Do you ever wonder about the people you meet on the internet? I do, so I decided to finally interview one of my online twitter friends, and fellow-blogger, priest-extraordinaire and all around awesome guy Fr. Christian Mathis, who is the Author of the blog Blessed is the Kingdom
. I loved hearing his story, and at our original skype call interview, we had such an awesome talk I felt I was conversing with an old friend. It was an awesome interview, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
WOULD YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT WHERE YOU GREW UP, AND WHAT LED YOU TO PRIESTHOOD?
Yeah, sure. I grew up in Chattanooga, TN. My parents both joined the Church when I was four years old and my brother was an infant. We were baptized together as a family and remained in the same parish throughout my entire childhood. I attended elementary school at Our Lady of Perpetual Help School and high school at Notre Dame High School, both in Chattanooga.
The good thing about that atmosphere is that it was a strong Catholic environment and the Methodist remainder of the family did not always understand why my parents had converted, but it jived well in the end. I learned a lot from Methodists on scripture. When I was a kid Catholics didn’t care about scripture as much. A lot of that is changing, but in my generation it was a bit of a rarity.
I grew up with a scripture heavy Christianity, which was really a gift. In fact, my gift at first communion was a Bible. I grew up reading the bible. I remember finding it strange meeting classmates in seminary who had never explored the Bible, or the basic tenets of the faith. They just had the call. I didn’t understand that then, but I think I get it better now. I believe God called them, but I thought it strange that they had never studied the Bible.
When I look back upon what led me to priesthood, I find several things that laid the groundwork for me to be able to hear God’s call. First was the fact that my parents always taught us the importance of our faith. I also always had the benefit of being around priests and religious. I recall many times when I knew for certain that the Church cared about me and my familly.
An early example was when my parents realized we could not afford to continue paying tuition at the Catholic school and we began to attend public school. Several months later when our pastor found out we had left, he approached my parents and found a way for us to return to the school. The same thing happened to me during high school and the principal at the time, once again found a way for me to attend the school when it was unaffordable. Had I not been in Catholic school I would not have had as many positive interactions with priests and religious as I was growing up. I remember especially one of the Nashville Dominican sisters who encouraged me to be open to God’s call.
In high school what really influenced me was priests that seemed more like normal people, but it was also the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia, and a seminarian who is now a priest in the Nashville Diocese. Oh, another thing, one of the most influential, was getting to the Catholic high school early. Before class we met in cafeteria and did homework/hung out before class. There was daily mass going on early. I decided to go one day, and kept going, and it was the first time for me, that I started listening to the prayers of the mass, the eucharistic prayers, and secondly I would listen to the readings of the day, ans think to myself, “somehow today I will try to implement this gospel today, in my life.” That took me deeper into the faith, even though I didn’t apply to the seminary for many years.
|“…[H]e provided a good space to discern God’s call. That’s what really in the end I think did it, being given the space to respond.”
A key part of understanding a call for me during college was being able to meet with a group of men who gathered for dinner and prayer each week. Fr. Al Humbrecht was our campus minister at the time and he provided a good space to discern God’s call. That’s what really in the end I think did it, being given the space to respond.
WHAT’S IT LIKE BEING A CATHOLIC YOUTH MINISTER?
Challenging and rewarding.
I was our diocesan director for youth ministry. During my 3rd year being a priest, my bishop asked me to learn how to do youth ministry.
One thing I learned in doing that and working in a diocesan high school I graduated from is this: People in the Church really want to include the youth and the young people of the Church. They mention young people often as the future of the Church, but we who do youth ministry have to remind the congregation sometimes that the youth are the present day Church and already in the Church now.
We have youth groups of course, but we should also include them in every aspect of the Church that is possible. Youth are likely not suited for finance committees, but there are places for young people in the Church already. One of the things I feel very strongly about, is that some of the times it’s our own fault that youth leave their parishes in the end. Youth mass separates the youth from everyone else, gives them really interesting or contemporary music, but in many cases looks much more like an evangelical protestant mega-church than a Catholic one. I have seen so many young people graduate and after having been separated for several years from the main body of the Church pick up and leave. Then we wonder why the youth went off to evangelical mega-churches instead of sticking with Catholic faith. Our tradition doesn’t exclude altering things to fit youth, but it should include formation towards our Catholic culture, not away from it.
|“Youth ministry is the same ministry we do to everyone else, it’s just for young people.”
