Fr. Barron Book Giveaway

seeds-single-1pngToday Fr. Robert Barron releases his new book Seeds of the Word: Finding God in the Culture:

Since the first century, Christians have detected “seeds of the Word” in the surrounding culture. No matter how charred or distorted the fragments, we can always uncover inklings of the Gospel, which can then lead people to God. Through this evocative collection of essays, Father Robert Barron finds those “seeds” in today’s most popular films, books, and current events.

How do Superman, Gran Torino, and The Hobbit illuminate the figure of Jesus? How does Bob Dylan convey the prophetic overtones of Jeremiah and Isaiah? Where can we detect the ripple of original sin in politics, sports, and the Internet culture?

Finding the “seeds of the Word” requires a new vision. This book will train you to see.

In celebration of the book’s release Word on Fire Ministries has given me five copies to give away to lucky readers! You have four opportunities to enter by

  1. commenting on this post,
  2. following me on Twitter,
  3. tweeting about the contest,
  4. or joining my email list.

Use this form to enter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Entries must be received by this Saturday at 11:59p (Central Time)!

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Meeting Youth “Where They’re At” (Guest post by Margaret Felice)

Margaret Felice is the feistiest Bostonian religion teacher/opera singer I know. Granted, I haven’t met any others, but I can’t imagine any would top her. Her reflections on faith combine theological reflection with poetic vision and always challenge me to think deeply about my relationship with God. I’m grateful for this guest post she has offered.

BostonMuseumNot long ago I had the pleasure of accompanying fifteen eighth-grade boys to Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. As a religion teacher in the middle school division of a Jesuit high school, I spend a lot of my days talking about sports and Pop-Tart flavors, but I also spend my days exploring faith and the world alongside my students.

On this particular field trip day my advisory group really shone. I swelled up with pride when they explained to the docent some of the episcopal imagery in a portrait of an early American bishop. I knew that would be hard to top, but they made me prouder when we got to modern art. With each painting – some of shapes, some bright swaths of color – they explained not only what they saw, but what they thought it might mean.

There was one dark, apocalyptic scene, deep reds and oranges with black. There was a mound-like shape in the middle of the scene: was it a cave or a mountain? Was it a black hole? The kids sensed the terror of the landscape. One described a big oven, and the words “frightening” and “end of the world” were thrown around.

Then one student announced “I see a loaf of bread.” For a split second, I did too. You see, we were way overdue on lunch. And who’s to say that that painter hadn’t been hungry too?

There is a lot of pressure in religious education to “meet students ‘where they are at'”, whatever that means. I have seen enough well-intentioned catechists rhapsodize ineffectively about the joys of Marian devotion to know that there is some truth to that idea. We have to know our audiences, but I worry that we often slip into “lowest common denominator” catechesis and formation, assuming that students know nothing and have no interpretive skills.

On the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birthday I wrote his famous “Lord God, I have no idea where I am going” prayer on the whiteboard in the classroom. I asked my group of 12-year-olds to read it over and write on a sheet of looseleaf what they thought the author was trying to get across. A few minutes later when we shared what we had written, I heard a series of heartfelt prayers that clearly represented what was going on in the student’s lives as much as what they read into Merton’s reflection. Who would have guessed that a 20th-century Trappist monk would be ‘where they were at’?

There is no way of knowing where students are at. I try to keep up on March Madness and Gatorade flavors in order to join their daily conversations, but most of the time where they are at encompasses much more than the trends that creep into their every day chatter. Where they are at may be their mother’s illness, or parents’ divorce, or tests for a learning disability. Young people have interior lives. Any effort to “meet them where they are at” needs to take that into account.

No matter how hard I try, I can’t “make the Gospel relevant” – another big temptation with youth work. I can’t improve on the Gospel, which has been making itself relevant throughout history, in times much more challenging than ours. What I learned with the Merton prayer, and with the MFA painting, was that if I can expose my students to something inspired, they will see what they need to see.

So I’m done with the isolationist mentality that insists making the Gospel “cool” is the only way to work with youth. To do that is to sell it – and ourselves – short. The good news of Jesus Christ is transformative and sublime, not cool. When we assume the worst of those to whom we minister, of any age, we deny the Gospel’s transformative power. We do this by assuming only our manipulation or dilution of the message will hold anyone’s interest, and we do this by believing that to hold someone’s interest is the same as encouraging their spiritual development.

