Got a Lenten Plan?

Father Roger J. Landry
How about a plan for life?

‘When Christians glow with the joy of knowing Christ, those in the world who are seeking happiness in all the wrong places will bust down the church doors in order to find the source of joy overflowing from Christian lives,” Father Roger J. Landry writes in his new book, Plan of Life: Habits to Help You Grow Closer to God. “Jesus is the source of all happiness. . . . An effective Plan of Life will lead us to both Christ and true happiness.”

Father Landry, a priest of the Diocese of New Bedford who currently works at the Holy See’s Mission to the United Nations, talks about how a plan of life may be just what you need to move forward in life. And it might not be a bad plan to begin working on this Lent.

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why does anyone need a plan of life? Aren’t we supposed to take one day at a time?

Father Roger J. Landry: Jesus told his followers not to be anxious about tomorrow because tomorrow would take care of itself. The great mystics have always told us to live in the present moment, leaving the past to divine mercy and the future to divine providence. But living in the present without anxiety does not mean living aimlessly. God calls everyone all to grow, to change for the better, to repent and believe.

That requires more than a vague wish, but a resolution. The spirit is indeed willing, as Jesus said to Peter, but the flesh is weak. A plan of life — a spiritual game plan that helps us prioritize at a practical level what’s most important — strengthens our weak flesh and helps us, step by step, follow Christ on the journey. In an age of rapid and aggressive secularization, where so many are tempted to live as practical atheists — living most of the week as if God doesn’t exist — a plan of life helps us to center our whole life on God, who is God-with-us in the present, and wants us to be with him.

Lopez: How can a plan of life make you happier?

Father Landry: Jesus said he came so that his joy might be in us and our joy be brought to perfection, but such joy comes from union with God. A plan of life helps us to better keep that communion throughout the ups and downs of life. In our sufferings, the presence of God that a plan of life fosters helps us to have hope and find meaning; in our triumphs, the same presence of God helps us avoid the letdown of valuing such ephemeral consolations too much. And so one could say that a plan of life assists us in uniting ourselves to the source of joy in the present and sets us on the path to experience forever the joy the world can’t give or rob.

From another perspective, championship sports teams, flourishing businesses, triumphant political campaigns, and successful individuals all show us that those who get results are generally the ones with better strategies implemented with perseverance. That’s true, too, of the spiritual life. Just as there are far more happy faces when businesses make rather than hemorrhage money, sports teams win rather than lose the Super Bowl, preferred candidates capture rather than squander elections, and diets work rather than fail, so there are many more tranquil and truly happy hearts when we’re filled with God and growing to be more like him than not. Although people addicted to vice and pleasure may obviously experience some contentment, experience tells us that it’s nothing like the happiness experienced by the virtuous. In short, I’m convinced that our success in life, in this world and the next, depends on whether we have a plan, whether it’s adequate to form us in holiness, and whether we make and keep the commitment to follow that plan.

Lopez: Your very first chapter is on the Holy Spirit. How can we trust that we are being guided by the Holy Spirit and hearing the actual word of God?

Father Landry: I start with the Holy Spirit because the work of sanctification is primarily God’s. We see the difference the Holy Spirit makes in the lives of the Apostles, who on Holy Thursday left the upper room, fled like chickens in the Garden of Gethsemane, and later even denied knowing Jesus; the same men, 53 days later on Pentecost, went out to courageously and effectively proclaim that Christ crucified was risen from the dead and savior of the world. I wanted to start with the Holy Spirit because he is, as Pope Benedict once said, “the most neglected person of the Trinity.” One of the reasons many struggle to follow Christ fully on the road of holiness is that they don’t know how to allow the Holy Spirit’s gifts to be unleashed in their prayer, their daily living, and their sharing of the faith.

If we are being led by the Holy Spirit and hearing God’s guiding whisper within, we will normally find ourselves experiencing the gifts and fruits of the Holy Spirit that Scripture describes: knowledge, understanding, wisdom, prudence, courage, reverence, holy awe, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-mastery. We’ll be thinking about and seeking the “things that are above” more. We’ll be imitating the virtues of the saints more. We’ll be hungering to share God’s word and wisdom more. When we’re in doubt about whether something is coming from above, spiritual direction is a big help, along with prayerful examination of whether what we think we’re hearing aligns with what the earliest disciples called “the rule of faith” guarded by the Church.

Lopez: “There is no better time than now to start living in a way that will help your last moments be those of peace rather than regrets,” you write. “No one lays on his deathbed wishing that he had spent more time watching TV, surfing the Internet, or working.” Is this what Lent is about — more than simply giving up chocolate or beer or whatever it is? What’s the Lenten question we should be asking ourselves?

Father Landry: Lent is about getting back to the basics of our relationship with God, with others, and within ourselves. Prayer prioritizes the love of God, almsgiving the love of neighbor, and fasting, authentic self-love, where we learn to control our lower appetites rather than be controlled by them. These fundamental Lenten practices form us to unite ourselves with Jesus, who prayed incessantly, gave himself to the last drop of blood, and once fasted 40 days himself. Lent helps us to transform good wishes into concrete resolutions to set us on the path toward whom we are called to be 365 days a year. The biggest question we should be asking ourselves as we begin Lent is, “How is the Lord concretely asking me to repent and believe, to turn away from the sins that divide me from him and others, and to turn with him toward what he truly values?”

Lopez: You say that “the whole mission of the Church is to help people to become more like Jesus, to become saints.” Why does the Church bother with telling Congress what to do about immigration and the environment and abortion?

