Sunrise over city

Sunrise over city

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

"Are You Going To San Francisco?"

We've been busy the last few weeks: walking with new evangelists (Meagan and David), making new friends on the streets and seeing some old ones, handing out lots of rosaries and prayer meditations.  Just this morning I filled a page from a yellow legal tablet with all the names of the people I've met on the streets.  I offer prayer and little sacrifices for them by name, but there are now too many to remember!  So I wrote their names down in what I hope will be a little "book of life", the life of God in their soul.  As I've often said to Chris and Meagan after we're done chatting with someone "You see what this apostolate is?  We're collecting souls.  God is giving us these people, and entrusting us with their spiritual care.  We have to uphold them through prayer and sacrifice since there may not be anybody praying for them."

Sometimes we also uphold them with gatorade and cheeseburgers...

As the work has piled up, I was once more reminded that this has to be a local apostolate.  I simply don't have the time to help would-be evangelists in other cities (the exceptions being David in Eugene and Josh in Louisville).  As I wrote to Felix the other day, St. Paul Street Evangelization has a genius for getting lots of people up-and-running in evangelization.  They have excellent resources and are backed by the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit.  They have all you need.  Sometimes I can be of help, like last weekend when David joined us on the streets before he sets-up St. Paul Street Evangelization  in Eugene.  He is always welcome to join us up here, and I hope to join him on occasion down there.  David liked our tunics and is thinking of sewing a simple shirt with the Jesus Caritas heart and cross.  It sends the perfect message when you're evangelizing in public.

And yet there seems to be one other place where the Lord keeps calling me: San Francisco.  I don't mean I'm moving there--absolutely not!  It's not my town and I don't have any particular affection for it.  But God keeps signaling that I'll be called down one day to set up a little crew of evangelists.  This even erupted into the open yesterday after I happened upon Fr. Illo's blog from Star of the Sea parish in the Richmond district of Frisco.  I started reading through many of his past posts since I hadn't known he kept a blog.  At one point he was lamenting the contrast on any given weekday between the busy streets and his empty but open church.  He thought he should just stand outside the doors with his cassock and welcome the passers-by.  At reading this, my soul involuntarily leapt and I said the words, "Don't worry, we're coming soon!"  I surprised myself by this cry, not least because we're no answer to a pastor's prayer.  We're good at planting seeds and "confirming the brethren", but we won't fill up a pew with converts.  Well, maybe one day.  In any event, I have little doubt that one day I will be called down to Frisco to greet some waiting evangelists.  I'll bring an armful of tunics because Frisco is a city that would respond to the Jesus Caritas approach.

This may have to wait for five years...because that's what our Lord usually means when he says "soon"!

I snuck this photo of the Marian Sisters of Santa Rosa last time I was in the Bay Area.  Young nuns at the old Latin mass!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Some Local Press

Sarah Wolf of the local Catholic Sentinel wrote a nice piece on street evangelization.  She took this photo of Meagan and I walking along SE 82nd, with one of the main "quickie motels" in the background.  A great photo.  Meagan and I are praying the Litany of the Sacred Heart as we go.  Go and read Sarah's article here.

Sarah Wolf/Catholic SentinelAn ex-convict and Catholic revert, Scott Woltze has walked the same route every week for three years, wearing his wool tunic, marked with the Sacred Heart of Jesus symbol. He and friends like Meagan Montanari who walk with him have had amazing experiences. “It’s really a matter of God putting you in the right place at the right time,” he says.
Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Meagan's Story

I received an e-mail from Felix Barba of St. Paul Street Evangelization introducing me to a woman, Meagan Montanari, who was interested in joining us.  My initial thought was, "Uh oh, we are a group for men.  A way for men to walk in Christ's footsteps and form the kind of guy-friendships that are so needed in today's Church."  Then I read a little bit about Meagan, and the confirmations from the Holy Spirit began to flash across my mind.  You see, In the last month I've taken a great interest in the opioid epidemic sweeping the country, even praying regularly for a local school teacher, Brynne, who made national headlines by getting busted at her elementary school with heroin and meth.  I know Brynne's mother, a very kind and successful restauranteur.  Even loving parents have to endure the hell of a child with addiction.  Which brings us back to Meagan.

