Category Archives: Conversion

Why It Was The Best Holy Week I Have Ever Experienced:

Monday:

In the evening we had the monthly meeting of our men’s group.  Although we had been meeting for a couple of years, there was a moving of the Spirit which prompted some men to witness to the power of God in their lives.  It felt as though the time had come for the group to move deeper into the Faith and to share it with others in new ways.  It was a refreshing and encouraging meeting.

Tuesday:

We went to the Chrism Mass at the cathedral and experienced the blessing of the holy oils.  The oils are distributed to parishes throughout the archdiocese for use in the sacramental life of the Church.  Each church has a special place to keep and display the holy oils.  Also, during the Mass, priests from around the diocese renewed their commitment to their vocation, and the congregation warmly acknowledged several new seminarians preparing for the priesthood.

As the liturgy engaged all five senses, I was reminded that, unlike the angels, God gave us physical bodies for a reason.  God came to us physically 2000 years ago, and he still does today in the Eucharist.  It was true worship.

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Thursday:

The foot washing Mass commemorated the humble and loving example that Jesus showed His disciples by lowering Himself to the place of a servant and washing their feet.  The priest knelt to wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation (one of which was my wife).  It was a moving display of God’s love for us, and the attitude Christians must have towards others.

Friday:

On Good Friday we gathered with soberness of heart while meditating on the depths to which Christ lowered Himself for our sake.  Each of us went forward to venerate the cross.  At the foot of the cross, we showed respect and gratitude for the price Jesus paid for our sins.  It is always a moving experience.

Saturday night Easter Vigil:

The Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is approximately a nine month process in which people wishing to become Catholic Christians are catechized and brought into the Church community.  It is not a quick process, because the Church regards being Christian a very serious matter.  The Church also recognizes that conversion is not a one-time event, but a life-long process of growth, learning and discipleship.  Being Christian is about a relationship with Christ, and a relationship with Christ is fully realized and expressed within the context of knowing Christ’s Church.

Those in RCIA finally enter full communion with the Church during the Easter Vigil.  It begins with the blessing and lighting of the Paschal candle outside the church at a small bonfire with everyone gathered around.  From there, we enter the church in a candlelight procession.  As the service progresses, the music becomes more celebratory and the lights become brighter.  The crucifix has been replaced by the image of the risen Lord.  We are ushering in Easter, the resurrection of the Lord!  Death is swallowed up in victory!

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Catechumens (those who are not yet Christian) receive the Sacraments of Baptism, Confirmation and Holy Communion.  Candidates (those who are already Christian by virtue of their baptism in other denominations) receive the sacraments of Confirmation and Holy Communion.  We welcomed all of them with open arms as they entered into the fullness of the Christian Faith!  Our parish had about 15 of the over 400 hundred people entering the Church all over the diocese.

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One of the women that became Catholic this Easter spent more than the prescribed nine months preparing.  She had been through the customary RCIA period, but, at the end, was not ready to commit.  She still had much to process in her mind and in her heart.  She had always been a strong, faithful Christian.  She had a lifelong relationship with Christ and a strong foundation in scripture.  She took very seriously the implications of embracing Catholicism.

Nine months of study and discernment turned into four years.  No one pressured her to become Catholic.  They simply loved her, answered her questions as best they could, and gave her the space she needed.  The Holy Spirit did the rest, as only He can.

At the beginning of Lent, this woman (my wife, if you haven’t already guessed) approached me, pulled me aside and said, “I have something to tell you.  I’ve decided to enter the Church this Easter!”  My joy was increased in knowing that she had reached this decision in her own time, gently led by the Spirit of God who loves her.  My respect for her increased in knowing the courage it took for her to make this journey and that her decision had not been made lightly.  The years it took for her to step out in faith made it all the more inspiring to me and to many of those present Saturday night.  I am so grateful for how she has been led by the Spirit and embraced by the Church community.

Only she can tell her story.  I do know there are things she is still pondering and learning about, but that is what we all must do.  No one “knows it all.”  Conversion is a life-long process.  Christians are called to discipleship, which means we are to be constantly learning from the Master through His Church.  However, we can’t wait until we have every question answered before acting on faith.  St. Augustine said, “If you understand, then it is not God.”  We can’t intellectually grasp all the wonders of God.  We must take some things on faith.  That’s what makes it faith.  By faith, my wife had already accepted the salvation offered through her Lord, Jesus Christ.  Now, by faith, she has embraced the Church established by that same Lord, Jesus Christ.

