Good things are happening down under! Word from the Archdiocese of Melbourne, Australia:
By Clara Geoghegan
Called and Gifted Workshops help parishes and individuals refocus their lives by helping them discover God’s plan for their lives and their community. A workshop hosted by the parishes of Holy Spirit, Ringwood and St Gerard and St Anne Park Orchards/Warrandyte and invitations to attend were also extended to neighbouring parishes. The weekend attracted 85 participants and was enormously successful in many ways.
One participant from a neighbouring parish was Melanie Williams from St John’s Mitcham. Melanie expressed her thanks for the workshop on the weekend describing it as “the best thing I have attended in the Church in 20 years”. When contacted for this article she said that when she offered that compliment she had not yet begun to experience the full fruits of the weekend.
“The workshop proved to be transformative for me in the space of a few weeks. It was a paradigm shift – a real awakening,” she said.
“What struck me from the beginning was that this was a structured program that let us through a process that involved deep thinking and a challenge to growth,” said Melanie. “It was a framework to help find out more deeply who you are. It was a deep personal focus which lead to exploring self and how to be more yourself for the sake of others. This was deeply revelatory.”
The Called and Gifted Workshop helps participants discover the spiritual gifts they receive at Baptism and Confirmation which are given so that we can be a source of God’s providence to others.
For Melanie, not only did the workshop affirm her in her chosen professional field where she finds great joy in using her gifts of knowledge and wisdom, but it has given a different focus to her home life also. Melanie’s husband has been recovering fromC cancer and during his recovery period, and as part of his recovery, he has been facilitating an online writers’ group for fellow cancer sufferers.
Melanie was feeling that given his stage of recovery, her husband had an obligation to look at returning to part-time work and assist in supporting the family. However, after the workshop she saw the situation in a new light. She perceived that her husband had a real gift in the work he was doing with this writers’ group and she had discerned a gift of ‘helps’. Helps is a gift where one is able to use one’s gifts to help another achieve their potential. Melanie saw that she could use this gift to assist her husband achieve his potential as a writer and facilitator. Despite some financial concerns, she decided to go ahead. Her husband has not returned to work and Melanie says that, quite remarkably, they have managed financially and achieved a new freedom through trusting in God’s providence and that they have made the right choices.
The workshop has also borne fruit for the host parishes. Lorraine McCarthy, pastoral associate at St Gerard & St Anne Park Orchards/Warrandyte explains that the parish of Holy Spirit, North Ringwood and the Parish of St Gerard and St Anne Park Orchards/Warrandyte, are partnered parishes who share a priest and have a combined leadership team. The two parishes have, over recent years, worked intensely on evangelising and forming our people through Alpha courses, Scripture groups and prayer/retreat opportunities. During this time they formed a new parish pastoral council in each parish.
“We felt that we needed something which would move our people 'out' into a more intentional living of their Gospel call to be 'Apostles' – both in our parishes and out in the world of our daily lives and work,” explained Lorraine, “and the Called and Gifted Workshop certainly helped us achieve this.”
In the months before the workshop, invitations were sent to both parish pastoral councils, to everyone on liturgy rosters and to everyone who had taken part in the faith formation opportunities in recent years. There was a huge response, and 85 people attended the workshop weekend.
The weekend provided an opportunity to meet together and to share meals and friendship. Many commented that they had met fellow parishioners for the first time and that this was a significant outcome of the workshop for them.
“The weekend provided an opportunity to focus together on what it means to be a Catholic lay person today,” reflected Lorraine. “We were encouraged to reflect on the fullness of who we have been created to be and to make the choice to deeply live our calling in our life circumstances. Through stories and examples we were taught that even the most ordinary person has gifts that God wants to give to the world through us. A challenging thought!”
“The weekend also gave us an opportunity to challenge our understanding of our parish’s mission. “ she said. “While we are parishes with strong community and wonderful caring for each other, we are also called to be places of formation for mission. We are called to equip each other to go and bring Christ to the world around us in our community, sporting groups and workplaces.”