Meagan had attentive, loving parents though she was largely raised without any faith.  For most children that's enough to get them going in life (at least for a time).  But not for Meagan.  As far back as she can remember, she was always saddled with a sense of incompleteness and malaise.  It quickly turned to despair, and at the age of thirteen she began cutting herself and fixating on suicide.  Meagan was especially made to need God as the locus of her identity, and without Him she became unmoored from her self.  In high school she gravitated toward the "bad kids", the kids who reacted against their own alienation by engaging in drugs, alcohol, casual sex and petty crime.  Meagan continued to slide further and further, trying everything to escape from her pain, even trying the occult.  She "graduated" to more serious drugs, and notched some jail time and probation for minor felonies.  She moved frequently, thinking she'd be happier with a new change of scene, but her pain always moved with her.  Sometimes she was homeless, sometimes she could hardly believe the things she had done.  She says of that time, "I truly was like the walking dead."

Meanwhile her mother began to pray for her, having turned to God as the only hope for her child.  God would answer her prayers, perhaps because her mother had stepped out in faith while enduring a troubled pregnancy.  The doctor had urged her to abort tiny Meagan, but she refused.  But Meagan's mother began to despair of prayer, and she was ready to give up just as everyone else had done.  Then one day while driving, her mother experienced an intense blinding light, and an angel appeared next to her saying, "Don't worry about Meagan, Meagan is going to be okay."  Then the angel intoned, "Pentecost, Pentecost, Pentecost" and disappeared.  She called Meagan in a heap of tears and hysteria, repeating "It's all real.  Jesus, angels,'s all REAL!"  Meagan was given the grace to immediately believe her mother's vision.  Perhaps she believed because she had once witnessed a crowd of demons surrounding her in a seedy motel.  That had been a glimpse into Hell, but now Heaven!  Meagan and her mother eagerly investigated the word 'Pentecost'--what did that strange word mean?

Meagan sought baptism in a protestant church and began reading the Bible. While her life was calmer on the surface, she was still addicted to drugs and fell into promiscuity.  Pentecost hadn't come to completion yet, something was missing in the faith she had found.  She signed up for a methadone program to get a safe, legal high and had two children amidst the dreary march of daily methadone fixes.  This went on for five years, until she gave in to a craving for the real thing: intravenous heroin.    She began shooting heroin and was soon homeless on the streets of San Francisco.  She became pregnant a third time.  Her first child, a son, was adopted, and her second child, a daughter, lived with her parents.  This couldn't continue!  She sought help at a protestant church and they directed her to a home for pregnant women run by St. Mother Theresa's sisters.  She was accepted into the Queen of Peace Shelter, and regularly joined the sisters in the daily Chaplet of Divine Mercy.  She gradually became intrigued by the sisters' joy and peace.  It was clear they actually knew Jesus by the way they talked about Him.  They had the real thing, and Meagan wanted it.  She went through RCIA and was received into the Church on Easter Vigil 2015.

Meagan began to take daily communion and witnessed in delight as all of her old chains fell away.  Jesus mixed with her body and blood through the eucharist, and she no longer desired drugs or sexual attachments.  She even threw away her cigarettes and anti-depressants, and started eating healthy for the first time in a decade.  Jesus in the eucharist was what she had been yearning for ever since she was a child, and she no longer had to wonder why there was a hole in her heart.

