Lent “might be understood as a yearly journey from ashes to living flame, from death to life,” Fr. R. Scott Hurd writes in his handy Lenten reflection book, The Living Gospel (the Kindle edition is 99 cents on Amazon — and bound edition is not much more!). Also the author of a book on forgiveness, Fr. Hurd is a priest in the Archdiocese of Washington (read his Sunday homily on his website), D.C. and former Episcopal priest, he is the vicar general there for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
“May the light of Christ rising in glory dispel the darkness of our hearts and minds” — Fr. Hurd quotes from the Easter liturgy, at the start of The Living Gospel. And from the Gospel itself, 2 Corinthians 5:20:
Brothers and sisters:
We are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
How do we be reconciled to God? Through the Word of God and His holy sacraments, as George Weigel reminds us in his Evangelical Catholicism. Fr. Hurd walks through the journey with us a bit in conversation here — discussing Lent, prayer, the pope, and the Gospel in our daily lives.
KJL: If God “knows what we need even before we ask” why do we have to bother with praying, with the sacraments — especially with Confession? How is that not all just a member building exercise for churches?
FR. HURD: Because God wants us to be in a loving relationship with Him. Yes, He knows what we need — indeed, He knows us better than we know ourselves — but if He simply gave us what we needed, full stop, our relationship with Him would be a one-way street. There is grace, but we are invited to accept that gift and actively cooperate with it. Jesus stands at the door and knocks, but it’s up to us to open that door and let Him in. It’s significant that Scripture often describes our relationship with God as being like that between a bride and a bridegroom — a marriage. Any good marriage is built upon love given and received, as well as honest, open, and frequent communication. In our relationship with God, that is where sacraments and prayer fit it — and why they’re so important.
KJL: How do you know that “our prayer really truly changes things”?
FR. HURD: Jesus is our model for prayer. Scripture frequently presents Him as praying, sometimes spending entire nights in prayer with the Father.
Like Jesus, we’re invited to lift up our hearts in prayer, not just at the critical junctures in our life, but at every point in-between. God loves to hear our voice! By sharing our lives with God, and listening for His gentle, whispering voice, we will be changed in the process. And when we change, the world around us will change, because the way we think and act will have changed. But more than that, God does break into our world in answer to our prayers. In prayer, we can lift up a particular person or situation to God’s love and invite Him to respond. Sometimes His answer is “Yes,” sometimes it’s “No,” and sometimes it’s “Not yet.” But God always listens, and God always answers. And miracles do happen.
KJL: So we’re already into the second week of Lent. I’ve done a lousy job so far. Can’t stick to what I committed to. Don’t really see how I have time for all this prayer stuff you priests do. How can Lent be saved?
FR. HURD: Don’t despair. Pick yourself up and keep on keeping on. Even if you’ve failed in your discipline at times, you most likely have kept part of it — meaning that you’ve given God a little sacrifice or a gift of time, talent, or treasure that you wouldn’t have given Him otherwise. And that’s a good thing.
However, there’s no harm in reviewing your Lenten discipline to see if it was realistic or “doable.” A priest friend of mine refers to Lent as our “season of great expectations,” because we sometimes approach it in hopes that we’ll be transformed from Homer Simpson to Mother Teresa overnight, and so take on a well-intentioned but impossible Lenten discipline. A few days into Lent we then crash and burn and wind up with “spiritual indigestion,” because we’ll have bitten off more than we can chew. Should we do that, we can re-evaluate matters and adjust our Lenten discipline to be more practical. As Catholic psychologist Robert Wicks has written, “(S)imple constant deeds are always more meaningful that rarely fulfilled great promises.”
KJL: What is the “Vicar General for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter”?
FR. HURD: It’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it? It was hard to fit it all onto my business card! But in all seriousness, the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter is a structure in the Church, very similar to a diocese, that was established by Pope Benedict XVI on January 1, 2012. There are also ordinariates in Australia and the United Kingdom. These ordinariates have been established in response to requests of Anglicans for some way to become Catholic while retaining elements of Anglican traditions and heritage.
