The Perfect Christmas Gift: 40-Days Offered for Conversion

December 9, 2008

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus, Caravaggio, 1600

“Dear brothers and sisters, as in early times, today too Christ needs apostles ready to sacrifice themselves.  He needs witnesses and martyrs like St Paul.  Paul, a former violent persecutor of Christians, when he fell to the ground dazzled by the divine light on the road to Damascus, did not hesitate to change sides to the Crucified One and followed him without second thoughts.  He lived and worked for Christ, for him he suffered and died. How timely his example is today.

And for this very reason I am pleased to announce officially that we shall be dedicating a special Jubilee Year to the Apostle Paul from 28 June 2008 to 29 June 2009, on the occasion of the bi-millennium of his birth, which historians have placed between the years 7 and 10 A.D.”

~ Pope Benedict XVI, June 28, 2007
First Vespers of the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul

My Dear Friends in Christ,

How many of us lament over the many family and friends who have fallen away from the faith? How many of us seem helpless in the face of so many worldly forces pulling these loved ones away from the faith? What, on earth, can we do?

Maybe the problem lies in the fact that we are trying to win our loved ones over to the faith under our own earthly power. St. Augustine’s conversion came once his mother, St. Monica, per her Bishop’s advice, spoke less to Augustine about God and more to God about Augustine.

Pope John Paul the Great once said, “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.”

The mid-point of this holy year of St. Paul is marked by the Church’s celebration of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25, 2009. I propose to you that we enter into a 40-day period of prayer and sacrifice on behalf of our loved ones who have fallen away from the faith. We will be drawing upon the graces poured out in this holy year of St. Paul, as we honor his conversion in this special way.

The 40-days leading up to January 25 will begin on December 16. Please take these next few days prior to the 16th to pray and discern which ways God is leading you to “offer up” prayer and sacrifice on behalf of those you know who seemed to have lost their faith.

Take these next few days to write down the names of those people who you wish to pray for during this time. Maybe you want to focus on one person … that is good too.

You may want to discern whether you plan to offer these 40-days in an overt or covert way. In other words, if you feel it may be beneficial for your loved ones to know, this might be a special gift this Christmas. You might want to explain what you are doing in a Christmas card. However, many circumstances require doing this in a more covert way – without their knowledge.

I would like to recommend a wonderful entrance into these 40-days by offering the first 9-days as a Christmas Novena. Here is a beautiful novena offered at the EWTN website. What a beautiful way to ask our Lord to be born anew in the hearts of your loved ones.

Please read the previous post – “Something Must Die” – to fully appreciate how our sacrifices free us to be open to the power of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Please do all you can to be a pure and empty vessel for God to work through you with His grace for the salvation of your loved ones.

Imagine giving a Christmas card to your loved one(s) this year that reads: “My gift to you this year is my 40-days of prayer and sacrifice offered that you will receive a super-abundance of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and temperance thoughout your life” (I’m already 9-days into it).

Finally, I am planning a special Mass of Thanksgiving for God hearing our prayers for the conversion of our loved ones. This will be at the scheduled Mass time at 7:30 AM on Saturday, January 24 at St. Mary’s in Pine Bluff. This will also include a holy hour of Adoration and Confession following Mass.

Please be in a state of grace as you enter your 40-days of prayer and sacrifice — go to Confession.

Ad Jesum per Mariam,

Father Heilman

Something Must Die

December 9, 2008

From Jubilee Year of St. Paul:

As I mentioned last week, the Bible is full of agricultural images, beginning with God as a joyful Gardener. Paul picks up similar metaphors to describe our life in Christ.

Our new life begins with the planting of the Seed, that is Christ (Gal. 3:16). This ultimate Gift is given us at Baptism, but like all the gifts received through the Sacraments, we must cooperate with them, or in theological language “be disposed” for the grace of the sacraments. We must cooperate with the gifts God gives us for this Seed to “be activated,” to leave its latency and become the mature Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23) which we can harvest and share (Gal 6:6-9).

This supernatural process (like the natural one) can only come fully and fruitfully when something dies. Jesus states it succinctly “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and DIES, it remains alone, BUT IF IT DIES IT MUST BEAR FRUIT” (John 12:24).

