They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life, and Faith

A couple weeks ago David Brooks wrote an astonishingly un-self-aware column in which he dismissed those who wrote college essays entitled “I Went to Panama to Teach the Natives About Math but They Ended Up Teaching Me About Life.”  At the risk of drawing Mr. Brooks’ contempt, this is one such blog post.

My story begins two years ago, during a winter that was sadly short on snow but heavy on politics.  I was a new volunteer with Youth Enrichment Services, an organization that, among other things, takes low-income kids out of Boston and teaches them to ski in the  mountains around New England.  The season begins each year with a weekend in which professionals teach volunteers how to become a ski instructors.

As it happened, my training weekend coincided with the final days of the New Hampshire primary, and the Ron Paul campaign was staying at our hotel.  When I went down for breakfast Saturday morning, I noticed his son Rand Paul sitting all by himself.  I have never been accused of being shy, so I approached the Kentucky senator and asked if I could join him.  I’m certain he wanted to tell me to get lost, but his father’s name was on the ballot just a few days later, and so he graciously agreed.

I’ve told that story a few times since, and most recently last weekend while on the bus with another group of kids from Cristo Rey Boston High School.  Sitting next to me was the fulltime AmeriCorps volunteer at the school who organized the trip.  While getting suited up in the lodge, it occurred to me that the state from which she originally hailed had some very prominent citizens with the same last name.  I listed a couple of them, and asked if she was related.

Low and behold, the girl I was regaling with my story about breakfast with a United States Senator was the daughter of one.  She had eaten at the White House with the president of the United States, so my sharing some stale French toast sticks with a junior senator in the lobby of a Hampton Inn didn’t impress her much.  I felt a bit sheepish, but had I not made the connection on my own I’m sure she never would have told me.

Her co-worker in the seat behind us was apparently laughing at me while I told the story, but he didn’t know that her father serves in the Senate until recently either.  Having lived in Washington D.C. for four years I know the propensity of many there to drop names, so not only did I get a healthy serving of humble pie, I saw her model the virtue of humility beautifully.

When we got back at the end of the day, this same co-worker (also a volunteer, but with the Urban Catholic Teacher Corps) announced to the kids that he was going to Mass at a parish up the street, and invited them all to join him.  Not only did he give the time and address, however, he really talked up the Mass.  I was planning on going to my home parish and hoping to get there in time to catch the Gospel, but after listening to him I was sold.  As I was soon to find out, he wasn’t lying when he said how good it would be.

The priest was phenomenal, if long-winded. The music was great, and the pews were full of college students and young adults who were reading—and even singing!—along.  It was a great experience, and I think I may have found what I recently said I was looking for in a faith community.   My big takeaway from the affair, however, was the witness of this teacher on the bus and the way he evangelized his students.  I was the only one who took him up on the offer, but every one of those kids saw a young, attractive, fun guy who was letting his candle shine brightly and spreading the joy of the Gospel.

I got up that morning expecting to teach a group of city kids how to ski.  To use Brooks’ cliché title, I ended up learning far more.  I joked with the students that I was the greatest ski instructor they ever had.  As I am the only ski instructor they’ve ever had, it was technically true.  By the end of the day, however, it was clear to me that whatever I may have done for these kids pales in comparison to what these teachers do for them every day, even on Sundays when they are not in school.

Evangelization: He’s doing it right

There is a parish down the street from my office that I have been to occasionally, but as I am not usually here on Sundays I don’t regularly attend.  You can find me there most often on holy days, and this was the case on All Saints’ Day.  Or, to be a little more accurate, at the vigil mass the night before.

As All Saints’ Day Eve is also known as Halloween, I took up my regular place in the back pew with my costume by my side.  The celebrant that evening was the graduate student chaplain, a man I have met several times since I first arrived on campus nearly a decade ago.  He clearly did not remember me, although just about every interaction I’ve had with him has been remarkably similar.  This time was no exception, and I imagine for him it’s been repeated countless times with others.

There I was, an unfamiliar face (I honestly don’t expect him to have recognized me after our few encounters), of graduate student age, sitting alone in the back of his church, and he clearly was not going to miss an opportunity.  As he processed out of the church after the final blessing, his eyes locked onto me.  Before the acolytes had even left the nave he had put away his music book, took a business card from his pocket, and was shaking my hand and introducing himself.  Within seconds he had me out in the vestibule, filling out a contact form so that I could be added to the mailing list for grad students and young professionals.