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My wife and I have always had a wonderful relationship.  Now our union has reached another level of intimacy with God and with each other.  The journey holds new possibilities as our path unfolds before us, God’s lamp lighting our way.

Easter Sunday:

My little nephew announced that he had decided to follow Jesus.  His journey has begun with the childlike faith Jesus calls all of us to have in Him.

Now you know why this has been the best Holy Week I have ever experienced!  Glory be to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, now, and will be forever.  Amen!

Looking Up, Not Down

The moment I place myself “up here” and someone else “down here,” lower than me, I have denied my faith.  When I look upon any other human being with contempt, I have denied my faith.  Regardless of what another’s sins may be, I have my own to repent of.

I must look up to everyone from a lower position, because I must see Christ in them.  If I look down on them, I look down on Christ.  Pride destroys the soul.

I must judge behaviors, for I must know right from wrong in order to strive for holiness.  But I cannot judge souls.  Only God knows the hearts of people.  Only God judges the soul.

God does not raise us up by looking down on us.  He raises us by lowering himself and looking up at us with love.  This is what the Christian is called to do, because we are called to follow Christ.

Faith does not last.  In Heaven we won’t need faith, for we will see everything.  Hope does not last.  In Heaven we won’t need hope, for we will have arrived.  Only charitable love lasts forever, for God is love.  Faith, hope and love; the greatest of these is love.

I cannot look down on others from a genuine vantage point of faith and hope.  I can only look up to them in love.  Otherwise, my faith and my hope are phony imitations.

Reaching Out To Our “Christmas & Easter Only” Churchgoers

I’m excited about something we’re doing at our parish this Christmas.  One of the men in our men’s group has been able to procure low cost copies of Scott and Kimberly Hahn’s book Rome Sweet Home.  Hundreds of these books will be gift wrapped and given to people at Christmas Mass.  The plan is to also give more of these books away at Easter.

There are so many people that only come to church on Christmas and Easter.  This book may help some of them appreciate their faith more.  Listening to the stories of converts is a great way to avoid taking the Faith for granted.  Cradle Catholics often lack zeal and knowledge about their own Catholicism.  Many are “culturally Catholic” with little or no sense of the historical, spiritual, life-giving power of Christ’s Church.  It can be very enlightening to hear the logical and spiritual reasons for actually wanting to become Catholic.  There are thousands of people and hundreds of families in our parish.  We hope to get at least one book to most of these families.

The book was written by a married couple.  They take turns describing their path from anti-Catholic, Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism.  Scott Hahn has become one of the most respected biblical scholars of our day.  It is refreshing to hear the perspectives of both Scott and Kimberly as they explain their individual struggles as well as the challenges the journey presented to their marriage.  I highly recommend the book to Catholic and non-Catholic readers.

So many Catholics are drifting away from the Church or going through the motions of being Catholic without really being in love with Christ or his Church.  My prayer is that, by reading what people go through to find their way home to Catholicism, many Catholics will realize how good it is to already be home.  Then they will have more desire to invite others home, too.  I also hope non-Catholics will read the book and be inspired to make the journey home.

I Can’t Open My Eyes…Yet.

Imagine going on a spelunking trip with some friends.  Deep inside the cave is pure darkness.  There is a confusing maze of passages and deep holes to fall into.  Your flashlight is your life.  Suddenly, you feel the floor and the walls of the cave tremble.  Rocks begin crashing against rocks and you realize there has been a cave-in.  As your group regains composure it becomes evident that leaving the way you came is not an option.  The search for an exit begins.

As time goes by, batteries begin to fail.  Lights become dim.  Anxiety grows.  You feel there must be an exit nearby, but the lights go out before it is found.  Trapped in complete darkness, you can only wait for rescue.  Your deepest desire is to leave the darkness and embrace the light.

After days of increasing desperation, you hear the sounds of rescuers.  The ceiling of the cave suddenly opens.  It is midday.  The sun is high and its rays pierce the darkness as it streams through the new hole in the cave.  You immediately cover your eyes in anguish.  You are distracted from the joy of being rescued by the pain inflicted by the light.  The light you so desired is now too much to behold.  It is impossible to fully embrace your freedom until you are able to accommodate the light.  There must be a period of adjustment.  You must become completely detached from the darkness before your eyes can fully see without pain.

This is why Catholics pray for those in Purgatory.  We recognize that they must endure the painful process of complete detachment from this life of sin before they can fully embrace the light of Christ.  Although they are on their way to Heaven, they must be fully adjusted to the Light before entering.  The Rescuer has reached them.  They are open to God and on their way to the Beatific Vision.  They desire to be with God, but they must be prepared and perfected beyond what they were in this life.  We pray for them during this painful state of transition, just as we would pray for someone suffering in this earthly life.

