent knowledge that it is possible. Know that by turning away from temptation, you are not turning away from your humanity, but rather turning your humanity towards God.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Getting Ready for Lent

Dear Theophilus, 

Today’s the day that most Catholic’s panic. It’s the day before Ash Wednesday, they need to decide on something to give up for Lent. Many will fall back on the old standby’s: chocolate, alcohol or swearing. In a desire to return to a more “Catholic” Lent, some may even choose to give up meat for the next 40 days. As a teacher, my favourite is always the student who declares that they are going to give up homework for Lent – to which I always tell them that their Lenten observance is supposed to make them a better person. 

In many ways, anything that I write here to help you prepare for Lent is already way too late. To make a good penitential Lenten observance you need more than 24 hours to reflect on how to best prepare your heart for Easter’s redeeming grace. In much the same way you should put more than 5-minute’s effort into making your examination of conscience before confession, getting ready for Lent should take a lot of soul searching. Come to think about it, Lent can be like a prolonged visit to the confessional before the liberating experience of reconciliation of the promise of the resurrection. 

In the days and weeks leading up to Lent, when people ask me what I’m giving up for Lent, I’ll generally reply, tongue firmly planted in cheek, that there are just some things that can’t be said outside of the confessional. After we share a good chuckle I’ll move on, either literally or conversationally. In other words, it’s none of their business – and Christ would have us all keep it that way: 

And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Mt 6:16-18) 

Recently, as I was preparing myself for Lent, I was intrigued by something my friend Patrick Sullivan said in one of his CatholicMinistryTV videos: that we should not give ourselves our own penance during Lent, but rather we need to perceive what God has in mind for our penance. In many ways, this makes a lot of sense – when we are sick, we go to the doctor for a remedy, we don’t self-medicate. The same can be said when we want to expand our horizons and deepen our wisdom; we look to a teacher to guide us on our quest for knowledge and understanding. If we attempt either of these on our own (medically or academically) we will turn in circles with no direction, often remaining mired in our illness or ignorance – but with the appropriate guidance, our horizons become limitless. The same can be said for our spiritual life, and when it comes to our immortal souls and the depths to which our sins have offended God, only He can tell us how to make amends.

Although Lent begins tomorrow, it’s not too late to begin reflecting on how God wants us to make amends for our sins so we can obtain his promise in Christ’s resurrection. All we need to do is listen to what he whispers in our hearts.