As I’ve said, I’ve gotten this kind of treatment from him before.  I even went to a couple of the events held at the Catholic Student Center when I was enrolled in a degree program, largely because of the way he talked them up.  Before he approached me all I wanted to do was say ‘amen’ and get to the bar, but I departed feeling wanted and welcome.

We didn’t have time for an in depth conversation before the rest of the congregation left the church, but I have no doubt that he was sincerely interested in where I worked and what my degree was in, and that when he said he hoped he would see me again soon that me truly meant it.

In Pope Francis’ remarkable interview in the series of Jesuit journals a couple months ago, he said:

“Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage.”

Later that night I found myself approaching a couple of girls who were hanging out at Faneuil Hall bars for much the same reason as I was.  I went home with a number, but the experience made me appreciate all the more just how much audacity and courage it takes to walk up to a stranger and introduce yourself.

This priest got my name and phone number in a fraction of the time that it took me, without the benefit of the liquid courage, and without having to buy me a couple of beers first.  Though it isn’t my parish, he may just see me there again, and mostly because he went out of his way to find a new road.

Why the Cardinal Newman Society Should Listen to Pope Francis

The Harvard Crimson recently had a profile of the freshman class called Sex, Drugs, and MacBook Pros, with the implication being that Apple products are Harvard’s version of rock ’n roll.  What is the equivalent for Catholic colleges?  If you ask the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization that has taken it upon itself to “to promote and defend faithful Catholic education,” it seems to be sex, gays, and abortion.

I’ve been both a fan and a critic of the Society, but I’m increasingly worried that they have lost their way.  I still believe that an organization like theirs is needed to focus on Catholic identity on college campuses, but also think they are exactly to whom Pope Francis was referring when he said that “we cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods.”  If we don’t “find a new balance,” he continued, then “the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”

About this time last year I noted that the Society was “near-fixated on the issue of the Health and Human Services contraception mandate.”  Even with the new pope’s call for us to focus on the essentials, they still seem to be focused on a few issues only tangentially related to Catholic higher education in the United States.

A review of 50 of the most recent headlines on the Society’s blog shows that 60% of them were related to abortion (9), homosexuality (10), or sexuality in general (10).  That leaves only 40% for all other issues relating to Catholic education.  In some, they hit more than one hot button issue in the same headline: Homosexual Employees of Loyola Marymount Univ. Seek Abortion CoverageGasp!  Two for one!  Score!

If it advances their agenda, they will even write about non-Catholic schools as well.  Note their recent post on the University of Toledo, a public college.  They leave no gay stone unturned on college campuses, it seems, even if it’s paid for by the taxpayers of Ohio and not the parishioner in the pew next to you.

I was fortunate enough to attend a Catholic university (actually, the Catholic University) that strove to make me a better person in every facet, not just someone who read a couple heavy books and then walked across stage with a funny looking hat.  It’s even recommended by the Cardinal Newman Society.  I know firsthand what Catholic colleges have to offer the world (does the Gospel get any more fresh or fragrant than when it is proclaimed and lived by those in their salad days?) and how desperately it is needed.  You will find few who are bigger proponents of Catholic higher education than I.

However, does anyone really think that the 244 presidents of Catholic colleges and universities in the United States spend 60% of their time worrying about abortion, sex, and gays?  Does anyone really think they should?  If they don’t, and shouldn’t, then neither should an organization whose mission it is to promote them.

This is not to say that the Cardinal Newman Society should not be concerned with making sure that institutions that call themselves Catholic live up to and are worthy of the title.  They should, and if this was their focus I would be glad.  However, if they really believe that the biggest issue facing a particular college is that it has a couple of pro-choice or gay employees, then I wonder if they really understand what Blessed John Paul the Great meant when he said that Catholic colleges were Ex Corde Ecclesiae, or born from the heart of the Church.

Pope Francis has told us that “proclamation in a missionary style focuses on the essentials, on the necessary things: this is also what fascinates and attracts more, what makes the heart burn, as it did for the disciples at Emmaus.”

Any college can win the minds of its students.  It’s winning their hearts that is the challenge.  Like the distraught disciples leaving Jerusalem for Emmaus, many Catholics leave the Church during their college years – 80% of those who leave are gone by age 24, in fact.  Catholic colleges not only have a special ability to win those hearts, to make them burn, they also have a vocation to do so.  If the Cardinal Newman Society really wants to promote Catholic higher education, they should spend more time encouraging converts, and less time rooting out heretics.

