Our Simple Mission

By: Michael Lavigne

broken cross

With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.
Then they said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he spoke to us on the way and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke  24:31-32)

The  Emmaus story  is one of my favorite passages from the Gospels and I believe it is one of the more important stories. As with many other passages we can sometimes react to them from an emotive perspective — making our understanding of the passage more about feelings than hearing the lesson that is being presented to us or the challenge that is laid before us to embrace in our lives.

I have often used the Emmaus story to help to teach about the Mass. However, it is also a perfect example of how to live out Jesus’ call for us to “go and make disciples of all nations.(see  Matthew  28)” And Jesus, Himself, shows us how to do what He asks of us.

Here is, in simple terms, what he asks of us, in order to share His Good News:

Encounter Others

The first lesson is remembering that this is about encountering people one or two people at a time. Jesus, unrecognized by the disciples, simply begins to walk with them. This is vital in how we are to approach evangelization. Typically we want to wait for people to approach us — to come to the church — to express their interest in becoming Catholic or wanting to go deeper. But this is not reality. It is our responsibility to, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, join people’s journeys, especially when they are walking in the wrong direction (heard a great point about this during the homily I heard at Mass — the two disciples were walking in the wrong direction, away from Jerusalem, when Jesus joined them). Evangelization requires intentionality — requires a cost — requires us to go out.

Listen

The second lesson is that it is important to listen to the stories of those we do encounter. We have a great story to share with them but in order for us to effectively do so we need to know what their journey has been like. I love how Jesus asks them “What are you talking about?” when he begins to walk with them. They are incredulous at this question — how could you not know what has happened in Jerusalem?!? And, yet, Jesus patiently asks again, “What things?” When you are blessed to have the opportunity to walk with someone you need to love them enough to hear from them before they hear from you.

Share the Good News

The third lesson is be prepared to share the Good News — our story of faith — with them. The emphasis is be prepared! Do you know our story? Do you know the basic Gospel message (kerygma) and are you prepared to share it effectively? Are you capable of offering apologetics (defense) regarding the Church’s teachings in a charitable, yet convincing manner? If not, then you, as a baptized Catholic — as a disciple — have the responsibility to study the faith so that you are ready to teach effectively. Jesus did not hesitate to challenge these two disciples (both of them should have known better after following Him for years…”Oh, how foolish you are!”), but took the time to reteach them all they had already heard through the lens of the victory of Easter. Each person we encounter will have different needs in regards to learning about the faith so be careful to avoid a one size fits all model.

Use Humor

This is a small lesson from the story that I believe often goes unnoticed. “As they approached the village to which they were going, he gave the impression that he was going on farther.” Jesus obviously knew that His teaching, especially in light of His Resurrection, was giving them hope and new life (He is God after all!) and that they would want to spend more time with Him. Yet He makes believe that He is going to keep moving along and they quickly move to invite Him to stay with them (of course as typical men they could not admit the real reason why they wanted Him to stay with them —  our hearts our burning within us so please stay with us. Instead they say it is getting dark out — we would hate to see you get hurt or something. Am I the only one who sees this as funny?). Jesus is playing with them and that is a great lesson. We need to be sure not to take ourselves too seriously. Use humor.

The Eucharist

Simple enough — bring people to Jesus’ Real Presence. Just as we, ourselves, need to be anchored in the Eucharist so to do the folks we are walking with need the opportunity to encounter Him at Mass, in Adoration, before the Tabernacle. For every Catholic true conversion will ultimately come about through sacramental grace and especially through falling in love with the Eucharistic Lord. So let Jesus, Himself, do what He promised to do — to be with us always! Invite those you are discipling to join you in attending Mass or spending a few minutes in Adoration. Teach them about this amazing and mysterious gift!

Evangelization, for many, is seen as a daunting task and in many ways it certainly is during these interesting days in our world. However, it is the Church’s mission — it is our mission. And we have a responsibility to answer the call. This is not optional for one who claims to be a disciple of Christ. As always, Christ does not leave us without an answer as to how we can do so. And for all the talks, trainings, books, blogs, etc on the issue of evangelization, it is simpler then we might think — it has been happening for over two thousand years with people from all walks of life. In simple terms: Encounter others; Listen to them; Share the Good News; Use humor; Bring them to Jesus in the Eucharist.

During this beautiful season of Easter I pray that all of us may recommit ourselves to the life-giving work of evangelization — to walking with others and helping them to fall in love with the Savior of the world.

Credit to  Michael Lavigne of CatholicExchange.

 

Faith in the Cyber Age

By: Dr. Rocco Leonard Martino

key cross

“Laboratories are useful, but reflection for us  must always start from experience.”

-Pope Francis I,  August, 2013 interview with  Civilta Cattolica

This is the Cyber Age.   The world population of cell phones, tablets, and laptops exceeds that of people.    We can see and be seen, hear and be heard, communicate with anyone anywhere, and all in the flick of an eyebrow.   We can span the world in hours, send satellites to the far reaches of the Universe, and challenge the average life span with modern medicine.   Humanity reigns supreme in command.   The notion of God is not a factor in the daily life of many.   Is faith, then, and belief in a deity an anachronistic throwback to the time when humans feared the elements, seeking to appease the unknown with supplication and sacrifice?   Is faith necessary in the Cyber Age, or is it a relic of the myths and terrors of the past?

Think for a moment.   Do we need faith in anything?   Of course we do.   We exercise great faith every time we flick an electric light switch, fly in an airplane, cross a bridge, or cross a street on a ‘walk’ signal.   Faith is a common commodity as we use the systems created for us and by us in our everyday existence.   Faith in such systems us even greater in the Cyber Age as we depend more and more on others for all the things we need to live – shelter, food, heat, light, and on and on.   Much if it we cannot understand, or even see.   For example, most people use cell phones.   Just exactly how do they work?   What if they stop working?   What could cause that?   What can we do about it?

Or consider turning in a light switch.   What if it doesn’t work?   What if there is no power?   We have faith that there will be power, and if not, that it will be fixed.   On what basis do we have such faith?   Essentially, from our experience in the past, on our understanding of the systems in place to provide power, and on our accumulated knowledge of how to make such systems work.   In fact, it isn’t so much faith, as confidence and knowledge that power will be available when we push the “on” switch.

Consider another example.   We walk or drive across a bridge.   We have faith that the bridge will not collapse.   Why?  Because we have accumulated knowledge and experience in how to build bridges that stay up and support the loads upon them.   Once again it is confidence and knowledge developed over significant periods of time that we know how to build safe bridges.

As a final example, consider the new darling of science and engineering, nano bodies.   These are so small it takes an electron microscope to see them.   We can make nano bodies that are cubes with a side that opens and closes on a electronic signal.   These cubes can be filled with medication, and the nano bodies can be implanted in a specific location of the body, where the gates will open and the medication will be released.   None of this can be seen.   We can measure the effects, but we must have confidence – or faith – that what we believe is happening in truth does happen.

