Making changes

Tired of wearing a mask everywhere you go? Frustrated at the limitations imposed in a phased return to how things used to be? For me, I did follow the stay-at-home restrictions to the point where I had my groceries delivered. Now that I have been out and about for a few weeks, the novelty of the restrictions has worn off. However, as routine has slipped back into something more comfortable, reflecting on the world’s health crisis has given me a different perspective on making changes.

Not that there is a one-to-one correlation, but the pandemic has brought to light just how different people interpret information they receive. If you ask people if they believe in God, a being they can’t see, can’t hear, and can’t touch, some are going to say yes, some are going to say no, and some will fall somewhere in between. For a Catholic, I have such a hard time fathoming those who don’t believe in God. However, it is just the same with COVID-19; some believe it, some do not, and some take the middle ground. 

For those who doubt this virus’ impact, the inconvenience is costing them time and money. They are eager for things to go back to the way they were. Perhaps there was a level of control they felt they had and they want to recapture it. They will not accept that there is a virus, no matter how many statistics are quoted nor pictures of the virus are shown. They may not even change their mind if someone in their close circle of acquaintances succumbs to the virus. Because they don’t believe in any of this, they resist all changes.

For those who accept there is a pandemic and have a sense of what it has done in other parts of the world, wearing face coverings and disposable gloves, standing six feet from others, and keeping all interactions to the minimal time possible, these changes are almost eagerly accepted so that daily life can go on. They accept the personal protection gear, not only because it may protect them, but also so that it protects those with whom they come into contact. Making changes is a natural expectation. The changes may not always be enthusiastically welcomed, but rather humbly received.

The middle ground sometimes sounds like it’s the best place to be. However, it can be the most dangerous. Not fully accepting and not completely rejecting, there is no basis for changes to be received. This tepidness will see any changes that are made quickly vanish once a perceived sense of normal, or the way things used to be, is achieved. It becomes more of what other people are doing and expect, than what is the best thing to do. When around the doubters, any social distancing measures will be forgotten. When asked to wear masks and social distance, an attempt is made to follow, but there is no consciousness that makes them aware of their surroundings to truly execute the requirements. 

God made each of us unique and loves us just as we are at any moment. However, He never asks us to stay as we are, but rather to grow closer to Him. Being closer requires us to make changes to our lives, our thoughts, and our plans. Let us pray for the grace to humbly accept all the changes He asks of us and rejoice as we grow closer to Him. 

Gather us in

From the beginning, there was separation. Let me rephrase that, after the fall of Adam and Eve, there was separation. Knowledgeable of what they did, they separated themselves from God by hiding. Thankfully, God never gets tired calling us back.

In God’s wisdom, He knew that He could not send Jesus down to earth without preparation. It began with one man, Abraham, with whom He made a covenant. His family flourished and became a tribe that grew into a nation. That nation was to be a light for all humanity to follow back to a relationship with God. Instead, it became about rules & regulations, who was clean — that is who was socially acceptable, and who was to be avoided. Even those who were descendants of Abraham, the Samaritans, were looked down upon by the Jewish people in those times.

Jesus’ main audience was the Jewish community, however, He did heal those outside of the community who showed great faith in Him, like the centurion. He spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, calling her to belief in Him through conversation over a drink of water. Jesus came to gather us together. The Apostles and the early Church had to navigate through rough waters to figure out how Jews and Gentiles could worship together and become a single faith community. It’s a constant struggle, even 2,000 years later.

Why is it so hard for humans to follow Jesus’ example of gathering people together? It may sound a bit cliche to say, “the devil made me do it,” but there may be some truth to that. The root of the word devil basically means “to reach by throwing apart, let fly apart, strike.” (Merriam-Webster dictionary). Bishop Barron has often remarked that the word means to scatter. That is what sin does, it scatters us and breaks us apart, pitting us one against another.

When we are faced with a temptation that separates us from God or others, that is the signal that sin is in our midst. Perhaps it’s our sin, perhaps it comes from another person. As Christians, we are called to resist the temptation, seek the courage, grace, and peace of God to heal the division. In this way, we will bring together our family, our neighborhood, our community, and our world. We may not see peace and unity in all aspects of humanity in our lifetime, but we can still try to bring a little heaven down to earth.