“The Called and Gifted Workshop has given us a 'paradigm' shift in our understanding of ourselves and of our parishes. The practical implications of this shift will reverberate in both our Parish and our personal lives for a long time to come.”
The next Called and Gifted Workshop will be 17 and 18 June at All Saints, Fitzroy. To host a workshop in your parish, call 9926 5687 or email
Clara Geoghegan is the Called and Gifted co-ordinator at Archbishops Office for Evangelisation in Melbourne.
I'm in the last throes of packing to spend a few days in Seattle visiting family and friends. Then to the Mackenzie River Valley or Oregon for a week of retreat. From there to Los Angeles to train 18 new Called & Gifted teachers with Fr. Mike. And then home June 13. I may blog some as I have time and inclination but these six weeks are supposed to be a sabbatical during which work gives way to other things. Like gardening (I planted 130 perennials last week!)
Before I left, I wanted to comment on a column of George Weigel's that was published last week. Weigel was writing words of advice to Polish Catholics but it seemed to hit the exactly right note for American Catholics as well.
“John Paul II truly believed that in the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences. What seems to us “coincidence” is actually an aspect of Providence we have not understood yet. So his curiosity was a matter of looking into “here” and “now” to see where the wind of the Holy Spirit might be blowing, and in what direction.
Polish Catholicism should adopt this future-oriented stance. Remembering the John Paul II years should now be a remembering in service to the future. The 21st-century Church in Poland must take up John Paul’s challenge in the 1991 encyclical “Redemptoris Missio” and re-imagine itself as a Church that is a mission, not an institution for which mission is one among many activities.
Or as John Paul put it in closing the Great Jubilee of 2000, the Church must leave the shallow water of institutional maintenance and put out “into the deep” of the New Evangelization.
The Polish Church must recognize that the faith can no longer be transmitted by the ambient culture; it has to be persuasively and courageously proposed.
If the Church cannot transmit the faith in Poland by means of "ambient culture" - Poland which, in 2011, is probably the most deeply Catholic culture on earth,eclipsing even Italy and Ireland - how much more true is this of the US?
We cannot revive a Catholic culture without believing Catholics. To build a Catholic culture, we first have to make Catholic disciples. To build a Catholic culture, we first have to be people of mission rather than maintenance.
We will have to come out and talk with and listen to people who have no idea what we are talking about, whose background is completely non-Christian. We will have to search out the 85% of millennial Catholics who aren't attending Mass on a regular basis. Because American "ambient culture" in 2011 is deeply post-Christian and often anti-Christian and will not lead them to the parish door.
Art, literature, music, philosophy, history and personal mysticism will be real doorways for some but not for most. Some will search us out but most won't. Some will stumble over us, discovering the faith as they are exploring something else but most won't. Some will know and be moved by the witness of saints-in-the-making but most won't be that blessed. And most of those who first encounter the Church through those means will still need to hear the Great Story of Jesus and his Church proclaimed in ringing compelling terms. Nostalgia for an idealized golden past is not the way to reach the majority of 21st century men and women for whom post-modernity is the air they breathe.
St. Francis never said "Preach the Gospel always. If necessary use words." But even if he had said it, it would no longer be true. In the 21st century, in our generation, we need to say:
"Preach the Gospel explicitly in words and deeds always. Always look for existing cultural bridges that can carry a weight of truth. Where there is no existing bridge, build a bridge. From scratch if necessary."
Because the Church's future is not a simple recovery of an idealized past. Just like the great saints and apostles of the Catholic Reformation knew that simply trying to recreate the pre-Reformation world was not sufficient, just as they knew that the Holy Spirit was calling forth "novelties of God" (to use Pope Benedict's term) to meet the needs of their generation, so we need to embrace the fresh and remarkable things that God is calling forth in our time.
Are you and I open to the "novelties of God" that are being raised up to meet the needs of the 21st century? Are you and I open to being one of those "novelties of God"?
Rocco mentions one of the most delightfully eccentric and winsome saints of all : St. Philip Neri.
