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Waiting to exhale

File photo of Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa preaching at Vatican

The Lenten Season is, par excellence, the time of inspiration.  At this time, we take deep breaths; we fill the lungs of our soul with the Holy Spirit and thus, without our realizing it, our breath will have the scent of Christ. Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, First Lenten homily for 2015 reflecting on Evangelii Gaudium

A good friend of mine recently shared with me a website promoting the premiere of  National Geographic’s film Killing Jesus.  The movie charts the political and historical conflicts that led to the execution of Jesus. Its main draw being that it explores the differing perspectives on who Jesus was and how that affected the telling of his story.

All of which got me thinking about the Passion narrative; because, every time I think about it, I can’t help but ask myself whose actions would be my own? Some years ago I imagined myself as Mary Magdalene or Veronica but more recently I’ve been wondering what if I’m Peter or worse, Judas?

Trying to understand the motivations of those who interacted with Jesus is not easy. Most of the time, I’m left thinking, what’s that even supposed to mean?

So to help me dive deeper into the story, I’ve been revisiting the homilies of Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa. Anyone who has read or listened to Fr. Cantalamessa knows that there’s a very good reason that he is the preacher to the papal household. His homilies are excellent.  There are several reasons, but I’ll keep it to three.


First his poetic use of imagery, I recall  during the Good Friday service in 2013 he made reference to a short story by Franz Kafka called an Imperial Message. He used the story as a metaphor for ourselves in relation to Holy Spirit. And if you’ve ever read any Kafka you know his surreal, nightmarish depictions will leave you disturbed. But given Fr. Cantalamessa’s point – that we need to get out of the way and let the Holy Spirit do its work – it was a point worth making!


Secondly, even though I gain a tremendous amount of insight (theological and historical) from his homilies they’re always accessible. He has this amazing way of providing broad scope but always bringing it back to everyday realities  (not unlike my other favourite homilist, Papa Francesco). For example, in his homily for the 2014 Good Friday service he reflected on Judas and his role in Christ’s Passion. And boy did he bring it home:


One can betray Jesus for other kinds of compensation than 30 pieces of silver. A man who betrays his wife, or a wife her husband, betrays Christ. The minister of God who is unfaithful to his state in life, or instead of feeding the sheep entrusted to him feeds himself, betrays Jesus. Whoever betrays their conscience betrays Jesus. Even I can betray him at this very moment — and it makes me tremble — if while preaching about Judas I am more concerned about the audience’s approval than about participating in the immense sorrow of the Savior. There was a mitigating circumstance in Judas’ case that that I do not have. He did not know who Jesus was and considered him to be only “a righteous man”; he did not know, as we do, that he was the Son of God.


And lastly, I love his homilies because he makes connections to great literature and music which reminds me that I’m joined with all humanity in contemplating the great questions of life. All of which is very inspiring.  So in the words of Fr. Cantalamessa,  I invite you to take some time this week to be inspired, so that you too may have “the scent of Christ”.


From March 30 to April 6 Salt + Light will bring you full coverage of the Holy Week and Easter liturgies led by Pope Francis.

Photo credit: CNS

Want to be happy? Settle for less.



Turns out living simply and settling for ‘good enough’ is a sure fire way to be happy. Barry Schwartz in his popular TED talk on the paradox of choice suggests that we’ve been ingrained with the idea that the way to be happy is to maximize our freedom. And the way that we maximize our freedom, we presume, is to maximize our choices. But as Schwartz demonstrates, not only are we not happier when we have too much choice; we also experience decision paralysis and diminished satisfaction.  Why? Because too many choices makes us question our decisions, sets our expectations too high, and the result is we blame ourselves for our mistakes (as pointed out in this article.)  It also interestingly explains why New Yorkers despite their plethora of choice have a hard time finding a spouse.  As Barry Schwartz puts it, ‘the key to happiness is to have low expectations’. You may chuckle at this thought as I did,  but in a sense I think this is what Pope Francis is getting at when he reminds us to live simply.  Living simply means that we are choosing to limit ourselves so that we can be truly happy and ultimately free.


