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Monday, August 27, 2012

On Being Catholic...

Peter holding the keys to the Kingdom...
Alright, so I stole the title from a Thomas Howard book that I read several years ago but it was too appropriate to pass up.

However, unlike the book, which goes into
details about what led one of the most renowned and respected Evangelical scholars/authors of our time into the Catholic Church, I will keep this focused on what, at least to me, is the principal concept in beginning to understand what being Catholic is all about.

You can blame a friend, who last week asked me to share some thoughts with our men’s group about what it meant to be Roman Catholic.

I’ll be honest, it’s still amazing to me that I would even be asked to discuss the subject, even if just with friends, considering that for most of my life (almost 30 years), I was nothing more than a cultural Catholic. In other words, I was Catholic because my parents, grandparents and family were Catholic; not because I understood or believed in what the Church taught.

Yes, I went to parochial school in the early part of my life, but, by the time I started high school, most of what I had learned, I had forgotten, or at least pushed into the back burner.  And, as many teens, that’s when I really started drifting.

It took me until I became a father, in my forties, to start getting interested in exploring my faith. But, after a conversion experience, or as they say a "reversion," during a spiritual retreat in 2006, I began to want to learn everything I could about the Church, so I could pass it on to my children (now three).

Therefore, now, after six years of studying and learning a little about my faith (and it's a never ending process), as I think about what it means to be Roman Catholic, the first and foremost thought that comes to mind, is that it means believing in the authority of the Church.

And, in all honesty, it really doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. According to the Gospels, Jesus bestowed a unique authority upon Peter by giving him the keys to the Kingdom of God, and commissioning him to "feed and tend" His flock. Moreover, Christ gave Peter and, later, the Apostles (i.e. His Church, built upon the Rock of Peter), the power to "bind and lose" on earth what would be bound and loosed in heaven.

And, knowing the many faults of human beings, let's face it the Apostles were a motley crew of mishaps, all of which were far from being saints, He promised to send them the Holy Spirit to guide them to "all truth." (Am I getting too theological?  Sorry!)

Therefore, if I, as a Catholic, truly believe this truth, then I can either serve that authority or choose to follow the example of Adam and Eve. As the Bob Dylan lyrics say, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” (As the background singers sing, “Serve somebody.”)

That is the original sin; wanting to decide good and evil and right from wrong on our own. Adam and Eve ate fruit from the tree of good and evil because they wanted to be like God, make their own decisions and not be subjected to His authority.  It is the biggest affliction of the human condition; pride. And, something I battle with greatly.

In fact, not knowing much about my faith, for the greater part of my life, I thought I knew better than a two thousand year old Church, which has endured the rise and fall of countless kingdoms, persecutions, constant attacks and attempts to destroy it (both from within and without) and scandal.  (Talk about battling pride!)

I fell into the misunderstanding that I could pick and choose what I wanted to believe and toss out the rest.

It's the Thomas Jefferson model of Christianity. In the latter part of his life, Jefferson is said to have cut out all the things he did not agree with in the Bible and kept only the parts he liked. It’s called the Jefferson Bible. But, if we really think about this, that's like denying half of the truth or, worse, it's denying half of who God is.

St. Augustine of Hippo put it eloquently, "If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself."

Going back to the Thomas Howard book, where I started this blog, On Being Catholic, in the last paragraph of the book, he writes, "To be Catholic is to see one's entire identity and calling to be nothing other than a "configuration to" Christ and union with him..."

And, as a Roman Catholic, that configuration, also applies to the Church, which the Bible calls the Body of Christ and the "pillar and bulwark of truth."

Therefore, if I, as a follower of the Universal Church, reject a teaching because I disagree with it, or think it's too hard to follow, like the disciples that stopped following Jesus because He told them that His flesh was true food and His blood was true drink, then I am denying the authority of God. And, if God has no authority over me, then is He really my God?

In his book, Be A Man!; Becoming the Man God Created You to Be, which I just finished reading, Fr. Larry Richards puts it this way, "Either Jesus Christ is the Lord of every part of your life or He’s not the Lord of anything."…

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Words of Wisdom from St. Augustine...

"If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don't like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself."

-- Saint Augustine of Hippo, 4th-5th Century theologian, who is considered one of the greatest and most influential Christian writers in history.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Picture Worth a Thousand Words...

After doing the sign of the cross several times before the gun went off to start the race, Ethiopian runner, Meseret Defar, holds up an image of the Virgin Mary carrying Baby Jesus that she carried inside her shirt, and immediately pulled out, kissed it and showed it to the cameras, after crossing the finish line in first place to win the 5000 meters gold medal on Friday.

