Waste Not? Want Not?

Waste not, want not. So says the eighteenth-century aphorism.

Implied is a warning against the desperation of neediness. Presupposed is a sense of scarcity and a fear that there won’t be enough. Many of our families and our church institutions have lived by this adage for multiple generations.

What does Jesus have to say about wasting or wanting?

On Palm Sunday, we listen to the story of his Passion (Mark 14:1-72), beginning at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. A woman enters with an alabaster jar full of costly nard, breaks the jar, and pours the contents over his head.

Her extravagance elicits outrage from several of the guests “Why this waste of perfumed oil? It could have been sold for more than 300 denarii! The money could have been given to the poor!”

They make a fair point. One denarius was the daily wage for a laborer. Multiplied by 300, we’re talking about somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 by today’s standards.

Yet Jesus praises the woman for lavishing this gift upon him. The poor will always be with us. Jesus will not. She has anointed him for his burial, and her good deed is to be remembered throughout the generations.

In Jesus’ view, there is a time and a place to be “wasteful” – especially when it comes to showing honor and delight to those we love. If we are dominated by a fear-based frugality, then our message to others easily becomes, “Let me calculate how much you are worth,” or “I don’t think you matter that much.”

What about “wanting”? What does Jesus have to say?  Actually, quite a lot!

When the crowds gather to hear his preaching, he begins with the Beatitudes. He invites us to experience true and unshakable blessedness by embracing poverty of spirit, mourning, and meekness. He invites us to feel the ache of hungering and thirsting for righteousness. It is in the depths of our needing that we are most capable of receiving.

Jesus did not merely teach us to need and depend and receive. He modeled receptivity, as did Mary and Joseph. They went in want. They lacked basic shelter as Mary’s pregnancy came to term. They fled into Egypt as immigrants, without knowing how their necessities would be met. Jesus spent thirty of his thirty-three years in relative obscurity, engaging (it seems) in far more receptivity than sacrificial giving. Nor did he stop allowing himself to need and to receive during his brief public ministry. He willingly received kindness and care from others. Even when his “hour” came and he said a free and wholehearted “yes” to sacrificing everything, he lodged in Bethany with his good friends.

“Waste not, want not” contains a small amount of wisdom, but ultimately dehumanizes. It teaches us to be terrified of going in want, of needing, of depending, of receiving – in stark contrast to the teaching and example of Jesus.

Can we be curious about where this attitude comes from?

I see it as a survivor mentality, including an inner vow (“I will never go in want again!”). Doing what it takes to survive is great in a desperate situation. If you’re stranded on a ship for months, “waste not, want not” is an outstanding motto. But when that survivor mentality becomes enfleshed in everyday life, it becomes a burden.

I think of my childhood, and pleasant-enough visits to my great grandmother on my stepdad’s side. The house was, shall we say, “cozy.” Stuff piled everywhere. Like so many, she was a survivor of the Great Depression, determined never to go in need again. When she passed, my stepdad and his sisters spent many hours cleaning out the clutter. He joked about the piles of used paper cups from McDonald’s. You just don’t know when you might need them again. Waste not, want not.

He joked, but he lived by the same mentality. Shortly after her death, he needed to move his tools out of her garage. So, we tore down our one-stall garage and built a five-stall. He cleverly salvaged the old door, turning it into a back entrance.

The new garage was huge, but we never parked cars in it.

It was way too full of stuff. Some of the things (his tools) were quite valuable.  Much of it was, well, less valuable. When my stepdad passed in 2010, my sister and I spent a few days toiling to clear out the garage. We didn’t find any paper cups, but we sure got rid of stuff. It was a great moment of triumph when we announced to our mom that she could start parking her car there.

As we cleared out the junk, I made trip after trip to the curb. I discovered the power of another proverb, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Between trips to the curb, all had magically disappeared – into someone else’s five-stall garage, apparently?