Here’s what I’m saying,  there’s this Franciscan mission I once visited, I remember the place because the house echoed when you entered it and I felt that I could literally count all the objects inside  the place and, except for some flowers next to a statue of the Virgin Mary, there was nothing that wasn’t essential. Now, these Franciscans didn’t have much choice (in the conventional sense) but  I’d say that they were probably the happiest people I’ve ever met.

Now there’s a host of reasons for their joy, but I believe part of the secret to their happiness lies in the simplicity of their lives. Their radical commitment to live in solidarity with the poor means that there are a host of decisions that they’ll never have to make, and overall they will be more satisfied with what they do have.  And since every day is lived with a reliance on Divine Providence it allows them to experience genuine delight more frequently because they’re not expecting everything to be, well, perfect all the time. When was the last time you were genuinely delighted? It was probably when you weren’t expecting anything at all.


And this leads me to how we view limitations. There’s an insight I had watching the movie Gravity. Our entire lives we think of the law of gravity as something that needs to be overcome; gravity is that force that keeps you down, prevents you from getting to the stars! But, what I came to realize through the course of that movie was that no, gravity is really, really good. In fact, its  amazing –   because its what keeps you from flying off into space, its what make life on earth possible, and what makes flight enjoyable!  Limitations allow us to flourish.  So all this to say that when Pope Francis calls us to live simply, he’s  actually inviting us to be happy. To experience true abiding happiness.  And that, my friends, has got to  be worth a try.

A wimpy saint?


I told the Lord, ‘You take care of me. But if your will is that I die or that they do something to me, I ask you just one favor: that it doesn’t hurt because I am a big wimp when it comes to physical pain.

Pope Francis when asked about people’s concerns for his safety

When the Pope admitted this week that he is a wimp when it came to physical pain, I breathed a sigh of relief. Phew! Even the Pope struggles with this issue.

Yeah, I’m a wimp. I admit it. I’ve read the lives of the early Christian martyrs, The Jesuit Relations, even stories of the Christians being persecuted around the globe at this very moment, and the mere thought of suffering like that fills me with horror and the fear that I’m going buckle when put to the test.

This realization also doubles my awe at those who have embraced their persecution.  For example, when the Nazi’s came to take St Edith Stein ( Teresa Benedicta of the Cross) she didn’t resist.  All she said was, “Come Rosa, let us go for Our People”. She knew what lay ahead, but she embraced her suffering with grace and serenity.

How does one get to that point? How am I going to learn to embrace suffering with grace?

Well, I got a clue this past week. I attended a talk on St Edith Stein’s prayer life, hosted by the Association of Hebrew Catholics Toronto. The speaker Mark Neugebauer, like Edith Stein was born Jewish and later became a believer.

By way of relating St Edith’s experience to us, Mark also shared some anecdotes from his own life. His family had been in Auschwitz – his father and uncle. Here’s what’s struck me though, he said that one came out of the experience hating God and the other loving God even more.The difference between the two? The one who had shaky faith before he went into Auschwitz ended up hating God.

That made me think.

In other words, the faith of the one who believed was strengthened in the face of persecution and suffering. Instead of being broken, the believer was sustained and strengthened.

The whole thing seems counter-intuitive, but the more I mulled this over, the more it seemed to explain how saints like Maximilian Kolbe could shine so brightly in a concentration camp.

So Pope Francis may be convinced he’s a wimp, but I’d be willing to bet that his Goliath-like faith will sustain him through the worst of trials.  As for myself, well, let’s just say that after reflecting on these stories I am more determined than ever to be that saint, but I’m not quite ready for the rack just yet.

The ring or the veil?

CUA students enjoy group discussion while they reflect on the lives of the saints.

