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.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Benedict XVI - Thank You, Danke, Grazie, Merci

Dear Theophilus,

This morning, Pope Benedict XVI announced his abdication from the Papacy. I'm sure that this will be a happy day for many liberal Catholics, as well as many who like to attack the Catholic Church and what they think it represents. On the other hand, it is a sad day for many Catholic's of a more conservative nature, like myself, because of the uncertainty of the direction the conclave will take.

I don't think there were any surprises with Benedict XVI's pontificate. As Cardinal Ratzinger and Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith, Benedict XVI was already quite well known for his traditional views of Churhc doctrine - views that many seem to have forgotten that were also held by the grandfatherly Blessed John Paul II. When I think of those who criticized Benedict XVI for his teachings on Life, Marriage and the Ordination of women, I think of something Toronto Archbishop Cardinal Collins once said: "Perhaps the majority of Catholics have some difficulty accepting the teaching of Church on some issues - that doesn't make them right."

From the time of Christ, the Catholic Church has always been, and probably always will be, counter-cultural. We need to give a prayer of thanksgiving for men such as Benedict XVI who are strong enough and wise enough to continually point towards the Truth of divine revelation.

Please join me, dear Theophilus, in praying that the conclave to choose the next successor to St. Peter will allow itself to be guided by the Holy Spirit to do God's will here on earth.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Defending Catholic Education

Dear Theophilus,

An Ontario court recently ruled in favour of a parent who wanted their children who are enrolled in a publicly funded Catholic high school to be exempted from religious education. In all fairness, the court is upholding a law that has been inexistence since 1944, when was made a part of the provincial curriculum (Education Act of Ontario, Part I, Section 11, Paragraph 20). Unfortunately, this decision has set a very dangerous precedent for publicly funded Catholic education in Ontario and elsewhere.

Indeed, these are dangerous times for Catholic education in Ontario. The above mentioned court decision comes only months after the Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, publicly stated that Catholic schools in Ontario do not have the right to teach Catholic doctrine (read about this here). If what both the courts and government are saying is to be taken seriously, there is a not so subtle, and very direct attack being made on Catholic education in Ontario – and those who live in other jurisdictions where Catholic education exists need to be concerned as well.

What I find interesting in all of this is that according to the Ontario Ministry of Education document on religious education – religion class in publicly funded schools is to be about instruction and not indoctrination. As a religion teacher in a publicly funded Catholic high school, I can tell you that this is exactly what goes on. If a parent asks if their child will be evaluated on the strength of their faith, the answer is an unequivocal No – only God can make that evaluation. Students are evaluated on their knowledge of the material presented, how they communicate its relevance to today’s world.

Do I teach Catholic doctrine? Absolutely. Do I refer to Church documents such as the Catechism or Vatican II documents to help answer the students’ questions on Church teaching and why those teachings are relevant to the betterment of society? Of course I do. Do I compel my students to believe Catholic doctrine? Not in the least. What I do ask my students to do is to listen to Catholic teaching, ask any questions they may have, then to form their conscience accordingly. The same way a chef will create a sumptuous feast, but he cannot compel the diner to chew, let alone declare the meal delicious.

During my drive into school this morning I listened to the question of exemptions from religion classes being discussed on Radio-Canada. A listener from Toronto suburb where I live had called in to say he found the proposition very tempting. His children are enrolled in French-language public school, and at grade 7 to remain in a non-denominational school, they would need to be bussed two towns over (a 30 minute drive in light traffic, never mind on a bus during rush-hour), while there is a French-language Catholic high school in the town where we live. In many ways I get his dilemma, as my wife and I debated a similar situation when deciding whether or not to have our son educated in French, French Immersion or in our local English-language school (in the end we were blessed to have French Immersion introduced in our neighbourhood Catholic school).

The caller stated that although he had been raised Catholic, he and his wife are Protestant, so if their children were to attend he would want them to be exempt from religion class, as they get enough religious education at home and in their own church. When the host correctly noted that Catholic teaching permeates the entire life of Catholic schools, from curriculum to extra-curricular activities, to teach Catholic virtues, the caller conceded that he and his wife probably share those same values. From my own experience, I’m convinced that if the listener took the time to research what is taught in Catholic classrooms, he’d probably be pleasantly surprised.

Keeping in mind that in the majority of cases, the reasoning behind non-Catholics choosing to send their children to Catholic schools is proximity, followed by program – the push for exemptions from religious education classes can only be seen as an attack on publicly-funded Catholic education. The outcome of non-Catholics being exempt from religion class in a Catholic school will ultimately be the removal of Catholicism from Catholic education.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a call to ban non-Catholics from our classrooms. If anything, as a religion teacher in a Catholic high school I embrace non-Catholics in my class, as they bring a unique perspective to my lessons that I cannot provide. In fact, by inviting non-Catholics into the religious dialogue, we are following the teaching of Vatican II:

The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men. (Nostra Aetate 2)


Today, in many parts of the world, under the inspiring grace of the Holy Spirit, many efforts are being made in prayer, word and action to attain that fullness of unity which Jesus Christ desires. The Sacred Council exhorts all the Catholic faithful to recognize the signs of the times and to take an active and intelligent part in the work of ecumenism.