This explains why those in Purgatory are called “The Church Suffering.”  We in this life are called “The Church Militant” because we are still here fighting the good fight.  Those already in Heaven are called “The Church Triumphant” for obvious reasons.  These are three parts of one Church.  The Church is one Body, no matter where it is located.  We in the Church are told to pray with and for one another.  So, we pray for the suffering in this life.  We also pray for those who suffer the process of purging.  They are our brothers and sisters in the Lord.  We support them.

Conversion: A Work In Progress

Humans are spiritual creatures.  It is written into our DNA to look beyond ourselves to spiritual truths.  History demonstrates our desire for spiritual connection.  Although many these days claim to be “spiritual but not religious,” we all have religious tendencies.  Left to our own devices, we will find something to worship.  We will create our own, individual belief systems by assembling our opinions, our values and our principles into “little religions.”  Therefore, none of us are really “spiritual but not religious.”  Either we follow God’s religion or we follow our own.

I put together a list that illustrates my own journey of awareness about God’s revelation to humanity.  It’s sort of what I perceive to be a “growth chart” of spiritual awakening.  There was a time when I considered myself to be “spiritual but not religious.”  That changed around number 11 or 12 on the list when I realized that religious people behaving badly did not make “religion” a bad word.  I realized it was not only possible but desirable to be both religious and spiritual.  It is a both/and proposition, not an either/or one.

I believe lots of people get stuck somewhere on this list.  For example, agnostics might be around number one to six.  Lots of Christians stop around number eleven.  Some may be at number thirteen without knowing they need number 11.  Really, we can get stuck anywhere on the list.  I’m not claiming to have personally reached the ultimate place in a journey of faith.  We’re all works in progress.  This list is just a sketch of where I have been and what I’m striving for by God’s grace.  It’s not perfectly chronological in order.  I’m far from where I need to be.  The point is, as soon as we think we’ve “arrived,” we haven’t.  Conversion is a lifelong process, not a single event.

Here is the process:

1)      Look around at creation and realize it couldn’t have “just happened” without an intelligent designer and call that designer “God.”

2)      Realize that God transcends us.

3)      Understand that we are eternal beings, but imperfect beings (sinners).

4)      Realize that we can’t fix our own imperfection and become like God.

5)      Wonder if such a God cares about what happens to us and the rest of creation.

6)      Wonder if God knows how it feels to be human, or if God is aloof.

7)      Realize that Jesus is God in human flesh.

8)      Realize that God does know how it feels to be human because God became human.

9)      Realize that through Jesus, God came to seek us out.  We didn’t need to climb up to God.

10)  Realize that the perfect life, suffering and death of Jesus is the answer to humanity’s imperfection (sin).

11)  Realize that Jesus (God) desires us to trust him with our eternal souls and lives, not our own efforts.

12)  Understand and accept that, because he loves us, Jesus did not want to leave us to our own devices, so he made sure there would be an antidote to conflicting opinions.

13)  Realize and accept that Jesus called his antidote “the Church” and gave its hierarchy his own authority.  Accepting Jesus includes accepting the Church, because they are the same authority.  The Holy Spirit guards and controls the hierarchy’s teachings and also preserves the written Word.  To accept Christ and reject the Church is contradictory.

14)  Realize that Jesus did not want to leave us orphaned and promised to be with us.

15)  Understand that, in order for Jesus to actually “be with us” he has to be completely with us, not partially with us “in spirit” as if he were on the telephone or a video conference.  Jesus still has a physical body and still wants to literally “be with us.”  His love for us is that profound.

16)  Understand and accept that the way Jesus chooses to keep his promise to “be with us” is by humbling himself in the form of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist.  The power of the Holy Spirit accomplishes this.

17)  Realize that the religion of Catholicism is actually about being with and loving Christ and each other.  God is love, and Catholicism is the fullness of God’s religion when lived out in holiness and love as Jesus intended (not as a set of rules to earn Heaven apart from God’s grace).

Do You “Really” Want To Spend Eternity With Me? That’s A Mighty Long Time!

I think it was Mark Twain who said that Christians are trying to get to a place where they will spend eternity with people they can’t stand to be around.  He also said he would choose Heaven for the climate and Hell for the companionship.  Well, take a good look around Christendom or even your own congregation and ask yourself, “Do I really want to spend eternity with these people?”  Now, certainly there are a lot of nice folks around, and some of them are a joy to be with (most of the time).  But seriously, eternity is a mighty long time.

