Pastoral Malpractice

Pastoral Malpractice

Dr. Greg Popcak

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sin vs. the call to love

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

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

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

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

Convict or patient?

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

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

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

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

How can we heal?

Read the full article here at Our Sunday Visitor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the discussion on Facebook at Catholic HOM—Family Discipleship

Understanding The Parable of the Talents–What Does It Mean For Us?

This past Sunday, The Parable of The Talents (Matthew 25:14-30)  was read as the Gospel reading at Mass. As you may remember, this is the story in which “The Master” entrusts his servants with his property. One servant is given five talents. The second is given two. The third is given one.

The servants who received five and two talents respectively, doubled what they were given and pleased their master. The servant who received one talent buried it and only returned what he was given, which caused the master to punish the servant.

Over the years, I’ve heard many comments from people who are confused by this parable. Not only do they feel that the servants are being treated unfairly at the outset, but they are often disturbed by what a jerk “the Master,” who “reaps where he did not sow and gathers where he scattered no seed” appears to be.

Here are my thoughts, I hope it helps:

1. The Master who “reaps where he did not sow, and gathers where he scattered no seed,” is not a jerk.  He is God. God harvests salvation from the fields of the Devil (i.e., the fallen world). God brings good out of difficult situations. He reclaims what sin has worked to destroy.

2. The talents are a metaphor for grace (they are NOT merely abilities or money). The different sums are a sign of the receptivity to grace of each of the servants. The message here indicates: No matter how much we are open to receiving God’s grace, he gives us as much as we are willing and able to receive.

3. When the servants cooperated with grace, they saw the work of grace expand exponentially.

4. The third servant did not do anything with the grace he had been given because, literally, he “was afraid.” Fear separates us from grace.  Think about it.  Grace is the presence of God.  God is love and “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 Jn 4:18). 

The third servant did not cooperate with grace. Instead of clinging to God, he clung to his fear. Ultimately, the third servant separated himself from God by choosing to focus on his limitations over God’s Providence.

5. Grace will not be thwarted. Even when we resist or reject God, he finds ways around our resistance and redistributes it to those who will receive it and cooperate with it.  God’s will will be done!

Superficially, this seems like a harsh parable but ultimately, it is about the superabundance of grace, the generosity of God, and the fact that nothing–not even our fears of our own limitations–can stop grace from building the Kingdom.

Why Would God Let This Happen?—Keeping The Faith When Times Get Tough

Why does God let bad things happen? Why am I going through this? What does this mean for me? … Do these questions sound familiar? You’re not alone.

Although we can sometime feel guilty when we question God or doubt his love, it’s more than okay to ask these questions. In fact, it’s even good to ask these types of questions—as long as we bring these questions and struggles to God. The world is not as it was meant to be, and figuring out how to respond to everything that is broken in our lives and in the world is a big job that carries a lot of pain with it. The good news is, God doesn’t want us to have to deal with this pain on our own. He wants to help. He wants us to bring the hurt to him.

Theology of The Body reminds us that faith and life are not meant to be separate things.  In fact, being a disciple of Christ begins with giving our body to Christ so that every part of us can serve him and learn to love others as he would have us love them. Truthfully, rather than making things simpler, living out our faith can make things seem more difficult at times because bringing our lives and relationships in line with Gods will is hard work.  Doubts and struggles are not a sign of weak faith. Theyre an invitation to deeper faith.  As long as we keep bringing our doubts, struggles, and confusion to God–instead of letting them lead us away from him–the more God will use those struggles to draw us into closer union with his love and his will.

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Do you want to learn more about balancing struggles and your faith?

Check Out:
Broken Gods—Hope, Healing, and The Seven Longings of The Human Heart

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How do we bring our struggles to God? Keep the following tips in mind.

Be Where Youre At–We often think that we have to pretend with God; like were not allowed to admit that we have doubts, fears, or even anger with God.  But Jesus reminded us that we are not meant to approach God as fearful slaves, but as friends.  God desires our friendship, and friends are real with each other.  They dont pretend.  They dont put on airs.  God wants to be with you wherever you are, so let him.  Tell him your doubts, be honest about your fears, vent your anger.  Trust that God is big enough to take whatever you have to dish out. 

