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.

Did Pope Francis Need To Apologize? (And What His Apology Can Teach Us)

Dr. Gregory K Popcak

 

Pope Francis made the news New Years Eve for his response to a woman he met in a line of well-wishers.  The over-eager woman grabbed the Holy Father’s arm forcefully and wouldn’t let go.  The viral video shows Pope Francis wincing—some suggest in pain from his sciatica—and then turning and slapping the woman’s hand twice before breaking free and storming off.

The next day, Pope Francis issued a simple, but humble apology.  He said, “”Love makes us patient. So many times we lose patience, even me, and I apologize for yesterday’s bad example.”

We used this event as an opportunity to explore apologies on today’s show.  Many people think that apologizing for something means that they are accepting all the blame or admitting that they are a bad person.  For many, giving an apology means debasing themselves and so they are loathe to apologize for almost anything.

The theology of the body reminds us that building the Kingdom of God is primarily about healing the damage that sin does to our relationships with God and others.  Apologies are a big part of that process.  

But giving an apology doesn’t mean that you are accepting all the blame.  It doesn’t mean that it is all your fault.  And it doesn’t mean that you are saying that you are a bad person. Likewise, giving an apology isn’t a way of “evening the balance sheet” between people.

For the Christian, giving an apology has nothing to do with another person’s behavior or the context we’re in.  It simply means, “I have reflected on my behavior in the light of grace and my own expectations for myself.  Because of that, I believe that I should have handled that better and I am committed to handling similar situations better in the future.”

Some callers to the show today argued that Pope Francis didn’t need to apologize for his behavior because his response was a “human reaction” to being grabbed inappropriately.  Another person suggested that Pope Francis behavior was justified by every human being’s right to self-defense.

Both of these points are absolutely true.  It was a human reaction and we do have a right to self-defense.  But these points are also irrelevant.  Apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean I was wrong.  It means, “I believe I could and should do better in similar situations in the future.”

By apologizing, the Holy Father didn’t say, “I’m a bad person.” Or “I’m a bad Pope.” Or even, “This was all my fault.”  (And in the last instance, it clearly wasn’t all his fault.”  By apologizing, the Pope Francis simply said, “I could and should have handled that better and I am committed to doing so in the future.” 

We would all do well to follow his example in this instance.  Let’s worry less about assigning blame, finding fault, or worrying about debasing ourselves.  Let’s focus more on taking responsibility for our actions, acknowledging that there are often better ways to handling situations than our first impulses dictate, and committing to using those healthier, godlier alternatives in the future.

When Your Child Stops Believing

For most Catholic parents, nothing’s more important than raising our kids to be faithful, godly adults. 

Sadly, a study by CARA at Georgetown found that 89% of people who eventually left the Church said they’d actually lost their faith between the ages of 10 and 13. The good news is that there’s a lot you can do to help your kids negotiate their doubts.

When your child expresses doubts about God, begin by thanking them for trusting you, and telling them you’re proud of them.  Why?  Because doubts are a natural part of mature faith development.  

In fact, the reason so many kids lose their faith between 10 and 13 is that they’re transitioning from the “Story and Structure Stage” of faith–that focuses on learning rules, rituals, and stories–to the “Relationship and Mission Stage” where kids need to learn to apply their faith to real life problems.  

This transition comes with lots of questions.  Without patient guidance, kids can start thinking of faith as just a bunch of rules, rituals, and stories that have no real practical bearing on their world.

After you’ve diffused things, start asking questions. Don’t grill them.  Just explain that you’d like to understand what’s going on. In particular, ask if they’re having a hard time applying their faith to some challenge they’re facing.  Nine times out of 10, teens’ faith crises are either caused by difficulties with reconciling their faith with real-life problems, or being led to believe that their faith is an obstacle to having meaningful relationships and finding their place in the world.  

Of course, another reason kids have doubts about God is that they may have never actually MET him!  Going to church isn’t enough. Make sure that you’re praying daily as a family, and when you do, make sure you’re not just saying words at God, but actually modeling how to talk to him as the person who knows you best and loves you most. 

Finally, help your kids express their doubts directly to God. Teach them to pray, “Lord, I’m having a hard time believing in you. Please show me that you are real.”  

For more ideas on how to help your kids through faith struggles, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.

Feeding Your Teenager’s Faith

Faith evolves in stages. Knowing how to foster your teenager’s faith begins with understanding the unique spiritual food that nourishes an adolescent’s faith-development.

Teens occupy what’s called the “Synthetic-Conventional” stage of faith, but we like to call it the “Relationship & Mission Stage”

Teens are focused on figuring out their place in the world. So, they tend to believe something is “true” if it facilitates their relationships and helps them feel like they can make a difference. In the same way, they believe something’s “false” if it complicates their relationships or seems to be a source of conflict and division in their lives.

When parents focus too much on what our faith doesn’t allow us to do, or who our faith doesn’t allow us to hang out with, teens get the message that faith is an obstacle to either having relationships or discovering their purpose. The stronger they feel that way, the more likely it is that they’ll fight against the faith–or reject it altogether.

Instead of becoming too focused on the “Thou Shalt Not’s,” concentrate on giving your teens experiences that prove their faith can help them have fulfilling relationships AND make a positive difference in some way.

The most important way to do that is to make sure your teens see how your Catholic faith is having a positive impact in your home and family life. They need to see that your faith is helping you get along better–and care for each other more–than other families that don’t live the faith the way you do. Additionally, it’s important to help teens find faithful peers they can associate with, and causes they can put their faith and energy behind.

