Fulfillment: Way better than mere happiness

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Lately I’m seeing lots of studies — or, more accurately, articles about studies — claiming that non-parents are happier than parents. The accompanying commentary essentially concludes that everybody since the beginning of time has had it wrong, that procreation and parenting are really just long roads to misery, and that young people should think twice about their plans for love, marriage and a baby carriage.

Alarmingly, I’m seeing interviews with young adults who are taking this nonsense seriously and deciding to forego having children at all in the interest of “pursuing happiness.”

And worse still are the increasingly regular reports I hear of actual parents who are deciding that this parenting thing is a drag on their social lives and are exiting family life in order to get their “happy” on. I’m not talking about people in bad or abusive or dangerous marriages who make the difficult decision to leave for truly substantive reasons. I’m talking about mothers and/or fathers who simply decide that the garden variety problems and commitments inherent in marriage and parenting are making them less “happy,” so they are exiting stage right on the assumption that a life of freedom “out there” will be more fulfilling.

This, my people, is messed up.

I get where, in the short run, the life of the childless might be easier at times. If you are up all night with a sick kid, and I am able to sleep, I am probably “happier” the next day. You, as a parent have a lot more to worry about. And worry, of course, eats into “happiness” in whatever moments are stolen by the worrying.

But there is a fundamental mistake here. These people are confusing happiness with fulfillment.

Happiness is pleasure. It is an emotion. The dictionary defines it as a “mental or emotional state.” It is fleeting, transitory, elusive. It happens in the moment. Sure, I’m happy when I get a good night’s sleep. But a couple of days later, it doesn’t really matter. Neither does the fun I had, or the money I spent, or anything else that might buy me short-term happiness. “Happiness” as a state is impossible to sustain. As soon as things get difficult, my happiness is gone. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are meant to have happy moments, and unhappy moments.

Fulfillment is different. It is deeper, more constant. It can exist underneath a full range of emotional experiences. It is possible to be unhappy in a moment and yet fulfilled on a deeper level.

I have quoted it before, and I’ll quote it a million times again. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes says that “Man, being the only creature created for his own sake, finds himself only in a sincere gift of himself.”

We find real meaning, real fulfillment, in self-gift. In love. And that often comes in the form of sacrificing our own current “happiness” for the sake of someone else. Like losing sleep with a sick kid.  Like spending money on tuition instead of a new car.

The problem with the “pursuit of happiness” as our sole goal in life is that it detracts us from our real purpose — and hence, ironically, from real long-term happiness or fulfillment.

It is my belief that parenting — aside from bringing many, many happy moments — brings fulfillment. And, that like many other fulfilling things, it is not easy. It is not always “happy.” And that those who forego it out of a misguided desire for “happiness” are making a lifelong mistake.

I say all of this as a non-parent. I’m getting all of the “fun” that you all think you’re missing out on. And, let me tell you, “fun” doesn’t offer the love, the satisfaction, the deep-down fulfillment that is found in the joys and sacrifices of parenting.

That is not to say that the life of a non-parent isn’t or can’t be fulfilling. But our fulfillment isn’t necessarily built-in. Sometimes obligations to serve come to us. But other times we have to go looking for them — for opportunities to make a difference, to give ourselves, to matter.  When that happens, we become “spiritual” fathers or mothers — using our masculine or feminine gifts to make a difference in the lives those who are not our actual children.

Twenty years ago, I gave the graduation address at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. The theme of that talk was “Living Life from the Deathbed Backwards.” When you are on your deathbed, what will you want your life to have looked like? Will you be glad you had a lot of fun at a lot of nightclubs? Will you be satisfied that you are leaving behind a bunch of nice possessions for your relatives to fight over? Or do you want to look back on the ways the you made a difference — the lives that are here or are better because you existed?

That is the difference between happiness and fulfillment.

And, trust me, fulfillment is way better.

COMING UP: A holy Church begins with you

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A holy Church begins with you

Bishop Rodriguez challenges Catholics to realize their call to holiness

Roxanne King

Even as the Catholic Church deals with the disgrace and shame of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and moves forward with repentance and renewal, it is challenging as faithful not to be disheartened and discouraged.

The answer to this situation is to follow the Scriptural mandate to holiness all Catholic Christians have been given, Denver auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez told attendees of the May 17-19 Aspen Catholic conference titled, “The Encounter: New Life in Jesus Christ.”

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘be holy, because I [am] holy,’” the bishop said, quoting I Peter 1:15-16.

“Holiness,” the bishop asserted, “…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

The annual conference, an initiative of Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Aspen where the event was held, drew people from the Archdiocese of Denver and from outside the state to strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ, deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, renew their spirit in the beauty of Colorado’s high country, and return home equipped to better share their faith.