"Some saints were known specifically for their sense of humor. St. Philip Neri, called “The Humorous Saint,” hung at his door a little sign: The House of Christian Mirth. “Christian joy is a gift from God flowing from a good conscience,” Neri said."
Neri was the only saint we know of who had a joke book and a Bible beside his bed. He began his apostlate as a lay man and later become a priest and founded the Oratorians. Many of the practices associated with Neri's Oratory, for many years a gathering of lay men before it became a community of priests, are remarkable for their spontaneity and directness.
"The program of their meetings took some ten years to crystallize into the following form: reading with commentary, the commentary taking the form of a conversation, followed by an exhortation by some other speaker. This would be followed in turn by a talk on Church History, with finally, another reading with a commentary, this time from the life of some saint. All this was interspersed with short prayers, hymns and music, and the service always finished with the singing of a new motet or anthem. It was taken for granted that everyone could come and go as they chose, as Philip himself did. He and the other speakers used to sit quite informally on a slightly raised bench facing the gathering.
We have already compared one of Philip's activities to those of the Salvation Army; the same comparison holds good for these informal meetings.
Generally speaking, the pattern followed by Evangelist meetings, invented as is supposed by Anglo-Saxon revivalists of the eighteenth century, was no more than a repetition of this Roman priest's experiment in the sixteenth century. We find the same spontaneity, jealously suspicious of any rule which might bridle inspiration or lead to formalism, the same outburst of sensible fervor, above all the same attempt to return to the Gospels and make them available to everyone."
It was Neri and the confraternity that he founded who introduced the 40 hours Devotion to Rome, accompanying Adoration with continuous prayer and spontaneous feverini. Whever Neri went, music followed, but especially the Laudi, venacular hymns of praise. Palestrina, who was one of Neri's disciples, wrote many Laudi for the Oratory. It was Neri who instituted the pilgrimage to the seven churches of Rome as an alternative to Mardi Gras - but typically, he inserted a picnic and live music into the pilgrimage.
Frederick Faber, who joined the English branch of the Oratorians to which John Henry Newman also belonged, wrote in his life of Neri:
"He looked like other men.. he was emphatically a modern gentleman, of scrupulous courtesy, sportive gaiety, acquainted with what was going on in the world, taking a real interest in it, giving and getting information, very neatly dressed, with a shrewd common sense always alive about him, in a modern room with modern furniture, plain, it is true, but with no marks of poverty about it -- in a word, with all the ease, the gracefulness, the polish of a modern gentleman of good birth, considerable accomplishments, and a very various information." Accordingly, he was ready to meet the needs of his day to an extent and in a manner which even the versatile Jesuits, who much desired to enlist him in their company, did not rival; and, though an Italian priest and head of a new religious order, his genius was entirely unmonastic and unmedieval; he was the active promoter of vernacular services, frequent and popular preaching, unconventional prayer, and unsystematized, albeit fervent, private devotion."
Tom Kreitzberg has been having a grand (and sometimes howlingly funny) discussion of a very important topic over at Disputations for the past two weeks. And I quote:
"How about if, instead of arm-twisting Catholics to vote for lousy Republican candidates, you arm-twist Republicans to nominate good candidates? And
How about if, instead of arm-twisting Catholics to vote for lousy Democratic candidates, you arm-twist Democrats to nominate good candidates?
Can we vote for individuals who advocate evil who are running for office?
We can't vote for them. We can't vote for them because there are no elections being held today.
Why is anyone talking about voting? Now is not the time to talk about voting. Now is the time to talk about promoting candidates who don't advocate evil.
If instead of talking today about what we should do today, we talk today about what we should do in a year and a half, we are acting in a way that turns false dilemmas into real ones.
Why do we do this?"
A couple years ago, I was giving a presentation at a conference where Archbishop Chaput was also speaking and remember listenng to him plead with his audience: If you are pro-life, GO INTO POLITICS. POLITICS IS WHERE THESE DECISIONS ARE MADE. But his devout Catholic audience seemed only concerned with getting their local Bishop to issue statements.
