Pastoral Malpractice

Pastoral Malpractice

Dr. Greg Popcak

A physician I know was recently faced a dilemma. A patient of hers on pain medication began engaging in behaviors that made it clear the patient was abusing, and possibly, selling, his meds. The doctor had to refuse to refill the prescription and recommend an alternative course of treatment. The patient stormed out, accusing her of being, “uncaring and unprofessional.”

Sadly, treatments can be abused. When they are, responsible caregivers must refuse those treatments until the problems preventing them from being effective are overcome. The failure to do so can constitute professional malpractice.

The fact is, even the treatments prescribed by the Divine Physician can be abused. God gives us the sacraments to treat the spiritual illness—sin–that damages our relationships with God and others. Normally, these “treatments” should be readily available to every Christian “patient.” The sacraments aren’t rewards for good behavior.  They’re treatments for spiritual disease. But when treatments are abused, they must be refused.

Take Confession. If someone confesses a sin but says he intends to keep committing the same sin, the priest—who functions as a kind of Divine “Physician Assistant” when it comes to the sacraments—is actually obliged to deny absolution.  For pastors to give absolution under such circumstances would be to encourage the sinful behavior and make themselves party to it by spiritually enabling it.

The Eucharist is another example. It’s the ultimate “spiritual treatment” for healing the damage sin does to our relationships with God and others. But this “treatment” isn’t magic. In order for it to be efficacious, the recipient needs to be seeking strength to live the Christian vision of love. If someone receives communion because they want help overcoming the struggles they face in learning to love like Christ, they should never be denied communion because it’s the very “medicine” they are looking for.

But what if someone’s persistent behavior severely wounds the Body of Christ? What if they dedicate themselves to organizing racist rallies? What if they eagerly promote the slaughter of children in the name of “healthcare?” What if this person has been begged dozens—even hundreds–of times to stop wounding the Body of Christ in such a way, but they dismiss those warnings, insisting that what they’re doing is actually good? Let’s further say that this person draws deep personal comfort from being allowed to receive the Eucharist.

Should they? Is it responsible to allow anyone to experience spiritual consolation while they intentionally, persistently, and unapologetically scourged the Body of Christ? In St. Ignatius’ words, wouldn’t such a consolation, in fact, be a desolation of the Enemy?

Of course, God would certainly forgive such a person, but even God can’t forgive someone who doesn’t believe they need it. And to know we need forgiveness, don’t we need to be allowed to feel the separation from God that our actions necessarily cause?

Permitting such a person to receive the Eucharist not only allows him to “eat and drink judgment on himself” (1 Cor 11:29) but also constitutes pastoral malpractice (c.f. Ezekial 3:18).

As the bishops continue to debate whether to allow President Biden to receive communion, they would do well to stop letting  ideologues frame this as a political issue and, instead, take a clear stand against pastoral malpractice. There is nothing “pastoral” about letting people use the Body of Christ as an anesthetic to numb themselves while they abuse the Body of Christ.

Dr. Greg Popcak is the author of many books and the Executive Director of the Pastoral Solutions Institute (CatholicCounselors.com).

To help heal from sin this Lent, call on the Divine Physician

This is Part 3 of my ongoing series exploring what it means to “be pastoral.” Each Lent, we’re asked to repent of our sins. But what does it really mean to be a sinner? And what does it take to stop? The answers might surprise you.

Sin vs. the call to love

In my last column, I noted that the main job for every Christian disciple is recognizing that, because of the Fall, our human understanding of love is hopelessly flawed and woefully deficient. We all want to love and be loved, but even when we try our best, we still end up hurting each other, using each other, demeaning each other and worse. In spite of our deepest wishes to love well and be loved deeply, we really can’t figure out how to do it. Being a true Christian disciple begins with acknowledging that only Christ and his Church can teach us how to give and receive the deep, godly love we were created to enjoy. To love as God does, we’ve got to learn how to:

  • Respect the divine dignity of each person, no matter what they look like, where they come from or what they’ve done.
  • Defend the life and promote the health of each person.
  • Live and love in a manner that respects God’s design of our bodies.
  • Actively encourage the full growth and flourishing of each person.

Each of us has the God-given right to expect to be treated in this manner and the God-given responsibility to treat others in the same way. This is the love Jesus commanded his disciples to share when he told them to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39).

Sin, then, is what happens when we choose to accept less than this love from others or give less than this love to others. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Sin sets itself against God’s love for us and turns our hearts away from it” (No. 1850).

Convict or patient?

There are two traditional ways to think about our relationship to sin. The first is to compare committing a sin to breaking the law. The second is to compare being a sinner to contracting an illness. Both are legitimate views with long theological pedigrees. But as a pastoral counselor, I find the second view to be more useful, more effective and, in general, less fraught. Why?

