Ten More Reasons to be Catholic

Being Catholic for me is far more than a matter of religion. I am what they sometimes call a “revert,” which puts me in the rare position of being both a cradle Catholic and a kind of convert. Catholicism for me has all the familiarity of family, but it is not simply a reflex. Being Catholic is something I really had to think about and choose.

Earlier this week, Sam Guzman of The Catholic Gentleman wrote a list of “10 Reasons to Become Catholic.” He notes, via Chesterton, that there are many thousands of reasons he could list, but they all boil down to the truth of the faith. I believe that too. I have written before about my reasons for returning to the Church, the main one being a strong sense of God’s directive to me personally to do so. Guzman wrote about why people should become Catholic, but that got me thinking about why I remain Catholic.

After all, this is not a great moment for Catholic triumphalism. Scandals abound. The abuse crisis and its cover-up is a shocking display of evil, especially if what Guzman says is true that “The greatest obstacle to the advance of evil in the world is the Catholic Church.” Wrap in alongside that the financial scandals just starting to emerge, the crisis of pastoral care created by the priest shortage, and the banality of the liturgy in many places and it is easy to see why many people find the modern Catholic Church more lamentable than hopeful.

Yet here I remain. And it is not simply that I am resigned to it or see it as the best of bad options. I’m jazzed about being Catholic. I think this is the absolute best thing I could be. I’m not trying to bash anyone else by saying that, but for me, there is no place I would rather call home.

So here are ten reasons why it is a joy for me to be Catholic. I have not copied any of Guzman’s, all of which would be on my list too. I am sure I could come up with ten more if I tried. Where truth lives, joy abounds.

A Mystical Faith

In the Catholic faith, we don’t just learn about God. We experience Him. We meet Him in the Sacraments and in the reading of Scripture. We encounter Him in prayer. He is not abstract. He is not distant, off on a cloud somewhere. He is an ever-present part of life. The Catholic faith is filled with tools to help us to know Him. From the Ignatian spiritual exercises or the Carmelite way of perfection to Eastern traditions of iconography and the Jesus Prayer, Catholicism is mystical from top to bottom. And the Church shows us through that mysticism that it is possible to have deep spiritual experiences without sacrificing reason and rationality in the process.

A Healing Faith

We are all carrying wounds around with us, wounds of loneliness, wounds of pride or despair, wounds of sin. The mission of the Catholic Church is the salvation of souls.  That means that the Catholic Church exists to offer us healing for our wounds, a healing that is deep and that ultimately saves us from death itself. Sometimes Christians envision salvation in purely juridical terms – I’m either good or bad, and if I’m bad then I have to go before a judge to pay a penalty, unless someone else intervenes. That kind of understanding has its place within the tradition and can be useful in some ways, but it is not the primary lens through which salvation is meant to be viewed. We are not dying from sin because we have offended an angry God. We are dying from sin because sin is a sickness, a poison that infects us and reaches out into every corner of our lives, regardless of the choices we have made. Indeed, it is that wound that causes us to want to make bad choices in the first place.

But in and through the Church, we receive the medicine that we need. Through the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession), through the preaching of the Gospel, through prayer and fasting, through spiritual direction, and in so many other ways, the Lord Jesus Christ works through His Church to heal us and restore us to wholeness.

Catholicism is Weird

Earlier this year, I got to bless a room full of kids with a piece of bone from St. Thomas Aquinas. That’s weird, right? I mean, totally. And what could be better than that?

The weirdness of Catholicism is part of the joy of it. We sing in funny tones. We tell stories about great saints who have done things like levitating or reading people’s minds. We get together to worship what looks to the naked eye like a piece of bread, only we insist it has become something much more. From the perspective of the world, so much of what Catholicism does is super weird and in some cases even super offensive. But in an age in which we trumpet the idea of being non-conformist and yet participate in an endless cycle of boring consumerist trends, Catholicism is one of the few ways in which we can truly escape from the mediocrity.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft wrote, “In an age that has thrown off all tradition, the only rebellion possible is orthodoxy.” The more we embrace the Catholic faith in all of its strangeness, the more we find ourselves breaking free from the worst that the world has to offer.