I don’t advocate dropping the Bible on a teenager’s desk and walking away. Those of us charged with forming young people – parents and teachers alike – can guide them toward a certain passage, ask the right questions, tell a related story or give historical background. We can create a time and space for silence and prayer, we can introduce them to counter-cultural role models who will inspire them (and who will hold their attention).

In the end, it is the young people themselves who will bring it all up-to-date. They are the only ones who know where they are at. They will see what they need to see if we put holiness and beauty in front of them, then get out of the way and allow them to explore it. Sometimes they will see consolation, sometimes they will see their vocation, sometimes they will see a loaf of bread. That’s fine, as long as they learn to keep looking, to see beyond “where they’re at” and be drawn into where they could be.


Margaret Felice is a religion teacher, opera singer, choral conductor and loud-laugher who blogs from Boston at felicemifa.wordpress.com.

Embrace New Methods: The Intersection of New Media and Catechesis

This month I have a featured article in Catechetical Leader based on my TED-style keynote from the 2012 NCCL conference in San Diego. In honor of the 2013 conference currently underway I’m pleased to reprinted the article here.

A wise Dominican sister I studied with in graduate school once described theologians as the “scouts” of the Church: part of their task is to run ahead, discover what is over the hills in the distance, and report back so that the Church can be prepared for what lies before us.

With that in mind I write as a “techno-theologian[1]”: someone who has forged ahead, seen what lies before us in the intersection of faith and technology, and has returned to report on his findings. And I am here to tell you that we are not prepared.

The purpose of this article is not to examine specific platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. Nor is it to discuss the latest gadgets and gizmos we can bring into our catechetical programs. Instead I want to pick up on some of the threads from Sr. Angela Ann Zukowski’s 2011 address at the NCCL conference in Atlanta. In that address Sr. Zukowski spoke of the need to understand and engage the emerging digital revolution underway in our culture. This call has only taken on more urgency in the time since her address and remains one of the great challenges facing the Church’s catechetical ministry in the near future.

A Story: #CatholicRulesForTwitter

I want to begin with a story that illustrates just what opportunities and dangers await us as catechists in the digital continent. On Friday, April 1, 2010, I inadvertently started a minor internet meme[2]. A friend of mine on Twitter, who had made a sarcastic comment about another Catholic institution’s inappropriate use of Twitter, had been called to task for her complaint. Frustrated, she tweeted out “I didn’t know Catholics couldn’t be sarcastic online. Could someone please send me the Catholic rules for Twitter?”

Being a somewhat impertinent and snarky individual myself, I immediately replied “Never tweet anything from the NAB w/o express permission of @USCCB #CatholicRulesForTwitter.” Using the hash sign (#) before the phrase “CatholicRulesForTwitter” created a “hashtag” – a simple way for topics and conversations to be found and linked together. Soon my friend responded with a few clever rules of her own, including the same hashtag.

Because I included the Twitter name for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (@USCCB) as an “at” reply, whoever monitors their Twitter feed noticed that I had mentioned them. At first they thought we were being serious, but soon realized it was all in jest. And that’s when the interesting part happened.

As their last tweet of the week, the USCCB pointed their thousands of followers to the fun we’d been having: “If you want a good laugh, check out #CatholicRulesForTwitter.” And that’s when the whole thing went viral.

Soon Catholics from around the world were tweeting their own rules and sharing funny rules from other people. Some of my favorites include:

@CatholicDan: “Tweets posted on Saturday night count as being written on Sunday. #CatholicRulesForTwitter”

@JonoShea1: “On Fasts, only one full tweet is allowed. 2 smaller tweets permitted, if they do not equal a full 140 characters #CatholicRulesForTwitter”

@blueberries4me: “Married couples should not block the act of tweeting, but may abstain from tweeting on certain days if necessary. #CatholicRulesForTwitter”

@iTh0t: “Mary turned to the disciples & said, “RT[3] whatever he says.” #CatholicRulesForTwitter”

In fact, in 24 hours over 400 “rules” had been posted, and small spin-offs began to list similar rules for Methodists, Lutherans, and other religious groups.

