Merry Christmas from The Popcak Family to Your Family

“What has happened to me has been the very reverse of what appears to be the experience of most of my friends. Instead of dwindling to a point, Santa Claus has grown larger and larger in my life until he fills almost the whole of it. It happened in this way.

As a child I was faced with a phenomenon requiring explanation. I hung up at the end of my bed an empty stocking, which in the morning became a full stocking. I had done nothing to produce the things that filled it. I… had not worked for them, or made them or helped to make them. I had not even been good – far from it.

And the explanation was that a certain being whom people called Santa Claus was benevolently disposed toward me. . . . What we believed was that a certain benevolent agency did give us those toys for nothing. And, as I say, I believe it still. I have merely extended the idea.

Then I only wondered who put the toys in the stocking; now I wonder who put the stocking by the bed, and the bed in the room, and the room in the house, and the house on the planet, and the great planet in the void.
Once I only thanked Santa Claus for a few dollars and crackers. Now, I thank him for stars and street faces, and wine and the great sea. Once I thought it delightful and astonishing to find a present so big that it only went halfway into the stocking. Now I am delighted and astonished every morning to find a present so big that it takes two stockings to hold it, and then leaves a great deal outside; it is the large and preposterous present of myself, as to the origin of which I can offer no suggestion except that Santa Claus gave it to me in a fit of peculiarly fantastic goodwill.” – G.K. Chesterton

Don’t Forget to Pack Your Prozac (Fa, la, la, la, la. La, la, la, la). Holiday Hints for Surviving the Homefront

Ah, Christmas. A solemn, joyful time of year for Christians, where silent and holy nights are de rigueur and Norman Rockwell springs eternal in the collective unconscious of the American mind.  And then it happens…. You try–contrary to what conventional wisdom says about the subject–to go home again.

Now, let me state right up front that this article is not for those of you who can’t wait to fly home and reenact your own Currier and Ives Christmas in all your old haunts with all your cherished friends and relations. If this is you, then I wish you a Merry Christmas, a happy New Year, tons of figgy pudding in your stocking, and with that, I bid you a fond, holiday farewell until next year. No, this article is for the rest of you (you know who you are), who right about now are thinking that going to the local ice rink and lying down in front of the Zamboni machine may be preferable to putting up with one more Christmas of mom making “helpful” comments about your weight, dad getting more than his share of nog in the egg, your corporate attorney sister (aka “Little Miss Perfect”) telling you how she is glad that you are happy in your “little life,” your brother-in-law (the one that hit you up for $2,000 last Christmas for the Ostrich farm) asking you for money, or for that matter, Great Uncle Harold, who never tires of telling your twelve-year-old son the latest dirty jokes.

What can you do when going home for the holidays feels just a little too much like starring in your own, personal horror story, the kind where the hero/heroine (that would be you) barely escapes with his or her life, but not before suffering unspeakable, holiday-inspired trauma from the great beyond? How can you survive, or even (dare I hope?) enjoy your holiday in spite of the old wounds and present slights? Let the following five tips be your holiday survival guide.

1. Don’t Try to Solve the Unsolvable.

“Every year its the same thing.” Marylin complained to me in session, “My parents never see how awful my sister is to me. She is so petty and hurtful. I’ve tried to talk directly with her about it, but she always tells me I’m just too sensitive. When I ask my folks to give me some support, they just tell me they wish I could be more like her. They have always treated her better than me as long as I can remember. What can I do to make them see how much they’ve hurt me?”

There is a prayer that asks God to give us the courage to change what can be changed, the serenity to accept what cannot be changed, and the wisdom to know the difference. Now might be a good time to dust that prayer off. Generally speaking, when someone is acting in an offensive way toward you, the direct approach is the best approach. But if that person has been treating you the same obnoxious way since you were five, chances are you are not going to solve the problem this year, or any year for that matter, regardless of how direct or indirect you are about it. And the sooner you accept this hard fact, the happier you are going to be.

When it comes to longstanding problems with family members you only have two healthy choices available to you. If the ongoing offense is too terrible an affront to either your personal dignity (e.g., abusive language or physical violence) or to your sense of moral well-being (e.g., open and unrestrained hostility toward your faith and beliefs), then your best bet may be to simply skip the family shindig this year and concentrate on starting your own traditions. On the other hand, if the ongoing offense is not quite so serious, I would recommend that you do your best to grin and bear it. Remind yourself that you are a grown-up, and that while these people are an important part of your past, they can only play the part in your present and future that you see fit to allow. True, you may feel like a three-year-old in their presence, but the fact is, you are in charge now. If you can remember this, you will be able to find the maturity to practice the spiritual work of mercy known as “bearing wrongs patiently” and perhaps even find some wisdom in the age-old Catholic practice of “offering it up.”