So I thought I'd share the following experience which comes under the heading of "Church Teaching is Often More Complicated Than It Seems"
On US election eve, 2004, Fr. Mike and I were in Australia. While there, I took the opportunity to ask two world-class experts on Church’s teaching in this area (who are both known for their careful orthodoxy) and the intense political debate that it had engendered among Catholic voters in the US. One was Bishop Anthony Fisher, OP, then of Sydney (recently elevated by Cardinal Pell), who has a PhD in bioethics and is recognized as (in John Allen’s words) “one of the sharpest minds in English-speaking Catholicism”. The other was Dr. Tracey Rowland, Dean of the John Paul II Institute in Melbourne, and one of most respected new theologians emerging today.
The topic: Voting as formal cooperation in intrinsic evil:
1. Both Fisher and Rowland emphasized that Church teaching is “very underdeveloped” in this area. Bishop Fisher had attended a symposium in Rome on Evangelicum Vitae 73 in February of 2004. EV 73 reads in part:
"73. Abortion and euthanasia are thus crimes which no human law can claim to legitimize. There is no obligation in conscience to obey such laws; instead there is a grave and clear obligation to oppose them by conscientious objection. . .
In the case of an intrinsically unjust law, such as a law permitting abortion or euthanasia, it is therefore never licit to obey it, or to “take part in a propaganda campaign in favor of such a law, or vote for it.”(98)
A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restrictive law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on. Such cases are not infrequent. . . In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects."
Fisher said that at this symposium two top notch, orthodox theologians presented completely opposite views and neither could be considered “wrong” in light of current Church teaching (although Fisher privately agreed with one over the other). The bishop noted that only about 9 scholarly works existed (at that point) on the subject and that he had read them all. In other words, there is, as yet, no authoritative interpretation of EV 73 to guide us.
2. Fisher stated that there was no theological basis for asserting categorically that a Catholic could not, in good faith, vote for either US candidate (in 2004) since both had serious problems from the perspective of Church teaching. Fisher said that if he were an American, he’d be voting for Bush – precisely because of the abortion issue, but that it would be a matter of personal judgment. Life issues had been his personal passion since he was at university and naturally they dominate his moral appraisal of the current scene. Fisher noted that other people with other expertise would naturally be pre-occupied with different areas of grave concern that would shape their prudential judgment.
3. Fisher then made a fascinating comment that I have not heard elsewhere – that there is no basis in Church teaching for comparing two very different “intrinsic evils” and determining that one is objectively and absolutely more grave than the other. One can compare levels of a similar intrinsic evil. You could say that 4,000 abortions is more grave than 40 or that a genocidal conflict that killed 10,000 was a more grave evil than one in which only 500 died. But you can’t, on the basis of current Catholic teaching, categorically determine that abortion, for instance, is always and absolutely more grave than a given unjust war or torture or severe economic injustice. By definition, something that is truly intrinsically evil can’t be relatively less evil anymore than a person can be only mostly dead (well, outside the alternate universe of the Princess Bride, anyway – although I did encounter some situations that came pretty close on the cancer unit).
So one cannot state, as definitive Church teaching, that the gravity of the evil of abortion must outweigh all other intrinsic evils or any possible combination of intrinsic evils in our political calculations. An individual could arrive at such a prudential judgment in a particular situation in good faith but an equally faithful Catholic could come to a quite different prudential conclusion in good conscience. (Sherry’s note: As a Dominican friend pointed out to me, one problem in the US was a failure to make it clear when individual bishops were making their best argument for a particular prudential judgment in their public statements rather than articulating Church teaching that obliged everyone.)
