Saturday, September 26, 2015

Burning down the house

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This past week my oldest son received a Lego Junior fire station set as an unexpected gift from his cousins.  It is his first Lego set and he is totally captivated by it.  He has played with it constantly and shows no sign of tiring of it like he does other toys.  It was a wonderful gift totally in accord with his desires and longing to be immersed in the world of firefighters.

Not surprisingly, my youngest son is also completely mesmerized by the set.  He relishes the few opportunities he gets to play with the truck and station on his own without his brother around.  The thing about it though is that he breaks pieces off every single time he touches it!  So in the span of 5 minutes the truck no longer has its ladder, windshield, doors, or rear seating compartment and the station no longer has its slide, door handle, chair, windows, antenna, garage, ramps to the garage, upper wall, external hydrant . . . you get the picture.  The gift intended for his brother is totally in accord with his desires too and he longs to be immersed in the world of firefighters via this portal.  Currently though at his young age, with imprecise fine motor skills, he cannot help but steadily and predictably destroy the very thing with which he is enthralled.      

I bring it up here because it has struck me as an analogy for helping to process the SCOTUS ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges.
So what specifically are the contours of the analogy I am referencing?

"Lego Fire Station" by ShadowMan39 is licensed under C.C. 2.0
An unexpected gift arrives from thoughtful relatives.  It is spot on in terms of fulfilling a longing we have.  This is what God our father has done in giving humanity natural and sacramental marriage.  We all long to love and be loved for, “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”  (Redemptor hominis #10)

The possibility of remaining exclusively, permanently and fruitfully bound to a spouse is a longing proper to all human hearts.  St. John Paul II calls it the primordial sacrament, or the sign that actually makes God present in the world from the very dawn of creation.       

Some of humanity is capable of receiving the surprise gift in an appropriate way that keeps the gift intact.  Some of humanity is not.  Here’s a kicker though, we all start out not being able to keep the gift intact, but with time, patience and training (by God) we develop the necessary skills and finesse to interact appropriately within the confines of the gift.  After the Fall, all of humanity experiences a wound in our most vulnerable interiority.  We desire things that do not correspond to our longing for love.  We are attracted by lies, counterfeits and knockoffs.  Because of this gaping wound everyone needs to learn how to grow beyond the ultimate poison to marriage which is “hardness of heart” (Mt 19:8).  So the remedy for any of us being able to live out the intricate gift of marriage well is time, virtue and God’s grace.
This is why, in part, I’m so displeased with the SCOTUS ruling.  It ignores the crescendo of time, virtue and grace that humanity has been learning to implement when it comes to the tremendous gift of marriage down from Adam and Eve, through Abraham, David, Hosea, Moses, Jesus, my ancestors to me.  But actually, I can’t be too harsh on the 5 Justices that ruled so wrongly late in June because marriage in America has been consistently ruled against for generations (if we wanted to try, we might pinpoint the first major turn with the ruling on contraception in Griswold v. Connecticut).

I am disturbed that so many in our culture remain where my younger son is, constantly destructing and unable to leave an intact structure for others. 

Spelling it out even more in the terms of the analogy, everyone’s proclivities to all sorts of sexual sins have been breaking pieces off of sacramental marriage (when two baptized Christians profess vows) and natural marriage (when a baptized Christian marries a non-Christian, or two non-Christians marry) for so long that we no longer have a fire station standing in Western culture.  We just have a pile of recognizable pieces, deconstructed and seemingly read for our own designs.  But this will not work for man who must participate intimately in love in order to fully receive himself.       

I’m not angry at the “Gay lobby”, they’re just applying the same logic that our culture has been applying since even before Margaret Sanger was up to no good at the turn of the century.  The widespread acceptance of no fault divorce means that marriage is not truly expected to be permanent for many in our culture and the ubiquitous use of contraception and sterilization have made intimacy between men and women unfruitful and closed to the possibility of lovingly accepting children from the first moment of their conception.  So if men and women are not permanently and fruitfully bound together in marriage, what would be the rational basis in our courts for distinguishing between marriage and same sex civil unions now erroneously referred to as “marriage” in our nation?

I’m disheartened when my sons get overwhelmed by the intricate details of their Lego fire station.  One of them can play well with the gift, the other can only slowly destroy it.  This realization has enabled me to process my thoughts and emotions in the wake of June 26, 2015.  I long for the time when more of us learn our lessons and grow to be like my older son, playing in accord with our limits—and therefore are free to love authentically and be loved fully.

What’s helping you process the SCOTUS ruling?             

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What should I know when discerning marriage?