Cluttered garages and homes can be joked about – and we’ve all seen them. They range from mildly annoying to utterly disgusting and dangerous. The deeper question here is around the survivor vow that gets taken amidst heartache: Never again!

Never what, exactly? That’s the problem with vows made out of fear. Over time, they cut us off from really great things: in this case, from the capacity to receive and give love in healthy community, to flourish, and to experience abundance together.

Survivor vows are not merely individual – they entrench themselves in the collective: families, churches, schools, entire dioceses. Many of our institutions are darkened by a cloud of fearful protectiveness – and then lament that membership is so low. In one of my previous parishes, I repeatedly turned on lights that others had shut off. I was expecting first-time guests, and (with sensitivity) expecting them to be nervous. I felt like it would be kind to have them enter a warm and inviting space, rather than snake their way around dark corners. There were some in the parish who couldn’t handle such extravagance, whispered about my wastefulness, and shut the lights back off the moment I wasn’t looking.

More recently, I heard about “Plategate.” A priest friend was hosting with pizza after Masses in his church. He had the gall to use the paper plates stored by some of the church ladies. They made a point of hiding those before the next Mass. So he purchased his own plates. They proceeded to hide those. I imagine there are hundreds of priests nationwide who have their own versions of “Plategate” as they try to invite renewal in their churches.

Fear is a normal human emotion. But when fear of that happening again takes over and hops into the driver’s seat, we stifle the capacity to receive, to grow, and to bear fruit. We wind up embodying the parable of the talents, living like the fearful servant who buries his gift in the ground (Matthew 25:14-30). We cut off all vulnerability and risk, and in the process stifle any real growth or fruitfulness for the sake of the Kingdom. That choking off affects not just us, but all of our relationships.

Our God is not a God of scarcity but of abundance. When we allow ourselves to be secure in his love, we can feel confident and creative. We can collaborate and innovate. We can go beyond the math of adding or subtracting, and discover the power of multiplication – something Jesus often talked about and did.

Our God is first and foremost a God of relationship. God is an eternal communion of persons. Jesus is eternally “from the Father.” Who he is and what he has are the fruit of receiving. He desires to share the same abundance with us. He invites us to become truly blessed precisely by learning how to desire, to want, and to need.

During Holy Week, we will ponder just how much Jesus embraced our human condition of wanting and needing. I invite each of us to be curious about the ways we resist that level of vulnerability, and how he might be inviting us to conversion.

Check out my new blog!

Hello faithful readers. Can you believe this blog has been going for nearly five years now? Thank you to each and all of your for your support and encouragement – and especially for the courage you have shown on your own journey of healing and conversion. Rest assured, I have not run out of content yet, and plan to continue posting in Abiding in Love and Truth.

Meanwhile, I just launched a new blog entitled Brave Shepherds. It goes hand in hand with my new assignment as Director of the Rebuild My Church Initiative in my diocese.

Brave Shepherds is a blog for priests and for those who desire to support us priests in our task of growing as human beings, as disciples of Jesus, and in our self-offering as priests.

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Thank you all very much!

“Purity Culture” – Lie #2

Last week, I began this multi-part series questioning the messages of the “purity culture.” For at least two generations, its representatives have claimed to speak with the authority of Jesus and his Church. But in many cases, they have been fueled more by fear than by love, fighting a protective war against the menacing culture, and shaming those who disagree.

We saw last time how damaging it is to consider purity as a prize to be lost.

Unfortunately, there are other lies and distortions that also need to be named and corrected.

Lie #2: Marriage will rescue me from my struggles.

Many evangelical congregations or stricter Catholic priests and families have upheld “purity” as a falsely exalted virginity. Those who enter marriage with their purity intact are upheld as mighty champions. They made it! On the surface, it seems like a great message. After all, fornication is a sin, because marriage is the God-given context for sexual intercourse. But is it really true that bringing virginity into marriage automatically makes you a champion? And does that make everyone else a loser?