This past week, I was in Washington D.C. to lead the Women’s Lenten Retreat for CUA’s Campus Ministry. The girls were amazing, I loved spending time with them. Their faith and their joy was inspiring. They were like the Church’s Light Brigade!

As we reflected on the lives of saints such as Gianna Beretta Molla, Kateri Tekakwitha, Chiara Badano, Dorothy Day and Marie of the Incarnation  we also talked a lot about game-changing life decisions. The big question being, “how do we reconcile our desire to do great things, our ambition to share our gifts and talents with the world, to leave our mark, with our responsibility to be witnesses to the faith?” Particularly when we are struggling to make a choice between two goods.

For example, one of the conversations I had was with a young women who had been dating someone for several months, they were both really committed to their faith life – went to Mass together, prayed together and loved studying theology and discussing the big questions. They were growing very close to each other. He was a great person.

However, she had recently attended Mass at the Dominican Sisters. She described the experience as “the most beautiful experience she’d ever had”. She wanted to find out more, but she didn’t know what that might mean for her relationship. The good guy that he was, he was very supportive of her choice to explore a possible vocation, but the fact that he was so supportive made it even more difficult to imagine not being with him.  Eeeek!

Tough situation, right? Two good things both reinforcing and confirming how good each choice is.

This year’s Women’s Lenten Retreat was held at Marlu-Ridge. During breaks, a walk through nature was a welcome treat!

I recalled a similar experience. Early on in filming The Church Alive series, I visited a Franciscan community which blew me away. I remembered how their radical commitment to poverty, their joy, the simplicity of their lives set my heart on fire. It made me question for a split second, if I was going to have to break it to my fiancee that I was running away to a nunnery?

Dodged that bullet.

But her story also reminded me of something else, something that one of my university profs once said to me, “Don’t you know Cheridan? You are a mystery even to yourself”. He was like Yoda when he said stuff like; I’d always say to myself “what does that even mean?!”

But what I came to realize eventually, is that only God knows who we truly are.  Life then is about discovering yourself in relation to the One who made you. And I don’t know why, but that revelation took some of the pressure off. I realized that it wasn’t so much up to me to make the perfect choice, but rather to discover who I am in relation to God and the rest would fall into place.

Be on the lookout for a Catholic Focus episode featuring Campus Ministry at the Catholic University of America in the coming months.

Cardinal Tagle recently spoke at CUA to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Gaudium et Spes. To hear what Cardinal Tagle had to say about evangelization and Pope Francis’ recent visit to Asia check out Daily Perspectives starting at 1:04

Sweet and sour pork, encounter and dialogue – Cardinal ‘Chito’ Tagle on evangelization in Asia

This week David LeRoss and I did some filming at the Catholic University of America, and as Providence would have it, we had the opportunity to hear Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle speak at the Annual Cardinal Dearden Lecture.  The Cardinal spoke about evangelization in Asia in light of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.  We caught up with Cardinal Tagle after the talk and asked him to share some thoughts on his talk and the Pope’s recent visit to Asia. You can hear that interview here starting at 1:04.

Read more about the lecture here.

Photo credit: David Leross, S+L Television 


Pope Francis: Chiara Lubich, luminous exemplary life


Recently, Pope Francis announced the cause for Chiara Lubich’s canonization opened! Definitely cause for celebration!

Chiara, a young lay women, founded the movement when she was just 23 years old. Today Focolare or Work of Mary, present in 180 countries globally, is an international community of men and women that promotes unity and universal brotherhood. What started out as an experiment among friends in the war-torn city of Trent in 1943 has since borne extraordinary fruits. In the 70 years since its founding, the movement has already yielded a Blessed! To find out more about Focolare watch our Catholic Focus episodes, Focolare: The Work of Mary. We also recommend that you check out Fr. Thomas Rosica’s Witness Interview with Maria Voce, President of Focolare.