1) When I said that it was my observation that quite a few serious Catholics in the US were under the impression that doctrine had developed in this area, Fisher responded that a few bishops making personal pronouncements simply isn’t the development of doctrine. When I asked Rowland why some US bishops had made such statements when they must know that Church teaching did not support it, she responded that some bishops are not familiar with the nuances of Church teaching in this area. Rowland (unlike Fisher, who thought that any talk of ex-communication in the midst of an election was imprudent) believed that then-Cardinal Ratzinger (she said that she was a big fan of Ratzinger) had made a good case for refusing communion to a politician who publicly supports abortion but also agreed that there simply wasn’t any clear Church teaching about voting as a form of formal cooperation with evil.
Social media to the rescue . . . Here is the up-to-the-minute information regarding the terrible Joplin tornado. The latest report is that 124 are dead but that will amost certainly rise. What a terrible tragedy. Lord have mercy.
Go here to find out: how to help, how to find family & friends, how to volunteer, how to get into Joplin.
Warning: The video below is very intense - the sounds of a group of 18 or 19 people who took refuge in a walk in refrigerator. There's a lot of terror but also prayer and consideration for one another. Everyone survived. May the mercy of God protect and cover the people of Joplin.
Think your diocese has problems? Worried about a priest shortage in your region? It helps me regain perspective to occasionally compare the realities of two dioceses of similar size. One in the US like San Diego. One in the global south like Lira, Uganda.
San Diego: Great weather, nice beach.
Lira: Had the Lord’s Resistance Army. Just emerging from 20 year civil war. Really bad roads. No beach.
Let’s run the numbers:
San Diego: Catholic population is just under 1 million distributed over 8,852 square miles
99 parishes, 14 missions
200 diocesan and religious priests
246 sisters, 20 brothers
2 Catholic universities
Lira: Catholic population is just over 1 million distributed over 4,646 square miles
18 parishes divided into 1,000 “chapels”
64 diocesan and religious priests
1,200 lay catechists who care for the 1,000 “chapels”
“Throughout Uganda catechists play a crucial role. In almost every parish of the country and at almost any time of day you can see a group of the faithful gathered around a catechist – one group might be praying together, another sitting in the shade, discussing a phrase from the Holy Scriptures; elsewhere perhaps a group of married couples, including many mothers carrying little babies in their arms, all learning together how to make a success of raising a Christian family and giving their children a Catholic education.
There are 14,000 catechists in Uganda today, 1,000 of them in the Diocese of Lira. The Tabernacle in the chapel of the catechists' formation house is made in the shape of a traditional African grain store, for Jesus Christ is the Bread of Life. While only the priest can bring Christ to the faithful in the Blessed Eucharist, the catechist can still nourish the people with the Word of God, and there are countless people in the Diocese of Lira who are waiting for this bread.
Of course, the catechists in Lira need to have a deep formation in order to be able to serve fruitfully. The long and bloody conflict, from 1988 to 2008, between the rebels of the so-called Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony, and the Ugandan army have left deep scars in this diocese, as in others. Many people were unable to attend school during this time, and, as a result, many men and women today have barely enough basic education to be able to take part in the necessary training courses.
The participants themselves are asked to make a modest contribution, for example by contributing a few cupfuls of cornmeal, beans and a little firewood. They must also bring their own plate, a blanket, a ballpoint pen, an exercise book, a Bible, a prayer book and a rosary. Everything else the diocese has to provide.”
Take a look at this video of the annual Mass in memory of the Ugandan Martyrs. Makes you want to dance along . . .
The modesty of the Dominicans I’ve been working with all these years astounds me. It turns out that working miracles and raising the dead is an OP thang.
Or so says the author of Saints Who Raise the Dead who wrote a chapter dedicated to three Dominican missionaries who are credited with a hundred miracles of raising the dead between them: St. Hyacinth, St. Vincent Ferrar, and St. Louis Betrand.
I have to admit that, in the past, I’ve had to suppress a giggle when I’ve met Dominicans who have taken some version of the name Hyacinth. It sounds much better in Spanish – San Jacinto – and towns all over the Spanish speaking world have been named for our wonder-working saint. But Hyacinth? How did we get there from the Polish: Jacek Odrow??? Good thing he is too busy enjoying the Beatific Vision to worry about such small humiliations.
