If you are feeling stressed or overwhelmed, consider the life of Fr. Stanley Rother

Fr. Stanley Rother with his people in Guatemala.

A few nights ago, I found myself wide awake with my mind spinning in a semi-panicked state.  Maybe it was the fact that I had just celebrated my 37th birthday.  Although I’m not one to mourn my age on birthdays, that number seems particularly large this year.  It could also be that I am at a career crossroads, where I soon need to decide what kind of path I really want to take.  The biggest portion of it is that in less than three months, I will be a father for the first time when, God willing, my wife and I will welcome our daughter into the world.  This sleepless night seemed to be the culmination of change and transition along with the excitement, stress and anxiety in my life that I’ve mentioned in previous posts over the past couple of years.

Stress and anxiety aren’t unique to me.  The American Psychological Association states that only 18% of Americans sensed a decrease in stress over the last year1.  Money, work, family and society have most of us stressed out, overwhelmed and at times, feeling inadequate.  Many, like me, have moments when they wonder if they are capable of overcoming the obstacles in front of them and accomplishing the goals they have set for themselves.

While tossing and turning through that restless night, my mind settled when I somewhat randomly began to ponder the life and martyrdom of Fr. Stanley Rother.  If you haven’t heard of Fr. Rother, he was a priest of what was then known as the Diocese of Oklahoma City-Tulsa.  After a few years of serving in parishes around Oklahoma, in 1968, he volunteered to serve at a mission parish in Santiago Atitlán, Guatemala during a time of great civil unrest in the Central American country.

The work he did to support the people of Santiago Atitlán did not sit well with the radical military forces that were rampaging the country, and his name ended up on a “death list”.  After hearing of the threat, the bishop called him back to Oklahoma, but he could not stay away from his people.  He returned and within a few weeks was murdered by assassins in the middle of the night at the rectory.

The anniversary of his death was on July 28 and is quite important to Catholics in Oklahoma, especially this year.  A Vatican commission recently determined his death to be that of a martyr.  This is a giant step toward his beatification.  Many Oklahoma Catholics hope that, by this time next year, we will be referring to Fr. Rother as “blessed”.

You might ask, “What does a martyred priest have to do with those of us that are overstressed and overwhelmed?”  The reality is, thankfully, that the martyrdom portion of Fr. Rother’s life is something most of us will likely never encounter.  The details of how he got from small Okarche, Oklahoma to the precipice of canonized saint, however, offer some lessons for facing challenges in our lives.

Newly ordained Fr. Rother with his family in Okarche.

Newly ordained Fr. Rother with his family in Okarche.

Fr. Rother was a humble farm boy from a small town.  By small, I mean a population of roughly 1,200 people.  Having grown up in a slightly smaller town as part of a farming and agricultural family, it is easy for me to relate to the environment in which he grew up.  Like many kids from similar towns, he developed a strong work ethic by working on a farm.  Later, when he attended seminary, the ingenuity he learned on the farm made him a great asset as someone willing to do various bits of manual labor.

His skills were so valuable that his work often got in the way of his studies.  Additionally, growing up in a rural community meant more time spent in high school focusing on classes like agricultural education than other subjects like Latin. This made his seminary studies even more difficult during a time when all study was done in Latin.  After five years in seminary, he was told it was better for him stop his studies and try another vocation.

No doubt feeling defeated, he met with Bishop Victor Reed, then Bishop of Oklahoma City/Tulsa.  After re-affirming his desire to be a priest, Bishop Reed arranged to send him to another seminary where his studies improved.  Fr. Rother faced the stuggle, overcame it and a few years later he was ordained a priest.

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Fr. Rother with some of the local children.

That willingness to roll up his sleeves and serve through working, which was an obstacle early on in seminary, became his greatest asset when he arrived in Guatemala.  The natives in Santiago Atitlán were some of the poorest of the poor.  He once again used the skills he learned on the farm to help establish crops, teach the people farming techniques and build housing.

