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Faith and relationships and getting them both right



Casey Chalk - published on 01/14/19

And why it all starts with ... the dishes.
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“To die well is to teach others how to live.” So says Catholic author Mary Eberstadt in The Last Homily: Conversations with Fr. Arne Panula, a book about the Vicar of the Prelature of Opus Dei in the United States, who died of cancer in 2017.

Few Catholics outside the D.C area are likely familiar with Fr. Arne, who never wrote a book or made national headlines. Yet a list of those who appear in Eberstadt’s book to laud his role among “billionaires and Supreme Court Justices” indicates the breadth of his influence: George Weigel, Fr. Thomas Joseph White, Arthur Brooks, Hadley Arkes, Peter Thiel, and Fr. Paul Scalia, to name but a few.

Here are a few of the most salient lessons from the late Fr. Arne.

Our faith is a relationship …

Fr. Arne relates an anecdote from the life of St. Josemaria Escriva. The founder of Opus Dei was sitting in the confessional in the mornings, and kept hearing the church door bang open, then the clanging of cans, then another slamming shut of doors. The Spanish saint determined to station himself on the church steps so he could discover the origin of these sounds.

The next morning a milkman appeared, carrying his cans into church. St. Josemaria asked the man what he was doing. The milkman answered, “Father, every day I come here, open the door, and say ‘Hello, Jesus! Here’s John the milkman.’”

The priest spent the remainder of the day asking God for the faith of John the milkman.

Catholic doctrines and practices are fundamental to our faith. Yet they shouldn’t obstruct us from seeing Catholicism as essentially relational.

Fr. Arne explains:

Believing in God is a collaboration. God doesn’t force us to do it. But that’s what makes faith an adventure.

He cites two larger-than-life authorities in the Catholic Church to support this claim.

Pope Benedict has said: we believe in someone, not something. Thomas Aquinas says similarly in the Summa Theologiae that the object of our faith is not a dogma, but a person. That’s what makes faith fascinating. All the adventure, all the mystery of any and every interpersonal encounter is there.

When we perceive our faith as an adventure, open to the person of Christ, we become capable of allowing Him to do amazing things in our lives.

… And our faith is relationships

We live in an era of contradictions, where we are increasingly connected in a digital world, but increasingly disconnected from each other; we enjoy greater freedoms than perhaps any previous generation, but we find ourselves enslaved to technology and our jobs.

Fr. Arne notes:

We aren’t meant to be atomized creatures. We want to share our beliefs, our thoughts, our hopes. This is especially true of our deepest, most cherished convictions — our beliefs about what’s most important.

The Opus Dei priest argues that the popular notion of “spiritual, not religious” ties into this isolation, in that being “spiritual,” is something essentially individualistic, while being “religious” is typically communal.

Part of overcoming this trend towards deeper isolation is to recognize our fundamental dependence on others. Fr. Arne cites Peter Lawler, who refers to the children of today’s secularized elite as “social solitaries.” These “solitaries” consider themselves as “self-sufficient wholes.” Yet, “how can an individual be a whole? Only by being without the longing for relational love and by being unmoved by the invincible fact of personal extinction.”

In truth, we become whole in community, one where we are challenged to grow not only religiously and intellectually, but in virtue and character.

I’ve grown far more as a man and a Christian spending time with my kids or visiting my grandparents at their nursing home (the latter very much reminds me of my inevitable “personal extinction”!) than I ever have pursuing my personal career goals.

Every relationship matters

St. Therese famously declared, “we can only do small things with great love.” Every activity of our lives can be sanctified, if we welcome Christ in.

Eberstadt in her conversation with Fr. Arne humorously cites P.J. O’Rourke:

Everyone wants to save the world. No one wants to help mom with the dishes.

Eberstadt and Fr. Arne observe the great pressure placed particularly on women to balance career and family, which often has deleterious effects on relationships with spouses and children. Fr. Arne’s wisdom is a clarion call to all of us to ensure our relational priorities are truly in order.

In 2019, we should make it our resolution, no matter our state in life, to pursue every relationship — with Christ, with loved ones, with those in need — with the same intensity and intentionality as did the great Fr. Arne Panula.

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