CNS photo/Alessia Giuliani, Catholic Press Photo

God’s Politics?

gods politics-001

What’s the old saying? Don’t mix politics and religion in polite conversation. Well, if the current state of world affairs tells us anything, it’s that polite conversation may be the only place where religion and politics don’t mix.

So, what then is God’s Politics?

This edition of the Chesterton Debate aims to find out as two luminaries square off for this hot topic: Iain Benson, a Catholic legal philosopher and Leslie Rosenblood, founding member of the Canadian Secular Alliance will consider the role of religion in political life.

In the meantime, this document regarding the Participation of Catholics in the Political Life is worth a read.

You can listen to the previous Chesterton debate here.

The Chesterton Debate will air on S+L on March 19 at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT and will repeat on March 21 at 9 pm ET/6 pm PT.


Unsung Heros No More

communicating charism 2

It’s a familiar story, religious women doing exceptional works and for the most part going unnoticed.  But that’s about to change. Thanks to a $900 000 dollar grant from the Conrad Hilton Foundation. The Loyola Institute for Ministry will use the grant to help Catholic sisters in the U.S. and Africa build their social media presence.

This past week, Fr. Tom Rosica, CSB and I met with the recipients of the grant in New Orleans. Having spent some time with them, all I can say is that I was blown away.  It’s inspiring to hear about their work: from housing and educating HIV orphans, to preventing human trafficking, and educating young girls in the remotest parts of the world, these ‘Brides of Christ’ are magnificent examples of Christian discipleship.

One community even has two sisters making roads into the interior of Timor-Leste to minister to the needy.

I’m delighted that Salt+Light will work closely with the Sisters, and we’re looking forward to developing a series which will highlight the Sisters’ charisms.

As we progress through the stages of this project, I look forward to sharing with you the joys and I ask you pray for us as we undertake this significant endeavour.

Stay tuned.

communicating charism


Marie of the Incarnation: one badass saint



[MASS NOUN] North American informal

Behaviourcharacteristics, or actions regarded as formidably impressive: few of us can attain her level of badassery

The other day I read an article that used the word ‘badassery’. I couldn’t believe it: had the word finally crossed the Rubicon and become a legitimate word? I checked the Oxford dictionary. Yup, there it was. That got me thinking: the word has some social heft.

It’s not a word that you toss out there for casual emphasis. No, ‘baddassery’ is a word that should be used to describe only the most substantial, the most impactful of characters.

Now, the article I read used the term in reference to an actor who had taken on some interesting roles – hardly badass, I thought.  You know who are ‘badass’?  The missionaries to New France. These men and women had courage. And there’s no one with more true grit than St. Marie of the Incarnation!

Let’s recount.

The Raw Deal

From a young age St Marie knew she had a religious calling but her parents couldn’t see their daughter being cloistered, so they married her off to a silk merchant instead.  Tragedy soon struck. Her husband died and left Mary Guyart a widow at nineteen with a six-month-old child. She also inherited a bankrupt business and lawsuits.

But this would be first opportunity for Marie to show what she was made of.

Ingenious Entrepreneur

Turns out she had a knack for business, and not only did she make the silk merchant business profitable, from there she went on to run her brother-in-law’s transport company.  She took care of everything: the inventory of goods, the drivers, even the 60 horses.

Again she wanted to enter the convent but her relatives thought her totally irrational.  Even after she entered they tried to persuade her to leave – her son went so far as to raid the convent!

And that’s just the beginning of her trials and tribulations.

Intrepid Missionary

Once she got permission to go to New France to be a missionary – and let’s be clear the closest analogy today would be if she decided to sign up for the Mars Mission – there’s the perilous voyage there, the work of setting up the mission and learning the native languages.

But get this, once she accomplishes all this, the whole convent burns down and she has to start again!  She’s in mounds of debt, without shelter, and its winter. Nevertheless she fights on and rebuilds.