Fishers of Men and Women, Go to Those You Wish to Catch

I’d like to think that when my now-brother-in-law asked me to stand by his side at his wedding it was to show off what a good looking family he was marrying into, and that my sister wanted me to offer the Prayers of the Faithful to display what an excellent speaking voice I have.  Sadly, even in my wildest moments of delusional self-aggrandizement, I can’t make either of those claims.

I can’t even though they could have gotten any warm body to fill these roles and picked me instead.  They didn’t, and for the same reason they didn’t go to a wedding chapel in Vegas, or a beach in the Bahamas, or any number of other places to say their vows.  They picked the parish my siblings and I received all our other sacraments in, asked the pastor to officiate, and included only siblings in the wedding party.  Why? Because, unlike the Elvis impersonator they could have found on the Strip somewhere, we were all relevant to their lives and their marriage.

Too many of our fellow Millennials fall away from the Church not because of any major disagreement on Church teachings, or because they no longer believe in God, but because they do not see any relevance to what the Church has to offer them in their daily lives.  This was hammered home for me over the summer when I was away on vacation and listening to a white-haired priest try to apply the lessons of the Gospel to modern life.

His overall message was fine, but in the course of the homily, after talking about phone calls and emails, he said, “I think the word used today is ‘texting.’”  I sat in the back thinking to myself: Is this guy for real?  Did I cross over the Cape Cod Canal or back in time to 1998?  Is texting really such a novel technology that you are unfamiliar with how to even talk about it?  It is no wonder that I was the youngest person in the church who wasn’t driven there in the back a minivan.

The reason I was in a church at all that weekend can be traced directly back to my junior year of high school.  As a sophomore I made my confirmation, not because I wanted to, but because it was what I was supposed to do.  In that sense, it wasn’t much different than going to biology class.

Then junior year, a new parish priest came in with a wave of energy and swept us all up in it.  He instituted a LifeTeen program and got hundreds of teenagers to participate by running programs we wanted to attend, played contemporary music instead of songs composed either by Mozart or for hippies, and consistently preached about issues we faced every day in high school.  Now, more years later than I care to admit, the program is still going strong.  It has lasted all these years because it has remained relevant to kids’ lives, even as times have changed.

After high school I went on to college and found a community there that was not only engaging academically, but uplifting spiritually.  I wasn’t particularly active in campus ministry, but I think a large part of that had to do with the general sense of Catholicity that pervaded the school.  My faith remained relevant throughout what I still refer to as the best four years of my life.

It has been more of a struggle post-college, however.  The Archdiocese of Boston does a pretty good job of putting on regional events, but I haven’t found a parish near me that does much in the way of young adult ministry.

When Jesus called Peter and Andrew, he told them that he would make them fishers of men.  We need more fishers of men, and fishers of women, young people, CEOs, electricians, and every other demographic out there.  However, as any good fisherman will tell you, you need to go where the fish are.  You can’t bring your nets to the desert and expect to bring in a haul.

To catch us, the Church needs to offer a vision of Catholic Christianity that has bearing on our lives. My parish has a number of ministries, including special masses for children and teens, but nothing for young professionals like myself.

The Church needs to teach us, challenge us, inspire us.  Give us a reason to get out of our beds on Sunday mornings.  Better yet, recognize that we might be hungover on Sunday morning and in no mood to be listening to screaming babies at the family mass.  Instead, give us a liturgy a little later in the day with music composed in this century and a homily that speaks to the issues we are facing in our lives.  And, if it isn’t too much to ask, try not to sound too baffled at the latest fad floating around on the interwebs, or whatever it is you kids call that thing with the computers.

Pray by doing

I’m taking a course this fall which marks my first return to the classroom in several years.  During the shopping period, the week when professors give an overview of their courses before you have to register, this professor spent the 40 minutes explaining to us why, if we were crazy enough to sign up for the course, we would hate our lives over the next three months.  Someone seriously had to raise their hand at the end and ask if there were any benefits to taking such a grueling course.

As an employee of the university I get a great discount on tuition, but there is some paperwork involved.  After completing some of this paperwork with the professor’s assistant, I asked her if she had any advice for me.  This very kind woman sat there with a pensive look for a moment, and then with a laugh asked, “Are you a praying man?”  She was only half kidding.  It was also the only counsel she had for me.

While she didn’t do much to help calm my nerves, I did reflect on the way out that, had I answered her question honestly, I probably would have had to say that no, I am not a praying man.  I worship, and I articulate the Creed, the Our Father, and all the other prayers with the rest of the congregation at Mass, but I can’t really say that (despite being an Irishman) I spend much time in conversation with the Almighty.  I much prefer to pray by doing.