Undivided unity

By my parents, my heritage is Polish and Lithuanian. However, I love Scotland and have been there several times, and would love to visit again. Does that make me any less of an American? No; the United States is my home. All it does is categorize me within the multitudes of the human race. It does illustrate that I have the ability to not only celebrate my heritage, but to appreciate that of others. There are countless people that have come before me, and an unknown number who will come after me, yet we are all God’s children: unique, diverse, and loved by God.

In Genesis, Adam named all the creatures of the earth. From the beginning we have looked for ways to identify another’s unique traits as well as similarities to others. This action, itself, is not a bad thing. It could actually be good; for if you know someone has a skill you lack, you can seek out their knowledge and abilities when you need them. However, if the purpose is to elevate yourself in comparing yourself to another, it is the intention that makes the action evil. We’re all familiar with the story about the Pharisee that thanks God that he’s not like the tax collector. (Luke 18:9-14) While we should thank God for the skills and blessings He has bestowed on us, we should not  do so at another’s expense. In fact, we are called to share those blessings, especially with those whom our first inclination is to judge. 

“I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” We say it as part of the Nicene Creed each Sunday and Holy Day at Mass. One of the most beautiful things about Catholicism is that, well, it’s Catholic, that means universal. One candidate of RCIA at my parish is from Croatia and commented that she was surprised that the prayers match from her native language to English. This commonality gives Catholics the ability to travel anywhere on earth, from Rome, Poland and Croatia to Australia, the Philippines and the United States, attend and recognize Mass because it is the same everywhere. Yes, the language may be different, but you can follow along in your native language, praying together as one Church. We can even look to pray in unity with other Christian religions, using the Our Father. We can find common praises to God with those of the Jewish faith using the Psalms. We can also  find common ground with those of the Islamic religion who also claim Abraham as a father in faith, and who have great respect for Job. We can balance the differences amongst the human race as long as we look at what is common between us and don’t hyperfocus exclusively on what makes us different. 

Even in the early Church, Paul had some bold proclamations to the Romans about their behaviors. In chapters 12 through 15, he exhorts the community to live a new life in Christ. In describing the marks of the true Christian, he says, “Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honor.” (Rom 12:9-10) Over the course of these chapters, he urges them not to judge one another, not to hinder another and to please others, not themselves. He reminds them that the Gospel is for both Jews and Gentiles alike. Reading and reflecting over these chapters often provides a good base for an examination of conscience and may also show us where we need to grow. 

On the night before Jesus died, He gave us a new commandment, “love one another; even as I have loved you.” (John 13:34) Jesus loved us so much that He gave His life up for us. We are called to love each other with that same passion. For the times we fail, we seek forgiveness. In our times of struggle, we pray for the grace to love as Jesus asks us. And when we make it to heaven, we will not only see God as He is, undivided unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but we will share in the communion of saints in that same unity. 

Six feet from God?

The “new normal” has us wearing masks, gloves, and staying six feet away from people other than those in our household. They call it social distancing and it’s caused us to be more cognizant of not just our environment, but the people we come across in our daily journeys.

It may be that we need to think we travel in a bubble that keeps us appropriately spaced from others, but has it impacted our relationship with God? While many dioceses have given a general dispensation from the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays, that does not mean we should seek distance from God. He is always calling us to come closer and into a deeper relationship with Him. While six feet may seem very far for friends and relatives, if we were as close as that to the Eucharist in the monstrance during adoration, we may say that’s too close! But God wants us even closer. Bishop Barron has often commented in his videos about the word reconciliation, which shares its root with cilia, or eyelashes, so that the meaning is to see again eyeball to eyeball with God. Now that’s close!

As things start to open up, times and availability may still be limited. We may need to plan a bit more in order to complete our daily tasks. Even more important as going to the gym or the store is our time with God. Even if we delay our return to social tasks, we still need to make sure our routine contains time to spend in prayer, spiritual reading, contemplation, etc. When we return to Mass, we realize that as we receive the Eucharist, God will be a whole lot closer than six feet as we receive the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. He is in us and we are in Him. 

As we pay attention to the physical distance we keep from others for health reasons, we need to keep equally mindful of the strength of our relationships with others. Yes, our social interactions have changed, but they have not been completely destroyed. We need to seek out creative ways to be the Church, that is the Body of Christ, to the world we currently live in. Now may be a time to step outside our comfort zone to say hello to another instead of just smiling. You can still smile as well, while others may not see it behind a mask, the smile comes out in your voice and words. We can still participate in food drives, online prayer groups and Masses to stay connected to our parish and community during this difficult and awkward time. 

