So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter (2 Thess. 2:15). Guard what has been entrusted to you. Avoid the godless chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge, for by professing it some have missed the mark as regards faith (1 Tim. 6:21-22).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Convers-ations are where convers-ions begin.

Fading Boundary

In a recent encounter in a small speciality bookstore, a sixties-something woman purchasing a book of Pope Francis' statements made a comment that begged clarification. She remarked: "I like this new pope. He's so different than the others. I like the way he thinks." She then looked at me, so I asked: "Oh, and how does he think?" By the grace of God, that question presented itself instead of the verbal cricket bat I was tempted to swing. She replied, "He's so accepting of gay people; he's not like the others (Other popes, that is). He doesn't judge anyone." She made the follow up remark that she liked Pope Francis because he says gays are welcome in Church. Fine, ok; everyone is welcome. However, she should have stopped before she made known her thought that homosexual acts (of a sexual kind) are perfectly acceptable.

(sputter...) Huh?!

You might be thinking what I thought to myself. Where on earth did she get the idea that Pope Francis approves of homosexual acts? So, I asked her that very question. Caught off guard by my inquiry, she stammered for a bit then let loose a meandering diary of experiences concerning her upbringing, convicting her parents and others with the charge of providing her a bad attitude toward homosexuals. A charge, one might add, that her parents were not present to defend themselves against. In her zeal to reject her upbringing, she glossed over the distinction between loving people with same sex attractions, people whom we should love and forgive no less than anyone else, and the right judgement and rejection of sinful behaviour.

Never tear down a person to build up another, especially to build up yourself.

"Well then, perhaps you ought to let go of that tired old baggage you might have learned and grew up with as a child and practice as an adult what the Church actually teaches," said I. She looked perplexed. "Are you familiar with the Catechism?", I asked without intending condescension. "Oh, yes, I did that when I was a young kid." I thought to myself—'Ok, so she thinks she knows what the Church teaches.' Additional investigation was necessary. "I mean... the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the Compendium of the Catechism. Are you familiar with the official teaching of the Church...?" "I did catechism when I was a kid. Now I study all kinds of religions... buddhism, hinduism, the Koran. All the religions are pretty much the same," she replied in a slightly dismissive tone. Right, ok then. Pondering the price being paid by Iraqi Christians and Christians throughout Africa and the Middle East because Christianity and Islam are so much the same, and weary at the common ignorance that tends to blend all religions into a grey mass of interchangeable niceness, I responded with "Perhaps you should give Sura 9 of the Koran a good slow read to determine whether or not your assumption is accurate."

Long story short, the woman in question had bought into a caricature of Pope Francis (and other popes, for that matter) that clearly pitted the current Holy Father against his predecessors in a not so flattering way. Unflattering for the other popes, that is. After the exchange, which was polite and calm, I couldn't help but acknowledge, at least to myself, that she was barely catechized in the Faith. She certainly hadn't done her part to investigate and access the vast treasury of thought and prayer found in Catholicism. Her curiosity had led her outside the Church. Her casual remarks about other religions being the same as (and therefore equal to, in her mind) the Catholic Faith could have come from the lips of any number of lay men or women these days who, thinking themselves sufficiently Catholic, are free to remake popes and Catholicism in whatever image the New York Times, CNN, Time or any of the mainstream muddlers media types broadcast into their highly suggestible minds. It is a constant source of frustration that far too many Catholics are ready and willing to embrace what amounts to hearsay (heresy?) from media sources that are typically illiterate when it comes to matters of religion, particularly when it comes to distinguishing between judging persons on the one hand, and on the other judging behaviour and attitudes of the mind—the first being unacceptable, the latter being completely necessary for the welfare of the soul and the body. The popular media are, therefore, not a reliable source of information for the faithful nor the lapsed.

Encounters similar to the one described above can be opportunities to engage in conversation and point people in the right direction. When seeking to engage another in a constructive dialogue, it helps to plant seeds rather than risk pulling up good things along with pulling up the weeds, to plant a seed that grows in a person's mind that might allow her to root out some of those weeds she has allowed to grow in her soul. A good gardner might say 'What? You are talking nonsense! You pull out the weeds first before planting, otherwise the good seed immediately gets choked out.' In this instant, the good seed that is planted is more like a herbicide employed by the gardener to target destructive beliefs. Or, think of the good seed as a vaccine that targets harmful viruses. It helps, too, to remind oneself that the true gardener and true physician of souls is the Lord, the Holy Spirit. The Church proposes the Faith; God disposes the soul to faith, to supernatural belief in God, and disposes man to accept the True Faith that is God's gift for the salvation of souls.
How many times have you been in a conversation and afterwards you came away thinking there might have been a better way to express a thought about the Faith or a moral question or a better way to correct a misconception about the Church?

Jesus tailored His approach to each person with whom He spoke. He, of course, understands each one of us better than we can possibly know ourselves. Jesus always appeals to our dignity as children of God, as men and women created in the image and likeness of God. He knows that we suffer from the effects of Original Sin. He alone can rescue us from sin and help us overcome our sinful inclinations. He rescues us by purifying us of fear. Jesus is Love incarnate; His word purifies all who truly hear Him. He purifies us of the fundamental fear, the fear of everlasting death, annihilation. He destroys death by His death.

