[Week 5 of the “Imagination in Action” series. Topic this week: the theological virtue of hope]

One of my favorite movies as a kid was “Rudy.” It is based on the true story of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger and his quest to make the Notre Dame football team. His first major challenge was even getting accepted to the University of Notre Dame. He struggled with school (he was eventually diagnosed with dyslexia) and came from a working-class family without a history of attending college. The second major challenge was his small size and lack of the physical gifts that normally were needed to play football at the college level (let alone at Notre Dame!). He persevered through these obstacles to become a Notre Dame student, make the football team as a walk-on, and eventually play 27 seconds in the final home game of his senior year. He was able to sack the quarterback on his last play (his only career stat). This led to him being carried off the field, the first time this had been done for a Notre Dame player. While some of the aspects of the movie were played up for dramatic effect, all of the parts I mentioned here are true, and make the movie that much more inspirational!

This film is an iconic example of hope in my mind. One of its famous lines is, “Having dreams is what makes life tolerable.” Hope motivates us to look to the future and not give up in the midst of trial. However, I think this concept of “hope” can be seen in two different ways. On the one hand, it could just be seen from the human perspective – a sort of “wishful thinking.” Hope could merely be the decision to look with optimism at a situation and see the glass “half full,” as they say.

The Christian sense of hope as a theological virtue, on the other hand, is built on a different foundation. The Catechism teaches, “Hope is the theological virtue by which we desire the kingdom of heaven and eternal life as our happiness, placing our trust in Christ’s promises and relying not on our own strength, but on the help of the grace of the Holy Spirit” (paragraph 1817). It goes on to add, “Hope is the ‘sure and steadfast anchor of the soul . . . that enters . . . where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.'” (paragraph 1820, quoting Hebrews 6:19-20). In other words, the virtue of hope is not grounded in our own ability, but in confidence in God’s grace. It is the “anchor” that holds us steady in the midst of the tide and the storms of life. It counteracts the great temptations of discouragement and despair, that can kill the “dream” within us and lead us to settle for less.

Even though the movie “Rudy” doesn’t draw out this divine dimension directly, the connection with Notre Dame provides a strong backdrop of faith. It is one of the most well-known Catholic universities in the country, and its name is French for “Our Lady” (named after the virgin Mary). There are many connections between the movie and faith in my own experience, as well. My mother grew up in South Bend (where Notre Dame is located) and I associate it with the witness of faith from her and my grandparents. Bishop Jenky (the bishop of Peoria) spent much of his priesthood at Notre Dame and is a member of the Holy Cross order that founded the university. One of my classmates in seminary even had the real-life father of Rudy as his Confirmation sponsor! (Rudy’s dad was a member of his parish and agreed to do this for students on the condition that they didn’t mention the movie… apparently he didn’t like the way it portrayed him!). Looking back years later, it is also fitting that Sean Astin portrayed both Rudy and Samwise Gamgee (the Hobbit in Lord of the Rings that especially exemplifies hope).

In the end, true hope is a life-giving power that finds its foundation in something beyond human optimism. It is living our life grounded with confidence in the power of God, even when we cannot see the way forward clearly. Let us set our sights on the greatness of our calling (both here and hereafter), and never lose the gift of hope!

“The Search” Parish Study

This week we are beginning an online study called “The Search!” I thought I’d give a little explanation of it here to help build connections.

It is produced by the Augustine Institute, and available through their streaming service. This is a great, user-friendly way to connect with a lot of high-quality materials for growing in faith (it uses the same interface as Netflix, which probably helps for many!). It can be used through your web browser or through an excellent app. St Malachy/St Elizabeth parishioners can get a free log-in by noting that they belong to the parish on the log-in screen, otherwise you may need to check with your local parish to see about availability.

Out of all of the series on the website, why did I choose to start with “The Search?” I think it provides an excellent step-by-step reflection on our search for God, and therefore is a great resource for anyone, no matter where they are on the spectrum of faith. As we go through the seven videos in the series, we are asked to begin our reflection on the desires of the human heart and our identity. The topics then move through the encounter with God, our encounter with Jesus Christ, and our encounter with the Catholic Church. Along the way we are able to reflect on the reasons for our belief as well as make/deepen a personal connection.

Each Sunday I will share a link to the next excerpt on my social media (see the links on the sidebar of the main page of this website), and each Thursday I will host a discussion on Facebook live at 5:30pm (6pm en español). All are welcome! If you’re not able to join this live, the recap will be available to view on Facebook/YouTube.