The six foot social rule is challenging because we’re not used to it. Yet it may produce the fruits of the Spirit in our relationship with God and those who cross our paths. Let us embrace the challenge and seek to be closer with God and our neighbors, no matter what the physical distance is between us.

From God’s perspective

Have you ever stopped and marveled at God’s creation? Surely, a beautiful sunny day, an amazing sunset on the beach, or even the antics of your favorite of God’s creatures have given you pause for a thank-you to God. But what about all of creation all at once? 

Starting from the largest, there is the universe. Being large and all-encompassing, it’s easier to get the mind focusing on something smaller, like a galaxy. Even there, with so many planets and stars, perhaps it’s better to look at just one planet. If you choose to pick something other than Earth, you may think there is less to be thankful for. A planet is rather large and contains its own atmosphere, so do you start there or start down at the planet surface?  If you’re envisioning  just a bunch of rocks, have you considered the minerals that make up those rocks? And going down yet more levels until you get to the atoms that make up those minerals that make up the rocks. But we know that even atoms are made up of protons and neutrons. Every time science seems to come up with the smallest pieces of what makes something up, there’s a discovery that goes down even further. 

From the universe to the tiny, eenie-weenie subatomic particle, God is the creator of it all. God’s perspective is both the big picture as well as the most miniscule of details. His hand and reflection is in everything that he created. Being a finite human, it’s hard to comprehend the vastness of it all. It’s like trying to see the beauty of a single rose when you’re looking at a garden the size of the ocean. We can’t look at either the entirety of the universe or a subatomic particle, even if we had the best microscope in the world to see it. As humans, we need to pick a focal point. When we take a picture, there may be more than just what’s in focus in the picture. We see it, but not in its entirety. It’s a mere slice of the whole of God’s creation.

God freely shares all of creation with us. A rock gives glory to God just by being a rock, and a bird, just by being a bird. “Are not two sparrows sold for next to nothing? Yet not a single sparrow falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.” (Matt 10:29) God does not just make things and then sit back to eat bon-bons. He is ever watching over and interacting with all His creation, but especially men and women, who He made in His own image. “As for you, every hair of your head has been counted; so do not be afraid of anything. You are worth more than an entire flock of sparrows.” (Matt 10:30-31) 

While we may not be able to see things from God’s perspective, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pause to soak in the myriad of life He authored. It’s humbling to consider and at the same time, it’s like a cozy hug, knowing that God knows and loves you even down to every hair on your head. Nothing is too small for God’s notice.

Making all things new

It felt like a bandage being ripped off while the wound was still raw. It had become part of my morning routine and, while I didn’t realize it at the time, it was the rock that gave my day a firm foundation. Things are changing again, and we all need to adjust with it. 

As a virtual or remote employee since I moved to Virginia about a year ago, the global shut down only changed what I did before and after work. At the beginning of stay at home order, the disruption to my morning routine definitely impacted me and I did struggle to get started in a timely manner. Then Bishop Barron started broadcasting daily Mass from his chapel with either himself or Fr. Grunow of Word on Fire ministries as the celebrant. While it was not live, it premiered at 8:15 every morning. Monday through Saturday (yes, even Saturday!), I would start my day with Mass at the time it premiered. For Sundays, I chose a live streaming Mass as that helped me, at least from a mental perspective, to feel as if I was there and praying the Mass. However, Pentecost Sunday became the last Mass from Bishop Barron’s chapel since California had lifted restrictions for worship services. My beloved daily Mass at home was thus discontinued. Alas, my routine has now changed again.

Part of my struggle with this change is that I prayed Bishop Barron’s Mass with my Dad the day he died. Not having that Mass to participate in anymore is a bit like losing him all over again. While I have been fortunate enough to attend Sunday Mass for the past two weeks in my parish church, the daily Mass in person has not resumed, nor is it offered at a time that I can attend, due to schedule conflicts with work meetings.

Yet I find a bit of divine wisdom in Bishop Barron’s decision not to continue broadcasting daily Mass after Pentecost. It reminds me of the words in Isaiah, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; See I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is 44:18-19) And just as the church started with a small band of the Apostles and disciples, so too, we start again worshiping in smaller groups at Mass. And if we follow the Spirit’s prompting, we can bring the light and compassion of Jesus to those we do encounter.