Of course, such thoughts reveal a hard truth about most of us.  We have not yet been perfected in love.  On Sunday we can sing, “I’m so glad I’m a part of the family of God” and on Monday we can gossip and complain about some other Christians.  Not exactly the pinnacle of holiness.  More like a dysfunctional family.  So, why exactly do we want to go to Heaven?  If Heaven is just an eternity of “more of this,” I really don’t see why anyone would desire to go there.  I seriously doubt that anyone wants to spend eternity with me and my messy self, either!

One might respond, “Well, God will be there.  Being with God is what it’s all about.”  Ok, but everyone else will be there, too.  “Well, we’ll all be so focused on God that we’ll ignore each other.”  Then there’s no point in having a family of God if we spend eternity ignoring each other.  “Well, God will take care of all those issues.  We will be different in Heaven.  We won’t be petty and sinful and we’ll love each other.  We’ll be like Jesus.”

So, when “exactly” do we become like Jesus?  We can’t get into Heaven until we are perfect like Jesus.  If I died today I can’t say I have reached such perfection.  I don’t know any Christians that would claim to be as perfect as Jesus in thought and behavior “right now.”  Yet, that is how we must be in order to enter Heaven and enjoy Heaven.

None of us intend to live in eternity in the same condition we are today.  We all expect that we will be “better” in Heaven than we are on the day we die.  So, how and when does this “change” take place?  For most of us, it has to take place between our death and our entrance into Heaven.

Most Protestants expect this “change” to happen, but they don’t have a name for it.  They simply say, “God takes care of it.”  Catholics also expect the change to happen, but they have a name for it.  Catholics call it “Purgatory.”  It is a state of being.  It is what happens between death and entrance into Heaven.  It is a “purging” of all the leftover “stuff” that would cause you or me to mess up Heaven by being there.

Sure, there were Catholics that exploited and abused Purgatory in order to manipulate people and get their money.  The abuse of a truth by bad Catholics does not make the truth untrue.  The fact still remains that I don’t want to spend eternity with you as you are today, and you don’t want to spend it with me as I am today.  God has to get us ready for Heaven and strip us of all the attachments that would hinder us from entering and enjoying Heaven.  There may be a few people who are able to achieve perfect holiness in this life, but most of us are not there yet.

Purgatory is not “a third choice” or a “second chance” at salvation.  Everyone in a state of purgation after death is undergoing the process because they are already on their way to Heaven.  Purgatory is for people who are already saved.  It is not a way to save the lost.  It is that state of being between death and entrance into Heaven.  It’s like when your mom says, “Come inside for dinner, but take your muddy shoes off  and wash your hands first.”

Saying, “To be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord” does not negate Purgatory.  You still have to acknowledge that “somehow” “some way” at “some time” God completely cleans us up for Heaven and makes us “different” than we are in this life.  Whatever you want to call it, however you want to “spin” it, it’s still a state of purging.  Hence, “Purg”-atory.

We’re in big trouble if there is no Purgatory.  Without it, all we have to look forward to is “more of this” for eternity.  “More of this” is not what Christ died for.  Presently, we need to strive for holiness and perfection of love.  It’s not an easy process.  It requires sacrifice and dying to self.  The process doesn’t end until we enter Heaven.  That’s why those in Purgatory are called “The Church Suffering.”  They are undergoing the necessary yet painful detachment of all that might remain as a barrier to perfect love.  Purgatory is God’s merciful continuation of the process of conversion to holiness.  It’s just more of God’s grace.

Regarding Catholics And Sharing The Faith

I’ve been pondering the reasons why Catholics tend to be so reserved when it comes to sharing the Faith with others.  There’s no way I can determine all the reasons, but I think I can pinpoint some of the obstacles.  When we know what stands in the way we have a better chance of knocking down those walls.  Interestingly, these reasons for not sharing the faith also relate to why many Catholics leave the Faith when approached by more evangelically-minded church goers.

1)      We are not generally taught to share our faith as individuals.  Occasionally, we may have a missionary priest speak as a guest at a Sunday Mass.  There will be stories of efforts to help people abroad along with an appeal for support.  We typically give the mission our financial support and prayers and that’s it.  Done.  Spreading the gospel is what missionaries are for, right?  Why should I as an individual ever have to open my mouth about my faith?  We don’t see each other witnessing the faith, so we don’t perceive such behavior as the norm.  We think it falls on a select few to openly share the Faith.

2)      The Catholic Church used to have lots of big families which kept the pews filled with new, baby Christians.  Why bother sharing the Faith with others when our numbers increase automatically?  The large, Catholic family is less frequent these days for various reasons.  Nevertheless, the same God that said, “Be fruitful and multiply” also said, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.”  We need both reproductive and evangelical increase in numbers.