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Though I must maintain a certain level of confidentiality as a canonist, I can still make broad observations when it comes to marriage and preparing for marriage. One area in which I find myself often surprised is the various reasons people decide to enter into marriage and with whom they decide to do it. Too often there is too little actual discernment and too much fantasy involved in the decision. If I may be so bold, I present here some advice about the discernment of marriage from a canonist.

The most common ground for annulment is a lack of discretionary judgment (LDJ). Simply put, LDJ means that something was so overwhelming and essential that it hindered the mind to make a proper judgment, which affects the discernment of marriage. In our RomCom culture, it is not hard to find this ground in most cases considering how little discernment there is for marriage.

Love is a virtue. It is not something one “falls into.” Like any virtue, love requires active participation of the person in his striving toward excellence. Love does not make marriage, only consent makes a marriage; in fact, tribunals won’t look explicitly at love to judicate the validity of marriage.
"Kim and Dan's engagement" by ChrisGampat is licensed under C.C. by 2.0
Marriage is a vocation (nb: this does not preclude love, but in fact makes space for love’s true depth). It takes at least nine years of discernment to be a priest. Yet, some people get married over the weekend. There is wisdom in discerning your vocation. Now marriage is not the same vocation as the religious life, but, as individuals, we should take any vocation seriously. Marriage is not a simple matter of choice, but involves God in the decision making process. Therefore, courtship is discernment because it has one goal, to marry or not marry. Neither is a good or bad answer because either answer helps in discerning one’s vocation.

Discernment is key to marriage. The couple must realistically evaluate their boyfriend or girlfriend with God’s help. In order for the relationship to work, there must be prayer. The couples should understand each other’s spiritual life and models. Faith is key to trust and love.

One thing RomCom culture neglects to portray is that the discerning person should look at the potential spouse’s family. When the tribunal reviews a case for a ground, we will often ask about families and upbringings. The family is very important. Often as the couple matures in the marriage, they will begin to imitate their parents because the parents were of course each spouse’s first model of marriage. Therefore, it is wise to see how their parents interact with each other and to notice the relationship between the parent and the future spouse.

If you are a woman, see how your potential husband talks about his father because his father is often his first model of masculinity for him. Many of his characteristics and principles will be formed from the pattern of his father. If his father provided a good formation to the son, the son will usually behave accordingly. This system will provide certain unbreakable principles that will include his wife and the treatment of her. Also, remember that the reverse can also be true: the sins of the father are the sins of the son.

Moments of anger or stress tend to reveal something about a man’s honor system. Every man has a level of aggression in him. As he grows, he learns to control and channel it. When he is angry or stressed, at times, he could become aggressive. How he responds to those triggers, might save the discerning woman’s life. If the aggression turns into violence, this is a red flag. Other red flags include lying, malice, or any other forms of deceit., these are also red flags. If there is any aggressive sexual advancements during these times, the woman should be concerned. These red flags should be discerned because they may be mild during the courtship; once the marriage matures and there are children, they will escalate. This is a tale I have read far too often.

If you are a man, see how your potential spouse understands beauty in broad sense. Her sense of beauty is instilled in her by both her parents. Her father provides an outward understanding, while her mother will provide an inward definition. Discern the source of that beauty. Is it from God, the woman herself, or from something material? Does her understanding of beauty include motherhood and wifehood? Try to discern the source of her beauty because it will save the husband from struggles further in the marriage. Did she marry you for you or in order to fulfill a fantasy? Or are you just a stepping stone to something better?

Other simple things I have noticed from reading cases: try to discern any abuses or trauma in the other person’s life and how it was handled.  Such things determine the person's character and behavior. Depending on his response to and handling of the abuse or trauma, it may determine his actions in other stressful situations, like his or her child being hurt. Understand this simple truth: if he or she hits you once, he or she feels a right to abuse and it will manifest at some point again in the marriage.

Try and determine how forgiveness and closure has played in healing from any abuse or trauma. The way they have forgiven the transgression, may reveal the manner they respond to events in the marriage. I have noticed three levels of forgiveness: God, the other person, and the self; the self being the hardest to forgive and to discern. Some have forgiven the other person and God for what happened and they say they are fine. But they may have not completely forgiven themselves for being a victim, so they hide it. While the courtship may be fine, marriage always brings up what is hidden. If it is unresolved abuse, remember your vows “in good times and bad.”

Don’t make excuses for the other person; rather seriously develop an insight into him or her. Look at the Church's teachings on marriage and discern if the other person can fulfil them. When the discernment is complete and your judgment has determined this person to a potential spouse, I would recommend going to prayer and see if God agrees.

