Secular slums and the Francis option

In a few short weeks, we will celebrate the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which has great potential to bring many people back to the Lord, and to serve as a launching pad for bringing the Gospel to the spiritual slums created by secularism.

 

Bl. Mother Teresa frequently pointed out that the modern mission field for the West is not overseas but on our shores. The greatest poverty of the West, she would say, is not material poverty but the spiritual poverty that can be seen in the many people who hunger for love and have a desire to experience God’s presence. In fact, she would tell people who wanted to volunteer in India that the best way they could help was to bring love to their own homes, offices and factories.

 

SS Papa Francesco - Adorazione della Croce 03-04-2015 @Servizio Fotografico - L'Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis on Good Friday. Photo from L’Osservatore Romano

During the Jubilee Year, we have the opportunity to carry mission territory to those who may not even realize that they are longing for mercy. When Pope Francis was asked who he is in an interview, he responded, “I am a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” Being able to say that requires an openness to the love and mercy of the Father, which brings with it the gift of humility and an awareness of how God is intimately involved in every aspect of life.

 

Acknowledging our need for mercy returns us to our true selves, just as when St. Luke described the Prodigal Son’s realization of how badly he had fallen as “coming to himself” (cf. Lk. 15: 17). Whether we are the younger brother who squandered everything or the older brother who was filled with resentment, all of us need the mercy of the Father.

 

But what does this look like for the Church and each of our families, especially as our society becomes less Christian? By way of an answer, I would like to share some thoughts with you that come from a talk I gave to the Orange County Prayer Breakfast last month.

after-virtue

After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre

Some scholars argue that Western society has become so intolerant of faith that Christians need to start considering the “Benedict Option.” This concept was inspired by the last paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s 1981 book, After Virtue, in which he wrote about waiting “for another — doubtless very different — St. Benedict.” This new Benedict would help construct “local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages,” just as the founder of Western monasticism did during the final days of the Roman Empire.

Rod Dreher, one of the strongest advocates of the “Benedict Option,” asserts that in order for the Church to survive the present wave of secularism, it needs to focus its energy inward, rather than outward.

However, it seems to me that Pope Francis by his words and actions is presenting the Church with a different way to respond to the secular world, which could be called the “Francis Option.”

From Jesus sending forth the apostles to proclaim the Gospel to “the ends of the earth” at the end of Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 28:19) to St. Paul telling the Corinthians “the love of Christ impels us” to bring the Gospel of reconciliation to all (2 Cor. 5:14-15), our faith has always been outwardly oriented, while drawing its strength from the power of the Holy Spirit’s action within local communities.

PopeFrancis

Photo by L’Osservatore Romano

The “Francis Option” places the emphasis on bringing God’s forgiveness to those on the spiritual and material outer limits of society, while also strengthening the health of our local communities with the balm of God’s mercy. In other words, Pope Francis’ approach to carrying God’s mercy to our post-Christian culture maintains a dual focus on outward mission and an inward strengthening of local communities. The “Benedict Option,” on the other hand, is primarily concerned with building inner strength.

By allowing the mercy of God to enter our families, we strengthen the most important of local communities and equip ourselves for bringing Christ’s mercy into the despair-filled spiritual slums that are becoming more common in our society. But Pope Francis is calling us to do more than bring love to our local communities, he is reminding us of Jesus’ command to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt. 28:19).

Christ showed us how to do this when he met the woman caught in adultery. First, he had mercy on her by protecting her from her accusers and the sentence of the Jewish law. Then, he spoke the truth to her, saying, “’Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ She said, ‘No one, Lord.’ And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.’” (Jn. 8:10-11). He does not condemn her but recognizes her sin and calls her out of it.

As we approach the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy on Dec. 8, I urge you to open yourself to God’s mercy through the sacrament of Reconciliation and strengthen yourself to serve as an instrument of true mercy, both in your families and in the world.

To read Archbishop Aquila’s full talk, please visit, http://archden.org/archbishops_writing/evangelizing-with-mercy-in-a-post-christian-culture/.

COMING UP: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people

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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.

Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.

However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.

Interwoven journeys

Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.

Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.

“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”

He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation. 

While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path. 

And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.

Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.

Father Matthew Magee (left) and his dad, Deacon Michael Magee (right), were both encouraging to one another as they each pursued their respective vocations. (Photo by Daniel Petty/Denver Catholic)

“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”

On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling. 

“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”

God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for. 

This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”

“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.

In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.

“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”

A bribe for Heaven

For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.

While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.

“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”

So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.

“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”

To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference. 

As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.

“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”

Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.

“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”

Father John Nepil (left) and Deacon Darrell Nepil (right) both had rather roundabout ways to their respective vocations, but they both say serving God’s people together as brothers in Holy Orders is a great joy. (Photo provided)

Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.

“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.

The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God. 

One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.

“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”

“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.

“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”