Serving the people there elevated Fr. Rother’s intellectual abilities, as well.  He helped establish literacy programs and build up medical services.  The same man who struggled with Latin in seminary, learned Tzutuhil, the native language of the people.  He even worked on a translation of the Bible into their native tongue.

Of course, while all the work he did made him beloved by those he was serving, it made him a target of those seeking control over the country.  This led to his biggest obstacle: a decision to leave for safety or stay for certain death.  The rest is history.  He chose to trust God’s call for him and face the obstacle, and it cost him his life.

Again, most of us will never face such a perilous obstacle, but the stressors, challenges and struggles in our life present us with the same challenge that Fr. Rother faced.  Do we trust in God’s call and face the struggle, or do we retreat from it?  Popular quotations aside, there will be times in life that God gives us more than we can handle.  Life will at times seem like it is simply too much.  When those times come, maybe instead of considering how much we can handle, we should accept that we can’t handle it all.  For all those things in life that we simply can’t handle, we must, like Fr. Rother, entrust them to God.

Father Stanley Rother, Servant of God, Pray for Us.



1 Stress Snapshot

Leaning on the Sacrament of Marriage

(Or "Why I Love My Wife, Volume II")

Marriage at Cana, c. 1500, Gerard David, Musée du Louvre, Paris

Two years ago on St. Valentine’s Day, I wrote nearly 800 words about why I love my wife. As the same day came and went this year, I have been reflecting a lot on those words and the time at which I wrote them.  I found they have never been more true than they are today.

Much has changed since I wrote that post, though. There has been much more uncertainty than certainty over the past couple of years. Despite the uncertainty, my life has still been full of great blessings. I am quite sure that many people would trade their troubles for mine, especially if the blessings came along with them.

Still, some of the changes over this time have led to a lot of stress and anxiety; two things with which I do not deal well. This has affected me most deeply in my spiritual life. When I wrote the post two years ago, I was in a really good spot spiritually. My prayer life was good. I was really involved in my parish. Having recently returned from a trip to Rome, I felt deeply connected to the global Catholic Church. And, after attending the Catholic New Media Conference the year before, I felt like I had found a career path to which God was calling me.

Even as I was writing that post, little changes and challenges were already beginning to chip away at my spiritual perch. A year before, the longtime pastor of my parish had been elevated to bishop. For the first time since my conversion to Catholicism, I was going through a pastoral change. While not an uncommon change, it was nonetheless difficult to say goodbye to the man who brought me into the Church and witnessed my marriage.

In addition, only days before I published that post, Pope Benedict XVI had shocked the world when he announced his retirement. I took this especially hard and have written plenty about my affection for him and his vital role in my conversion. That announcement capped a three-year period where I experienced the appointment of a new local bishop, new parish priest, and eventually, a new Pope. None of these are devastating changes on their own, but nonetheless disrupted that spiritual stability to which I had grown accustomed.

There have been changes at church. There have been changes at work.  That career path for which I had once hoped has not yet materialized. Changes all over the place that have sent my head spinning at times and left me both spiritually and physically exhausted. This exhaustion reached a tipping point a couple of Sundays ago. Unable to concentrate on anything spiritual, my mind raced with thoughts about what has transpired over the past couple of years. All of that baggage had finally seemed to break me. Full of cynicism and apathy, I sat in mass, for the first time in a long time, wondering why I was even there.

I silently expressed this to God in what I assumed would be another shout into the echo chamber that had become my prayer life. Then, something subtle, yet amazing happened. I looked to my left to see my wife serenely listening to the homily, and I realized that she was why I was sitting in that church on that morning. On a day that an unmarried version of myself might have just stayed at home, I was there, not because she had forced me, not out of guilt, but because of my desire to be there with her.

It was the first time that I was able to experience so clearly the grace from the Sacrament of Marriage. I saw in it how the sacraments work to compliment each other and how the grace from one can help bridge the gap to the grace from another. The Sacrament of Marriage had drawn me to the Eucharist. This realization felt like my first moment of clarity in months.