2. You Don’t Have to Save Your Family from Themselves.

I recently read a case study of a man who was dreading going home for the holidays because of his mother’s excessive drinking. His therapist asked him to imagine getting the following note in his mailbox. “Dear Charles, I wanted you to know that for the rest of her life, your mother is going to be an alcoholic and remain completely oblivious to anyone’s efforts to help her. Love, God.”

Charles reported that even though the therapist’s words shocked him at first, he realized that barring some major miracle–a miracle that was beyond his ability to produce–his mother was indeed going to have a problem for the rest of her life. While this saddened him, he also realized that for the first time he could go home with some peace, because it wasn’t his job to save her.

People often tell me that they dread going home again because they feel it is their job to save their family, to be the witness that lead them all to Christ, or at least witnesses that stop the family from killing each other. If this is you, I want you to repeat after me, “I am not the family Messiah. I am not the family Messiah, I am not….”

Yes, when you are around your family you must conduct yourself in a manner that makes you proud of your own behavior, but stop trying to play the prophet or putting yourself, your mate, or your kids on display so that the rest of the family will see your light and follow you to Midnight Mass. That is simply more pressure than anyone can stand, and it will make everyone around you (especially your mate and children) despise you. No one likes a self-righteous prig, even at Christmas. The best way to be a light is not by being perfect, but by being peaceful. Do whatever it takes to maintain your calm and take excellent care of your own mate’s and children’s emotional well-being. Leave your family to their own devices. If you can manage this, maybe, just maybe, someone in the family will one day come to you and ask, “What’s your secret for staying so calm in the middle of all this insanity?” But before this can happen (perhaps a hundred years from now) you will have to practice becoming a credible witness to your family by being a peaceful, sane person whose faith–as St Francis de Sales says faith must be–is attractive.

3. Don’t Play the Game.

Certain people like to play a party game therapists call, “Let’s you and him fight.” That’s where somebody puts two people with violently divergent opinions in the same room, raises a hot topic, and then stands back at a safe distance to watch the fireworks.

There are political, religious, and personal versions of this game. Your job is to avoid this game at all costs, because there are no winners, only losers. If you play, you will end up looking like one of the reject guests for a holiday episode of Jerry Springer. Remind yourself that these arguments are really not going to convince anyone about anything and that, in fact, you are being set up, merely for the amusement of another person(s). Resist the temptation to fight.  Instead, if you know you are going to a place where you openly disagree with everything that is being said, focus all your energies on making polite conversation, or alternatively, heading to the buffet table and stuffing your mouth full of the driest cookies you can find so that you couldn’t say something inflammatory even if you wanted to.

Of course this does not mean that you cannot answer sincere questions asked by the more honest members of your family. Just remember that people asking sincere questions about spiritual, emotional, or political issues do not often do so with a smirk on their face and twenty other people looking on. If the situation is the latter, you are being set up.

4. Know When to Say When

Know when to call it a night (or morning, or early afternoon) and make sure you have a nice safe hotel to run to when things start getting to you. There is nothing wrong with beating a hasty retreat when you feel that you can’t take it anymore. Find an excuse to bug out whenever you need a break (something like, “I’m sorry, I suddenly began experiencing stabbing pains through my entire body” usually does the trick.) You can always come back later, after you have cooled down. And if anyone is offended by you keeping a separate domicile, just tell them you were trying to inflict yourself on them as little as possible. They probably won’t admit it to your face, but chances are, they will be as relieved as you are.

5. Pray.

This is the most obvious, but also the most important. But if you pray, please ask God to give you the grace to be a sane credible witness, BEFORE you pray for the conversion and sanity of the rest of your family. Remember, as St, Francis said, it is much more important to understand than to be understood, to love than to be loved, to consol than to be consoled. The paradox is, the more you practice these virtues, the more respect you will be afforded by those around you. Pray that God would change you first.

These five tips probably won’t be the source of any great holiday miracle, but they just may stop you from impaling yourself on a sprig of holly at the thought of seeing “those people” for yet another holiday.

And sometimes, that is miracle enough.


For more information on handling those delicate situations in your extended family, check out God Help Me, These People Are Driving Me Nuts!  Making Peace with Difficult People.

Poverty Sucks! The Pope, Research, and Fatherhood The Pope –Guest Post by Dave McClow.

The following is a guest post by Pastoral Solutions Institute clinical pastoral counseling associate, Dave McClow, MDiv, LCSW, LMFT.