Imagine contracting some life-threatening illness or being in a car accident that breaks every bone in your body. Could you guilt yourself into a full recovery? Could you shame yourself into walking again? Could you hate yourself enough to make the cancer leave? Of course not. We can’t take this approach to healing from sin either.

We can’t heal ourselves of the disease of sin. In fact, believing we can is both a heresy (Pelagianism) and, ironically, a sin — namely, pride. Every single one of us is infected with the spiritual disease that prevents us both from expecting others to love us as we deserve to be loved as children of God and loving others as they deserve to be loved as God’s children, in turn. This disease is sin.

As patients (or disciples), our journey cannot begin until we stop playing around with all the home remedies we use to try to mask the symptoms and finally admit that we’re powerless to cure ourselves. Our healing begins when we turn to God, the Divine Physician, to find the cure for what ails us. Likewise, we only get in the Divine Physician’s way when we insist on trying to “help” him by insulting ourselves (or others), shaming ourselves (or others) or beating up on ourselves (or others) for being sick — for being sinners — in the first place.

How can we heal?

Read the full article here at Our Sunday Visitor.

Preparing for Lent In A Catholic HOM (Household On Mission)

As we prepare for Lent, we often rely on old habits or patterns. We give up the same thing for Lent or we engage in the same practices each year. Our rituals can become a little too habitual. Sometimes, it’s good to shake things up a bit, especially with regard to how we celebrate lent as a CatholicHOM (Household On Mission).

Specifically, the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life can help connect with the grace of lent to help each family member become a fully formed person—a whole and healthy child of God.

In Pastores Dabo Vobis, (I Will Give You Shepherds) St John Paul described four essential areas requiring special attention in the formation of priests (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral) but his recommendations don’t just apply to seminaries.  They apply to our homes too! Christian households are meant to help each of us live out the common priesthood we inherit through baptism. Lent gives all of us “common priests” a special opportunity to use the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life, to discover new ways to consecrate the world to Christ by living out Christ’s sacrificial love in all we do.

So how do we use John Paul II’s guidance for priestly formation in our family?

Human Formation – Human formation refers to the lessons we need to learn to be the kind of healthy, holy people whose lives lead others to Christ. Christian families encourage good human formation by mindfully and intentionally practicing specific virtues, working to be more empathic with each other, being good listeners and respectful communicators, being generously affection and affirming, and cultivating the kind of relationships that lead them into deeper communion with each other and  God.  This Lent how will you and your family focus on human formation?

One simple way your family can practice living Christ’s sacrificial love at home is by using the Family Team Exercise – Each morning ask, “What do we need to do to make each other feel taken care of between now and lunch?” At lunch, ask, “What do we need to do to make each other feel taken care of between now and dinner?” Then, at dinner, ask, “What do we need to do to make each other feel taken care of between now and bedtime?” This exercise is a simple way to live out the third practice in the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life’s Rite of Christian Relationship: Offering prompt, generous, consistent and cheerful attention to each other’s needs. It challenges you all to be more thoughtful and generous than you otherwise might be, and shows how generous service leads to a happier, healthier home.

Spiritual Formation – Spiritual formation is all about learning to have a close relationship with God and be a faithful disciple. One of the practices we recommend in the Rite of Family Rituals is a strong family prayer life. By having strong family prayer rituals, families invite  God to be the most important member of their household.

As a family, keep God close all day long through both formal and informal family prayer times. For instance, in addition to regular morning, meal-time, and bedtime prayers, you could pray over our child before a test, game, or important event. You could thank God out loud for the little blessings you experience.  You could ask God’s help before cooking a meal, or helping a child with homework, or having an important conversation with your spouse or child. Likewise, assuming your child is used to receiving blessing from you, don’t forget to ask your child to pray over you when you’re having a tough day. Give your kids the chance to exercise their muscles as budding spiritual warriors!

Using this lent to cultivate stronger family prayer rituals will help you do more to encourage the spiritual formation of the common priests in your household.

Intellectual Formation – Intellectual formation refers to the habits we develop that enable us to  know God better so that we can love him better. In the Rite of Family Rituals, we recommend regular family talk time as one important ritual that can help us achieve this goal at home. By carving out a little time during the day to have meaningful conversations about how our faith and life connect, how God is showing up for us, or how we think he is asking us to respond to the challenges we face, we can foster our family’s ability to grow in our knowledge of God and both the understanding and application of our faith.

Other good Talk Rituals include family reading time, where we can read stories from the bible, or the lives of the saints, or just good books that give us a chance to discuss our values and share how we can live them. Lent is a great time to make time to talk about why we have Stations of the Cross, or what the parts of our celebration of Holy Week mean and how all of our Lenten practices can help us draw closer to God and each other.

