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Inspiration on a walk in the woods leads to Hoyt Lakes prayer trail

By Deacon Kyle Eller 
The Northern Cross 

Last fall, Jim Koepke was doing something a lot of Minnesotans like to do in the fall, walking through the woods and connecting with God, in his case on land owned by his parish, Our Lady of Hope in Hoyt Lakes, which is mostly a pine forest, with some of the trees about 60 years old.

Father Kris McKusky blesses and dedicates the new prayer trail in Hoyt Lakes on the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross Sept. 14. (Submitted photo)

What is not typical is that he had a sudden inspiration to build a prayer trail there, and then all the pieces started to fall in place. “It’s either a lot of unusual coincidences or I think there’s something spiritual involved,” he said. 

One thing fell into place almost immediately. “It was like I could just see where the trail would go,” he said. It wouldn’t even require cutting any of those beautiful trees. He said he was also inspired to add Stations of the Cross. 

Koepke, who is originally from Hoyt Lakes and now splits time between there and the Twin Cities, said he approached the pastor and the council at the parish and was met with enthusiasm, but when he started to search online for Stations of the Cross, he discovered they were very expensive, often thousands of dollars. 

So he turned to the Holy Spirit, whom he believed had inspired the idea. “If you want me to follow through, you’re going to have to show me what to do,” he prayed. 

He started reaching out to dioceses, first the Diocese of Duluth, where none were available, and then to the Diocese of New Ulm, where he got much more promising news: there was a 100-year-old Stations of the Cross imported from Bavaria that was in storage, and he could simply come and get them. 

“I’ve never been there before,” Koepke said. “They have a gorgeous Cathedral.” 

Koepke said it was up a “dusty old stairway” where the stations had been stored for 35 years, and they were so big he couldn’t get them all at once, so he had to keep going up and down those stairs feeling “a little like Quasimodo.”  

The Stations, he said, are works of real craftmanship and detail, to the point you can even see the toenails of the figures. 

“It was a lot of effort, but it was so worth it!” he said. 

He drove them back to Hoyt Lakes and found a cabinet maker to make display cases so that they could be protected from the elements.

Submitted photo

When it came time to work on the trail, another challenge arose. Koepke, a retired mental health administrator, is a distance runner accustomed to running five marathons a year, and suddenly he found himself unable to walk from the house to the car without being out of breath. His doctor discovered a genetic issue that required immediate heart surgery. 

“I wasn’t going to be able to finish the trail by myself,” he said. 

Instead he had to sit and watch family members do the work. “It was a real good lesson in humility for me,” he said. 

An artist made a sign, and the prayer trail was finally finished this June. Koepke said the feedback has been really good. People go there and walk it or sit and pray for 15 or 20 minutes, just like the former confirmation teacher hoped they would. 

Father Kris McKusky, the parish’s pastor, decided on a fitting day to bless and dedicate the trail: Sept. 14, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  

Koepke said the Stations will be taken in during the winters, but while it’s open, it’s easily accessible right from the church parking lot and open to everyone. 

“It’s totally free,” he said. “We don’t even accept donations. Leave your checkbook at home and come and see it.” 

The results are in — state fair poll 

By the Minnesota Catholic Conference 
Inside the Capitol 

Every summer the Minnesota State Fair becomes a place to meet with legislators and take part in the nonpartisan (and non-scientific) House Public Information Services Office’s opinion poll. This year, 5,231 Minnesotans voiced their opinion on 12 policy matters. Of those dozen questions, the Minnesota Catholic Conference has been actively involved in four, including: promoting school choice, opposing the recreational marijuana industry, opposing sports gambling, and ensuring everyone living in Minnesota (regardless of immigration status) are required to learn the rules of the road and be licensed to drive.  

As with any survey, but particularly an unscientific one such as this, one must consider results can be skewed due to biased wording. For example, the question posed to fairgoers regarding school choice used the term “vouchers” rather than “education savings accounts” (there is no “voucher” bill in front of the legislature). Regardless, the results showed a plurality of respondents favor enabling parents to choose a school that best meets their child’s needs.  

The question regarding driver’s licenses failed to help respondents understand that regardless of one’s immigration status, all drivers would be required to pass a test to become licensed, thereby improving road safety for all. This consideration may have changed the 57 percent of respondents who opposed the proposal. 

The question regarding recreational marijuana fails to acknowledge that the law would enable a marijuana industry to profit off users. Compared to the previous poll, there was a small uptick in the number of people favoring legalization (58.3%) as well as an uptick in those opposed (34.1%), showing fewer people remain undecided. When asked about legalizing sports gambling — another activity that preys on people’s vices — respondents were evenly split. These results show that as Catholics we must help our legislators understand that legalizing harmful activities to generate tax revenue is fiscally irresponsible and will produce long-term costs that will need to be remediated by more public services. 

