Following the Lord’s plan

At the age of 15, Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman was given the gift of faith.

Of that year, he writes: “a great change of thought took place in me.  I fell under the influences of a definite Creed, and received into my intellect impressions of dogma, which, through God’s mercy, have never been effaced or obscured.”

Newman read his way to belief at a very young age—he credits works of Christian apologetics and spirituality as the reason he came to know the Lord.  But Newman didn’t stop reading when he became a believer—he read his way into Anglicanism, and eventually into the Catholic Church.

Newman became a cardinal, and more importantly, a beloved Servant of God, because he was open to knowing Jesus Christ, and to deepening his relationship of prayer with the Holy Trinity.  The conversion of Newman at 15, and his ever-developing relationship with Christ, is responsible for thousands of conversions, and for a great flowering of Catholic culture in Great Britain.

Newman’s greatest attribute is willingness to follow the Lord wherever he was called—to loving him, and to serving him in the providential plan of the Father.  The effects of his docility and receptivity are still unfolding.

Earlier this month, the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, announced that Bishop James Conley will serve as the ninth bishop of Lincoln, Neb.  He will be installed on Nov. 20, in the Cathedral of the Risen Christ.

Bishop Conley is a great follower of Cardinal Newman, and his life has much in common with his spiritual patron.  Both were converted through their reading of important Christian works.  Both are men of keen intellects, who seek to know and understand the faith.  And Bishop Conley’s life also testifies to a trust in the providential plan of God.

When I met Bishop Conley, neither one of us were bishops.  I was Father Sam, and he was Father Jim, and we were both students in Rome, living at the Casa Santa Maria with priests in studies from all over the United States.

Bishop Conley was known among the priests for his love of ideas and conversation, for his genial and easy friendships, and for his commitment to working with undergraduate American students who were studying in Rome.   He was well-known, and well-liked, but I never imagined that 25 years later, he and I would both be bishops, and Denver would be saying goodbye to him after four years of ministry.

The bishop’s appointment is a consequence of his trust in the plan of God.  Like Newman, Bishop Conley has followed his conscience—and more importantly formed his conscience—in an earnest intellectual discovery of Christ and his Church.  And like Newman, Bishop Conley has said yes to the will of the Father—which is why he has been called to serve the people of Lincoln.

All of us are called to trust in the Father’s providential plan.  At times, it can seem outlandish.  It is always surprising.  I never imagined that God would call me to be a priest.  Neither Bishop Conley nor I ever expected to be called as bishops.  And yet, the plan of the Father, which is always surprising, is always more joyful than what we might plan for ourselves.  God knows us, and builds us for a mission—and so our very nature is built for that mission.  To follow God’s plan for our lives is to live exactly as we were created to live.

To follow God’s plan, we must know God himself.  We must commit ourselves to lives of prayer—to spending time before the Lord in contemplation in adoration, in Scripture, and in the sacraments.  And we should imitate the intellectual endeavors of Cardinal Newman and Bishop Conley—we should read good books about the spiritual life, and about God himself.  We should ask the hard questions, and seek to know and understand our faith.  Our intellects are given to us by God precisely so that we can know, love and serve him.

Let us celebrate the plan of God the Father for Bishop Conley.  Let us wish him well, and pray for him.  But let us also commit to knowing the plan of God for our lives, and to generously following it every day.


COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.