The Pope

It seems that Pope Francis’ favorite topic is the poor.  His new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of Evangelism, is not even the latest evidence, because every other homily or statement includes the poor.  And it is right “the poor are the privileged recipi­ents of the Gospel” (EG, 48).  They are the summit in kingdom ethics; they are where we meet Jesus— ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ (Mt. 25:40).  They are to be the first and the focus of our missionary energy (EG, 48).   Pope Francis is concerned about some of the obstacles in our spiritual lives that are obstacles to loving the poor:

Whenever our interior life [I would add our exterior life here at Christmas time] becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too (EG, 2)


And, as if he hasn’t been clear yet, he says, “We have to state, with­out mincing words, that there is an inseparable bond between our faith and the poor. May we never abandon them” (EG, 48).

The Research

So I was intrigued by a blog by Chris Brown, at the National Fatherhood Initiative, titled Poverty Sucks: How Father Involvement Alleviates It.   He pointed me to some fascinating international research on IQ and poverty that helps us understand the poor better:

In a series of experiments run by researchers at Princeton, Harvard, and the University of Warwick, low-income people who were primed to think about financial problems performed poorly on a series of cognition tests, saddled with a mental load that was the equivalent of losing an entire night’s sleep. Put another way, the condition of poverty imposed a mental burden akin to losing 13 IQ points, or comparable to the cognitive difference that’s been observed between chronic alcoholics and normal adults….

This picture of cognitive bandwidth looks different. To study it, the researchers performed two sets of experiments. In the first, about 400 randomly chosen people in a New Jersey mall were asked how they would respond to a scenario where their car required either $150 or $1,500 in repairs. Would they pay for the work in full, take out of a loan, or put off the repair? How would they make that decision? The subjects varied in annual income from $20,000 to $70,000.

Before responding, the subjects were given a series of common tests (identifying sequences of shapes and numbers, for example) measuring cognitive function and fluid intelligence. In the easier scenario, where the hypothetical repair cost only $150, subjects classified as “poor” and “rich” performed equally well on these tests. But the “poor” subjects performed noticeably worse in the $1,500 scenario. Simply asking these people to think about financial problems taxed their mental bandwidth.

“And these are not people in abject poverty,” Shafir says. “These are regular folks going to the mall that day.”

The “rich” subjects in the study experienced no such difficulty. In the second experiment, the researchers found similar results when working with a group of farmers in India who experience a natural annual cycle of poverty and plenty. These farmers receive 60 percent of their annual income in one lump sum after the sugarcane harvest. Beforehand, they are essentially poor. Afterward (briefly), they’re not. In the state of pre-harvest poverty, however, they exhibited the same shortage of cognitive bandwidth seen in the American subjects in a New Jersey mall.

Putting aside the problem of defining the rich as making $70,000 per year (…who knew?), it is interesting that cognitive bandwidth or functioning goes down when faced with the stress of an overwhelming financial problem.  The researcher’s methodology gives a new way to measure interventions with poor.  Obviously handing out $1500 to get the car fixed seems like it would help!

But I wonder how a supportive, caring relationship would impact this.  The interpersonal neurobiology field would suggest that it would.  We are designed to connect with others when we have big emotions and stress.  It is patently obvious with babies.  You have to pick up the baby to calm the little bugger down, that is if you don’t want to overload him or her with stress hormones.  Of course you will want to make sure the baby isn’t hungry, or check for a loaded diaper or some other problem first.  But physical contact and a soothing voice help calm the vagus nerve in the body and release all kinds of natural narcotics in the brain, calming the baby.  We are no different, except hopefully we have given up the diaper thing.  Caring, supportive relationships help the different parts of the brain to integrate.  Brain integration helps us be sane and is a good definition of mental health (see Dr. Greg’s post on the 9 components of mental health).  Relationships that are patterned, repetitive, and predictable in an accepting and loving way create security.  In adults, being in a state of relative calm allows the prefrontal cortex to be online, and that means the intellect, the ability to see consequence (conscience), and the ability to have empathy are all online. So I wonder if caring, supportive relationships would increase the IQ when facing these kinds of financial situations.



One kind of relationship is extremely important to alleviate poverty, as noted by Chris Brown at the National Fatherhood Initiative, and that is the father/child relationship:

But it’s not enough just to have fathers present in their children’s lives. They must be involved, responsible, committed fathers….

Father involvement is a vital part of the solution to poverty and the chronic stress and poor parenting it creates. We know, from a macrolevel perspective, that communities with higher levels of father absence have higher levels of poverty. We also know, from a microlevel perspective—and common sense, that an involved father provides the human capital families need to perform the parenting functions that parents, children, and families need to avoid chronic stress and thrive.  

So fathers are key in alleviating poverty!  Wouldn’t it be nice if radical feminism and politicians would figure this out!


And even if the research never supports that having caring, supportive relationships do increase IQ in the poor, Jesus, Pope Francis, and the Church command us to love our neighbor, especially the poor.