There’s too much to do in this world to sit still, but it’s not as if I never spend a quiet moment in prayer.  When I cook for myself I make a point to say grace, and now that I’m a homeowner with a backyard and a grill I am doing more of that.  Not much, but more.  I find that it makes me much more appreciative of the meal, the backyard, and the grill than when I eat ice cream from the tub and drink beer in my recliner and call it breakfast.

While I am not about to become a flagellant, I discover more meaning from employing redemptive suffering than contemplative prayer.  When I give platelets, for example, I always offer it up for a college friend who is battling cancer and receiving transfusions.  I know that my blood won’t end up in his veins, so accepting the pain of needles in both my arms and uniting it with the suffering of Christ in the Crucifixion is about all I can do for him from several hundred miles away.  Likewise when I run, I often offer up various miles for people and intentions that are important to me.

As St. James tells us, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”  What good is it indeed?  St. Augustine said that he who sings prays twice, and I think the same could probably be said of he who does.

The course I am taking is in applied data analysis, and it is the applied part that intrigues me.  Come December, I’d like to be able to take a bunch of data and actually be able to use it, as opposed to simply knowing how to work out the mathematical formulas.  I think it is much the same with prayer.  I’d rather go out and feed the hungry and clothe the naked than pray for an end to hunger and poverty.  Then again, if this class is half as tough as the professor made it out to be, I’ll likely end up on my knees at some point during the semester.  St. Jude, pray for me.

An earlier version of this article identified the author of the linked biblical quote as St. Paul instead of St. James.

Why I Hate Sleep

Of my many quirks, one of the most distinctive is that I hate to sleep.  I really do.  Every night when I finally turn off the lights, it’s like a personal failure for me.  Five and a half to six hours of sleep a night is pretty standard, and should I find my eyes closed for more than seven hours I will usually get upset.

The reason is simple.  There is simply too much to do on this earth to waste time sleeping.  Ask yourself, how many books have you not read (and be sure to check out Sarah and Mike’s recommendations)?  How many people haven’t you met?  How many roller coasters have you not ridden, how many movies have you not seen, how many places have you never visited, how many subjects are there about which you know absolutely nothing?  How many people are crying out to be clothed, and fed, or even just loved?

Ask yourself how many things there are in this world that you haven’t done yet, and then ask yourself if you really want to spend one-third of your life unconscious.  For most people, the answer is a resounding yes.  I’ve posed this question to countless people and they all assure me that yes, they really do want to sleep for eight hours or more a night.  To each his own, I guess.

Now I’ve never been very good about attending mass on Holy Days of Obligation, but since my parish is St. Mary of the Assumption I am usually pretty good about making that one.  My schedule, however, is booked pretty solid for the next few weeks, and has been for the past few as well.

I felt a bit like Tony Rigali, quoted in the satirical Catholic news site Eye of the Tiber on why he was going to have to miss mass last Thursday:  “And I wanted to go so bad. Obligations, obligation, obligations! What can I do? They’re obligations and they gotta be taken care of.”

I decided that my best bet would be to go before work, but that would mean missing the gym.  Now that I attend a CrossFit gym I really enjoy going, and missing a day on purpose wasn’t very appealing.  I’m also training for a half marathon, however, and realized that if I ran to church instead of driving I could both get in a workout and fulfill my obligation.

My pacing was pretty spot on, and I walked through the doors of the church at 6:59, just seconds before the priests’ entrance.  Since I sat in the last row I am pretty sure I didn’t offend anyone with my stench, but I did get a couple funny looks in line for Communion.  No one else was wearing gym shorts and a sweaty t-shirt, nor were any of my fellow communicants sporting an armband and headphones.

That night, after work, I went to the track where I volunteer twice a week with some inner city kids.  As the summer has gone on they have gotten more and more restless, and since we were down a couple of volunteers that night I had 20 or so six- and seven-year olds mostly by myself.  It was a challenge, and in particular a couple of the boys were far more interested in horsing around together than listening to anything I had to say.

At the end of the night, two of the more rambunctious boys were told by their fathers to go say ‘thank you.’  Instead of just walking over, thanking me, and slapping me five like they do on most nights, they both sprinted over and gave me a big hug.  I wasn’t expecting it at all, and it made my night.

On the day of the feast Mike said that the example of those whose lives proclaim the greatness of the Lord inspire him to keep going.  For me, Quinn and Lochlan’s hugs, and the smiles of all of the other kids, is what keeps me going.  “Let the children come to me, and do not prevent them,” says the Messiah, “for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

If I can help those kids get to heaven, or to the next grade, or even just safely into next week, I’m happy to forgo a little bit of sleep in order to do so.  This way, when I finally fall asleep in the Lord, I might hope to awake in him as well.