Christianity, especially Catholicism, in Ethiopia, like in most of Africa, is growing faster than anywhere else in the world.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lost Boy of Sudan Finds Home and Offers Olympic Hope...

Running with a purpose...
It was in the middle of a hot summer night at a rebel camp in Sudan in 1991. Hundreds of children, who had been abducted from their families to be trained as soldiers, including one group that was taken during Sunday morning Mass three weeks before, and being kept in cramped, unventilated one-room huts, with no windows, were probably trying to rest. Or maybe, after weeks of being fed only a mixture of grain with sand, were so lethargic, that they were just barely staying alive.

The prisoners, some as young as four, were terrorized by their captors, who would beat them savagely for simply asking to go to the bathroom and many, especially the younger ones, would fall asleep; never to wake up again.

Heavily armed soldiers, some not much older than their prisoners, patrolled the camp, ready to shoot or introduce the butt of a riffle to the head of anyone that stepped out of line.

And, four boys; three teens and a six-year-old, who they knew from their small village in Southern Sudan, sneaked out of their hut in the cover of the night and quietly crawled on their bellies to a hole they had spotted in the perimeter fence.

They could hear the voices of soldiers talking nearby but they kept going, as fast and as quietly as they could, afraid of looking back.

As the boys slid through the hole, they started running, and running, and running. They couldn’t stop; all night and all day. They were not only scared of falling prey to rebel soldiers, who would no doubt shoot them dead on the spot without a second thought, but also the wild animals in the Sudanese savanna.

They ran for three days and nights through the rough terrain and in the sweltering heat of the African summer. Their bare feet bleeding, their lungs gasping for air and their legs in severe pain, but they kept going; the older boys having to carry the younger boy at times.

And, with each stride they took, they got closer to their destination; which in their mind was home. Only, instead of heading east towards Kimotong, where they lived, they were running south towards Kenya...

My family and I are really enjoying the Summer Olympics. Every night, we sit around the TV, even during dinner (I know, not the best example to set!) and watch everything from beach volleyball to water polo and everything in between. Not to mention, we are going to sleep way past the kids’ bedtime (and mine!) and are all dragging our feet to get ready in the morning. Good thing it ends Sunday!

We’ve gotten to know and felt a part of Jordyn Wieber’s heartbreak and Missy Franklin's triumph.

We’ve cheered and watched endless stories about Misty May-Trainor and Kerri Walsh, en route to their gold medal three-peat, 15-year-old Katie Ledecky’s improbable 800-meter freestyle swimming victory, Gabby Douglas, Wieber, Franklin, Michael Phelps, and two of our favorites; (because they are Cuban-Americans) Danell Leyva and Ryan Lochte.

But, no story is as compelling, at least for me, than 5000 meter runner, Lopez Lomong’s.

By now, many people, except for me, until my wife told me recently, know the inspiring story of Lopez Lomong; from a poverty stricken village in Africa, where people still live in mud huts with no running water or electricity, to being kidnapped by rebel soldiers and his heroic escape, to being adopted by an upstate New York couple, whose only son was already in college, and they responded to an ad in their parish bulletin (St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Tully) looking for foster parents to take in the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

It is an amazing story. Shortly after crossing the Kenyan border, agents picked the boys up and sent them to a United Nations refugee camp near Nairobi, where the 6-year-old, Lomong, would spend the next 10 years of his life.

After a couple of weeks, the older boys would disappear and Lomong would never see them again. By then, he also thought his parents had been killed by the rebel soldiers. From that tender age, he had to live on his own; making friends, learning to read and write, attending church, playing soccer and running.

In fact, it was there, that, because of food shortages (refugees would get just one meal a day), he started running (18 miles each day; the perimeter of the camp) to keep his mind off his hunger.

It was there that the young boy, who was named Lopepe by his mother (which means fast, in his native language), got the nickname, Lopez, which he later officially adopted.

And, it was there that a group of boys talked him into walking five miles to a nearby village to watch the 2000 Olympics in Atlanta on a grainy black and white TV and saw U.S. runner Michael Johnson win the gold medal in the 400-meter race, setting the spark of his Olympic dreams.

Soon afterwards, a Catholic priest at the camp told him to write an essay about his life because the United States Catholic Bishops’ Migration and Refugee Service (MRS) had received permission to take some of the children in the refugee camp to America.

He told Christianity Today recently that he started his essay about church, where he was first abducted, and ended with church, where he learned of the opportunity for freedom.