Pope Francis Promotes Public Breastfeeding

Back in April, I posted a beautiful picture of, then, Cardinal Bergoglio,  blessing nursing mothers at a mass for newborns.  Yesterday, Pope Francis made a statement of public support for nursing moms and the witness they provide to the Corporal Work of Mercy that is giving food to the hungry.  In response to a question on world hunger, Pope Francis said,

“There are so many children that cry because they are hungry. At the Wednesday General Audience the other day there was a young mother behind one of the barriers with a baby that was just a few months old. The child was crying its eyes out as I came past. The mother was caressing it. I said to her: “Madam, I think the child’s hungry.” “Yes, it’s probably time…,” she replied. “Please give it something to eat!” I said. She was shy and didn’t want to breastfeed in public, while the Pope was passing. I wish to say the same to humanity: give people something to eat! That woman had milk to give to her child; we have enough food in the world to feed everyone.”

David Gibson has a terrific article up about the exchange as well as links to a great article he did in the Washington Post last year on devotion to the Nursing Madonna.  It’s a beautiful reflection for Christmastime.  Check it out.

And for more thoughts on how our Catholic faith can help you be a more effective parent, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

5 “Marks” of a Catholic Family—(My response to the Extraordinary Synod Survey Part II)

(This is Part II of the summary of my response to the Preparatory Document for the Extraordinary Synod.  For Part I, go here)

In part 1 of this series, I looked at the challenge of articulating the uniquely Catholic vision of family life that is spelled out in documents like Gaudium et Spes,  Familiaris Consortio, and other post-conciliar documents.  In other words, “Should Catholic families be different in some way from other families (other than in the ways we pray and the rules we follow) and, if so, what does that look like?” 

Most Catholics, I think would answer “yes, we should be different.”  But at the same time, most Catholics, I think, would be hard-pressed to say whether or not the particular secular or Protestant experts they were relying on for advice on how to build their marriage or raise their kids were actually articulating ideas that were consistent with a Catholic view of marriage and family life.   In my experience, most Catholics think that as long as they say Catholic prayers in their home and go to Church on Sunday, they can rely on whatever sources they choose to tell them how to treat each other.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Church cares deeply how we treat one another especially in our marriages and families.  The problem is that it can be difficult to translate theory into practice.  You shouldn’t have to have a degree in theology to know how to be a Catholic couple or family.  There needs to be some kind of articulation of the Catholic vision of marriage and family life that even the simplest, poorest-formed Catholic (or non-Catholic for that matter) can point to as the ideal Catholic couples and parents should be striving for.

In my response to the survey for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I suggest 5 Marks of a Catholic Family.  I don’t suggest that this is a complete list.  There may be some glaring omissions.  The point is to get a conversation going about what a practical guide to Catholic family life (as articulated by the relevant post-conciliar documents on family life) should look like.    Here are my modest suggestions.

The Five “Marks” of a Catholic Family

            1.  Catholic Families Worship Together–The Eucharist is the source of our love and the sign of the intimacy to which we are called.  Therefore, as a family, we attend Sunday mass weekly (and Holy Days and at other times as we are able) and we actively participate in parish life–our spiritual home away from home.   We also recognize that as fallen persons, we struggle to be the loving community we are called to be.  Therefore, as a family, we regularly go to confession (recommended: monthly) to seek God’s healing and grace so we might better live his vision of love in our lives and homes.

            2. Catholic Families Pray Together–As “domestic church” we recognize that we cannot love one another as God loves us unless we ask him, together, to teach us what this means.  Therefore, in addition to our individual prayer life, we gather together as husband and wife and also as a family for prayer each day.  In that time, we praise and thank God for his blessings, we ask him for the grace to love each other and the world better, we seek his will for our lives, and we pray for both our needs and the needs of the Family of God. We recognize in the words of Servant of God, Fr. Patrick Peyton, “the family that prays together, stays together.”

            3. Catholic Families are Called to Intimacy–Tertullian once proclaimed, “The world says, ‘Look at those Christians, see how they love one another!'”  The Christian life is first and foremost a call to intimate communion. We recognize that families are “Schools of Love.”  Therefore, as a family, we constantly challenge ourselves to seek to discover new ways to be even more open with and loving to each other as husband and wife, parents and children.  We recognize that children are to be a visible sign of the loving union between husband and wife and we work to make this a reality in our homes both in the quality of our relationships and in our openness to life.  Further, we cultivate marriage and parenting practices that make each member of the family–husband and wife, parents and children– willingly open up to one another and seek to freely give themselves to create a deeper “community of love” and practice all the virtues that help us live life as a gift.

            4.  Catholic Families Put Family First–We recognize that– because our family relationships are the primary vehicle God uses to perfect us and challenge us to become everything we were created to be–family life, itself,  is the most important activity.  To protect the intimacy we are called to cultivate as the domestic church, we recognize the importance of regular family rituals  and we are intentional about creating and protecting those activities such as family dinner, family prayer and worship, a game night and/or “family day”, and regular time for one-on-one communication and relationship-building.  We hold these activities as sacred rituals of the domestic church and value them over all other activities that would seek to compete with them.