However lame his name in English, St. Hyacinth was anything but lame in real life. He began briskly enough by witnessing St. Dominican raising a dead man in Rome (the nephew of Cardinal Stephen) and then received the habit from the saint’s hands. Hyacinth then began his missionary journeys and brought the Order to Poland and Kiev where he was regarded as the Polish St. Dominic. The papal bull of his canonization (1594) declared that the miracles he worked were "almost countless".
1240 was a bad year to be in Kiev, then one of the largest cities in Europe. The Mongol-Tartar army besieged and then destroyed Kiev. One of Hyacinth’s most famous miracles is connected with the attack on a Kievian monastery. Hyacinth was about to save a Monstrance (or possibly a Ciborium it is unknown exactly which one) containing the Blessed Sacrament when he heard the voice of the Blessed Virgin Mary asking him to take her too. So he decided to take also the statue of the Holy Virgin. Despite the fact that it weighed far more than he could normally lift, it became miraculously weightless. Thus he saved both the Blessed Sacrament and the statue of Our Lady. For that reason the saint is usually shown holding these two items.
I was blessed to spend a few days in Gdansk, Poland last summer with my friends, the Curps. It turned out that we were there during the annual feast of St. Dominic which is celebrated city-wide. The local Dominican Church was showing the relics of St. Hyacinth including what is believed to be the statue of Our Lady that Hyacinth carried out of burning Kiev. I had long talks with a local Dominican, who spoke English, and who was clearly skeptical. Whatever the history of the statue, I was enchanted and got some a great picture. (But the great picture insists on being transfered to the blog upside down. So here's the not so great picture. The mysterious things behind are a reflection of the church, the arm of St. Hyacinth from a painting behind the relics, and my own shadow as I took the picture.)
The statue shows a small but adult Jesus hanging on the tree of life (not a cross) and handing a fruit – the salvific fruit of his redemptive self-giving – to another Jesus, who is clearly Lord of the Universe and who is being held by a much larger, gracefully draped Virgin. What a fantastic image of the cosmos-altering power of Resurrection that we celebrate during the Easter season!
Sorry about the 2 1/2 week blogging black-out. We were having terrific problems with a Joomla update and asked to have the update removed. While that was being done, we were told that we couldn't put up anymore blog entries.
But I just got an e-mail saying that we are up and ready to go. Let's see if this works!
It does! Now that our blog has been raised from the dead, posting will commence. Although I see now that all the comments from the posts put up after the original Joomla update have vanished. Sigh. Hopefully links to the website are working again. I'll check.
I'm planting perennials this morning but I have a great post about the amazing St. Hyacinth and the miracles worked through him in Poland and other parts of eastern Europe that I'll put up later.
I never thought of myself as someone who minimizes the miraculous elements of the faith but I'm beginning to realize that I really didn't grasp the half of it. And that (as I suspected) the astonishing stories that we are now hearing from the global south are matched by the stories told about what God has done in the past.
And it isn't all naivete, urban legends, and credulousness. The author separates the less well attested miracles into a chapter at the back of the book and seems to have made an effort to be careful. That doesn't mean all the stories in this book are historical but many were witnessed and well attested. I'll pick out and choose.
Since I have so many stories now, I'm going to share one a day for the rest of the Easter season.
Let's begin with the observations of St. Irenaeus in Against the Heresies:
"Some persons that were dead have been raised again and have continued among us many years. Nor can we sum up the miraculous works which the Church, by the gift of God, performs every day over the world in the name of Jesus Christ."
Writing about the inability of Simon Magnus to work miracles, Irenaeus wrote:
"So far are they from raising the dead, as our Lord raised them, and as the Apostles did by prayer, and as in the brotherhood oftentimes is done, when the whole church of the place hath begged it with much fasting and prayer, and the spirit of the man hath returned and the man hath been given back to the prayers of the saints."
What a fantastic testimony to the faith, hope, and love the seminarians at Mt. St. Mary's! From a blog post titled "A Visit to Heaven", written by the evangelical pastor brother of one seminarian.