We can go on and on with countless examples in every walk of life today where we place great faith in the performance of systems that we are confident were properly designed, built, and implemented.   In fact, we have such faith in all the products and systems of the Cyber Age.

Now consider the existence of God.   We are told there is a God, that that God created the universe, and that we are creatures of that God.   Yet that God cannot be seen.   But we can see the effects if an unknown and invisible force created the universe.   The evidence is all around us if we are open to it.

The universe exists.   Where did it come from?   When was it formed?   These are two simple questions.   It’s highly improbable that it all came from nothing.   Then where did the mass or material that makes up the universe come from?   We know that mass and energy are interchangeable.   Einstein’s famous formula says it is so.

E=MC2, where C is the speed of light, which we believe is a constant.   Even if it is not, there is still the Mass-Energy Relationship.   We have many proofs that such a relationship exists.   Nuclear energy is the living proof of such a relationship.   In that example, a radioactive mass is converted into energy.   The same science tells us that energy can create mass.   Hence an infinite source of energy could have created all the mass that makes up the universe.   That energy source existed before the universe. That energy source is beyond all the natural laws of science as we can logically deduce them.   That energy source is beyond natural, or supernatural.   We label it God.   We can have confidence in this deduction because we can see the universe all about us.

When?

Our scientific and mathematical observations and calculations say billions of years ago.   Then the energy force existed before then.   Where did it come from?   The answer lies outside the realm of our knowledge and experience.   It is outside nature.   Once again, it is what we would call supernatural.   We have called it God!

We don’t know anything about this supernatural force except to logically determine what its attributes are from what we know.

Our scientific findings, and our mathematical logic allow us to see the relationship  between mass and energy, and the derivation of one from the other and vice-versa.   We can demonstrate that repetitively, as we have and do with nuclear power.   We can have confidence, or faith, in that scientific finding.   The same principles of observation, mathematical reasoning, and deductive logic have led to the determination of the existence of God before the universe, and before we measure time.   We can have confidence, or faith, then, in the existence of God.

This is Faith in the Cyber Age.   The scientific process that led to the creation of the Cyber Age can be used to justify our confidence or faith in the tenets and creed of our religious belief.   Faith is neither a stranger nor unnecessary in the Cyber Age.

Credit to Dr. Rocco Leonard Martino of CatholicExchange.

The Many Miracles of Don Bosco

By: Patricia Treece

don bosco

One well-authenticated cure  by Fr. John Bosco took place the same year that six boys were healed of smallpox at Lanzo. It occurred about 5 p.m. on May 16, the evening of Pentecost, in the Church of Mary Help of Christians, which Don Bosco built  next to his complex of homes and schools  for boys in Turin. Maria Stardero, a blind girl of ten or twelve, was led by her aunt into the church, where dozens of boys were standing about or kneeling in prayer as they waited for Don Bosco to arrive for con ­fessions. Fr. Francis Dalmazzo, one of the first Salesians, spoke to the woman. In his testimony he later recalled, “I was grieved to see that the young girl’s eyes had no corneas and resembled white marbles.”

When Don Bosco arrived, he questioned the girl about her condi ­tion. She had not been born blind, but as a result of eye disease  her sight had been completely lost two years earlier. When he asked about medi ­cal treatment, the aunt began to sob that they had tried everything, but doctors could only say the eyes were “beyond hope.”

“Can you tell whether things are big or small?” the saint asked.

“I can’t see a thing.”

He led her to a window. Could she perceive light?

“Not at all.”

“Would you like to see?”

“Oh, yes! It’s the only thing I want,” and she began to sob about how miserable she was.

“Will you use your eyes for the good of your soul and not to offend God?”

“I promise I will, with all my heart!”

“Good. You will regain your sight,” the man whose own vision was in need of help assured her. With a few sentences he encouraged the visitors to have faith in the intercession of Mary. With them he re ­cited a Hail Mary and another prayer to Mary, the Hail, Holy Queen. Then, urging them to have absolute trust in the prayers of the Mother of Christ, he blessed the girl. After that he held a medal of Mary Help of Christians, in front of her and asked, “For the glory of God and the Blessed Virgin, tell me what I’m holding in my hand.”

“She can’t . . .” the elderly aunt began, but Don Bosco paid no heed, while the girl after a few seconds shouted, “I see!” Immediately she de ­scribed the detailing on the medal. When she stretched out her hand to receive it, however, it rolled into a dim corner.

The aunt moved to retrieve it, but Don Bosco motioned her back.

“Let her pick it up to see if the Blessed Virgin has thoroughly re ­stored her sight,” he insisted. Unerringly the girl bent into the shadows and picked up the tiny object. As the many witnesses looked on, awed  and profoundly moved, Maria, beside herself with joy, bolted for home, while her aunt thanked Don Bosco profusely with sobs now of joy.

If Maria Stardero was so wild with joy she forgot to even thank the one whose prayer obtained her cure, she returned soon afterward to make her small donation to his work and offer thanks. Forty-six years later, in 1916, when some Salesians checked on her, she still had perfect vision.

Miracles in Rome

Among the other cures that seemed to be given by God to gain benefactors for the humble priest’s work were a number in Rome. For example, when Don Bosco had great trouble there getting approval for his radical new congregation, God used the saint to give healings to  several important church officials who opposed approval or to members of their families. For all today’s theology about not bargaining with God, God seemed himself to barter the cures for approval of his saint’s congregation.

Among these cures a key opponent, Monsignor Svegliati, was healed overnight of virulent influenza following the saint’s visit; Cardinal Antonelli, in great pain and immobilized by gout, when Don Bosco called on him was well the next day; and the eleven-year-old nephew of Cardinal Berardi, dying of typhoid, was inexplicably healed after the saint came to pray over him. To each of these churchmen, before working the cure, Don Bosco made it clear that their vote was expected in return. These changed votes gave the Salesians approval.

Unbelievers were also among those healed by the saint. I think of the prominent doctor who came to visit Don Bosco. After a few social remarks, he said, “People say you can cure  all diseases. Is that so?”

“Certainly not,” the saint answered.

“But I’ve been told –” The well-educated man was suddenly stammering. Fumbling in his pockets, he pulled out a tiny notebook. “See. I’ve even got the names and what each one was cured of.”

Don Bosco shrugged. “Many people come here to ask favors through Mary’s intercession. If they obtain what they seek, that’s due to the Blessed Virgin, not me.”

“Well, let her cure  me,” the doctor said agitatedly, tapping the note ­book on his well-clad knee, “and I’ll believe in these miracles too.”

“What’s your ailment?”

