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Reasons to Send Your Catholic Kids to Protestant Colleges

24 Sep

“As far as possible parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators” (CCC 2229).

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The Luminous Mysteries: The Pope’s Ecumenical Tutorial

28 Jan

“If properly revitalized, the Rosary is an aid
and certainly not a hindrance to ecumenism!”
~ Pope St. John Paul II

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Of Good Fences, Closed Communion, and Reunification

21 Dec

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.”
~ Robert Frost

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Mass Cards for Protestants

20 Jun


A priest is free to apply the Mass for anyone, living or dead.
~ Code of Canon Law

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Of Ecumenism, Boundaries, and Amicable Disagreement

10 May

Above all, it is necessary to recognize
the unity that already exists.
~ John Paul II

There’s a 7-Eleven across the street and down a couple blocks from where I teach – Bethel College in Mishawaka. I often go there for an afternoon caffeine boost. I could walk, but if I’m pressed for time (or it’s winter), I’ll jump in the Hond711a and make a quick jog over there, fill up my travel mug, and head back to my office.

To an outside observer, unfamiliar with the local terrain, there’d be nothing noteworthy about that: Just another coffee addict stopping in at his local supplier for a fix. However, my java jaunts have real legal ramifications, for the 7-Eleven is on the South Bend side of that street, and my college is on the Mishawaka side. On the surface, and in practical terms, it’s an amorphous, virtually invisible border. But if I got in an accident coming or going? Legal boundaries – possibly even measured in feet and inches – would have real world significance: Is the accident under the jurisdiction of South Bend courts or Mishawaka courts? Which police department would we call? How will one jurisdiction impact insurance and liability claims versus the other?

That’s one picture of superficial fluidity of boundaries; here’s another.

When I was a kid, my family visited the Four Corners Monument. It’s the spot where four Southwestern states meet up at one single point – Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah. I remember having a blast with my brother running around the concrete slab that marks out the borders leading up to the common point, announcing as we tore around which state we were occupying at any given moment. The legal divisions between those four states is normally very clear, especially when it counts – like marijuana possession and usage, legal in Colorado, but in Utah, not. Yet at that particular spot in the middle of the Navajo desert? Nobody’s hawking pot, so the legal borders are purely a source of amusement, even joy. While marking out true divisions, the Four Corners Monument serves to draw together rather than divide.

Both these images of fluid boundaries capture different approaches to ecumenism, but I much prefer the second. Before I explain why, let me take a moment to define “ecumenism” – a word that is not commonly invoked these days, nor is it well understood. It’s based on a FourCorners1 Greek word that loosely translates as “the whole world,” and, in ecclesiological and theological terms, it refers to anything that touches on matters common to the “whole world” of the church, small “c.” This should be distinguished from interfaith or interreligious matters – those concerns and enterprises involving people of varying major religions (including Christians along with Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and others). While important, interfaith contacts are the equivalent of a United Nations approach to religion, whereas Christian ecumenism is more like a huge family reunion.

And it’s a family get-together that can and should involve all the clan’s disparate branches – reconciled and unreconciled. It includes Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Protestants of all types. What’s more, it includes high church and low church, liberal and conservative, traditional and Pentecostal – everyone who calls Jesus Lord, believes in the Good News of salvation from sin, and lives today in the hope of heaven tomorrow. There are disagreements, to be sure, but it’s amicable disagreementa facile disjuncture that allows for rich relationships, and yet respect regarding differences. We come to enjoy each other’s traditions, quirks, and peculiarities; we laugh with and even at each other – in the same way cousins laugh at each other when they get together for the holidays. Behobbit-day-Bilbos-birthday-partytter yet, think of Bilbo’s birthday party in The Fellowship of the Ring. There’s competition, grievance, and dispute between various branches of the Hobbit family tree, and these are not rationalized or ignored. Still, at least for that moment, everybody is overlooking their differences and getting along, which fosters mutual good will upon which real unity can be built.

This was the vision of ecumenism promoted at the Second Vatican Council, and it was one of the Council’s aims – “to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ.” In the Decree on Ecumenism, the Council Fathers went even further and stated that the “restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council.”