Here is a short excerpt (four minutes) from the first video, which should be accessible to all: (the full twenty minute version is available on

También hay una versión en español:

I hope you can take part in this reflection, God bless!

Fr Georges Lemaître

If you went to Google’s homepage on July 17th you would have seen the picture of a Catholic priest! Google changes its graphic (“doodle”) from day to day to commemorate various individuals or events, and on the 17th decided to honor the 124th birthday of Fr Georges Lemaître- a Jesuit priest. Why?

In addition to being a priest, Fr Lemaître was a distinguished astronomer. He studied at Cambridge, Harvard, and MIT in the course of his education. He is most famous for proposing what is now called the “Big Bang Theory” of the development of the universe (although that was not his phrase for the theory). I have mentioned this before, but it is interesting that this theory is so often considered the epitome of an atheistic view of creation, when in fact it was proposed by a Catholic priest! Fr Lemaître did not construct it as a specific argument for the Catholic understanding of creation. It flowed from the fruits of his academic study. However, he saw that it was not in conflict with our faith. Although the theory is often described as a theory of creation (especially by those that might see it in opposition to belief in creation by God), it is actually a theory about how pre-existent matter developed into the universe as we know it. It does not require one to deny that the universe has a Creator, order, or purpose.

In my experience so much of the popular opinion of the opposition of faith and science flows from a mistaken understanding of one (or both!) of the elements. As Catholics we see them as two different ways to come to know about the same universe. They can mutually enlighten each other with their own specific emphasis. In Fr Lemaître – along with so many other examples – we can see this process in action.

What is practical atheism?

In earlier posts I have discussed atheism from a theoretical perspective. However, I think the bigger presence of atheism actually exists in what might be called “practical atheism.” In other words, it means that we may profess belief in God in our words, but not show evidence of it in what we do. I sometimes call this the “alien test.” If an alien were to observe our life, what would they list as our priorities? Would they see an impact of faith on a practical level?

Pope Francis addresses this in his Apostolic Exhortation Joy of the Gospel under the name “practical relativism.” He writes, “This practical relativism consists in acting as if God did not exist, making decisions as if the poor did not exist, setting goals as if others did not exist, working as if people who have not received the Gospel did not exist” (paragraph #80).  I think this disconnect is one of the biggest challenges for us personally as believers, and in fact one of the biggest challenges to passing on the faith. I am thankful to God for places where I can see that God’s grace has borne fruit in my life, but also am aware of many other times where I can fall into this attitude!

We admire the transformation that we see flowing from the lives of holy men and women. We want to be part of the good things that are happening in the Church. But, this asks of us a true step of faith to change priorities and habits. It requires discipline and encountering the Cross, but the alternative is slavery to the senses and a life that does not bear fruit. It is a joyful thing to encounter the truth of the Gospel, to let it transform our life, and to bear good fruit. Is there anywhere in our life that we see we might give a counter-witness against the Gospel? What change might we feel called to make?

God bless!

The Epiphany and Seeking God

My favorite reflection on the feast of the Epiphany comes from GK Chesterton. [Side note: the Epiphany is the day we commemorate the visit of the Magi/Wise Men/Three Kings to Christ. In the Church it represents in general the public revelation of the identity of Christ, so can also include Jesus’ baptism or the wedding feast at Cana, his first public miracle]. The reflection comes from his book Everlasting Man—a book that deserves a post in itself! I found it dense and a little difficult to work through, but very rewarding.

Chesterton writes about the way mankind has watched the stars. The panorama of stars at night has been an encounter with transcendence since time immemorial. It has spawned mythologies, stories, and legends. He sees the primordial myth as the belief in some “great sky god,” which over time becomes developed into a whole pantheon of deities, heroes, and the like. On the other hand, he points out that the night sky has also inspired the work of astronomers and physicists. The movement of the stars has been a fascinating mystery for scholars to puzzle out.

I think of this as an “Epiphany” reflection because he connects this with the two groups that come and encounter the infant Christ—the shepherds and the Magi. The shepherds represent a group that probably sat around the campfire at night looking at the stars, and can embody the first sort of seeker described above. In their stories and mythologies about the constellations there is an expression of a desire to encounter an otherworldly creature here among us. The mythologies bring the transcendent down to earth and make it tangible (even if only in imagination). The Magi are also star-gazers, but with a different desire. They have some study of the nature of the movement of the stars, but have been moved to a deeper question. Beyond just wanting to know *how* the stars are moving, they want to know *why.* What is the significance of this new star that they have seen? This inspires them on their journey.