The Mother of God

Some Christians worry that Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary somehow obscures the place of Jesus, but my experience has been just the opposite. The more my devotion to Mary has increased, the closer to Jesus I have become. How could it be otherwise? She is His mother, after all, and so all that she says and does points us back to Him. In John 2:1-12, Jesus performs His first miracle by changing water into wine at a wedding in Cana. Mary is at the heart of this scene, urging Him along, and more importantly urging others to follow His lead, saying, “Do whatever He tells you.” She understands her Son. When I get to know the family and friends of others, it often leads me to have a new appreciation for them. The same is true here. Mary is the one who models for us how to be a disciple.

Mary is also the source of Christ’s humanity, her flesh becoming His. In that sense, we honor her as the arc, the bridge, the means by which God chose to unite Himself with us. In that respect, to fail to venerate her is to fail to fully understand just what He has done for us.

The Church Loves Women

The veneration of Mary also reminds us that the Catholic faith celebrates women. This sometimes surprises people since the common misperception is that the Church does just the opposite. Yet the teaching of the Church is not only that women ought to be treated as equal to men, but that they need to be loved, cherished, and honored for their unique gifts. Pope St. John Paul II’s 1995 Letter to Women is a grand example of that. In it, the pope thanks women for the gifts of being daughters and sisters, wives and mothers, and he advocates for things like “equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights,” as well as an end to “sexualized violence.”

The “Me Too” movement has highlighted how women are routinely regarded as mere objects for the satisfaction of men in our society. Women’s stories are not heard. Their humanity is reduced to whatever garners the attention of men. The Catholic faith does the opposite, acknowledging the humanity of women at the deepest level, that women like men are made in the image and likeness of God, that they contribute uniquely to the good of society, and that they deserve love and respect. The message of the Church is not just about women, but it is also for women and from women. Some of the greatest doctors of the Church have been women like St. Catherine of Sienna and St. Therese of Lisieux. In other words, women are not simply something the Church talks about. Women are the Church. Indeed, the Church herself is traditionally referred to as “she” and as our “mother” because she unites us to Jesus as His Bride. “The future is female,” says a popular feminist slogan. To which we might add, “So is the Catholic Church!”

The Church Loves Children

Despite the horrors we have seen perpetrated by some leaders in the Church in recent years, historically the Catholic Church has always taught that the family is sacred and children are great gifts from God. This can be seen in many ways, from the Church’s relentless defense of children in the womb and migrant children, and the Church’s efforts to end human trafficking, to the World Meeting of Families, World Youth Day, and the development of Catholic schools, hospitals, orphanages, and other institutions designed specifically to care for children throughout their childhood years. As a father of two children with a severe form of autism, it is particularly gratifying to know that the Church loves my kids and believes they are as worthy of love and respect as any other human being.

Building a Better World

The Catholic social justice tradition is unparalleled in its advocacy for human rights. The entire concept of “human rights” has its origin in the teaching of the Church about the inherent dignity of every human person. My own walk back to the Church was greatly influenced by figures like Dorothy Day, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and St. Oscar Romero who fought for the poor and the disenfranchised. The Catholic Church has long advocated for the rights of workers, an end to abortion, an end to capital punishment, the eradication of nuclear arms, and the moral imperative for all of us to work towards healing the planet from pollution and the effects of global warming.

You Can Party With Us

The Catholic poet Hilaire Belloc wrote, “Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine / There’s always laughter and good red wine. / At least I’ve always found it so, / Benedicamus Domino!” Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati is famously pictured standing at the top of a mountain smoking a pipe. Is the point that Catholics like to smoke and drink? Well, some of them do. But the point is actually much bigger and better than that. The Catholic faith isn’t afraid of pleasure. In fact, Catholicism deeply celebrates all the good things that give pleasure in this world, such as good wine, good food, gregarious laughter, and so forth. All of these need to be enjoyed within reason. Obviously, there are ways in which pleasure seeking, when it becomes an end in itself, is a destructive force. But taken in moderation, with the understanding that all good pleasures we experience in this world are merely foretastes of the pleasure of knowing God in the next, the Catholic Church acknowledges that pleasure is a good thing and a healthy thing to want in our lives.