Pastoral/Apostolic Formation – Pastoral formation refers to our ability to cultivate compassionate hearts of service to others. The third rite in Liturgy of Domestic Church Life, the Rite of Reaching Out, helps us do this by encouraging us to look for more ways families can serve each other—both at home and in the world. The Rite of Reaching Out is all about reminding us of the importance of leaving people better off than we found them.

This Lent, think about ways your family can do more to serve each other and your community. How can you be more generous to each other at home?  How can you and your family reach out to others in your life and be a witness of God’s love? Perhaps your family could work together to create small care packages for with cards, baked goods, or little gifts and share them with your neighbors/friends. Maybe make one care package each week in Lent for a different friend, relative, or neighbor.

However you choose to develop your relationship with God this Lent, it may be helpful to reflect on these four pillars and how they apply to your family. What areas are your strengths? What areas could use growth? What is one tangible practice you and your family could partake in this Lent to strengthen your Catholic HOM?

Join the discussion on Facebook at Catholic HOM—Family Discipleship

Strengthening Faith Amidst Pandemic

*This post is one among a series of articles discussing the liturgy of domestic church life. For more information, join the conversation on facebook in our group Catholic HOM—Family Discipleship.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it seems every day brings new changes, adjustments to the “plan,” and a “new normal” to adapt to. One of the many things that have changed is our ability to go to church. Many of us have not been to church in months, maybe we attend online, maybe we’re able to attend a service outdoors, or maybe we’re able to go to church in a way that meets the limited capacity requirements. But with all of these changes, how has our faith life been impacted?

A recent study by PEW Research found that most people’s faith has remained unchanged (47%) or grown stronger (24%) despite not being able to go to church during the pandemic. Only 2% report struggling in their faith because of events related to the pandemic.

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Transform your family into a joyful place where each member experiences life as a gift from God by checking out

Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids

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How can this be?

For a lot of us, the changes in our ability to attend our regular church service has caused us to be a lot more intentional and prioritize our faith in a different way. As research shows, some have had great success in developing their faith life in new ways, but for others this has been more of a struggle.

Many of us are still searching for new ways to live our faith at home and grow in faith as a family. The changes caused by COVID-19 have clear implications for our domestic church life. The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life is a way for Catholic families to make faith the source of the warmth in our homes.  Below are a few ways we can do just that:

1. Make prayer time cozy, not uncomfortable—Many of us feel that for our family prayer time at home we must all be kneeling and perfectly still. If this is comfortable for you as a family, great! But often this sort of expectation makes prayer time (especially with younger children) a bit of a battle. Make prayer time cozy and inviting. Set soft lighting, play relaxing music or praise and worship songs softly in the background, surround yourselves with blankets and pillows and cuddle up together as a family. Make your prayer space and prayer time feel like a warm hug in the arms of God—the one who knows us best and loves us most. This is a great way to developing a loving relationship with God for our kids and for ourselves!

2.  See God in your day-to-day—Make a point of noticing God in little ways throughout the day. Find a great parking spot, say, “Thanks God!” Out loud. Catch a beautiful sunrise or sunset? Acknowledge how God painted the sky today. Had a good conversation or meeting? Thank God for letting it go so well. By acknowledging how we see God working in our day-to-day lives allows us to prioritize God in a beautiful way. Check in with the family at the end of each day, maybe even over dinner, and ask, “How/where did you see God in your day?” Discuss those little (and big!) blessings.

3. Keep traditions alive—Let’s face it, we all love coffee and donut Sunday. It’s a fun way to get a special treat, have some nice conversation, and make our faith life a bit more fun. Keep traditions such as this alive at home! After watching Mass online, share coffee/juice and donuts/muffins (or whatever your favorite family treats are) together—even for a few minutes. This would be a fun way to get a few minutes together as a family, enjoying each other’s company (and maybe sharing our mass take-aways) before going about the rest of our day.

For more ways to live out your faith as a family, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids. And join our discussion on facebook at Catholic HOM—Family Discipleship!

The Church At Home: Celebrating the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life

By Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak

Whatever else God might be doing at this time, it seems clear that he is calling us to discover the power and importance of the Domestic Church.  With masses suspended and churches closed, we simply don’t have access to the spiritual resources we normally rely on. We are, quite literally, stuck at home with little choice but to figure out how to encounter God as we shelter-in-place.

Despite the very real limitations we’re all laboring under, God has not abandoned us.  His Holy Spirit is still moving powerfully in the world and I believe that it is time to learn how to encounter God more meaningfully in what I like to call “The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life.”

