Questions some Gr. 8's have me asking

Today I had the opportunity to visit with a group of Gr. 8 students from a public school in Vancouver. They came to visit our Church as part of a "Religion Tour". I really enjoyed the opportunity to speak with the students and I was very happy that they came to visit. The experience was a new one for me and I learned a lot. The meeting left me mulling over several questions.

Why did no one laugh at my jokes?
I told some really good ones, I promise. 

Why do Gr. 8 students know so much about the Illuminati?
Really, why? Can anyone help me here?

When did learning about religion get reduced to learning about culture?
The organizer of the tour asked me to give a talk explaining the basics of Christianity so I did my best to talk about Jesus, the Cross, the Resurrection and Redemption. Unfortunately for the students, I wasn't answering the questions they came to learn about. They all had sheets on which they had to answer three questions: 1) what are some symbols of the religion? 2) what is their building like? 3) what are their religious practices? Though important, these questions are secondary in my mind. They have to do more with culture than religion. The students were not asked to write down anything about what we as Christians actually believe. They were not expected to learn about how we view God or the world. All religions try to grapple with some pretty important questions. Why are we here? What does it mean to live a good life? These are questions which I think would be helpful to discuss on a Religion Tour. Ultimately, I felt like I was a guide at a museum. It seemed like I was expected to explain some artifact from the past that people feel is far removed from their daily lives and has little power to challenge the way they look at the world.

Is it a bad thing that most people know the word "Trinity" only in reference to a character in the movie the Matrix?
She has good ninja moves, but still, the real Trinity is better.

When did it become a given for people to assume that science and religion are in opposition?
At the end of the visit, I had a little time so I asked the students some questions. For me it was the best part of the day. I explained that many students in Catholic schools have questions about the relationship between science and religion. I asked them if they thought that science was opposed to religion. In unison, the majority of the students - who had been quiet up till this point - shouted "Yes!" I was not surprised with the answer, but with the enthusiasm of their response. After I asked why they thought science and religion were opposed, a couple brave students explained that the big bang theory proves that God doesn't exist. The students could not explain what the big bang theory actually was, but they were convinced that it proves God doesn't exist. Some also explained that "scientists don't believe in God". All of them, apparently. I didn't have too much time, so I explained a little bit about why Catholics don't see religion as opposed to science, particularly the big bang theory and evolution. I also told them about George Lemaitre, the Catholic priest who was the first person to propose the big bang theory.

George Lemaitre
How can we make sure that religion and society don't become irrelevant to one another?
After the students left, I couldn't help but think that I am out of touch with what the majority of people in Vancouver are thinking about religion and God. I live in a bit of a Catholic bubble. I spend most of my time talking to Catholics about Catholic things. This is something I enjoy doing, but if I want to reach out to those who don't come to Church, I need to get to know them better. Theoretically, priests are supposed to serve those within their parish boundaries, whether they are Catholic or not. On the other side, I couldn't help but think that for many of the students, religion is somewhat irrelevant. I don't think it's a deliberately formed opinion or that there is any animosity, I just think that religion doesn't really play a large role in the lives of many of those students I met today. The fact that society and religion seem to be growing apart is bad news for everyone. On a positive note, almost all the students heard of Pope Francis. By his words and actions people seem to be getting more interested in Christianity again. His approach is really working.


Are you a commercial for Christ?

John 1:6-8, 19-28 (3rd week of Advent, year b)

Advertizing is all around us, particularly as we prepare for Christmas. Television is full of commercials. Open a newspaper and there is advertizing everywhere. Whether it be on the side of the road, at bus stops or on the skytrain, billboards are all over the place. According to a conservative estimate, the average North American is exposed to 250 commercials - also called marketing messages - each and every day. Ads are so common that sometimes we can forget their power to influence us.