 5.  The Catholic Family is a Witness and Sign–God wants to change the world through our families.  We allow ourselves to be part of his plan for changing the world in two ways.  First, by striving to exhibit– in every way possible in our daily interactions as husband and wife, parents and children– the love and intimacy that every human heart longs for. We must show the world that this love is a possible dream worth striving for.   Second, we will carry this love outside the home by serving the world-at-large in a manner that is responsible and respectful of the integrity of the family unit. We do this by committing ourselves and our families to the intentional practice of all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy within the home and outside of it.  To this end, the ways we, as a family, are trying to fulfill this responsibility will be a regular topic of conversation in our homes.


As I said above, I have no doubt that this may be an incomplete list.  Nevertheless, I believe it represents the kind of effort that must be undertaken by the Church to evangelize families.  People do not know how to be a family anymore much less what it means to be a “Catholic family.”   I think the faithful deserve concrete, practical recommendations  (drawn from the relevant documents)  that can serve as an effective launching point for delving more deeply into the Catholic vision of marriage and family life.

My hope is that this post can start the discussion of what this may look like.

For more thoughts and ideas on raising a Catholic family, check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Are Catholic Families Really Any Different? Should We Be? (Some Points from My Response to the 2014 Extraordinary Synod– Part I)

Recently, I was asked by my bishop to provide a response to the survey in preparation for the 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family.  Many of the questions in that document have to do with the faithful’s awareness of the practical significance of the Church’s unique vision of marriage and family life as articulated in various post-Vatican II documents (e.g., Gaudium et Spes, Familiaris Consortio, etc). Pope Francis appears to be concerned  both with how well the Church is communicating its unique vision of marriage and family life to the world and the ways Catholic couples and families are or are not either serving or benefiting from efforts associated with the New Evangelization.

In my response, I argue that there is virtually no practical awareness–among either the laity or the clergy–of what is supposed to make Catholic family life different from Protestant or secular family life except for the prayers we say and the way we worship.   I develop my case for this over about 60 pages, but here’s the short version.

Catholics Have a Syncretistic View of Family Life

Catholics, even devout Catholics, tend not to think twice about building their marriages and families around the ideals and techniques promoted by both secular and Protestant “experts.”  This isn’t to say that Catholics have nothing to learn about marriage and family life from our secular and Protestant brothers, but the vast majority of Catholics don’t even stop to consider what their Catholic faith might have to say about the way husbands and wives, parents and children should treat each other in the home.  They tend to think that as long as they say Catholic prayers, go to Church on Sunday, and turn to marriage and parenting resources that either mention Jesus and/or confirm their unexamined personal biases about relationships, they are de facto living out the Church’s vision of marriage and family life as articulated in the documents mentioned in the survey.

Given a field of popular Protestant or secular experts on marriage and family life such as Gary Ezzo, John Rosemond, James Dobson, T. Barry Brazelton, Bill Sears, Michael Pearl, Gary Chapman, Will Harley, Harville Hendrix, John Gray, Laura Schlesinger, etc., the vast majority of Catholics wouldn’t be able to determine, in even the most basic, gut-level way, who does a better or worse job of articulating ideas that are more consistent with Church’s vision of how husbands and wives, parents and children should relate to each other.  Each of these experts spells out very different ideas about how couples and families should look and interact, and yet there are thousands if not millions of well-meaning Catholic families who take these experts words as gospel and build their family lives around their teachings.

Culture Lost Sense of Family Life

The problem goes even deeper.  It isn’t just that Catholic families aren’t definitively Catholic.  It’s that many Catholic families–even devout Catholic families–aren’t even families any more.  Like their secular counterparts, many Catholic families have allowed themselves to become collections of individuals living under the same roof.  The wider culture has lost a sense of what it means to be a family and to live the mechanics of family life.  It used to be that families would join around regular meal times, game nights, family days, household projects, prayer, and of course Sunday worship.

Now, “family life” is the 3 secs we see our kids on the way to busing them to their various lessons, activities, and hobbies and running to our own meetings and commitments.  In this, the Third Generation of the Culture of Divorce, many people feel like family rituals (meals, prayertime, family day, game nights, family projects) are things Ozzie and Harriet did in the 1950’s.   They seem like a fairy tale.   Too many Catholic families are caught up in this tide, following it rather than fighting it.