Living in a Time of Technological Disruption

This story, as amusing as it is, points to the ways in which new technologies are disrupting traditional methods of communication. That these technologies are disruptive should not surprise us; it occurs anytime a culture experiences a transition to new communication methods. Indeed, the 1960 Confraternity Teacher’s Guide includes this sage advice regarding “new media” and catechesis:

The catechist will find that catechetical material in filmstrips, both black and white and in color, is steadily increasing in volume. He will find satisfactory filmstrips which correlate with courses of study and with the catechism… The number of catechetical subjects available on sound motion-picture film is comparatively limited. The teaching value of the silent movie is greatly reduced by the fact that today pupils are accustomed to sound movies. (emphasis mine)

While this appeal to sound movies may seem quaint today, it does make the point that the message we proclaim can only be heard if we use the methods employed by the hearer. As younger generations grow up with new ways of interacting with one another we would do well to ask what methods of communication are today’s youth accustomed to? What methods are we using that may be losing their effectiveness due to the adoption of newer methods?

Bishop Ron Herzog, in his 2010 address to his peers at the November meeting of the USCCB, echoed the Confraternity Teacher’s Guide when he said

Although social media has been around for less than 10 years, it doesn’t have the makings of a fad. We’re being told that it is causing as fundamental a shift in communication patterns and behavior as the printing press did 500 years ago. And I don’t think I have to remind you of what happened when the Catholic Church was slow to adapt to that new technology.

While these new technologies are disruptive in a variety of ways, they will be especially challenging to catechesis due to three factors: their democratizing tendencies, their subjugation of geography, and their cheapening of information.

First, new digital technologies democratize the tools of communication. In the past, mass communication was in the hands of very few people. In the ancient and medieval worlds it took years to reproduce a book. Even after the advent of the printing press mass production of books and newspapers was only available to those with the capital to invest in expensive and immobile machinery.

Today anyone with an internet connection and something to say can have a blog up and running in a matter of minutes. Communicating “on the go” – a staple of science fiction as late as the early 1990s – is now so ubiquitous as to be unremarkable, including textual, audio, and video media. Mass communication tools are no longer in the hands of a few, but the many, and people are participating in them in a way Gutenberg could only have dreamed of.

Second, these tools overcome what Sherry Turkle has called the “tyranny of geography.” In the past people had a limited pool of contacts with whom they could communicate easily. Today we can easily connect with people from across the globe. As a result, it is easier than ever before to find people with whom we share passions and interests. I can just as easily discuss the latest news from the Vatican with my colleagues down the hall as with a catechist in South Sudan – something I do regularly via an online forum.

Finally, new technologies – and the internet in particular – have made accessing the world’s knowledge extraordinarily cheap and easy. Gone are the days of long library searches and endless cross-referencing. The answer to any question, whether complex or trivial, is little more than a Google search away. As a result the participants in our programs will have little need for an “expert with the answers” since their questions regarding the content of doctrine and dogma will be easily satisfied. Helping people find good sources of information will become more important than helping them find the answers.

Implications for Catechesis

These three trends – the democratization of communications tools, the defeat of geography, and easy access of information – produce a powerful confluence of social and cultural forces; they will have some important implications for the future of catechesis.

First, catechists and catechetical leaders will no longer be able to function simply as overseers of programs and classrooms – as the “sage on the stage.” Rather, we will need to view ourselves at the hub of a network of relationships. Catechetical leaders will need to become adept at helping make connections across these networks by introducing parishioners to authors and experts who can answer their questions or further their interests in particular subjects. Social media is already facilitating these types of connections and there is every indication that this trend will only continue.

Catechesis will also need to adapt to the particular needs of discrete communities and interest groups, replacing the “one-size-fits-all” approach of many programs. Catholic blogs are one model for this diversity: it’s possible to find blogs targeting very specific groups and interests, from Catholic mothers (www.CatholicMom.com) to professionals (www.IntegratedCatholicLife.org) to the intersection of faith and beer (www.CatholicDrinkie.com). Because of the low start-up costs of these sites it’s possible to target small but passionate groups of followers. The Church would do well to encourage these types of “micro-communities” by helping Catholics with similar interests to connect with one other online or face-to-face for fellowship and support.

