You know you should fast from meat on Fridays in Lent. But do you know why? This is more than an obligation. It is an opportunity to drive out demons and grow in holiness!
Over the past few weeks, I’ve had many reaching out to me asking a variation of this question: “What is going on at Franciscan?” So allow me to share, from my perspective, what I see happening.
I’d like to emphasize the phrase, “from my perspective”. I do not portend to be authoritative source on all things Steubenville. In the hopes that others might share this article to those who don’t know me, let me give a brief bio.
My first involvement with Franciscan was speaking at a youth conference in 1994. It was there I heard the Lord (via our Blessed Mother) tell me to “drop everything and move to Steubenville.” I did. I got involved in youth ministry in the city and became a part-time Masters in Theology student, graduating in 1997 (and also getting married to another student I met in the program).
I headed to upstate New York to work in youth ministry at a parish while I continued to speak/lead worship at Steubenville conferences. I figured this would be my life (I had no aspirations to do anything else) until I was invited to come to Franciscan University to teach catechetics (and specifically courses in youth ministry) in 2004. Since then, my involvement in the conferences has grown to both adult and youth (I celebrated my 25th year serving the conferences last summer), I received my doctorate (my dissertation was on youth evangelization) and was promoted to the rank of tenured professor. I currently direct our MA in Catechetics and Evangelization.
So my relationship with Franciscan is both professional and personal, spanning more than half of my life. It has not only given me great career opportunities but it is where I had a deeper conversion to the Catholic faith, met my wife, and is now the environment in which I raise my seven children.
In short, I can’t imagine what my life would be like without Franciscan University of Steubenville. Schools are often referred to as an “alma mater”, or “foster mother”. That is certainly the case for me.
And so it hurts when I see my “foster mother” attacked by various media outlets, though I think referring to some of those as “media outlets” is generous, as they come across more as glorified blog posts that seem entirely devoid of the charity that is at the heart of Jesus’ message. One of the things that frustrates me most, as a researcher, is the total lack of sources. Take this excerpt, for example:
“I would guess only about a third of the faculty and administration can be described as orthodox,” says a Steubenville professor.
I don’t know what department that “Steubenville professor” is from, but that is certainly not what I experience. At daily Mass, I frequently see not only Theology faculty, but Psychology, History, English, Chemistry… the list goes on.
Also, our faculty doesn’t turn over that much. Many of our faculty were hired under Fr. Michael Scanlan. That’s the funny thing about administration and tenured faculty—administrations change every few years; faculty stays for decades. I’ve already seen two presidents in my fourteen years and I’m likely to see two or three more before I retire. So if only a third of our faculty is orthodox, we’ve had problems for decades. SPOILER ALERT: we haven’t.
And then there is this:
A Steubenville student with whom I spoke put the number higher, “I think maybe fifty percent is quietly opposed to Sheridan and Gorman (president and COO).”
Wow, I’d like to meet the student (likely someone between 18 and 22) who is so connected that he or she can speak accurately about the “quiet” opinions of half of our one-hundred and twenty member faculty. That’s more than I’d be able to do, and I work with them! The fact that the author of the article thought to even include this makes me question his entire argument (if I wasn’t questioning it already). And now I’m seeing this article quoted in other articles, as if that gives it any more veracity.
Even more troubling was a recent article because it directly involved a colleague of mine in the English department, a man who I know to have a sincere faith and love for the Church. In an upperclass elective (with five students in it) that examined the difference in approach between Catholics and non-Catholics in literature, he included a blasphemous and arguably pornographic book as an example of the kind of “bad” literature that was out there. It was a poor choice (that he did once).
By the way, none of that context was included in the article.
I was a little worried that the University might have reacted the way others have: “He’s a tenured professor and there’s nothing we can do.” Because on many levels, that is true. You’ve probably all heard stories of Catholic Universities having faculty teach blasphemous and heretical things, and the administration’s hands are tied to do anything about it. I didn’t understand why this was until I began teaching at a University. Tenure is actually about protecting a faculty member, who has proven expertise in a subject, from someone in administration who might not have that expertise and who will likely not be at the institution as long. Without tenure, faculty might feel (or be) pressured to change what they teach depending on who is in charge.