Developed as a result of the Symposium on Catholic Family Life and Spirituality  the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life is a model of family spirituality that helps families experience God more meaningfully in their every day circumstances and experience the faith as the source of the warmth in our homes.  The following is a kind of FAQ for celebrating the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life in your home. I hope it will help you have a more meaningful encounter with Christ in your everyday life with your loved ones.


What is the “Liturgy of Domestic Church Life?”
“Liturgy” is a word that refers to “work” God does through his church to heal the damage that sin does to our relationship with him and each other.  The Liturgy of the Eucharist is the “summit and source” of that healing, uniting us with God and giving us the grace to create communion with others. The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life is the primary way lay people exercise our common priesthood, consecrating the world to Christ by literally bringing Jesus home with us and letting him transform our common families into dynamic domestic churches!

Why Do you Say That Christian Family Life Is A “Liturgy?”
Great question!  We have a larger presentation (available on request) that explains the basis of the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life in Church teaching and the Catholic theology of family.  That said, check out this link for a brief explanation of the 5 Reasons Family Life is a Liturgy.

How Do You Celebrate the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life?
Every family is different, so every family must feel free to chose specific practices that work for them.  But drawing from both the Catholic theology of family and social science research into what makes families in every culture around the world healthy and strong, we suggest that the Liturgy of Domestic Church is made up of three “Rites.”  The more your family looks for ways to practice these rites in your unique circumstances the more God’s grace can transform your family into a dynamic domestic church! The three “rites” are…

The Rite of Relationship:  Godly families are called to love each other—not just with the love that comes naturally to us broken, sinful, human beings–but  with true, incarnational, Christian love.  By challenging each other to live Christ’s sacrificial love in their homes everyday, the Rite of Relationship enables families to exercise the priestly mission of baptism.

     -The Rite of Rituals: When godly families make a little time, everyday, to work, play, talk, and pray together, they model how Christians are meant to relate to work, leisure, relationships, and God. In this way, The Rite of Rituals enables famlies to exercise the prophetic mission of baptism, showing each other and the world how Christians are called to live.

     -The Rite of Reaching Out: As Christians, we’re mean to be a blessing to others. When Christian families live their family lives with others in mind, being kind, charitable, hospitable, serving others, and working to discern their unique mission and charisms, they exercise the royal mission of baptism by serving with Christ and building the kingdom of God.

What Are Some Examples Of How Families Can Live the Rite Of Relationship?
Catholic familes are called to do more than just live under the same roof and share a data plan! When Catholic families love each other through the priestly mission of their baptism, they practice the sacrifical love that comes from God’s heart.  Every family must be free to choose specific practices that let them live this rite in their own circumstances, but here are some examples of things every family can do.

     -Extravagant Affection—Christ’s love is incarnational and embodied.  The more we share generous, healthy, and appropriate physical affection in our homes, the more our family’s love resembles the incarnate, embodied love of Christ.

     -Prompt, Generous, Consistent, Responses to Each Other’s Needs—Psalm 139:4 says, “Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it all.”  God is immeasurably generous to us.  Families model God’s love when each member—parents and children—encourage each other to go above and beyond, responding promptly, generously, and consistently to each other needs and concerns.

     -Gentle Discipline—Christ is the Good Shepherd. He tends his sheep gently. He leads with love. He is slow to anger.  His mercy is neverending.  St John Bosco developed a method of discipline he called the “Preventive Method” which rejected heavy-handed punishments in favor of “reason, religion, and lovingkindness.”  He argued that a gentle approach to childrearing was more consistent with the call to Christian discipleship because it required parents to develop as well as teach self-mastery.  We discuss effective approaches to gentle discipline in our book, Parenting with Grace.

     -Prioritize Relationship—Christ encouraged the very busy homemaker, Martha, to “choose the better part” (c.f. Lk 10:42) by making time for intimacy over activity. Godly families follow Christ’s call when we prioritize one-on-one time and, as Pope Francis put it,  “waste time with each other,” even when that means opting out of activities that compete with the importance of family time.

     -Catch Each Other Being GoodThe Christian life is all about growing in virtue. Godly families do well to encourage virtue by “catching each other being good,” acknowledging the little gifts of service and love we give to each other throughout the day, and intentionally discussing opportunities to grow in respect, love, generosity, togetherness, joy, and all the other virtues that help us live life as a gift.