That clarity allowed me to see that even with all the change and transition, my wife and our marriage along with God was the constant. The idea that marriage is to be a manifestation of God’s unwavering love for us had become such a real thing in that moment.

The Eucharist and other sacraments, like Reconciliation, have tangible acts that are often centered around drawing yourself closer to or making yourself right with God.  Marriage is more subtle.  It is God in everyday life.  Often, it is not about making yourself right with God, but about helping your spouse to do so.  This help is what I’ve experienced over and over again, even if I have failed to recognize it.

This Lent, I am going to try to focus less on what has or will change and more on the grace and stability that I receive from all the Sacraments, especially Marriage.  And for all the grace I receive, I will work to see that my wife receives the same.

 

Giving thanks in days of fear, uncertainty, and doubt

Two months ago yesterday, filled with a mix of anger, disappointment, and some level of relief, I spent nearly all day cleaning out my office. The contract on which I had worked for nearly ten years had been awarded to a different company, and rather than move wholesale to the new company, my team decided to break apart and move on to new opportunities.

The days leading up to that final one were horrible. Realizing the exodus of talent, both our customer and our competitor, rather than reach out to us in good faith and professionalism, decided to treat us like criminal suspects in need of questioning to attempt to fill in the knowledge gap. After two weeks of being subjected to this, my anger, frustration, and cynicism reached a high point. At one point after ranting and reeling off a series of uncharitable jokes, I realized that I had become the worst version of myself.

After I finished cleaning my office and said goodbye to people who had been my second family for nearly a decade, I walked out of the door unsure of what was in store for my life. It was pretty easy to start feeling sorry for myself and think about how the world or more particularly, my former customer had screwed me over. It was also easy to let that one negative overshadow nearly every other positive that I had in my life.

Life tends to do this to people. Uncertainty challenges our faith, causes fear, and fills us with doubt. Unfortunately, the world is filled with uncertainty. As I was experiencing my own personal issues, much larger scale events were unfolding. It started with ISIS marching across Syria and Iraq and killing anyone in their path. It continued with ebola leaving thousands dead and sparking a worldwide health crisis. Even as I write this, violent protests are breaking out around the world after a grand jury chose not to indict the police officer involved in the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Ten minutes of watching the evening news can easily leave one cynical instead of thankful.

This global uncertainty helped put things into perspective for me. It made me realized how incredibly blessed I am. While the disruption in my career was difficult, it was temporary. As it turned out, my unemployment lasted for only 31 days, and my former employer provided a severance package that kept food on the table and bills paid without having to dip into our savings. Now a month into a new job, the anger and negative emotions of two months ago seem ages away.

Caught up in my own adversity, I forgot how fortunate I am, especially considering the hardships in which others find themselves. Many have lost jobs and are left wondering how they will make ends meet. Many are dealing with tragedy and illness. Many find themselves in the middle of the global tragedies that are filling the news cycles. Blessings and bad fortune alike tend to be relative, and we often view our circumstances in the vacuum of our own joy or frustration.

For this Thanksgiving, I am taking time to realize how great I have it. I have a great family, a great new job, and a litany of other blessings that God has chosen to pour out on me. While not without its minor drama and struggle, this has been a great year for my family and me.

I hope that you can say the same today. If you are struggling to do so, I hope that the difficulties in your life are just as temporary as mine have been and that blessings are just around corner. Even in days of fear, uncertainty, and doubt in our own lives or those of others, we can be thankful that God works all things for good according His purpose.

The Shepherd, the “black mass”, and the Way of the Cross

Christ Carrying the Cross by Tiepolo

Unexpectedly, the other day I was approached by a friend who started the conversation with “hey, you’re Catholic, right?”.  It’s not an unusual conversation starter for me, but this time instead of a question about the Church, I was asked why my archbishop was such a hypocrite.

“I don’t get how, on one hand, Catholics can use religious freedom to avoid Obamacare1, and then, on the other, try to stop some religious event from happening just because you disagree with the group,” he continued.

If you live in Oklahoma, follow Catholic media, or have read previous posts on this site, you probably know that a “satanic church” in Oklahoma City plans to hold a “black mass” at the Oklahoma City Civic Center Music Hall. The planned event has drawn the concern of the the Most Reverend Paul S. Coakley, Archbishop of Oklahoma City.  It has set off local debate over the proper use of taxpayer funded facilities, as well as call into question what types of activities are covered under the first amendment and the freedom of religion.

I was aware of the planned event before this conversation but knew very few details about it.  To be honest, at the time, my quasi-libertian political sensibilities sort of agreed with my friend’s statement.  Regardless of these sensibilities, I had a fairly simple answer for him:  The archbishop is doing his job.

Archbishop Coakley is not a political figure.  He is the shepherd of Catholics in the western two-thirds of Oklahoma.  His job is to protect the souls of his flock.  Sometimes this means dealing in politics, but this does not make him a politician.

The first amendment and fair use arguments can be debated.  What can’t be debated is what kind of event this “black mass” is.  This is not a Jewish Shabbat service or Muslim Jumu’ah.  It’s not even a pagan or Wiccan nature ritual.  These are all acts of worship or celebration of something these groups hold sacred.  This planned event is a dark, evil, anti-Christian, and specifically anti-Catholic ritual.  It involves an “exorcism of the Holy Spirit” and serves as a perverse inversion of the Catholic Mass.

Such an event is like a wolf wandering into the meadow where sheep are grazing.  A shepherd’s duty is to protect his sheep.  If Archbishop Coakley did not speak out against this event, he would be failing in the vocation to which God called him.

This isn’t the first such activity to make headlines.  A similar event that was scheduled to happen on the campus of Harvard University was cancelled or at least scaled back and moved after public outrage.  One big question surrounding the event at Harvard was whether or not it included a host consecrated during a Catholic Mass.  In regard to the Oklahoma City event, the answer to that question appears to be yes.  In an interview with Aleteia, the event organizer said he believes he has a consecrated host.

The host is the bread that Catholics partake in at Mass.  We believe that during the Mass, it is consecrated and mysteriously becomes the true body of Jesus Christ.  Once consecrated, we believe that it remains the body of Christ.  Consecrated hosts are treated (or at least should be) with the highest amount of respect by Catholics.  We keep the consecrated hosts protected.  To do anything malicious or disrespectful is one of the highest forms of sacrilege for Catholics.  We truly believe it to be an attack on our Lord.

From what is known about events like this, one of the central acts is the desecration of such a host.  This is why Catholics everywhere should be disturbed and concerned.  It seems clear that the First Amendment rights of the event organizer are going to trump the concerns of Archbishop Coakley and the Catholic community of Oklahoma City.  So, what are we to do?

Our Lord will be desecrated and mocked, and we will be left on the sidelines to watch.  This story has been played out before.  Just as when Jesus was arrested in the garden, we can act in violence as St. Peter did, only to hide in shame later.  Or we can look to the example of Our Lady.  Mary followed along the Way of the Cross enduring the pain of watching her child, Our Lord, being beaten, mocked and spit upon.  She prayed.  She endured.  She watched her Son die on the cross.

Most importantly, she saw her Son resurrected.

While this event might elicit outrage and frustration, don’t let it cause sinful anger or the desire for vengeance.  Let it elicit a desire for prayer as it did in Boston at the time of the Harvard event.  The victory has already be won, but let us pray that no souls are led astray in the battle.  Let us take up Archbishop Coakley’s call to prayer and invoke the intercession of Our Lady, and all the angels and saints that we might be delivered from this and all evil.

 


1 He was referring to the ongoing legal battles regarding the HHS contraception mandate in the new healthcare law.

The message of Christmas leaves no room for New Year’s cynicism

Back in early December, I was visiting my parents in the midst of what was considered a major ice storm in Dallas.  Though it messed up most of our plans for that weekend, it gave me a rare opportunity to spend an extended amount of uninterrupted time with my parents.  During that time, my mom and I talked about a time in our family’s past that wasn’t all that pleasant.  It involved the church in which I grew up.  It was a church my grandpa literally helped build brick by brick and a place where my parents gave years in service and love.  It was a part of our family.

Without going into too many details, when I was in high school, the church turned on my parents.  Wildly false accusations were raised against them.  Long-time friends turned their backs on us.  It got ugly.  Eventually, my parents found another church, I went on to college, and we all tried to move on.

While we did indeed move on and dealt with much greater, more important challenges in life, that time for my family was a demarcation point in my own life.  It marked a time that I no longer felt comfortable in the town where I grew up.  After that incident, I began to view the world differently.  Hope and trust in others was replaced with skepticism and cynicism. Continue reading →

Perception, the Press, and the Pursuit of Truth

For those that don’t know me well, I am a huge sports fan.  Specifically, I am a big Oklahoma State University sports fan.  Rooting for my alma mater is something that has been a part of my life since long before my matriculation in Stillwater, OK.  Two weeks ago, while enjoying the OSU football team beating up on a well-undermanned University of Texas-San Antonio team, I began to hear and read rumors that a big scandal was about to break regarding the Cowboy football program.

Sure enough a few hours later, the school sent out a mass e-mail warning alumni and fans that Sports Illustrated was about to run a series of stories that would make allegations of disturbing behavior that ran the gamut of NCAA violations.  Anxiety of the unknown hammer that was about to drop consumed me and the rest of the fan base who love the school so much.

Continue reading →

The Cage

A friend of mine likes to tell the story of the time he was in military survival training and he was forced into a cage to simulate what a prisoner of war might experience. The cage, he says, was small, hot, and dark. After a few hours of struggling, he found a way to position his body that, though very tight, was tolerable. A few minutes later, he fell asleep. In fact, his sleep was so deep that several hours passed and the training ended. The trainers, upon finding him asleep, unlocked his cage and walked away. Upon waking, his struggles resumed.

This went on for several more hours until he again returned to sleep as his coping mechanism. As his friends who had participated in the drill alongside him were celebrating their completion of the exercise into the morning hours, they began to realize he was missing from the celebration. After calling around for a while, they returned to the exercise ground to find him still sleeping in that tiny cage. After waking him, they reveled in informing him that he had spent hour after hour in an unlocked cage. He had become so comfortable in his captivity that he failed to realize his freedom. Continue reading →

An honest reflection on the election of Pope Francis

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As the white smoke began to pour out of the Sistine Chapel chimney, my heart began pounding.  I felt a great deal of nervous excitement to hear the outcome.  The more minutes that passed between the reports of white smoke and movement on the balcony of St. Peter’s basilica, the more nervous and excited I became.  Finally, after what seemed like hours had passed, “Habemus Papam!” was declared. Continue reading →

Father Z on meeting Pope Francis in 2009

Wow.  What a day!  I’m still trying to process everything. I fully expected the conclave to go on at least until tomorrow, but I guess the Holy Spirit had another plan.  That plan is Pope Francis.

It will take some time to really get to know our new Pope, but as I have started to learn about him, I came across this post from Fr. John Zuhlsdorf from 2009. If your heart isn’t moved by the humble, unassuming nature of our new Holy Father, you might not be wired right. Continue reading →

Conclave 2013: How are you following it?

View from the top of St. Peter's BasilicaOur Sunday Visitor has released a detailed schedule of how the papal conclave should happen.  If you are like me, you see that schedule and are probably wondering how you are going to get your work done at the office this week while trying to follow one of the biggest moments in Catholic history.  Unless you work at an office that allows for constant TV monitoring, you will certainly, like me, have to rely on the Internet to keep you up to date.  If that is the case, how are you planning on doing it?  What kind of resources will you be using?  I don’t know any secrets, but I’ve listed some of my resources below. Continue reading →