Lack of Clear Family Catechesis

In light of all this, even Catholic clergy and catechists struggle to communicate what is unique about Catholic marriage and family life.  Even these Catholic leaders regularly recommend the kinds of resources listed above without any regard for whether or not the ideals and techniques promoted by these experts adequately represent a unique Catholic vision of the way husbands and wives, parents and children should treat each other as articulated in the documents cited by the survey.   Most pastors and DRE’s would appear to buy into the same logic that says that as long as the faithful say Catholic prayers and come to Church on Sunday, it really doesn’t matter that much if they interact (as husband and wife, parents and children) the same ways their secular or Protestant counterparts do.

By way of illustration, a listener to our radio program called to share that her parish Director of Religious Education was promoting a “Marriage and Family Day” at her parish.  The talks for the event were to be given by a local, prominent, Protestant minister.  Our caller was supportive of the day and had a favorable impression of the minister, but she asked the DRE if the parish wouldn’t be better served by seeking a Catholic expert to speak at the event.   The DRE responded, “He’s just talking about marriage, for Heaven’s sake! It isn’t as if he is going to be presenting theology or anything!”

We Can Do Better

I genuinely believe that Catholic laity and clergy mean well and are doing their best, but I would argue that being able to articulate a clearer practical vision of what it means to live a uniquely Catholic marriage and family life has to be heart of the New Evangelization.  Families are the basic unit of civilization and the chief vehicle for transmitting the faith both to the world and the next generation.  The way we live is the most important witness.  Our lives are the most important evangelization tool.

Too many of our kids are being raised in homes that don’t look any different than the homes of their secular or Protestant friends except for the prayers we say and, maybe, the rules we have.  How can we change the world if we look and act exactly the same as everyone else?    In order for our faith to seem relevant to our children and the world at large, Catholic couples and families must present a vision of love that both shows our children the ability of our Catholic faith to satisfy the longings of their heart and makes the world stand up and take notice.

Tertullian once said, “The world says, ‘Look at those Christians!   See how they love one another!'”  Catholic marriages and families are the primary means of communicating this unique vision of love to the world and the next generation.  By and large,  I just don’t think we, as a body, are communicating a vision of love in our homes that looks that different from anyone else.  It isn’t enough to have different rules and prayers.  Our homes have to be qualitatively different.  We are called to be qualitatively different.  I believe the success of the New Evangelization depends on our homes being qualitatively different.

In Part II of this reflection, I’ll post what I think represent the “5 Marks of Catholic Families”; that is, 5 principles that I think should distinguish  the way Catholic husbands and wives, and  parents and children interact with each other and the world.  In the meantime, what do you think makes Catholic couples and families different?   Beyond the prayers we say and the way we worship, are there ways that Catholic families distinguish themselves from their Protestant or secular counterparts?  How would you articulate the “Catholic difference” of marriage and family life?

(Comments on moderation–You will be posted.  Be patient)



You’re Just Not as Awesome as You Think. Fostering A Healthier Take on “Self-Esteem”

It might surprise you coming from a mental health professional, but I’m not a big fan of “self-esteem.”  Not that I want anyone to feel badly about themselves.  It’s just that what most people think of as “self-esteem”  (i.e., telling a child that  he is awesome just because he managed to draw breath without tripping over his tongue) isn’t terrifically effective and doesn’t bear terrifically good fruit.

But as much as you hear about self-esteem on children’s television and daytime talk shows, psychologists prefer to talk about “self-efficacy.”  Self-efficacy is defined as the good feelings one gets from knowing that one has ability to set and meet personal, emotional, or temporal goals.   Knowing I have the power to effect change, to achieve, to identify how to move from how I do feel to how I would like to feel, is an important component of a healthier and more authentic sense of self-esteem.

It is this second type of self-esteem, rooted in self-efficacy, that Dr. Justin Coulson, discusses in this article at the Family Studies Blog (of the Institute for Family Studies).  Dr. Coulson is an Australian parenting expert and psychologist (as well as a father of six kids).  He notes that the type of self-esteem that you usually think about and that  studies usually measure is actually related to risky, violent, and aggressive behavior as well as other problems. As an alternative, Dr. Coulson suggests instilling in kids a healthier form of self-esteem built on doing good things, using their talents, and having a solid relationship with their parents.    Its some good stuff.  Check it out!

And if you’d like to learn more about raising kids to have a healthy sense of self-esteem (instead of the narcissistic, insidious kind) check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Toward a Theology of Authentic Masculinity

A guest blog by Dave McClow, M.Div, LCSW, LMFT, clinical pastoral counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

Isn’t it time for a Theology of Masculinity for the New Evangelization?

Sparked by Fr. David Vincent Meconi’s, SJ September 2013 editorial in Homiletic & Pastoral Review, I wanted to expand on his questions and comments about the need for a theology of masculinity.  Here is part of what he had to say:

Provocative and important as Pope Francis’ comments are about the need for a theology of women, John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and his effusive recognition of “the feminine genius” certainly began that conversation. But what have recent popes and magisterial teachings done to address the nature of man and masculinity?  How would the men of our parishes and in our pews be different today if John Paul had written the encyclical, say, On The Dignity of Man—Viri Dignitatem?  How would men today be more able to live out their own unique discipleship and role in both the world, and in the Church, if we were able to articulate how men embody the Christian vocation to holiness in exclusive and particular ways?