Sex is Good

Some people might hear that the Church approves of pleasure and object that this cannot be since the Church does not approve of sex. Those people would be frightfully misinformed! The Church teaches clearly and consistently that sex is good. I have written before about the way in which our world today is unable to acknowledge the greatness of sex. The Church teaches that sex belongs in the context of marriage not because sex is bad but precisely because sex is so good. It reaches its fullest, most beautiful potential within a covenant of grace in which two people who have been bonded to each other for life can afford to be vulnerable and honest with each other, giving the whole of themselves to each other. Pleasure, then, is one of the great goods of sex, not isolated on its own but in conjunction with the entire self-giving that sex involves. As Pope Francis put it to a group of young people in 2015, “It is right to try for a genuine love that knows to give life, that does not search to use the other for its own pleasure. A love that makes sacred the life of the other person: ‘I respect you, I do not want to use you.’”

Knowing Jesus

All of the previous reasons culminate in this one: Being Catholic is to know Jesus. The heart of the Catholic faith is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the good news of what He has done for us and His continued reign over His Church through the work of the Holy Spirit. In the Eucharist, we receive Jesus directly, in body and spirit. In the Church’s teaching, we hear the voice of Jesus speaking to our hearts. In the living of the Catholic faith, we constantly see Jesus at work in the world. We hear Him crying out to us in the suffering of the poor and the sick. We know His joy and His saving grace in the love of parents and children, husbands and wives, and friends for one another. There is nowhere in my life that I have found greater intimacy with Christ than in the Catholic Church.

Autism as a gift

I took my ten-year-old son with me to the grocery store last night. He pushed the cart himself. He cheerfully helped put things in the cart and then put them on the belt when it was time to check-out. He even helped me load the car and close the trunk. It was beautiful. I almost cried.

That probably sounds like a strange reaction to parents of typical kids. Many kids would have been doing what he did tonight ages ago. For my son, though, this was extraordinary and wonderful. Because he is severely autistic, there is much that he cannot do for himself, much that is a struggle. For that reason, whenever he is able to do something, our family receives it as a tremendous gift. It is incredibly gratifying to his mother and I to see him doing something independently, and it is also deeply gratifying for him when he finds that there are things he can accomplish on his own.

I imagine that every parent experiences some version of this. As a child reaches new milestones, there is a bitter-sweet kind of letting-go that parents do over and over again. For typical parents, the hard part of that is the realization that some day they will have to let go completely and allow the child to flourish all on his or her own.

My experience is different. My children will probably always need me to help them do even basic things. There is a kind of bitterness that can creep in with that, a despair that perhaps our children will never be able to function on their own, and a befuddlement as to what life means and what it is for when it is so perpetually limited.

Yet scattered amidst the strenuous and monotonous trials of daily life, there are these incredible moments when the joyful truth of who my children are breaks through. It is often something like a trip to the store, but it does not have to be. It can be something even simpler, like a shared laugh. It can be the way one of my sons moves to sit in my lap or touch the back of my neck. It happens in the rare but increasing number of moments in which my boys interact with each other.

My children are a gift. That gift includes their autism. That is a difficult thing for me to say. Frankly, much of the time their autism feels more like a curse. It is a hard life. I fear for them. And in my selfishness, I often pity myself for the things I do not get to experience as a father and the things I have to give up in order to care for them. But their autism really is a gift, not because autism is a good thing in and of itself, but because it forms part of the reality of who my children are, and I am a better man because I get to be their father.

Autism is not a separate reality from my children. It is not something that happened to them nor something added to them. There is not a real them that lives somewhere behind their autism, as if you could take the autism away and reveal a truer version of my children that was previously hidden. They are autistic. So to love them, in some sense, is to love their autism.

The limitations that come with autism are a great burden, both for my children and for their mother and I as parents. Nonetheless, there is a sheer joy that comes in realizing and knowing the humanity of my children, especially in those moments when they suddenly seem capable of engaging the world. I do not know that I would be moved to tears watching my ten-year-old push a cart if he were a neurotypical child, at least not every single time.

