Jan. 22nd, 2017 | The 23rd Times

Growing in Your Faith Sounds Wonderful… Until the Work Begins

By Damian Hanley

If growing in our faith was easy, everyone would do it. Some days, I feel like stagnation is an accomplishment. But it’s not. Stagnation is a lie. Without concerted effort to become better Catholics, entropy leads us down a path that is so, so easy to walk down. Everywhere we look we see the cheapening of life and the degradation of humanity. And so we go to Church every Sunday and pay our bills. We’re kind to others and we’re patient in our workplace. We forgive telemarketers for interrupting us. Sometimes we even look our waiter in the eye and over-tip because we know his life is hard and we’ve been blessed. But this isn’t growth. This is just common decency.

This week, or month, or year or whatever your stamina can tolerate, we want to challenge you to grow in your faith. What does that even mean? Being a better Catholic means going out of your way to be messengers of Christ. He taught love, tolerance, forgiveness, patience and in general, alleviating the suffering that is everywhere you look… if you look.

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We interviewed Kathy Ogan because she’s an example of someone that didn’t have to change. There are plenty of women in her demographic that play golf and swill martinis and live out their lives in relative comfort because…why not? Let’s face it, most of us need an absolute crisis to get shaken out of our comfort zones. And outside our comfort zones is where real growth takes place. Disagree? Go spend an afternoon on Palm Beach Blvd at our St. Martin de Porres ministry and try to spread the Gospel there. Report back to us.

But by all measures, Kathy had an idyllic upbringing.

“I was the youngest of 6 children and my parents were very involved with the faith. We grew up saying the Rosary during the month of the Rosary and there was a lot of prayer in the home. There were a lot of religious artifacts around the house, and my family was heavily involved with the Church. I went to Catholic grade school and high school, but after high school, there might have been a few years where I didn’t really attend regularly – for no particular reason. But I eventually made it back.”

Dysfunctional parents? Nope. “My mother was my role model. Kind, giving, gentle and faith-filled, she always brought the lessons of life back to her faith.”

For a lot of us, we move through life and take our faith for granted. That is, we make mistakes, we stumble, but we’re surrounded by a social safety net that will catch us before we fall too low. Our appetites are tame because we want for nothing. We have a general sense that the world is a decent place because, well, this is the United States and we believe in fairness and some semblance of a meritocracy.

But somewhere along the way, an inexplicable void antagonizes our peace. Some turn to the drink, others affairs or money. We seek and do not find until we realize that the cure to what ails us is spiritual.

And this is where, whether overtly or in the depths of our soul, we ask our God to touch us and push us in the direction of growth.
Sometimes our need to grow comes later in life, as it did for Kathy. “I was at women’s Catholic retreat in my mid-40’s at my Parish in Indiana. And during that weekend, I heard women share their stories. I heard them talk about serious conflicts in their lives and how they’d depended on their faith to carry them through. It was the first time in my life that I really started considering a personal relationship with Christ. There was also this priest that went through each part of the Mass and explained the evolution of how the modern Mass came to be. It was an incredibly intimate experience.”

Kathy emerged more dedicated and genuinely wanting a closer connection to her faith. She became a Eucharistic Minister and a Sacristan. “It wasn’t even something I was looking for at that time, but I said yes.”

Having that intimate encounter with the women on the retreat – women on the same mission as herself taught her a valuable lesson.
“You see and feel on a deeper level that everyone carries something with them. And you find out how they survive – how they make it. You find out from where they draw their strength. It’s Christ.”

Really, it is though.

“One woman forgave another couple for their son shooting and killing her son. It was accidental, but she knew she had to confront these people and tell them that she forgave them, and that she didn’t hold any ill feelings.”

That experience taught her the vital importance of sharing those parts of ourselves with each other, because we’ve all got something to work on. That’s how we grow. We confront the darkest parts of ourselves. Our culture would have gladly justified her resentment if she were to carry it to her grave, but our faith demands we forgive.

God has a way of covertly touching our hearts when we aren’t expecting it. Kathy is a very poised, elegant woman who you may not expect would jump head first into the gritty side of hospital ministry, but she did.

“I’ve worked on fundraisers and concert committees, and been a Eucharistic minister, but the hospital ministry has definitely provided the most growth in my faith. You walk into a room and you never know what you’re going to find. These are people who are in serious need of communion.”

“I’ve been to many of the women’s retreats and in them you meet so many of the women of the Parish. It makes you feel so connected. You realize we’re all part of this great community… and that’s what I was really looking for. I don’t want to be just a church attendee. I want to be a church member.

Kathy is the community outreach chair of her neighborhood. She volunteers at Lifeline Family Center – a home for at-risk pregnant and new mothers. She’s begun volunteering at Verity, a pro-life crisis pregnancy center. This is the track record of a person who is in “growth mode”.

There have been periods of my life characterized by this path as well. Kathy is purposefully putting herself in situations where the most marginalized and vulnerable people in our society reside – the ill and infirmed, the isolated and ashamed. These are the people that Christ would have spent his time with if he were walking the earth today.

Our Parish – St. John XXIII is a faith-filled place, full of believers and those that understand the Path. We know how to walk the path, and we know better when we’re not walking it. But there is still a huge population of people out there – the young, the neglected, and the exploited, who really don’t know what it means to be loved. Christ to them is an esoteric idea that their lack of self-worth won’t allow them to truly accept.

If they were present, their parents were a disaster. Their educational system failed them, and they’re caught in a spiral of chasing hedonistic pleasure until the consequences become too much for them to handle.

The law catches up to them. An addiction overtakes them. They sell the only asset they have, and we, in our gated communities think only about trafficking and slavery when it hits the news or when October rolls around. But sex slavery and prostitution take no days off.

These are the girls that end up in the NICU, or at Verity, or at Lifeline because the $400 they were given to terminate, ended up at the methadone clinic. And it is the Catholic’s job to love these people.

That’s how we really grow. We love the unlovable – the lepers.
“The important truth that I’ve been searching for, for several years is…my purpose… What is my purpose for Christ on earth? And how can I use my experiences for good? Everything I’ve been through in my past – I’ve found – is to be used for his purpose,” Kathy shares. “Something will come through me and touch someone for His purpose.”

“The early stages of my faith journey didn’t really begin until my 40s, but the lesson I’ve learned is that growth only happens with participation… even the slightest bit of participation will take you somewhere. The one thing I’ve done right is I’ve just reached out. I have a list of past and present ministries that I’ve been a part of – like the soup kitchen or the food pantry. I’ll try something for a year and see if it feels right. Our Parish doesn’t care if something isn’t a fit.”

I think the first step to growth is awareness. If you have a roof over your head, a basic grasp of Christ’s message to the poor (of spirit) and are relatively happy, you have MUCH to give. This is your exercise for this week. Jump on your computer. Go to Google, and type in “lee county sheriff arrest yesterday” and click on the top result. Click on their names and look at their faces. Look at the years they were born – 1995, 1998, 1989. Look at their charges – larceny, petty theft, battery, DUI, trespassing, resisting an officer, possession of a controlled substance. Depending on what time of day, there might be 20 or 30 people. Look at their eyes. If you don’t think there are thousands of people in our city that need a Christian, you are telling yourself a lie. These people will end up at the Salvation Army. They’ll end up in prison. They’ll end up in a women’s shelter. They’ll end up in diversion programs, and they will continue this cycle until someone shows up and loves them the way Christ demands we love them. If you want to grow in your faith, this is the fast track. Volunteer at these places and see what happens to your spiritual life.

Be like Kathy. Put yourself in front of the suffering and you will grow. Common decency is nice, but holiness is much, much nicer.

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