Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Are You Being Fed?

In some protestant churches if someone wants to know if the church you joined is a good place for you to be they will ask “Are you being fed?” The choir can be musical, the sanctuary beautiful, the sermons evangelical, the youth ministry radical, but “Are you being fed”?

Now you will almost never hear someone ask a Catholic “Are you being fed”? Many would assume we are not! Yet if anyone can answer “Yes” to that question, it’s a Catholic!

First, the Catholic, like the protestant, is being fed with the Word of God from the Bible. On a typical Sunday the Catholic hears four readings from Scripture: an Old Testament passage, a Psalm, a New Testament passage from the epistles, Acts or Revelation, and a Gospel passage!

I’ll admit that Catholic priests aren’t exactly known for their preaching skills. (Catholics call their preaching “homilies” not “sermons”). Yet I would say that the average priest’s homily is as good as an average protestant pastor’s sermon. The key difference is its purpose.

The Catholic scripture readings and homily are part of the Liturgy of the Word, the first part of the Mass. They prepare the faithful for the second part, the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the heart of the Mass. In Protestant churches the sermon (and perhaps the altar call) is the heart of the service.

In answer to the question “Are you being fed?” Catholics can say “Yes! Not only am I being fed the word of God from the Scripture, but I am literally being fed the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ, in the Eucharist!

The Eucharist is a continuation of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. Once consecrated, the bread and wine become the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ. Just as “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14) at the Incarnation, so in the Eucharist Jesus gives us his flesh and blood as real spiritual food and drink (John 6:53-59). He gives us himself.

Am I being fed? Yes, both through the Scripture and the Eucharist I am receiving the Word of God. I am being fed by and with Jesus. And you are what you eat!

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Simon May Die, but Peter Lives On

It has been a momentous few weeks from the death of Pope John Paul II on April 2nd to the election on Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI. The world has been exposed to the Catholic Church in a way I don't think it has been before. For a few days in early April cable news looked more like a subsidiary of EWTN (the global Catholic network) than MSNBC or CNN! Best of all, the news of the passing of John Paul II and the election of a new Pope all but silenced the endless prattle that passes for news, especially celebrity trials!

I was away from the Catholic Church for most of John Paul II's papacy. I remember his election, his trips around the world, the assassination attempt, the Pope-mobile, World Youth Days, etc. I am blessed that the Spirit brought me back to the Church last December in time for these recent events. Even though I did miss much of his papacy, John Paul II still affected my life. And I miss him.

I am not yet used to praying the Rosary, but the few times I have prayed it have been influenced by John Paul II. On Good Friday, I prayed the Luminous Mysteries that Pope John Paul II gave to the Church. During the time of his passing, I prayed the Sorrowful Mysteries and when Pope Benedict XVI was elected, the Joyful Mysteries.

On Tuesday April 19th, I attended a noon mass. The parish priest said that he thought it was appropriate that the Cardinals were meeting to elect a Pope during the week following Good Shepherd Sunday. He said he hoped that the Cardinals would elect a good shepherd for God's Church.

As I left the church, I heard a couple of parishioners say that they heard a Pope had been elected. I drove to work listening for the news on the radio. As I pulled into the parking lot at work, the ceremony was being broadcast. Habemus papum! We have a Pope!

Let us pray for Pope Benedict XVI.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