What Are Some Examples Of How Families Can Live the Rite Of Rituals
More than just “nice things to do” regular family rituals give families a way to exerise the prophetic mission of their baptism. Not only do family ritual create a strong sense of community, they give families a way to model the Christian way of life by cultivating goldy attitudes toward work, leisure, relationships, and prayer. Every family must be free to choose specific practices that let them live this rite in their own circumstances, but here are some examples of ways families can Work, Play, Talk, and Pray together everyday

Work Rituals—When families take a few minutes every day to do simple chores together, like cleaning up the kitchen after meals, folding laundry, picking up the family room, and other household tasks, they model teamwork, stewardship, and cheerful service.

     -Play Rituals—When godly familes make a point of taking a few minutes everyday to do things like play simple board games or card games, play catch, bake together, do a project, have read-aloud time, take a walk, or enjoy each other’s company in any other way, they model healthy, godly ways to have fun.

     -Talk Rituals—When familes take a few minutes of every day—perhaps over their regular family meal(s)–to discuss topics like the highs and lows of the day, the little ways God has blessed them, and how they might do a better job taking care of each other, they create experiences of heart-to-heart communion in the home.

     -Pray Rituals—Simple practices like morning and bedtime prayer, grace-at-meals, blessing each other, a family rosary or chaplet, family praise and worship times, bible reading, and other accessible, age-appropriate spiritual practices help families invite God into their homes and relate to him as the most important member of their family!  The one who knows them best and loves them most.

What Are Some Examples Of How Families Can Live the Rite Of Reaching Out?
When families love each other and their “neighbors” through the royal mission of their baptism, they cultivate a spirit of loving service in their hearts.  Although its important to find ways to serve your parish or community together as a family, true Christian service begins at home.  Every family must be free to choose specific practices that let them live this rite in their own circumstances, but here are some examples of ways families can practive the Rite of Reaching Out.

Serve Generously At Home—A true heart of service begins with serving the people closest to us. Look for ways to make each member of the family’s days easier and more pleasant.

Think of Others While At HomeRemember to take care of clothes, toys, and other things you have so that you can pass them on to others who may need them in your community.  When you’re cooking, make a little extra for the sick, pregnant, or elderly neighbor. Consider the ways you can be a blessing to others without even having to leave home.

Be Hospitable—Make your home a welcoming place for others.  Regularly invite people to share meals and enjoy opportunities for good, clean fun and even prayer together. Be the house on the block where the neighborhood kids like to gather. Host a neighborhood BBQ.

     -Be Kind in the WorldWhen you go out as a family, make a point of being kind and respectful to customer service people, waitstaff, and others. Practice good manners. Be thoughtful. Say, “please,” “thank you” and “excuse me.”  Hold the door for others.  Be aware of the people around you and how you can model kindness in the simplest interactions.

     -Serve Together Don’t let your parish life or charity work be one more thing that pulls your family apart. Look for age-appropriate ways to serve your parish or community together as a family.

     -Discover Your Family Mission and Charism—By prayerfully discerning the virtues God is asking your family to exemplify and how to use the gifts, talents, or interests your family shares to bless others, you discover the unique role your family plays in building the Kingdom of God!

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Imagine what a difference Catholic families could make if we all did our best to live the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life.  Though simple acts like these, every family could cooperate with God’s grace to transform their homes into loving, sacred spaces and consecrate the world to Christ!

If you’d like to discover more about how the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life can bless your family, I hope you’ll join our Facebook discussion group,
or check out my book Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide To Raising Faithful Kids.
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Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak are the authors of many books, the hosts of More2Life Radio, and the directors of CatholicCounselors.com, a Catholic tele-counseling service of the Pastoral Solutions Institute.

Hurting/Angry Over Mass Suspensions? Finding Spiritual Consolation in Times of Pandemic

It felt like a gut punch.  This past week, the Ohio Bishops’ Conference, along with many other dioceses and bishops’ conferences across the country have suspended the celebration of Mass through Easter.

Last weekend was the first weekend I haven’t been to mass since…I can’t remember.  It was certainly the first time I have ever missed mass without being ill and unable to leave the house.  And I have never once missed any of the Holy Week liturgies—especially Easter Sunday mass. I found myself experiencing a mix of emotions; sadness, frustration, a spiritual ache, even some anger.

Not Alone

I know I’m not alone. I have had many conversations with clients in my Catholic tele-counseling practice and callers to my radio program around this issue.  People–already worried and anxious about how the pandemic is impacting their lives–are feeling cut off from their most important spiritual resources.  As one caller put it, “They are taking away the Eucharist when we need Jesus the most!”  

As I was praying through my own pain of not being able to receive Our Lord in the Eucharist, I felt the Holy Spirit move in my heart.  I remembered the parable of The Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37).

