I hope this note finds you well. I believe you are on your retreat this weekend, and I hope that you find the talks, activities, and social time fruitful for your faith. So many of these sorts of events are organized by adults who are intimidated by teenagers, and simply want to 'accommodate' the teenage 'youth culture'. This is a grave mistake. So, my hope and prayer is that the weekend is substantive, and that Truth is spoken boldly to you and to a generation of young people swimming in a 'culture of death' as Pope John Paul the Great and our current pontiff, Benedict XVI, have called it.
Allow me to launch right into my 'Confirmation Retreat' message for you…
Think about it, the current culture of iPods, internet, TV, DVD's, music, news, education, and politics are all geared toward one target audience: the adolescent teenage male. I would argue that the teenage male is the lowest form of human life on planet earth! Look at many of the young people around you this weekend. What do you see? A genuine desire for God, or a desire to fulfill one's immature feelings? Bold leaders proclaiming the Kingdom of God, or a bunch of petty followers who worry about wearing the right clothes and listening to the right music? What I am saying is that our superficial media culture is geared toward immaturity, materialism, banality, and sexuality: a culture of death. This culture of death is quite simply and literally a highway to Hell for young people. In a world of followers, we need leaders; the Church needs leaders; God needs leaders.
At the Fall, the human race was shattered into a thousand pieces, and scattered over all Creation. Our relationships, lives, bodies, souls, and even our planet are fundamentally broken. The 'Barak Obamas' (or any politician, really) of the world preach a lot of hype about 'change' and 'bringing the world together' and 'hope'. These hopes are a false Gospel at best, and the work of the Evil One at worst. You see, the Christian understands that the fallen world is fundamentally "a valley of tears", and that there is no such thing as 'heaven on earth' (only at mass!) or a utopia society without any suffering. When humans become prideful and start believing that they can create a 'heaven on earth', people are often exterminated, disregarded, annihilated, and blotted off the face of the earth. Such ideas are the Gospel of moral and spiritual relativism, of 'your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth'. Such ideas exemplify a world that believes in freedom for freedom's sake; freedom without limits. Yet as we have seen in human history, when freedom is without limits, it turns into tyranny.
Back to the Garden... this freedom without limits takes us back to the sin of the Garden of Eden; the pride of humanity to make decisions about reality without God.
How do we change this? How do we participate in real change? What do you, Ben Pfenning, have to do with all of this???! Where ought you to turn? The answer is simple: The Church of Jesus Christ. Right after the Fall, God began working toward building His Church. He made a covenant with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, King David, and others. He spoke to His Chosen People, the Jews, through His prophets Elijah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, Hosea, and Daniel. Through it all, God was working to gather broken humanity, until His Son, Jesus Christ, became Incarnate, and Redeemed the world of its sin and death. This is the Church: the Gathering of the People of God.
To be a member of this real change and this real revolution only one thing is required: total submission to the Truth. Remember my morning prayer talks at Trinity earlier this year? Remember how the Bible is a divisive book? The Bible divides people into two classes; NOT those who are right and those who are wrong, but rather 1) those who seek the Truth and 2) those who do not seek the Truth.
The world around us is full of nice people. Most people don't want to bother anyone or be rude to anyone or get in anyone's way. In fact, in order to function as a member of our society, we HAVE to be nice people! So, being nice is not really a virtue, it's a requirement to live in a civilization such as ours; you'd have to be a fool to be otherwise! But as a Christian, what is required of us is NOT niceness, but HOLINESS! How many people can you think of today who are holy? Friends, teachers, priests, politicians, entertainers? Exactly. Not many. But this is one of the sacred marks of the Church: One, HOLY, Catholic, and Apostolic. Holy does not mean that we are pious snobs who simply pray all day. Holy means to be 'set apart' from the world; in the world but not of the world. We work, live, speak, and act according to the will of God, not of the ways and customs of the world. We speak Truth to a world that shies and hides from it.
St. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians: "If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it!"
To hide from the Truth and to fail to proclaim it is silly. This is called 'pusillanimity' or weak-mindedness. This is the plague of the modern age. We are afraid of being opinionated; we are afraid of offending anyone by Truth, even when we know it is the will of God. This is pusillanimity. We see it in our schools, teachers, headmasters, politicians, parents, teenagers, college students, professors, priests, deacons, religious, bishops, and Confirmation catechesis programs!!! (Fortunately, we have not seen it in our popes recently!) Pusillanimity is everywhere, and it has been there from the very beginnings of the Church. Recall Abraham doubting in God, and Sarah laughing when it was prophesied that she would bear a son in old age; remember how King David became such a great sinner, even after his defeat of Goliath.
The greatest story, in my opinion, of pusillanimity in the Bible is about Simon Peter. Here it is, from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 5:
1 And it came to pass, that, as the people pressed upon him to hear the word of God, he stood by the lake of Gennesaret, 2 And saw two ships standing by the lake: but the fishermen were gone out of them, and were washing their nets. 3 And he entered into one of the ships, which was Simon's, and prayed him that he would thrust out a little from the land. And he sat down, and taught the people out of the ship. 4 Now when he had left speaking, he said unto Simon, "Launch out into the deep, and let down your nets for a draught." 5 And Simon answering said unto him, "Master, we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net." 6 And when they had this done, they enclosed a great multitude of fishes: and their net brake. 7 And they beckoned unto their partners, which were in the other ship, that they should come and help them. And they came, and filled both the ships, so that they began to sink. 8 When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord."