In the very same Christian homes or extended families, children are often abused or neglected (physically, emotionally, sexually, or spiritually). They repeatedly see mom and dad not honoring and delighting in each other. They see aggression and contempt – whether the more active kind (interrupting, shouting, swearing, name calling, pushing, throwing objects, or hitting) or the passive kind (sulking, silent treatments, disengaging, avoiding, undermining, or gossiping). Such children only feel loved when they fit the prefabricated mold their parents impose. When mom or dad treat each other or the children with contempt, the same parents pretend afterward as though nothing happened. They may even talk about how amazing or wonderful family is, stirring up a spirit of dread about “those people” in the world who are threatening family life.

Meanwhile, these same children and adolescents receive little to no real guidance about healthy sexuality. They discover pornography at a tender age and know instinctively that mom and dad would shame them if they knew about it.  They commit one “impure” act and secretly fear that they must be one of the losers, not one of the champions. Even worse, they feel intense shame that they are somehow experiencing arousal and pleasure amidst their “impurity.” It feels as though their body is betraying them, as though their body is not gloriously working exactly the way God designed it to. Neither family nor church are truly there to help them make sense of what their body is experiencing, lifting the shame and coaching them toward true maturity.

Unwanted behaviors deepen and intensify, fueled by shame and secrecy. In desperate attempts to salvage their “purity” before marriage, humans begin to draw strange lines in the sand. Over the years, I have spoken to teens and young adults who have done just about every sexual act except for vaginal intercourse – because they didn’t want to lose their virginity before marriage. “At least I’m still a virgin.” “At least I never did ________ like those people” (can you hear the contempt and shame here?).

Within this purity culture of our families and churches, how many millions of Christian young adults have sincerely believed that once they were married all these unwanted behaviors would melt away. SPOILER ALERT: they don’t.

Each of us brings our whole personal history into our present-day relationships. We bring our heartache and heartbreak, our unresolved trauma, our toxic shame, and our self-protection. In a fallen race that still bears the divine image, family is typically both beautiful and broken. Amidst the brokenness, we have all learned ways of surviving. We know how to get through hard stuff without exposing ourselves to even more wounds.

There is a brilliance here – using our God-given creativity to survive and even find some scraps of delight. How sad, though, when most or all of our human creativity is diverted into sheer survival. We are created for abundance, to be fruitful and multiply. We are created to receive and give love, with intense delight and joy.

Over time, our survival skills block our capacity to be vulnerable and to receive in healthy relationships – especially within marriage (or within priesthood, or within any other vocation).

I think C.S. Lewis put it best:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Without vulnerability, without a capacity to receive the love of another as free gift, how can sex be healthy? When authentic emotional expression is stifled, or when sexual arousal is instantly associated with shame, how can marriage or family life flourish?

By overemphasizing “purity” before marriage, the purity culture has lost sight of the pinnacle of human love and sexuality: praising God with delight, in our very bodies. That worship is only possible when we receive and give love, freely and wholeheartedly. Healthy and holy marriages are precious indeed! They slowly and steadily emerge as two distinct children of God learn how to keep growing in maturity. Then they can (more and more) share from the fullness of their own heart, rather than use or manipulate, assault or punish, isolate or hide, guard or protect.

Maturing means both husband and wife must keep engaging their own personal story – understanding where they have come from. It means resisting the temptation to glamorize (“I had an amazing childhood!”) or minimize (“Others had it much worse…”). It takes enormous courage to tell the full truth about just how hard it was, just how alone I felt, or just how desperately I still ache to be loved as I am. If parents refuse to see that painful truth in their own story, they will transmit their pain to their children. To the extent that parents still feel contempt for their own bodies and their own sexuality, they beckon their children to carry the same contempt into the next generation.

There are parallel truths for priesthood and celibacy. It is impossible to make a fruitful gift of one’s sexuality without an ongoing willingness to become a whole person capable of receiving love. I will soon be talking with several other priests about our need for affective and relational maturity if we want to live well the gift of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom. Jesus promises a superabundant fruitfulness with this gift (Matthew 19:12; Mark 10:30).