I write a lot about how hard all of this is. And it is hard. But when every day is a struggle, every victory becomes a tremendous sweetness. I wish people understood better what it is I experience as a parent and what my children experience in trying to engage with a society that was not made with them in mind. Yet I never want to be pitied and I would not want my boys to be pitied either. There is nothing pitiable about them. They are human beings, fearfully and wonderfully made, bearing the image and likeness of God. And because of that, I grow closer to my Lord every day when I serve them.

Learning empathy from my autistic children

I like to think of myself as an empathetic person, but I am not. At least, I am not yet.

I do care about people. I worry about friends and family. I feel bad for people who are down on their luck. I sympathize with fictional characters in movies and cry at the drop of a hat.

But when I look inside of myself, what I find more than compassion is blatant self-centeredness. I want others to be happy, but their happiness comes second to my own. I feel bad for others in their suffering, but really I think they should feel bad for me because I have it so much worse. I deserve a break from the mean, cruel world that does not get how hard things are for me, but other people really ought to learn to suck it up and deal.

I need to learn empathy. Fortunately for me, the Lord has given me two able teachers in the form of my children.

I love my boys, but I do not understand them. Their autism frustrates their attempts to communicate and largely keeps them locked in a world to which I do not have access. I am happy when they laugh, but I almost never understand the joke – Was it some funny word I said? The way the light is falling on the floor? What’s so funny about that?

Even more distressing is that I rarely understand what is upsetting them. And something is always upsetting them. Rarely does a day go by without several major freak outs. These go far beyond the tantrums of typical children. They can be long and sustained, sometimes even violent, often lasting for hours on end. When my oldest gets upset enough, he will even bite his own arms, leaving massive bruises.

It is very tiring to live in this environment. It is like living in a war zone. You never know when the quiet will erupt into chaos. And even when things are stable, there is little I can do to connect with my children. I cannot have a conversation with them. I cannot share in their interests  because they largely do not have any. My nine-year-old son’s main interests are showering and baby toys that make noises. How do I connect with that?

So instead I go into my own head. It is surprisingly easy to do. I play on social media, or watch television, or when all else fails I simply turn ideas over in my mind. I become a self-contained unit. I do my best to survive the long afternoons, ignoring as best I can the behaviors of my children that I find most frustrating. I even have the nerve sometimes to accuse my children of lacking empathy because they interrupt my mind wandering with their demands!

What I do not do–what never even occurs to me–is to put myself in their shoes and imagine living in a scary world in which people are constantly talking but I cannot understand them, in which I have many needs and wants but no way to express them, in which the only things that are calming and make any sense are things like the droplets of water coming out of the shower head or the predictable sound effects made by a toy.

Fr. Michael Rennier recently wrote a piece about the great Edith Stein and her advice on cultivating empathy. Stein was a German Jew who became a Catholic nun in the 1930s, taking the name Sr. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was sent to a concentration camp by the Nazis where she died in 1942. Today the Church recognizes her as a saint and a martyr. She was known for her great compassion and kindness even in the concentration camp. Earlier in life, she had written extensively about empathy.

Rennier says that one piece of advice on how to be more empathetic that can be gleaned from Stein’s writing is to get out of our own heads. “Empathy is, among other things, a way of learning to appreciate foreign experiences,” he says. “In the same way that travel broadens the mind, so too does looking at the face of another person and glimpsing another beautiful, mysterious, unique mind. The effort is always worth it.”

Is it worth the effort though? Sometimes it does not feel like it. As my wife says, “Sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.” Hours upon hours of behavioral therapy, trips out to places where they freak out or refuse the bathroom, controlled environments, medications, repetitive movements, attempts to teach things like simple play let alone something like brushing teeth or tying shoes, and the simplest spark of connection still feels elusive.

But then the tiniest victory in the world melts my heart. My nine-year-old manages to push the cart for a while at the supermarket. My five-year-old walks into a room, looks up at the Captain America action figure on the shelf, reaches out his hands and says clear as day, “I want Superman.” These are moments that are more precious than gold. They are moments when my children move just a bit into the world I inhabit, creating a slightly larger space in the center of the venn diagram in which our worlds overlap. When this happens, I realize for a moment how hard they are trying, how difficult it must be to be them. It is not all about my frustrations or what I hoped parenting might be. It is not about me at all. It is about them. They are the people God has given me to care for. They need me to help them to survive in a world that largely has no place for them. If the only thing I ever do in my whole life is to love, serve, and protect them, it will be a life well lived.