"My brother is a Roman Catholic seminarian, and I visited him at Mount Saint Marys Seminary the last couple days to see him installed in his second-to-last office (acolyte) before hopefully being ordained a priest (in about two years). I’ve been hoping to visit John for a long time, and finally got the opportunity.
My Evangelical brothers and sisters typically misunderstand and mischaracterize the Catholic Church, its leaders and theology and practices, so I felt compelled to write this to them, an “open letter” if you will.
First off, much of what Evangelicals believe about Catholicism, what they believe and who they are, is flat out incorrect. I will not dedicate any space here to that, except to say that people don’t listen to each other all that well in the 21st century, even though it’s easier than ever, technologically, to do. We should all try harder.
So let me tell you what I found among the more than 150 seminarians I spent a couple days with.
I found men who love Jesus with a passion and wholeness that I find rare among Christians of any stripe in these days."
(Shortly after posting, it was announced that Osama bin Laden has been killed by US forces outside Islamabad. It is hard to know exactly what this means but it does throw the developments described below into sharper relief.)
Fr. Michael Sweeney used to theorize that the reason that evangelicals are able to “evangelize” so many Catholics is that they are building upon the spiritual impact of infant baptism without knowing it. His idea was that infant baptism left Catholics with a kind of felt “spiritual itch”, a spiritual restlessness that made lapsed Catholics especially open and responsive to the proclamation of the Gospel. We didn’t proclaim Christ clearly, tapping into that restlessness and call our own to discipleship but they were primed to respond when someone else did.
Of course, Catholics believe that baptism leaves a permanent, ontological “mark” on the soul (or baptismal character). In addition, can there also be a felt, existential impact of baptism on someone who does not know they were baptized?
I first asked this question when a Jewish convert to Catholicism told me her story. She had experienced a deep life-long attraction to Jesus and the Catholic faith while being raised as a practicing Jew. She finally defied her father and became a Catholic at 18. It was only years later that she learned that her grandmother has secretly baptized her as an infant without the knowledge of anyone else in the family!
Now from the Muslim world comes this amazing story of conversion which raises the same very issues. The source is the Lausanne World Pulse.
“Sixty-five years ago, “Hakeem” was born into a Muslim family. His two older siblings had died, so—reasoning from superstitions—Hakeem’s parents took their infant son to a church and had him baptized—something unheard of and potentially dangerous for Muslim parents to do.”
OK. A little background. It is regarded “superstitious” by the evangelical author, not just because it was the baptism of an infant but because the subtext was that a baptized child would be protected by God and survive.
Where “Hakeem’s” parents picked up this idea is unclear but it means that they knew and lived near Christians. Or possibly came from a family where some members were Christian. (Since we don’t know where he lives and even his name is a pseudonym to protect his identity, there is no way to know which Christian group baptized him.)
It is not only very rare for a Muslim family to have their infant son baptized but it would be extremely rare for Christians who are part of ancient Christian communities living in a Muslim context to agree to baptize such a child. Even if the parents said that they wanted to become Christian themselves and raise the child in the faith, there would still be much hesitation as baptizing a Muslim child.
Local Christians fear that these requests may be traps laid by government agents hoping to smoke out Christians who seek to convert Muslims. Even if the family requesting baptism was being honest, it would almost certainly bring persecution down on the those who did it as well as the family involved. Unless “Hakeem’s” family lived in one of those very rare pockets of religious freedom and tolerance. Or did the parents or Christian family or friends baptize the baby informally? In any case, there is definitely a story behind the story!
“Throughout his life, Hakeem was drawn to Jesus, although he never really knew much about him. As a child, when he was scared he would occasionally run to a church and hide in the back to feel safe—again, something extremely odd for a Muslim to do. As far as I know, he had no involvement with true followers of Jesus for most of his life.”