As a Church, we have so much work to do in naming our own dysfunction – both in our priests and in our marriages. Certainly, there are problems “out there” in the culture. But the transformation always begins within our own minds, our own bodies, and our own souls.

St. Benedict and Stability

As I finish my final month of sabbatical in a Benedictine monastery, I’ll continue reflecting on their threefold vow of obedience, stability, and conversion of life. Last time we considered obedience. Today we’ll consider “stability.”

Benedictine monks vow to stay in the monastery that they enter, unless obedience sends them elsewhere. Historically, monks were sometimes sent out as missionaries, or to be abbot of another monastery. But normally their promise to God includes a definitive choice that this monastery is going to be their spiritual and physical home for the rest of their life.

Other religious communities, like the Missionaries of Charity or the Jesuits, are mobile by their very nature. They expect to be moved many times during the course of their life.

The hyper-mobile spirituality of some orders and the ultra-stable spirituality of the Benedictines each have their place in the life of the Church. The frequent call to be moved is a reminder that “here we have no lasting city” (Hebrews 13:14). It is a share in the mission of Jesus, who had “no place to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20). It prevents stagnation.  On the opposite side, fruitful growth can only happen with patience and perseverance, through ongoing relational connection. Even when serious reforms are needed – especially when serious reforms are needed – it takes a stable and patient commitment.

We live in the FOMO age in which people young and old spend much of their day avoiding solid commitments as they restlessly “connect” through social media. We live in an age in which people quite easily move from job to job, state to state, or marriage to marriage. Even when such moves are good and necessary, they are incredibly challenging for all concerned. Benedictine stability deserves our attention!

We can begin by naming what stability is not. It is not easy living with a resistance to change. Every virtue has its shadow side. A week ago, I had Mass and coffee with a neighboring community of Benedictine Sisters. One of them wisely suggested that a great temptation in Benedictine life is comfort. Comfort kills. When we settle into an easy life, we will find ourselves unhappy and stuck.  Comfortable living does not bring joy or delight. We can only experience joy if we are also open to risk or loss, to sorrow or death. There is no joy without vulnerability. Healthy relationships only survive and thrive when there is a willingness to make mistakes and repair the damage, to engage in difficult experiences, to work through healthy conflict, to admit truthfully what is not working well, and to move forward into the unknown with a trust that God will bring new life and fruitfulness. The Benedictine vow is threefold – including conversion of life. Stability without conversion brings death and decay.

The true invitation of stability is an invitation to be fully present and engaged – with God; with others; and with one’s own body, mind, and spirit. It is direct spiritual combat against acedia, sometimes called “sloth,” which is not what most people think it is! Too often acedia is viewed as “laziness” – which is to be combatted by discipline and hard work. As a recovering workaholic, I can personally testify that we can numb ourselves with lesser labors just as much as with any other drug! No, acedia, the noonday devil, is the siren call that pulls us away from being truly present, to stop feeling what we are feeling, to disconnect from our people and our environment, to hide and isolate. Yes, it can come in the form of “lazy” escapes, but the noonday devil does not discriminate in his tactics. He simply wants to lure us away from drinking in the present moment in all its fullness – and all the better if he does so without our even noticing.

Today’s restless FOMO culture is a prime example of acedia at work. FOMO (“fear of missing out”) paralyzes millions each day, keeping them glued to their smartphones while sapping their capacity to be truly present, to notice, to receive, to savor goodness, to mature, to give, and to bear fruit.

Even in the early months of social media and smartphones, I remember vividly a New York Times article in 2008, highlighting the experiment of an MIT professor with his economics students. They played a simple computer game, in which they clicked on one of three doors. Behind each door were real cash prizes. But clicking on one door caused the others to shrink, and eventually, to disappear forever. Instead of finding the door of greatest value and clicking on it repeatedly, the majority of students “kept their options open,” terrified of committing to one thing only. FOMO.