“I’m an epileptic.” His seizures, he told Don Bosco, had become  so frequent during the past year that he couldn’t go out any more. In desperation, he was hoping for help beyond medicine.

“Well, do what the others do who come here,” Don Bosco said matter-of-factly. “You want the Blessed Virgin to heal you. So kneel, pray with me, and prepare to purify and strengthen your soul through confession and Holy Communion.”

The physician grimaced. “Suggest something else. I can’t do any of that.”

“Why not?”

“It would be dishonest. I’m a materialist I don’t believe in God or the Virgin Mary. I don’t believe in miracles. I don’t even believe in prayer.”

For a space the two men sat in silence. Then Don Bosco smiled, as only he could, at his visitor. “You are not entirely without faith – after all, you came here hoping for a cure.”

As the saint smiled at him, something welled up in the doctor. Don Bosco knelt, and he knelt too without another word and made the Sign of the Cross.

Moments later, he began his confession.

Afterward, he declared, he felt a joy he would never have believed possible. Time and again he returned to give thanks for his spiritual healing.

As for the epilepsy, that simply vanished.

Miracles Even After Death

After Don Bosco’s death, there were many miracles to testify to the sanctity of this great friend of God. Ignoring those involving after-death appearances by the saint  because I treat  this subject at length in an ­other book,  and ignoring those in which the saint’s relics played the predominant role, I offer as examples the cures of two women.

Sr. Mary Joseph Massimi, of the convent of Santa Lucia in Selci, Italy, was about to die in 1928 of a duodenal ulcer. Her confessor gave this Augustinian nun a relic of Don Bosco, who was not yet beatified,  and advised that she make a novena for his intercession. During the novena, instead of improving, her condition got worse. It was obvious that her recuperative powers were simply gone. But the nun’s faith was unshaken. She simply began a second novena.

This article is adapted from Nothing Short of a Miracle

This time, too, she deteriorated further. It appeared her death would occur any moment. Still, on the fifth day of the second novena, May 15, she dreamed Don Bosco said to her, “I’ve come to tell you you will recover. Just be patient. Suffer just a little longer. On Sunday you’ll be granted the grace [of healing].” Sunday was then four days away.

Friday, May 18, she dreamed again. This time Don Bosco carried the black habit that her order’s nuns wear on holy days. He repeated the promise of a Sunday cure. But her condition as Saturday faded into Sunday left room for only one conclusion: Sr. Mary Joseph had been the dupe of wish dreams with no real numinous content. Sadly on the very day her dreams had promised healing, her confessor was forced to give her the last rites.

But as the sister received the sacrament, her whole body suddenly “shuddered from head to foot, and in that instant she felt as though she was recalled from death to new life.”

Occurring as the Church’s experts, in the final act before beatification, were weighing two other cures attributed to Don Bosco for supernatural content, Sr. Mary Joseph’s healing caused a chuckle among those who recalled how God had so many times furthered Don Bosco’s projects with healing miracles.

Within twelve months of his 1929 beatification, there were already two new post-beatification miracles considered able to meet the Church’s criteria. As study proceeded, however, a cure  from Innsbruck, Austria, was set aside as not completely verifiable. In its place was offered at once the 1931 cure of Mrs. Catherine Lanfranchi Pilenga.

Catherine Pilenga suffered from serious chronic arthritic diathesis, particularly in her knees and feet. The organic lesions caused by the disease  did not threaten her life, but they practically paralyzed her lower limbs. For twenty-eight years, she had battled the condition; not a single treatment since 1903 had given her any relief.

In May 1931, she made her second pilgrimage to Lourdes. It was no more successful than her first. As she prepared to leave the shrine, Catherine prayed, “Well, Blessed Mother, since I haven’t been cured  here, obtain the grace for me that, because of my devotion to Blessed Don Bosco, he will intercede for my recovery when I’m in Turin.”

She arrived in Turin from France in her usual serious condition. It took her sister and a male helper to get her out of their vehicle and into the Church of Mary Help of Christians, where she sat down to pray in front of the urn that contained the mortal remains of Don Bosco.

Deep in prayer, at some point without noticing what she was doing, she knelt down. After remaining on her knees about twenty minutes, she stood up, walked to the altar of the Blessed Virgin, and knelt again to continue  her prayers. It was only at that point she suddenly realized, in kneeling, she was doing something impossible for her – and knew she was cured.

People who had seen this woman laboriously assisted into the church because she was unable to move about by herself now watched in amazement as she moved freely not only on level ground, but climbing and descending stairs. Her disease had simply vanished. It was a permanent, instantaneous, total recovery, verified by three doctors as well as a medical  commission appointed by the Church, from a condition that nearly thirty years of medical help had failed to cure. Heaping joy upon joy, Mrs. Pilenga’s cure was eventually picked from the many healings God has given through Don Bosco to be held before the world at his canonization as an authentic miracle.

In 2010 Don Bosco’s relics went on world tour, including a number of places in the United States. This was in anticipation of – and the opening of events in celebration of – the saint’s two hundredth birth ­day in 2015.  A new round of God-given healings and other graces, such as those that poured out for his beatification and canonization, appears likely as more people are reminded to ask the warm-hearted saint’s prayers.

Credit to Patricia Treece of CatholicExchange.

Does the Church Know How to Reach the Modern World?

By: Brandon Vogt

social media

Marshall McLuhan, a 1960s media prophet, was one of the first to predict how digital  technology shapes culture. Decades before the Internet became mainstream, McLuhan warned of the unintended effects brought by each new communication tool. His still-famous phrase “the medium is the message” summarizes  his thoughts by pointing out that a particular medium shapes a message more than the content it carries.

For example, McLuhan, a late convert to Catholicism, would affirm that a sermon delivered through radio, through television, through a blog, and through YouTube would be received in drastically different ways. The radio sermon would be listened to with sustained attention, the television sermon would be viewed as entertainment, the blog sermon would be shallowly skimmed, and the YouTube sermon would be gauged by its visual and emotional effects.

Many Christians operate out of the belief that we can “communicate the same message through new means.” They assume what McLuhan adamantly denied, that communication  mediums can be neutral. For better or worse, however, new media conditions whatever the Church shares through these technologies; how we think, relate, speak, read, worship, and pray are all influenced by these tools and the culture they create.

What does the future hold for the Church and new media? There will certainly be many negative trends, but here are three positive ones to look out for in the coming years:

Springtime of Evangelization

No great evangelists of the past two millennia could have conceived that within minutes they could have their messages beamed to billions of people across the world, cheaply and easily. St. Paul, the early Church Fathers, St. Francis Xavier, and Archbishop Fulton Sheen each would have given their right arm for access to our new media.