The initial PR leaned that way, defending the choice of a professor in a class to assign whatever readings he or she thinks are the best for the subject. However, I appreciated our President’s strong and sincere reaction:
I would like to apologize to Our Blessed Mother and Her Son, and to anyone who has been scandalized because of this incident. While I believe the professor’s intention in using this book in his class was not malicious, the book is scandalous and extremely offensive… the professor did not intend to scandalize, but (the assigned book) is so directly pornographic and blasphemous that it has no place on a Catholic university campus.
That is certainly not the reaction of someone who is trying to steer Franciscan toward a “liberal agenda”.
And yet the articles keep coming, leading one to believe the old axiom that “where there’s smoke, there’s fire.” Surely with all these negative reports, something must be going wrong at Franciscan, right?
I don’t see it. I mean, do some on the faculty (including myself) disagree with certain initiatives of the administration? Sure, but that is a tale as old as time. Getting a faculty to agree on anything is worse than herding cats; it’s like trying to rearrange trees.
I don’t want to make it sound like everything is perfect at Franciscan and it is all sunshine and flowers. I’ve been involved in Steubenville under three different presidents and there are always concerns and issues that people are trying to work out. I’d also like to throw in that I’ve noticed over the years a decrease in maturity (and increase in brokenness) of our students. That’s not a critique, just a comment. The proliferation of porn, the high divorce rate, and the nihilism of the culture are just some of the many factors that can cripple a young person’s walk with Jesus Christ. To some alumni who comment that the students at Franciscan don’t seem as faithful or vibrant as generations past, I reply that the culture is not as faithful, and the “fighting the good fight” is more difficult than it was twenty years ago… this is why we need your prayers!
I still believe, with all my heart, that Franciscan University of Steubenville is one of the best places in the country (if not the planet—and I’m not going for hyperbole there) to learn about the beauty of the Catholic faith, be surrounded in a community real Christian brotherhood and sisterhood, and be empowered to live saintly lives in a culture that seems trending toward darkness. Over ten percent of our student body major in Theology. Hundreds of students every year are actively involved in missions. Daily Mass is full three times a day, and that even includes the 6:30 AM one. We have a significantly large group of men and women discerning priestly and religious life in a culture where half of 25 year olds are still living at home. Our summer conference ministry continues to grow and reaches over sixty-thousand people each year. The list goes on. God is continuing to do great things at Franciscan.
I can’t speak to everything these articles address—this is where my limited perspective comes in. Every Catholic institution is re-examining (and ideally, repenting for) the way they addressed sexual abuse and misconduct, and it breaks my heart to hear of people who were traumatized by something that happened at Franciscan. Other articles are directed toward people in our administration, whom I have little contact with. According to one article (the source of this is, of course, “anonymous”), “the (LGBT) agenda is real and moving forward quietly, behind the scenes, and away from the view and knowledge of most faculty.” So, since I am one of those faculty members, what do I know?
Well, I do know this. Jesus Christ is Lord. And, for whatever reason, He has chosen the broken, sinful people of Franciscan University (like me) to do great work for His Kingdom. It is an honor to work here and be a part of our mission to “educate, evangelize, and send forth joyful disciples to restore all things in Christ.” Please pray for Franciscan University of Steubenville that we will be faithful to go where the Holy Spirit leads.
I’m an optimistic person. I not only think the glass is half full, I’m glad that it isn’t totally full so that there is room for growth. But I was already debating the value of 2018 before my son fractured his femur on our cruise ship.
So good riddance, 2018.
I’d like to thank everyone for their prayers, and thought I’d give more detail than what could fit within a tweet. Our family was on a cruise, “Majesty of the Seas” (though we now refer to it as the “Travesty of the Seas”), from Cuba to the Bahamas when Bobby’s hand slipped on a wet railing and he tumbled down six steps, landing square on the hip where he has fibrous dysplasia (essentially, that means it is a weak bone) and fractured his femur. Thankfully, a few years before (when he had broken his femur) they put a rod in his leg to protect it—were it not for that the bone would have broken all the way through.
Within 10 hours we were in port at the Bahamas and, after being admitted into a hospital there, we got onto an air ambulance that flew us straight to Pittsburgh and right to Children’s Hospital where Bobby still is. The rest of the family finished the trip and got home yesterday. Or maybe that was the day before. Honestly, I’m in a bit of a fog. I just know that Jennie tagged me out yesterday so I got to sleep at home, which was a huge blessing.