Both find the answer in Bethlehem. The Shepherds encounter God-with-us, Emmanuel—not just in the imagination but in the flesh! Likewise, the Magi encounter the deeper meaning to which their study has led them. Both groups have moved from an experience of wonder (the stars of heaven), to a search (one by imagination and another by study), and finally to an encounter.

This presentation by Chesterton always reminds me of the saying, “atheism began with the invention of the street light.” In other words, as light pollution in cities blocked our ability to see the stars, we lost the sense of the transcendent. The deeper questions don’t matter as much as we are consumed with everyday things. This isn’t to say that the astrology/mythologies inspired by the stars are a sufficient argument for God left to themselves, but they are a spark to the search. The awe that they inspired led the Magi to the *search,* which led them to the encounter. The Magi had real questions, and wanted to search for the fullest answer. I think this teaches us that having questions about God/faith/etc is not necessarily a bad thing. It isn’t something that we just have to hold without thought or reflection. Instead, those questions can lead to encounter. Too often, though, we let the questions die on the vine. We don’t follow them far enough. Often “questioning my faith” means at best reading a couple of Facebook articles or something (I recognize the irony of writing that on a blog that links through social media!). What we need is the search of the Magi, that followed the question. We need to spend time with the best and most profound explanations available—whether by speaking with a knowledgeable person, reading a book, listening to talks, etc. This is how we truly engage the question.

What about us—what questions do we have? How have we followed them? Through them, may we seek an encounter with the Lord.

Who was Blessed Miguel Pro?

Miguel Pro was born in the state of Zacatecas in Mexico in 1891. He entered the seminary to study to be a priest in 1911, but had to leave when anti-Catholicism in Mexico caused the seminary to close in 1914. He snuck out of the country and was able to complete his studies in Spain. His family wasn’t able to attend his ordination and so after the Mass he blessed pictures of his family instead.

In 1926 he was allowed to return to Mexico, despite the fact that President Plutarco Calles had effectively outlawed practicing the Catholic faith. Miguel Pro had been known for his sense of humor, and began to use his skill at disguises to continue his priestly ministry. He would dress as a janitor or other worker to gain entrance to houses. My favorite ruse was that he carried a police officer’s uniform and at times was able to change into it when the authorities arrived, and escape by joining in on his own search!

Eventually, however, Calles created false charges that he had been involved in an assassination attempt on one of his officials. He arrested Miguel and had him executed by firing squad without trial. Calles even had each step of the execution photographed in an attempt to scare off others protesting his persecution of the Church. Miguel asked for permission for time to kneel and pray, forgave his executioners, and then stood facing them with his arms outstretched in the form of a cross (holding a crucifix and rosary in his hands). He declined a blindfold and died proclaiming the motto of the Cristero movement: “¡Viva Cristo Rey! – Long live Christ the King! Forty-thousand people attended his funeral. Rather than crushing opposition to Calles’ rule, Miguel served as a powerful witness against him. He was declared “blessed” (the step before sainthood) as a martyr by Pope John Paul II in 1988.

It can be difficult to imagine why someone dedicated to the simple life of celebrating the sacraments for his people should have met with such firm resistance and a brutal death. Unfortunately, all too often Christ’s words have proven true: “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20). Christianity calls its members to serve as “salt and light” in the world, but history is full of times that governments have found this way of life unacceptable. Why is this? There are different reasons at different times, but we see the patter of Christ’s life repeating in them. By proclaiming a limit to human authority the Gospel stands as something opposed to absolute claims of power made in this world. It challenges every one of us to examine our own heart, and then proposes this challenge to the culture at large. Miguel’s love for Christ over-flowed into sacrificial love for his people. May his example continue to shine for us.

Why believe in God? Part III: Faith and Science

In a previous post I mentioned that Thomas Aquinas listed two major objections to the existence of God: the problem of evil and materialism. I addressed the problem of evil in Part II, and here want to say a few words about materialism—the objection that everything can be explained from physical properties alone. Spiritual realities are irrelevant. I think a more modern way to describe this problem is the question of “faith vs. science.” Which should we follow?

The phrasing of the question shows that people often see these as contradictory concepts. For many, “faith” means blindly trusting in something without real evidence, and “science” means relying on things that we can actually prove are true. This is not how we as Catholics understand faith. Faith is trusting in the word of another, while science (in the modern sense of the term) means a methodological study based on empirical observation and experimentation. While these are different, they are not contradictory. Both are ways to approach the truth. For example, we generally first come to know that the earth is round by faith in the word of another, and later are able to understand the proofs ourselves. In the physical sciences we can generally go back and work through the proofs that have come before us, but often it likewise relies on faith in the work that others have done. Progress is possible because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” They are two paths to the same destination, and both are concerned with evidence and truth.

