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Friday, August 29, 2014

From Atheist Blogger to Catholic Evangelist...

Leah Libresco
In his classic book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis, who once set out to disprove Christianity, stated, "Now that I am a Christian I do not have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable."

And, thus is the internal conflict that a lot of Atheists face on a daily basis.  It's the tension of being confronted with a reality that goes far beyond the explainable, according to the scientific method, and cuts to the deepest core of the human heart.

As former Protestant Minister turned Catholic, Ken Hensley describes it; it's like the struggle of a young boy trying to keep a beach ball submerged under water in a pool.  The ball, like the truth, always wants to pop up. 

Yet, for many, it's as St. Thomas Aquinas once stated, "To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."  Of course, this recalcitrant denial is usually rooted in pride.

It's hard to deny everything you believe, or fail to believe; just ask former pagan St. Augustine of Hippo, who once wrote, "God make me chaste, but not yet," or once Atheist St. Edith Stein, or one time Anglican Bl. John "Cardinal" Newman.  There are consequences to conversion. 

It takes humility, or as St. Paul puts it, a willingness to "die" to self.  It takes a sincere desire for truth, regardless of where it may lead.  And, it takes courage, since often it flies in the face of friends, family and sometimes even careers.

Before the so-called "New Atheists" or the self identified "Four Horsemen," comprised of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and, since deceased, Christopher Hitchens, who set out to eradicate God from society, through an aggressive campaign of books, articles, movies, lectures and public appearances, not to mention, billboards and bus ads, there was Anthony Flew.

Flew was the "pope," you might say, of modern atheism.  He was a philosopher and scholar at Oxford, Aberdeen, and several other universities.  He wrote dozens of books and articles, arguing vehemently, loudly and unabashedly against the existence of God (Unless, he would say, empirical evidence for God would surface).  Well, it turns out, Flew was a sincere searcher and his last book was titled, There is a God, which despite the outcry from atheists questioning his lucidity at 84, was affirmed several times by Flew himself and a series of letters he exchanged, and were later published, with a Christian apologist on his newfound belief in God before his death. 

All that is to lead to the story of Leah Libresco.  Several years ago, the well known Atheist blogger shocked the blogosphere with her announcement that she had converted to Catholicism.  Let's just say, in Atheists' circles, it couldn't get any worse!  (I could almost hear the words of the legendary kid who found out White Sox star Shoeless Joe Jackson was involved in the fix to throw the 1918 World Series, who said, "Say it isn't so, Joe.  Say it isn't so.")

Libresco grew up in a non-religious household with college professor parents and in an environment that was totally isolated and void of any religion.

In fact, it wasn’t until she joined the Yale philosophical and political debating society that she  realized that all Christians were not fundamentalists who believed in Creationism. 

While in college, she started dating a Catholic man and made a playful deal that she would go to Mass with him every week, if he, in turn, would go to ballroom dancing with her.  They also agreed to exchange books on religion. 

The relationship eventually ended but, by then, she started blogging, became a regular contributor to, and continued debating with her readers about religion; mostly about Christianity versus Atheism.

Like C.S. Lewis, she struggled with rejecting Christianity in its entirety and accepting Atheism as a philosophical truth.  She says, she started seeing Christianity, "a lot more plausible but not necessarily true... I thought of myself an Atheist, while I thought it was coherent, but false also."

Her belief in an objective morality proved critical.  She argues that just as mathematical rules existed before humanity, and were discovered, the rules on right from wrong, good and evil and just and unjust also existed before us.

"(Christianity had) more explanatory power to explain something I was really sure of.  I'm really sure that morality is objective, human independent; something we uncover like archeology not something we build like architects."

That breakthrough led her to explore Christianity deeper and eventually led her into the Catholic Church in 2012. 

In other words, she humbled herself or, as C.S. Lewis once wrote, "I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England."  Only Libresco lives in the U.S.!

Check out an interview she did with CNN after her conversion.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Faith Helps James Foley Find Freedom...

"... Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death.  Amen."

That is the last line of the Hail Mary and may well have been the last words in the heart of American journalist James Foley, who was horrifically murdered by the Islamic terrorists group ISIS, while a camera captured the barbaric beheading.