This technical  ability has, in many secular spheres, birthed a “springtime” of evangelization. People who would never consider setting foot in a church are dialoguing with priests on   YouTube. Streaming videos and alluring websites encouraging inactive Catholics to return to the Church have already produced staggering results. And new media is connecting the Church with many difficult-to-reach groups: youth, young adults, the elderly and homebound, and those living in remote locations.

Young people, in particular, are often considered the most difficult demographic for the Church to evangelize. Yet over 96% of young adults have joined a social  network, providing the perfect arena for the Church to meet them. Outside of new media, there has hardly been a more powerful evangelistic tool to reach young people.

Also, though many see the internet’s anonymity as a detriment, it can be beneficial. Back in the twentieth century, radio and television allowed Archbishop Fulton Sheen to reach a myriad of people who would never darken the doors of a church. The shows allowed these seekers to engage Catholicism in the privacy of their own homes, avoiding public embarrassment or critique. Our modern new media provides this same dynamic of evangelizing through anonymity. People uneasy about religion feel comfortable exploring Christianity behind the safety of their  computer  screens.

The Church does advise, however, that true witness is always personal; that online evangelism should optimally lead to personal dialogue and relationship. Properly termed, then, this New media outreach is more “pre-evangelization” than “evangelization, “ but it does provide a monumental first step through doors – and screens – that have long been closed to religion.

Rise in Church Dialogue

Imagine a bishop responding to tweets from people in his diocese, or a priest using Facebook to discuss his Sunday homily. This type of online interaction between clergy and laypeople isn’t too much of a stretch. In fact, it is already happening in many places (follow @bishopcoyne  to see what I mean). New media is already breathing fresh life into  communications  between Church leaders and laypeople.

One major theme throughout the Church’s teachings on media is the value of dialogue. In recent centuries, numerous Church leaders have explained that the Church must be in constant conversation with the world, including both Catholics and non-Catholics. By its very nature, this conversation can’t be one-sided; it must be an authentic, two-way connection.

Credit to Brandon Vogt of CatholicExchange.

Discipleship In a Consumer World

By: Benjamin Mann

grocery aisle

It is hard to live a Christian life in the modern world.  But the main difficulty does not come from the overt enemies of the Church, or the issues on which the so-called “culture wars” turn.

Of course, I acknowledge the threat from those who would usurp the Church’s freedom, and degrade cultural morality. In our everyday lives, however, such radicalism is not the main obstacle to discipleship.

The difficulty of Christian life in our culture has more to do with a general atmosphere of indifference to truth, made worse by a culture of consumerism. Our challenge is to live faithfully in a society that tries to reduce everything — even God Himself — to the level of a lifestyle accessory.

Pope Francis understands this problem. In section 2 of  Evangelii Gaudium, he warns of “the great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism.” Through the “feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures,” consumer culture forms “a complacent yet covetous heart,” and a “blunted conscience” cut off from God and others.

The Pope also speaks of the “tide of secularism”: a force that can “reduce the faith and the Church to the sphere of the private and personal,” by “completely rejecting the transcendent” in the realm of culture and public life. The outcome is “a steady increase in relativism” (Evangelii Gaudium, 64-65). Technologies and desires count for everything; all higher knowledge is ignored or marginalized.

Consumerism and secular relativism are not merely two parallel trends. They are related forces which support and amplify one another. In modern Western culture, relativism and the market-mentality are combined in the single phenomenon I call “Worldview Consumerism”

Worldview Consumerism has become the controlling principle of culture and public life in the Western world and all other “Westernized” locales. It fuses secular relativism — the insistence that we can have no knowledge of non-material truths — with the obsessive, amoral consumerism of economic super-development (cf. Pope John Paul II,Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, 28).

The resulting culture treats everything, even faith, like a product: a purely subjective choice one makes after scanning the shelves. Beliefs about God, and life’s meaning, are treated like ice cream flavors (“simply a matter of taste”) or laundry detergent (“whatever works best in your machine”).

Outright atheism is relatively rare in our society. But the blend of relativism and consumerism is reinforced by most cultural venues. It is the unstated presupposition of the mainstream media, the entertainment industry, academia, and the business world. It is the air we breathe.

This consumer approach to truth and meaning is a dismissal of God, disguised as neutrality. It says:   “Believe what you want about life’s meaning, since we can’t really know anything about that.”

“Believe in this Jesus character if you want. Whatever floats your boat,” the voice of Worldview Consumerism says. “Just — don’t start acting like he’s the King of the World or anything.” That, after all, is the kind of behavior that could upset the whole business model . . .

Many of us have discovered that this combination of relativism and consumerism makes evangelization difficult. Drugged into a stupor of religious indifference, many people see the Faith of the Church as simply another product on the shelves — one which they feel no need to acquire.

It is less obvious, but equally true, that this environment harms our own efforts to follow Jesus. Even if we reject the lie, and resolve to serve God as He deserves, we are deeply affected by the surrounding culture.

Sedated by the general atmosphere of Worldview Consumerism, we treat our life in Christ as the kind of thing the world says it is: a personal enthusiasm, a preference, a private hobby.

Christ the Lord, the true King of all creation, is driven from culture and public life. Our Creator and Redeemer is marginalized as just another consumer-choice. If we accept this as normal, we have clearly taken a wrong turn somewhere.

*

At this point, I should mention that I am not diagnosing someone else’s problem. I am not pointing to “all you slackers over there.”

I am writing about what I see in the mirror. I am writing, in fact, about one of the reasons I intend to become a monk.

I am tired of my own feckless, bourgeoisie mediocrity. It was not what I envisioned when I first turned to Christ in faith.

How can I live without hypocrisy? How am I, personally, supposed to follow and imitate Christ, in this consumer-world of endless, meaningless choices?

We must face these questions. The modern world forces them upon us. Part of the difficulty, though, is that no single answer can suffice for every believer. We each have to work out what committed discipleship looks like, in a world of consumerism and relativism.

Of course, the truth itself is a unity: the Faith is one, and the Church is one, as God Himself is One (cf. Pope Francis,  Lumen Fidei, 47), Yet even for the members of Christ’s Mystical Body, there is no single, pre-set formula for living without hypocrisy. This takes discernment — personal attention to God’s guidance.

My own search for a truthful life has led me toward monasticism. But no institution can save me from hypocrisy. That is only possible if one comes before God with complete, unsparing honesty.

I do believe, however, that monasteries are badly needed today. We need them, at a time when relativism and consumerism have been fused into one all-encompassing cultural delusion.

A monastery is an “experiment in truth,” an effort to live the Gospel without compromise. Such a life is certainly possible outside monasticism. But the Church needs the witness of those who explicitly renounce “the cares and riches and pleasures of life” (Luke 8:14).