This may all sound a bit harsh, and that comes from my experience: what I do can be harsh, but also enriching. I write so that couples can see the bad with the good. There is great hope for love in marriage, more so than in any stalled courtship, but marriage makes the spouses naked before each other. There is nothing hidden or will be hidden in time. Each spouse loves the other, including all the other person’s flaws. Some flaws can be seen in the present, but many may not be revealed until after the marriage, often after having children. The virtue of love, which is an action, can take all the ugliness with the beauty, and saying “I do” allows this to happen. The form of marriage aids the spouses in their pursuit of holiness.

Have a question you’d like answered about canonical law? You can email it directly to askacanonlawyer[at]

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What is to be done?

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With regard to SCOTUS; with regard to Vanity Fair; with regard to the co-opting of language, concepts, and symbols; with regard to the sloganeering; with regard to the vitriol; with regard to the violence; with regard to being labeled a bigot; with regard to the seemingly all-pervasive truth claims; with regard to the oppressive nature of such truth claims; with regard to the question of what is to be done: I recall that there is in fact truth, that truth is a person who actually exists, and that he will set me free (John 8:32).
"Road to Nowhere" by Pedro Alves is licensed under C.C. by 2.0
And then I remember what I try always to remind my students of: first, that we live in a broken culture, which has a broken vision of the human person. This vision tells us that we are androgynous; that we are monads; that we are not creatures; that we should not, if we don’t want to, really have to depend on anything or anyone; that love is merely a feeling; that nothing beyond what we want or feel today matters. But that in fact we are creatures; that we were created male and female (Gen 1:27); that our needfulness is not a curse but a gift; that love does in fact constitute our being; that that same love has also already been given and will redeem everything—every last broken thing—from the inside out.

Second, I tell my students that we are affected by the broken culture in which we live. Because we are not in fact isolated monads, the vision of the human person by which we are surrounded does matter. That, in a way, this anthropological and theological vision is incarnated in us. And thus, it is not the nature of the Church to isolate herself, or to run away from the world, no matter how much the world hates her. She exists, along with Christ, her head and bridegroom, to save the world. She safeguards the truth about the human person and all of creation within herself, and we, members of the body, must live these truths incarnately, renewing the culture from within, losing our blood, if necessary.

And then I know that it is only from this viewpoint that we can begin to think about and approach these issues. Because it is, after all, the viewpoint of Christ on the Cross.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

TOB: What is original nakedness?

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We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

I will admit upfront that original nakedness, the third of the original experiences that John Paul II explains in the TOB, has always been the least clear to me: we have seen man alone, in front of God and the rest of the world, understanding both his created nature and his unique place in creation; and we have seen Adam and Eve together, understanding that man does not live or know himself in isolation, that his finitude and bodiliness are in fact good. What more does original nakedness “bring to the table,” so to speak?

Let’s first recall the context of original nakedness: the three original experiences are a meditation by the saint on the subjective experience of Adam and Eve in the state of original innocence. The experiences are not step-wise or successive, but in fact a circumencession: all three are present in the beginning in some sense, albeit in more or less explicit ways at different points. Original nakedness is intrinsically related to original solitude and original unity insofar as it is part of the human experience, and insofar as it too, like the other experiences opens up another dimension of what it means to be imago dei.

"Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden" by Lucas Cranach the Elder is in the Public Domain.
Which dimension is that? Our first clue is the word John Paul II uses to name this experience: nakedness brings the body almost immediately to mind and thus should be a clue that it may have something to do with the immanent experience of man as embodied. Once again, we are being reminded that the body is not something “other” than myself, that in fact I am my body, and my lived experience occurs, so to speak, nowhere else. Original nakedness, then, reminds us of a certain transparency the human being should properly have (even if it has been now distorted) to himself, to others, and to the world.

This does not however mean that in original nakedness we’re laid completely bare to one another, such that there could be no interiority in either Adam or Eve that the other did not see. This would be a violation of man’s integrity, and a violation of his freedom: though there is a proper transparency in original innocence, there is also a proper boundary with the other, such that Adam and Eve can choose to reveal themselves to each other in time. We must not mistake the exteriorization of things for original nakedness; rather it seems to me that original nakedness is another way to look at what intimacy really means.

Though intimacy has become a bit of an epithet for sex or other physical closeness, I think we all know that one can be physically close to someone and not be truly intimate. That’s because intimacy is in fact first a kind of knowing. It is a knowing that sees the other person not just for his body—or for any one-dimensional aspect—but rather sees him as a whole, in all of his humanity—that is to say, as a subjective/objective whole. Intimacy is also, as we know, something that takes time. This temporal aspect is, it seems to me, intrinsic to intimacy because to see and treat someone holistically means to acknowledge that there is an interiority about him that I cannot know unless he reveals it to me himself. Human beings are not machines whose parts can be separated and (literally) objectified—we are persons whose experience is expressed in and through the body in modes we can choose to share.

