For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.Matt 12:34 RSV
Picture Oz Koznowski. That’s not actually his name, but might as well be – he’s the guy who sits two pews back from you at Mass. You know him well enough to wave or nod in the parking lot, but haven’t ever had occasion to learn his name. Stop Oz in the street and ask if he believes in God and he’ll no doubt say yes. Ask how important his religion is to him and he’ll likely answer, “Very important.” But perhaps a better gauge of what’s important to Oz – or any of us, for that matter – is to start a conversation and pay attention to what comes up.
Left to their own devices, what do Catholics talk about? I mean in unstructured time, after Bible study or during coffee hour. In my experience, the conversation tends to keep a tight orbit around this planet – sports, entertainments, vacation plans, grandkids. There’s little but the venue to set Catholic conversation apart from that at a business social or block party.
I’ve heard from a number of convert friends how discouraging this can be. Many came from churches where the conversation was in a different register – in fine, thoroughly and joyfully Christian. Now, having arrived in the Catholic Church, my friends find themselves looking around and asking, “Where is there any excitement for the things of God?”
St. Paul writes to the Romans, “Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace” (8:5–6). What do Catholics set their minds on? To put it another way, where does our hope lie? What are we looking forward to? If your hope is in this world – Cancun next February, that long-awaited raise, finally paying off the mortgage – your conversation is going to be different from the person whose eyes are on the horizon, whose hope is in heaven.
Paul goes on, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit which dwells in you” (8:11). These are words of great solemnity and magnitude, and Paul is speaking every word in earnest. He is not talking about self-improvement – this is not a promise that we can, if we work diligently, turn into nicer or more successful versions of ourselves. What Paul is describing here is a supernatural operation: we Christians actually believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in our hearts, transforming us into a different order of creature. But if our hearts are being thus changed, why doesn’t the grace that fills us flow over into our conversation?
I want to suggest a way of renewing our hearts in the Lord that is accessible to Christians everywhere. Our problem is that while we believe these things about the Holy Spirit’s transformative work, so many of us see it all too seldom. What we need is to place before our eyes models of transformed Christian lives. To begin with, we all need to start reading the lives of the saints – it is my practice always to have a saint’s life open at my bedside. As you read, you will find certain saints who really resonate. Make a point of getting to know such men and women. Ask their intercession. Make them your confidants. Seek out and find anything they’ve written, and commit words and phrases to memory.
Last November I gave a talk to the Fishers of Men at St. Pius X, taking as my subject the martyrs of the early Church. These ancient martyrdom accounts, going back to the Church’s infancy, crystallize what is most valuable in any saint’s life. And what is that? What do the saints do for us? A saint is a prism through which the light of Christ is refracted – and so a saint’s life becomes a place of encounter, where we can come face to face with Jesus Christ. Find a saint who is like you in occupation or temperament or origin and study his life: then you will know what it looks like for someone like you to arrive at Christian maturity. The martyrs take this to a whole new level in that they show themselves transformed into Christ-likeness not only in their lives but in their deaths. The deaths of the martyrs are prisms through which is refracted the light of Christ’s saving Passion. They show what it looks like for someone like you to love Jesus more than their own bodies – more than their very lives. The martyrs issue a challenge to lukewarm Christianity. They raise the question: “If we are willing to pour out our life’s blood for love of Christ, why can’t you get out of bed ten minutes earlier to start the day in prayer? If we, gasping out our dying breath, can speak the name of Jesus, why can’t you commit to read a chapter of Scripture a day?”
The martyrs are spiritual jet fuel – that being said, a martyrdom account is not always an easy read. And part of the reason for this is that by their nature, martyrdom accounts focus on the final hours of the martyr’s life. So at the same time I am stirred and inspired by the heroic fortitude of Blandina, the slave girl in second-century Lyons who wore out her torturers, I find myself wondering, “How did this girl come to know Christ? What made her into the kind of Christian I aspire one day to become?” Fortunately for us, we have available to us through the Internet an almost limitless repository of testimonies to conversion.
Take Marcus Grodi’s EWTN program, The Journey Home, for example: years’ worth of interviews with converts to the Faith – some were Protestants, pastors even, some atheists, some now reverts to their childhood faith. Search YouTube for conversions from Islam and marvel at the many accounts of Christ announcing himself in dreams, and at the courage of new Christians in nations where conversion is a crime punishable by death. If you live here in Rochester and want to hear what the Holy Spirit is doing closer to home, look up our friends at the Men’s Prayer & Witness Fellowship who host quarterly breakfasts to highlight local men’s testimonies to Jesus Christ. Another great repository of conversion stories, impressively well produced, is an organization called One for Israel. These are the stories of Jews, some religious some non, some great intellectuals, some common folk, who came to know Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and their personal Lord and Savior. And there are as many different paths to conversion as there are different personalities – some knew in a moment that Christ was the Lord, clear as a lightning bolt in the night sky. Others took the long way in – a gradual journey, over years. A goodly number began their journeys to Christ when they were invited to church by a Christian friend. Many realized who Christ was on reading Isaiah 53, a chapter they somehow never encountered in their lives in Judaism.