I am a son of John Paul II, and am deeply impressed with Benedict and Francis, but I am frustrated about this omission and have wondered about it much over the last few years.

The Problem

Fr. Meconi goes on to suggest that a theology of masculinity is needed especially in America where we are not growing boys into men. “America, especially, has a way of infantilizing men.”  Video games, porn, and comic book hero movies are some current ways of achieving this.  His piece is well worth the read.

He ultimately goes on to suggest that Christ is the ultimate model of masculinity just as Mary is for femininity.  He then stresses the priestly aspect of Christ as the remedy for men.  I would agree and want to add some “whys” to the need for a theology of masculinity.  I think it is essential for the New Evangelization.  Lastly I want expand on his model for a theology of masculinity.

Biology vs. Culture

Motherhood and fatherhood have always helped define femininity and masculinity.  But while biology defines more what it means to be a woman, the culture defines more what it means to be a man.  The woman’s body is designed to conceive, carry, bear, and feed children.  Women have a distinct and physical connection to the phrase in the Eucharistic prayer, “This is my body which has been given up for you.”  The man has a relatively small, although highly pleasurable, biological role in the conceiving of children, but no biological role in child rearing.  It is all culture after conception.  As Theology of the Body suggests, the male anatomy does point him to loving someone outside of himself; but when the cultural winds blow harder, they co-opt the voice and authority of defining what it means to be a man.  There are philosophical and political agendas that seek to liberate women from the oppression of their bodies and from men.  The media has helped to relegate men to irrelevant roles: think Everybody Loves Raymond, or Two and a Half Men—buffoon or playboy.  The Culture of Death is winning on this one!

The Problem of Fatherlessness

Blessed John Paul II used to say “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family” (Familiaris Consortio, 75).  I would add that “The future of the family passes through fatherhood.”

Fatherlessness is an undeniable and well-documented elephant in the living room!  Fatherlessness has increased criminality and juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, poor school performance, premature sexuality and out-of-wedlock births among teenagers, gender confusion, the number of women and children in poverty, the likelihood of childhood sexual abuse or child abuse, teen runaways and homelessness, gang involvement, and the risk of suicide attempts and completions by teens.   This is the short list, and it is well documented elsewhere (see David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America).   The mass shootings in the news of late almost always involve a fatherless kid, but this does not get commented on by the Church or Catholic media.  (Al Kresta was a recent exception on his show, Kresta in the Afternoon, in the last few months.)  The Culture of Death is winning this one, too!

A Pro-life Issue

At least 30% of abortions are coerced by others, (and I suspect mostly men) according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute.  This double distortion—coercion of another and abortion—is a distortion of authentic masculinity.  Masculinity is a pro-life issue!

Church Attendance Problem

The Church is losing men!  The typical Sunday Mass has about 60% women and 40% men.  Many men see going to Church as women’s work.  There are 76% of baptized Catholics who don’t attend Mass regularly.  But if fathers thought that going to Church was important and went, their children and wives would follow.  Fathers have a profound effect on the next generation according to a census study from Switzerland.  If mom and dad attend regularly, 34% of their kids will attend regularly.  If mom goes regularly and dad goes irregularly or not at all, that drops to 2% or 3% of their kids who will attend regularly.  If dad goes regularly and mom irregularly or not at all, the percentage jumps to 38% or 44%!  This alone should give us pause to look at how to engage men for the New Evangelization! 

The Gospel: Fatherhood Restored

So if masculinity is in crisis, and the culture is distorting it; if fatherlessness and men are literally and figuratively killing our society; and if the next generation of Church attenders is largely dependent on men going to Church, where is that encyclical “On the Dignity of Men”?  Where is a clear articulation of masculinity? 

I am frustrated by the first question, but the answer to the second question is found in the Gospel and the Catechism.  Fatherhood is central to the Gospel: from original sin, which attempts to abolish God’s Fatherhood (see JPII’s Crossing the Threshold of Hope, p. 228); to salvation, which restored God’s Fatherhood (revealed as Abba—Daddy or Papa, Jn. 10:30-33, Mk. 14:36—and the father of the prodigal son, Lk. 15:11-32); and to the living out of earthly fatherhood as Malachi and Luke state, “turn[ing] the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 3:23-24; cf. Lk. 1:17).  (For a little more on the Gospel and Fatherhood, see my blog here.)

All Men Are Called to Fatherhood.