Today Meagan continues to go to daily mass, often with her children.  I can attest that Meagan's a woman of uncommon strength, like her favorite would-be saint, Mother Angelica.  To know Meagan is to witness the immense healing power of Jesus, the Son of God.  It is to know that miracles do happen.  She now offers healing to others on the streets and at the abortion clinics.  She's good at it because she has the courage and credibility to speak from the heart.  She's currently working on a psychology degree, and hopes to one day start a Catholic women's shelter.  Uphold her in your prayers. Though while strong, God will perfect Meagan in her weakness.  That is our path to union with the Son.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Peas In A Pod

Steve Dawson, the founder and director of St. Paul Street Evangelization, gave a rock solid interview the other day on The Journey Home.  I was amazed and consoled by our common experiences, and that we share the same basic "mental architecture" (by no means a given in today's church!).  Steve had his share of juvenile run-ins with the law, and then transitioned to the usual party scene of girls, booze and drugs.  But God gave him the grace to be utterly miserable without Him, and he was further blessed with an eros for knowledge--a burning desire to find Truth.  Meanwhile his mother and several eminent priests (Fr. John Hardon SJ, Cardinal Burke) were praying him into the Church.  After his conversion, God shielded him like a nestling, only releasing him to temptation once he had gained sufficient strength. Steve started out on the streets by spending many hours witnessing for 40 Days For Life, then he transitioned to year-round evangelization in what became St. Paul Street Evangelization.

That's basically my journey (minus the bank robberies, prison and endless years in academia).  It's also the journey of Meagan, the latest person to walk with us, but I'll tell Meagan Montanari's story in the next blog post.

Steve evangelizes because life is a distorted caricature of itself without God.  God makes all the difference, though many can carry on "fine" without God.  For so many others, they become wrecked on the shores of modernity, and end up as statistics as prison inmates, addicts, the homeless, labor market drop-outs, crime victims, aborted babies, childless marriages, and children of divorce.  Steve understands that the West is fractured, living off the salt and light of her Christian past, and the only means of restoring her is through a wave of conversions.  Steve has also come to see that apologetics is only a tiny piece of the puzzle.  Conversions usually depend more on prayer, personal witness and relationships.  St. Paul Street Evangelization is up and running in Portland again (thanks to Felix Barba's stewardship), and I hope they attract many more members and conversions.  It's truly a work of God.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ten Years A Catholic, Ten Things I've Learned

The path of the just is like the passage of  dawn;
it grows from first light to the full splendor of day.
So that in all things we may grow into Christ who is our Head.

                                                       Office of Readings, February 9th

This April marks the tenth anniversary of my sudden and unexpected conversion.  Deo gratias, what a blessing!  The last ten years have been the happiest and most fulfilling of my life.  They haven't been smooth sailing, and I have very little to show for these years in terms of a career or impressive projects, but I have stayed close to Jesus and have enjoyed the blessings of family and friends.

In the spirit of the early (and more edifying) days of Catholic blogs, I thought I would offer the dreaded Top Ten List of the most important things I've learned (and re-learned and re-learned) in that time.

1.  It's Not About You

In the years following my conversion I spent a lot of time navel-gazing.  In particular, I flirted with a kind of "survivor's guilt".  I kept returning to the same thought, "Why me?  What about all of the other people I know who suffer from separation from God?  What have I done to receive truth and hope?"  God had reached down, and in a sovereign act had set my life along a radically new course by lifting the veil separating the natural and the supernatural.  It was a gift too awful to bear.  Then I finally understood that it wasn't about me, but that I was just one little part God's great plan.  I kept coming back to a bowling analogy.  God is a perfect bowler, and I am merely a pin that he has lovingly struck so that I might then move a few other pins.  This was a liberating realization.