Some have asked what the air ambulance was like, and my answer is small. The flight was about two and a half hours and there was no bathroom. I was stuffed in the back with Bobby’s and my luggage on a pile next to me. They didn’t even hand out peanuts 🙂 But all kidding aside, the crew were awesome and were literal life-savers. I’d also like to give a huge shout out to my mom who, two years ago, started giving my family “medical flight insurance” as an annual Christmas present. She is a prophet! I can’t even imagine how much that would have cost on our own, and I certainly wasn’t comfortable to keep Bobby in the Bahamas where they wanted to immediately do surgery.
Not that the docs in the Bahamas were bad, it is just that Bobby’s condition is so rare you really need a specialist. Thankfully, when we got here they decided that surgery wasn’t necessary (thanks for those prayers!) and the plan is now to allow Bobby’s bone to heal naturally. However, he is still in a lot of pain and it is really difficult to get in/out of bed or take any steps. So please, keep the prayers coming.
Someone at Mass commented this was a tough way to start the year. I had to clarify that the accident happened last year—no reason to burden 2019 with something that 2018 did. 2019 is a year of recovery and healing.
2018? You’re dead to me.
“Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” These are the words we hear Elizabeth say to Mary at the end of the Gospel today.
About ten chapters and thirty years later in the Gospel of Luke, when Jesus was doing his public ministry, a woman cried out to him, “Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed!” Jesus replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word fo God and observe it.” He didn’t say that is mother wasn’t important but explained why she was so important. Mary wasn’t blessed because she was biologically connected to Jesus. She was blessed because she believed.
Do we believe?
Following this homily we will say the Nicene Creed. For many, it becomes a time to stretch our legs and absentmindedly rattle off a bunch of statements. We often depend on those around us to say it… I wonder how many of us who could stand up at say it all by ourselves? I won’t test you. But test yourself later today. This creed defines what we believe. Do you know it? More importantly, do you believe it?
I believe in one God, the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. In a world that argues science over faith, that teaches our creation was a lucky accident, and people who believe that God created the world must be foolish, we proclaim that God made everything, visible and invisible. Do you think you were an accident, or that God has a plan and a purpose for your life. Do you believe?
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God, born of the Father before all ages. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, consubstantial with the Father; through him all things were made. For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and by the Holy Spirit was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and became man. For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, he suffered death and was buried, and rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead and his kingdom will have no end.
Notice the emphasis on the beginning of this statement. One Lord. Only begotten Son. This statement says that we believe in the Gospels! This wasn’t a fairytale, this isn’t a myth. Jesus is God. He died for our sins. He rose for our salvation. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. Saying you believe this means you are accepting the reality of who Jesus was and what Jesus did. There is not another Lord. There is not another Son of God. There is not another way to be saved. We respect other faiths, but we don’t agree with them, nor do we throw up our hands and says, “who knows?” We believe that Matthew knew. We believe that Mark knew. We believe that Luke and John knew. Do you believe?
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son, who with the Father and the Son is adored and glorified, who has spoken through the prophets. The Holy Spirit, who is as much God as the Father and the Son, is dwelling in our hearts. We are his temple. Our body is sacred. In Baptism, our DNA has been changed to be actual children of God. Which means the heart of our identity isn’t the place we’re from or the job we do, but that we are sons and daughters of God. Do you believe?
I believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. Based on what we’ve seen on the news lately, do you still believe the Church is holy? Do you believe it is more than a group of sinful men and women, but it is the mystical body of Christ?
I confess one Baptism for the forgiveness of sins and I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. We don’t just believe that Christ will come again and usher in a new heaven and a new earth, we look forward to it. Are you caught up in the day to day, or are you looking forward to our eternal destiny? Do you believe?
Christmas is a few days away. It is easy to overlook this moment, to already be thinking ahead of what Christmas Mass we are going to attend. But before the Word can become flesh, there must be belief.
Elizabeth said to Mary, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the Lord would be fulfilled.” This creed was spoken to us by the Lord, and it will be fulfilled. If you believe it, if you live it as Mary did, then blessed are you.
Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus.
When I was about 15, my older sister took me to see U2 live in concert. It was their Joshua Tree tour. I had actually only been to one other concert before that, which was the Monkees 25th Anniversary Tour. So, yeah, this was a little different.