Why? Because it was one of the principal concerns – perhaps even the principal concern – of Jesus himself. Quoting John 17, the Council Fathers wrote:

Before offering Himself up as a spotless victim upon the altar, Christ prayed to His Father for all who believe in Him: ‘that they all may be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, so that the world may believe that thou has sent me.’

He commanded us to “love one another” first, and then sent us the Holy Spirit in order to make it possible. “There is one body and one Spirit,” St. Paul wrIn this panoramic view, bishops of the world line the nave of St. Peter's Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council Oct. 11, 1962. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the council, one of the monumental events in modern religious history. (CNS photo) See VATICAN-LETTER Jan. 27, 2012.ote the Ephesians, “just as you were called to the one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism.”

Thus, unity was a priority for Jesus and the early Church, and so it’s naturally a priority for us. And while nothing can disrupt the invisible unity of the Body of Christ, there’s no question that wide and innumerable divisions have effectively dismantled the visible expression (subsistere) of that Body. We have our work cut out for us!

Yet a word of caution is in order: Authentic unity cannot be accomplished at all costs. “This Sacred Council exhorts the faithful to refrain from superficiality and imprudent zeal,” the Council Fathers insisted, “which can hinder real progress toward unity.” St. John Paul II addressed this same idea very tactfully, yet clearly:

Good will is needed in order to realize how various interpretations and ways of practicing the faith can come together and complement each other. There is also the need to determine where genuine divisions start, the point beyond which the faith is compromised.

That brings us back to those anecdotes I related above – the 7-Eleven run and the Monument: Both involve real divisions despite practical permeability, but only the second image – messing around at Four Corners – involves clearly demarcated boundaries. That’s preferred, beecumcause the goal of ecumenism – at least from a Catholic perspective – is the real and thorough structural reunion of all Christians, not a mere superficial, subjective one. And overcoming division, no matter how it is accomplished, necessitates both an a priori acknowledgement that divisions exist as well as a thorough grasp of their precise location.

How then are we to carry out the ecumenical enterprise? There’s lots we can say about the record of ecumenical efforts over the centuries, particularly since the halcyon days following the Second Vatican Council, but generally the most successful ecumenical efforts include at least these three dimensions:

  1. Common ground: This involves seeking unity where possible, and understanding when it isn’t. Of special importance are those formal gatherings, usually conducted by those with authority in their respective traditions. The point of these meetings isn’t to water down differences, nor is it to engage in apologetic debate. Instead, ecumenical gatherings bring together representatives of different traditions to foster good will, increase understanding, and contribute to the mitigation of structural division.
  1. Common prayer: Closely related to common ground, and always included in formal dialogue, is shared prayer – what the Catechism, quoting Vatican II, refers to as the “soul of the whole ecumenical movement.” In this regard, it’s important to emphasize that lack of structural unity precludes intercommunion under most circumstances. This is a source of great pain for those interested in ecumenical rapprochement since the Eucharist is the pinnacle of unity that Christ himself instituted for his followers. At the same time, however, that painful sacramental separation motivates us to work all the more diligently toward real reunion.
  1. Common cause: Short of full reunion, here’s the best kind of ecumenism in my book – the most organic and natural, and certainly the most visible in terms of witness. “Cooperation among Christians vividly expresses that bond which already unites them,” the Council Fathers wrote, “and it sets in clearer relief the features of Christ the Servant.” This happens when Christians of all stripes come together to defend the unborn, the death row inmate, and the marginalized of every kind; when we work for peace and an end to all violence and bloodshed and war; when we strive together for justice and reconciliation in every corner of our society and world.

For a glimpse of how ecumenical common cause works in practice, try The Keys of the Kingdom, starring Gregory Peck as Fr. Francis Chisholm, a missionary priest laboring with seemingly meager results in rural Chimethodistsna. At one point in the film, a Methodist missionary couple, Dr. Fiske and his wife, Agnes, arrive to minister in the same village, and Fr. Chisholm calls on them. “Tell me, Fr. Chisholm,” Dr. Fiske asks, “do you resent our coming here?”