In the preparations for last year’s establishment of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of Saint Peter, I served as liaison with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and as assistant to Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington and the Vatican’s delegate for this initiative. As a former Anglican priest myself, I was grateful for the opportunity to serve in this capacity.
Given my involvement with the Ordinariate’s groundwork, I was invited to serve as vicar general by the new ordinary, Monsignor Jeffrey Steenson, who I had known for over twenty years. As vicar general, I essentially serve as the Ordinariate’s “Number Two.” I used to joke that this means I try harder, but no one seems to remember those old Avis ads any more.
KJL: Why is this Christian unity stuff so important and even doable?
FR. HURD: The Church is the Body of Christ — the Spirit-filled People of God which extends Jesus presence in the world just as His physical body allowed his presence in the world during his earthy ministry. Jesus doesn’t want his Church — the family He loves — to be divided. It compromises our witness and prevents us from truly being the “light of the world” and the “salt of the earth,” to borrow two of our Lord’s images. On the night before He suffered, Jesus prayed that we all might be one, as He and the Father and the Spirit are One.
KJL: You are married. Why do you not want to be a poster boy for change in the Church? You could be a trailblazer!
FR. HURD: Because my ministry is not about me. It’s about service to the Lord and service his Church. I don’t wish to have any particular agenda other than being a faithful minister of the Gospel. If any priest’s ministry goes in any other direction, he’s going to wind up in trouble. As it is, the Lord has called me to the priesthood in addition to his having called me to be married to Stephanie, and to be a dad to our three beautiful kids, Charlie, Winnie, and Isabel. I can’t imagine my life without either of my vocations, because this is the life the good Lord has given me. It’s not typical, to say the least, and it certainly raises eyebrows when I’m introduced to others in social settings, but I am deeply grateful for it every day.
At the same time, I do appreciate the value of the discipline of celibacy. Our Lord himself was unmarried, and our celibate priests today, in imitation of Jesus, are able to give all of their selves to their priestly service. I admire their sacrifice, and appreciate that they can often give more in the way of ministry than I can.
KJL: What has the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI meant to you?
FR. HURD: Pope Benedict XVI will always have my deepest admiration and gratitude for his leadership. On a personal note, he will always hold a special place in my heart, since the letter from the Vatican permitting me to be ordained a priest as a married man was signed by him, while he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. I will keep that letter forever.
The Holy Father’s teaching is accessible and profound. I have read and treasured several of his books, including his most recent one on Jesus. Also, it was his vision that led to the establishment of ordinariates through the Apostolic Constitution, Anglicanorum coetibus. Those of us involved with implementing this Constitution have come to know that the ordinariates and their people are very close to his heart. It has been an honor to help, in a small way, to implement this special initiative of his.
KJL: How are you processing this unexpected end to his papacy? What are your hopes and prayers for the future?
FR. HURD: In all honesty, I believe that his decision to step down at this time is an act of both humility and courage. I admire him for it. Yes, it was unexpected, but then again, life is full of surprises. Indeed, our God is a God of surprises, as He often acts in ways we might not expect Him to act. Who would have thought He’d enter our world in such a humble manner, as a tiny child of an obscure family? Who could have anticipated that the world would be redeemed by God’s Son being crucified as a common criminal? But then again, while our God is a God of surprises, He is also a God who is in control. And so I face the future — and the announcement of the next pope — with excitement and hope, not anxiety or fear. My prayer for the next pope is that he will receive the graces he needs to be a faithful shepherd in imitation of the Good Shepherd, a true “servant of the servants of God.”
KJL: Why does God want to “bless us with good things”? We can be kind pretty lousy.
