Penance, Healing, & Renewal

Today the Catholic bishops of the United States begin seven days of intensified prayer and fasting. As they prepare for next week’s meetings, they have much to pray about. Healing and renewal will never happen without serious penance and dying to self. Only when our old ways die can we experience the newness of Christ.

Do penance. Engage in acts of self-denial as an outward sign and instrument of inner renewal. This was the message of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8). It was the first message of Jesus in his preaching of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15). It was the message of Paul when he urged us to crucify the desires of our flesh (Galatians 5:24). For centuries, Christians embraced serious acts of penance as a normal part of discipleship: all-night prayer vigils, periods of fasting, pilgrimages to holy sites, and so forth.

During the last five decades, penance has virtually vanished from Christian life. A little in Lent and that’s it. My smart phone proves the point. I tried using voice-to-text to speak the word “penance,” and it simply would not cooperate: Pennants. Pendants. Pendulum. Penmanship. Seriously, “penmanship?” Apparently even the lost art of handwriting is more common in our digital age than self-denial.

Our culture has been one of regular self-gratification. The result has been the steady corrosion of healthy relationships, not to mention serious scandals. Priests and bishops are called to even more self-denial than others. We are supposed to be signs to the world that the Kingdom of God is so much more real than these passing pleasures. We have let people down. Trust has been damaged, and needs to be restored.

Restoring trust includes “talking about the tough stuff.” That is something healthy families do. It has not always happened in Catholic institutions. Our people have every right to hear our bishops and Pope Francis talk openly about these problems.

But talk alone will not suffice. To quote the wisdom of Stephen Covey: “You can’t talk your way out of a problem that you behaved yourself into.” Thankfully, we can add the insight of his son: you can behave your way out of the problem you behaved yourself into. Trust can be restored by consistent behavior.

Part of “behaving” may include more resignations or removals of bishops from office. But there is no “one and done” solution here, no utopian structure that will magically make human sinfulness go away. To be fully human means being fully free. The choice to be healthy and holy must be renewed each day.

The real battleground is the human heart. We live in a confused and disconnected age in which most human beings in affluent countries have developed a distorted understanding of what it means to be human, what it means to love, what sexuality is for, and what constitutes healthy relationships. Many people do not experience a harmony of body, mind, and spirit in their lifestyle choices or in their relationships. This dysfunction and disconnected way of living has infected Catholics of all walks of life.

Some have suggested that priests getting married would somehow solve the problem. I totally disagree. Marriage is no solution to sexual dysfunction. Sometimes married people figure that their mate will make their emptiness, wounds, fears, or insecurities go away. Not true. Marriage does not heal old wounds – that is not what marriage is for! Likewise, some young men figure that the grace of Holy Orders will heal their old wounds. Not so. In both cases, the wounds worsen. We then become wounded wounders. When priests are wounded wounders, the opportunity to wound is worse.

Our society believes the lie that sexual gratification is a “need.” There are many things we are convinced (in the moment of temptation) that we “need” – sex, junk food, an impulse buy, approval from others, etc. Underneath the urges can be found our deeper and truer desires: to know that all will be well, to feel connected, to feel wanted, and to be a child of God. We definitely need those things in life, and if we stop paying attention to our emotional and spiritual needs, we might find ourselves drifting into some ugly behaviors – even if we are priests.

Penance is quite helpful in laying bare the deeper desires of our heart. As we begin to say “yes” and “no” with fuller freedom, we rediscover the harmony of body, mind, and spirit. Healing in one area cannot happen without paying attention to the others.

Penance also is a wonderful way of expressing the communion of the saints – our oneness and solidarity in Christ. Even if I myself am not the perpetrator, by doing penance I am proclaiming, “I belong to the people of God!” Like Moses atop the mountain or like Jesus in the desert, we suffer for the sins of the whole community and pray for God to win the victory in every human heart.

Our “old self” will not go down quietly. Part of us will always rebel repeatedly against the newness that Christ brings. That epic struggle, that battle-to-the-death, is part of the human experience. It must be fought by saints of all walks of life: monks, nuns, priests, bishops, married men and women, widows and widowers, elderly, disabled, teens, and children.

Therefore, I plan to join our bishops by fasting at least four days this week. In my case that means eating only one meal, and if needed one or two small snacks. More importantly, I am committed to listen attentively to the still small voice in my heart inviting me to reduce or renounce other behaviors – the “panic rooms” that I wrote about last month. Dying to self is painful. Sometimes God’s requests bring tears to my eyes. But they always bring new life to my heart.