Millennial’s Summer Reads: Brian’s Books

I almost always have a list of books I want to read, and it never seems to get any shorter, but while on vacation last week I made a good dent in it.  Being fortunate enough to have a family vacation home on Cape Cod, I’ll have plenty more opportunities this summer to check off a couple more books.  After all, as I am fond of saying to friends who notice I disappear for the middle months of each year, the beach isn’t going to sit on itself.

With that in mind, and since Mike was kind enough to share with us some of his summer reads, I thought I’d do the same.

  1. Just this morning on the T, I finally picked up Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  It is a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time, but for one reason or another have always put off.  With failed vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s run for office last year, and with all the discussion about whether the Russian-born novelist or his Catholic faith had more influence on his policy decisions, I firmly placed it on my list for this summer.
  2. I had actually planned to read Atlas Shrugged while on vacation, but got distracted by several other excellent works.  One of the best, which I finished in less than two days  baking on the beach, was Forbidden Fruit by Mark Regenus.  The title comes from the Book of Genesis and is a sociological study of sex, religion, and American teenagers.  The work was fascinating, but I think it can be summed up by saying that which denomination an adolescent belongs to is less important than how deeply they feel religious convictions.  That is to say that the sex lives of nominally Catholic and nominally evangelical youths look a lot more alike than those of devout and non-practicing Catholics.  Almost none of them, however, reflect  Church teaching on the matter.
  3. Also in the world of sociology, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men by Michael Kimmel will hopefully be checked off before Labor Day.  It describes a cohort of 16-22 year old guys in America who are “obsessed with never wanting to grow up; this demographic, which is 22 million strong, craves video games, sports and depersonalized sexual relationships.”  Even though I am now outside this age bracket, I can’t say that I don’t recognize at least a few of these traits in my friends, and myself.
  4. As much as there is to condemn in modern American guy culture, I think most of us would pick it over the world of Yanomamö Indians, one of the last large tribal groups still living in isolation.  Far from being the peaceful, if undeveloped, people described by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Napoleon Chagnon found a remarkably violent society where men often killed for women and revenge, and described it in Noble Savages.
  5. I don’t normally read much fiction, but I try to reread Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World every few years.  My civil libertarian tendencies aside, I am much more worried about the “utopia” described here than I am with, say, the Big Brother dictatorship described in Orwell’s 1984.  When I look at our own country, I am not as concerned about the overreach of the government–though it is at times certainly an issue–as I am with people willing to numb themselves with a drink, drug, or screen.  Society worries more me much more than the Feds.  How many more people would choose a life of luxury devoid of any real humanity to an authentic life under the thumb of a brutal tyrant?  Bravehearts most people are not.
  6. The novel Small Gods satirizes much of religion, religious practices, and the role of religion in public life.  Terry Pratchett’s criticisms aren’t totally off the mark, but I’m not running out to pick up any of the other books in this series.  It wasn’t bad, but fantasy novels just aren’t my thing.
  7. If a little neuroscience is your thing (or even if it isn’t) I really enjoyed Permanent Present Tense by Suzanne Conklin.  A professor at MIT, she tells the story of a man who had experimental brain surgery in the ‘50s to cure his epilepsy, and unfortunately lost his ability to form new memories.  He lived his life in 15 to 30 second increments, and as soon as the moment was over he had no recollection of the experience.  It gets a bit technical at times, but the underlying story is well worth the read.
  8. I’m saving Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan for some weekend when the house is overrun with guests.  It’s not that I think the book is unimportant, but I don’t imagine that I will need to concentrate much to read this Catholic comedian’s take on living in a two bedroom apartment in Manhattan with his five kids, and the other joys of parenthood.  I’m not a father myself, but I take some comfort in Gaffigan’s statement that “Ten years ago I couldn’t get a date, and now my apartment’s crawling with babies.”
  9. I know this list is all over the place, and so to round it out I thought I’d include a few of the others that have made my list that might be of interest to Millennial readers.  On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good, is Jim Wallis’ latest.  Robert George writes at the Catholic legal blog Mirror of Justice, and his new book is Conscience and Its Enemies: Confronting the Dogmas of Liberal Secularism.  Finally, when the Iranian-born Reza Aslan first heard the Gospel as a young teen, he had a powerful experience and converted from Islam.  On NPR last week discussing his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, he described how he now considers himself a follower of Jesus but not a Christian.  Should be an interesting read on multiple fronts.