The biggest challenge, I guess, is the youth themselves. They’re on the move, very busy. There’s the internet and texting and all these things pulling them in different directions. But the thing that is the same is that they want connection to adults besides their parents, and that comes through relationships. You have to take the time, you know, like taking calls at one in the morning. It’s a challenge and it’s a joy, and I’m still connected with many of our young people. The people who do youth ministry don’t have to be teenagers to do it effectively, they just have to engage them with proper respect. It doesn’t have to be dumbed down to be effective.
Youth ministry is the same ministry we do to everyone else, it’s just for young people, just like mass in Spanish is normal ministry but in Spanish.
The last thing is you have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, and I’m good at that. Maybe that’s why the bishop asked me to do youth ministry.
YOU BEGAN YOUR BLOG IN 2008, WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START BLOGGING?
The year and a half before I came to St. Thomas I was on a leave of absence from ministry, trying to discern whether priesthood was still right for me. When I returned to the diocese, I didn’t have a real assignment, I was just kinda, easing back into ministry. I didn’t have any official duties so to speak and the pastor here wanted me to help with some masses, and then I was doing spiritual direction. And, so…I decided to start the blog, because I wanted to get my thoughts down for family and friends. I also saw it as a way of getting back into the pattern of preaching. I started doing that, and what was weird is that pretty soon people besides family and friends were reading the blog, and in the beginning it was lots of Orthodox Christians.
Then it got serious.
The pastor at the time liked it, even though he had never liked a blog in his life. And that was funny.The blog in many ways has become is a ministry of evangelization. Sometimes people get the wrong idea, it’s no substitute for real ministry, but what it does in my mind and experience is open the door for real ministry to happen. Sometimes people don’t feel comfortable walking into a church, and they like observing from a distance. Sometimes that next step in person can be a lot harder. I have a really good community.
WOULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR RECENT TRIP TO THE HOLY LAND?
I studied in the Holy Land back in the 1998-99 and have always wanted to return. I can say a bit here about the trip but a better source might be my blog where I made several posts while on our journey. One thing that I enjoyed very much was getting to know one of my brother priests, Fr. Michael Woods and the twelve parishioners from St. Thomas who were on the trip.
It was really a time for prayer. All of us grew closer together. The other thing I think of is going back to the Incarnation and remembering the physical places where this stuff happened. Reading scripture after having been there, I can picture where certain things would have happened. There is nothing like being in the places where Jesus lived, taught, died and was raised. It really strengthens your faith. I can see the life of Christ in my head, even though the city is different the terrain is still really the same. You can envision it better. Sometimes the people call the land the 5th gospel. That kind of stuff, while it’s not necessary is valuable.
WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR PASSIONS IN MINISTRY? (E.G. ECUMENISM, LITURGY, SACRAMENTS, STUDY, BLOGGING, SOCIAL JUSTICE, ETC.)
First and Foremost, evangelization. What I mean is, if you look at our parish, we have as our primary goal, to reach out to Catholics who are no longer practicing their faith and bring in those who have no church affiliation and those who are in our pews and not fully practicing. I really feel like we have something to offer people that others don’t and we should be active, not passive in this mission. We can be active without being aggressive, and we need corporal and spiritual works of mercy, opportunities for prayer, catechesis. A whole host of things. But that’s the primary thing we’re supposed to be doing out there, spreading the faith.
Put it like this:
1. Reaching those who have never heard the gospel.
2. Reaching those who have partially heard the gospel.
3. Reaching those who need to deepen their faith.
And then there’s another thing:
In seminary I was very afraid of public speaking, but I think preaching allows us to teach and be creative and have a dialogue with people. I think one of the things I have pushed since getting here is social justice. Social justice is taking care of those most in need. Whoever that is. Whether it’s here or NPH for kids in El Salvador.
We have a 6 year plan to take 6 themes from Matthew 25 and take them seriously. since Jesus will judge us on those and scripture makes it abundantly clear. We’re gonna work on those 6 things, and basically, it’s how are we proclaiming the gospel? It’s not about numbers, it’s about having the people we do have well-formed, and if we do that, we’ll get other people well formed in the gospel. If we get well-formed people we’ll get everything we want and need as a community of Christians.
YOU’RE DOING A LOT OF WORK ON THE SECOND VATICAN COUNCIL. ARE THERE A FEW HIGHLIGHTS YOU’D LIKE TO POINT OUT FROM YOUR STUDIES?
Vatican II is such a big thing. The thing I see about the state of the Church now, and this is just my opinion is that it seems like we have a split in the Church right now. For lack of better vocabulary, we have liberals, and we have conservatives.
|“What Vatican II tried to do, and we’re still trying to figure out how to do it right, is to try and go back to before there were differences between Christians…We’re still working on bringing scripture back into the heart of Catholic life.”