The main question, then, is what happens when the answers given by faith and science disagree? Maybe the most notorious case is that of Galileo and the discussion of heliocentrism. What does it mean if we discover by science that the earth orbits the Sun, while the traditionally people have considered the Bible to teach that the Earth is the center of the universe? I may devote an entire post to the Galileo case, but the short answer is that the popular version of the case is often historically inaccurate. The issue wasn’t so much his teaching as his presentation. The Church was open to science as granting a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Cardinal Bellarmine (assigned to investigate Galileo) wrote: “If there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated [by science] is false. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” In other words, his problem wasn’t with the possibility of contradicting the traditional understanding of the Scriptures, but that he believed Galileo was rushing forward by proclaiming something that didn’t yet have sufficient data to support it—hardly an “anti-scientific” objection! Bellarmine believed that, if proven correct, Galileo’s theory would actually aid in Biblical studies by helping to distinguish what is literal from what is figurative. Even today, like the Bible, we often speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” without meaning to make geocentric claims! There is more to be said about the case, but even here we see an example of how faith and science can work together.

I would also like to respond to the challenge that faith is “blind,” and requires us to hold something without any proof. In fact, this challenge begs the question—what counts as “proof?” If we define it as “empirical scientific study,” then of course it will be limited to scientific study! Spiritual realities (God, souls, angels, grace, etc) by definition are things that are not made up of matter, and so can’t be detected by the use of microscopes, telescopes, etc. God is not a part of the world, but the creator of the world. You shouldn’t expect to find the architect of the house by rigorously examining all of the parts of the house. Likewise, the physical sciences can’t directly prove or disprove the existence of God. A popular response to this was to say that, if we can’t disprove the existence of God, we might as well believe in a “flying spaghetti monster!” However, we believe that there is evidence for our belief, even if not a scientific proof (remember, at this point I am only talking about the existence of God, not any particular revelation or faith group). We see an abundance of claims to encounters with the divine, and especially miracles. People have claimed to encounter effects without physical causes, which indicates the existence of spiritual realities (to my knowledge, none of these have been testimonies to a flying spaghetti monster!). Certainly some of these claims have been false, but materialism/atheism would require every single one of them to be false. The topic of miracles deserves its own post. Suffice it to say, scientific investigation does not clear up all of the claims. This evidence isn’t a strict proof, although gives reasons for belief. Faith is not a claim made contrary to evidence, but on account of evidence that has been encountered in a different manner.

As always, much more could be said. In conclusion though, I’d like to use the image of Pope John Paul II, who described faith and reason as the “two wings” of our flight towards God. The problem arises when one of the two wings is clipped. If we cut off the wing of human reason, then our faith loses an important clarifying light. If we cut off the wing of divine faith, our reason becomes closed in on itself. We lose insight into the deeper questions. The physical sciences help us to understand better *how* creation came about, but faith provides insight into *why* something exists rather than nothing. Faith and science do not exist in completely separate categories, and so at times will come into apparent conflict. However, the Church believes that, in the end, “if it’s true, it’s true!” (to quote my old teacher, Fr Fabian). Faith and science do not need to be seen as enemies. The sense of conflict comes from a simplistic understanding of the two concepts. One can love both faith and science (such as Fr Georges Lamaitre, the Catholic priest who proposed the Big Bang theory). If God is truth, then we are a friend of the truth wherever we find it.

Why believe in God? Part II: the problem of evil

Thomas Aquinas identified the problem of evil as one of the main objections to the existence of God—if God exists, why do we see so much evil in the world? Eight-hundred years later this is still a powerful question, and one that most have to confront directly in their lives.

First, we can take a moment to think about what we mean by the term “evil.” Would we say that it is evil to paint a rock red, yellow, or green? No… but we would say it is evil to paint over traffic lights and cause accidents. This is because we define evil in relationship to some good or purpose. The color of a rock doesn’t affect its purpose or dignity. Evil disrupts what *should* be there. It is an experience of something that has gone wrong. To use another example, we wouldn’t react in shock if we saw a human without wings, but we probably would if we saw an eagle without wings. As Augustine says, evil is the absence of some good that should be there.

