True Confessions for the Year of Faith

Drumroll, please.

Tomorrow begins the “Year of Faith,” the 50th anniversary of the opening session of the Second Vatican Council and the 20th anniversary of the promulgation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  Pope Benedict XVI has uttered a call to all Catholics to renew and rejuvenate their faith, reading and putting into practice the rich treasury of wisdom that the Church has safeguarded for two thousand years.

To be perfectly honest, I’m in a much better place now to begin the year — having completed four days of my TOB retreat. My faith, which has taken something of a beating these past few months, is feeling less tenuous. Tomorrow night Craig and Sarah will come and join me for the last-night marshmallow roast — Sarah’s reward for being a good girl for Craig while I was gone. And in no time at all, it will be back to the salt mines.

What are you doing, to celebrate the Year of Faith? Ascension Press is offering a free email service of weekly reflections from authors like Danielle Bean, Jeff Cavins, Teresa Tomeo, and Dr. Edward Sri. You can sign up here.

In the meantime, I thought I’d kick off the year with a little story.

My Aunt Rosemary was in her early thirties when she was diagnosed with ALS. She was a faithful Christian woman with three small children — the youngest only about four. Her weekly women’s Bible study prayed for her every week, that God would take the disease away from her so she could see her children grow up. Prayed earnestly, with tears and great conviction.

Long story short, their prayers weren’t answered the way they’d hoped. Gradually, as Aunt Rosemary lost the use of her ability to stand, then to talk, the prayers got a little more frantic. Some actually accused her of “secret sin,” certain that God would have healed her if only she had enough faith. One by one, people stopped coming to her house. My mom would go to visit, communicating her with a shorthand alphabet system whereby she’d divide the alphabet into four parts (“apple” – a through e; “girl” – g through l; “manner” – m through r; and “stay” – s through z) and Rosemary would blink as Mom guessed the right letter for each word she wanted to say. She stayed in that medical limbo for almost eight years before she finally succumbed to the disease.

It wasn’t until years later, I asked one of my seminary professors about the sacrament of anointing, how often he’d seen actual healing take place as a result of ministering the sacrament. “It does happen,” Father told me. “But more often, it’s about strengthening the soul for what’s ahead.”

And so it is with the Year of Faith. None of us have any way of knowing what is in store for us in the coming year, shadow or glory. Rocky roads or smooth pavement. Feast or famine.

What we can say for sure is that, either way, how we respond to these circumstances depends to a great extent how willing we are to offer it back to God and trust him to make something beautiful out of it.

So join me, won’t you, in offering this year — whatever it holds — to the loving benevolence of God?

Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you. Amen.

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The “Prayer of Agony”

This week I’m writing from the beautiful Black Rock Retreat Center in south central PA, attending the week-long “Head and Heart” Immersion Course offered by the Theology of the Body Institute, to seep in the teachings of Blessed John Paul II on the sacramental view of the human body, and in particular through our sexuality.

I won’t kid you, it has also been an excellent opportunity for me to catch up on some much-needed rest. No television or email in the room (I was warned there would be no Diet Coke machines, either, so I came fortified).

For the past two days I’ve been listening to Christopher talk about God’s plan for the human race from the beginning  (“original man”), the restoration of what was lost in the Fall (“historical man”) and our ultimate destiny as the Bride of Christ in the marriage feast of the Lamb (“eschatological man”). All this was helpful in the way of professional development . . . but what helped me most, personally speaking, was something he said Sunday night about the role of suffering in the Christian life: that the “prayer of ecstasy” (think “The Ecstasy of Teresa of Avila by Bernini,” pictured here) is always preceded by the “prayer of agony.”

Christopher explained that, because of sin, the human heart becomes so hard (he called it “full of vinegar,”) it cannot receive the honey of God’s abundant love. In order to prepare us to receive this abundant grace, God has to empty the vinegar and soften our hearts — something that takes place only through suffering. He was quoting from St. Benedict’s “Spe Salvi,” p. 33:

Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13). He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined[26]. Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father.

As a Catholic, I believe in the concept of “redemptive suffering,” that the pain we bear in this life can be applied in effective intercession for our own intentions and on behalf of those for whom we pray. This “prayer of agony” is aptly named . . . of course none of us would choose it. But in accepting it, even embracing it, we allow God to bring something good out of it. That is my hope. That is my prayer: that at the end of the pain, comes the joy.

Saint Teresa of Avila, pray for us!

Special NCFA Report Recommends Teaching Adoption in Schools

With the rate of teenage pregnancy going up again for the first time in fifteen years, the recent release of this special report from the National Council for Adoption is especially timely. This NCFA report identifies a critical improvement needed in public school health and sex-ed classes: Educating teens about adoption as a positive outcome for crisis pregnancies.

Right now, just four states — Virginia, Utah, Michigan, and Louisiana — have legislation that mandates adoption awareness for public school “reproductive health/sexual education” programs (either mandated or voluntary). However, NCFA reports that studies have shown “four years after the birth of their children, those who had made adoption placements had higher levels of educational attainment, higher rates of employment, and lower rates of subsequent pregnancy relative to those who chose to parent” (NCFA “The Adoption Option,” pg 2).

Another good reason for the change: Studies have shown that “children born to teens are twice as likely to suffer abuse and neglect than those born to older mothers.”

The subject of sex education in schools is a controversial one. Ultimately it is parents’ responsibility — not the school’s — to teach their children about sexuality. Sadly, too many parents — in a well-intentioned but ultimately misguided attempt to protect their children — abdicate this responsibility. The reality is that if we are not proactive in educating our children, we will lose an important opportunity — and run the risk of having our children get an education of a different (and far more painful) kind.

We need to be teaching our children more than “don’t.”  And I’m not talking about saying “Don’t, but if you do … be safe.” Contraception is not the answer; a woman’s fertility is not a disease to be treated but a gift to be embraced and respected. Rather, we need to be giving our youth — girls and boys — a vision for God’s plan for the family, and for their own bodies. We need to give them a sense of self-respect, empowerment, and confidence in themselves. We need to teach them that sex is not a game, but a gift … to be opened only in the context of marriage.

The NCFA report acknowledges that when teens do not embrace this message, they need information of a different kind. They need to be taught that if they are big enough to engage in sex, they must be willing to accept the consequences of their actions by putting their child’s needs ahead of their own desires. In many cases, this would include adoption, so that the child is not forced to pay for his parents’ mistakes, either with his life (through abortion) or abuse or neglect.

If you are looking for resources to help you give your teenager a spiritually sound perspective on human sexuality, I’d like to suggest “Theology of the Body for Teens” (Brian Butler, and Jason and Crystalina Evert, Ascension Press).