Thus I would tie masculinity directly to fatherhood.   All men, young, old, and in between, married and single, are called to fatherhood, first and always to spiritual fatherhood, then possibly to biological fatherhood.  St. Escriva says it this way, “Don’t let your life be sterile.” Men must be fruitful with spiritual or biological children!  Men are called to be fathers (mentors/big brothers/friends) to the fatherless. Fatherhood is a part of God’s essence—so why would it not be the essence of masculinity?

Fatherhood Lived Out As Prophet, Priest, and King

How is this lived out? I would build on Fr. Meconi’s idea of Christ as the model for men in His priestly function.  I would say that men’s spiritual and biological fatherhood are to be lived out as priest, prophet, and king as the foundation of authentic masculinity. This of course is based on the sacrament of baptism, where men (and women) “become sharers in Christ’s priestly, prophetic, and royal office” (CCC 871).  I will unpack this in a later blog.           

Men: The Most Leveraged Focus of the New Evangelization

But let’s say men were living out their authentic Catholic masculinity in spiritual fatherhood—we would see the ripple effects go through the family, the neighborhood, and the whole of society!  Each of the problem areas mentioned above—the identity crisis, the effects of fatherlessness, abortions, and poor church attendance—would all be positively impacted.   I think focusing on men is the most leveraged activity of the New Evangelization. 

While I haven’t thoroughly read Pope Francis’ new Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, which is on the New Evangelization, I did search it for the words “men” and “women.”  Men are not to be found as a focus, while women are (“we need to create still broader opportunities for a more incisive female presence in the Church” 103).  I am not begrudging this initiative; I just think it makes sense from the data of our Culture of Death to go after men for the good of families, the Church, and society.

John Paul II gave us a great deal to think about our sexuality.  Shouldn’t the Church be leading the charge on defining masculinity?  Isn’t it time for a theology of masculinity that will serve to ignite the New Evangelization in the third millennium?

Sign Here: “Delivery Man” Drops an Opportunity At Catholics’ Doorstep

I saw the movie “Delivery Man” this past weekend.  Vince Vaughn plays a meat delivery guy who, 20 years before,  paid for his parents’ anniversary trip to Italy by donating sperm to a fertility clinic over 600 times.  Due to an administrative error, the clinic overused his “donations” and, as a result, he is the biological father of 533 children who initiate legal action to discover his identity.

The movie was cute enough and did its best to be respectful (as least as respectful as a comedy could be) to a very complicated and painful situation.  The movie discussed Vaughn’s character’s irresponsibility head-on.  It showed the very real pain his biological children suffered and strongly hinted at the injustice and immorality of sperm donation and similar modes of assisted reproduction albeit in a comedic way.  At one point, the attorney for Vaughn’s now young adult children noted that while sperm donation appeared to be a great deal for Vaughn’s character and for the parents accessing donor conception services, the people who were most affected by the process,  the children themselves, never had a say in the morality or ethics of what was being done.  It was a poignant moment.

The problem with the film had less to do with where it went than  with where it lacked the courage to go.  It implied (spoiler alert) that the deep emotional wounds many donor-conceived children report could be resolved just by meeting their biological father.  It sugar coated the impossibility of being truly present to 533 estranged children whose pain was palpable throughout the movie but too-easily resolved in the way feel-good films do.  Twenty years of angst resolved by a hug and a picnic montage?  If only.

There’s no question that that movie deals with morally objectionable material but I think mature Catholics ought to see it.  It gives us an opportunity to discuss a topic few people are aware of. Namely; the growing numbers of donor-conceived children who are speaking openly about the pain they experience every day because of the way they were conceived.   This is exactly the pain Humanae Vitae sought to prevent.

This brave donor-conceived woman took to the streets this weekend to educate movie-goers about the ethical and moral issues that are glossed over by the fertility industry.   You should go read her full post, but here’s a sample.

Between showtimes I headed over to Starbucks and coincidentally sat next to a young couple who were planning on going to see the movie themselves. They were sitting with an older gentleman, the young woman’s father. The father had said that he read somewhere that it was scientifically impossible to father 500+ children through sperm donation. I introduced myself and mentioned that in fact it is not only possible, but I know people with over 500 half-siblings. He was shocked. They thanked me for the fliers and said they’d let me know what they thought about the movie.

My advice to you, dear reader, is to become informed on this film and this issue.  This is a golden opportunity, serendipitously served up by Hollywood, to educate the public about why Catholics have it right when we talk about the immorality of donor-conception.  The more we can use gift-wrapped cultural moments like this to help people understand what we’ve been talking about for 40+ years, the better.

And for those of you who would like to have a deeper understanding of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, especially regarding how it can transform your marriage, check out my bestselling book,  Holy Sex!   You’ll be surprised at what you discover about the truth behind the Catholic vision of love.