The term "ecumenical movement" indicates the initiatives and activities planned and undertaken, according to the various needs of the Church and as opportunities offer, to promote Christian unity. These are: first, every effort to avoid expressions, judgments and actions which do not represent the condition of our separated brethren with truth and fairness and so make mutual relations with them more difficult; then, "dialogue" between competent experts from different Churches and Communities. At these meetings, which are organized in a religious spirit, each explains the teaching of his Communion in greater depth and brings out clearly its distinctive features. In such dialogue, everyone gains a truer knowledge and more just appreciation of the teaching and religious life of both Communions. In addition, the way is prepared for cooperation between them in the duties for the common good of humanity which are demanded by every Christian conscience; and, wherever this is allowed, there is prayer in common. Finally, all are led to examine their own faithfulness to Christ's will for the Church and accordingly to undertake with vigor the task of renewal and reform. (Unitatis Redintegratio 4)

Part of the larger problem in this discussion is the misconception of what contemporary Catholic religious education is, with many (Catholics included) seeing it as it once was – the memorization of the Baltimore Catechism. Some of the blame needs to be put on the shoulders of Catholic educators. If we want to defend Catholic education, then we need to be able to articulate why Catholic education matters to the betterment of society. We need to be able to tell the world how Catholic doctrine, social teachings, virtues and Catholic Graduate Expectations will make their children better people.

We need to communicate why Catholic education matters. If we can do that, the parents, like the listener on Radio-Canada, will seek out Catholic schools, not because they are close to home, but because, as the listener stated, the values taught match their own.

If these parents continue to choose Catholic schools with the intent of asking for an exemption from religious education simply because of the school’s proximity, then one can only assume that they are looking for a fight. A fight worth taking on in the defense of Catholic education.

As for my classroom – regardless of the subject matter (geography, history or world religions), it will continue to be permeated with Catholic teachings. Like a chef, I will lay a sumptuous feast out for my students; I pray that they will chew.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Finding a Place for Prayer

Dear Theophilus, 

Personal prayer is an integral part of developing our Catholic spirituality and deepening our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. As St. Alphonsus Ligouri stated: “He who attends to mental prayer scarcely ever falls into sin, and should he have the misfortune of falling into it, he will hardly continue to live in so miserable a state; he will either give up mental prayer, or renounce sin. Meditation and sin cannot stand together. However abandoned a soul may be, if she perseveres in meditation, God will bring her to salvation.” 

As I’ve written aboutbefore, it takes a conscious effort to develop our prayer lives, whether we are just beginning to navigate the waters of Catholic spirituality or we have already developed our own personal prayer style. There is a continual need to rejuvenate our prayer lives, delving deeper into our relationship with Christ. 

Where we pray can have a great effect on how we pray. The stimulus found in our surroundings can be either beneficial to our prayer life, or they can sometimes be an almost insurmountable barrier. Keeping this in mind, it is important that, whenever possible, we choose our place of prayer with great care. 

I am fortunate enough that I am able to spend my morning prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament in the chapel of the Catholic high school where I teach. If you have the opportunity to make a visit to a chapel or a church a part of your daily routine, I strongly urge you to do so – you won’t be disappointed with the rewards for your effort. Churches and chapels are unique in that they are specifically designed for prayer. Whether you feel compelled to sit, stand, kneel or prostrate yourself, these sacred spaces have the room for you to do so. Also, architecturally, churches and chapels are designed to draw your focus to the reason why you are there – to have a conversation with God through Christ in the Eucharist in the centrally located Tabernacle. As well, Church art – stained glass, statues and paintings – have all been created to draw our hearts and minds towards God through the saints who continually point towards Jesus Christ. 

It’s an unfortunate reality, however, that not everyone can make a visit to a church or a chapel a part of their daily lives. This doesn’t mean, though, that you cannot recreate the same experience. Make a personal prayer centre in a quiet corner of your home using icons and art that will help draw your heart and mind towards the Lord. Make sure you are comfortable in this area of your home, and that others in your family know to be respectful of it. Still, don’t expect to have the same church-like experience right away, but over time and with practice, making the effort to have some quiet daily prayer will help strengthen your spiritual life. 

I have to admit that a part of my prayer life happens outside as well. While walking the family dog I find time for meditative reflection and a daily reciting of the Rosary. Again, choosing the appropriate outdoor venue for prayer is important. Goldie and I head off for the nature trail near out home for our daily prayer walk. I find it easier to focus my mind on the Lord in the silence of nature, far from the roar of traffic or the joyful shouts of children at the play park. 

I hope that you have also notice, dear Theophilus, an underlying element needed to make a space prayerful – silence. It is in the silence that God will speak loudest to us. It is in the silence that we will hear the Lord’s gentle whisper – calling us towards him. 

Developing a personal prayer life in integral to enriching our life in the Lord. Choosing an ideal place of prayer will help deepen our ever growing relationship with Christ.