When Simon Peter realized who Jesus really was through the miracle, that indeed He was the Messiah, what was his response? "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" How pathetic! But how honest. Simon Peter realized that this Jesus character was dangerous; dangerous to his own personal autonomy. Can you imagine, Simon Peter must have thought to himself,
"This Jesus, if I get mixed up with Him, I'll have to leave my fishing business. I'll have to sacrifice the comfort of my home. I'll have to speak the Truth to a world that doesn't want to hear it. I will uphold very unpopular ideas about what is right and what is wrong. I may even have to travel to strange lands (like Rome!) that are dangerous and far from home. And, oh my, I might even need to die for the faith and hope I have in Jesus Christ. This is simply too much to ask. I must retreat."
And then he falls to his knees before the God of the Universe and says, "Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord!" This is pusillanimity at the most profound level. It is amazing that Simon Peter changed his ways at all! But wait, it doesn't end here, for Simon Peter denied Christ 3 times, and ran away at His crucifixion. What a coward. He was the Prince of the Apostles, the one who proclaimed Jesus to be the Messiah when everyone doubted Him! What happened? Simon Peter was weak-minded. Yet Christ forgave him, and Simon ceased to be Simon, but became Peter.
Simon really became Peter, "the Rock", at the most important event in Salvation History other than the death and Resurrection of Christ: PENTECOST. The Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles and fundamentally changed them, including Peter. The Holy Ghost strengthened them, just as Jesus had promised and the Holy Ghost remains with us even unto this very day. In fact, that is what Confirmation is all about: receiving the power of the Holy Ghost, as handed on by the Apostles and their successors from age to age. The graces you received at Baptism will now be completed at Confirmation; you were initiated into God's people at Baptism, Original Sin was wiped away and you were won again by Christ the change for eternal life; at Confirmation you will be strengthened like Peter and the Apostles by the Holy Spirit, and you will become an 'adult' in the faith. You will be given the great responsibility to "preach the Gospel" as St. Paul says… and woe to you if you get Confirmed and do not preach it with your life and words. Beware: Confirmation is all about the rite and the sacrament. When the bishop anoints you with the holy chrism oil and calls down the Holy Spirit, you have been touched in a permanent manner! You will fundamentally be marked by the God of the universe! You will become a full-fledged temple of the Holy Spirit.
When we look upon human history, we see a lot of weak-mindedness and human attempts at creating a perfect 'utopia'. As a young Christian on the verge of becoming an 'adult in the faith', we must identify the struggles of our age before us. These are the 4 most common areas where young men like yourself, trying to be decent Christians, most commonly crumble under pusillanimity:
1) Unfaithfulness to orthodox Catholic teaching
a. It is often 'cool' or 'freeing' to not listen to the Church's teaching on matters of faith and morals.
b. People often want to follow their own Gospel, one that fits their personal agenda.
a. Young men are swimming in a culture of death, where around every corner lust is seeking to allure them away from what is most important. We must be on guard at all times. We must guard our eyes and our thoughts from unchastity at all times. We must be willing to do violence to ourselves if necessary to honor this commandment of Christ. Violence meaning, not physically hurting ourselves, but radically avoiding the sin. If we find that we fall into lust on the computer, then don't use the computer. If we find that we fall into lust when we watch movies, then don't watch movies. That's what it means to follow Christ in a radical way. Obviously, we must avoid any sexual behavior outside of its proper ordering in marriage, lest we be consumed by such sin.
a. We become selfish and obsessed with material things and activities. We are consumed by 'stuff'. The things and activities of our life are more important than the people we should love. It is said that the most successful lie that the Devil has gotten man to believe is the lie that the Devil does not exist. Such an idea can only flourish in an age of 'business'. "I'm too busy to pray." "I'm too busy to go to mass." "I'm too busy to love."
4) Failure to honor our authorities, especially God and our parents
a. We must always love and show deference to those in authority over us, especially God and our parents. To not love God or our parents is to fail in just about every other area of our lives. "You shall love the Lord your God with all your mind, soul, and heart." "Honor thy father and mother." (Exodus)
Yet in the face of such sins as these, we also see amazing examples of Christians suffering in this fundamentally broken world and working to bring God's love into the world. These men and women are the saints, fearless proclaimers of the Truth of Christ and His Church. How do they do it? Through a total submission to God, and with the help of the Holy Spirit, and through daily examination of their conscience, and through the reception of Christ's most precious Body and Blood. The saints are the real heroes of history, for they help heaven and earth collide just a little more with their extraordinary love in ordinary situations. Have you thought about who your patron saint will be? Which saint will you call upon to prepare you for Confirmation, and to mystically stand at your side when the bishop calls down the Holy Ghost?
So, Ben, the question is this: Do you want to become a co-worker of the Truth? Do you want to be a saint? This is only a yes or no question, to say 'maybe' is to be weak-minded or pusillanimous. You are a good, young man, Ben! The Holy Spirit will do great things with and in you if you open yourself up to the immense powers of God in every moment of your life. I promise you, if you throw in with the Holy Ghost, so to speak, and you openly receive the graces, powers, and gifts of the Holy Spirit at Confirmation, you will find true happiness, truth fulfillment, and true Love. All you need to do, is to be open to the gift, and receive the Holy Spirit in a state of grace and prayer.
Ben, may God bless you many times over! I will continue to pray for you in all your endeavors. I will be praying fervently for a good retreat for you and your comrades! Remember, you are loved, and you are a son of the God of the Universe. Nothing on earth can possibly be more important than that!
Have a great weekend.
Blessings from your friend, teacher, and 'sponsor',
Nov. 1st, 2008, on the Feast of All Saints
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
For my confirmand on the eve of his Confirmation Retreat...
The 'director of youth catechesis' at St. Peter's asked each 'sponsor' to write a letter to their 'candidate'. These terms apparently refer to what was formerly known as a spiritual advisor and a confirmand. Here's my letter to Ben...