Bl. Pope John Paul II and My Trip to the Vatican’s Roof

Pope John Paul II

On this day two years ago, I found myself in Rome, jammed shoulder-to-shoulder with 1.5 million people including, purportedly, 1/8 of Poland's population. We cheered and prayed and celebrated as Pope Benedict beatified our great hero, Pope John Paul II, thus bestowing on him the title "blessed."

(If rumors are true, Pope Francis will take the final step and canonize John Paul this October, forever making him Pope Saint John Paul II.)

Outside of the beauty of the Mass, the big highlight for me was viewing it from the Vatican's roof. The night before the beatification a friend gave me a special pass. The pass allowed me to climb on top of the colonnade overlooking St. Peter's Square to watch the ceremony. The view was astounding. I recorded some video of my journey up to the roof which included a brush in with a camera-hating Swiss guard. Enjoy!


3 Keys to Sharing Your Faith with Joy

Every day I talk with atheists, Protestants, and other non-Catholics about my faith. Sometimes the discussion is personal, with me sharing how Jesus has changed my life. Other times it centers on moral issues like abortion, homosexuality, or contraception. And still other times I deal with objections to things like the male-only ordination, the Church's "anti-science" stance, or her bold claims to authority.

Through it all, I've learned that no matter what the topic is, what matters most is the way I choose to dialogue. Reason and logic are important. It's certainly necessary to deliver sharp, well-reasoned explanations of why I believe what I believe. But even when I present an air-tight defense of Jesus' divinity, for example, if I'm a jerk, nobody cares.

The key to evangelizing is joy.

Everyone is drawn to joy, as St. Thomas notes, which makes it the ultimate magnet. Look at the best evangelists down through the centuries and you'll see this. Most drew people in through their warmth and charity. They were gracious people first, great intellects second. And they prove that most people respond to kindness before logic and charity before truth.

Now don't get me wrong. This isn't an either/or situation. We need both charity and truth (see: Caritas in Veritate). Yet I think we emphasize the latter more often than not. You can see this by scanning Catholic websites and bookstores. You'll find thousands of good resources on apologetics, philosophy, logic and more. But there aren't many that teach you how to share your faith with joy and love.

So to that end, here are three ways I evangelize with joy in my own life:

1. Smile profusely.

A smile is perhaps our most powerful evangelistic tool--and one of the most neglected. St. Teresa of Avila famously said, "a sad saint is a bad saint," and the same is true for evangelists.

Just look at Mother Teresa. Despite her dark night of the soul, she walked around with a beaming grin and it was contagious. She knew its value and liked to remind people that, "peace begins with a smile."

As does evangelization.

When discussing your faith, keep reminding yourself to smile. This small act communicates joy more than almost anything else. You'll find that smiling actually improves your tone as well, making it more jovial and upbeat.

During my interview on FoxNews a few months back, several friends told me the Fox online chat room was filled with atheists claiming I "smiled too much" and was "too happy."

I loved hearing that.

It meant most of them had only experienced dry, solemn Catholics. Perhaps I gave them a new face. Maybe I showed them that joy and Catholicism are not mutually exclusive.

As an aside, it should be noted that smiles are just as powerful online. Not because your dialogue partners can see it, but because it affects the way you write. When you participate in a heated combox discussion, try to smile as you type. Just as your physical position shapes the way you pray, so smiling will affect your words and tone online.

2. Practice "affirmative orthodoxy."

When discussing faith with non-Catholics, you'll undoubtedly receive angry comments regarding several controversial subjects: the sexual abuse crisis, the Church's shrinking numbers, her "retrograde" stance on women, abortion, contraception, homosexuality, science, and more.

When this happens, it's often tempting to go on the defensive. You want to launch a powerful natural law defense or fight back with statistics and sharp rebuttals.

But don't fall into that trap. Don't feel as if you're the lone ranger, bulwarking the Church against a vicious onslaught. Instead, spin the critique around, go on the offense, and calmly emphasize the positive.

Cardinal Timothy Dolan is great at this. He practices what John Allen calls "affirmative orthodoxy," which emphasizes what the Church is for rather than what she's against. It focuses on her huge "Yes!" to life, love, and joy rather than her "No" to evil and sin.

Here's what it looks like in practice. Suppose someone frames a question about "homosexual marriage" by asking, "Why does the Church discriminate against homosexuals? Why doesn't it want them to be happy?"

Your first inclination may be to angrily fire back with reasons why homosexual activity is sinful. That may be true, but it's not winsome.

A good alternative would be to respond like this (with, of course, a smile):

"Oh, we Catholics want everyone to be happy! We cherish each man, woman, and child and we're convinced that every person deserves a life full of love and joy. We vigorously protect that.

And you're right that regardless of one's sexual orientation, all people were created by God with supreme dignity, which means nobody should ever be unjustly discriminated against. I'm with you there.