I actually didn’t know much about U2 except that everybody else seemed to know about them, and anybody who was anybody was going to see this show. If you asked me at that time how to spell the band’s name, I probably would have spelled it Y-O-U T-O-O. That’s how clueless I was. I think I knew a handful of songs, but that was about it.
So we get to the stadium (it was the Rosemont Horizon outside of Chicago) and the band comes on. They are good… I mean, really good. I’m totally digging it. I didn’t know the music they were playing, but I figured they were saving their most popular ones for the end. However, I was really surprised to see the people around me were talking, going back and forth to get food, not really into it. I turned to my sister and said, “I can’t believe these people aren’t into U2! These guys are awesome!”
My sister looked at me with a patronizing look that only an older sibling can give, and she told me, “This is not U2. This is the opening act.” I still remember how stupid I felt. By the way, the opening band was the BoDeans, which really was a great band.
The BoDeans finished and there was moderate cheering. But nothing could prepare me for what happened next. The lights went out and it was pitch black. Everybody got out their lighters (we didn’t have cell phone flashlights). I heard a keyboard pad through the speakers. The lights slowly got brighter. Larry Mullen Jr. walked to the drum set and started playing a beat. One by one the band members entered the stage. Then Bono, the lead singer, ran on to the stage. The lights blared and the music crescendoed as he began to sing, “Where the Streets Have No Name”. The place went crazy.
So much better than the BoDeans.
Today in the Gospel we hear about John the Baptist. He is to Jesus what the BoDeans were to U2. He is the opening act. And he knows this. People are coming forward to be baptized, and he tells them, ““I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” The people of the time were getting really excited about John, but John kept telling them, “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
As you can see by our rose colored vestments, today is gaudete Sunday, which is latin for “joy”. We heard the theme of joy in all of the readings that preceded the Gospel. Perhaps the most famous one was from the letter of Paul to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” And Paul tells us why we should rejoice. “The Lord is near.” The one who is mightier than John. The one who will baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
This journey of Advent not only recalls the time when humanity was waiting for a Savior, it also reminds us that Christ will come again and we are in a time of waiting for the Lord’s return. The many beautiful and holy things we experience in this life, wonderful as they are, are just a taste of what is to come. The tremendous love I have for my wife and my children is just a taste of the love of God that dwells within the Trinity. The Eucharist that we receive is, quite literally, a taste of the heavenly banquet that awaits us in eternity.
My brothers and sisters, the source of our joy is that the Lord is near. This life is just the opening act. And eye has not seen, and ear has not heard… what God has prepared for those who love him.
College students have come home. Elementary and high schools are finishing up. Many of you are looking towards taking a week off of work. And everyone is scrambling to finish getting ready for Christmas. These are great reasons to rejoice.
However, Scripture reminds us today that we should rejoice in the Lord, because of what He has done for us, and for what He will do for us when He comes again. Let us come before the altar today with joyful hearts. Let us come forward and taste the heavenly banquet that awaits all who are called to His table. And let us remember to not fix our hearts to this present world, for it will pass away. Something greater is coming. Someone greater is here.
I shall say it again, rejoice!
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke.
Glory to you, O Lord.
In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.
John went throughout the whole region of the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah:
A voice of one crying out in the desert:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.
Every valley shall be filled
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The winding roads shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ.
Who can tell me who was the tetrarch of Abilene at the time of Jesus Christ. You know, Abilene? The prettiest town that I’ve ever seen? (HOLD FOR LAUGHS.)
Okay, how about the tetrarch of Trachonitis?
Not popular enough? Okay, I’ll do an easy one. Who was the Caesar at the time? (Hopefully someone gets this.) Tiberius! Right. Captain Kirk’s middle name.
Maybe history isn’t your strong suit. So let’s move to the present. Who is the President of the United States? Who is the Pope? Good, you know those. Bishop of Steubenville? Governor of Ohio?
Today’s gospel begins with a list of the most popular and powerful people of that time. Tiberius was the emperor of the Roman empire. Pilate was his governor in Judea. Herod, Philip and Lysanias made up a tetrarchy, which means three kings. These are the three sons of King Herod “the great”, the same Herod who slaughtered the children of Bethlehem when Jesus was born. And then you’ve got the high priests: Annas and Caiaphas, the most powerful religious leaders of that time.