The liberals say that Vatican II was a break with Tradition, and that’s awesome and we should break even further from it. There are also conservatives who say that Vatican II was a break with Tradition, and this is a travesty, and we should break with it and go back to the Council of Trent, some have gone so far as to say that popes beginning with John XXIII through Benedict are not popes. Both start from the same place and end with more or less similar conclusions. One solution that has been proposed by my former professor Fr. Bob Barron is that we need bi-polar extremism. We want both fully God, fully man. We want totally and fully Scriptural, we want total and fully liturgical practice together.”
What Vatican II tried to do, and we’re still trying to figure out how to do it right, is to try and go back to before there were differences between Christians. What I mean is, the documents seem to me at least, to draw heavily on the patristic era and mindset. The new missal is a good example, we said let’s make the liturgy more accessible. The first translation wasn’t the best or the most beautiful translation, but the Church is humble enough to admit it’s not perfect and revising it for us. We’re still working on bringing scripture back into the heart of Catholic life. The hierarchy is part of it, but the council started with the people and worked it’s way up. It’s been a struggle, and it will continue to be. We have this confluence of things, and I’m not the best example of someone to know exactly what we can do, but just like any other council, it’s a council of the Church and it deserves our respect.
I wish more people would read the documents themselves.
It is a big difference to say that the Novus Ordo and the Tridentine Rite have different emphases. First the people of God then the sacraments, then the bishops and then the leadership. It’s just a difference in emphasis, not a radically new split from the Church.
WHAT DO YOU THINK CATHOLICS CAN DO ONLINE AND IN PERSON TO REACH OUT TO EVANGELICALS?
Know and Learn your faith, and then practice it. We need to quit playing the Protestants’ game. Stop playing by their rules. Catholicism doesn’t live by their rules, because it is bigger than their rules. If we believe we should always defend the faith with scripture, we answer to sola scriptura. We don’t have anything to prove, except through living out our faith. When we lose these arguments it’s really because it’s not our faith. The other thing, it’s not about winning. That’s not the gospel. The gospel is really that we both win. That’s what the faith is about. We should not be talking about how we as Catholics aren’t different from other Christians. We are different from them, and we should show them what they’re missing. This is not to be condemning, but saying “We have something you don’t have we want to share with you because we love you.” That’s how we argue the faith, with love, we do it with evangelization and our best defense is living our faith.
When we’re chosen, we get chosen for the cross. It doesn’t mean God wants you to suffer, but you will.
IS THERE ANYTHING YOU THINK WE NEED TO URGENTLY RUSH TOWARDS IN FILLING IN GAPS OR DEVELOPING NEW IDEAS IN THE CHURCH?
New Ideas? No. We should revive old ideas. We should get the majority of Catholics to understand and respect what we do when we come to the liturgy and when we pray. The other thing is getting people to have an adult understanding of the faith, and devote themselves to continual growth. Thirdly, I think we need dedication to the apostolic mission of the church and corporal works of mercy. I think we’ve missed that Church-wide in recent years.
I think we should embrace all media that comes along, but they they don’t take the place of the basic stuff that we’re supposed to be doing. If there’s nothing upholding it, it doesnt’ help. It can become a thing unto itself, but it doesn’t have to be.
I will say this: Almost everyone in our RCIA process came about as a result of our website initially. That says it’s possible to reach people through those media. People who aren’t using those tools are missing out. 10 years ago, I didn’t have the ability to do what I do. I now have the ability to talk to about 120 people a day via my blog. That’s more than our daily mass. Some of those have taken advantage of the opportunity to connect in physical life. There are new methods for doing new things.
I like ancient faith radio, and while John Maddox started with Dobson and Focus on the Family, he’s now Orthodox and has taken their format and made ancient things accessible to the modern world. That’s admirable.
I ALSO, IN LIGHT OF RECENT EVENTS WANT TO ASK YOU ABOUT PRIESTLY ABUSE, AND WHAT YOU MIGHT OFFER TO ALL OF US ON SUCH A SENSITIVE TOPIC.
So, let me tell you my experience with this. My last year at seminary in Chicago, we had a course on priestly preparation. We went through some other things about priesthood. One of the guys presenting to us was from Nigeria. His name was Fr. Peter Damian Akpunonu. He gave us these words “I can guarantee you one thing: If you become ordained, someone is going to take a very big cross, and they’re going to lay it on your shoulders.” I was ordained right around September 11th and people were looking to us for answers. Shortly after that, there was something in the news almost daily on priestly abuses.
I remember thinking to myself: I need to call our former bishop. At the time he was the bishop of Palm Beach. One day soon afterwards I got a call from someone at our chancery who told me there was going to be a press conference with our former bishop, and we thought he might admit to sexually abusing minors. He did. It’s a hard way to begin your priesthood.