Foley was no stranger to turmoil and violence.  He had been reporting on the atrocities and casualties of war from the front lines in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, almost from the time he left his teaching career to become a journalist and graduated from Northwestern University's Merrill School of Journalism in 2008.

He disappeared in Syria, near the Turkey border, in November of 2012, a year and a half after being abducted and held hostage for 44 days in Libya, in April 2011.  Family and friends had feverishly organized prayer vigils and a worldwide campaign for his release ever since.

Shortly, after Foley was released in Libya, he credited his faith with helping him get through the ordeal.  In a letter to Marquette University's staff and students, the Catholic Jesuit school he had graduated from with a degree in history, before attending Merrill, he wrote:

"I began to pray the rosary. It was what my mother and grandmother would have prayed. I said 10 Hail Marys between each Our Father. It took a long time, almost an hour to count 100 Hail Marys off on my knuckles. And it helped to keep my mind focused."

Foley continued, "If nothing else, prayer was the glue that enabled my freedom, an inner freedom first and later the miracle of being released during a war in which the regime had no real incentive to free us.  It didn't make sense, but faith did."

Foley was the eldest of five children.  His parents are very devout and parishioners of Our Lady of the Holy Rosary in Rochester, New Hampshire, where a Mass was celebrated for family and friends Wednesday morning.

In an article I came across on the shock in Foley's hometown, the writer, Maeve Reston, points out that Fr. Paul Gausse, the family's parish priest, said to the grieving congregation, "There is no sense to be made of senselessness; you cannot find any kind of sanity in insanity.... We are not just praying for us and the Foley family, but praying for those who perpetrated this kind of evil.  These people need prayers... This is being done in the name of God.  How insane can that be?"

Fr. Gausse told reporters that when he visited the Foley family Tuesday night, James' mother Diane asked him, "Father pray for me that I don't become bitter.  I don't want to hate."

Outside their Rochester home, Foley's mom spoke about how proud they were of him because of his great compassion for the suffering in Syria.  Breaking down in tears, she said, “We just thank God for the gift of Jim.”

Foley's father, John added, "He was courageous to the end and I think he accepted his situation and I think he accepted God's faith in him and his faith in God... We believe he was a martyr; a martyr for freedom... It's difficult to find solace at this time, but we know Jimmy's free.  He's finally free.  And we know he's in God's hands... and we know he's in heaven."

I can't imagine the pain and horror Foley felt as the brutal executioner slashed his neck but hopefully, within his many Hail Marys and the prayers of countless of other people over the past 20 months, as his father said, he found that innermost freedom that can only be ascertained through faith, hope and trust in God...

"Pray for us, Oh Holy Mother of God now, and at the hour of our death. Amen."  

[photo credit: Steven Senne/AP]

Friday, August 15, 2014

A Great Sign in the Sky...

A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.
She was with child and wailed aloud in pain as she labored to give birth.
Then another sign appeared in the sky; it was a huge red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on its heads were seven diadems.
Its tail swept away a third of the stars in the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, to devour her child when she gave birth.
She gave birth to a son, a male child, destined to rule all the nations with an iron rod. Her child was caught up to God and his throne.
The woman herself fled into the desert where she had a place prepared by God.... 
Then the dragon became angry with the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offsprings, those who keep God's commandments and beat witness to Jesus.  (Rev. 12:1-6, 17) 

Today, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Assumption of Mary.

On November 1, 1950, in the Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII proclaimed ex cathedra, i.e., using the gift of infallibility handed to Peter by Christ, the Assumption of Mary as a dogma of the Catholic Church.  It was the second of two times, Roman pontiffs have ever used that authority; the other being the Immaculate Conception in 1854.

In the pronouncement, Pope Pius stated, "We pronounce, declare and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever-virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heaven."

With that, an ancient tradition, first recorded in the 4th Century but believed from the time of her passing, became Catholic doctrine and the Assumption was declared a truth revealed by God...


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Robin Williams, Suicide and Catholic Guilt...

A good friend once shared that he understood well how a person could commit suicide.   

He had been there himself; engulfed in that pit of darkness and despair, where hope is lost, life has become meaningless and desolation permeates every cell and molecule of  a person's being. 