Christian monasticism, in the formal sense, emerged as a response to the worldliness of the Church in the fourth century. Large numbers of men and women chose to set aside the goods of this world, to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Col. 3:1).

They wanted a completely truthful life: a life that would announce — in word, deed, and silence — that Jesus is Lord. So they gave up everything distracting them from life’s real business: which is simply to live in God’s presence, and to love Him through self-renunciation.

These two tasks are, in a sense, the simplest things in the world. Yet they are the very things we habitually forget, in a culture that devotes nearly all of its institutional energy and attention to “the things that are upon the earth” (Col. 3:2).

No past society has ever pursued the “lower things” more vigorously than ours now does. Perhaps no society has needed monasteries more desperately than ours.

*

Pope Francis’ interview with La Civiltà Cattolica, “A Big Heart Open To God,”  was published during my first visit to  Holy Resurrection Monastery  in September. The portions highlighted by the popular media were not of great interest to me, but I was moved by the Pope’s words on consecrated religious life.

Consecrated men and women “are prophets,” Pope Francis said. “They are those who have chosen a following of Jesus that imitates his life in obedience to the Father, poverty, community life and chastity.” And this vow of chastity, so misunderstood by the world, is “a vow of fruitfulness” in the spiritual sense.

Monks, and other consecrated religious, are “called to be prophets in particular by demonstrating how Jesus lived on this earth, and to proclaim how the Kingdom of God will be in its perfection. A religious must never give up prophecy … Prophecy announces the spirit of the Gospel.”

Like his statements about consumerism and secular relativism in “Evangelium Gaudii,” the Pope’s words on consecrated life are countercultural. The spirit of the Gospel opposes the modern spirit of Worldview Consumerism, which ignores the question of truth and considers only preferences.

In humility and obscurity, the monk testifies against the consumer-world. He makes himself “empty for God” — “vacare Deo,” in traditional Latin terminology — and so proclaims that all things belong to the God Who is Truth.

Pope Francis wants this prophetic witness to be part of the Church’s New Evangelization. Three days after he published “Evangelii Gaudium,” the Pope announced a “Year of Consecrated Life” beginning in 2015. The timing does not seem coincidental.

We need prophets. With every passing day, the relativistic consumer-world exalts itself more and more, taking itself increasingly for granted as the only valid way of life.

Yet every day we move closer to the destruction of this colossal lie, and the full unveiling of the truth.

“I tell you, brothers, the time is running out. From now on, let those having wives act as not having them … those buying as not owning, those using the world as not using it fully. For the world in its present form is passing away” (1 Cor. 7:29-31, NAB).

The modern consumer-world is already doomed. God’s Kingdom comes. Who is willing to declare this now, while there is still time?

Credit to Benjamin Mann of CatholicExchange.

 

Break Out of the Box: Technology and Prayer

R. Jared Staudt

 

technology

Smash the TV!  John Senior provides this bold directive in his book,  The Restoration of Christian Culture. “Smash the television set. The Catholic Church is not opposed to violence; only to unjust violence; so smash the television set” (22). I’ve taught this text numerous times to students and most immediately recoil and claim that this advice is too harsh and over the top. Even if some should smash their TV, Senior’s statement is at least a call to question the control that technology has over our lives. Do you need to smash media’s dominance?

In particular, Senior argues that TV has

two principal defects . . . its radical passivity, physical and imaginative, and its distortion of reality. Watching it, we fail to exercise the eye, selecting and focusing on detail–what poets call “noticing” things; neither do we exercise imagination as must in reading metaphor where you actively leap to the “third thing” in juxtaposed images, picking out similarities and differences, a skill which Aristotle   says is a chief sing of intelligence. . . . There is nothing on the television which is not filtered through the secular establishment.

Senior’s answer is to sit around the fire as a family, singing good music and reading good literature. Rather than experiencing reality through an isolate filter, he wants us to experience it directly, especially within the context of the home. TV intrudes on family life and fundamentally changes it.

The main thrust of Senior’s argument is that technology is not neutral, but its use shapes and molds us. This same claim has been presented by Neil Postman, in his bookTechnopolgy, where he argues that “the uses made of any technology are largely determined by the structure of the technology itself–that is, that its functions follow from its form.” We have surrounded ourselves with a host of media technology–not only TV, but mobile phones, constant music, and especially the internet–to the point of saturation: “When the supply of information is no longer controllable, a general breakdown in psychic tranquility and social purpose occurs. Without defenses, people have no way of finding meaning in their experiences, lose their capacity to remember, and have difficulty imagining reasonable futures” (72).

Postman was writing before the heyday of the internet, but Nicholas Carr picks up where he left off in  The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr convincingly argues that the internet is literally changing the way our brains work. It overwhelms us with images and short bits of text, which makes it harder for us to concentrate and to think deeply. He makes the point that “we become, neurologically, what we think” (33). In terms of the internet, “when we go online, we enter an environment that promotes cursory reading, hurried and distracted thinking, and superficial learning” (116). The internet is changing us!

I’m actually amazed at how many people tell me that technology is neutral. The argument is that nothing has to be used a certain way; it’s only the use that is not neutral. And yet, when we look all around we see clearly that technology has not been neutral it has shaped us and formed to live, act, and think a certain way.

The closest to the teaching of the Church on this matter that I have found is from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s (under the direction of then Cardinal Ratzinger) document “Donum Vitae,” which states: “It would . . . be illusory to claim that scientific research and its applications are morally neutral.” This, of course, is speaking about reproductive technology, but the underlying thought is the same: when we introduce a new technology, it will shape and alter us, which in itself is not neutral.

However, I think the real problem with technology concerns time, specifically how we order and shape it. St. Paul says that we need to redeem or sanctify the hours (Eph 5:16). If we allow technology to dominate our schedule than we are not sanctifying the time, but allowing it to be dominated by an outside force. This technological force influences the way we think and act, and also concretely shapes our day.

We need to respond to the dominance of technology, by ordering and shaping our lives through prayer. This means that we need to intentionally unplug every day and enter into a period of silence, and more importantly a time of conversation with God. If TV breaks up the life of the family in the home, then the barrage of media breaks up the peaceful relationship we are meant to have throughout the day with God.

When we think of what media is doing to our brains, we can make the connection that making our minds more shallow directly impacts our ability to pray. If media technology gives us a short attention span and makes it difficult to contemplate deeply in a sustained fashion, then it strikes right at the heart of what is needed for Christian meditation. When it is time for prayer, we will quickly get bored and out thoughts will jump from topic to topic?

Turning back to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (once again under Ratzinger), its document “On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation” recognizes this challenge: Many Christians today have a keen desire to learn how to experience a deeper and authentic prayer life despite the not inconsiderable difficulties which modern culture places in the way of the need for silence, recollection and meditation. . . .   The spiritual restlessness arising from a life subjected to the driving pace of a technologically advanced society also brings a certain number of Christians to seek in these methods of prayer a path to interior peace and psychic balance” (1; 2).