FR. HURD: In a nutshell, because He loves us. It’s as simple as that. Saint Thomas Aquinas once defined love as “wanting what is best for a person and doing what you reasonably can to bring goodness to that person.” That’s how God expresses His love for us. In this life, He wants us to learn how to love — to love ourselves, love our neighbors, and above all love him. God is love, and He made us in His image. We were made by Love, and we were made for love. That’s why God wishes to bless us with good things — so we can grow into the loving person that he created us to be. After all, He’s made it pretty clear that He doesn’t wish to spend eternity without us! And that is truly Good News.
KJL: Why does God want to forgive us?
FR. HURD: God wants to forgive us for the same reason that He does anything for us: He loves us. God is perfect love, and He cannot do anything but love, because God can’t deny himself (we might say that’s the only thing God can’t do!). God’s forgiveness is one of the supreme expressions of his love. Whenever we sin, our relationship with God is strained. Sometimes it’s completely torn asunder. Our sins hurt other people, too — sometimes directly, when they are personally affected by our actions, and sometimes indirectly, because our behavior creates a climate of negativity, which has a ripple effect. Finally, our sins hurt us — by distancing us from God, and preventing us from growing into a holy and happy person. But God doesn’t want us to be estranged from Him or from others, and He wants us to become the person He created us to be. And so He extends to us the gift of forgiveness: to heal us, to set us free, to give us yet another chance.
KJL: Why is this all important to let people know? How do we let people know?
FR. HURD: There are so many people whose operative image of God is an unhappy one. For whatever reason, they have come to imagine God as a stern, impatient, distant figure — sort of a heavenly scorekeeper or a celestial truant officer. To be in the presence of such a “god” is to walk on eggshells. For Catholics with such an image, Confession — the Sacrament of Reconciliation — is nothing more than a stay of execution. It’s easy to fear such a “god” but difficult to love him, because he sure doesn’t seem very lovable.
But the God revealed through Jesus, his incarnate Son, is very different. God is a God of love, mercy, compassion, humility, sacrifice, service, and forgiveness. To know this God is to truly know peace and experience joy. “To know me is to love me,” God says to us, and He invites those who do know Him to share the good news of His love and forgiveness with others. One way we can do this is by being people who forgive. Because when we forgive, we show to the world the loving God who first forgave us.
KJL: Why do you make the point, in your Lenten reflections, that “love doesn’t make us into doormats”?
FR. HURD: Some good people assume that because Jesus teaches us to “turn the other cheek,” we are called to accept any suffering or abuse that may come our way. But that’s not consistent with the example Jesus gave us through his life. Scripture tells of instances when He intentionally side-stepped danger and the prospect of being hurt or killed. On one occasion, He escaped from a stone-throwing mob; on another, He avoided being thrown off a cliff. When He was an infant, His parents fled to the safety of Egypt to protect Him from Herod, who sought to kill Him.
Jesus did indeed suffer, supremely on the cross. He even told his friends that this would happen. But it’s important to stress that Jesus suffered only when it was necessary to be obedient to the Father’s will. We too will encounter suffering as we try to follow God’s will. Some of it we’re meant to embrace, that we might become more like Jesus. But some of it we’re meant to avoid, because it would simply make us a victim of another’s illness, ignorance, or sin. Spousal abuse and domestic violence are prime examples.
The bottom line is: Love may involve carrying a cross, but not becoming a doormat.
KJL: When facing a crisis of faith, we can hope by recalling those times when God has touched our lives and revealed some of his goodness and power to us.”
FR. HURD: When we’re in the midst of a crisis, the world around us can seem bleak and hopeless. We can fear that God doesn’t care, that He’s punishing us, or even that He doesn’t exist at all. Our fear and pain can blind us to the good that still surrounds us, and the subtle hand of God at work, which can bring good out of even the worst situations. At times like this, it can be helpful to intentionally bring to mind those times that God has seemed real and present to us. We might recall a prayer that was answered, an instance when we were brushed by grace, an occasion when God whispered to us through a song or a book, or a time when God used another person to or situation to nudge our life in a particular direction. “It is important not to lose the memory of God’s presence in our lives,” Pope Benedict XVI has stressed. “Such memories,” he explains, are “a star of hope that gives us trust.”