Why does God want you to be this honest and vulnerable with him?  Because it is only by revealing your heart to God that he can heal the hurt.  The best way to experience Gods mercy, love, and healing, is to simply be honest about where you are at and how you feel about him, your faith, and your life.  Let it out and ask him to heal whatever is broken, to give you the wisdom to see things the way he sees them, and to respond to everything in a manner that will glorify him regardless of what youre dealing with.  If you can manage that much every day, God will take care of the rest. 

Re-center Yourself–Because we tend to turn to our faith and spiritual practices as a source of comfort, we also tend to abandon them when we feel like were not getting the emotional payout we were hoping for.  Thats especially true when we are experiencing faith-related struggles. 

While its understandable to want to give up on God, our prayer life, or even our faith in times of spiritual dryness or pain, abandoning these things simply creates a vacuum that tends to be filled with unhealthy thoughts and behaviors that cause us even more pain.  Instead of giving up, re-center your spiritual life with a few simple steps.  First, re-examine your approach.  If the way you are praying isnt bearing fruit, try a different approach.  If you usually talk to God, focus more on listening and meditation.  If you usually use a more spontaneous approach, explore some of the more traditional prayers of the church—or vice-versa.  Whatever you do, dont quit–RECOMMIT! 

Second, instead of focusing on your feelings and processing your faith through your emotions, process your feelings through your faith.  Confess whatever you are feeling to God–no matter how ugly or messy it is–but ask him to help you sort out your emotions in light of what is really true, in light of what gives glory to him, and in light of his grace.  Feelings are important but when they occupy the center of our lives instead of our faith and spiritual life, they tend to cause a lot of pain and confusion.  Dont deny your emotions, but make sure to process your feelings through your faith.  Youll be amazed at the peace this can bring.

Talk to A Spiritual Mentor--If you feel like your spiritual struggles are too much for you to manage on your own, reach out for good spiritual support.  Talk with your pastor.  Seek out a spiritual director or pastoral counselor who can help you reconnect with your spiritual resources.  The Theology of the Body reminds of what God said in the Book of Genesis, It is not good for man to be alone.”  Dont let the devil separate you from the heard and pick you off like a lonely gazelle. If you are struggling in your faith, reach out to the people God has put in place to help you.  Dont be too prideful to seek out a Simon of Cyrene to help you carry your cross.

If you would like to talk to a spiritual coach or pastoral counselor, visit us online at CatholicCounselors.com.

Strengthening Faith Amidst Pandemic

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

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

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

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

Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids

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How can this be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Parents, Is Sheltering In Place Burning You Out? There Might Be a Simple Solution.

A friend brought this article to my attention. I have been reflecting on it in light of our larger conversation about the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life.

This is certainly a challenging time. Even the strongest families are feeling the strain, not only of being together 24/7 but also for the reasons we’re obliged to be together. But I do think there is at least one major false presumption the author makes which makes home life even more difficult than it needs to be. He writes:

“There’s a subtle expectation that parents must find creative ways to handle this on their own. My in-box, social media feeds, and countertops are filled with creative ideas for educating and caring for your kids. Workbooks, games, creative projects and experiments, virtual yoga, virtual doodling, virtual zoo visits, virtual everything. I honestly am too tired and stretched thin to read the suggestions, let alone try them. The few I have tried have been met with astounding and fierce rejection by my son.”

The problem, as I see it, is that our culture has convinced us that our children need to be entertained by us. They don’t. That’s why kids can sometimes push back against all these “creative ideas.” Kids don’t want to be entertained by us. They just want to BE with us.

The author gets at this when he writes, “[My son] stormed upstairs to cry, he told me it was because I had stopped smiling at him. Knife, meet heart.”

“Knife meet heart” indeed.