Both FOMO and comfort are enemies of authentic stability. On the one side are those who are afraid to commit, even when the pearl of great price is at hand. On the other side are those who would keep clicking on the same door even when it is no longer paying out – indeed, even when it is depleting them! Isn’t it interesting that 1,500+ years of Benedictine history also included sweeping and successful missionary efforts? Stable living in one monastery was the norm, but when those stable monks planted a foundation elsewhere for the sake of spreading the Gospel, their new monasteries often became hubs of faith, culture, and civilization. Evangelization takes much patience and time.

Benedict begins his Rule with some sage commentary on these attitudes of the human heart. He discusses different “kinds of monks.” There are solitary “hermits” (as he once was), and there are “cenobites” – those who live in a stable community life. Then there are the “sarabaites.” Rather than surrendering themselves in obedience and allowing a community to correct them, they build up a self-made rule and a self-given salvation. “Their law is what they like to do, whatever strikes their fancy … Anything they believe in and choose, they call holy; anything they dislike, they consider forbidden.” Sound familiar? It is the attitude of so many towards religion today – picking and choosing for themselves that which is good, true, and beautiful rather than allowing themselves to be changed by the living God.

Finally, Benedict discusses the “Gyrovagues,” who refuse to settle down and tend to drift from monastery to monastery, region to region. They become “slaves of their own wills and gross appetites” and “are in every way worse than the Sarabaites.” At that point Benedict effectively says he should move on, because he has nothing nice to say.

In our age that over-exalts being open-minded and keeping options open, the words of G.K. Chesterton come to mind: “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Benedictines understand that. They find the pearl of great price, and they commit to spending the rest of their life steadily pursing it in conversion of life. I’ll consider that third and final dimension next time!

The Need for Accompaniment

Accompaniment is perhaps the single greatest need in the Church today. With it, amazing growth and renewal happens. Without it, Christendom crumbles and collapses before our eyes.

Unfortunately, “accompaniment” has become a buzzword. Buzzwords can be confusing and unhelpful. So we need to be clear about what we mean by accompaniment in the life of Christ and his Church.

To be accompanied means that someone commits to us in a relationship that shows love and compassion to us in our need. To be accompanied likely involves one or more of the following: to be seen, noticed, heard, understood, loved, delighted in, celebrated, encouraged, included, affirmed, cared for, walked with, nurtured, fed, sheltered, protected, defended, touched in a meaningful way, comforted, calmed, soothed, taught, guided, counseled, corrected, chastised, or even disciplined. When I am accompanied, I experience at a profound level that I matter, that I am not alone, that I am known and loved, that I am safe and secure, that I belong to a reality larger than myself, and that all will be well. I feel free to be truly myself, without having to pretend or put on a mask. I experience an openness and eagerness for all that is true and good and beautiful.

We are familiar with figures in life who provide this kind of accompaniment: mothers, fathers, spouses, friends, nurses, teachers, coaches, mentors, counselors, and clergy. Or, perhaps we should say that these people can provide these things. Sometimes they do the opposite by using or abusing, controlling or manipulating, neglecting or ignoring.

We live in an age very much like that of the early Church, an age in which the greatness of the Roman empire was fading fast, an age in which marriage and family life had broken down. Jesus urges his disciples to look around them and notice that the fields in the world are ripe for the harvest (John 4:35). They have just stumbled upon his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well. It turns out that the world is full of people like her, people with a deep hunger and thirst, people with a need to be accompanied. Jesus offered her that accompaniment: noticing her, seeing her, understanding her, caring for her, awakening her thirst, and inviting her to embrace the truth. The disciples arrive and ask Jesus about lunch. He explains to them that his food is in doing his Father’s will. He depends upon his Father. He needs to be accompanied by his Father.