Despite the current crisis, which is evidence the Church is comprised of sinners, every Sunday when professing the Creed, Catholics say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

“We say publicly that we believe the Catholic Church is holy. Do we mean it?” Bishop Rodriguez mused before affirming: “The Catholic Church, like it or not, will always be holy for three reasons.”

First: “Jesus Christ is the author of holiness and he is the head of the Church. … Jesus is the Church with all of us. The holiness of Jesus fills the whole Church.”

Second: “The Church is the only institution in the world that possesses all the means of sanctification left by Christ for his Church to sanctify its members and to make them holy.”

Third: “There are many, many holy people in the Church, both in heaven and here on earth.”

Holiness…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

Slain STEM School shooting hero Kendrick Castillo is an example of a holy, young Catholic, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“He gave his life for his classmates. If this is not holiness, what is?” the bishop said about the 18-year-old who was killed May 7 when he tackled a teen shooter.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave known for her acts of charity and generosity from her own meager means to others in early Denver, and St. John Paul II, who in emphasizing the universal call to holiness of all Christians beatified and canonized more people than the combined total of his predecessors in the five centuries before him, were among others Bishop Rodriguez mentioned who comprise “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) of those believers who have preceded us into God’s kingdom. Additionally, there are countless “next-door saints,” he said, using a term coined by Pope Francis to describe those unknowns of heroic virtue among our family, friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez said, because the Scriptures say, Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25-26).

“‘The Church is holy because it proceeds from God, who is holy,’” the bishop said, quoting Pope Francis’ Oct. 2, 2013, general audience address. “’It is not holy by our merits; we are not able to make her holy. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who in his love makes the Church holy.’

“The Catholic Church is and will be holy, even though some of her members still need repentance and conversion,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

Holiness is our deepest longing because we were created to be holy, the bishop said. But the only way to realize that call is to submit to God and allow him to transform us, he said, using the scriptural analogy of clay taking shape in a potter’s hands.

“We cannot deserve, produce, gain, create, or make holiness,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Only God in his gratuitousness and infinite love can make a saint of you. … Holiness is pure gift, is grace.”

Catholics believe holiness is real — that grace received through the sacraments, prayer and reading Scripture, infuses and transforms the believer into a new creation, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“Salvation is real,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis [warns] about a heresy that has been in the Church since apostolic times under different appearances — Gnosticism. It is a doctrine of salvation by knowledge, reducing Christianity to doctrine [or] text, to something intellectual.”

In doing so, Gnosticism loses the flesh of the incarnation and reduces Jesus to his message, Bishop Rodriguez said. Likewise, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a major figure of 20th-century biblical studies and liberal Christianity, promoted “demythologizing” the Gospel to attract modern adherents.

As a result, “people lost faith that these things really happened,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “[Bultmann] did tremendous damage to Christianity.”

The Apostles, however, insisted on the truth of Jesus’ incarnational reality, the bishop said, noting the First Letter of St. John proclaims: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you.

Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

“Our Christian faith is not a body of doctrines, not a code of conduct, not an ethical idea, not an elaborated ritual,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “It is not even a community. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is an event. It is a person. It is an event that happens. In the Gospel everything begins with an encounter with Jesus. Have we encountered Jesus?”

Jesus may be encountered through prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“These are three gifts God has given to us to open us to holiness,” he said. “These are the Catholic ways to have a personal encounter with Jesus that is real.”

Regarding prayer: “The best way to start is to become aware of Jesus presence. … prayer [then] becomes a personal encounter, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise.”

Regarding Scripture: “It’s not about information … it’s about God telling his love for me.”

Regarding sacraments: “The sacramental life is God touching me with his holiness.

“In the Catholic Church we believe that Jesus Christ didn’t want us to only have a recorded memory of him as in the Scriptures, but a living presence among us. He said: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’”

I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you.”

Just as Jesus was present with the people of Galilee healing and forgiving them, so he is present with us today through the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“That’s why he instituted the sacraments. Each sacrament is a merciful and sweet touch of Jesus in our lives,” the bishop said. “This is what we mean when we say he makes us holy through the sacraments.”

So why isn’t there more holiness in our lives and more saints in the Church?

“God wants to work with our clay … but to make a saint is a question of love,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Love cannot be imposed, it cannot be mandated.”

Rather, one must cooperate with God’s grace to become the saint God desires.

“Last March, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation on our call to be holy, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “His thesis is that we have been made for happiness, and true happiness and joy only comes from a holy life.”

Holiness doesn’t mean perfection, performing miracles or that we are not tempted, Bishop Rodriguez said. Rather, it means loving God and one’s neighbor by doing the everyday tasks of life with love.

The answer for times of persecution and crisis in the Church has always been the holiness of the people of God, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you,” he challenged.

“This is our response to the Church crisis today: holy Catholic men and women,” he asserted. “We will never give up and we will fight against discouragement and loss of hope. Jesus is with us as he promised.”

Featured image by Roxanne King