An emperor, a governor, kings, and high priests. Quite a list! If CNN and Fox News was around at that time, these are the people who would be making headlines. These are the faces that would pop up on your news feed. These are the ones who were making a “difference” in the world.
And yet, “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”
John was a nobody in the world’s eyes. He wasn’t royalty or nobility. He had no political connections. And Scripture tells us he was in the desert. There is nothing in the desert. There is no reason to go there. You can’t make money there. You can’t have power there. You can’t grow in prestige there. It is difficult in the desert. And, quite frankly, it is boring, especially compared to the activity in a major city.
And “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”
Today is December 9th. Many of us are in a hurry to prepare for Christmas by making travel plans, sending out Christmas cards, and trying to get the best deals at the store. I don’t know about you, but my inbox is filled everyday with “one day only!” sales.
To the world, today is known as “fifteen more shopping days until Christmas”. But for us, it is the second Sunday of Advent. Our preparation for Christmas should be different than the world’s. The world rushes to the cities for the glamor and the glitz, everyone trying to be like those who are popular or in power.
But “the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.”
How are you preparing for Christmas in this Advent season? Take time today to go into the desert. I don’t know what that means for you, and I’d encourage you to bring this before the Lord today as we celebrate the Eucharist. Maybe it isn’t shopping today. Perhaps not going on social media. It might be sitting quietly and reading some Scripture. We heard today from the Letter to the Philippians, which is also known as the “letter of joy”. It is only four chapters long. Read it like you’d read a Christmas letter from a friend.
I don’t know what your desert is, but I can tell you the word of God won’t come to you or me amid the busyness. We have to “prepare the way”.
It is hard to take a break from the world because we’re afraid of what we might miss. Well, I can tell you, you won’t miss any sales. They will be there tomorrow. You won’t miss any stories, the internet will keep repeating them. But if we don’t go into the desert, we might miss the Word of God. We might miss what this season is all about.
And that would be the greatest loss of all.
Yesterday I officially became a candidate for the diaconate in the diocese of Steubenville. It is a great honor! After posting some pictures of the Candidacy Mass on Instagram, I received a number of congratulations from friends, as well as comments asking, “had you told us about this before?”
The answer: not really. Two years ago I was in the “discernment” phase, and this last year was the “aspirancy” phase. However, it isn’t uncommon that people in the process don’t move on to the next step, candidacy, for a number of reasons. So I didn’t want to be super public until it was official. And now it is! Hurray! I’m a wanna be deacon! Set the countdown clock to three years from now when, God willing, I will be ordained.
I was explaining the diaconate to a friend of mine who wasn’t Catholic. He was supportive, ’cause he’s my friend, but also confused. “You’ve been watching the news, right?” he asked. “Isn’t this a weird time to be doubling down on Catholicism?”
I laughed because I hadn’t thought of that. At a time when many are wondering why anyone would be Catholic, I’m standing before a bishop pledging my obedience.
God often asks those who follow him to do weird things that seem like a bad idea. Today’s first reading was from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah lived a difficult time for the Jewish faith. The armies of Babylon were marching toward Jerusalem, and there was no way the city was going to survive. So what did God ask Jeremiah to do? Buy land.
Everyone thought he was crazy. Who would buy property in a city that was about to be destroyed? But God wanted to show through Jeremiah’s action that no matter what was about to happen to Jerusalem in the short term, the land would always be valuable.
I believe that is a good message for us who are Catholic today. There are plenty of stories about young people being disinterested, many being frustrated, churches closing, dioceses going bankrupt, and more scandals being revealed.
As bad as that is, what we hear in today’s Gospel is even worse: signs in the sky, nations in tumult, the ocean surging, and people dying of fright. His command to us was not to run and hide, but “stand erect and raise your heads.” We must have confidence in the Lord and his love for his bride, the Church.
The Body of Christ is more than a sum of its sin and scandals. People’s impression of Catholicism won’t change because of canonical changes regarding the persecution of bishops, nor will people be joining the RCIA in coming years because they really respect how vigorous the Church’s safe environment policies are. No, perceptions can only change through the witness of faith from those who are disciples of Jesus Christ. It will be in our service to the poor and our love of the Eucharist. It will be through the compassion we show others, and the joy that comes from the Gospel.