Let me make it more personal. You have heard the phrase “everything I ever needed to know, I learned in kindergarten.” I remember when I was instructed to bring three beans to class for a special experiment. They were unremarkable beans, ones you can buy at any grocery store in an ordinary bag. By all appearances, they are dead – hard and dry. My teacher provided a little Styrofoam cup and some soil. I planted my lima beans in the soil, placed it in the sunny window seal and attentively watered the proper amount at the proper time. To my delight, a little green shoot appeared. They were magic beans, I thought, just like Jack and the Beanstalk. How else could life come from that hard and dry bean?

Something like this happens in the spiritual realm. Christ in us is like the latent life hidden in that seed that is activated by the proper conditions and will burst the dry husk to grow with gusto. But if it is to come forth and flourish, the husk of our old way of life and thinking must fall away. Paul clearly describes what that husk looks like in the chapters leading up to the characteristics of life in the Spirit. He calls that old shell of a life, that husk, the “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).

Let’s consider Paul’s context and language here, especially in comparison with the Fruit of the Spirit. Listen to Paul’s description,

“Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).

Maybe, like me, you are tempted to treat this as a checklist, quickly ticking off all of the sins that you are not guilty of committing. Sometimes a different translation that simultaneously gets at the heart of the original language of the text and puts it into a clearly modern vernacular, can reach us in ways that others cannot.

Listen to Eugene Peterson’s translation of these same verses,

“It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom. ”

While I didn’t see much of myself in the first list (I am not a sorcerer, for example), I do find myself wincing at Peterson’s translation. It convicts me of the many ways I may not cooperate with the Holy Spirit. It’s worth reading slowly and reflectively. I find it a helpful examination of conscience.

Let me say a word about the phrase “works of the flesh.” The fact Paul uses the plural “works” versus the singular “fruit” of the Spirit is significant. “Works” are purely human activities, and not only diverse but divisive (divisions were a very real problem in the Galatian Church and the direct result of living according to the flesh and not under the control of the Holy Spirit). On the other hand, there is a single fruit to emphasize unity and the intimate connection of each of the characteristics in the Spirit-filled life (more about this later).

The term “flesh” in Paul’s writing is significant. There are two Greek words Paul will use that are translated “flesh” in our English Bibles. The first is “soma” and is generally used to describe our physical bodies. The second term “sarx” is most often used to describe a life that ignores or resists the freedom God offers us in Christ. The term “sarx” literally means the pieces of skin that were stripped from a dead animal. To help me remember this, whenever Paul uses the term “flesh” in Galatians 5, I cross it out and write “carcass” because that gets to the heart of Paul’s usage. He is not referring to our physical bodies, but the part of us that resists grace – the dead, stinking part of us. That part of us has to die for the fruit of the Spirit to reach its full maturity and be harvested and shared. This part of us doesn’t die easily. The quickest way to eliminate it is to cooperate with the Christ life within us.

Let me give a personal example. Growing up with a verbally abusive stepfather, I developed a deep anger and resentment towards him. I couldn’t love him or even respect him. When I became a Christian in my early 20s, I returned to live with him for about 6 months. God began to convict me of my long history of hatred and the still-present resentment of my stepfather’s behavior. I knew it was impossible for me to love him, but my faith taught me that God loved him without condition. If that God lived in me, then he could love my father through me. That became my prayer, “Father, I can’t love him. You love him beyond measure. Please, love him through me in concrete ways, and help me to grow in my love for him.” Within a few months, I was able to fully and truthfully love my stepfather. It completely transformed our relationship. He treated me with respect and our relationship continued to grow over the next decade until he died. As I cooperated with the new life in me, the old ways of thinking and behaving fell away.

This is how we experience the true freedom that the Spirit-led life can offer. In our next post I will give some tangible ways to cultivate the Seed of Christ within us, providing the optimal conditions for growth.


Liberal Protestantism and Liberal Catholicism

December 9, 2008


From Inside Catholic:

Catholic liberals (by which I mean theological liberals, not political liberals) never cease to amaze me. On the one hand, they appear to have a sincere devotion to their religion. On the other, they campaign for moral and theological changes that, if carried into effect, would tend to destroy their Church.

Why do I say this? Because the history of Protestantism has made it perfectly clear what happens when a Christian church turns liberal or modern. Unless a Catholic is quite unfamiliar with the sad history of liberal Protestantism, he would not call for the theological liberalization or modernization of Catholicism.