MCC takes a closer look at housing issues 

Adequate shelter is basic human need, as housing is a cornerstone of family stability and child development and traditionally is one the best avenues for building economic stability and generational wealth. As MCC considers a long-term policy agenda to provision the family and promote family economic security, we are more closely examining issues surrounding housing policies.  

We are monitoring the Legislative Commission on Housing Affordability’s work. One item that this group of eight legislators is tasked with is making recommendations on legislative proposals that positively impact access to homeownership, especially for first-time homebuyers. 

Recently, the commission acknowledged the severe housing inventory shortage is a root cause of why families encounter difficulty finding affordable rental units or becoming first-time homebuyers. While the shortage is driving up prices, municipal regulatory frameworks imposing limit on types of housing construction and requirements that raise building costs also affect the supply and price.  

Representative Steve Elkins presented his idea for a bill, the Comprehensive Housing Affordability Act, which he says could help eliminate some impediments to new housing development. The bill has problems but is a starting point; MCC will monitor ways to ensure legislators see the connection between housing costs and family formation, childbearing, and family economic security.   

Ragnar race proves a great fundraiser for Northland Family Programs

By Deacon Kyle Eller 
The Northern Cross 

Northland Family Programs, like many nonprofits, has had its normal fundraising events like dinner dances upended by the COVID-19 pandemic.  

But Anna Crain, the organization’s director, had an inspiration during a holy hour that ended up leading to the most successful fundraiser the organization, which uses natural family planning to help couples achieve or avoid pregnancy, has ever had, raising $32,000. 

By the time she got back to her desk from that holy hour, “Women Run for Women was really created,” she said. 

“We need community, and there’s women in our community who actually know the sacredness and even the power of natural family planning and how they have been impacted by that,” she said. 

She quickly began calling some of those people to ask if they would “be willing to come on board and use your time and start training for a run, which is the Ragnar Run,” a grueling, 200-mile relay race that goes from the Twin Cities to Duluth. 

“I got an overwhelming amount of yeses,” she said. 

Many of those women saying yes were women of childbearing age, some with four or five children. Some of the women ended up being pregnant by the time of the training or race. Crain said some of them became part of the prayer team supporting the runners, while two of the women who ran were pregnant and four were pumping. 

The team of runners was Sarah Lundy, Brainerd; Paula Steenrod, St. Paul; Micah Buekema, Hibbing; Katie Lisi, Duluth; Anna Crain, Duluth; KarLee Crain, Foreston; Elizabeth Spehar, who coached the team, St. Paul; Beth Sullivan, Duluth; Katie Habedank, Carlton; Rachel Bennett, Sandstone; Nikki Bennett, Duluth; and Elizabeth Nygarrad, Duluth. 

Supporting them on the prayer team were Maggie Walsh, Sam Nielsen, and Jenny Boran of Duluth; Vanessa Ryan, Minneapolis; and Charmaine Douglas, Cloquet. 

Crain said one of the other teams had a van that said “12 women, 28 children,” but their team was 12 women with 50 children among them, some of them being nursed along the route or being driven in minivans by their fathers. 

The response from other teams was positive. 

“They thought it was awesome that we would still go out and, in the midst of family life, commit to training and 36 hours of running,” Crain said. 

Crain said that in addition to being excited to support the mission of Northland Family Programs, the women were eager to show moms and single women that they could take on something like the race. 

“We’re created to do hard things, in community especially,” she said. 

Each of the runners was tasked with running multiple legs of the race, which on the short end might be three miles or on the longer side might be nine miles. One of the runners got sick after her first leg and had to pull out of the race, so others had to make up her sections. Toward the end, Crain said none of the team were really running by themselves, as teammates would join them. 

“They just wanted to support each other,” she said. 

Crain said the financial goal of $30,000 was a big, scary goal that some questioned, but she said even if the goal hadn’t been met there was something more happening with Women Run for Women than she could explain.  

The funds will be used to support Northland’s educational mission, for instance by providing free introductory sessions on natural family planning for those interested, and providing scholarships for services for those in financial hardship. 

Crain said Northland is planning to do it again next year and is looking for volunteers who would like to get in on the run, with a possibility of even having two teams if enough people are interested. 

She said you don’t have to have any running experience or be able to run a lot of miles. A coach will provide a training regimen, and the legs can be as short as three miles. 

“But to have a heart for the mission is almost more necessary,” she said. “That’s what united us in the end.” 