2.  Become A Living Sacrifice

If God has reached down and plucked us from our misery, it is because we exist for the sanctification of the world.  Just as Jesus died for the world, he asks us to "die" in our own way for those he puts before us.  Jesus asks us--as he asked the apostles--to Follow Him, and he invites us to mirror his own life in our person.  God the Father has given us faith in his Son because he has called us to be "another Christ, a little Christ".  It is easy to protest at such an awesome dignity, and I know I resisted this core of Christian truth for some time.  Nevertheless, Christ will only come to completion through us, his Body.  It is scandalous given our weakness, but St. John Eudes writes, "He intends to perfect the mysteries of his passion, death and resurrection, by causing us to suffer, die and rise again with him."  What a vocation we have been given!  If only we cooperate and welcome His life into us.  As St. John Vianney beautifully states,  "We are each of us like a small mirror in which God searches for His reflection."

3.  We Are The Obstacles To Grace

As many mystics and Doctors of the Church have affirmed, a single Holy Communion is sufficient to sanctify us, and yet most of the graces slip through our fingers as we cling to our own ways and protect our own prerogatives and wounded hearts.  In particular, I know several serious and long-time Christians who have made scant spiritual progress in the last ten years.  Perhaps they have even regressed.  The problem seems to be that they don't truly believe in their heart of hearts that they are lovable.  At some deep level they still believe the painful lies they were told as a child by unsound parents, or other more recent lies of the devil.  Perhaps their pride cannot reveal their wounds to a God who already knows them anyway.  Perhaps they value a sense of control and resist surrendering to the King of Kings.  God yearns to heal them, but they guard their wounds.  For my part, I have been meditating in church on the scene where Christ is stripped of his garments.  I beg Jesus to strip me down, too, remove all those layers of resistance that separate me from Him and from my neighbor.  We must have the courage to lay ourselves bare to be made into His image.

4.  God's Plan For You Is Probably Not Your Plan

After my conversion I knew that my life would take a radically different path, but I wanted to direct that path along the career path I had already taken.  So I thought, "Okay, I can still finish my doctoral dissertation even though I now think half of it's wrong, and I can still work as a professor, albeit at a small Catholic college."  But Jesus had other plans.  Then I thought, "Okay, I have a great conversion story.  Maybe I'm supposed to write a book about it and be one of those Catholic apologist/conference speaker/radio types.  Then I could still put my years of education to use!"  Fortunately Jesus spared me from the speaking circuit--probably because a friend once tellingly-described me as a "peacock". Peacock's want attention--unless it is the wrong kind of attention.  But that's just the kind of attention that Jesus had in store for me.  He gave me this apostolate and a tunic which would attract some jeers and many bemused eyes.  It's kind of like the way St. Philip Neri would mortify the pride of his well-born and macho young men: he'd have them walk a dainty little dog all around Rome.  That provoked lots of laughs!  So much for the peacock.

The apostolate also seemed a bad fit because I'm someone who prefers to be detached and alone with my thoughts.  I always jogged and hiked alone.  I spent more than a decade in quiet with my nose in philosophy and literature.  But what was God's plan?  To toss me out onto the streets and into all kinds of face-to-face encounters with complete strangers! And it's worked.  It's a testament to God's all-knowing providence, to his transformative grace, and a rebuke to demons who only see our faults and weaknesses.

5.  Watch The Road, Not The Signs of the Times

The Christian soul and the Christian life should be one of harmony, with everything receiving it's proper place.  Things go sideways when we treat secondary things as primary, or when we give an outsize role to to a smaller duty.  For my part, I wasted a great deal of time and focus on discerning where we are in salvation history: is this the Great Apostasy, is there now a likely candidate for the Man of Sin (the final anti-christ), are we in the Last Days or just another great upheaval?  Every Christian should consider these things (Our Lord commanded it), and I especially recommend Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson's Lord of the World and Blessed John Henry Newman's Sermons on the Anti-Christ.  But this can easily become a draining and distracting quest, especially as it is usually accompanied by reading lots of news and commentary on the state of the Church, politics and economics.  I could have decreased my consumption of news and audio sermons by 90% and still have done my due diligence, but alas, this stuff is titillating.  I suspect many of us have given up pornography, video games (well, mostly) and our sports obsessions, and have replaced them with online news and commentary.  It is immensely more fruitful to focus here and now in the "sacrament of the present moment".