The CDF specifically acknowledges  lectio divina  as a form of prayer that comes from God’s revelation, drawing upon God’s own words and entering into a conversation with Him: “This is why the Church recommends the reading of the Word of God as a source of Christian prayer, and at the same time exhorts all to discover the deep meaning of Sacred Scripture through prayer ‘so that a dialogue takes place between God and man. For, “we speak to him when we pray; we listen to him when we read the divine oracles”’ (Dei Verbum, 25)” (6).

We may not want to take up John Senior’s advice to smash the TV, but we at least need to question the role of technology in our life. We need to make sure that prayer, more than technology, shapes and orders our time. We need to make room for silence and meditation. If we don’t smash the box, then in order to enable our mind’s to be free for prayer, let us at least break out of the box!

Credit to R. Jared Staudt of CatholicExchange.

 

Pop Culture and the New Evangelization

By: R. Jared Staudt

pop concert

What should we make of pop culture? It surrounds us and shapes us in many ways. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Does it take us away from the Gospel or can it be used to advance the Gospel in the New Evangelization? Let’s look at cases for and against pop culture and then try to strike the right balance.

Cases against
Josef Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope-Emeritus Benedict XVI) very briefly treats pop music in his work, Spirit of the Liturgy: “On the one hand, there is pop music … aimed at the phenomenon of the masses, is industrially produced, and ultimately has to be described as a cult of the banal”(148). The cult of the banal would keep us trapped in the ordinary, flat, and boring aspects of life. It doesn’t move us beyond to an experience of the transcendentals — such as truth, beauty, and goodness. He also wrote, elsewhere, that Christian art “must oppose the cult of the ugly, which says that everything beautiful is a deception and only the representation of what is crude, low and vulgar is the truth, the true illumination of knowledge.” We cannot deny that the cult of the ugly has largely grown to dominate our culture and even the Church in some respects.

Roger Scruton, a British philosopher, in his book Modern Culture, also argues along these lines, insisting on the priority of high culture over the popular: “It is my view that the high culture of our civilization contains knowledge which is far more significant than anything that can be absorbed by the channels of popular communication” (2). Pop culture has descended from folk cultures into a “commercialized mish-mash” (3). Nonetheless, Scruton recognizes that pop culture still essentially helps cultivate our identity.

I have also written, elsewhere, questioning the extent to which pop music can be used for evangelization. Pop culture is largely banal, and much worse than that, it largely contains a damaging moral message. Rather than profound truth, goodness, and beauty, we largely find there ugliness and cacophony, made all the more so by its technological medium.

Cases for
With these criticisms in mind, we now turn to the other side of the argument, namely that pop culture is a necessary medium for evangelization. First, we see in Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, a call to take up contemporary expressions:

Each particular Church should encourage the use of the arts in evangelization, building on the treasures of the past but also drawing upon the wide variety of contemporary expressions so as to transmit the faith in a new ‘language of parables’. We must be bold enough to discover new signs and new symbols, new flesh to embody and communicate the word, and different forms of beauty which are valued in different cultural settings, including those unconventional modes of beauty which may mean little to the evangelizers, yet prove particularly attractive for others (167).

Bishop James Conley draws upon the popular impact of Pope Francis in his recent piece, “Our Pop Culture Moment,” where he states:

But I’m not immune to the charms, and whimsy, and sometimes profound insight of American popular culture. I also know that pop culture matters. And that our country’s political and social opinions come more often from the world of Lorne Michaels and Jon Stewart than from the staid pages of even the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. When I talk to young people about gay marriage, they’re more likely to cite Macklemore than Maureen Dowd.

Given this profound influence we certainly cannot ignore pop culture, but how do we judge the worth of pop culture and how to use it best?

Striking a Balance
We need to approach our own culture in light of the Church’s teaching on inculturation, which means that the Gospel must take flesh within the culture in which we live. In doing so, we need to be aware of the challenges of pop culture, but also the opportunities it presents. The work of incultruation means that we have to translate the Gospel into a language that makes sense today, but it also means that we have to purify this language so that it can support the Gospel message. This is the balance we need — we can’t snobbishly ignore pop culture, but we also have to work to transform it!

When I was teaching catechesis a few years ago, we spent a lot of time talking about the buzz word “experience.” After Vatican II many catechetical leaders said wrongly that we can find grace and revelation simply by affirming our own experience. Although that position is blatantly false (ignoring original sin and the need for the Church), it does shed light on the need to engage people where they are at and to help them make sense of there every day life. Engaging pop culture is a necessary part of that effort, a work of accompaniment that helps us understand how people think and how they are formed in their ordinary experience.

If we accept the wrong understanding of experience, however, then there is no need to seek redemption and transformation. We may need to engage pop culture to speak the language of the day and to understand where people are coming from, but we also need to move them beyond a simple acceptance of that experience, to help them see reality more clearly, and to have a more profound experience of the mysterious and wonderful in the world around them and in the faith. The Gospel must infuse our cultural experience and saturate to the point that it shapes our ordinary experience. This is the task of the New Evangelization!

In short, we need to return to wholesome, simple things that are accessible, i.e. popular, and yet noble, i.e. reflect the deepest truths of life. Therefore, pop culture is not the end, but an important tool as we work for the renewal of culture. Let’s hope that we can end up creating a new pop culture, imbued with better values and enriching people’s lives all the more.

Credit to R. Jared Staudt of CatholicExchange.

Bl. Junípero Serra and the Holy Family

By: Sean Fitzpatrick

Junipero Serra

On September 25th, 1988, Pope St. John Paul II beatified a swarthy, Spanish, asthmatic priest of small stature who was a dazzling scholar, a tireless apostle, and the founder of many missionaries from San Diego to San Francisco–Junípero Serra, who walked the western desert to irrigate souls with the water that becomes a spring welling up to eternal life.

Born Miguel Jose Serra Ferrer on November 14, 1730, in Petra, Majorca, Spain, this servant of God and God’s people became a Franciscan after a brilliant career as a scholar of philosophy, taking a name in honor of St. Francis of Assisi’s companion, St. Juníper. After his ordination, Fray Junípero earned his doctorate in theology and thereafter joined the missionary college of San Fernando de Mexico in 1749. That same year, he taught the Faith to the natives, converted many souls, helped integrate Spanish culture to the land, developed agriculture, founded trade schools, and introduced new domestic animals to the people.

It was during this early period in his vocation that, according to some accounts, traveling on foot from Vera Cruz to Mexico City, Fray Junípero was bitten by a serpent, suffering a wound that would plague him all his life–especially since it was his way to walk wherever he went, from mission to mission, town to town, carrying the Word and work of God with him to those who yet thirsted for the Truth.