To find out more about joining the team, to support Northland Family Programs, or to find resources on natural family planning, visit

$100,000 initiative to advance Catholic schools and discipleship

As we enter our second month of school, the gift of hope and the blessing of faith sustains us in our ministry as we share our talents and unique charisms. You, the members of our parish and school communities, are what enable our church to support and encourage discipleship in our Catholic schools. Your volunteer hours, the sharing of your talents, and your financial commitment to our schools is a blessing beyond all measure. Thank you! 

As we treasure what has been given to us, we also rejoice in a new and wonderful opportunity that has been presented to Catholic schools across the Diocese of Duluth. This opportunity will help to enhance educational excellence and grow enrollment. Richard M. Schulze, the founder of Best Buy, has offered the Diocese of Duluth Office of Catholic Schools a challenge grant. Mr. Schulze has been supporting the Catholic elementary schools in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis for many years and now is offering his support to our schools as well! 

The Schulze Family Foundation is offering a “Challenge Matching Grant” for up to $50,000. The Office of Catholic Schools has been challenged to raise $50,000 by Dec. 31, 2021. The Schulze Foundation would match the $50,000, to total $100,000! This is a tremendous opportunity to help our schools grow in excellence. We are already raising funds; however, we need your help to get to our goal by Dec. 31, 2021. 

The impact of your support reminds us of the story of the loaves and fishes. Just as God brought abundant blessings through the young boy’s offering, so too, can blessings multiply through your gift. The matching grant opportunity will benefit our Catholic schools throughout the entire diocese, including International Falls, Hibbing, Virginia, Grand Rapids, Duluth, Cloquet, and Brainerd! 

To learn more about the Diocese of Duluth Catholic Schools visit 

To donate please go to and locate the donate tab and select Catholic Schools Advancement or use the following QR code and simply open camera and it will lead you directly to the donate page.   

Editorial: Where are the real ‘extremes’ in the abortion debate?

Catholics and others of good will who oppose legalized abortion in defense of the right to life have grown accustomed to being accused of “extremism.”  

Now, this raises a whole host of questions, beginning with the ones Pope Francis posed in a recent press conference aboard the papal airplane: “It is a human life, period. And this human life must be respected. This principle is so clear, and to those who cannot understand, I would ask two questions: Is it right to kill a human life to solve a problem? Scientifically, it is a human life. The second question: Is it right to hire a hitman to solve a problem?” 

What, exactly, is “extreme” about recognizing that the correct answer to these questions is no? 

As has become clear in recent years, it is actually the other side of this debate that is demonstrably extreme. Due to various U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the United States already has among the fewest legal restrictions on abortion of any country in the world — the entire European Union is more restrictive of late term abortions than the United States, for instance. 

And yet it’s become clear that advocates of legal abortion are not satisfied with this. Consider the so-called Women’s Health Protection Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last month that would not only establish in federal law a legal right to abortion on demand at all stages of pregnancy but according to critics would overturn a host of widely supported state laws such as waiting periods, informed consent laws, conscience protections for medical professionals who object to abortion, and even laws designed to make abortions safer for women. And as has already been established, abortion advocates have also been working hard to open the floodgates of federal taxpayer funding for abortion. 

These policies are extreme by any reasonable measure. 

It’s probably too much to expect that many of our cultural institutions will treat that reality in an even-handed way. But those of us paying attention to the abortion debate should not be fooled by that rhetorical sleight of hand. When it comes to abortion extremism, it's staring us right in the face, right in the halls of Congress. 

Father Richard Kunst: Homilies are not the most important part of Mass — but they are important

About 20 years ago, I remember talking to one of my brother priests who had recently done a survey in his parish. I don’t know the details of the survey, but he did it to gauge the faith of his flock, and I remember him expressing his surprise at the answer to one of the questions on the survey. The question, as I recall it, was to see what part of the Mass his parishioners thought was most important. To his shock, the overwhelming number of parishioners thought the homily was the most important.  

Father Richard Kunst

It is not. Not even close. 

The most important part of the Mass is when you are kneeling and the priest is at the altar — the consecration, or the words of institution to be exact. If we could see with our eyes what happens at the altar at the point of the consecration, we would never even think of skipping Mass; we cannot fathom with our finite brains how much God expresses his love for us in the act of the Eucharistic Prayer, and so we kneel to express our humility in light of that reality.  

So the homily is not the most important part of the Mass. In fact, it is possible to have a Mass without a homily, and maybe in some instances it is better that way! 

All this being said, I do not want to shortchange the importance of the homily, because it is indeed important, maybe more important than you think. You might think the priest (or deacon) is the south end of a horse, you might think his homilies are too long and too boring, you may think his homilies are too hard to understand or follow. All these things might be true, but the fact is, because he is ordained, it is his responsibility and duty to preach. When a deacon, priest, or bishop are ordained, they are ordained in part to preach. It is an essential part of their duty as ordained ministers. This has always been the case from the very conception of the church, and it is rooted in scripture. 