It is the type of feeling that prompted the psalmist to write, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me," which Jesus recited while taking his last breaths on the cross.

My friend couldn't sleep.  He couldn't eat.  He couldn't concentrate.  In fact, just reading a full sentence was a challenge.  Therefore, he obviously couldn't work.  He had what doctors call clinical depression, which afflicts millions of Americans every year.

And, it wasn't because he wasn't successful.  My friend was a professional with a plush high rise office, making more money than he ever imagined and the envy of many of his friends and associates because of his youth, rising success, good looks and prowess with the opposite sex.  But, he was miserable.  He was in a bottomless funk and couldn't dig his way out; no matter what he tried.

He says the only thing that kept him from taking his life was Catholic guilt.  It was the thought of spending the rest of eternity in hell (Let's take a quick sidebar here.  Although, the Church teaches that depression is a serious mental illness and suicide is something that only God can judge, many still view it as the taking of a human life, which only God has the right to do).

It's a good thing my friend saw it as the latter because, admittedly, it saved his life.

I was reminded of my friend's words this week, as the story of Hollywood actor Robin Williams' death captured the headlines of every major news outlet, both locally and nationally, across the country.

It's ironic.  For me, Robin Williams was not only an incredible talent as an actor and comedian but he represented a sense of energy, enthusiasm and spirit of happiness that was unrivaled by any standard.  In fact, he appeared to have everything the culture tells us makes people happy; fame, fortune, influence. 

Unfortunately, it seems, there was also lots of sadness, internal conflicts and darkness.  It was severe enough to make him take his life at the age of 63 and still in the prime of his career (having just shot four movies that are yet to be released).

Williams was raised Episcopalian and often referred to his faith, especially in helping him get through drug and alcohol addictions, broken marriages and open-heart surgery.  He once joked, "I'm an Episcopal; that's Catholic Light. Same religion, half the guilt!"

I couldn't help but think of my friend.  Maybe, just maybe, a little more Catholic guilt could have helped Williams' as well...

[photo credit: Reed Saxon/AP file]

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Maximilian Kolbe and the Conflict Within...

“No one in the world can change Truth. What we can do and should do is to seek truth and to serve it when we have found it. The real conflict is the inner conflict. Beyond armies of occupation and the hecatombs of extermination camps, there are two irreconcilable enemies in the depth of every soul: good and evil, sin and love. And what use are the victories on the battlefield if we are ourselves are defeated in our innermost personal selves?”

-- St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish Franciscan Friar and martyr, who volunteer to take the place of a stranger selected to die in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II.

Known as the Apostle of Consecration to Mary, because of his profound devotion to the Blessed Mother, after having received a vision of her in his childhood, in which, he would later write she offered him two crowns; a white one for persevering in purity and a red one for martyrdom.  She asked if he was willing to accept either of the crowns and he accepted both.  He was devoted to her since and, after becoming a priest, started the Militia Immaculata, or the Army of Mary, that intended to convert the world through the intercession of the Virgin Mother.

In early 1941, while operating a shelter for 3,000 Polish refugees, two thirds of which were Jews, with several Franciscan friars, Fr. Kolbe was arrested after writing the words above ("No one in the world can change Truth...") in a newspaper the group published.  He was sent to a prison in Warsaw, where, seeing him with Franciscan habit and rosary, he was regularly beaten and challenged by the S.S. guards to denounce his faith.

In May of that year he was sent, along with 300 prisoners, to Auschwitz, where, as most people know, over four million people; men, women and children, including St. Edith Stein, a Carmelite nun, were put to death. 

There, Fr. Kolbe was put in striped prison garments and branded with a number (#16670) like everyone else, and again prompted the ire of the guards, who wanted to break him but couldn't.  Eye witnesses who survived said that prisoners would often gather in secret to hear his words of encouragement and faith.

In late July, three prisoners escaped.  The guards chose ten men to be starved to death as a deterrent to the others.  One of the men was a husband and father, who cried out, "My wife! My children!"  Fr. Kolbe volunteered to take his place. 

After two weeks of enduring the agony and torment of starvation, he was put to death by lethal injection on August 14, 1941 and thus, fulfilling the martyrdom promised to him by Mary. 