The event stands as a symbol of the devil’s devices against those who would march fearlessly to shake the earth with the joy of heaven. As is often the case, those whom the fiend strikes in hatred are the ones that frustrate his attempts to arrest them through their acceptance of suffering. Blessed Junípero Serra was preeminently one of those heroes, who walked on his snake-bitten leg mile after mile, finding and bringing Christ as he served the Indian missions of Pacific America.

There is a wonderful story about Blessed Serra the Walker that Willa Cather recounted in her book Death Comes for the Archbishop that illustrates the miraculous force that walked with this missionary across the desert plains.

Fray Junípero traveling on foot with Fray Andrea, a member of his order, arrived late one night at a remote monastery. They arrived without cloak or fare, prompting the astonishment of their brethren who believed it impossible that they could have thus crossed the wide desert stretch without provision of any kind. When asked by the Superior of the monastery to explain this marvel, adding some admonishment towards the mission from whence they came for allowing them to proceed on so a dangerous journey so unprepared, the holy man grew even more surprised to hear what the good Blessed Serra had to report as to how they had survived.

Fray Junípero told the Superior that they had met a Mexican family living in happy poverty along their way and that they had provided for their every comfort. At this, a passing muleteer bearing wood for the priests’ fire laughed–there was no house for twelve leagues in any direction, he said, and not a soul who lived in the wasteland that Fray Serra had mysteriously traversed. His words were corroborated by several of the brotherhood; but nevertheless, Fray Serra continued his strange story with a stranger conviction.

Though they had begun their journey with a day’s supply of bread and water, they found that they had underestimated the time it would take them to cross the desert. At the close of the second day, their bodies and hearts weak with fear and exhaustion, they rejoiced to discover a small house sitting in the shade of three great cottonwood trees among the cacti. The trees were green and lush and, beneath them, a donkey was tied to a stump by a wall of the house where peppers hung, and a small Mexican stove stood by the door. The travelers called out and a Mexican peasant clad in sheepskin clothing appeared and welcomed them with a mighty kindness. He brought them within his home, asking them to stay the night as his beautiful wife stirred a pot by the fire. Their child, wrapped in a simple garment, sat on the floor by his mother playing with a lamb.

Fray Junípero and Fray Andrea found this family hospitable, happy, and holy. They told them that they were shepherds as they shared their supper and followed their guests in the evening prayer of the Church. Afterwards, though they would have liked to continue speaking with their hosts, the priests were suddenly overcome by weariness and fell into a deep sleep in the places provided for them. When they awoke with the dawn, there was no one to be seen. Supposing that the good people were off tending their flocks, the two wayfarers took up their road again and arrived in health and safety at their destination.

As before, the brothers of the monastery were astounded by this account, declaring that there were three great cottonwood trees in that part of the desert: indeed, they were a well-known landmark, but there was no house by them. So great was their wonder that some of the brothers took Fray Junípero and Fray Andrea to the very spot, and though they found the same cottonwoods, there was no house, no donkey, no oven, and certainly no inhabitants. It was then that the priests, following Fray Junípero Serra and Fray Andrea, sank to their knees and kissed the blessed ground, “for they perceived what Family it was that had entertained them there.”

From Death Comes for the Archbishop:

Fray Junípero confessed to the Brothers how from the moment he entered the house he had been strangely drawn to the child, and desired to take him in his arms, but that he kept near his mother. When the priest was reading the evening prayers the child sat upon the floor against his mother’s knee, with the lamb in his lap, and the Fray found it hard to keep his eyes upon his breviary. After prayers, when he bade his hosts good-night, he did indeed stoop over the little boy in blessing; and the child had lifted his hand, and with his tiny finger made the cross upon Fray Junípero’s forehead.

This beautiful tale serves as an icon of the man who, like the Holy family, brought greatness with him through simplicity and love. Thus the Holy Family welcomed Fray Junípero Serra as their own honored houseguest, appearing to him as those very people whom he had given his life to serve: the poorest of the poor of Mexico’s children, “in a wilderness at the end of the world, where the angels could scarcely find them!” And thus was the mission of this holy priest: to find and further the Holy Family of the Universal Church.

By the time Blessed Junípero Serra passed to his eternal reward in Monterey in 1784, his establishments were regarded as the best in the Provincias Internas, and the strength of the Californian missions were attributed almost wholly to his zeal and industry, and his eager, optimistic, and persevering character that sought with a lion’s heart to extend the membership of the Holy Family as far as his legs would carry him, rendering the life and labors of the missionary Junípero Serra exemplary of the mission of the Catholic Church.

Reminiscing on his experience of Blessed Junípero Serra, a certain Fray Pablo Font wrote:

In very truth, on account of these things, and because of the austerity of this life, his humanity, charity, and other virtues, he is worthy to be counted among the imitators of the apostles. His memory shall not fail, because of the works he performed when alive shall be impressed in the minds of the dwellers of this New California; despite the ravages of time, they shall not be forgotten.

Credit to  Sean Fitzpatrick of CatholicExchange.

Using Virtues to Ward Off Bullying Behavior

By: Emily Stimpson

anti bullying

This is a tale of two anti-bullying programs. (Actually, it’s only the tale of one, but it starts out as the tale of two.) The first was launched at Harvard University last month. The second was launched in the Archdiocese of St. Louis last year. The first was founded by Lady Gaga and backed by Deepak Chopra and Oprah Winfrey. The second was founded by Catholic educator Lynne Lang and backed by St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and Catholic School Superintendent George Henry.  Gaga’s program has a flashy name, adapted from her song “Born This Way.” Lang’s program has a clunky acronym, VBRD, which stands for Virtue-Based, Restorative Discipline.  One of those programs is not your normal anti-bullying program. It’s a whole new way of approaching how children relate to each other, and accomplishes much more than simply curtailing bullying. Which is it?

Hint: It doesn’t take its name from a No. 1 Billboard hit.

Creating virtuous climate

While Born This Way and most similar secular programs promote tolerance and acceptance of all behaviors, lifestyles and choices, VBRD’s core goal is making children into saints. It seeks to form students in the Christian virtues, setting them on the path to holiness and teaching them how to repair the harm done by destructive behavior. Lang, who has worked for 15 years in the fields of violence prevention and health education, conceived the idea for VBRD when one of the archdiocesan school principals approached her about implementing restorative disciplinary procedures in the school. Lang wanted to expand that effort by providing a foundation for building Catholic identity. As she began to see the effect it was having on students, she realized she was “on to something.”  “We were seeing changes in the kids and changes in the staff. The whole climate of the school was changing,” she said.