Fr. Chisholm expresses consternation, and then says: “You know, sometimes I wonder how the Christian faith must appear to the Chinese mind – with all the different sects, all crying at the same time, ‘Come over here. This is the one. This is the true one.'” There’s no denial in this statement that real divisions persist in the church, nor any dismissal of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the true church. Instead, there’s a practical acceptance that, at least in that far-flung corner of the world, Catholics and Protestants can serve God best by showing as much unity as possible. That applies to our own far-flung corners, wherever we find ourselves.

Later, in the film, as Fr. Chisholm is leaving, Dr. Fiske says, “I can’t tell you how happy you’ve made me by your friendliness. And, by the way, I’m not a bad doctor. Let me be of some help to you.” With that statement, Fiske anticipates the teaching of Vatican II:

Through such cooperation, all believers in Christ are able to learn easily how they can understand each other better and esteem each other more, and how the road to the unity of Christians may be made smooth.

Chisholm’s reply to Fiske is equally amicable and the perfect remedy for the sad divisions in the church that he alluded to earlier. He says simply, “We’ll help each other.”

“Right!” is how Dr. Fiske responds. Let that be our response as well.

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

A Glimpse of Mary’s Garden

22 Feb


“The whole Mountain’s my home.”
~ Br. Klement, a monk of Athos

Do you have a short list of retreat books? I don’t mean books that you’d take on retreat for edification and spiritual insight. No, I mean books that are themselves retreats – books that you can escape into and can do so repeatedly with confidence: Every time you re-read one, without fail, you find yourself interiorly slipping away to some foreign realm of refreshment.

My list of retreat books includes A Canticle for Leibowitz and A Confederacy of Dunces, as well as Tolkien’s entire Middle Earth saga and virtually any Jeeves and Wooster story by P.G. Wodehouse. Better tolerated than pharmaceuticals and booze, and cheaper than weekend tropical jaunts, retreat books are allow us to calm the spirit and shed a day’s stress by ushering us into parallel worlds – however briefly – that become ever more familiar and comfortable with each successive immersion.

Many books do those things, but retreats books do so repeatedly and predictably, and there’s no way to know ahead of time which ones will make the cut – which ones, that is, that will stand up to a second reading after an hiatus, and then a third reading, and more.

On the other hand, we can sometimes have a hunch about new reads, and it can take two different forms. The first is palpable disappointment that a book we’re finishing for the first time has an ending at all – as in, “Phooey! I only have two chapters to go!” The second form of the hunch crops up once we’ve actually reached the end, the last page is turned, and our minds are flooded with enthusiastic anticipation – “Maybe if I set it aside for a year (or six months, or a month?), I can jump back into it afresh!”

Then there’s that rare volume that elicits both responses in abundance. Such was the case recently as I finished reading Sydney Loch’s Athos: The Holy Mountain. It’s a remarkable book about a remarkable place. Mt. Athos is the Greek peninsula that has been populateathos_bookd exclusively by Orthodox monks for over a thousand years. Its claim to fame in the popular imagination is its total exclusion of females – entirely and completely. Nothing politically correct about Athos, that’s for sure, but the intention isn’t at all misogynist but rather penitential: The celibate monks of Athos are deadpan serious about their laser focus on holiness, and so they’ve created an entire society where, in the words of Peter Maurin, “it is easier for men to be good.”

I inherited Loch’s book from Tom, my bibliophile father-in-law, along with numerous other books associated with Mt. Athos – like Pennington’s O Holy Mountain! and several copies of the multi-volume Philokalia. “Here,” he’d say, shoving another volume at me, virtually every time I saw him, “have you read this yet?” Assembled on Mt. Athos by St. Nicodemus in the eighteenth-century, the Philokalia is an anthology of Orthodox spiritual writings that has exerted a tremendous influence on Orthodox piety, and it’s a testimony to the far-reaching influence of Athos itself.

Catholics don’t really have anything that parallels Athos in terms of spiritual clout. We have the Benedictine tradition and the Franciscan tradition and the Carmelite tradition – a host of spiritual traditions, in other words, that appeal to individuals according to their particular tastes and inclinations. For the Orthodox, however, monasticism is the dominant spiritual heritage – the “very soul of the Eastern Churches,” according to St. John Paul II – and Athos is like Orthodox monasticism’s 800-pound gorilla. Its origins as a monkish settlement trace back almost to the very beginnings of Christianity, and tradition has it that the Blessed Mother herself designated the land as her own special garden.