KJL: Why is it important to see with the eyes of God? How can we?
FR. HURD: While I was once registering for a 5K race, I noticed that one of my parishioners was a race volunteer. I went over and started speaking with him, but it was evident that he didn’t know who I was. Then, all of a sudden his eyes widened and he exclaimed, “Oh! You’re Father Hurd! I didn’t recognize you!” You see, I was dressed in running gear and a baseball cap, not in my black clerical clothes, and we weren’t in a church. My parishioner didn’t expect to see me in that context, looking the way I did. He wasn’t able to recognize me, even though I was standing right in front of him.
We can do the same thing when it comes to God. It’s easy to assume that we’ll meet Him only when we’re doing typically “religious” activities: when we pray, read Scripture, go to Mass, and things like that. But the truth is, God can be encountered in every situation and circumstance: in the humdrum of our daily routine, at the office, when with our families and friends, on a stroll through the neighborhood, in the midst of our challenges, and in the faces of the needy and poor. To see God in these people and places requires the gift of faith — a gift we can both ask for and exercise to make it stronger. Blessed Charles de Foucauld put it well: “Faith strips the mask off the world and reveals God in everything.”
KJL: “How can I let go and place my faith in God’s abiding love for me?” You offer this in an action item in your Lent book. Excellent question! How do you?
FR. HURD: A Texas cattle rancher once explained to me that Jesus called himself the Good Shepherd, and not the Good Cowboy, for a very good reason. Cows, he said, are stubborn creatures. To get them going in the right direction, they often need to be pushed and prodded from behind. Sheep, on the other hand, are very different, because they happily follow their shepherd’s lead. Jesus wants us to be like sheep and willingly follow Him. That’s why He called himself the Good Shepherd.
To follow Jesus requires both faith and trust. It isn’t easy, because we prefer to be the “boss” and stay in control. But to truly honor God’s plan for our lives, and be deeply enveloped by His love, we need to surrender our lives to Him, and let him sit in the driver’s seat. To do this, we can take cues from any classic twelve-step program: First, acknowledge that there are things in our lives over which we have no control; second, believe in God who loves us and wants to help us; and third, turn our lives over to God.
Surrender isn’t always easy. But as with any good habit, the more we do it, the easier it becomes. What’s more, the more we surrender, the less we’ll worry. Even better, our faith will grow stronger, because we’ll come to experience that God is worthy of our trust.
KJL: Is silence more important than ever?
FR. HURD: The spiritual writer Fr. Henri Nouwen once said that we live in a very “wordy world.” I certainly know what he meant. Given all the cultural static we have to contend with, coupled with the fact that so many of us spend hours upon hours staring at, or plugged into, electronic devices, we end up not being able to hear ourselves think — let alone hear the voice of God, who typically speaks in whispers. Given this, it’s good for us to actively seek out and cultivate silence in our lives — even if it’s only behind the steering wheel — so we can reflect, think, and listen, and not let the most important Voice get drowned out.
KJL: How is “the freedom to do what is pleasing to God” in any way freedom?
FR. HURD: Americans today often misunderstand freedom. This is ironic, given that we profess to love freedom so much. But true freedom — the freedom God wishes for us — isn’t a freedom to do whatever we want, whenever we want to. That may seem like freedom, but it’s a selfish way to live one’s life, and places us in danger of becoming enslaved to bad habits — habits that destroy freedom, because they become compulsions.
True freedom is not a freedom to do as we please, but a freedom to do what is pleasing to God. Jesus speaks of a freedom that involves not just the right to make choices, but the freedom to choose what is right; not a freedom from discipline, but a freedom dependent on discipline; a freedom that doesn’t give us a license to sin, but a freedom that liberates us from sin; a freedom not just to “be you and me,” but a freedom to become all that we were created to be. Anything else labeled “freedom” isn’t worthy of the name!