You Can Go Rome Again--Part 3

After I came home, I attended First Baptist Church in Brewster, NY. After about 5 years there, I felt like I had never fit in. I had intended to find a new church home, but never did. In fact, I stopped going to church altogether for several years. From time to time God would move in my life to remind me that he was still with me. I was working, first in retail and then in the Audio Visual field. Then in September of 2003, I was lost my AV job. I was unemployed for a little over a year. I was finding bottom fast.
But, as he so often does, God was using this difficult time in my life to get me ready for something new. As he says in Isaiah, "I will lead the blind by ways they have not known; along unfamiliar paths I will guide them. I will turn darkness into light before them and make rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them." (Is. 42:16)
Eventually, I came across EWTN and "The Journey Home" and "Life on the Rock." "The Journey Home" is hosted by Marcus Grodi, a former Presbyterian pastor now a Catholic. Each week he interviews either a convert to Catholicism or someone who has returned to the Church. In the first half hour Marcus interviews the guests about their spiritual journey. In the second half, they take questions. In closing, Marcus Grodi's question is always "How has becoming a Catholic strengthened your faith in Jesus Christ?"
There are two things that keep coming up as reasons the interviewees become Catholic, the Eucharist and Church history--especially the early church fathers. The Eucharist because they come to believe that it's more than a symbol; it's the Real Presence of Christ. The church fathers because their writings reveal a faith that "sounds so Catholic".
"The Journey Home" got me thinking about returning to the Catholic Church. "Life on the Rock" also provided a great example of real Catholic faith. Even though I am not the target demographic (it's for "young people"!), the humor and good-natured faith of Father Francis, Father Mark and their guests was a powerful invitation to Catholicism.
I started researching some Catholic websites that deal with apologetics and doctrine. (see below). I continued to read. Over the course of several weeks, I read the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I was also reading some of Scott Hahn's books, especially "Swear to God" and "The Lamb's Supper." Even Garry Wills' books "Papal Sin" and "Why I Am a Catholic" were ultimately helpful!

I stopped by my parish church of St. Joseph's. The plan was to spend some time in prayer. The church was nice and quiet. I selected a pew near the front of the church since the Tabernacle is behind the main altar. I started to pray--the Our Father, the Jesus prayer, some other bits and pieces. I hadn't prayed like that in quite a while. I began to feel like something was happening, like I was getting through--a little taste of God's presence.

It occurred to me that I should spend some time listening! It's very hard to describe what happened next except to say that the feeling of being in God's presence intensified! The Lord said so much to me. He told me of his love, of his presence both in my heart and in the Tabernacle, that he was with me, that I could trust him, that I was forgiven--so much love! Somewhere in all of this, I confessed my sins. I let the tears fall.
I decided that I needed to go to a mass. I knew I couldn't receive the Eucharist yet. But I wanted to see what I mass was like after all these years. I had already stopped by the church when it was not in use to see what the building was like.
The mass I went to was on October 31, 2004, the eve of All Saint's, the 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time. Father George was saying the mass. Although it had been about 25 years since I had been to mass, I felt at home. The Gospel that day was from St. Luke's story of Jesus meeting Zacchaeus. Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (Lk. 19:9-10)

After that, I spoke a couple of times with Father George. I kept going to mass, longing to receive the Eucharist. My problems with some Catholic doctrine faded as I realized that the key to understanding Church teaching was incarnation (more on that later!). Finally in December I was able to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I was back in the Catholic Church. I was home.
The Journey Home

How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Baptist--Part 2

Dave invited me to a concert that Saturday. Albany Evangelical Christians (AEC) had a music group called "New Covenant". They played a program of songs, sometimes the whole group, sometimes smaller parts of it. After the show, Dave and I met with Jay, a philosophy major. We went up some stairs to a lounge area to talk. Jay asked me what I believed about Jesus. After some discussion, I said that I thought I should take some time and read the Bible. Jay said "I think you know all you need to right now." He suggested we pray, that I tell God that I believed in him. I realized that he wanted me to pray out loud!

After we were finished praying, we went back downstairs. There were still some people there from the AEC group. Jay introduced me as "a new brother in Christ." People cheered. There were handshakes and hugs. I realized that while we had been upstairs praying, these people had been downstairs praying for me!

Dave and I developed a routine of going to the InterVarsity group on Friday night, Mass at Chapel House on Saturday night and Albany Baptist Church on Sunday morning. Chapel House was just off campus—about 10 feet off campus! Father Ryan was the priest who said Mass there. It was a forward looking group. We adopted changes early. Father Ryan understood how to involve college students in the Church.

It was an excellent ministry, but I doubted I find anything like it off campus. And I was having some doctrinal issues--Mary, the Papacy, etc., things I felt there was little or no support for in the Scripture I had begun reading.