“The one who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.”’ (Rev 21:5) Do we really want to go back to the way we were before?  When we open ourselves to God, He can make us new! 

Authoritative act in the Spirit

One of the definitions for the word confirm is: ”to remove doubt about by authoritative act or indisputable fact” (Merriam-Webster). I think that is the perfect definition for what the sacrament of Confirmation is all about. 

Pentecost and Confirmation are closely tied and have been that way from the beginning. In the Acts of the Apostles (8:14-18), Peter and John went to Samaria in order to lay hands and pray that the newly baptized would receive the Holy Spirit. Yet today, many people see Confirmation as a sort of graduation from religious education. We can never truly learn everything there is to know about the infinite God because we are finite human beings; however, that does not mean that we shouldn’t keep trying and learn as much as we are able. 

The ordinary minister of Confirmation is a bishop, as they are seen as the successors of the Apostles, who were first to receive Confirmation directly by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Look at how the Holy Spirit affected the Apostles: they traveled far proclaiming the Good News and healing. They did what they saw Jesus do. It is through the prompting of the Holy Spirit they preached the indisputable fact that Jesus is the Christ — the Savior and Redeemer of the world.  

While we do receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, Confirmation is that authoritative act by the bishop that leaves an indelible mark indicating we are Christians. Every Confirmation is just like the visit to Samaria by Peter and John. The bishop, along with the whole Church, prays for the Holy Spirit to descend into the hearts and souls of those being confirmed. We pray that each will know and accept their calling to proclaim and heal in Jesus’ name during their journey of life. 

Pentecost Sunday is an opportunity for us to remember our own Confirmation and to reflect on how the Spirit has prompted us and how well we have listened. Rather than dwelling on any shortcomings, we learn from them and renew our vocation to spread the gospel by the grace the Holy Spirit gives us. There is no doubt that we are Christians, followers of Jesus Christ, as we have been confirmed in the Holy Spirit; we just need to put into practice what we believe.

Called by name

God changed Abram’s name to Abraham. After wrestling with an angel, Jacob’s name became Israel. Jesus renamed Simon Cephas, which is translated in Greek as Peter. The call of God is not just one of inclusion, but one that transforms our identity. 

God seeks a relationship with all of us and calls us by name. A name is any word or words we respond to. If someone calls out that word, we usually look to see who is addressing us. It can be confusing when we hear our name in a public space and look around, only to realize that we share that address with another. For those of us baptized as infants, our parents may have provided the designated name to the priest or deacon who is baptizing, however, that name usually sticks and becomes the name that God uses to address us in our relationship with Him.  In the Essential Rite of the Sacrament [of Baptism], along with the water, “he accompanies the act with the words, ‘[Name], I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.’ The celebrant matches each pouring or immersion with the invocation of each of the Divine Persons.” (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, emphasis added) We are addressed and welcomed as a child by each of the Divine Persons in our baptism. We are called at that moment to journey with God, to learn from Him, to love Him as family. We grow and change over that journey, but our name goes with us.

One of the most famous, and perhaps most dramatic conversions is that of Saul in the Acts of the Apostles. The account of this transition from Saul to Paul begins in Acts Chapter 9. However, he is still referred to as Saul throughout that chapter, as well as chapters 11 and 12. It is only in chapter 13, verse 9 that simply says, “Saul, also known as Paul…” Why the change in name? Why now? According to the footnotes in the New American Bible version I was using, “there is no reason to believe that this name was changed from Saul to Paul upon his conversion. The use of a double name, one Semitic (Saul), the other Greco-Roman (Paul) is well attested.” From chapter 13 onwards, Acts mostly refers to him as Paul. Yet even if it was not made at his baptism, Paul’s preaching was mostly to those of Gentile origin in the Greco-Roman areas of the empire. It makes sense that he would transition from his Semitic name to one in the culture where he spent the most time. It is also very logical that he used his Greco-Roman name in the letters he sent to the churches where he preached. Perhaps he also wanted to distance himself from the earlier Pharisee who persecuted the Christians?  Since we know him by his letters, we know and refer to him as Paul. We call him by the name that he used when spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. 

Our identity in Christ is not by who our parents are, or a physical trait, but by our name. Our name marks our transition into the life of Christ and that of the Trinity. In the case of those that God calls into his service, there may be a change marked with a new name, or at the very least increased meaning attached to the name we already bear. God is calling out to you by name, can you hear Him? 

