Stay Close. The Battle is Already Won.

The gates of the netherworld shall not prevail. (Matthew 16:18)

The data can be troubling. Studies continue to show a decline in church attendance, especially among young people. Fewer and fewer people are calling themselves Christian, with many opting for the vague term of “spiritual, but not religious.” Each of us probably knows someone who is struggling with their faith or who has left the Church. And yet Jesus promised that the gates of hell would never prevail against the Church. How can we believe this?

Perhaps the best place to start is by taking these words personally. Remember, Jesus has placed his Church in our hands, so it’s worth asking what role we have to play in fulfilling the promise. “What can I do to make sure the Church remains safe?”

The answer is as simple as it is challenging: stay close to Jesus. He has already won the battle against the devil, so he can defend you as well. Try as they might, the powers of sin and darkness won’t be able to sway you if you keep yourself connected to the Lord. It doesn’t mean you’ll be free from temptation, but it does mean that you’ll find the strength to stand firm. Be faithful to daily prayer. Make the most of your time at Mass. Pursue the Sacrament of Reconciliation. And serve Jesus as he is present in the poor and needy.

Of course, these are the obvious answers. But have you ever thought about how, when you are praying or celebrating Mass, you are also pushing back the devil and his power? Remember, you are a member of the body of Christ. There are very real spiritual consequences to your prayer life—consequences for the entire Church! As you stay close to the Lord, you are strengthening and defending all of your brothers and sisters around the world.

It’s because individual believers all over the world are clinging to Jesus right now that his Church remains protected. So as you intercede today for the Church or for family members who are struggling in their faith, you can be confident in Jesus’ promise. You can pray from a position of trust because you are part of the answer to your own prayers!

“Jesus, you are victorious! You have given new life to each member of your Church. Strengthen your body on earth.”

Casting Yourself Into the Wind

Lord, if it is you . . . (Matthew 14:28)

A contemporary poet once wrote, “A good love is one that casts you into the wind, sets you ablaze, makes you burn through the skies and ignite the night like a phoenix; the kind that cuts you loose like a wildfire, and you can’t stop running simply because you keep on burning everything that you touch.”

Peter might agree with this description because this is the kind of love that he had for Jesus. From the moment he abandoned his fishing nets, he cast himself “into the wind” with Jesus, following him wherever he went and trying to imitate him. He even tried to walk on water for him! Though Jesus had to rescue him, it is inspiring that Peter got out of the boat in the first place. He couldn’t help himself; he just had to be where Jesus was.

In the same bold manner in which he stepped out onto the water, Peter promised at the Last Supper that he would never deny Jesus. But just as he foundered in the water, Peter gave into fear a few hours later—three times. But again, just as he did when Peter was sinking, Jesus rescued him, this time with a single glance (Luke 22:61). While that look made Peter aware of his sin, it also led him to repentance. According to Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher to the papal household, it was a look of “kindness that offers forgiveness.” “Gentle and silent,” it helped Peter remember Jesus’ love and gave him the courage not to give in to hopelessness but to keep trying to follow the Lord.

Peter knew he wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t focus on his failings. Instead, he kept his eyes on Jesus and persisted in taking the next step toward him, whether that meant trying to walk on water or repenting for his lack of faith. Jesus’ love for Peter had set his heart ablaze, and his heart continued to burn precisely because Peter didn’t give up.

Today, picture yourself looking into Jesus’ eyes, and try to receive his gentle look of love. As Pope Francis likes to say, Dejàte misericordiar, “Let yourself be ‘mercy’d.’” Surely your heart can burn with love as well.

“Lord, enkindle in me a desire to follow you and remain close to you my whole life.”

Honest Review

“Hear this, Hananiah! The Lord has not sent you, and you have raised false confidence in this people.” (Jeremiah 28:15)

Imagine you’re walking into a performance evaluation. This evaluation is unique because you can choose what feedback you’ll be hearing. On the one hand, you can choose an honest review. Your hard work will be recognized. But your weaknesses will also be identified, and strategies for improvement will be outlined. On the other hand, you can choose to hear only glowing praise of your work, with no insights on how you can do better or hold onto your job.