Tom and his recommendations about Athos came to mind as I rummaged our stacks last month and happened upon Sydney Loch’s memoir of the Holy Mountain. I was in desperate need of a reliable retreat read – the polar vortex had swooped down on us with a ferocious bite, and the stress of nighttime hospital clinicals was weighing heavily – so I was tempted to go with the tried and true. In the end, however, I decided to skip my trustworthy Wodehouse and honor Tom’s memory by giving Loch a shot.

It was a fabulous and providential choice, and my only regret was that I didn’t put it off a few weeks so that it could be Lenten reading. Delving into Loch’s Athos book was like following a seasoned author’s travel blog in real time – evocative, punchy, occasionally reflective, always engaging. What’s more, it was a travelogue that doubled as a succinct and illathos_mapuminating history, mapping out the contours of the unique promontory’s rich and ancient past. Plus, on account of its subject matter, Loch’s Athos turned out to be a retreat book that not only provided escape, but spiritual refreshment as well.

And it was a spiritual refreshment of an unusually ecumenical character. Loch himself was a Scottish Protestant, but he was clearly comfortable with Roman Catholicism, he worked for Quakers, and he eventually became intimately familiar with Orthodox doctrine and practice. This cosmopolitan religious sensibility, so evident in his plainspoken and respectful manner of taking the Athonite monks on their own terms, was rooted in a lifetime of travel, service, and experience, both in peacetime and in war.

As a naturalized Australian, Loch joined his adopted country’s army at age 17 and fought in the initial stages of the First World War’s Gallipoli campaign. A bout of dysentery took him away from the front and gave him the freedom to write up his observations about the horrors of battle.

Loch’s memoir of Gallipoli, The Straits Impregnable, was so graphic that it could only be published as a work of fiction (and under an assumed name, Sydney de Loghe) in order to avoid scaring off new recruits. Eventually, the truth surfaced that the book was in fact a realistic depiction of the conflict, agallipol3__jpg_633x270_crop_q85nd it was banned by the military censors.

Regardless of the book’s fate, Loch himself was intent on exorcising the demons of his wartime trauma – a phenomenon captured by the title of the latest edition of his Gallipoli book, To Hell and Back – and he devoted the rest of his life to selfless humanitarian work. He and his wife, Joice, a celebrated author and humanitarian in her own right, worked tirelessly on behalf of the victims of war and persecution in Poland, Greece, Romania, Turkey, and the Holy Land. Eventually, the couple settled in Ouranoupolis, a village at the very threshold of Athos and its effective gateway community.

That proximity to Mary’s garden and the peaceful world of the Athonite monks seems to have provided the healing that Loch yearned for, and he became a regular visitor on the Mountain, recording details about his wanderings and contacts that he began assembling into a book in the early 1950s. Sydney died unexpectantly after finishing his manuscript, but with only the first six chapters edited and typed. His beloved and devoted wife put together the final chapters of the book after Sydney’s death, remaining in their village home in order to, in her words, “edit and type the book in the atmosphere in which it was written.”

And Loch himself? Was the lingering anguish of his Gallipoli ordeal dispelled in the end? Neither he nor his wife refer to it directly, so you’ll have to read Loch and draw your own conclusions – that is, if you can locate a copy of Athos, because it is long out of print. (In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that this entire essay is a tathos_lochhinly veiled attempt to conjure up popular support for getting Loch’s book back in print and into the hands of readers.)

As for me, I have no doubt. Throughout his book, and despite sectarian differences, Loch assumes a unanimity with his tranquil brothers of the Mountain. He exudes equanimity and peacefulness, and his accounts of events, places, and, especially, people, are replete with affection and even playfulness.

And then there’s this – a confessio of sorts that appears without warning or fanfare in one of the earlier sections of the book, and worth quoting at length:

Wakening to the transcendence of God. God in the stones, in the sky, in the trees. In the gnat. And the trumpeting elephant. On with the sandals. Down from the shelf with the script. Along the highway to reality.