This is the first and most important lesson of accompaniment: We all need to be accompanied. This is not simply a need we have as children; it is a human need by God’s design. We are made in his image and likeness. God is love. He is not a solitary God. He is an eternal communion of persons. The call from God is to share in his eternal life, in that eternal communion of love – a far cry from isolation and independence. Certainly, good parents help us to become strong and free and responsible – but hopefully still in a way that knows how to depend upon God and depend upon others. Love of God and love of neighbor are the two great commandments. Love is mutual, not one-sided. If we are not receiving love in a vulnerable way, we have not yet learned how to love.

We begin life utterly vulnerable and dependent,  looking to our primary caregivers, not only for food and clothing and shelter, but for all the other emotional and spiritual needs mentioned above. In God’s plan, these caregivers are a mother and father blessed and united by God in a stable and lifelong covenant of marriage. These days, it is exceptional indeed to find an environment in which mom and dad are intimate friends of God and secure in their covenantal love for each other. In far too many cases these blessings are lacking altogether, or they are only a well-maintained façade, masking misery and dysfunction.  No wonder there is such a gaping need for accompaniment! The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

Here in the United States, there are a couple of added challenges. First, there is the false sense of “independence” – which easily becomes an ungodly self-reliance. Is our nation not built upon rugged individualism? We’re just supposed to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, suck it up, and make it happen. That seems to work so well – until it doesn’t, and life collapses on us. That certainly happened to me – a story for another time.

Secondly, there are many in my generation who became “latchkey children” or “lost children.” Parenting books, from Spock to Ferber, positively encouraged moms and dads to raise “independent” children, to leave even babies alone in their sadness and fear so that they could learn how to “self-soothe” (as if this is something anyone can teach himself!). In other cases, circumstances forced children to be on their own, whether due to divorce or due to dual-paycheck households. When not consistently accompanied through childhood, children certainly learn to be independent – but not necessarily capable of receiving and giving love in a joyful and healthy way.  Many of us graduated to becoming lonely and isolated adults, uncertain how to form healthy relationships. Many more of my peers have emerged as the legendary “helicopter parents” of this generation, fueled by fear, and swooping in to rescue their kids from any real risk or responsibility (or freedom or growth). We are perhaps even more accurately described as “Zamboni parents” or “bulldozer parents.” Still unhealed and insecure from our own lack of accompaniment, and still unable or unwilling to admit our need for it, we are determined that our children will never face danger or risk alone – or at all.

Genuine accompaniment is all about gradualness – aiding someone, step-by-step, to become truly strong and free, capable of receiving and giving in authentic human love. Genuine accompaniment fully respects freedom, nurtures growth, and invites to greater responsibility. Most of us tend to one of two extremes. Either we meddle and micro-manage, or we stay aloof and inconsistent.

Genuine accompaniment is an art – these days, a rare art. I find that those who are best at it are those who themselves have received it – and who are committed to continue receiving it. Think of Jesus, who received accompaniment for the first 30 years of his life – and even then was regularly pulling aside from the crowds to reconnect with his Father in prayer. Jesus never ran from being vulnerable and dependent.

Most of us avoid being vulnerable and do not like to admit that we “need” at a such a deep human level. Receiving is perhaps the hardest human thing to do. If we do not learn to, we wind up grasping or seizing, using or taking, controlling or manipulating.

The Church is the Body of Christ. The lack of accompaniment today is a true crisis. Until each of us learns how to receive the accompaniment we need, we won’t know how to give it. Our members will keep drifting elsewhere in their ache for accompaniment. We lament that our young families are turning instead to athletics, or to yoga, or to social media. Don’t they know what they are missing by leaving the Church? True, none of those other things will fill the void they are experiencing. They are turning there because they find some version of accompaniment. When will we allow ourselves to learn and to begin turning our parishes into places where authentic Christian accompaniment happens – starting with ourselves? I know that if and when we do, the growth will be every bit as explosive as it was in the early Church. The fields are indeed ripe for the harvest.

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.