The purpose of commercials and advertising is to kindle a desire within our hearts for the promoted product. For this reason, advertisers try to put their products in the best possible light, showing their most appealing aspects. It goes without saying that advertising does not dwell on the negative aspects of what is being sold, this would not entice people to buy it! For example, a commercial for a hamburger will focus on how delicious it would be to eat, rather than the fact that it is bad for our health. A travel brochure for a vacation destination will show pictures of all the most beautiful beaches and locations rather than the dirty and rougher neighbourhoods. Advertizing for cars will focus on how fun it is to drive or try to convince you that if you buy it your life will suddenly be more successful and adventurous life. It won’t say much about the danger associated with driving or the negative effect it has on the environment. Good advertising is able to make us desire to have the product it promotes.

Our lives are meant to be commercials for Jesus. People should see the way that we act and speak and, knowing that we are Christians, should have a desire grow within them to become followers of Jesus as well. But, you object, it sounds a little crass when we speak about advertizing for Jesus. Perhaps you think it is impolite and unCanadian to push our beliefs or religion on others. To this, I say that we should not be shy to advertize for Jesus! We tolerate so much advertising in our lives for products that are ultimately disappointing. Things are never as good as they appear in a commercial. With Jesus, it’s just the opposite. He is always better than we can describe with our words. Further, Jesus is the only thing that can satisfy the human heart. He is the only “product” that will never disappoint. In the end, He is the one thing in the world worth advertizing!

In fact, we often talk about advertizing for Jesus, we just don’t use that world. The “churchier” words we use to describe the advertizing we do for Jesus are witness and testimony. In the gospel, we heard how John the Baptist came to be a witness and give testimony for Jesus. He did this by what he said and by how he lived. With his words he led people away from himself and towards Jesus. His words had weight because of the good, virtuous life that he lived. His life is an incredibly effective commercial for Jesus. Our way of living should do the same. Sometimes we are not good witnesses and our lives do not entice people to follow Jesus. For example, when we are bitter, unforgiving, selfish, cruel, dishonest and speak crudely, people will rightly think to themselves, “if this is what is means to be a follower of Jesus, then I want no part of it.” On the other hand, when we are joyful, honest, generous, peaceful and kind people will think to themselves “it seems that knowing Jesus really does make a difference, I want that in my life, so I need to come to know Jesus.” Our lives are supposed to be good commercials for Jesus.

One important way we give witness is by how we use our voices during Mass. What comes out of our mouths while in Church is a commercial for our faith - either good or bad. I always love celebrating Mass for the school children at the school. Above all, I am struck by one thing: their singing! By the way that they sing with enthusiasm, the students make an incredible witness. If newcomers were to walk into the Church and hear them for the first time, they would think that they really want to be at Mass, that Mass is something important and that they want to praise God with joy. Hearing them, makes you want to join in!  On the other hand, what type of message does it send when people do not participate in the singing at Mass? If people were to walk into a Church for the first time and hear half-hearted, joy-less singing, what would they think? Probably that what goes on inside the Church isn’t too important and that those present don’t really want to be there. Would a visitor want to be part of community that is lacking in joy? No way. Let’s consider what our participation in the singing at Mass, as individuals and as a community, says about us. This is a very timely as we approach Christmas. At the Christmas Masses many come who don’t regularly attend Mass. We have an incredible opportunity to witness simply by our singing. Hopefully those who attend the Christmas Masses will be encouraged to return more regularly! I realize that not everyone is talented when it comes to singing. On the one hand, some people sing loudly who should probably be singing more softly! On the other hand, most of us can sing with more enthusiasm. Pope Francis has recently encouraged us to overcome our embarrassment and hesitation and sing more during Mass. It does not matter, he said, if we are good singers. It is impossible to imagine that “you are able to shout when your team scores a goal and you cannot sing the Lord’s praises, and leave behind your composure a bit to sing.”

During Advent, we tend to focus on what we are doing to help prepare ourselves to welcome Jesus at Christmas. This Sunday, let us ask a different question: what are you doing to help others welcome Jesus into their heart at Christmas? Like John the Baptist, are you a good witness by what you say and act?  In particular, today we can consider how well we participate in the singing at the Mass. Is the way you use your voice at Mass an appealing commercial that leads people closer to Jesus?

Why waiting is good for us

We have all probably had the experience of waiting in an airport arrival room, patiently expecting the return of a loved one from a long trip. I have a clear memory from when I was a child waiting at the airport to pick up my mom who had been away for awhile. Though I did miss her while she was away, it was not until I was in the waiting room that I realized how much I missed her. I couldn't wait to see her. I realized then how important she was to me and that there was a bit of hole in my life when she was gone. Our experience of Advent should be like anticipating the return of loved one at the airport.

Waiting for Jesus to come at Christmas should make us realize that He is an utterly necessary part of our lives. Mark’s gospel begins this way: The beginning of the good news (or gospel) of Jesus Christ the Son of God. For the initial audience of this document, 1st century Jews, the words “good news” were very loaded. The phrase would have reminded them of the Jewish captivity in Babylon (597 - 539 BC), in which their people were forcibly removed from their homeland and held in slavery in Babylon. The good news - or gospel - of this historic event was when they were freed by Cyrus the Great and permitted to return to Israel. Jews understood that through Cyrus, God freed them from slavery and returned them to their home. When Mark explains that his document is about the good news of Jesus Christ, Jews realized that it was the account of how God sent Jesus to free them from a different kind of slavery, namely sin and death, and lead them back to their true and eternal homeland with God the Father. They would have longed to encounter this salvation from Jesus. They would have realized their great need for liberation. Do we feel a similar need for Jesus in our life? Do we fully appreciate how greatly the world is in need of salvation? A quick look at all the violence, hate and greed that exists should convince us of this. Do we realize that we are all slaves to various things, namely our sinful habits? If we are honest, we all struggle with things that we cannot change. Are we fully convinced that we need Jesus to save us or do we think that we can fix ourselves and this world on our own? Would it make any difference for you if Jesus was never born some 2000 years ago? The time of waiting we experience during Advent should remind us of how important Jesus is to us personally.

We need to make space in our lives in order to properly welcome something or someone truly important into our lives. I tend to do a lot of work in the google “universe”: gmail, google docs, you name it. Recently, in the process of saving an important document, I discovered to my surprise that I had filled up my complimentary 15Gb drive in “the cloud” (whatever and wherever that is!). Since there was no way I was paying for more storage, I had to delete old files in order to make space for the new one. We all have experience of getting rid of some things to make room for something more important, whether it means erasing some shows on your PVR so that you can record a game or TV show you want to watch later or clearing out some clothes from your closet to make room for something new. In the gospel, we met the figure of John the Baptist. His role was to prepare others to receive Jesus in their lives. He did this by encouraging the people to repent from the sinful actions and wrong way of thinking about God and the world. Sin blocks Jesus’ entrance into our lives. If we are self-centered, arrogant or cruel to those around us, there is no room for Jesus in our hearts. If we truly think that we need Jesus to come as our Saviour - if we want to welcome Jesus into our lives at Christmas - we must make some attempt to prepare space for Him.

Confession is an excellent way to prepare our hearts for receiving Jesus at Christmas. Going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a very powerful means to “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”  Going to confession is not easy. It can be scary and embarrassing. I experience the same thing when I go to confession. A few years ago when I was living in Tijuana, Mexico, I wanted to go to confession at the Cathedral there. At the time I could understand Spanish ok, but my speaking skills were pretty basic. Therefore, I asked around if one of the priests hearing confessions spoke English. I was told one did, so I went to confession to him. After confessing my sins, the priest told me that his English wasn’t actually that good afterall. He then proceeded to repeat back to me in Spanish all that I had confessed just so I could verify he understood we correctly. Now, if you think it is embarrassing confessing your sins, I can tell you its much more awkward having your sins repeated back to you! Regardless of how uncomfortable this or any confession is, two wonderful things - which are particularly important during Advent - always happen:
  1. We convert and have our sins forgiven, thereby preparing space in our hearts for Jesus.
  2. It is a wonderful, practical way of acknowledging our need for Jesus to come into our lives as our Saviour.

Making a good confession is one of the best ways we can get ready to welcome Jesus at Christmas. Plan to go to confession sometime during the Advent season, particularly if it has been awhile. Check with your local parish as most have added opportunities to go during the next few weeks. More details can be found on the Archdiocesan website. Sometime before Christmas, let us all make a good confession so that we can truly experience the joy that comes with the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.