The Good Samaritan

You may remember that in the story, a man is beaten by robbers and left to die on the road. A priest passes by on the way to temple, but can’t stop for fear of being made unclean from contact with the wounded man.  Next, a Levite, also fails to stop to help the man for fear of being made unclean and unable to attend temple.  Finally, a Samaritan stops to tend to the man’s wounds and bring him to a place where he can be cared for.  At the end of the story, Jesus challenges us to be like the Samaritan. 

What does this have to do with our present crisis? It means we need to step back and ask our selves, “What is the point of going to Church?  What is the fruit the Eucharist is meant to bear in our lives?”  The answer, of course, is that by attending Mass and receiving the Precious Body and Blood, God heals the broken parts of our hearts so that we can more effectively love our neighbor as God needs us to.

Love One Another

Of course, the Eucharist exists to be a source of personal consolation, but it has to be more than that.  It has to ultimately equip us with the grace we need to love more, to love better, to love as God wants us to.

Loving someone means “working for their good.”  If the entire point of receiving Christ in the Eucharist is loving others, what does it mean to “work for the good of our neighbor” in the midst of this pandemic?  It means willingly embracing the cross that social distancing requires of us so that we can “flatten the curve” and end this crisis quickly with as little loss of human life as possible.  Sometimes, true love requires abstinence.  This is one of those times.

A True Lenten Mortification

In Lent, we’re called to make sacrifices that will enable us to love better and build God’s kingdom. Sometimes, it can be tempting to choose sacrifices that make us feel good about ourselves.  “I’m going to do THIS for God!  Aren’t I wonderful?!?”  Although rooted in a good intention, this misses the point. True sacrifice isn’t about doing what we want to do for God. Rather, it’s about doing what God asks us to do for him and our neighbor.

It takes real humility to cheerfuly accept the sacrificies God brings into our lives, to consecrate those sacrifices to him, and to ask him for the grace to rise to these challenges in a manner that glorifies him, helps us respond to the people around us in a way that works for their good, and helps us become the people he wants us to be.  

Spiritual Communion & Commission

If you are struggling, as I am, with not being able to attend mass for the next several weeks, bring it to God. Offer up your pain with a prayer that goes something like this.  “Lord, my heart is longing to receive you, but while I am waiting to be reunited with your Precious Body and Blood, fill my heart with your love and grace. Heal the broken parts of my heart.  Help me respond to this challenge in a way that gives you glory, shares your love more fully with the people in my life, and makes me the person you want me to be.”

This prayer, and others like it, are what Catholics call “spiritual communion.”  It represents a desire to pursue union with God and the grace to build his kingdom even when the normal avenues of grace (i.e, the sacraments) are not available to us.  God gives us the sacraments as a gift, but he is not bound by his sacraments and his love and grace rush to fill in any space we open to him.  

While we wait in joyful hope to be able to encounter the Lord at mass and receive him once again in the Eucharist, make a spiritual communion as often as you can and participate in masses broadcast on TV or the radio as opften as possible. Until we can once again receive the Body of Christ, let us all pray for the grace to be the Body of Christ—especially to those the Lord has placed in our path.

Not a Gumball God – A Gospel Meditation for the 6th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“I feel like I sacrifice everything for my kids, running them to all their activities, and yet they don’t seem to like me. It breaks my heart…”

“I make a good living, I’m not mean, and still my wife says that I don’t show her I love her – what gives?”

“I say a rosary every day but I still don’t feel God. In fact, I feel nothing.”

What do these questions have in common? Well, for starters, they all convey deep hurt and confusion. We’ve all asked these questions or questions like them at one time or another, and the pain and exhaustion they communicate is all too real. If you’re asking some versions of these questions right now, please know that I am praying for you. I of all people know how bad that feels.

Secondly and more importantly, however, these questions have another fundamental trait in common: they are all gumball questions.

“Gumball questions” are what I call the confusions that arise when we treat the people in our lives as though they are purely transactional. Although these types of relationships take many forms and flavors, they all boil down to a simple belief about relationships: “If I do A, you should do B.”

How often do we fall into the trap of turning those we love into gumball machines? Nevermind what my spouse actually needs or wants, I say to myself, I’ll just do A, B, and C and then I’ll qualify as a “good” partner. Nevermind that it’s taking a toll on my children and on my family, we repeat, I HAVE to take them to all 500 extracurricular activities this week because that will make me a “good” mom. Nevermind my personal relationship with God, we insist, I’m sure if I pray ten novenas and get the words just right, He’ll give me what I want, tell me what to do, and I’ll be a “good” Christian.

In the gospel from Matthew 5, however, we learn something jarring: Jesus doesn’t want “good” partners. He doesn’t want “good parents”. He certainly doesn’t want “good Christians”. Jesus wants nothing short of all-consuming relationship.