Evangelization: The Barnabas Option

In the Acts of the Apostles, Barnabas offers a shining example of Christian evangelization – one that any of us can learn.

He goes to Antioch, a pagan Greek city, where many are beginning to experience the call to conversion. As Luke describes, “When he arrived and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced and encouraged them all to remain faithful to the Lord in firmness of heart, for he was a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. And a large number of people was added to the Lord” (Acts 11:23-24).

Barnabas followed three simple steps: (1) He saw; (2) He rejoiced; (3) He encouraged.

Barnabas saw. He noticed what God was doing. How? Not by himself, but because he was “a good man, filled with the Holy Spirit and faith.”

From start to finish, evangelization is God’s work. The Father draws every single human being to himself. The Holy Spirit is always there, ready to work within our hearts.  Perhaps we harden our hearts, in which case conversion will not happen. God will simply wait in love, like the Father waiting for the prodigal son. But if there is even the tiniest crack or opening, the Holy Spirit will begin working the grace of conversion.

If the evangelist is guided by the Holy Spirit, he will notice what the same Holy Spirit is doing in the other person’s heart. He will see. He will rejoice.

Barnabas rejoiced. The work of the Holy Spirit is always cause for joy. Any sign of progress, no matter how small, should be celebrated as “Good News.” Growing and maturing spiritually is so much like the process of little children growing up. Most of us find great joy in watching a baby speak his first words or take his first steps. We communicate that joy with enthusiastic encouragement.

Barnabas encouraged. Literally, Barnabas means “son of encouragement” – in Greek, huios paraklēseōs. Notice how paraklēseōs is related to “Paraclete” – the title Jesus uses for himself and for the Holy Spirit. They are both sent by the Father to encourage, to console, to comfort, to advocate, and to heal.

We all need encouragement. We always have and always will. We need it from God and we need it from at least some other human beings in our life.

Indeed, brain science shows us that encouragement is how we learn to change at any stage in life – whether as little children or as “old dogs” who think we can’t learn any new tricks. Through small releases of dopamine, the pleasure center of our brain reinforces the lesson learned. Feeling encouraged by the small success, we desire to keep going. Success builds on success. It’s how little children learn, and it’s also how we adults change. Unfortunately, product peddlers, video game makers, social media engineers, and pornographers also understand this truth about how the brain works. In their case, they count on doses of dopamine leading people, step-by-step, into a dependency or addiction.

It is step-by-step that we get mired in sin. It is step-by-step that God heals and restores us. As Gregory the Great once said, we do not get to the top of the mountain by one great leap, but by steps. Barnabas intuitively understood that point. He allowed the Holy Spirit to work in his heart, aiding him to see and rejoice and encourage.

Why do Christians today struggle to evangelize? I see at least three attitudes that block successful evangelization from happening.

First, there is lukewarmness and mediocrity. Many Christians want that which is comfortable and familiar. They want their regular worship time, their regular seat, the same old parish activities, and they sure as heck don’t want any challenging change. Even priests and bishops are not immune to this apathy. Hopefully today we can see that “business as usual” has not been working for us!

Secondly, there is a spirit of fear and timidity. Yes, devout Christians typically want to see growth in their parishes. But they often see themselves as not educated enough to evangelize, not having the tools or skills. Barnabas shows us that the Holy Spirit is the primary evangelizing force. Do we really believe? If so, we can call down the Holy Spirit to equip our hearts. We can be confident that the same Holy Spirit is truly at work in the heart of the person we are speaking Good News to. We can always call on the Holy Spirit to help us see and rejoice and encourage what is there. He will.

Thirdly, there is a Pharisaical fear. Instead of seeing and rejoicing and encouraging, we smack people with the rules. We try to fix their problems. We start telling them all the things they need to do. When the Holy Spirit is working, full conversion will ultimately happen – we don’t have to panic or rush it! Like children, they grow into it step-by-step. But if they don’t experience that divine encouragement they are more likely to feel overwhelmed and turn away.

I must admit that I was guilty of Pharisaical fear myself. My wounds of shame and fear led me to be overly concerned with “following the rules.” I had to be good enough to be loved by God. I knew, intellectually, that God was an all-loving Father. But my heart struggled to internalize that truth. Unfortunately, as a spiritual father, I think I may sometimes have passed on the wrong message. I probably also missed a few opportunities to evangelize.  I’ve been learning to surrender the urge to be in control and instead to be like Barnabas. It’s amazing how the Holy Spirit takes over from there!