So what should we do? Buy land. Double down. The world is wondering why anybody would be Catholic today. Let’s tell them. Let’s show them. And as we begin this season of Advent, let us have hope in Emmanuel, “God-with-us”, who is coming for our salvation.
How can I sum my experience at the World Meeting of Families in Dublin, Ireland this past week? Perhaps a British author said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
I must confess that I generally avoid big papal events. My last (and only) World Youth Day was in 2000 with St. John Paul II in Rome. I regret not having the chance to see something with Pope Benedict (who knew he would resign before I got the chance to?). So when I got the invitation a few months ago to help out at World Meeting of Families, I was excited to be at an event with Pope Francis. Also, being a performer meant I had a “backstage pass” and could get closer to him than most (the above pic was from my iPhone—at one point he was about 50 ft. away from me).
For me, it was incredible not just to see the pope but also to see him in Ireland, a land where all my great-grandparents hailed from. Ireland is sacred ground to me, and I didn’t think it a coincidence that I got an invitation shortly after my dad passed away. It was a pilgrimage to a place that meant a lot to my family.
There is two things I love about doing ministry: the people I do ministry to, and the people I do ministry with. “The best of times” was certainly spending time with the missionaries with YOUCAT, the “youth catechism” that was endorsed by Pope Benedict. (They have just released “YOUCAT for Kids”, a catechism for families, which is really beautifully done and I’d encourage any families out there to check out.) They were from Brazil, Indonesia, Germany, and Lebanon. Many of them were active in youth ministry in Ireland, particularly in Belfast. Their passion, their perseverance, and their heart for sharing Christ to young was inspiring and convicting. The situations they shared with me made even some of the toughest places in the US seem tame.
“The worst of times” was the constant presence of the sexual scandal that put a pall over everything. Every reporter asked the same two questions: “What do you think about Pope Francis?” and “What about the sex scandal?” Moments after I’m elated to be a football throw away from the pope (and I can’t throw a football that far), my phone is blowing up about the ex-nuncio’s letter telling the pope he should resign. I have to admit, it really took the wind out of me.
I’m not big into conspiracy theories, and I don’t know what to do with all of this conflicting information. Scrolling through my news feed on my iPhone, there is story after story (and opinion after opinion) on how the Church is corrupt, the Church is dying (or dead), and why would anyone want to be Catholic anymore?
For me, it boils down to simple questions. Did Jesus Christ rise from the dead or not? Did He institute the Church or not? Is the Holy Spirit still in the Church or not? Catholicism is not about guys with pointy hats telling people what to do. That’s the world’s perception. And while one shouldn’t diminish the Petrine part of the Church, nor should one isolate it, as has been occurring in the press these days. For whatever reason, Jesus has always invited sinful people to do holy work—this is the history of the Church and will continue to be until the day He comes again. That statement excuses nothing but explains a lot.
I love and pray for the hierarchy of the Church, but it is only one part of the body. This week I got to see many of the “other parts”: lay missionaries sharing the Gospel, families coming to celebrate the faith together, artists using their gifts to glorify God, and pilgrims from around the world gathering together in prayer. “The best of times.”
Of course, when one part of the body suffers, the whole body does. As a Catholic, I feel the pain of a scandal that I’ve had nothing to do with—I would say that goes for a vast, vast majority of Catholics. I pray for healing for the victims, I pray for justice to be rendered to those who were involved, and to be honest I pray it would all be over. I don’t want to read about another scandal, another abuse, another victim, another cover-up. I’m not suggesting people should stop reporting the truth, I’m just praying for a time when there would be nothing like this to report. “The worst of times.”
So as I’m flying away from the emerald isle, what can I make of this week? I got to go to a mass with the Pope. I got to work with amazing men and women who have given their lives so that young people can know the hope and joy of Jesus Christ. I got to lead worship in front of the Eucharist. All wonderful, amazing things that I’m grateful to God for.
One thing I didn’t get to do, which I had hoped, was to visit Armagh where my Dad’s family was from. The Lord is saving that pilgrimage for another time. My good friend Joe, who lives in Belfast, got me a small present from there: a key chain with the Rice family crest. As I turned it over, I saw that on the back it had the Rice family motto: FIDES NON TIMET.
Faith, not fear.
It was a message from my dad.