The intimacy that the experience of original nakedness is, then, helps us understand what knowledge truly is—it is not a running list of facts and figures, but the space in which we can let someone reveal himself and in which we can reveal ourselves. Obviously the bodily aspect of intimacy has a great deal to do with this, but physical intimacy is not the entire telos of original nakedness, and we risk abridging John Paul II’s vision if we cut it off at that point. We must remember that the original experiences, and the Theology of the Body itself is not simply about the relationship (conjugal or otherwise) between male and female, but about man in the world as incarnated imago dei.

Original nakedness is then a way of knowing and being known as God knows and is known. It is God who respects the wholeness of creature so much that he allows him the freedom to say yes to God or not. And it is God who reveals himself to his creature gently and appropriately, such that his creature can come to know him—in time—intimately. If God gives the gift of identity in original solitude and community in original unity, then he gives the gift of his vision and care for his creation in original nakedness.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Walking and chewing gum at the same time

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When I was a junior in high school I began the application process for a U.S. Marine Corps NROTC scholarship.  Along the way I encountered a recruiter for enlistment with the Marines.  His basic selling point was, why go through your first exposure to military training while you’re also becoming accustomed to undergraduate studies?  Join the Marines as an enlisted man and then if you get accepted to the NROTC program you’ll be a step up on everyone.  The unmentioned part of the plan though was that if I didn’t get accepted to NROTC then I’d be a Marine, not a college student, for at least four years and he’d be one step closer to his monthly quota of recruits.  He summarized his sales pitch to me by posing the question, “do you want to have to learn to walk and chew gum all at the same time?”  I must confess, at the time it was a persuasive rhetorical question because of my eagerness to do “tough guy” stuff as soon as possible.  Looking back on the whole brief exchange (my application did not make it past the first wave of scrutiny) I periodically and whimsically call to mind that rather bizarre phrase, “learning to walk and chew gum at the same time”.
"Gum Ball Machine" by Ganesha Balunsat is licensed under C.C by 2.0

            I bring it up here because of two very much non-trivial tasks in which all baptized Christians are called to participate, but most of us don’t have a real good grasp of either of them on their own, and certainly not when paired up!  The two tasks: forming intentional disciples from people within our sphere of influence (walking), and living fully our own Christian state of life (chewing gum).  Expecting that most Christians fulfill these responsibilities currently (or even know how to begin them) is like expecting that Marine boot camp wouldn’t be a culture shock to a pampered city boy.

If you haven’t had a chance to read Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples and Becoming a Parish of Intentional Disciples yet, I highly recommend them.  The books equip and motivate the reader to fruitfully respond to the Gospel imperative to share freely what we have freely received (Mt 10:8).  For if we don’t do this, our own faith will atrophy and our friendship with the Lord and our neighbor will deteriorate, perhaps even to the point where we don’t believe it’s possible to have a loving relationship with God himself or care about the condition of our neighbor’s body and soul.  As St. Vincent de Paul wrote, “It is not enough for me to love God, if my neighbor doesn’t love Him.” 

            So if sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ, and purposefully helping others to transition from trusting Christians, to being open, to learning more, to being outright curious about Jesus, to seeking him so as to eventually become his disciple, who can lead others through the same predictable stages of conversion is indispensable to following Jesus (Mt 28:19, Mk 16:15, 1 Cor 9:16), how do you actually do so while (or better yet—because of) simultaneously being a good husband/father or wife/mother?  While it is awesome to have convert (or revert), to the faith as a college student living in bachelor/bachelorette mode and bring your roommate to bible studies/Mass/Adoration/etc., it is not at all the same as being in the thick of sleep-interrupted, diaper-changing, dinner-with-toddler(s)-on-your-lap stage of life and spiritually accompanying (c.f. Evangelii gaudium 169-173) a peer or someone from a different stage of life in your own vocation or a different vocation altogether. 

So how does one bring the orbits together of forming disciples and living marriage well?

Here is a list of items to get the conversation started, please share yours too:
·                     Marry someone decidedly in love with Jesus.  Aristotle and Fr. Barron recommend it!  This way when your baptism, confirmation, marriage and Eucharistic graces kick in, then you can share the love and joy of the Gospel to the fullest.         
o   Tithing 10% of your gross income versus net. This won’t be a source of conflict, it’ll be a source of trusting in God’s providence together which will lead to overall marital joy even in the midst of less cash flow!