What my children have been teaching me without me realizing it is that my own mind is a closed and lonely place if I do not push past the borders of my comfort. Caring for my kids is not simply a matter of providing them with a roof and three square meals a day. It involves a deeper kind of work in which I make an effort to discover what it means to live in their worlds just as they struggle with how to navigate in mine. If I did not have severely autistic children, I do not know that it would ever occur to me to look at things this way, not just from another person’s perspective but from the vantage point of someone marked as radically other than “normal.” But my children constantly challenge me, which blesses me, because it makes me see that there are so many other people in this world than my limited scope of vision would like to let in. When I see the marginalized, the poor, the oppressed, I see something of my children in them and it opens my heart in a way it never did before.

I am not yet the empathetic and compassionate person I want to be, but with the help of Langston and Micah I am learning.

The Word of God for those who have no words

An old picture of my boys from a couple of years ago.

It is no accident that my sons, Langston and Micah, are named after a poet and a prophet. I have always found my solace in words. For as long as I can remember, I have been a writer, a reader, and a talker. I’m not good at sports. I’ve never been able to draw. I still count on my hands sometimes to do math. But words have always been both my paint and my canvas.

When I imagined being a father, I dreamed about both sharing my words with my children and having them share their words with me. But that has not been my experience. My boys are eight and four now and they are both on the autism spectrum. While there is great variety in how autism manifests itself, for my children it has come in a form that is probably best described as non-verbal. They both have some words at their disposal, but the number is very limited. They cannot have a conversation. They cannot follow most stories. They cannot read. They live inside a world that is largely wordless.

There are many ways in which the communication challenges that my children face are frustrating for them and heartbreaking for me, but none more so than in the realm of faith. I consider it my most solemn duty as a parent to teach the Christian faith to my children. “Fathers,” says Paul, “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). My children have trouble understanding the most basic things I say. How can I instruct them in who God is and what He has done for them? “Faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes by the preaching of Christ” (Romans 10:17). But what good is that preaching if they can’t understand it?

As Catholic Christians, we are fortunate to have a few more tools at our disposal than we might otherwise. The Word of God is to be found not only in the words of a preacher or catechist but in every facet of the Catholic life. My wife and I try to surround our children with the things of God. There are icons and crucifixes in our home. There are songs that we sing. Many prayers can be learned in a rote fashion – the only way that my children ever gain language – and so my oldest is now able to make the sign of the cross and recite the Lord’s Prayer with some coaching, even though he has no awareness of what he is saying.

And of course, in the sacramental life of the Church, the grace of Our Lord is given as a gift to all of us, regardless of our capacity to understand it. I had the privilege of baptizing both of my boys as infants. Like all the other babies I have baptized over the years, they could hardly have been cognizant of what was happening, but that didn’t matter because God was at work. It wasn’t about them getting it. It was about Him giving it.

Yet the sacraments come with their own challenges for my family. The height of the Catholic life is the Mass, but my children are hardwired by their autism to screaming fits and other behaviors that many people find distracting or even outrageous. I cannot help my wife to wrangle them during Mass since I am usually up front leading the service. They rarely make it past the peace.

Moreover, my children have never been able to attend Sunday School. What happens when it is time for them to be confirmed? How will they be able to take on the baptismal promises as their own?

How do I bring my children who live in wordlessness to know the God who makes Himself known only through His Word?

“Is not my Word like fire?” says the Lord in the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah. “And like a hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word which God speaks is not just an ordinary word. We hear it in ordinary words, but its power is far greater. This is a Word that doesn’t just point us towards God, it actually is God. It doesn’t just act as a symbol for our minds so that we can contemplate God, it actually delivers God to us. It is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us, assuming all manner of human weakness in that act of self-emptying love. God’s Word can break the rock of my children’s autism into pieces. He can speak to them in a thousand ways that I cannot, because He has been one like them. He knows what it is not to be able to communicate. He knows what it is to be cut off from the world.