Unswerving Servant of God

What’s so impressive about St. Marie of the Incarnation is despite the obstacles she faces she never loses faith. And because of this, God forges her into someone altogether exceptional.  She becomes a formidable woman. A saint!

Check out this badass CV:

  • Founder of Canada
  • First female missionary to North America
  • Founder of the Canadian Church
  • Fluent in Huron, Algonkian, Montagnais, and Iroquois
  • Authored first catechism in Iroquoi
  • Eminent historical source of Catholic, French, and Canadian history

All this is to say that although ‘few of us can attain her level of badassery, but with a little faith (and humility) nothing is impossible for God.

Divine reno? 5 tips from a pro on becoming a missional parish

Have you ever sat in mass and prayed really hard – “please God, please. Let this be over soon!” Somewhere between the grumpy greeter, the off-key cantor, the lackluster homily and your own unenthusiastic recitation of the Creed, you realize that there’s something terribly wrong with this picture. I don’t want to be here!

Is there anything worse than a room full of people who are doing something only because they feel obligated to be there?

In Fr. Mallon’s latest book, Divine Renovation: From a Maintenance to a Missional Parish he offers a blueprint (with lots of proven practical ideas) on what it takes to turn the situation around.

Remembering Our Identity and Purpose

Fr. Mallon suggests that at the heart of every crisis, is an identity crisis.  Knowing who we are and why we exist is critical. Pope Francis reminds us that the Church exists for the sake of the Mission. And the mission is to follow Christ’s command “to go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28: 16-20)

But far too many of us have been crippled by a culture of maintenance, too content with serving ourselves. Fr. Mallon explores this at length but what it all boils down to is this:  are you making disciples?

I want things messy and stirred up in the church.  I want the church to take to the streets! Pope Francis

Clear Out the Junk

I know, this charge is a tough one – but it’s what we have to do.  Fr. Mallon reminds us when rebuilding a house there is always a certain amount of demolition that needs to happen.  Structures that no longer give life or serve the mission obviously need to be removed.

I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.  Pope Francis

Lay down a Strong Foundation

Laying down a strong foundation has to do with transforming the culture inside the parish. The foundation of any human organization is its culture. Even though the Church is both human and divine, Fr. Mallon reminds us that that if the human foundation is not healthy then no matter how intense or sincere the spiritual commitment – the foundation will be fragile.

The way then of determining what the community actually values is not to assess what is says but what it does.

Look at how the parish spends its time and money.  If a parish says that evangelization is a priority, is that reflected in the budget? If a parish says it values adult formation, is there a budget and a person who oversees this initiative?

We need to avoid the spiritual sickness of a church that is wrapped up in its own world: when a church becomes like this, it grows sick. Pope Francis

Sacraments as our greatest pastoral opportunity

People who have little or no connection to the Church regularly come knocking when it comes time to receive the sacraments.  Administering the sacraments then, is our greatest pastoral challenge and… our greatest opportunity! Mallon reminds us that The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that liturgy and sacraments “must be preceded by evangelization, faith and conversion” (CCC, no. 1072). In other words, a weekend program is not going to cut it.  If we want to make disciples it begins with reevaluating the way that we “do” Church. Ask yourself: are our parish programs and various initiatives bringing about genuine encounters with Christ or are we just “getting the job done”?

We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. Pope Francis

Dream Big. Acquiring Vision

Being spiritual is not enough to bring about parish renewal. According to Mallon, leadership is key. He makes many good points, but one thing that definitely jumps out is the importance of vision. He notes that the primary job of a leader is to communicate a vision or “a picture of the future that produces passion in us…If a leader cannot do this, he will not lead anyone or anything.”

The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. Pope Francis

Filled with practical insights, anyone who has worked in parish ministry will find the material discussed in this book good ‘food for thought’.

Stay tuned for an upcoming Catholic Focus episode featuring Fr. James Mallon

CNS photo