Fascinating. Like my Jewish friend, Hakeem was instinctively drawn to Jesus and Christianity as a source of safety throughout his life without knowing why. Is this spiritual sensitivity a mysterious grace of the baptism which he does not remember?
The comment that “he had no involvement with true followers of Jesus for most of his life” reflects the distinction that many evangelicals make between a baptized person and one who is a disciple. It is very common for evangelicals working among Muslims to use the word “believer” where most of us would use the word “Christian”. They make a distinction, that we would not make, between those whose Christianity is purely cultural or notional and one who is a disciple.
Back to our story. Fifty five years pass for Hakeem.
“Around the age of 55, through Christian broadcasts, Hakeem came to embrace the truth about Jesus.”
There have been very significant Christian radio and television broadcast for decades throughout the Muslim world. For instance, the Arabic language “Jesus is risen” flash mob video that took St. Blog’s by storm last week was produced by Sat-7, a Christian television network that broadcast throughout the middle east and north Africa. Over 9% of the population of northern Africa and 5.5% of western Asia (what we typically call the “middle east”) listen to Christian radio and television broadcasts.
“He had no real believers with whom to interact on a personal level—only the broadcasts and the Spirit of God. Under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit, he grew in his faith, and soon his whole family began to follow Jesus with him. A few years ago they all actively started to share their beliefs with other Muslims.”
Christian broadcasts throughout the world have led to the remarkable phenomena of millions of hidden “radio” or “media” Christians from non-Christian backgrounds who gather in groups about broadcasts. I took a few minutes to listen to the Vatican’s Arabic coverage of John Paul II’s beatification this morning. I am sure that there are already hidden “radio” or “internet” Muslim believers in the Catholic faith as a result of the Vatican’s decision to add Arabic broadcasting!
Back to Hakeem. 10 more years pass. Hakeem is now 65.
“Just a few months ago, Hakeem began to realize he needed help with all that was happening, so he wrote to the Christian station to see if they could send someone to assist him. Station personnel contacted my friend “Ray,” who went to meet Hakeem.
As Ray sat with the now-65-year-old man, Hakeem began to pull out papers that contained the names of numerous people and showed how these people were networked together. It was like a family tree, with branches sprouting off here and there.
It was a chart of the fifty-five Muslim followers of Jesus for whom Hakeem was responsible…because he, one of his family members, or one of the newer believers had led them to Jesus! With absolutely no help—no in-person input from a single Christian, Hakeem had been “pastoring” all these people, who were spread out among multiple reproducing house groups throughout the city!”
The article ends with the note that since Hakeem contacted the station, the number of "believers" has grown from 55 to 124! So a baptized but uncatechized Christian, who lived as a Muslim for the first 55 years of his life, has - with only radio broadcasts for support - evangelized a whole network of Muslims who believe in Christ but are probably not baptized themselves. What are we to make of this from a Catholic perspective?
Hakeem’s story sound very much like the experience of the first Korean Catholics who learned of the faith from a scholar was baptized in China and brought it home in 1784. They baptized many and formed their own congregations but didn’t receive their first priests until 1836, 52 years later!
Hakeem is not alone but actually part of a growing movement. Christianity Today reports that a 2010 gathering of representatives from several prominent mission agencies, both national and expatriate, met to compare notes about the progress of their respective ministries in one Muslim-majority country. (The country's name is withheld for security reasons.)
"The representatives rejoiced that more than 1,000 "fellowships," as they call them, have been established for people from Muslim backgrounds. In fact, many of the fellowships had already planted new fellowships, and those fellowships had planted still more. Many thousands of Muslims in this nation alone, then, had found faith in Jesus.
Several of these fellowships can be traced back to small networks of Muslims who had encountered Christ and in turn began sharing with family and friends what they had discovered."
While Catholics talk almost exclusively about Islam in terms of a“clash of cultures”, evangelicals are seriously talking of a “Emerging Muslim Convert Church” that will eventually dwarf the historic Christian bodies of the Near East.
To get a sense of what it could look like, check out the Iranian Christian Church, the largest congregation of Muslim background belivers in the US.
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