Finally, we need to give the faithful access to the tools of the faith in these new formats. For all the cool things I can do on my smart phone I still cannot access an elegant, easy-to-use version of the Catechism of the Catholic Church or New American Bible without a steady internet connection. The recently released online version of the Catechism is a step in the right direction, but in my rural diocese we have areas – including one of our major population centers – that have no wireless data from my carrier. Giving faithful Catholic app developers access to the text of the Catechism and NAB would help to fill this gap and provide the Church with a much needed digital tool for catechesis and evangelization.

I’m not going to pretend that navigating the digital culture will be easy or without its pitfalls. Catechetical leaders will make missteps and mistakes as we seek to learn these new tools and apply them to the work of evangelization and faith formation. Yet the work we do now to acclimate ourselves to these new technologies will pave the way for greater innovation and engagement in the future. The Church cannot afford to fear these new technologies and cannot afford to ignore their impact on our work of evangelization. We must embrace new methods if we are to fulfill Christ’s call to make disciples of all nations – even on the digital continent.


[1] “Techno-theologian” is a phrase originally coined, to the best of my knowledge, by Richard Drabik of the University of Dayton.

[2] A meme is a small idea – be it a catchphrase, joke, or image – that is easily and rapidly adapted and reproduced. Online, memes are often said to have “gone viral.”

[3] “RT” stands for “retweet” and indicates that something is being quoted from someone else.

The Digital Revolution and Imperfect Intimacy

One of the concerns I often hear when talking about digital tools and faith formation is that it’s impossible to form relationships online. I this this is a false assumption with a grain of truth — in fact, I think the internet can form and strengthen relationships in two ways.

First, new media helps connect people who may never have an opportunity to meet face-to-face. My own experience on Twitter and blogs has led me to connect with dozens (maybe more) of catechists and catechetical leaders from all over the world. The insights, resources, and support I have received from them — and I hope returned — have been invaluable to my work and ministry.

Second, new media helps us to strengthen existing relationships by connecting us to our friends and family even when they are physically removed. Stefana Broadbent offers some examples in the video above; personally, I love the story of the family who uses online video to have dinner with family members on the other side of the world!

Of course, neither of these types of connections are as intimate or strong as true face-to-face interactions. But in an increasingly mobile world they are better than being completely disconnected. (I recently heard someone say that we may be entering an era when we no longer have “former friends” — just people we moved away from and now connect with online!) Managing these new forms of relationships will be tricky, but they demonstrate the power of new media to form and strengthen relationships, even if they don’t reach the “more perfect” types of face-to-face relationships we need in our lives.

“So much else is possible…”

Saint Augustine reminds us that the City of Man and the City of God intermingle. We have obligations to each. But out final home and our real citizenship are not in this world. Politics is important, but it’s never the main focus or purpose of a Christian life. If we do not know and love Jesus Christ, and commit our lives to him, and act on what we claim to believe, everything else is empty. But if we do, so much else is possible — including the conversion of the world around us. The only question that finally matters to any of us is the one Jesus posed to his apostles: “Who do you say I am?” (Mk 8:29). Everything depends on the answer. Faith leads in one direction, the lack of it in another. But the issue is faith — always and everywhere, whether we are scholars or doctors or priests or lawyers or mechanics. Do we really believe in Jesus Christ, or don’t we? And if we do, what are we going to do about it?

– Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap, A Heart on Fire: Catholic Witness and the Next America

The New Evangelization – Press Release Edition

Last week the mayor of our town committed suicide. Implicated in tax evasion and apparently unable to account for thousands of dollars from an estate he administered years ago, he was found at his home after failing to appear for a court hearing.

This post is not about any of that.

Following the news our new ordinary, Bishop Thomas John Paprocki, issued a press release expressing his condolences and offering prayers for the mayor and his family. Three days later he issued a press release explaining why, even though the mayor had committed suicide, he was still to be given a Christian burial.