To Be Continued...

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Re-Branding Catholicism

A few days ago Chris and I had a good talk with a tall, young pentecostal named "Edgar" on one of our evangelization routes.  Edgar hailed from Mexico, but now spoke perfect English.  Edgar had two great hopes that sprung from his sense of Christian vocation: he prayed to meet a faithful, virtuous woman to be his bride, and he hoped to do missionary work--particularly in Muslim countries.  Edgar didn't just want a "good woman", as any Catholic man would hope for, but he wanted a woman who had set her face against "the world, the flesh and the devil".  A rare woman indeed!  Moreover, when I warned him that missionary work in some Muslim countries would land him in jail (like Saudi Arabia) he doubled-down and insisted that his preference was to be a missionary in Muslim lands.  In this he sounded like some of the first Franciscans--martyrs and would-be martyrs for preaching Christ Crucified in muslim North Africa.  In short, Edgar was the personification of zeal, and everything he said was Catholic (probably unbeknownst to him).  After we parted I remarked to Chris: "Edgar probably grew up Catholic, but abandoned it because it was lame.  The usual safe, lukewarm stuff we all grew up with.  He wanted a serious faith.  Part of what we're doing out here is to re-brand Catholicism.  Show people that it's a burning faith."

It seems to be working in its small way.  I've run into numerous Christians--some Catholic, some not--who are surprised and edified by what we are doing.  I've also met many non-believers who are intrigued by our presence (such as Eon).

Three Priests Doing Great Work

I've recently read about three different priests who are each "re-branding Catholicism" in their own mission field.  A reader of the blog sent me a delightful write-up of Fr. Lawrence Carney, who evangelizes the streets most days in St. Joseph, Missouri.  He's hard to miss in his full-length black cassock and traditional soutane, carrying a crucifix and rosary.  As he walks along, the curious are drawn to him, and he wins unlikely friends and admirers.  His sense of humor certainly helps his evangelism; he describes his efforts as "fishing".  A fellow priest describes his unusual appearance as "a visible image or icon of the Church" and notes that in Fr. Carney's walks he "sees, talks and prays with those that the average parish priest doesn't have a chance to encounter."  Fr. Carney hopes to attract more priests to the charism, and form a society of priests committed to street evangelization.  I find it significant that Fr. Carney is chaplain to the much-admired Benedictines of Mary as well as friends with many FSSP priests.  It seems to me that both of these orders have been raised up by God to help re-build the Father's House.  As iron sharpens iron, God often clusters saints together in time and place so that they might strengthen each other.  Here's praying that Fr. Carney is the start of something big.

If I'm ever in his area I'll go out of my way to meet him.  His experiences are largely our experiences, especially the initial trepidation at starting off alone.  In the meantime I will read his book, due to be released at the end of the year.

Fr. Carney fishing for souls

Fr. Jason Cargo is another priest who has taken to the streets, though in his case he sets out with other Catholics in the form of a daily rosary procession during Lent.  The group walks local neighborhoods in prayer, and is led by a medium-sized crucifix.  The crucifix is a powerful sacramental when prayerfully used, and mystics have testified that it puts demons to flight by making the crucifixion present again (since God and spirits exist outside of time).  Processions can have a remarkable impact on by-standers, especially when accompanied by music and the Blessed Sacrament.  I wrote of Phillip Trower's conversion here; he was always touched by the Walsingham processions in England while he was still an atheist.  At the close of the Sacra Liturgia conference in New York, Daniel Marengo writes of the procession along Manhattan streets:

“I HAVE LIVED IN NYC ALL MY LIFE and never participated in such an outward Eucharistic procession of this kind.  All of NYC, including the police, pedestrians and the stunned commercial and residential onlookers from the buildings along the way, watched in awe and silent wondering as the canopied Blessed Sacrament meandered its way through the cavernous streets, touching the lives of countless secular and hard bitten New Yorkers.” Daniel Marengo, NYC

If you'd like to hear more about Fr. Cargo's rosary processions, his diocese has put out a short video here.