This was a guy who I thought was the opposite of that. It was rough. But I remember doing praying, “whatever I can do to help God, I’ll do that.” Shortly thereafter I was made director of youth ministries and it wasn’t easy because people look at you suspiciously. I look at it this way, The Church is still the Church, and the Church doesn’t uphold abusing children, the church doesn’t uphold abusing anyone. We were saddened by it, but we’re trying to heal that. Many of the people who were hurt by this are working through that. I don’t discount that there are people everyday who have to deal with people asking them about it and asking why they’re still in the Church. That has to be hard. I’m sure there are people in my parish who have to deal with that all the time.
|“Bonhoeffer’s definition of a theologian: Ultimately they try to live their faith and try to stand with the saint and those who are not the saints, often the great sinners. Saying that we stand with both, that’s the job of the theologian..”
Bonhoeffer’s definition of a theologian: Ultimately they try to live their faith by standing with the saints and those who are not the saints, often the great sinners. Saying that we stand with both, that’s the job of the theologian, and that’s our job too. We stand with the Mother Theresa figures and St. Francises, but we also stand with the people who don’t live out the faith well. I don’t in any way condone what our former bishop did as right. There are people from our diocese who visit him, but in visiting him, they are supporting him in hope that he is reforming his life. On the other hand, he is in a place where he can be supervised and kept from places where he could do the same thing. It’s tough, but in a society that doesn’t support the Church, it’s an easy way to attack the Church because it’s a self inflicted wound.
Ultimately it will make the Church stronger, because the people who are still here are faithful. They’ll stay faithful through it all. It takes being courageous. The worst thing priests can do is back away from dealing with kids, but one of the temptations is to protect yourself and cut off that healthy relationships between priests and children. But being a priest puts us in a vulnerable place. Someone could come forward against a priest who has done nothing, and ruin their life. But I think we should continue being priests. In the early church, Christians persisted in the gospel, and they were martyred. Today we can look at the priests and religious who in Central America have been killed, but they keep doing good. they keep living the gospel. Yeah it hurts priests, but I think it hurts the people in the pews more. I can’t justify it, I don’t try to. I just say it’s not a legitimate reason to leave the faith.
IN CLOSING, I’D LIKE TO ASK YOU WHAT ALL BELIEVERS MIGHT DO, AS A WAY FORWARD IN A TIME FULL OF NEWS AND SCANDAL AND INDECISION AND MEDIA OVERLOAD; HOW CAN WE SHINE A LIGHT IN THE WORLD OF TODAY?
Media Overload? Fasting.
We can learn to spend less time watching television, internet, and especially things like Glenn Beck and Rachel Madow, and who often incite and start things up. Stop being dragged into that stuff and ask, ‘What does our faith say to us?’ I feel our media keeps trying to divide us. If we look at our Catholic faith, it embraces pro-life as being against abortion, but we also say pro-life is against the death-pentalty, pre-emptive war, or forgetting the needs of the poor. We’re not Right, or Left, we are Catholic. Being Catholic is not as easy as choosing a political party. I think the danger is if we say abortion is today’s only issue, it can sometimes lead to giving uncritical support to un-Catholic issues from either party without holding them accountable to our votes.
We as Catholics should be part of solutions, not taking sides and polarizing the differences. It doesn’t matter which party you support, there will always be things you have to be critical of with either party. In every election I have voted in, I have found myself making tough choices, but I always hold myself and them accountable. I think some people want the Catholic political party, or the Catholic news source, and those just don’t exist. There’s a lot of room for opinion in the faith, and that’s the beauty of the word Catholic.
|” I feel our media keeps trying to divide us. If we look at our Catholic faith, it embraces simultaneously, pro-life and against abortion, but we also say pro-life is against the death-pentalty, pre-emptive war, or forgetting the needs of the poor. We’re not right, or Left, we are Catholic.“
On a practical level, I know I put people in positions who don’t always agree with me. But I need them. I need people that will tell the Truth, we may have different ideas, but if we’re on the same page, even if we have different opinions, that’s what matters. That’s why we’re a Church together. It’s a strange culture we live in, it’s not Church friendly, our society wants to put people in camps and set them against one another. Our Church welcomes them in and wants to unify people for a greater cause.
Catholicism is bigger than our society and that is the beautiful thing.
My own hope is that we simply keep trying to focus on the fundamentals. Prayer, nourishing ourselves with the Scripture, serving those in need, developing communion among Christians. Humility is always central. These sound like simple tasks, but they are extremely difficult to maintain.