At first I was bothered by these press releases. Why was the bishop inserting himself into the story, especially when the releases did not seem to come from any media inquiry? Lots of politicians who had worked with the mayor were releasing statements, but our bishop was just installed this summer and had no real working relationship with him. Was this just a case of a nosy prelate wanting to get his name in the papers?

While I don’t yet know my new boss real well, that doesn’t seem to be his modus operandi, so I thought a little harder about it. Finally, it dawned on me: he’s acting exactly as bishops and religious leaders have acted through the ages, explaining the faith and offering words of prayer and counsel in difficult times. In that light, the releases shouldn’t be that troubling — they are just a more modern way of “spreading the word.”

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the bishop’s press releases are a form of the New Evangelization, reminding a culture that has turned its back on the faith that the Church has a place in the public square and a message that can’t be found in any secular venue. Seeing the bishop’s words of condolence in a newspaper article is another reminder that the faith continues to have a place in the lives of citizens and a prophetic role in play in the culture.

Press releases as culture renewal. Who woulda guessed?

Your Advent Homework

There are many ways in which the Church is out of step with our secular culture, but I think in no way more obvious than at this time of year. While the wider culture seeks to rush us towards Christmas (carols on the radio before Halloween? Really?!), the Church asks us to slow down and wait. While lights are strung and increasingly outrageous decorations are mounted on the front lawn, we light candles on the Advent wreath. While television commercials entice us to buy more and bigger, the Church points to a child born in poverty in a manager.

This is a great time of year to reminder ourselves — and the families in our Catholic schools and parish catechetical programs — about what is really important.

If I could make a small request, I would ask every catechist and catechetical leader to invite your families to Christmas Mass. Not with a note or Sunday announcement, but a face-to-face invitation. I know not every Catholic family is in the habit of attending Mass every Sunday. But if we could encourage them to start out the Christmas season on the right foot — not by tearing open wrapping paper, but by giving thanks to the God that has blessed them — we just might start a few more on that path. And what a glorious gift that would be.

Divine Butler? Don’t Bet On It

I recently finished reading Peter Kreeft’s book Back to Virtue. In this book, Kreeft claims that our current civilization may well be the weakest ever to grace the face of the planet. This is due, he says because we have lost the knowledge of virtue.

This is not to say that we are less virtuous as a people than those that came before us. It is, rather, that

We know more about what is less than ourselves but less about what is more than ourselves. When we act morally, we are better than our philosophy. Our ancestors were worse than theirs. Their problem was not living up to their principles. Ours is not having any.

Kreeft wrote Back to Virtue in 1986, and shortly after finishing the book I read an article that offers some pretty damning evidence that Kreeft was on to something. The article detailed the National Study of Youth and Religion. This study surveyed over 3,000 American teens about their religious beliefs and found that the overwhelming majority could not offer any articulate explanation or defense of their own religious beliefs or the beliefs of the religious body they belong to. Rather, they espoused what the researchers described as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, a religious philosophy that, while acknowledging the existence of a divine power, sees as the central goal of life being happy and feeling good about oneself.

This god, in the words of the researchers, is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process.

I hope I don’t have to point out that a religious philosophy more antithetical to authentic Christianity would be hard to find.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism hinges on a god made, not so much in our image, as to our liking “ a god that never criticizes, never badgers, never demands. A god that stays safely away in a box until we find ourselves in some crisis or in some need, who can then be marched out not to make things right but to make us feel better. This is a safe god.

The God of Christianity, however, is not safe. He is dangerous. He pops up when he’s not wanted, not invited. He charges us with impossible tasks. He asks us to build arks, to leave our homeland and travel to a strange new land of promise. He tells us that we are to lead his people out of slavery and gives us the strength to battle giants. He tells us to leave behind our families, our possessions, our lives to follow him. He tells us to take up our crosses.

He asks us, in the mystery we celebrated just two weeks ago, to die with him.

This is a far cry from the disinterested deity society seeks. This is a God who stands for something and expects us to do the same. This God pursues us like a jealous lover, a God so aptly described in Francis Thompson’s poem The Hound of Heaven:

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
Up vistaed hopes I sped;
And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasm’d fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
But with unhurrying chase,
And unperturb’d pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
They beat — and a voice beat
More instant than the Feet —
“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”