·                     Don’t allow people to view your children as a burden preventing you from participating in the life of the community or your parish. 
o   If you sense that the RCIA team leader does not want to impose on your weeknight routine by having you share your testimony with the candidates and catechumens, say explicitly and perhaps repeatedly, “it would be a pleasure and honor to share my faith story with others.  My spouse will support me in this by tucking the kids into bed that night.”

·                     Don’t fall for the mental trap that “we’ll have more time later . . .”
o   There’s no guarantee that tomorrow will be given to us; each of our ends will always be surprising to us (Mt 24:36, 42-44).  Show your children today what it looks like to be a gracious host to God in our neighbors (Heb 13:2) so that when they are older it will be a natural manifestation of their Christian life.

·                     Strike a balance with your time in favor of Jesus and Christian community.
o   What if you only watched TV one night a week for 30 min?  Or what if you didn’t watch TV at all?  What if you visited Jesus in the tabernacle or exposition of the Eucharist once a week?  What if you stopped by an elderly and lonely neighbor’s house each time you were out for a walk?  What if your kids only did one sport per year and you joined teams that your fellow parishioners were on too so that while on the sidelines and during practices you could share your faith journey and struggles with your peers?  What if you read the lives of the saints with your kids each night?  Or said “goodnight” to their patron saint’s icon on their bedroom wall?

·                     What if you prayed obscure Catholic prayers and invited others to learn them with you?

o   You could pray Angelus at noon with coworkers or to St. Michael the Archangel after Mass with your spouse, kids and pew neighbor, or the Memorare at the start of car journeys, or the Glory Be upon hearing emergency vehicle’s sirens wherever you may be, or even simply make the Sign of the Cross before grace at meals at restaurants. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

You Are Not A Rock, You Are Not An Island

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Within the last six weeks or so, I have attended a diaconate ordination, a priestly ordination, a Mass of Thanksgiving for a newly ordained priest, a wedding, and a Mass for the tenth anniversary of priesthood.  For several of these Masses, I noticed something while standing in the back with our squirmy, chatty 16-month-old: I wasn’t alone.

I’m not sure at which event the back of church was more populated.  At the ordinations in the cathedral, babies were walked back and forth on the marble tile.  The wedding Mass had a virtual second world in the back of the large church, where babies were nursed in back pews and introduced to every statue.  And at the Mass of Thanksgiving, the back carpet was covered with crawlers and climbers, intrigued by the baptismal font.

Many of us, perhaps, have heard that the vocation to marriage and the vocation to celibacy are complementary, but it can be easy to forget that we are not set in opposition or relegated to our own corner of the ecclesial room (as it were).  

As I looked around the back of the various churches, I saw more than just mothers, fathers and babies.  I saw the communities from which these new vocations were born.  Attending the diaconate ordination were members of a young adult group that one of the young men, a convert, had attended.  Likely, his discernment of the seminary was occurring at the same time as the dating and engagement of many couples in the group.  The newly ordained priest was surrounded by couples, who, a decade earlier, were at the same college, asking where God might be calling.  And even the newly married couple were surrounded by deacons and priests as they professed their vows to one another.

Photo is licensed under creative commons
No vocation is born in isolation.  We seek our specific path in the call to holiness along with so many other saints-in-the-making.  Some are called to marriage, others are called to be priests or religious, but each person is called to holiness and to eternal communion with God.

Once we have begun living our state in life, said our vows and commenced the day-to-day actions, we live out our vocation, not in isolation, but in the community of others, both married and celibate.  The married couples reveal something of the exclusivity and totality with which God loves every human person.  Those who have embraced celibacy for the Kingdom reveal something of the abundance of God’s love and the promise of eternal communion with Him in heaven.  

There isn’t a competition to see who can rack up more “holiness points” or who has chosen a more difficult path.  The cloistered nun might pray a Holy Hour for her friend with a family, and her friend might offer up middle-of-the-night diaper changes.  The prayers, the sacrifices, the witness are mutually given and received by those within both states of life.  

It was a matter brought home to me in a very real way as I watched young mothers and fathers pacing, patting, and swaying while a friend (or friends) were promising vows of obedience and celibacy.  The parents and the priests (and everyone else filling the pews, of course) are called to a vocation to love, to serve and to draw closer to the God who created us.  

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Daily Gift

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My proposal to my fiancée did not go how I planned it. I'm sure plenty of guys can say the same in today's day and age where proposals are often choreographed with more extras than a Cecil B. DeMille epic. There is pressure to infuse as much meaning as possible into the moment. In my case, I proposed, as planned, in front of the Blessed Sacrament on St. John Paul II’s first feast day. Instead of being private, however, it ended up being in front of fifteen other random strangers in the chapel – my fiancée's personal nightmare.  