In the Gospel of John, Jesus states, "Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends."

Well, it is obvious, Fr. Kolbe demonstrated great love.  He was Beatified by Pope Paul VI in 1971 and Canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

During his canonization, Pope John Paul wrote, "Men saw what happened in the camp at Auschwitz.  And even if to their eyes it must have seemed that a companion of their torment "dies," even if humanly speaking they could consider "his departure" as "a disaster," nevertheless in their minds this was not simply "death." Maximilian did not die but "gave his life...for his brother." In that death, terrible from the human point of view, there was the whole definitive greatness of the human act and of the human choice. He spontaneously offered himself up to death out of love." 

Therefore, in the internal conflict of St. Maximilian Kolbe's soul, as he once wrote, he chose love over sin and good over evil and his victory went beyond any on a battlefield.  It was a victory of the eternal "crown of righteousness," as St. Paul wrote, that can only come from God...

The Church celebrates his feast day on August 14th.

For more on St. Maximilian Kolbe (see here)...

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Rocky Balboa, Sainthood or Hell...

Getting Strong Now...
"Either we become a saint or we go to hell!" I quoted Fr. Larry Richards at a recent meeting of my parish men's group.

"In fact, Jesus tells his disciples to be perfect as the Heavenly Father is perfect," I continued.

I could sense a bit of apprehension in the room, sort of like the discomfort you get in your shorts after spending all day sitting at water's edge on the sand in the beach, as the ocean tide cascades off, in and around your body.  (It may feel good initially but after a while the abrasiveness of the rocky particles inside your pants really start bothering!) 

One of my friends tried to soften the blow for the newer guys, "Now, when you say saints, you don't mean that we have to become saints, like John Paul II, but that making it to heaven means we're saints, right?"

I knew where he was coming from, since Fr. Larry's comment was received with the same enthusiasm as an eskimo being told that the desert of the house is ice cream, as he meant it to, when he said it to over five hundred men at an Archdiocese of Miami conference I attended.

If you think about it, it would have been a cruel joke for Jesus to have played on His disciples if He told them to be perfect like the Father, knowing their human inclination to sin, and not given them the grace to do so.  And, that's where the Sacraments come in.

Every time, we receive absolution in the sacrament of Confession, we are cleansed, like the heavenly hosts described in the Book of Revelation, who washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, and filled with God's grace to be perfect, which is why the first thing Christ did after the Resurrection was give His Apostles the power to forgive sins and why the popes go to Confession weekly! 

Each time, we, in grace, receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are perfected in Him.  We encounter the same Jesus that walked the face of the earth, performed miracles, was crucified and resurrected two thousand years ago! And, we become One with Him, like a bridegroom with his bride in the union of their two bodies.  This is some deep stuff, here!

However, many of us can't imagine becoming saints or achieving the perfection that God calls us to.

In his classic, The Seven Storey Mountain, Thomas Merton writes on a conversation he had with a friend on the topic.

"I can't be a saint," I said, "I can't be a saint."  And, my mind darkened with confusion of realities and unrealities.  The knowledge of my own sins, and the false humility which makes men say they cannot do the thing that they must do, cannot reach the level that they must reach:  the cowardice that says, "I am satisfied to save my soul, to keep out of mortal sin," but which means, by those words, "I do not want to give up my sins and my attachments."

It reminds me of the infamous man of debauchery turned saint, St. Augustine of Hippo, who once wrote, "Lord, make me chaste, but not yet."

We all have the greatness and ability within us.  We just have to want it.

When St. Thomas Aquinas, who is one of the greatest minds in Christian history, was once asked by his sister, "What do I need to do to be a saint?"  He answered, "Will it."

Gonna Fly Now..
And, I could just imagine the bells ring in the background, like when Adrian came out of her coma in Rocky II and, after seeing her newborn baby, tells Rocky, "There's one thing I want you to do for me: win! Win!" and Mickey yells out, "What are we waiting for?"

But, then comes the hard part; Rocky has to get disciplined, train, mentally prepare, and, like St. Thomas Aquinas stated, will himself to victory.

Fr. Larry is right, we either become saints or we go to hell.  The sooner we accept that, the sooner we can start training and preparing for the ultimate victory...