Wakening to the Immanence of God. Realizing the presence of two extended arms, tirelessly held out. The inviting, untrembling arms of God. Closer, closer. And at last a kiss! To the desert! To the cave!

Loch had been to hell and back, and he was now living on the doorstep of paradise and Mary’s own spiritual greenhouse – a foretaste of heaven, where God’s infinite transcendence and condescending immanence are right there for the taking, right there in reach!

It’s Lent and time for a parched desert of deprivation and sacrifice. Even so, make room for some refreshment along the way, and track down a copy of Loch’s Athos. It’ll be like a visit to a garden – a very special Garden indeed.

A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Billy Graham Had A Runny Nose

15 Feb


Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you.
Consider the outcome of their way of life
and imitate their faith (Heb. 13.7).

There’s a scene in Robert Duvall’s film The Apostle where the renegade evangelist, Sonny Dewey, comes upon a boat blessing ceremony on the river. “You do it your way, I’ll do it mine,” Sonny allows, acknowledging the efforts of the presiding priest, “but we get it done, don’t we?”

It’s a fairly sophisticated ecumenical observation, and it came to mind when an oversized ad in the Family Christian Bookstore window caught my eye last year. It was Billy Graham, the king of the altar call, all silver-haired and looking distinguished as ever. And he had a new book!

At least, there was a new book with his name on it, and it had in fact already come to my attention because of a story by Kenneth Woodward in the WSJ. Woodward argued that Graham himself had little to do with the book, and that the Billy Graham machine was largely responsible for cranking it out. Woodward went on to suggest that the machine ought to consider giving the nonagenarian and his legacy a break.


I grew up on Billy Graham’s preaching and Christian vision, and he was my childhood hero. I never made it to one of his famous crusades, but I remember watching them on TV with my family – even running to my room during an on-the-air altar call to re-dedicate my life to Christ on at least one occasion.

That was back when I was memorizing Bible verses with the Navigators and gobbling up books from InterVarsity Press about apologetics and evangelization. There were youth groups and Sunday school, summer camps and work trips, quiet times and discipleship meetings. And Billy Graham? He was the Evangelical standard-bearer, a key rBilly-Grahamole model for carrying out the Great Commission and spreading the Good News.

Graham was knowledgeable and learned, but he never came across as arrogant or pretentious. His preaching was passionate and persuasive, yet devoid of the scaremongering hellfire that characterized other popular evangelists of his time. Although Graham routinely counseled U.S. Presidents and his televised crusades made him a media superstar, Graham nonetheless gave you the impression that he was a regular Joe – that he was approachable and normal and downright human.

So, I wanted to be like Billy Graham – what young Evangelical wouldn’t? How to accomplish that was the question.

Rather, the real question was: Are you kidding me? Graham appeared to be a normal human being, but there wasn’t any doubt in my mind that he was still somehow different and, thus, in an altogether foreign realm as far as life trajectories went. Consequently, the famous evangelist represented a goal that was both admirable and yet unattainable – and therefore quite safe.

Fast-forward a decade or so, and you’ll find me as a freshman at Wheaton College in Illinois – Graham’s alma mater. I didn’t go there just because of the Graham connection, but it was certainly a factor, and when I heard that Graham would be coming to visit Wheaton that semester, I was thrilled.

460_345_resizeHe was coming to dedicate Wheaton’s spanking new graduate school and center for evangelization that was to be named in his honor: The Billy Graham Center. I marked the date on my calendar, and I eagerly anticipated the day I’d get to see this larger than life paragon of the Faith up close for the first time.

The day arrived – it was cold and windy. I bundled up and headed down to the Center for the dedication ceremony. There was a crowd already gathered before the dais, and I wormed my way to the front, rationalizing that my past history of Graham enthusiasm justified a bit of jostling and rude behavior.

No matter – I was there! Maybe 20 feet from the great man – him, sitting up on the platform with the other honored guests; me, down below at the edge of the horde and gazing up at the podium. Impatiently, I waited out the string of introductions and mini-speeches, and then the moment I’d been waiting for: Billy Graham stepped up to the mike to speak – right there, just above me! I could’ve reached out and touched his shoe!