As our engagement proceeded, I was surprised by the feeling of normality. I had those periodic “Woah, I'm getting married” moments, but in general, the monumental life change I was preparing for seemed very much matter-of-fact. “Of course I'm marrying Maureen, it would be weird to think otherwise.” Now for someone who never ceases to seek the profound in anything less than the weather, I was alarmed at what I was feeling about my own betrothal. This should be a time of being overwhelmed at the depth of what I was entering into with this woman I loved and instead I felt very matter-of-fact about it all. Something had to be wrong with me, my maturity, the engagement, something.

As I reflected and prayed about all of this, two things occurred to me. It was entirely appropriate for me to feel this way, but it also signaled that I needed to grow. I thought of two concepts that St. John Paul II wrote in his Theology of the Body. The first was the sacramentality of the body and the second was the body as a task.

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A sacrament, as we all remember from our second grade religious education classes, is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ to give us grace.” Sacraments are those visible things that not only point to invisible things, but also really make those invisible realities present or efficacious. For example, when someone is baptized, the symbol in the rite is one of being washed. Yet, the physical pouring of or immersion into the water, is not merely a sign of what God is doing, the physical action actually brings about the spiritual action. Sacraments efficaciously make present the very things they signify.

John Paul takes this truth and then applies it to the body. Man and Woman are made in God's Image and Likeness. God, who is a Trinity of Persons, exists as a constant and complete gift of self. Being made in his Image as male and female, this gift-reality is written precisely into our bodies in our relation to one another. 

Man, in fact, by means of his corporality, his masculinity and femininity, becomes a visible sign of the economy of truth and love, which has its source in God himself and which was revealed already in the mystery of creation. Against this vast background we understand fully the words that constitute the sacrament of marriage, present in Genesis 2:24: "A man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh." (19, 5)

So, in a certain sense, there is a sort of “naturalness” to the idea of getting married. There is a certain matter-of-factness that one should expect with this because God created us to be a gift to this other. It is in our very nature to be gift, just as it is in our nature to eat, sleep, exercise, etc. So, there should be a certain “of course” quality to my betrothal.

And yet, we know almost by instinct, that there is something wrong with staying simply in the realm of the “of course.” We know that marriage is on a higher plane, even if marrying her seems as natural as breathing to me. It is, but we also need our growth from the sacrament of marriage itself to come close to grasping marriage's reality. John Paul simultaneously affirms that man already has written into him this reality of gift, and that the body is also a task for men and women. Yes, my body, as it was the moment I was born, was given to me as a sign of my interior reality to be a gift to another, however, my body is also an assignment. I must grow into the reality that I am:

The Creator has assigned as a task to man his body, his masculinity and femininity; and that in masculinity and femininity he, in a way, assigned to him as a task his humanity, the dignity of the person, and also the clear sign of the interpersonal communion in which man fulfills himself through the authentic gift of himself. Setting before man the requirements conforming to the tasks entrusted to him, at the same time the Creator points out to man, male and female, the ways that lead to assuming and discharging them. (59, 2)

My task is to, in a sense, become who I am. I'm not there yet. There is a depth written into my creation as a man to more fully become a gift and to more fully enter into this communion of persons with my beloved who also has a depth written into her creation and must more fully become a gift to me. The body reveals to me that this is who I am, but it also educates and leads me to a fuller depth of this mystery. A maturation needs to take place:

In its masculinity or femininity the body is given as a task to the human spirit. By means of an adequate maturity of the spirit it too becomes a sign of the person, which the person is conscious of, and authentic "matter" in the communion of persons. In other words, through his spiritual maturity, man discovers the nuptial meaning proper to the body. (59, 4 emphasis mine)

And so, while it is the most natural of things for me to enter into marriage with my fiancée, the reality of what we are doing goes to the very heart of what it means to be made in the image and likeness of God. By entering into this matrimonial covenant, we continue this “pedagogy of the body” by the revelation of the communion of persons not only to ourselves but to the rest of the world. Our wedding and our married life together is a sacrament of this reality of who and what we are created to be, but also stands as our task to more fully become that reality.

My plans to infuse meaning into my proposal to Maureen didn't work and my time of betrothal has been less a matter of being overwhelmed by the gravity of it all and more an ordinary day to day affair. From what I know of family life, that's probably an experience most of us have. We go to work, make the meals, do laundry, mow the lawn, but written into each of these very normal mundane affairs is this reality that while doing them, we are being drawn to consider this life as a gift. That married life, in the normal day to day, is a task given to us to live out more completely the reality that in these moments of picking the kids up from school and untangling the Christmas lights I am living for another  - and I'm receiving from another. And just like my proposal, the truth of this reality is already there, it doesn't need a grand scheme to infuse it with meaning. This gift-quality of life isn't just part of life, it is life. I am nothing else but gift, and only in pursuing this as task, can I truly become who I am.   