However, this leads to a sort of paradox. The sense that things *should* be different implies a sense that there is a purpose or dignity to things. If there were no God (and creation truly was just the product of random chance), there wouldn’t be any more inherent purpose to a human being than to a rock. Both would come from the same source and have the same dignity. Therefore, it wouldn’t be more “evil” for a child to suffer and go hungry than for a child to be cared for and loved. Both cases would just be random interactions of atoms among beings destined for non-existence. So, in this paradoxical way, the reality of evil provides not only a challenge to faith but also evidence of belief in something that transcends atheistic existence.

Jesus responds to the question of evil a number of times. In Matthew 13 he addresses the parable of the weeds and the wheat (“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?”); John 9 considers the case of the man born blind (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”); and John 11 describes the death of Lazarus (“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”). Jesus doesn’t give a comprehensive answer to every aspect of the question of evil, but he gives an exhortation to hope. He denies that evil is a part of God’s desire for creation, and that the evil someone suffers is always the result of a personal sin on their part. He teaches that evil is permitted for only a time, and will come to an end when the final redemption is complete. However, he teaches that there is some plan or purpose to why it is tolerated to exist for a time. In the parable of the sower he addresses the harm that would be done to the wheat if all the weeds were pulled up. With Lazarus, he speaks of the way God’s grace is manifested through the crisis. Christ exhorts us to faith in the goodness of God to believe that a plan is being accomplished. God does not directly cause or desire evil, but permits it at times for the sake of some purpose that is often mysterious to us.

This isn’t a completely blind faith. At times we are able to see glimpses of why certain things happen. We might recognize it like the painful surgery that brings about health. Other times we do not. Yet, we see Christ crucified on the Cross. We see that in his life he did not ignore suffering, but identified himself with the suffering. He embraced the full reality of evil and opened a door to redemption. He invites us to trust him on account of his goodness in the moments when we do not understand.

We arrive, then, at this choice: do we trust him in the face of evil? Will we take confidence in a knowledge that surpasses our own? The alternative (belief in no transcendent reality) also robs the sense of evil from any grounding in how things “should” be. Without God, evil becomes meaningless. Do we believe that we are correct when we see something “wrong” with the world, and that our desire for a world without evil has a basis in the truth?

This doesn’t give a definitive answer to the question of evil, and an aspect of mystery will continue to be with us on this side of eternity. But, it gives us reason for faith in the existence of God even in the face of evil.

Why believe in God? Part I: God or Atheism

In a previous post I mentioned three key questions: Why believe in God? in Christ? in the Church? Today I want to start looking at that first, foundational question. Why would someone believe in a God (theism), rather believing in no God (atheism)? Or, how does one overcome uncertainty (agnosticism)?

First, I think it is important to recognize that this is a question that exists outside of any particular revelation. Being an atheist is more than just rejecting the Bible (or any other claim of a teaching revealed by God). It is the claim that there is not a God of any kind (revealed or not). So, let’s look at an example of someone who did not reach his belief in God through any particular religion.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle lived a few centuries before Christ, and pursued knowledge of the causes of things. For an effect to exist, a sufficient cause was required. So, why did something exist rather than nothing? He argued that there must ultimately be an “unmoved mover,” i.e., a First Cause that wasn’t caused by something else.

A classic example of his reasoning is setting up a chain of dominoes and knocking them over. There must be a first domino knocked over to cause the rest. Or, if someone has a tractor and says they borrowed it from a friend (who in turn says he borrowed it from another friend, etc.), you eventually have to reach the person who somehow acquired or made the tractor in the first place. Or, for a final example, if you see a train moving along a perfectly flat surface, you can logically conclude that there is something that gave it a driving force.

If there was no First Cause, then either 1) there would be no effects, or 2) there would be no need of causes to produce effects. Both he saw as contrary to reality—created things exist all around us, and follow the law of cause and effect. Therefore, he concluded that the Greek polytheism must be incorrect, and that ultimately one Unmoved Mover must exist. Aristotle speculated about what the nature of such a thing must be (infinite, eternal, etc.), but his concept of the Unmoved Mover contains the heart of what we mean by the word “God.”

This is a very simplified explanation, but it shows one road to belief in God that does not rely on any divine revelation. In revelation we believe that we learn more about the nature of God, the process of the creation of other things, how we interact with God, etc. However, at its root, atheism isn’t a rejection of these particular things. Atheism is the belief that there is no ultimate cause or purpose to reality, whereas belief in God is the claim that there is such a cause (whatever the particular qualities of that cause might happen be). Again, there is much more to say on the matter! I’ve provided one example of a path to belief, and want to continue this topic in the following posts by looking at two of the most significant objections to God: materialism and the existence of evil.