Then, I noticed something: Billy Graham had a runny nose.

“Billy Graham – a runny nose?” (Pause.) “Heck, even I get a runny nose from time to time.” I watched with curiosity as Graham reach for his handkerchief. “Why,” (wait for it) “that means,” (wait…) “that means that…Billy Graham isn’t all that different from me!”

Simple, I know – painfully obvious even. But recall that I was just a young undergraduate at the time, and up to that point (believe it or not), it had just never occurred to me that superstars and larger than life heroes – even the Evangelical Christian ones – were, well, human. Mortal. Ordinary folks that catch cold like everyone else.

It was a revelation, yes, and a challenge: If God could accomplish so much through an ordinary, cold-catching mortal like Billy Graham, what might He accomplish through me? And, more to the point, what’s holding Him up?480f8bda14

Fast-forward once again to the present day. Billy Graham is back in the news because of Unbroken, Angelina Jolie’s Oscar nominated film that tells the story of Louis Zamperini – the Olympic runner, World War II hero, and internment camp survivor. Sadly, the movie downplays Zamperini’s faith, and, as Grant Wacker pointed out, it totally bypasses his watershed conversion at a post-war Graham revival in Los Angeles.

In the movie “Unbroken,” Billy Graham goes unmentioned, and Zamperini’s redemption narrative is largely reduced to a few title cards flashed before the closing credits. Yet Zamperini himself believed that the religious event was the pivotal moment of his long journey.

Zamperini was raised a Catholic, and it would’ve been all the more glorious if his adult conversion had brought him back to the Sacraments. Even so, it’s clear that Zamperini totally surrendered himself to God’s grace, and that grace had a field day in and through his life. He gave up his heavy drinking, sought to forgive his Japanese captors, and, most significantly, ended up devoting his life to telling others about the Lord – the most sure sign of an authentic interior about-face.

“The Church wants to preach the Gospel together with all who believe in Christ,” wrote Pope St. John Paul II. “It wants to point out to all the path to eternal salvation.” Note the Holy Father’s double emphasis on the word “all” there: All need to hear about the Gospel, and, consequently, all need to preach it – it’s a team effort! That means clergy and religious doing the preaching, as well as businessmen, homemakers, and students. Both young and old are called, as are both the educated and the illiterate. What’s more, the mission includes every kind of Christian, Catholic and otherwise, and even those who might be struggling in their faith orTheApostle moral life. “All who believe in Christ,” St. John Paul wrote, not “all who believe in Christ and meet a certain minimal standard of virtue and piety.”

That brings me back to The Apostle. The central character, Sonny, is an imperfect ambassador of Jesus if there ever was one. Among other things, he has a drinking problem and anger issues, and he ends up beating a man into a coma. Instead of turning himself in, he goes on the lam and creates a new life for himself in another state under a pseudonym – not exactly a poster child for Gospel living by any stretch.

As depicted in the movie, however, the flawed Sonny somehow still draws others to Jesus – even as the ending credits roll and we see Sonny the convict leading his fellow prisoners in a spiritual chant as they clear the highway of brush. In this, is he so different from St. Paul, himself a murderer and a leading persecutor of the first followers of The Way? There wasn’t a whole lot of distance between Paul’s acquiescence at the stoning of St. Stephen and his first attempts at testifying to Jesus, and he went on to become the greatest evangelist ever. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!” (cf. I Cor 9:16) was his motto, in season and out of season. It ought to be ours.

Don’t worry that you don’t know enough or that you think you’re not holy enough or that you might get something wrong. Preach the Gospel with your words as best you can, and strive to bring your life into line with those words. Tell others about Jesus with your voice, and at the same time coax your actions and choices along to follow suit. Do it even if you’re a rotten sinner. Do it even if you’ve got a runny nose or you’re ninety-some-odd years old.

Do it anyway – don’t wait. “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth,” St. Paul wrote the Philippians, “Christ is proclaimed.”  And when Christ is proclaimed, regardless of how, good things happen.

A version of this essay appeared on Crisis.

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