After you watch an hour or two of these conversion stories – person after person, life after life – you start to get the idea that the Holy Spirit is still at work in the world transforming the human heart. That maybe, just maybe, the reason you don’t see it in your day-to-day life isn’t because something is wrong with him – that perhaps the reason we aren’t seeing transformed lives is that there is something wrong with us.
On the topic of Isaiah 53, I can’t resist sharing an experience I had recently volunteering at a local parish. A friend and I were tasked with guiding some middle schoolers through Luke 24 (there was one lone high schooler, lounging sort of aloof off to the side). The girls were quiet, but the boys were rambunctious, more inclined to chat amongst themselves than give their attention to the lesson. We started off asking whether anyone could name an Old Testament prophecy that pointed to Jesus Christ. One of the brighter boys said, “Oh, that he would be born in Bethlehem.” “Good! Now what prophet is that in?” Silence. “Micah. Micah 5:2. Anyone else?” After some hesitation, one boy ventured, “John the Baptist?” “Um. Well yes, there’s a prophecy that points to John the Baptist: ‘A voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord,’ right? Anyone know where that’s from?” Crickets. “Isaiah 40:3. Anyone else?” When it became clear that was all we were getting, we told them to try and think up more while we read.
Finally we got to Luke 24:27, “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them what referred to him in all the scriptures” (NAB). Here we paused and asked the kids if they’d thought up any more prophecies that pointed to Jesus Christ. They hadn’t. So I led them through a brief tour of the Old Testament: Deuteronomy 18:18, Ezekiel 34:15, Isaiah 7:14, some others. They were barely paying attention. Finally I had them all open to Isaiah 53. (Incidentally, if you want to get Catholics to turn to a Scripture passage, you have to tell them the page number – sad.) And I read Isaiah 53 to them slowly, pausing at times to let the words sink in. And it was like someone had flipped on a light switch. One boy asked, “Wait, when was this written?!” Another: “Did – did they know about this in the early Church?” The atmosphere was electric. Even the lounging high school boy sat up. The kids were dumbfounded that something pointing so clearly to Jesus Christ could have been written over seven hundred years before he was born. At this point, all but one of the boys had to leave class early. On their way out, one boy asked me, “Are you coming back next year?” The high school boy said quietly, “Good lesson.”
The rest of the class we focused on our Lord’s appearance in the upper room. When we got to verse 36 – “he stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you’” – I asked if any of the kids had ever been to a Mass celebrated by Bishop Matano. Some had. I asked if any of them had noticed that at the beginning of Mass, instead of saying “The Lord be with you” the way priests do, the bishop had said, “Peace be with you” like Jesus in the Gospel. And I said, “That’s because our bishop was ordained by bishops who were ordained by bishops stretching all the way back through the centuries in an unbroken line to one of the men who was in that room when Christ appeared on Easter Sunday.” At this point the one remaining boy blinked and shook his head, “Wait a second. Are you saying that Jesus Christ … was a real person? I mean, a historical person, not just someone we believe in?” I was flabbergasted. “Yes! Yes, he really was. This is great, we’re making progress here.” After class, I said to my friend, “How is it possible to make it to middle school without even knowing Jesus Christ was a real person? More to the point – if we hadn’t made that connection, who would have?” My friend looked my in the eye and said, “That’s why I’m here.”
At the end of the day, there is no substitute for real human contact. We Catholics need to find people whose hearts are open to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit and make them a part of our lives. Our spiritual lives wither and die unless they are nourished by real Christian community (koinonia) – other Catholics who are excited about the things of God, and whose conversation bears witness to hearts filled to overflowing with the love of Christ. That’s a big part of what we’re trying to do at St. Irenaeus – connect Catholics with others of like mind, so that we all have someone who can be of encouragement, who can lift us up when we are down and spur us on to greater fidelity and openness to the Lord. The Book of Hebrews admonishes us to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (3:13). Has this been your experience in the Catholic Church? If not, perhaps you need to seek out and connect with people who know this verse and take it seriously.
Above all, we ourselves need to conquer our fear and put this command into practice. Every pontiff in living memory has urged the faithful to be evangelizers. A glance at the testimonies of faith mentioned above is enough to show that when Christians start introducing their neighbors to Jesus Christ, conversions will follow. My experience with those middle schoolers shows that our youth are open to receiving the faith, if someone will only take the time to give it to them. Perhaps next Sunday is the Sunday God is calling you to introduce yourself to Oz Kosnowski and learn his real name. If you open your heart to him and show what the Lord is doing in you, who can tell how he will respond?