Jesus, it seems, is not the “Gumball God” we might want Him to be, the God it might be easier to worship. Instead, He tells us to go deeper than mere transaction. No longer is it enough to just “not murder”; Christ tells us we have to actively build others up instead. No longer is it enough to just “avoid porn”; Christ tells us we must actively pursue healthy, holy relationship. No longer is it enough to just “not do wrong”. Now, we must be right.

If you’re anything like me, the premise of this edict is completely exhausting and defeating. After all, we’re already trying so hard to do everything right, and now God tells us He wants… what? For us to do it with more feeling? With a smile on our face?

No. None of that. All Christ wants is relationship. He wants you to have a relationship with your spouse where you listen to each other and respond based on your partner’s specific needs, not based on what would make you a “good spouse” according to some arbitrary checklist. He wants you to have a relationship with your children where you make parenting decisions based on their unique hearts, not based on what makes you a “good parent” in the eyes of the co-op or the neighborhood or even the parish. And more than anything, Christ wants a deep, profound, personal relationship with you; a relationship defined by authenticity, intimacy, and vulnerable sharing.

Why? Because Jesus is not a “Gumball God”. He’s just God. He wants to get to know you. Will you get to know Him?

Jacob Popcak, M.A., L.P.C. is an award-winning Catholic artist and a counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. He can be contacted through CatholicCounselors.com.

“I feel like I sacrifice everything for my kids, running them to all their activities, and yet they don’t seem to like me. It breaks my heart…”

“I make a good living, I’m not mean, and still my wife says that I don’t show her I love her – what gives?”

“I say a rosary every day but I still don’t feel God. In fact, I feel nothing.”

What do these questions have in common? Well, for starters, they all convey deep hurt and confusion. We’ve all asked these questions or questions like them at one time or another, and the pain and exhaustion they communicate is all too real. If you’re asking some versions of these questions right now, please know that I am praying for you. I of all people know how bad that feels.

Secondly and more importantly, however, these questions have another fundamental trait in common: they are all gumball questions.

“Gumball questions” are what I call the confusions that arise when we treat the people in our lives as though they are purely transactional. Although these types of relationships take many forms and flavors, they all boil down to a simple belief about relationships: “If I do A, you should do B.”

How often do we fall into the trap of turning those we love into gumball machines? Nevermind what my spouse actually needs or wants, I say to myself, I’ll just do A, B, and C and then I’ll qualify as a “good” partner. Nevermind that it’s taking a toll on my children and on my family, we repeat, I HAVE to take them to all 500 extracurricular activities this week because that will make me a “good” mom. Nevermind my personal relationship with God, we insist, I’m sure if I pray ten novenas and get the words just right, He’ll give me what I want, tell me what to do, and I’ll be a “good” Christian.

In the gospel from Matthew 5, however, we learn something jarring: Jesus doesn’t want “good” partners. He doesn’t want “good parents”. He certainly doesn’t want “good Christians”. Jesus wants nothing short of all-consuming relationship.

Jesus, it seems, is not the “Gumball God” we might want Him to be, the God it might be easier to worship. Instead, He tells us to go deeper than mere transaction. No longer is it enough to just “not murder”; Christ tells us we have to actively build others up instead. No longer is it enough to just “avoid porn”; Christ tells us we must actively pursue healthy, holy relationship. No longer is it enough to just “not do wrong”. Now, we must be right.

If you’re anything like me, the premise of this edict is completely exhausting and defeating. After all, we’re already trying so hard to do everything right, and now God tells us He wants… what? For us to do it with more feeling? With a smile on our face?

No. None of that. All Christ wants is relationship. He wants you to have a relationship with your spouse where you listen to each other and respond based on your partner’s specific needs, not based on what would make you a “good spouse” according to some arbitrary checklist. He wants you to have a relationship with your children where you make parenting decisions based on their unique hearts, not based on what makes you a “good parent” in the eyes of the co-op or the neighborhood or even the parish. And more than anything, Christ wants a deep, profound, personal relationship with you; a relationship defined by authenticity, intimacy, and vulnerable sharing.

Why? Because Jesus is not a “Gumball God”. He’s just God. He wants to get to know you. Will you get to know Him?

Jacob Popcak, M.A., L.P.C. is an award-winning Catholic artist and a counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. He can be contacted through CatholicCounselors.com.

God Goes to Flavor Town – a Reflection for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

“But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned?”

How often do we try to be someone or something else? How often do we try to fit into someone else’s mould of holiness?

Personally, I think this is an especially big temptation for us Catholics. We have so many examples of holiness to look to, both in the saints and in the sanitized version of the saints we see on holy cards, that we can feel inadequate by comparison. We strive in vain to meet their standard, adapt to their way, and mimic them… mostly poorly.