Joy in failure

Joy in failure seems like an oxymoron, yet as the early Church took shape, the evangelization efforts of the disciples met with mixed reactions.

In this time after Easter, the story unfolds as we read from the Acts of the Apostles daily at Mass. In Acts (4:13-21) we heard how Peter and John were reprimanded by the chief priests and elders for preaching and curing in Jesus’ name. About a week later, Acts (5:34-42) revealed the Apostles not only being ordered to stop teaching about Jesus, but flogged for their efforts. “So they left the presence of the Sanhedrin, rejoicing that they had been found worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” Most recently the reading from Acts (13:44-52) relates the dismissal of Paul and Barnabas from a territory: “they shook the dust from their feet in protest against them and went to Iconium. The disciples were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” Even when people rejected them, they still rejoiced.

Looking at it more than 2,000 years later, we can say that since they were converting some people, that gave them cause to be happy. Another insight could be that since Jesus was rejected by the elders & chief priests, the disciples were happy to suffer in the same way. The Jewish authorities weren’t as important to the disciples as was the love and relationship they had with Jesus. And with the confidence of the Holy Spirit, they were able to accept this rejection by the Jewish leadership. But could the cause of their joy be much simpler than that? Could it be that the delight they took in speaking of Jesus to others, doing this work they were called to do, gave them the ability to rejoice in all circumstances? Whether others believed or not, they were carrying out their responsibility by proclaiming this Good News. And rather than dwelling on the failure, they did what Jesus had taught them and turned their outlook towards other communities to share the gospel.

While some look at evangelizing as winning others over to Jesus, it’s not a numbers game. Some Catholics are too fearful to evangelize, not wanting to impose their beliefs on others. But if we share the love Jesus has for us with others, we introduce them to Jesus. We can talk about our relationship with Jesus as if He were the head of the family; after all, we are all members of the same family of God! Just because those we evangelize may not choose to immediately accept Jesus into their lives, it’s not necessarily a loss. The seeds we plant may one day bear fruit because lives change over time,

The Acts of the Apostles records many failures in the early Church. Yet each year as we read the activities of the first Christians, we realize their love and sharing of Jesus reaches across the millennia to our day. We, in turn, celebrate the joy they took in their successful “failures.”

Living in an unknown plan

I am a planner. I have booked my vacations for one or two years before I’m going. With our current circumstances, I can barely plan what I’m doing over the next week. Oddly enough, I feel like God has prepared me for this time.

I watched Mass with Fr. Mike Schmitz last Sunday, and his homily hit really close to home for me. He spoke of our need to know when: when can I go back to work, when can I go out to a restaurant with friends, when will I be able to receive the Eucharist, when will all this end? If we know the answer to these questions, then we will feel more secure about life. But the truth is life is not secure; it can change in an instant, no matter how much we plan. As Catholics, we should not be anxious over this insecurity, but rather be confident in God and courageous in our actions in an insecure world. As he was describing people who plan, it was like he knew me! It made me start thinking about how accepting, for the most part, I have been during this time.  

My first experience of not having control was on a retreat. The retreat director did not provide a schedule. I remember how distinctly uncomfortable I felt. I couldn’t plan for my free time and I didn’t have anything to reference for when and where to meet next. It was only a weekend retreat, and at the end of each session, the director would advise when and where to meet next. To my surprise, at the end of the retreat, I realized I actually enjoyed it, even though I was not privy to the schedule in advance!

My next two experiences were ones in which I relinquished control with full knowledge when I booked mystery vacations. I was to meet up with others to explore somewhere, planned and escorted by AAA. And I would love to do it again. While I had no idea of the particulars until we arrived at each activity, I knew the total amount of time that I would be away was five days. I found I enjoyed the locations because I could just be immersed in them, instead of being distracted by anticipating what was going to happen next. 

So far, I’m one of the lucky ones; I have been able to continue working. I have been a remote worker since moving to Virginia last year, so to some degree, not much has changed for me. I do want to explore my new state and visit the various areas and museums, and I can’t plan for that… yet. God knows I’m a planner, and in His wisdom, He prepared me for this time, with short introductions to living without knowing the plan. I can’t say this time has been as enjoyable as the retreat or the vacations, but I am thankful to God. The reality is that we can really only live in the moment. Learn from the past, hope in the future, but focus on today. Live today in thanks and praise to God, as that is His gift to each of us.