Addressing root causes

The reason for that, Lang explained, was threefold.  First, the program aimed to change more than just the behavior of students. It aimed to help the adults in their lives better love God and practice virtue so they could help the children do the same.  “The solution to bullying rests in the hearts and minds of adults,” Lang said. “Kids learn their behavior from us, which means we have to change something in ourselves so we can model something better for them.”  Second, the scope was broader than traditional anti-bullying programs, seeking to address all forms of anti-social and disruptive behavior.  Third, was what Lang described as “the virtue piece” – not simply telling students what not to do, but modeling Christlike behavior for them.  “We’re not waiting for a problem to start,” said Lang. “We’re laying a foundation for life, helping them understand the virtues and develop a firm disposition to the good. We’re also helping them recognize the impact of their behavior on their relationship with others and with God. It’s addressing the root cause of the problem to promote systemic change.”  In July 2011, Henry brought Lang on board full time, naming her the director of school climate for the Catholic Education Center and encouraging her to develop the initiative as a model for all schools, with an eye toward using it to help meet one of St. Louis Catholic Schools’ primary goals: strengthening Catholic identity.  The program was fully launched in five schools this past fall, with five more schools implementing pieces of the program as they refine it further.

Adaptable program

In each school where VBRD has been implemented, it looks a little bit different, with each school able to make adjustments based on its unique needs.  Some schools, such as Holy Trinity, spent all last year prepping teachers, staff and parents for the program, learning more about the virtues together and developing ideas for how they could hand on what they learned. Other schools used the spring and summer before school to prepare themselves. The teachers and staff of Good Shepherd in Hillsboro, for example, did a book study on Father Benedict Groeschel’s  “The Virtue Driven Life”  (OSV, $10.25) in August.  Each school also decided on which of the virtues they wanted to focus, how much time to spend on each virtue, and what specific activities to do to re-enforce those virtues.

Common elements, on the other hand, include a regular focus on prayer; partnering younger students and older students to help each other learn about the virtue; hands-on activities such as drawing pictures, journaling, writing short stories and even making short movies; rewarding students and commending them for displays of virtue; and applying virtues in a community setting.  When disruptive behavior does occur, the schools don’t simply punish the students. They bring all the students involved together, discuss the causes of the problem and what virtues were absent, then look for ways to repair the harm done to the relationship.

More mature approach

Mariann Jones, principal of Good Shepherd, said the results thus far have been remarkable.  “Not only are we seeing a decrease in incidents, but when incidents do happen, there’s an increase in the maturity with which students handle the problems,” she said. “They are quicker to realize what harm they’ve done, and really want to make things right.”  Nina Ashby, a second-grade teacher at Holy Trinity, is also enthusiastic about the program.  “I’ve got little ones telling each other when they aren’t ‘using their virtues.’ They’re really getting it,” she said.  And the students aren’t the only ones getting it.  “At first some of the parents were resistant to the program. They didn’t understand it and were worried about the extra time commitment it would require of them,” Ashby said. “But now I’m hearing from parents about how their children are reminding them at home about the virtues and how it’s helping them live those virtues better.”

Credit to Emily Stimpson of  EmilyStimpson.com

“I See You”: From Augustine to Avatar

By: Christopher West

green earth

In 2010, when Avatar  became the top grossing movie of all time, I thought I should see what all the hype was about.   Reluctantly, I went.   And I was pleasantly surprised.  Yes, I agree with much of what has been said about it’s unoriginal plot (Dances with Wolves  in space).   And there’s certainly plenty to criticize from a theological point of view (besides the overt eco-religion it espouses, the plot itself rests on a dangerous body-soul dualism that imagines one’s “consciousness” can be transferred to another body).

Still, I think there is much to like about this film.   Beyond its breath-taking visuals and awe-inspiring special effects (it’s as much a game-changer as Star Wars was in its day), I was especially taken in by the three simple words with which the Na’vi people greet one another: I see you.   As the movie explains, it means more than seeing the other physically with your eyes.   It means seeing into  the other, understanding the other, embracing the other.   It means seeing the other person’s heart, the other person’s person.  And here James Cameron, the movie’s writer and director, may well be drawing directly from St. Augustine (in the film, Sigourney Weaver’s character is named Grace Augustine — hmmm).   It was the Catholic “Doctor of Grace” who said that the deepest desire of the human heart is to see another and be seen by that other’s loving look (see Sermon 69, c. 2, 3).

Intamacy:  In-to-me-see

This yearning to see and be seen, like the beauty of the distant planet Pandora itself, harkens back to Eden, to the original way of “seeing” upon which John Paul II reflected in his Theology of the Body (for more on how Avatar points to Eden, see Bill Donaghy’s excellent article on catholicexchange.com).   As the late Pope expressed it, the first man and the woman “see each other more fully and clearly than through the sense of sight itself.”   They see each other with an “interior gaze” (see TOB 13:1) — a gaze that sees “into” the other, creating a profound bond of peace and intimacy (or shall we say “in-to-me-see”?).

An “interior gaze” is precisely what the Na’vi express when they say, “I see you.”   And that, I believe, is one of the appeals of Avatar: it calls us to a different way of seeing one another, and the world around us.   Unfortunately, Avatar’s  green agenda pushes the limits of honoring creation over the edge into a kind of nature worship, as if creation itself were a goddess.   But isn’t this error simply the twisting of a truth?   What is the truth that “nature worship” distorts?  As I was pondering this question, I was reminded of a remarkable statement of St. Louis de Montfort in True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin.   There he writes of how St. Denis was so taken by the “wondrous charms” and “incomparable beauty” of the Blessed Virgin that “he would have taken her for a goddess . . . had not his well-grounded faith taught him otherwise” (True Devotion 49).

Revealing the “unknown gods”

I’m speculating here, but I wonder if it just might be that some of the goddess worship of various cultures throughout history is a universal sense of the mystery of Mary, or even a kind of Marian encounter — but they mistake her “incomparable beauty” for a goddess because they don’t know the true faith.   And perhaps rather than dismissing such goddess worshipers as “pagans” we should show such people the same compassion that St. Paul showed the Athenians with their famous altar “To an Unknown God.”   Instead of dismissing them, Paul yearned to tell them who this unknown God really was (see Acts 17:22-23).

In this same spirit, shouldn’t we say to all the “earth-goddess” worshipers of history: “Let me tell you the name of this mysterious and beautiful feminine presence you feel. She is not divine, she is one of us.   But she is so beautiful, and we are indeed tempted to mistake her for a goddess, because she has been divinized by God.   And this is a testimony of what the true God wants to do with each and every one of us (see Catechism  460).   Do not worship her!   But do let her beauty awaken the hope in you of participating in the divine life which is the source of her beauty.”  In this way, rather than condemning those misguided by nature worship and eco-religion, we would be lovingly leading them to true worship.   And at the same time, we’d be saying, “I see you.”