But Christ doesn’t want us to assimilate to some other standard of holiness. Instead, He cruises into the spiritual Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives that are our hearts and tells us, radically, that our flavor is enough. He loves your flavor. He designed it. In His grand plan for the Universe, He intends your specific and unique flavor to serve as a vital ingredient in the donkey sauced-gumbo of creation. He doesn’t want you try in vain to exchange your flavor for someone else’s lest you lose your flavor in the process.

Christ doesn’t need any more Saint Patricks or Saint Theresas. He needs a Saint You. Christ doesn’t need anymore missionaries to Ireland or Corinth; He needs a missionary to your specific family, to your friend group, to your people. He wants you to “shine before others”. He wants your seasoning, your flavor. What are you going to do to give it to Him?

Jacob Popcak, M.A., L.P.C. is an award-winning Catholic artist and a counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. He can be contacted through CatholicCounselors.com.

The Ruler of Relationship: A Gospel Reflection for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

“Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

It’s one of those passages that we’ve heard so often we take it for granted. But have you stopped to think what an odd statement it is? What a truly unique message it is in the context of the world’s religions?

Every other group on earth rates their success by how well their doing. Their leaders and their gods promise them that, if they do what they’re told, they’ll thrive. They’ll eat well, they’ll rule over great lands, they’ll smite their enemies. These are attractive promises! But they’re not the promises that Jesus makes.

That’s not to say, of course, that Jesus doesn’t promise to provide for us. He does, on several occasions. But these promises are secondary and far from the point. His first and primary promise? “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.”

With a simple turn of phrase, Christ forces his disciples to turn away from fish – the means of their livelihood – and towards human relationship. In doing so, he intentionally sets up the whole ruler by which we measure the success of Christianity.

As Christians, we don’t measure the holiness of a person by what he wears or what he eats or how much wealth he’s acquired; we measure him by the quality of his relationships. As Catholics, we don’t assess family life by how many rosaries are said, how many chores are accomplished, or how many little league trophies are won; we assess it according to the quality of the relationships in the home. And how do we evaluate the success of a parish, of our worship spaces? Not by the gold of the altar or the donors who patronize it, but by the strength of the community inside.

Christ’s entire standard for those who follow him rests on how much we are able to put our focus on and our goals in relationship. It’s a radical departure from the expectations of the world, but it’s the only ruler that will lead us back to him.

Jacob Popcak, M.A., L.P.C. is an award-winning Catholic artist and a counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. He can be contacted through CatholicCounselors.com.

Do You Get in God’s Way? A Gospel Reflection on for the Baptism of the Lord

“John tried to prevent him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and yet you are coming to me?'”

Working in the Church, we at Catholic Counselors are often tasked with helping people overcome scrupulosity. Only very recently, I encountered a woman who refused to go to confession because the emotional turmoil she experienced from exhaustively investigating her own heart for every possible, potential, nitty-gritty occasion of sin was simply to overwhelming to face.
Her experience, of course, is not uncommon. Many of us, myself included, struggle with scrupulosity now and again. A spiritual cousin to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, scrupulosity is the act of believing our own holiness is entirely our own responsibility. It’s the religious version of saying, “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps,” and it insidiously encourages us to postpone or dismiss God’s grace in favor of handling it on our own. “Don’t come in yet!” scrupulosity calls to to Christ, “The room is too messy for you to see and I want to clean it up first.” What scrupulosity doesn’t say, however, is that the room will never be clean enough, never be good enough, for it to let Christ in voluntarily.
How often do we, like John the Baptist in this weekend’s Gospel, inadvertently stand in the way of God’s plan in order to appease our own misguided sense of piety? How often do we accidentally put a hand up to God’s grace to soothe our own idea of holiness? How often do we prevent Christ?
In times like these, Christ says to us what He said to John: “Allow it now.” The words, simple as they are unyielding, demand a fundamental change in perspective. Christ is not content to wait outside while we clean up the room “enough” for Him to come in. No, Christ plans to come into the room and clean it up for us, clean it up with us, and to do so with His love.
And what does He ask to facilitate this great gift? Only that we let Him into the “room of our hearts”. Only that we, as it was in John’s case, allow Him into the baptismal pool of our own souls. The bad news is, this may be difficult for those of us who really struggle with scrupulosity. The good news is, though, that giving our messy “yes” to Christ – however difficult it may be – is a literal hell of a lot less difficult than trying to save our own souls by our own means.
Give your yes. Let Him in. You’ll be glad you did.

Jacob Popcak, M.A., L.P.C. is an award-winning Catholic artist and a counseling associate of the Pastoral Solutions Institute. He can be contacted through CatholicCounselors.com.