3)      We can’t share what we don’t know.  There is a basic level of knowledge about the Faith that the average Catholic is woefully ignorant of.  Woe unto us if we don’t know the information.  Woe unto us, not just woe unto the clergy.  Each and every Catholic is responsible for knowing the Faith through self study.  We don’t have to be theologians or Bible scholars, but we have to know what we believe and why we believe it.  No school teacher ever expected students to learn without doing their homework.  Why do we think the clergy alone can magically teach us everything we need to know from the pulpit?  Do your homework, Catholics!  Read the Bible. Read the Catechism.  Read Catholic books.  Watch DVDs.  Listen to CDs and audio books on your way to work.  Look up information on reputable internet sites.  Stop the excuses and learn your Faith.  We are told to “be ready to give an answer to anyone that asks about the hope that is within you.”  The idea is to “be ready.”  If someone asks you a question about your faith, be ready with more than a deer-in-the-headlights expression.  Being ready requires forethought and education.  If you don’t know the answer, look it up and get back to the person later.

4)      Fear.  Ignorance of the Faith contributes to a lack of confidence about sharing the Faith.  We are afraid to speak up because we don’t want to reveal our ignorance.  Everyone has some degree of fear about taking the spotlight.  Every soldier experiences fear, but the ones with some training can at least form a plan of action.  Again, know your Faith.  You’ll still have some fear of speaking up, but at least you’ll have something to say.

5)      We’re polite and politically correct.  Never talk about religion or politics, right?  You might offend someone or start a big scene.  The problem is that most Catholics don’t know enough to simply say, “No, that’s not really what the Catholic Church teaches,” or “Here’s why the Catholic Church teaches that.”  You don’t have to have big, hostile arguments with people or long, drawn out discussions.  You simply need to plant some seeds.  People are fed a ton of misinformation about Catholicism by the media, by non-Catholic Christians and even by confused or “former” Catholics.  It can have a big impact for an informed Catholic to gently and charitably offer a seed of accurate information.  Give people something to think about.  Speak the truth in love and let the Holy Spirit do the rest.

6)      We’ve bought into the spirit of Relativism.  Why should I spread “my truth” when “their truth” is just as valid as what I believe?  All truth is relative, right?  Wrong.  Jesus told us to go make disciples for a reason.  The reason is that Jesus proclaimed himself to be “the Way, the Truth and the Life.”  Jesus is not simply a way, a truth or a life.  If you don’t believe that, there’s ultimately no reason to be a Catholic.  Don’t sit there in Mass reciting the Creed and then claim that “all truth is relative.”  Again, we’re afraid we might offend someone who believes differently than we do.  Are you going to serve Jesus or relativism?  Make a choice.  You’re allowed to be smart about this.  No one is saying that you have to run through your work place screaming, “Convert to Catholicism or die and go to Hell, you heathens!  And I don’t care if you fire me!”  Scripture tells us to “be as wise as serpents but as harmless as doves.”  Be tactful.  Be kind and loving.  Be sensitive.  Be discreet.  Be quiet when necessary, but at least “be ready”.  Don’t be a relativist.

7)      Our personal, spiritual growth and conversion is stunted.  Conversion and holiness is an ongoing growth process, not a one-time decision.  When we feed our bodies poison, it can stunt our growth, make us ill or even kill us.  The same is true in the spiritual life.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Sharing our faith isn’t even on our radar because we are too occupied with everything else, much of which isn’t worthy of our precious time.  How many hours do we spend being indoctrinated by television, video games, the internet, etc?  How much effort do we put into pleasure-seeking activities?  What would happen if we replaced one hour of television per day with one hour of prayer and reading about the Faith?  Maybe we would actually have something of substance to share with others.

8)      We love lots of other things more than we love Jesus.  Even our lifestyles are often not a good witness for Christ.  What engaged couple is hesitant to tell others about their love?  Their priority is evident.  If we really love Jesus we will have a desire to introduce him to others.  Catholicism is all about a relationship with Jesus, but so many Catholics don’t even realize it.  No wonder other Christians often accuse Catholics of having “religion” but “no relationship with Christ.”  In many cases, the shoe fits.  We will not be able to fully appreciate and share Catholicism, the fullness of the Christian faith, until we fall head over heels in love with Jesus and forsake our idols in life.  Jesus has to be our first love.  That’s what it’s all about, folks!  Catholicism!  Learn it, love it, live it and share it!