We share in Jesus' saving mission when we keep His commandments. His commandments are words of love that restore man to friendship with God. We might offer to others certain questions which direct the mind and heart to God. An honest question can be an invitation to another person, a form of proposal that eases around the obstacles like water flows around rocks in a river, gently eroding opposition to grace. We would be wise to start by removing the rocks we, ourselves, place in the way of God's voice being heard by sinners desperate for love and mercy.

A well timed question, I've found, is the preferred strategy for engagement. Not a full blown interrogation but an honest question that seeks, in educababble or academese, to assess a person's prior knowledge in order to construct a response that:
1) appeals to a person's dignity; 
2) uses accessible language tailored to a person's experience and understanding; 
3) engages the imagination and encourages honest questions; and 
4) leaves room for the Holy Spirit to act. We must be willing to let God "finish" the conversation.
Most of the work of evangelization requires listening first, and then if circumstances permit, a timely intervention in the form of a proposal—e.g., a sharing of one's own beliefs—and/or a question seeking to know exactly how someone came to believe what her or she believes. However poorly founded a person's opinion might be, we may not force another person to surrender what might be a very personal and painful reason for their opinion. If we are offered any kind of a justification by the person with whom we are sharing a conversation, knowing the source of confusion or misunderstanding, or just the simple reason for a person's question or position on a subject, we may then use the opportunity to share in a dispassionate manner the necessary factual information that corrects error or doubt, and at the same time a consoling voice that reassures someone they are loved by God. We may simply offer our own "take" on a given subject. For example, "My experience of the Church has been very good. The people who help out at the soup kitchen serving the poor are an inspiration to me. We who serve learn so much, too, from those whom we serve." Or, "I was once really searching for understanding and forgiveness. I am thankful to God for bringing me home to the Church through people of genuine faith, people who truly love God and His Church."
A few days ago a fellow in a neighbouring apartment shared that he is entering the RCIA process at a nearby Catholic parish. What was his reason for seeking Christ in His Church? He said very simply, "I'm drawn by the joy and love Catholics have, their genuineness and gentleness. I have been invited to various protestant communities (he himself having been raised a Baptist), but I find their emphasis is always on money, money, money with no mention of where the money is actually going. I find that off-putting. Catholics occasionally ask for money, but the money is being spent on support services for the poor and understandable parish upkeep. The Catholic parish focusses on what makes you a better person, a more compassionate and loving person, and faith in God, of course. The priest is joy-filled, too."
Sometimes the pain one carries around is enough to block out the present. It may be that one's partner in conversation is not ready to go the whole way and lay down their pain in that moment. He will likely require time to undo the knot of a grudge twisted together over years to form a crown of thorns. In that moment, we must remind ourselves that one's partner in conversation is free to accept or reject what has been shared. If God respects our free will, then we, too, must be willing with genuine charity to accept someone's rejection of a proposition. It might help to remind oneself not to take such a rejection personally. Sometimes—most times, really—the hurt and opposition we encounter is much bigger than we should attempt to deal with. The mountain of another person's pain (anger, disappointment, sense of betrayal...) is too big to confine within our need to help them in any one moment. That "mountain", however, can be embraced by a loving heart that is ready to listen.

If you are the recipient of another's anger toward Mother Church and/or God, or you, a disciple of Jesus, then recall our Lord's counsel:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. He who hates me hates my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would not have sin; but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. It is to fulfil the word that is written in their law, ‘They hated me without a cause.’ But when the Counselor comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, even the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness to me; and you also are witnesses, because you have been with me from the beginning.—Holy Gospel according to St. John 15:18-27.
Those encountering Christ for the first time might require a brief counsel. The prospect and process of growing in the right direction usually takes time as one adjusts one's thinking to the Truth forming in that person by the action of the Holy Spirit, the Lord Who perfects His conversation with the soul because the conversation is His to begin with in the first place.

It is a sad fact of our time that many people, having abandoned the Faith due to poor catechesis or having never had the opportunity to encounter Jesus in His Church because of negative propaganda or mere ignorance, are conditioned to certain habits that inhibit the development of a personal, intimate communion with Jesus Christ and His Church. Hence, patience is the appropriate reminder and course of action to avoid all futile attempts to control or rush the action of the Holy Spirit working in the soul of another person.

Grace perfects nature... and conversations.

My parting thoughts that day turned to prayer for my partner in conversation, that God would work through the meagre crumbs I had to offer her.

Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act.—Ps. 37:5-6

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"A multitude of wise men is the salvation of the world(.)—Wisdom 6:24. Readers are welcome to make rational and responsible comments. Any comment that 1) offends human dignity and/or 2) which constitutes an irrational attack on the Catholic Faith will not go unchallenged. If deemed completely stupid, such a comment will most assuredly not see the light of day. Them's the rules. Don't like 'em? Move on.

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