And when it comes to marriage, the Church is the biggest proponent. We're convinced that marriage is the bedrock of society and worth fighting for. Yet central to that institution is the procreation and education of children. Without that, marriage collapses, and so does the society around it.

So we value both the dignity of every person and the supreme value of marriage. We're the strongest proponents of each and will support them till the end of time."

See how instead of beginning with a "no" to homosexual marriage, we start with the Church's "yes" to dignity and love. This is so important since it's easier to communicate joy with a "yes" than a "no."

Now later on in the conversation, you can move to the particular reasons why the Church says "no" to certain things like homosexual marriage. There's a time for that. And I think Cardinal Dolan handles it best again when he explains that the Church only says "no" to other "no's". For example, when people say "no" to the life of an unborn child, the Church is forced to reply with a stronger countering "no."

But begin with affirmative orthodoxy. When facing a prickly question, don't let your blood boil. Don't feel like a crusader against a vicious onslaught. Instead, think "OK, how can I emphasize the Church's great 'Yes!' to all that's good, true, and beautiful?"

3. Learn from the greats.

In my mind, the two most effective evangelists today are Cardinal Dolan and Fr. Robert Barron. Both are brilliant by any measure. Both are clear thinkers and great writers. However most people are drawn to them because of their warmth and charisma.

We can learn a lot by studying their joyful style. In Dolan's case, I highly suggest his new book-length interview with John Allen titled A People of Hope. There he tackles controversial issues, again and again, with great joy and aplomb.

You can also see Dolan Mode in action through many videos online, including this one:

Click here if video doesn't load, and Google "Cardinal Dolan video" for many more.

To learn from Fr. Barron, read his marvelous book, Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith, or catch any of his 180+ YouTube vignettes. Here's one where he explicitly discusses the power of joy in evangelization:

To Cardinal Dolan and Fr. Barron I'd also add Fulton Sheen, Fr. Jim Martin, Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI. Read their writings, watch them on YouTube, and study their methods. By learning from the greats, you'll discover how to evangelize through smiling, humor, and happiness in your own life.

So there are my three strategies. For even more check out a wonderful new book by Austen Ivereigh titled How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice. It's a field-guide to "affirmative orthodoxy" which will help you share your faith with clarity and joy. The book was just released by Our Sunday Visitor and I'm hoping to review it soon. Here's the publisher's description:

"It is about winning friends, not arguments. It is about shedding light, not heat. It's about reframing the argument so hearts can be opened and minds can be inspired.

How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice is a new sort of apologetics. It is for those moments when you are thrust into the spotlight as the token Catholic whether the spotlight is simply at the office water cooler or whether it is front and center at the in-laws Thanksgiving celebration.

The book gives Catholics a fresh way of explaining the Church's teaching on contentious issues humanly, compellingly, and succinctly.

But this book does not pretend to suggest it is as simple as memorizing a speech. Every conversation is different. Every day's news cycle will bring new arguments and new challenges. Instead, it is a book about what the issues really are and where the criticisms are coming from so you can understand and communicate effectively.

It is the fruit of a group of speakers and experts brought together by a single idea: to make sure that Catholics and the Church were represented properly in the media when Pope Benedict came to visit the UK in 2010. Their original and thoughtful approach helped make that visit a triumph and now it can be expanded for a much broader use.

Whether read in groups or alone, studied in schools or parishes, How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice offers the same thorough briefings on hot topics and the same top tips for effective communication which helped make the project such a success."

Image Credit: NY Daily News, St. Louis Review, AsiaNews

Interview with Christopher West

On Monday I reviewed Christopher West's new book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization. Today I'm featuring an interview I did with Christopher in which he covers a range of interesting topics.

Watch the video or stream the audio below (sorry for the choppy picture--still getting the hang of it):


Download the mp3 here (27-minute interview)

Topics Discussed:
0:42 - What is the 'theology of the body'?
3:35 - Insights from Christopher's six-month sabbatical
5:07 - Criticism surrounding the depth of 'original sin'
6:45 - Is it possible to overcome concupiscence in this life?
11:00 - Some concrete solutions to lust
12:24 - Why is Ephesians 5 so important to the 'theology of the body'?
14:11 - One Bible passage that sums up all that God wants to tell us
16:53 - The 'theology of the body'  and the "New Evangelization"
19:00 - Nuptial union with God
20:51 - What role does Mary play in the 'theology of the body?
22:29 - Mary shows us the meaning of our deep longing for love
24:59 - What one thing would Christopher say to the modern world?

Check out Christopher's new book, At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization, and learn more about his work at

What do you think about the 'theology of the body'?

"At the Heart of the Gospel" – Review

Be sure to watch my video interview with Christopher, and also check out out the Patheos Book Club this month for more great discussion about this book.