You know you probably should opt for an honest review, right?

Today’s first reading offers us a dramatic example of contrasting spiritual evaluations. Hananiah probably wanted to boost morale among his countrymen, who were facing a threat from the Babylonian army. So he prophesied that they would triumph, and very soon. But because his “prophetic” words didn’t really come from the Lord, they didn’t help. By contrast, Jeremiah offered God’s honest assessment of the situation in the hopes of preparing the people for the challenges to come.

How about you? How have you experienced the Holy Spirit’s “honest assessments”? Maybe you’ve discovered that more than any supervisor, he appreciates and values you even when your “performance” isn’t stellar. He sees the potential in you and wants to help you reach it. And whether or not you always feel it, he honors you for all the ways you are serving him—even if they seem small and imperfect to you.

Of course, the Spirit is no stranger to your weaknesses. Even as he honors you, he also calls attention to your thought patterns and attitudes that don’t represent him well. But he’s careful not to condemn. Neither does he leave you feeling mired in your weaknesses. Instead, he offers grace to change and encouragement every step of the way.

So try to be extra aware of the Spirit’s helpful convictions today, both the positive and the negative. Try to look on them as divine opportunities for advancement and transformation.

“Holy Spirit, help me hear your voice today.”

Resolve to Be Grateful

I’m enjoying a Bourbon Pecan Tart on a late Saturday morning in Gangnam, Seoul. A tiny cup of bitter espresso sits finished on its plate, satisfied to have accompanied the sweet tart to its end.

Paris Croissant, Gangnam

I’m pondering why it’s taken me so long to write, again. One month turned into a year, and now… what? Two years or more? I don’t know for sure and I’m too lazy to go check.

It doesn’t matter, though. What matters is that I start, again. With a shot of espresso in my tummy, I feel animated to take a few minutes to reflect: where am I in my spiritual life?

Lent, my favorite liturgical session, started out well but ended in sin. How ironic… having gone into Easter as soiled and broken as I was seven years ago, when I first entered the Church. That condition was fitting, though, since it was a sharp reminder of my spiritual pride. I had believed my increase in piety, my growth in charity and my goodness was intrinsic to my own efforts. My fall corrected me of that notion. The subsequent Sacraments (yes, plural) of Reconciliation were a merciful ladder dropped down by God, and I was able to climb out of my own stinking pit of sin. I wager my Guardian Angel gave my soul a helpful push or two during my escape. Now, I’m still not far from the pit I escaped, but the healing has begun and I feel more resolved to continue on my journey towards holiness.

Are you curious about the nature of my fall? Don’t be embarrassed; it’s only natural to be curious. That curiosity, at its best, helps us relate to one another. So, let’s say the fall was murder, adultery and theft. All of the above. Imagine the most damning sin and I committed it because all mortal sin cuts us off from God.

However, let’s not dwell on sin. There is no evil that God cannot forgive. That is the hope that Christ’s death on the Cross gives all humankind: He already paid our debts. He already suffered our punishment that rightfully should’ve been borne by us. This hope is all the more magnified by the fact that Jesus only needed a single drop of His Precious Blood to redeem the whole universe, but He was gratuitous with His Love and endured the Crucifixion.

A moment’s reflection on that thought is bittersweet. I avoided punishment because He bore it for me; but, I have done little to show my gratitude.

You may have felt the same. The gravity of our sins, and the just punishment we deserve, have been forgiven and forgotten. We are happy, but do we just walk away from Jesus like those lepers who were healed? Or do we come back and learn more about this Healer who saved us? He asks us to follow Him, take up our daily challenges and walk with Him. How well are we doing that?

Let us resolve to love Christ better. Let us pray for each other. Ask the Holy Spirit to give us greater grace to carry our crosses so that, step by step, we gradually understand what it means to be a child of God.

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