Lopez with parents; Robert and Barbara Rodgers...
In 2001, ten years after being snatched from his mother's arms, Lomong, was one of the 3,800 “Lost Boys of Sudan,” brought into the United States that year by the Church. He was placed in the home of a Catholic couple, Robert and Barbara Rodgers, who said after much soul searching and consideration, decided to open their home to the 16-year-old boy, who they knew nothing about.

“There were a lot of concerns but I figured that if God had told us to do this, he probably had a handle on things,” Robert Rodgers says. In fact, the experience with Lopez was so rewarding that the couple later took in five more Sudanese boys.

Since first arriving at JFK Airport, a lot has happened in Lomong’s life. He became a high school cross country track standout in Tully. He went back to Africa and was reunited with his mother and family, who also thought he was dead and had buried him in absentia, and met two brothers he didn't know he had. He became an American Citizen and made the U.S. Olympic Team in 2007 and two years later, he traveled back to Africa to bring his younger brothers to the U.S. to attend school. 

It's enough to fill a book and it has.  His autobiography Running for My Life; One Lost Boys' Journey from the Killing Fields of Sudan to the Olympic Games, was recently released.

Through it all, Lomong has remained humble, optimistic and grateful to God for everything he has endured. Moreover, he is using his stardom to bring attention to the plight of his homeland and started a foundation, the Lopez Lomong Foundation 4 South Sudan, to raise money and awareness to provide basic needs for his village, including the building of the Lopez Lomong School and Kimotong Reconciliation Church, the Catholic Church where he was abducted from in 1991, which was destroyed during the years of civil wars.

On Saturday, when he steps on the track in London to compete in the 5000 meters finals, which my family and I will no doubt be watching, Lopez Lomong will not only be running for a gold medal, his adoptive country and teammates. He will be running for God, all those that made an impact on his life and to give hope to the children of his homeland and around the world that a poor boy from Kimotong, Sudan, who didn’t have a family or home, can grow up to, not only have both, but be an Olympic champion…

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Last Time I Watch James Bond with my Kids!...

1965 Thunderball movie poster..
One recent Wednesday night, my wife had a meeting with her women’s group at our parish and I was left to fend for myself with the kids.

After ordering Chinese, I thought, what better way to spend some time together than watching a James Bond movie? (Alright, so maybe it’s not exactly quality time but at least we’re together!)

Listen, my kids, including my 5-year-old, have watched The Chronicles of Narnia trilogy, Pirates of the Caribbean, and even some of the superhero movies, like The Avengers, which my son loved so much that it was the theme of his birthday party. Yes, they may be a little violent, but my criterion for a movie is whether it has sexual content, vulgar language, graphic or excessive gore or violence and, as importantly, whether it has a clear defined difference between good and evil.

I am very leery of all these mixed and subliminal messages that recent movies send about evil (witchcraft) being used for good (i.e. the ends justify the means!) and vampires falling in love (since, in other words, they are people too, right?) and there is no right or wrong, because it’s all relevant. (And that doesn’t even include the cartoon movies!)

So, I figured that watching an old 1960’s James Bond movie, Thunderball with Sean Connery, which I remember watching as a kid, only because of the amazing underwater fight scene, and where the blood looks like ketchup and the shootings, by today’s standards, appear as primitive as my first brick cell phone, would be fine to watch with the kids.

Boy was I wrong!

It wasn’t the violence that I should have been concerned about; it was the scenes of Connery shacking up with different women.

The guy was like the Wilt Chamberlain of spies. I didn't remember that part of the movie!  In a blink of an eye, and without giving me much time to react, because the scenes were so quick, except one, which I changed to a chorus of “Daddy!” from my kids, he had sex with a physical therapist in a shower room, a terrorist spy that kidnapped him and the bad guy’s mistress, which became his love interest, under water in scuba gear (I'm telling you, Wilt would be proud).

As a matter of fact, even though the scenes usually cut out before they got too explicit, the fact that Connery was shown shirtless and wearing nothing but a towel around his waist, while messaging a topless woman’s back in bed and kissing her (the terrorist spy), was suggestive enough to prompt my seven-year-old daughter to say, “He flirts with a lot of girls!” To be honest, I think I blushed.

I have two young daughters; one soon to be a teenager and another who thinks she is; not to mention a son, who I hope to raise with a little more respect for women, considering he has two sisters!

Although, the scenes may have gone over the heads of the younger two, I’m sure they were not lost on my 11-year-old, who learned about the birds and the bees this year at school, in the context of the importance of chastity (since they attend a Catholic school). Meanwhile, Bond was not exactly the beacon for showing restraint!

Anyway, lesson learned; I’ll never watch another Bond movie with my kids again (unless I preview it first!).

Thank goodness for the Summer Olympics!  Now, all I have to worry about are the programming ads and commercials...