The more you can help your teen discover how their faith can enable them to build strong relationships and a healthy sense of mission, the more you’ll be giving your teens the spiritual food they need to grow into a faithful adulthood.

Want more ways to help your kids fall in love with the faith? Check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.

Transmitting The Faith To Our School-Age Children

Teaching our kids how to pray and helping them develop a relationship with God can feel difficult, especially when we have children of different ages. However, helping our children develop in their faith doesn’t have to be a complicated task. 

Knowing how to foster your school-age child’s faith begins with realizing that kids need different spiritual food at different times.

Faith evolves in different stages through early childhood, middle childhood, adolescence, and throughout adulthood.  School-age kids occupy what’s called the “Mythic-Literal” stage of faith, but we like to call it the “Stories and Rituals Stage”

Throughout middle-childhood, kids’ brains are focused on making sense of the world, figuring out what things mean, and how things work. Rituals and stories are the most important tools kids at this stage use to do that work.

Family rituals, (like regularly recurring times to pray, work, talk, and play together) and parish rituals, (like weekly mass, regular confession, and family involvement in parish activities) are critical for giving your kids a faith-based sense of structure, order, and belonging.  Rituals help kids experience the faith in their bones. Their muscle memory records the activities that create a lifelong sense of belonging to God and his Church.  

In addition to being ritual-hungry, school age kids turn to stories to make sense of the world. Instead of just letting them pick-up passive lessons from the stories they see on tv, movies and social media, make sure you spend time every day actively reading and discussing bible stories, stories of the lives of the saints and others stories that help kids encounter examples of the way our faith can help us make a real, positive difference in the relationships we have with our family, friends, and the world.

School age kids rely on rituals and meaningful stories to help them know who they are, where they come from, and what they are called to be. To feed your school-age kids’ souls, make sure you provide a steady diet of both.

To explore more ways to help your kids fall in love with the faith, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.

The Symposium on Catholic Family Life and Spirituality

The Symposium on Catholic Family Life and Spirituality which concluded this past Sunday at Notre Dame was really a tremendous experience. I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to those of you who were praying for the effort. As we have received many inquiries about the event, I thought I would share a few themes that emerged from the various presentations.

Research has shown that parents have much more influence over their children’s future faith than commonly thought, but this influence is more directly related to the quality of relationships in the home than it is to the education or religious practices a family engages in (Bengtson, Bartkus).

The experience of parental warmth–especially paternal warmth–in a religious household is the strongest predictor of parent’s ability to help children own their faith and values into adulthood (Bengtson, Bartkus, Narvaez).

“Articulacy” (i.e., the parent’s ability to present a coherent, personal story of why faith matters to his or her children) is a significant factor in familial faith transmission. This narrative doesn’t need to be theologically sophisticated, but it needs to be personal and meaningful (Bartkus).

Additionally, grandparents are a much more influential force in familial faith transmission than commonly thought (Bengtson, Narvaez). Generational influences of warmth and relationship is a strong indicator for the transmission of faith to younger generations. 

Finally, Christian Family life functions as a liturgy that is (arguably) composed of three “rites” that facilitate development in the priestly, prophetic, and royal missions of baptism (the Rite of Attachment, The Rite of Rituals of Connection, The Rite of Reaching Out, respectively).The degree to which these “rites” are present represents the degree to which a family can effectively function as a “spiritual womb” and “school of love and virtue.”

The entire Symposium was a truly anointed experience. We’ll be posting the videos of all the presentations to the symposium website (CFLSymposium.org) as soon as they are edited, and OSV will be publishing a book/discussion guide for those who are interested in continuing the conversation.

We were pleased to announce the partnership between the Pastoral Solutions Institute and Holy Cross Family Ministries to form the Peyton Institute for Domestic Church Life. The new institute will conduct original research on family spirituality, organize professional trainings and family retreats, and produce initiatives/resources intended to promote the renewal of domestic church life. We are already exploring a major event for family ministers in 2020 to (tentatively) be held at the Peyton Museum of Family Prayer in North Easton, MA.

Thank you for your continued prayers for this effort and stay tuned for more awesome insights from this historic event!

Praying With Small Children

Praying with small children can be difficult. They tend to be wiggly and have short attention spans. When little ones are involved, it’s easy for family prayer time to seem more like…Wrestlemania. But you can have a meaningful prayer time with small children if you remember that little people need different spiritual food than bigger people.

Faith develops in different stages from early childhood, to middle childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood.  Children around 6 and under are in what’s called the “intuitive-projective” stage of faith. But we like to call it “the cuddly stage.”

In the “cuddly stage” of faith development, children believe something is “true” and good if it FEELS loving, and safe, and friendly.  They believe something is “false” if it FEELS stiff, cold, and unrelatable.

You can focus more on things like prayer-posture and getting prayers “just right” as kids get a little older.  But in the “cuddly faith” stage, the best way to nurture your child’s faith is to make prayer-times–and other experiences with the faith–affectionate, inviting, imaginative, and even playful.

Let your little ones cuddle in your lap when you pray with them. Be affectionate.  As you hold them, concentrate on letting them feel God’s arms around them and letting them feel God’s love filling their hearts through you.  

Sing kid-friendly praise songs together. Use different voices when you read them bible stories or saint stories. Make it fun.

Engage their imagination by asking them to pretend that they were actually in the stories.  You can even act those stories out together!

By understanding the spiritual food that a small child’s faith requires, you can help fill their hunger for God. 

To explore more ways to help your kids fall in love with the faith, check out Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids.