In Formation

Sunday, December 28


Pilgrims on the journey

My return to blogging coincided with a flurry of studies aimed at preparing me (and my 34 fellow pilgrims) for an eight week pilgrimage to Turkey, Greece, and Italy (most of the time spent in Rome). In our brief three week session, we had crash courses on the spirituality of pilgrimage and church architecture. The former helped us situate ourselves within the long tradition of Christian pilgrimage. The latter helped us learn, in a word, to "read" buildings. It was an excellent, if brief, study of architecture. I can now speak a bit more intelligently about why architects might say that "architecture is the built-form of ideas."

I may have a chance to blog during my time in Rome (we'll arrive there in mid-January), but, if not, be assured of my prayers for the men and women of the Church in America. I trust that this journey will help all of us seminarians become wiser, more knowledgeable, and holier men. If that happens, we will "have" more to give. If we enter more deeply into the history and meaning of our past, we will be better situated to help others do so. The point, of course, is to grow in our ability and disposition to proclaim in our words and lives the liberating message of the Gospel. But, to help others find God's liberating truth and mercy, we must experience the truth and love of God for ourselves.

To that end, I think the Pilgrimage Quarter at Mundelein Seminary is a wonderful gift to us seminarians. It affords us a sustained period to contemplate the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church as we journey (in deeply Catholic ways) to places central to our faith, and as we remember the lives of those who have gone before us in faith. It is my prayer that we will be changed by this pilgrimage we take in the "footsteps of Sts. Peter and Paul."

Needless to say, blogging will take a back seat to my studies there (we will have courses in the Gospel of Luke and the Apostle Paul during the pilgrimage) and my prayer at the many holy sites we will visit. If you think of it, please pray that we will make good use of this gift of pilgrimage, for our sake and for those we will one day (God-willing) serve as priests of Jesus Christ.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/28/2003 |

Wednesday, December 17


Nemo dat quod non habet

No Latin maxim has changed the way I think about my life today and my future ministry more than that one. The translation is "one cannot give what one does not have." In earlier days in the seminary, they paraphrased the principle this way: "Nemo dat what he ain't got." The phrase is a Roman principle of law, and the legal application is obvious enough.

But the applications to ministry, to education, to preaching, to life itself are, on my view, of infinitely greater importance. If a preacher or teacher does not know Christ, he or she cannot help others know Christ. If one has not experienced the merciful love of God, one will be hard-pressed to help others experience that mercy. When one does not have love, one cannot give love away.

The flip-side of the argument is just as powerful. One can only give what one has. If persons are bitter, depressed, fearful, angry, and/or judgmental, those will be the things they will "give away" in their interactions with others. In this context, Jesus' words seem particularly apt: "A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit . . . . A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks" (Luke 6:43-45).

The challenge for those of us who seek ways to evangelize the world is to really live the gospel, to really embrace and cultivate the life of Christ. Only then will we be able to draw others into that life and give that life away. Hans Urs von Balthasar believes the challenge of evangelizing the culture is not primarily about getting the arguments right, so much as living the right sort of (Christian) life. The burden of the priest (and the layman) is fundamentally to live the faith in persuasive, compelling ways; to be, in other words, living witnesses of the faith. Our lives of faith are, in that sense, the best "argument" for the truth of the Gospel we proclaim.

The hidden test [of faith] is for the living tradition not less important than the spectacular martyrdom; it occurs . . . wherever, as Christianity is lived out . . . Christian imagination thinks out creatively new ways by which the Church may come to men. Such ways are discovered not principally as a result of disappointments with the old ways which have become unpassable, but as a result of the mysterious, lived experiences of the reality of Jesus Christ. And, because you either do or do not have experiences, there is scarcely room here for debate; one does not argue about experiences, one can at the most invite other men to share them. (Elucidations, p. 124)

The power of a life truly lived Christianly is that it can, indeed, awaken an appetite in fellow believers and non-believers for the Divine life we share. Moreover, when Christians are actually living the life of faith, and listening attentively to the concerns and interests of non-believers, they will be well-positioned to invite others to enter into the experience of faith.

God surely wants us to spread the Gospel message. But we can only do that if we are living in the heart of the Gospel, the Paschal Mystery. The lesson is as simple as nemo dat quod non habet. We cannot give the world what we do not have.

The world needs Christ, and we need to be living in Him to bring Him to them. In other words, evangelizing the world demands that we live the good news. As an incarnational faith, nothing could be more obvious. If we do that, if we immerse ourselves in the Paschal Mystery, if we lift up in our lives and words the One who was lifted up from the earth, then we have every reason to hope that the Son of Man will use us "to draw all men to himself."

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/17/2003 |

Tuesday, December 16


The artist, image of God the Creator

None can sense more deeply than you artists, ingenious creators of beauty that you are, something of the pathos with which God at the dawn of creation looked upon the work of his hands. A glimmer of that feeling has shone so often in your eyes when--like the artists of every age--captivated by the hidden power of sounds and words, colours and shapes, you have admired the work of your inspiration, sensing in it some echo of the mystery of creation with which God, the sole creator of all things, has wished in some way to associate you.

That is the way John Paul II began his letter to artists Easter Sunday April 4, 1999. Perhaps partly in response to the Holy Father's call to artists, St. Linus Review, a forthcoming semi-annual publication of orthodox Catholic poetry and prose, is making plans for Fall 2004 publication. I wish them every success in their endeavor.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/16/2003 |

Sunday, December 14


Finding a balance the Balthasar way

Over on Amy's Open Book last week, there was a conversation in the comments about how to communicate the message of the Gospel in ways that are both faithful to the truths of the faith and responsive to the needs of the faithful (and those who may have doubts about the faith). In other words, Amy and her commentators were wrestling with the problem of evangelization in a pluralistic age.

It seems to me that the challenge is learning to speak the beautiful truth of the Gospel in ways that others can hear. The point is not proving (to ourselves or others who have their orthodoxy meters set to highest sensitivity) that we are right, but faithfully conveying the complexity and relevance of the truth to those who are asking real (and difficult) questions about the Gospel we proclaim.

In this regard, I think that Han Urs von Balthasar can help us sort through the challenges of contemporary evangelism:

Anyone who wants to survive in this world must know languages. And whoever wants to be well versed in the intellectual world must have a command of its "languages": the languages of thought and concepts that change from culture to culture, age to age. Catholics who feel a responsibility for preserving intact the deposit of faith dare not shirk their duty here; they especially of all people must make the strenuous effort it takes to learn the languages of the spirit, and not least the "modern languages". If they do not, they will only be able to gesticulate and shrug their shoulders if one of their contemporaries should ask the way, perhaps because the only language they know is "Medieval-ese".(Theology of Karl Barth, p. 12)

Aggiornamento does not mean assimilating oneself to the atheist Enlightenment (to the point of declaring the autonomy of human consciousness); instead, it means being abreast of the times in order to give the Enlightenment an authentic response. (Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen, p. 127)

What Balthasar says about the Enlightenment here could as easily apply to the countless men and women, boys and girls who are mystified by what the Church teaches. The problem, as I see it, is that we are often not as concerned about preaching the Gospel as we are proving to ourselves that we have the "truth" and that others don't. We must learn, in Balthasar's words, to give authentic responses to the questions of those around us.