I wish I could say that I have the answer to these questions. There are, of course, programs that help to make liturgy more accessible to children like mine. There are good people trying to work through this. But it’s hard. It’s messy. It’s uncertain. I pray for guidance every day. Ultimately, it is a question of faith, not theirs but mine. Do I trust God enough to find a way to give His Word to my children even when I am unable to do so? In their baptism, Christ claimed them as His own and marked them as such forever. I know that some day my children and I will share words. We will worship God together in a shared language of prayer, whether on this side of the grave or in the life to come. There will be no wordlessness in the Kingdom.

The air is Catholic

10338587_10202931786110331_7862011290382741576_o
Recently, I had the rare experience of having a Sunday off. Since my wife was away, I had the boys to myself and decided to take them into the backyard to play with the hose. This is a more trepidatious procedure than you might at first imagine. Both of my boys, ages 7 and 3, are autistic. Among the many difficulties that are part of that is the fact that they will not necessarily come to me when I call them. Since they also often do knuckle headed things like swallowing rocks or running out into traffic, I have to be all over them when we are outside of the house. And since there’s two of them, I do not often take them outside when I am home alone with them since they could run in opposite directions. But on this particular morning, I decided it was worth the risk. I set up a barricade that kept them either inside our screened in porch or in the backyard and watched them play. While my oldest made the water from the hose shoot up and around in all directions, I helped my youngest draw circles on the porch floor with blue and yellow sidewalk chalk. It was an unusually peaceful time with my boys, and I allowed myself to drink that in. I smiled when they laughed. I smelled the sunscreen I had rubbed on their faces and the grass clippings from the previous day’s mowing. I breathed in the moment, trying to hold onto the feeling, allowing my lungs to fill with warm summer air.

It occurred to me later that there was something essentially Catholic about that experience. That may sound odd since obviously a man need not be a Catholic or even any kind of Christian to enjoy a Sunday morning with his children. Yet what I experienced was not just the joy of the moment itself but the way in which that joy is connected to the whole of God’s good work in the world. I felt a profound sense of connection. The sweetness of the air and the sounds of my kids playing were somehow tapped into the mystery of salvation. There is an endless continuity between that moment in time and the crucifixion and resurrection of Our Lord.

A lot of Christians, including many liturgical Protestants, have been taught that the word catholic means universal. That is true up to a point, but it is not quite as accurate as it is to say that catholic means according to the whole. That is what the Greek words that make up our word catholic, κατά and ὅλος, mean literally. When we say that the Church is Catholic, we mean that she is whole, she is full. When we say that we are Catholic, we mean that we share in that wholeness and partake of that fullness. And that means that our entire experience of creation is part of the deal. The boundaries of our faith are far more expansive than what we might otherwise imagine.

One of the things that is often hard to communicate when evangelizing is the fact that Christianity is a way of life far more than a set of theorems. To be sure, there is a rich and vibrant intellectual life in the Catholic tradition that builds off of the foundation of basic doctrine. Nevertheless, having all the basic doctrine boxes checked will not make you a Christian, nor will reading every word of the Summa Theologica give you a Catholic mind and heart. People today want sound byte answers to their questions about life, faith, God, and all the rest, but what they need is to live inside the heart of God. This is why I think that some of the best evangelism today comes not from having the slickest pamphlets with the best answers but from being forthrightly and unabashedly strange. Consider this:

Undoubtedly weird to see eucharistic adoration happening in a public place, yet by allowing the sacred to invade and inhabit the every day, we begin to wake up to the reality that everything is being made holy by the presence of Christ in the world. In a Catholic worldview, the whole world participates in the life that God has given and restored in Christ. The air is Catholic. The trees are Catholic. The act of walking down the street, of buying a slice of pizza, of feeling the sun on your face is Catholic.

The beauty of the Catholic faith is that it brings together all that is true and good into one whole. It integrates and it elevates. There is truth and goodness to be found in a marketplace, and in a classroom, and in a church, and in the backyard with the children on a warm summer day. The Catholic faith takes each of those goods and binds them together through the heart of Jesus so that they all flow forth with His life. In the light of Catholic truth, every moment becomes eucharistic.