In America, liberal Protestantism has always had three characteristics: (1) It is an attempt to find a compromise or via media between traditional Christianity and the fashionable anti-Christianity of the day. (2) In seeking this compromise, it drops certain traditional Christian beliefs as so much excess baggage. (3) To atone, so to speak, for this weakening of doctrine, it intensifies its moral commitments.

Three great “moments” in the history of American liberal Protestantism illustrate what I mean here. The first was the emergence of Unitarianism in the first quarter of the 19th century. The fashionable anti-Christianity of the day was Deism — as found, for instance, in one of the writings of Tom Paine (The Age of Reason). So Unitarianism, in pursuit of a via media, dropped the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, Original Sin, and a few other Christian doctrines. To make up for these discards, it strongly committed itself to the anti-slavery cause.

The second moment was the emergence of Modernism at the close of the 19th century and the opening of the 20th, at a time when the fashionable form of anti-Christianity was Agnosticism (e.g., Herbert Spencer and Thomas Henry Huxley in England, and, in the United States, that skeptical windbag Robert Ingersoll). Modernistic Protestantism did not, like the earlier Unitarians, openly reject traditional doctrines so much as it affirmed its beliefs in these doctrines in an equivocal way. For instance, your modernistic Protestant would claim to believe in the Trinity, the Divinity of Christ, the Resurrection, etc.; but when you carefully examined what he meant by these beliefs, you would find that he didn’t really hold them at all. Instead, he believed in something else, but he twisted the meaning of the traditional Christian phrases so that they would apply to his new and very non-traditional beliefs. (Many liberal Protestants –Marcus Borg, for example — do the same thing today.) To make up for this casting off of doctrine, the modernist had a strong commitment to the “social gospel.”

The third moment was the response to the Sexual Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. This Revolution was the then-fashionable form of anti-Christianity, and it remains the fashion today. Liberal Protestantism, searching as ever for a via media, gave its conditional blessing to premarital sex, unmarried cohabitation, abortion, homosexuality, and — more recently — same-sex marriage. I say “conditional” because, instead of giving a blanket endorsement to these practices, as anti-Christians did, liberal Protestantism said it would endorse them only when those undertaking them did so in a thoughtful, prayerful, and loving way. In this third moment, the intensification of moral commitments no longer has to do with corollaries of Christian morality — as in the earlier cases of abolitionism and social justice — but with a strong commitment to elements of an anti-Christian sexual morality.

Liberal Protestants of any one generation have always said something like this: “We’ll discard elements A, B, and C of traditional Christianity, but no more; we’ll stop there.” But the next generation says: “If our parents could drop ABC, we’ll drop DEF — but we’ll stop there.” Of course, it never stops. Once the “right to drop” is embraced, eventually everything will be dropped.

For the better part of 200 years, then, liberal Protestantism has been emptying itself of Christian content. First it got rid of Christian doctrinal content; more recently it has got rid of Christian moral content. Of course the liberals will claim that they have got rid of the inessential “over-beliefs” of Christianity and have boiled the religion down to its essential content, namely love of neighbor. That this love of neighbor largely consists of tolerating and encouraging what Christianity has always counted as serious sin is a reductio ad absurdum of that claim.

Who can be surprised, then, that the Protestant denominations that have been seriously infected with liberalism (the so-called “mainline churches”) are rapidly declining in numbers, not just in relation to the national population generally but even in absolute numbers?

And who can be surprised that American Catholicism, many of whose members turned in a theologically liberal direction after Vatican II, is also declining? The Catholic decline, to be sure, is masked by the sloppy way in which American Catholicism counts its members. You’re counted as a Catholic if you were baptized Catholic. That means that millions and millions of people are counted as Catholic who are quite indifferent, and in many cases downright hostile, to Catholicism. If, more realistically, we count as Catholic only those who continue to be somewhat serious about the religion — for example, by going to church once a week — we’ll see that there has been a steep decline.

Those Catholics who are not ignorant of the history of liberal Protestantism cannot, if they are honest with themselves, favor the theological liberalization of Catholicism. But, of course, some historically well-informed people are not honest with themselves, while vast numbers of Catholics — including many Catholic priests and more than a few Catholic bishops — are immensely ignorant of the history of liberal Protestantism. And so Catholicism in America continues to slide downhill.