Things look bleak. Things are tough. How should I respond? FIDES NON TIMET. Faith, not fear.
I think that’s a pretty good message for us all.
I vividly remember the summer of 1994, a summer that would change my life forever. I had just graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL (just north of Orlando) with a degree in theater, and was busy playing bars with my band and working at an improv comedy club. The band was really starting to take off (we had just won a “best of Florida band” contest and were getting airplay across the state) but many of my friends from the comedy club were moving to L.A. and I was tempted to try my luck in California. Florida or California? Music or acting? These were the things on my mind in the summer of ’94.
In the midst of it, I had accepted an invitation to speak at someplace called “Steubenville, Ohio”. I had met someone who worked there (Jim Beckman) a few months earlier when I was a volunteer helping a work camp that was run by my local parish in Winter Park (this was the first “Catholic Heart Work Camp”, and I was the first Carpenter Commando, for those of you who know what that is). Jim appreciated my gifts of comedy and music and thought I could “liven up” a conference that was, at the time, featuring guys in ties and short sleeves. It was the first summer they were going to have two conferences, with over three-thousand people at each one.
My first impression of Steubenville was, well, not impressive. Orlando is known as “the city beautiful”; Steubenville as “the city of murals”—which means they painted the sides of empty buildings to make the place look more vibrant. I hadn’t been to a “charismatic” conference before (back then it was full-blown praying in tongues, “resting” in the Spirit, etc.) and wasn’t exactly sure what to make of it. I enjoyed the first weekend and felt blessed, but didn’t think this was something I’d be doing a lot of in the future.
Since the conferences were on back-to-back weekends I spent the week in between at Steubenville. I was also there helping a group of students do skits and serve the conference, most of whom were local. I was really impressed by their faith and devotion.
So on Monday I was praying the rosary, asking for guidance on whether I should pursue music or acting, and thought I heard, “drop everything and move to Steubenville”. This was not one of the options I gave the Lord. I also wondered if I was imagining it, because Jim (youth minister in town) was moving out and they needed someone to take over.
On Tuesday, as I prayed the rosary again, I heard it louder, not so much a voice but a message deep into my heart: “drop everything and move to Steubenville.” Now I’m thinking, okay, this is weird. I figured I’d pray again on Wednesday and see if it faded.
On Wednesday, right after making the sign of the cross to begin the rosary, I felt like my heart was going to leap out of my chest: “DROP EVERYTHING AND MOVE TO STEUBENVILLE.” It was as clear as anything the Lord (with help from our Blessed Mother) spoke to me. So I called up the band and told them it was over, and called friends at the club and let them know I wouldn’t be coming back. After the conference was over, I travelled back to Orlando to get my stuff, had a couple “goodbye” parties, then drove north to move to the city of murals.
The funny thing was, I wasn’t sad to leave the band or the comedy club. I was so excited to hear the Lord speak to me so clearly, I was confident that whatever He had in plan for me was way better than anything I could plan for myself.
I ended up getting my Master’s degree in Theology at Franciscan, met my wife and got married there, got a great job in upstate NY doing youth ministry for a number of years, and in 2004 came back to teach. My family, my career, and really everything that I’m doing now in life all stems from that summer of ’94 when the Lord spoke to me and I said “yes”.
This July, I completed my 25th year of doing youth conferences. I’ve spent more of my life doing youth conferences than not, and every summer is an incredible blessing. I am particularly grateful for the fellowship that those conferences bring, especially as I dealt with (and still dealing with) the unexpected loss of my dad. To help me grieve, Jesus sent all of my best friends to Steubenville, Ohio to pray over me and support me.
At the end of every summer, when I put down my guitar for the last time, I thank Jesus for the blessing these conferences have been in my life, and say a prayer that I might get to do it again, should it be His will. It has been for the past 25 years. I can’t wait to see what is in store for the future!
One of the best things I’ve ever created (other my kids, which was not a solo venture) was writing Between the Savior and the Sea, a novel that tells the Gospel story from the eyes of Simon Peter. I’m always thrilled when someone comes up to me at an event and shares how they were blessed by it. If you didn’t know about it, you can learn more about it HERE and purchase it at AMAZON. Here’s an excerpt from the book on what happened at the Transfiguration…
Simon felt something move beside him and thought it was Rachael. But the cold mountain air quickly reminded him that he was nowhere near his home or wife. Looking up to the sky, he noted that the stars and moon had moved but the sun had not yet risen.