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Throwback Thursday

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"Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it." - St. John Paul II (Redemptor Hominis no. 10)

Saturday, May 23, 2015


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For the past two years I’ve been participating in a men’s ministry entitled That Man is You!  The presenter of each week’s content is a man by the name of Steve Bollman.  He doesn’t pull any punches in the sense that he readily shares some of the lesser known aspects of Catholic theology and spirituality.  At times this means that he loses guys in attendance at the parish hall at 6:15 am watching the DVD, but it also has the effect of raising important questions for guys during the post-DVD small group table conversations. 

One term that has come up repeatedly over the sessions is “concupiscence” (kon-kyoo-pi-suh ns).  It is a difficult word to pronounce without some practice, and even with practice! 

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines it as “human appetites or desires which remain disordered due to the temporal consequences of original sin, which remain even after Baptism, and which produce an inclination to sin.”  The U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults mentions it as our “inclination to sin which shows itself in what is sometimes referred to as a darkening of the mind and a weakening of the will, that is, the inability to know clearly the right or wrong of an action and/or the lack of strength to resist temptation and always to do the right thing no matter how hard this is.” 

What was new to me though was what I recently learned by looking in the index of the 2006 edition of the Pauline Books and Media publication of Michael Waldstein’s translation, introduction and index of Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.  Saint John Paul the Great used the word “concupiscence” 340 times over the course of the four years that he was sharing his Wednesday catechesis with the world!  That works out to make it the ninth most used word in the whole body of work. 

Here’s how it breaks down:
“Body” – 1319 times
“Meaning/Significance/Importance” – 625 times
“Marriage” – 502 times
“Love” – 465 times
“Heart” – 408 times
“Person” – 382 times
“Mystery” – 373 times
“Truth” – 342 times
“Concupiscence” – 340 times

To give you an idea of some other important words:
“Flesh” – 330 times
“Church” – 326 times
“Dimension” – 297 times
“Creation” – 281 times
“Theology of the Body” – 100 times

So, what really struck me was that every other frequently used word in the TOB is a positive term.  Concupiscence sticks out like a sore thumb, and must have a lot to do with our coming to understand the “adequate anthropology” that St. JPII wanted to impart to us. 

"Scream and shout" by Mindaugas Danys is licensed under C.C. by 2,0
Sure enough, as I was meditating on this factoid of word frequency I began noticing things about my children’s behavior which ultimately led me to remember the most obvious detail of my own conversion to Christ: left to my own devices I do what I want! (à la Cartman from Southpark)  What is crazy is that no one has to teach us this at any point in our life…ever!  We are all very inventive when it comes to riffing on the theme of sin-sick selfishness.  It’s always lurking just around the corner of our inattentiveness to God’s grace due to a lack of a real prayer life.  We never get to set the toggle switch on our soul to “cruise control”! 

Concupiscence (and therefore in a reverse engineering kind of way all of TOB and the Gospel of Jesus Christ) is a universal reality experienced by everyone (Original Sin anyone?).  Spend 20 minutes around any toddler from any region of the globe and it’s guaranteed that they will all do the same selfish behaviors that stem from overwhelming inclinations to dominate, ignore, horde, hit, bite, scream, etc. 

Right in line with this phenomenon is the reality that I experienced as a young boy and immature man.  When no one educated me in the way of love, understood as “making a sincere gift of myself” (Gaudium et spes 24:3), I used the powerful gift of my masculinity to turn inward on myself and away from God and neighbor.  Not until I was five years into living life as a weekly Mass attending, baptized and confirmed Catholic making use of regular sacramental reconciliation was I spiritually/socially/physically in a consistently good place with God, others and myself.  

Whenever I share this detail of my past with other men, I hear, read or see them confirm my reflection.  No one had to teach us to lust, dominate, use, manipulate or waste time, money and energy on ourselves!   Rather, all that darkness simply came flowing out from within us because apart from the divine physician we are truly ill.  We need to be healed from the inside out (Mk 7:20), we need to be taken back to the beginning of God’s design for us (Mt 19:8).  This is why TOB is so important, beautiful and life changing if you allow it to be the vehicle for encountering Jesus Christ risen from the dead today!     

If you are intrigued by this theme, take a look at this article by Dr. Rick Fitzgibbon (specifically the second to last paragraph from the bottom of the first page).