Father Landry: Good question. Pope Francis raised eyebrows early in his papacy for saying that the Church needs to emphasize the essentials of the faith rather than insist first on controversial moral issues. His comment shouldn’t have been as contentious as it was because for a Christian, proclaiming God, his incarnation, passion, death, resurrection, and their consequences is simply more important than anything else we can say. That’s true not only with regard to actions that are always and everywhere immoral, such as the choice to take the life of an innocent son or daughter in the womb, but also about issues that are mostly opinable, such as immigration or environmental policy.

To declare, however, that the Church’s fundamental mission is to help people grow to full stature in Christ is not to state that the Church should be mute on important social issues, precisely because those are connected to the Church’s first mission. One can’t become like Jesus, who taught us that whenever we receive a little child in his name we receive him, and then abort our littlest brothers and sisters. One can’t become like Jesus who said, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” and then have a xenophobic approach to immigration in which we do to undocumented immigrants what we would never do to Jesus. One can’t become like God and not take seriously our duty to be good stewards of his gift of creation.

While the Church should never be in a situation in which it seems as if it cares more about a particular piece of legislation than she does about announcing the Gospel, at the same time the Church needs always to point out the moral dimensions involved in policymaking in a way that’s truthful to all of the legitimate goods at stake. The Church has a duty properly to inform the consciences of legislators, executives, judges, and voters to apply moral principles well to the prudential and practical issues involved. After all, we become more or like Jesus through the moral decisions we make, and political choices are moral choices.

Lopez: “Jesus invites us to follow him more deeply into the joy-filled mystery of divine filiation: we are not orphans but much-loved adopted children of the King of Kings,” you write. What does that mean exactly, especially to someone who may feel far away from — and maybe even orphaned by — the Church?

Father Landry: The amazing claim of Christianity is that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took on our humanity so that we could share in his divinity. The work of the Holy Spirit is to help us become “sons in the Son” so that we may cry out, “Abba, Father.” Saint John expressed his wonder that we would even be called children of God but emphasized that that is what we in fact are. Saint Paul added that if we are God’s children then we are heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ. It’s a truly awesome reality to be the adopted sons and daughters of the King of Kings; that is our deepest identity. Saint Leo the Great said in one of his Christmas homilies, “Christian, remember your dignity!” and our dignity is to be a prince or princess in the divine royal family.

This great mystery is not always easy to grasp. It seems too good to be true, especially in the face of so many struggles. God the Father’s love is harder to perceive, especially by those who have not experienced a dad’s love on earth, either by absence or by its opposite. Sometimes the spiritual fathers in the Church — bishops and priests — similarly haven’t behaved as loving dads who would be willing to sacrifice and die for their children. But the fact remains that we are indeed beloved children of the eternal Father who loves us more than he cares for lilies and sparrows, who won’t give us stones when we ask for bread or poisonous eels when we ask for fish. Jesus, the image of the Father, reveals to us the Father’s love in the parable of the Prodigal Son and even more so by his dying so that we might live. He says to us emphatically, “The Father Himself loves you.” And one of the most important acts of Christian faith is to believe in the love that God has for us.

Lopez: A different but related question: If we’re adopted children of God, what are our responsibilities to those who are orphaned in this world? Do we have more of a responsibility to orphans in the world today than we typically consider? I’m thinking about families and parishes tackling foster care and adoption in their community in renewed ways.

Father Landry: Throughout Sacred Scripture, God shows a special care for widows and orphans and is clear that he wants us to share that solicitude. There’s been much progress for women since Biblical times; now, thanks be to God, the death of a husband doesn’t mean indigence for his grieving widow. But orphans, while they are no longer at risk of dying because no one at all takes responsibility for them, often wait two to five years in foster care for a family to make a permanent loving commitment to them.

There are about two million couples in the U.S. waiting to adopt a newborn — a beautiful gift and service — but about 115,000 are in the foster system waiting for a mom and dad. We need to be grateful for the generosity of foster parents, but it’s obviously a temporary solution. I think the Golden Rule applies, that we should do to children in foster care situations what we would want to be done to us if we ourselves were orphaned. Parishes and individual Catholic families ought to feel challenged by the Lord to ask themselves whether they can become part of the solution — at least for one of the countless children praying for a family to take them in.

Lopez: You and I were in Rome together when Pope Francis was elected. Could you have predicted any of the last five years? Does any of what he says and does have to do with what you’re getting at in Plan of Life?

Father Landry: Those who were familiar with Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio’s work and writings as archbishop of Buenos Aires are able to see a lot of continuity, particularly with regard to the emphasis on mercy and on the evangelization of those on the peripheries. But he has certainly brought a lot of changes in priorities, in style and tone, in personnel, and done so rather rapidly. For a Church that is said to think in centuries, he’s going at Mach 10. As a religious, he lives very much by the elements of his Jesuit rule and his own habits of prayer and work. He makes his heroic moment at 4:30 a.m. and spends the next couple of hours praying and preparing for Mass. After breakfast, he works for several hours, taking a break to pray the Angelus and recite the Rosary, before lunch and a siesta. Then he returns to work before an hour of Adoration before dinner. Returning to his room, he gets his spiritual reading in, does his Ignatian examen, and goes to bed. He lives a very disciplined spiritual life, which is one of the reasons, I believe, he’s still able to do so much at 81 years of age. He’s a man with a plan, and that intentionality affects everything he does, making it possible for him still to grow closer to Christ in his ninth decade and to be almost indefatigable in trying to help others do so.