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."