Chances are when you hear the phrase ‘theology of the body’, Christopher West is one of the first people you think of. West has written several books on the topic and has helped thousands of people unpack these teachings from Pope John Paul II, which primarily concern the purpose of our bodies and the meaning of love.

Yet with all of his success, he has attracted some criticism. Some moral theologians, like Dr. Alice von Hildebrand and Dawn Eden, say West reduces the ‘theology of the body’ to sex, and that he sees the whole of Christianity through that narrow lens—everything from Mary, to the Easter candle, and even the Eucharist.

Others lament his presentation style, claiming it’s too graphic or irreverent. West wasn’t helped by a 2009 Nightline interview in which he compared John Paul II to Playboy-founder Hugh Hefner, explaining how both men rebelled against prudish Victorianism. When it finally aired, the interview misconstrued his comments and made it seem as if West had an equal respect for both men.

All of this criticism, combined with West’s own burnout and workload, finally convinced him to take a sabbatical in mid-2010. For six months he stepped away from the limelight. He got some rest and spent time with his family. And he reflected on his approach to the ‘theology of the body’.

The fruit of that sabbatical is a new book titled At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization (Image books, paperback, 304 pages). One endorsement describes the book as “West’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua”, an allusion to John Henry Newman’s classic text on his journey toward Catholicism.

Like Newman’s book,  At the Heart of the Gospel  responds to specific questions and criticisms. And like Newman, West responds to the criticism with great humility. He doesn't cast it aside without engagement but instead engages it and accepts it at places.

At the Heart of the Gospel summarizes much of West's past work. It includes several long quotes from his other books and readers will find familiar themes like “the great mystery” from Ephesians 5, the divine symbolism in the Song of Songs, and the “wound of Puritanism”, which still haunts the modern culture. West considers the ‘theology of the body’ to be the cure for this particular wound and for the other extreme: the idolization of the body.

As in the Pope's original teachings, the book places a strong focus on “the great analogy of spousal love”. In fact, according to West, this is the “central proclamation of John Paul’s ‘theology of the body’.”:

“(This analogy concerns) the ‘great mystery’ of creation as male and female and the call of the two to become one flesh, (which) was created by God to be the primordial sign of his own ‘Great Mystery’: his eternal exchange of Love and our destiny to share in that exchange through the holy nuptials of Christ’s union with the Church.”

One roadblock to entering this ‘great mystery’ is what theologians call concupiscence—the tendency toward sin. In the sexual realm, concupiscence often appears in the form of lust, and it’s here we arrive at a major point of controversy. Some theologians believe that, at least in this life, concupiscence is insurmountable; it’s an inevitable condition of our fallen nature. No matter how hard we try, we can’t overcome our tendencies toward lust, pride, greed, and the like.

West disagrees. In his new book, he reaffirms that we can overcome this stain, even in the here and now. West is quick to point out that John Paul himself agrees with this view in his original ‘theology of the body’ talks:

Christ has redeemed us! This means he has given us the possibility of realizing the entire truth of our being; he has set our freedom free from the domination of concupiscence.”

Neither West nor the Pope teaches that this freedom comes easy. It’s hard. Pope Benedict XVI says it involves an “undeniably painful transformation.” West explains, however, that it is nevertheless possible through heroic discipline, constant prayer, and a correct understanding of our body. Channeling the wisdom of many saints and mystics, his book unveils a threefold solution which includes purgation (the rejection of sin), illumination (a turning of the mind and will toward God), and finally union (that ecstatic connection with God where sin can’t exist).

One new area West explores in the book is suggested in the subtitle: the intersection between the ‘theology of the body’ and the “New Evangelization”. West sees the ‘theology of the body’ as a powerful “touch point” by which believers can connect with the secular world. Our culture is so charged with sexual desire that these teachings can act as a signpost, pointing to the real object of their yearnings—Jesus Christ. However, engaging the secular world may require language that strikes some as irreverent.

"[The New Evangelization sometimes] means using a language with which a more pious and refined audience might take issue with, so that a much less pious and refined audience might be reached."

In trying to find the right language, West aligns himself with Pope Benedict XVI who says, “one has to meet listeners halfway, one has to speak to them in terms of their own horizon.” Finding this balance is hard, as West freely admits. It’s a process of trial and error. “We must correct errors when we err,” West says, not if we err.

And that’s what West does through his new book. At the Heart of the Gospel  is not a staunch rebuttal from a man sticking to his theological guns. It’s a humble reflection from someone who welcomes criticism and uses it to refine his own work. It will provide new insights for beginners and experts alike and continue the discussion surrounding John Paul's magnificent teachings.

Be sure to watch my video interview with Christopher, and also check out out the Patheos Book Club this month for more great discussion about this book.

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  • "There is only one tragedy in the end, not to have been a saint." - Léon Bloy