Finally, I'd like to direct you to the remarkable story of Fr. Fames Mawdsley FSSP.  Fr. Mawdsley became a human rights activist in his youth, and was even imprisoned in Burma for more than a year. His time in solitary confinement began to re-direct his life to a higher calling--toward "the peace that surpasseth all understanding".  There is something brutally jarring and finally suffocating about solitary confinement.  I've seen it drive hardened cons a little wacky (though they straighten out within a few days or weeks of their release).  I fought the suffocation of "the hole" with beauty--wandering in tight circles reciting the hundred poems I had come to memorize while in prison.  Fr. Mawdsley found a beauty much greater than poems from Keats and e. e. cummings.  He continues to pursue and witness that beauty in the sacred liturgy because he has learned the most important lesson: "Without God, we can do nothing."

Fr, Mawdsley with Archbishop Schneider

Monday, March 13, 2017

Christ In The Poor

The other day Chris asked what route I wanted to walk, and then half-jested,"Are you looking for Christ hiding among the poor?"

To most of us, it seems an unlikely place.  Most of us flinch and inwardly groan when we watch the poorest of the poor: the homeless, the mentally ill, the addicts and the prostitutes.  I had known many hobos and wounded men from hardscrabble backgrounds when I was in prison, and few of them seemed admirable.  The one's I admired as a young man in prison were the strong, the bosses, the "solid cons" who basically ruled the "joint".  They seemed like they had it together, and few of them had any use for Jesus.  When I got out of prison and swam around in academia for more than a decade, I continued my contempt for the poor, or at least for Karl Marx and his followers who "fetishized the poor".  Marx and his progeny didn't truly know the poor; they made the poor into an idol, a strange god.  That was true enough.

Yet we know that countless saints have met Christ in the poor, sometimes quite literally, like St. Martin of Tours.  The holy deacon, St. Lawrence, gathered the most wretched together and declared to the Roman persecutors, "Here is the treasure of the Church".  Mother Theresa was blessed with mystical experiences of Christ, but then he was silent for four decades.  She pursued him among the sick and dying in Calcutta, lovingly searching their faces for the Divine Author. Jesus himself famously tells us, "Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me."

A Chronicler of the Poorest

Now one of the "rich", a former Wall Street trader and PhD in Physics, is encountering God as he documents the lives of the poorest of the poor.  Chris Arnade has left Wall Street, and now spends his time getting to know the most wretched. He assumed they would share his atheism since they know more than others "how unfair, unjust, and evil the world can be."  Yet they are all believers in some way or another, "steeped in a combination of Bible, superstition, and folklore." They wear rosaries and crosses, and testify that God has never left them amidst abuse, addiction and prostitution.  One couple totes their picture of The Last Supper from place to place as the heroin drives them onward.  The wretched have now challenged his atheism, and he concludes that "atheism is an intellectual luxury for the wealthy".  He once cheered on the New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, but now he finds them to be "so removed from humanity".  Chris Arnade has discovered that the "poor" are not as poor as they seem, nor the "rich" as rich as they seem.  In other words, the way we see the world is often upside down--just as our Christian faith tells us.  The most wretched are often the most receptive to grace, the most hungry for the life of Christ in the soul.  Chris and I have seen this over and over.

In truth, the world is upside down.  God showed us this when the very Creator of life and love, beauty and majesty, was born and walked amongst us only to be trodden upon and murdered.  The Messiah became the weakest.  Now in Heaven, many of the weakest will be the strongest. May Chris Arnade connect all the dots and make the full journey home.

Takeesha was raped at 11 and pimped out at 13.  She now has six children.  Her mother was also a prostitute.  She testifies, "Whenever I got into the car [of a john], God got into the car with me."