That’s the point of the Rite of Relationships in the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life. We don’t need to kill ourselves coming up with craft projects, or new awesome games, or the NEXT BIG THING we can do with our kids to keep them happy and occupied.

We just need to remember to smile at them. To hug them more. To read more stories together. To let them talk about what they’re interested in and actually listen. To see what games they’re playing and join in as we can. To “waste time together” (as Pope Francis puts it). To ask them to come with us and keep us company (and maybe even help out) while we fold the laundry and do the dishes, and dust, and….whatever. Kids don’t actually mind doing chores with us IF the focus is THEM and not just pushing through the chore.

The Rite of Relationships challenges parents to stop thinking that all the stuff we do at home is just stuff we have to get through so we can finally do other stuff that is more entertaining. The Rite of Relationships invites us to ask, “How can I do whatever I’m doing RIGHT NOW in a way that lets me share God’s love with the people around me and draw closer to them.” The Rite of Relationship h
elps us “choose the better part” and discover the gift of presence. It allows us to stop acting around each other and reacting to each other and Just. Be. Together.

Parenting IS hard. Parenting during this pandemic is even harder. But let’s stop making things even worst than they need to be. Let’s stop thinking of our kids as projects and just connect with them as persons who love us and just want to BE with us. Let’s allow the grace of the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life to remind us that we are human beings, not human doings. It’s easier than you might think. It’s certainly a lot easier than the alternative. And it just might let us all learn to enjoy our families a little more.

Nailed It! Do I Have to Be “Crafty” to be a Catholic Parent?

In the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life, The Rite of Family Rituals asks families to create regular, daily times to work, play, talk, and pray together. Rituals like these enable families to practice the prophetic mission of their baptism by modeling Christian attitudes toward work, leisure, intimacy, and spirituality.

Crafting is one great way families can model a healthy approach to fun, and religious crafts can give kids a concrete way to connect with spiritual concepts. That said, to loosely paraphrase Jesus, it’s important to remember that crafts were made for man, not man for the crafts (see Mark 2:27—sort of).

In order to gain the spiritual benefits of any family ritual—including crafting–it needs to build relationships. Any activity that becomes about itself and not the people doing it, misses the point.

For instance, if you play Monopoly and winning the game becomes more important than building your relationships, you end up tearing each other to shreds. If you bake together, and decorating the cookies “just so” becomes the point of the experience, you’ll end up chasing the kids out of the kitchen to make sure it gets done “right.” And if you’re crafting for crafting’s sake, you have a family that looks great on Pinterest, but that’s about it. The last example is, I think, the modern take on Jesus’ “whitwashed tombs” (Matt 23:27).

We run into a lot folks who feel guilty that they aren’t crafty like “so-and-so.” In some circles, it can seem like being a holy family is synonymous with being a “crafty” family. How are our kids ever going to get to Heaven if we don’t make handmade nun’s habits for all their Barbie dolls—and in all the liturgical colors?!? “Now stop talking and hand me those ribbons for Heaven’s sake!”

If that’s your thing, and it truly draws your family together, that’s awesome. But if your family projects never quite work out as planned, or the very idea of working with construction paper makes you itch, that’s ok too. Failing to be a latter-day Martha Stewart doesn’t make your family less holy or your home less domestic-churchy than anyone else’s.

Living the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life isn’t about making beautiful props that turn your home into a miniature version of St Peter’s Basilica. It’s about spending time connecting, really connecting, with the people that God has given you to love and be loved by. It’s about being silly together, and cuddling together, and serving each other, and trying to be a physical sign of all the love God has in his heart for each of you. Whatever rituals help make that happen in your house are the “right” ones—even if they’re completely different from the rituals that the family in pew next to you (or that online family you admire) do in their domestic churches.

The Liturgy of Domestic Church Life isn’t about trying to get every family to do the same things or act the same way. It’s meant to be a template that helps families cover certain important bases in their own unique way. So, be mindful of the 3 Rites of the Liturgy of Domestic Church Life, but ask God (and your family) how you can use the model to bring out what’s best in your family.

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.