Here’s a VERY powerful video story/testimony/confession by a father about how only his second daughter’s life was able to invade his selfish-concupiscence-bubble and bring him abundant life (Jn 10:10).  Enjoy and share widely!       

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Learning Motherhood From Mary

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It probably shouldn’t be so shocking to me that our toddler daughter is interested in books.  After all, nearly every wall in our small apartment is lined with bookshelves.  We have daily read-aloud sessions, and if she hears a line or two from a particular book that I recite from memory, she trots across the room looking to retrieve it.

One such line that has come to mind as we begin the month of May, dedicated to mothers, and in a particular way to the Blessed Mother, is from a little board book about saints.  “Mary teaches us about loving mothers,” the book declares, with a picture of Mary being crowned by a smiling angel.  

The words aren’t just for children.  This month is a fitting time to reflect on what the Blessed Mother can teach all mothers about how to love the children entrusted to us.

At first glance it can seem overwhelming to look to Mary – a woman without sin – to grow in our own mothering.  We look around at piles of dirty dishes, smell another diaper in need of changing, take a glance at the quickly filling calendar and figure that the Blessed Mother – a perfect woman raising a perfect Son – has so little in common with our 21st century American lifestyle that we’re better off looking elsewhere for guidance.

But as we reflect on the mysteries of the Rosary, there are many life lessons we can learn from Mary.  We see, too, that her life was not a blissful ride on easy street.  Sure, there are no mysteries centered on smelly diapers or work-life balance, but the graces present in Mary’s life can help us to embrace the struggles and joys of our own family life.  Let’s take a look at a couple of lessons of motherhood we glimpse in the fifth sorrowful mystery, Jesus Dies on the Cross.  

It’s tempting to think that Mary knew exactly what would happen at every moment of her and her Son’s life.  We sometimes have an image of Mary giving her “yes” to Gabriel at the annunciation, knowing exactly what that “yes” would mean.  In reality, the archangel did not hand Mary a 33-year calendar to inform her of the everyday “yesses” her fiat to becoming the Mother of God entailed.  St. John Paul II, for example, wrote that Mary’s yes to God at the foot of the cross was perhaps the “deepest kenosis (self-emptying) of faith.”  Standing at the foot of the cross, she did not know how God would be victorious through the death of her Son, but she knew and trusted that good would come from evil.  
Pieta, Michelangelo - artwork in the public domain

There are many crosses in motherhood – miscarriages, children who are sick or bullied or ostracized, teenage or adult children who leave the faith, and so many more.  Yet, with Mary, every mother is called to have faith that God’s love will pour forth even amidst the most painful situations.  There is no resurrection without the cross, and Mary reminds us to trust God’s plan.

There is another poignant lesson for mothers from the crucifixion subtly portrayed in Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”  Most viewers of the statue focus on Mary’s arms embracing her Son, but a closer look also reveals her left hand open in an act of surrender.  Mary reveals the art – and perhaps the biggest challenge – of motherhood: to embrace and to be detached.  

On the one hand, a mother is called to love, cherish and care for the child(ren) entrusted to her.  At the same time, these children are not ultimately hers, nor her husband’s.  Ultimately, each child is a gift from God.  Mothers must care without being possessive. Mothers can look to Mary as an example and as an intercessor in striking this delicate balance.

In his encyclical, Redemptoris Mater, St. John Paul II summarized the way in which the Blessed Mother reveals the call of all women: 

It can be said that women, by looking to Mary, find in her the secret of living their femininity with dignity and of achieving their own true advancement.  In the light of Mary, the Church sees in the face of women the reflection of a beauty which mirrors the loftiest sentiments of which the human heart is capable: the self-offering totality of love; the strength that is capable of bearing the greatest sorrows; limitless fidelity and tireless devotion to work; the ability to combine penetrating intuition with words of support and encouragement (#46).

At first glance it might seem that only women with biological or adoptive children have something to learn from the motherhood of Mary, but St. John Paul II would challenge us to think differently.  All women, by virtue of their femininity, are called to be mothers.  All women are called to be spiritual mothers whether or not any children call them, “Mom.”  

The human person is entrusted to women in a unique way.  It’s not that men do not love or care for people, but rather that women are able, in a particular way, to notice the needs of others and to meet them, offering empathy, a listening ear and the unique care that a particular person needs.  Men and women both love, but they love differently.  Women love as mothers.  

Whether joyful, sorrowful, luminous or glorious, the mysteries of the rosary offer us a glimpse into how Mary loved and lived as a mother, becoming both guide and intercessor for us as we seek to more fully love as a spiritual or physical mother.