He lifted his head and saw Jesus standing a short distance away, arms lifted in prayer. Simon’s muscles ached and his entire body fought the idea of being awake. Every movement brought a blast of cold air into his tunic, which was still wet. I’ll just wait until the sun rises, he thought. His mind went back to Rachael and Capernaum, imaging the softness of his pillow and the smell of bread.
Simon’s eyes were half open, gazing upon the night sky. The stars seemed brighter somehow. A cloud hovered overhead, brilliant white. Rain fell from the cloud in slow motion, reflecting sunlight as it fell.
But there was no sunlight. And it was not rain. Slowly, like a feather, pieces of light fell from the cloud and landed upon Simon. Whatever it touched became immediately dry and warm, until Simon’s robes felt like he just pulled them off a rope on a bright summer’s day. The mud beneath him turned into dirt.
He sat up and rubbed his eyes, not believing what he saw. Jesus stood before him, bathed in the light that fell from the cloud. Simon looked to the others to see if he was dreaming. John was awake and tried to rouse his brother.
“What?” James asked. He sat up and immediately fell on his face in amazement.
Jesus stood transfigured before them, clothed in a white brighter than any wool Simon had ever seen. It looked like Jesus, but at the same time it didn’t. It looked better than him.
And he was not alone.
There were two people, also clothed in white, standing beside him. Are they angels? Simon wondered. The three of them talked while flakes of light gently fell to the ground around them like pedals off a flower. The mountain peaks and the starry night gave a majestic background to the picture. It was, quite simply, the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
Simon thought he heard music, or at least the echoes of music, as he strained to listen to their conversation. Jesus turned to the man on his right and mentioned his name.
Simon’s heart almost stopped. The man was old, with a long beard and rays of light that shone from his head. His prominent nose stood out above a square jaw, and his beard accentuated the sharp angles of his face. He was tall, taller than Jesus and the other man. In his hands he held a large staff. The staff that parted the Red Sea?
Moses talked with Jesus about his upcoming exodus. Then the man to the left of Jesus spoke up. This man was shorter, but stronger—a hairy man with a belt of leather around his waist. Whereas Moses looked sharp and regal, this man looked like a wild animal. There was something reckless and dangerous about him that inspired fear and awe at the same time.
Jesus spoke his name: Elijah.
John fainted. James buried his head in the ground and outstretched his hands, tears streaming from his face. Simon stared in amazement. Never had he imagined such glory or beauty. He wanted to stay in that moment forever.
It was impossible for him to tell how long they talked, but eventually their conversation came to an end. John had come to and was on his knees, clutching his chest. James never moved.
Don’t go, Simon thought. He hadn’t dared to speak, but as they said goodbye to each other he couldn’t help it.
“It is so good for us to be here!” he said. They all turned and looked at him, as if noticing him for the first time. He felt undone by their gaze. What am I saying? “Master, if you want me to, I could build three shelters. One for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”
Moses looked at Simon and then at Jesus. Jesus nodded.
Then the cloud above them burst forth a light so blinding it pushed them to the ground. And from the cloud they heard a voice.
“THIS IS MY BELOVED SON, WITH WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED. LISTEN TO HIM.”
Simon immediately recognized the voice. It was the same voice he heard whisper on the water. It was the voice of the Father.
He knew that no one could see the glory of God and live. But he was so ravished by the beauty he saw that he would have chosen that death over any pleasure he could experience in this life. Simon opened his eyes and looked at his hands that were beside his face on the dirt. He was still alive.
He looked up. The sun shone brightly and it was a clear day. Jesus stood alone, no longer dressed in glory but in his plain beige and brown robes. His eyes were closed and his face had the look of ecstasy. He opened his eyes, looked at Simon, and smiled.
Simon stood. On hearing his movement, James and John looked up and realized they were alone. Simon walked forward with trembling legs and fell on his knees before Jesus. James and John lay a few paces back, prostrate on the ground.
For a long time, no one said a word.
When they did speak, they could only use clips of words and phrases. It was a while before they could put full sentences together. At times they laughed like drunkards and then fell into a solemn silence. Tears came and went—they had no idea why. They had nothing in their life to compare the experience to. They were totally and utterly amazed.