Through the InterVarsity group, I went to its missions conference Urbana '79. The conference was held every three years at the campus of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during Christmas break. It was a great week. There were many challenging speakers, bible study and representatives from many missionary organizations. The highlight was a communion service lead by noted author and speaker Rev. John R. W. Stott. There's something special about 10,000 plus people singing hymns and saying prayers together. It was a foretaste of Heaven.

But when it was time to graduate, we could no longer attend the Chapel House or Albany Evangelical Christians. That left Albany Baptist church. It was, at the time, a small church of less than a hundred. There were several families of transplanted southerners, a few local families and some college students! I eventually joined that church. I taught some adult Sunday school classes. Some of the folks in the church encouraged me to consider seminary. I went to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, TX for my M.Div.

I lived in Fort Worth and attended seminary part time for about 6 years. I was fortunate to have many outstanding professors who not only taught their subjects but shared their lives as well, especially Dr. David Garland, Old Testament, Dr. Jack MacGorman, New Testament, Dr. Jesse Northcutt, Preaching, and Dr. Al Fasol, preaching and many others. Dr. Russell Dilday was seminary President while I was there, just before fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention began to take over its leadership.

During this time, I was a member of Hope Baptist Church in Fort Worth (now known as simply Hope Church). The pastor is Harold Bullock. While I was there, Hope met in the downtown YMCA and then other rented spaces as the church grew. Hope had a contemporary style of worship, even using songs written by church members! The sermon came early in the service instead of near the end as with most Protestant churches. This allowed the rest of the service to be a time of responding to what God had said to the people through the Scriptures.

Another strength of Hope Baptist Church was it's commitment to church planting. Teams left Hope regularly to start new churches. Hope was the model church for these new congregations.

After graduating from Southwestern Seminary, I had hoped to go to Vancouver, Canada to be part of a media ministry there. But things didn't work out, so I moved back home to New York.

Would I find a New York state of mind? More in part three, or "You Can Go Rome Again".

What We Need Here Are Name Tags--Part 1

I started life as a cradle Catholic, baptized at Our Lady of Angels. I went to St. Joseph’s Catholic grammar school and John F. Kennedy High School.

St. Joe’s was a typical Catholic grammar school. We wore uniforms. About half of our teachers were Sisters of the Divine Compassion, the rest were laypeople. We had one room that was a combination auditorium, cafeteria, gymnasium and church. So it was there that I played Squanto in the Thanksgiving play, ate ham and cheese sandwiches, was taught how to dribble a basketball (badly) and received the Eucharist.

The changes of Vatican II happened in my early grammar school years. I can still remember going to Latin mass. By the time I got to high school, Sister Mary Bonaventure, who I was my first grade teacher, was now Sister Delores. She seemed to enjoy telling my high school class her memories of me in first grade!

High school has a similar mix of laity and religious teachers. Since this was the high school that most of the kids from the northern part of the county attended, I had friends from whole area. There was a group of 5 of us who didn't fit in with one of the easily identifiable high school groups. We weren't jocks or brainiacs or greasers or stoners (although we were close to some of them at various times). So we formed our own group, "The Lunatic Fringe"! As a result, we survived high school.

In college, my friend Dave, who was a fellow member of "the Lunatic Fringe" and also Catholic, had become a born-again Christian (As we said back then. Or, as I would say now, had an experience of deeper conversion to the faith he already had in Christ.) We had planned to room together the next year, so he told me how he had come to know Christ.

It was a typical March afternoon on the Albany campus, a Thursday. Dave told me of how he came to a personal faith in Christ. He challenged me by saying that if what we had been taught by the Church was true, if Jesus was the Son of God who had became man and died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven, and if God raised him from the dead—if that were all true then it called for a response. It was not something you could just say "Yeah, that's nice." Christ wasTruth worth believing, worth following.

Did I take Dave's Challenge? More in part two, or "How a Nice Catholic Boy Became a Baptist".