The other side of this balance is ensuring that we don't compromise on the truths of the faith, simply to win a hearing. Again, Balthasar states the case clearly, this time in an essay called "The Priest I Want" in Elucidations:

This is the first quality that the priest I am looking for would have to have; for he would have to be a priest, or at any rate he would have to have been commissioned and authorized from above, by Christ, to confront me with God's incarnate word in such a manner that I can be sure that it is not I who am making use of it; I have to know that I have not from the very outset emasculated it by psychologizing, interpreting, demythologizing it away to such an extent that it can no longer create in me what it wills. No, what I am looking for is a man who can confront me with it in such a way that I cannot escape its demands, because I meet then in concrete form of the authority of the Church which, as a serving authority, actualizes the concrete form of the divine authority. It may perhaps be that I have reached the point of being confronted with this demand. But he must also help me to stand firm, not to run away, by sitting it out with me with an unrelenting love. With a terrible love which again and again says to me, "But that is what you really want." With a love for which in one's heart of hearts one gives thanks because it cannot be replaced by anything else . . . .

The humble priest will not be tempted to offer me anything other than the word of God for me; the zealous priest will not tolerate my attempts to slide away from this word. He will make me stick to my last, and I can easily accuse him of intruding and interfering, but what intrudes and interferes in truth is only the word of God itself. If I find the one I want, then I cannot reasonably object if he behaves toward me with a confidence which is not appropriate for a man.

Balthasar provides for me (as I anticipate my future as a priest) a healthy vision for the balance of what it means to listen well to the questions of men and women (as noted in the excerpts I offered above) and (here) discerning and proclaiming God's word for those men and women. For my money, Balthasar is one theologian who can help us think productively about what it takes to preach the word to both believers and nonbelievers in our time.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/14/2003 |

Wednesday, December 10


A good exercise

As I was finishing up my dissertation, among the last things I did was write the acknowledgments section. I recommend that everyone go through the exercise of writing an "acknowledgments" section, even if you haven't written a major work. What I learned from writing my acknowledgments seemed to almost make writing my 400 page dissertation worth the effort. Indeed, it made me grateful. It caused me to bring to full consciousness what I have always known, if only implicitly. The fact is, the work that I did writing my dissertation, though mine, was not mine alone. It was rather the product of the many men and women who have invested their lives in me.

It's humbling, actually, and good for the soul. The challenge in writing my acknowledgments was deciding whom I wouldn't mention. The list of those who have been my mentors and teachers is exceedingly long, not to mention the countless friends and acquaintances who have influenced my life in large and small ways.

In any case, here's the way I began and ended my acknowledgments:

If nothing else, this long, long effort of mine has taught me that my personal efforts in the writing have been the fruit of the many relationships that have graced my life. It is fitting to reflect on those who have shown me the way in my life and work . . . .

Finally, I thank God, who is the giver of all good gifts. Without this "great cloud of witnesses," I would not know what it means to engage deeply in intellectual life, what it means to be a friend, what it means to embrace a vocation, or what it means to have faith, hope, and love; in short, I would never have been able to write this dissertation. My dissertation bears the mark of those who have been God's messengers to me, in their words and the witness of their lives. To be sure, none of them is responsible for any shortcomings of this work. But if there's credit to be taken, I give it all to them.

The abstract of my dissertation

The title is A Changing Metaphor: Instructional Reform as Evangelism.

Many scholars have attempted to make sense of the long and often disappointing history of American educational reform. Some reforms present greater challenges than others. Reforms that comport well with current school structures and assumptions are often successful, but those that challenge the "grammar of schooling" are markedly less so. Reformers often seek to make fundamental changes in schools, but these "deep reforms" present problems that seem intractable.

With the intent of developing a new perspective on the problem, and following Donald Schön's (1993) thinking on generative metaphors, this study proposes instructional reform as evangelism as a generative metaphor for thinking anew about the problems and possibilities of instructional reform. Based on reviews of instructional reform and evangelism (including religious conversion), the study makes a case for the plausibility and appeal of the metaphor. The metaphor is plausible because of many parallels between instructional reform and evangelism-conversion. The metaphor has appeal because it comports well with the personal nature of teaching and emphasizes the interrelationship between individuals and their community. In a sense, evangelism is a people-and-place-changing "technology."

The generative potential of the metaphor stems from salient differences between the two domains. From those differences, the study distills seven "evangelical principles of reform," which provide a heuristic for viewing past, present, and future reform efforts. The seven evangelical principles are: 1) The Ecclesial Principle, 2) The Principle of Human Dignity and Freedom of Conscience, 3) The Creedal Principle, 4) The Magisterial Principle, 5) The Pastoral Principle, 6) The Incarnation Principle, and 7) The Evangelical Principle.

After viewing three reforms in light of the seven principles, the study suggests that instructional reform as evangelism has heuristic potential to help contribute to a more balanced understanding of the problems and possibilities of instructional reform. The study concludes with a meditation on the role faith, hope, and love play in the process of instructional reform, and how thinking of instructional reform as evangelism could potentially help reforms seem, even to teachers, more like good news.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/10/2003 |

Tuesday, December 9


Learning to speak again

A year without blogging has been good for me. I've learned a great deal about myself this year, though I can't say that's a direct result of not blogging. Instead, I'd say it's largely a result of prayer and the four-fold formation I am receiving at the seminary. The four types of formation (human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral) are drawn from the Holy Father's apostolic exhortation Pastores dabo vobis, which is definitely worth reading.

Though not blogging wasn't the key to all I learned this past year, it was important. First of all, it allowed me to spend more time in sustained prayer, listening to the voice of God. It also allowed me to finally finish up my dissertation: A Changing Metaphor: Instructional Reform as Evangelism. (I graduated December 5 with a Ph.D. in Curriculum, Teaching, and Educational Policy from Michigan State University).

Now that the dissertation is behind me, and I've become wiser about the benefits of silence, I'm going to test out the other side of Qoheleth's maxim: "[There is] a time to be silent and a time to speak" (Ecclesiastes 3:7). In short, I'm rising to blog again.

I'm not sure how often I'll post, but there are things I've been thinking a lot about these past few months, and the blog seems a good place to try them out. As always, I invite you to give me your comments, questions, observations, and criticisms.

In the meantime, let me express my heartfelt thanks for all your prayers for me and the many other men in formation.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/09/2003 |

Tuesday, December 10


A need for silence

At the end of last quarter, I had a three day directed silent retreat. It was wonderful. During those three days, I realized again how valuable silence is. More to the point, I realized that silence is essential for me. Part of that is because I speak more quickly than I ought. I know I need to spend more time in silence. I need to listen.

The silence convinced me. When I speak out of silence, my words are different. They are less wasteful, more honest, more loving, more . . . Christ-like. Those three days taught me that the quiet helps me know myself more, to hear my deepest voice--the one that speaks of my unspeakable need for grace and God's merciful gift of Himself for me and all the world.

Silence is the place where Christ speaks most eloquently and mystically to me. I love the Scriptures, but too often my eyes pass over the words without really seeing, my ears hear the words without really hearing. Or, just as often, my focus is on what the words mean or contain instead of what God is saying to me and to the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

What I need (and the world needs) is not my words so much as God's. So it's essential that I learn to listen, really listen. Otherwise, when, God-willing, I'm ordained, I'll make God's people settle for my filtered version of His Word instead of what He wants to say through me. Of course, what I say will always be filtered, but silence has a way of cleaning out the filters of our souls so we can speak and live His Word, His Way, which is always the Way of self-giving love.

There is more of Christ than self in that Word--that Way--of life. And that's why I need to be silent. I need to cultivate the disposition and habit to be silent so that when I speak others will hear less Steve and more Christ. Right now, there's way too much of me in my words.

Please pray that I would learn to listen to--and to love--Christ more each day as I prepare to become a priest of Jesus Christ. I know that's the only way I can truly minister in His name.

This lesson about silence, if I'm really going to learn it, entails a silent blog. So this will be my last post. Before I go silent, though, I want to thank the Catholic bloggers who showed me the way and encouraged me to take up a blog of my own. I also want to thank those who have read my blog, those who have been generous enough to comment, and, most of all, those who have prayed for me and the many other men In Formation. May God bless you all.

posted by Fr. Steve | 12/10/2002 |