Writing to his younger assistant, Paul’s letters to Timothy are full of priestly advice, including advice concerning homilies. In the fourth chapter of his first letter to Timothy, Paul says, “Do not neglect the gift you have, which was conferred on you through the prophetic word with the imposition of hands by the presbyterate” (1 Timothy 4:13). The gift Paul is referencing is Timothy’s ordination, his priesthood. “The imposition of hands by the presbyterate” is the actual ordination rite both in the ancient church and today. This is why if you have ever gone to an ordination of a priest, you have seen all the other priests one by one lay hands on the head of the one being ordained. 

Just a couple lines after Paul tells Timothy not to neglect the gift of his priesthood, he says, “Attend to yourself and your teaching; persevere in both tasks, for by doing so you will save both yourself and those who listen to you” (4:16). Read that line a couple of times, because it packs a punch if you understand it appropriately. Paul is stressing the huge significance of priests preaching of homilies, that they are preached in order to save the priest himself, as well as his listeners! 

The first take away for me in this verse is that when we priests and deacons preach, we are also preaching to ourselves. Do not think for a moment that just because we are preaching, that we have it all together. We do not! I am very aware that I need to hear the words of my homilies as much if not more than anyone else.  

But think of that when you hear that homily on the weekend. The end goal and purpose of that homily is to get you to heaven. That is a pretty big deal. For my part, I have always thought of my homilies as a five to seven minute chance to offset all the crud and junk we get exposed to all throughout the week, and because of this I have always taken the writing of my homilies to be of great significance in my own ministry. 

By no means is the homily the most important part of the Mass, but it is indeed important because of its purpose, which is to get you to heaven. Even if the homily is long and boring, or you don’t like the priest or deacon, still pay as much attention as you can to get something out of it so as to get closer to Christ and be with him forever. 

Father Richard Kunst is pastor of St. James and St. Elizabeth in Duluth. Reach him at [email protected]. 

Betsy Kneepkens: Brazen comments on abortion and Down Syndrome show why we need Respect Life month

It was the Catholic Church that designated October as Respect Life Month. October was likely chosen for many reasons, but one among them is that this month contains the feast of the Most Holy Rosary. The rosary is considered the most powerful prayer to defend life on earth. This Marian devotion is commonly prayed by pro-lifers when matters of life are at stake.  

Betsy Kneepkens
Betsy Kneepkens
Faith and Family

Every month should be Respect Life Month. Identifying October specifically as Respect Life causes pause, heightens awareness, and helps us renew a focus on doing everything humanly possible to protect, respect, and uphold the dignity of every unique and unrepeatable child of God.  

The Catholic Church often gets negatively portrayed in the media for its consistent and unwavering work on behalf of the unborn, suggesting Catholics think other life issues are secondary. A short read of church documents would say otherwise. However, the reality is that we must speak louder for the unborn because they can never advocate for themselves. I am repeatedly impressed by the work of the lay faithful who give tirelessly to save the lives of our most vulnerable and least able in the world.  

Scripture proclaims in Luke 1:42 that God's design intended something extraordinary about motherhood and the child a mother carries within, "Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb!" Way back then, before the ultrasound, it was known that another person, a complete and sacred being, was being housed, fed, and kept warm in the shelter of her mother's womb until she was developed enough and readied for the next phase of life outside the womb. No one ought to be surprised that Catholics see responsibility for the unborn.  

Working in the Catholic Church for nearly a decade, I am confident that we are world leaders serving endlessly on behalf of all matters that concern the dignity and respect due to all human life. The church's voice in the wilderness keeps the "wolves" at bay as this world tries to iron out attempts to reduce the sacred dignity due to the human person.   

 There has been a lot of news and noise coming out of Texas recently regarding the issue of abortion. I am not a legal expert, and lawmakers' recent attempt to reduce abortion in Texas is a bit complicated to understand. It seems that Texas lawmakers believe abortion is not a right granted in the Constitution. Instead, Roe v. Wade, the case used to disallow states from banning abortion, was a workaround to the Constitution to legalize abortion in all 50 states.  

Consequently, the new Texas law is not an overturning of Roe v. Wade but rather an attempt by the state legislatures to work around Roe v. Wade. Abortion is still legal in Texas, but this new law allows a private citizen to sue someone aiding and abetting an individual attaining an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. Some would say this is essentially making abortions unattainable in Texas, because many women don't know they are pregnant at six weeks.   

As you can imagine, there was a great deal of chatter on social media regarding this law, both pro and con. There was one comment which exemplifies, for me, what legalizing abortion has done to our society. Dr. Richard Hanania, a research fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University, posted his concerns about the new Texas law, stating, "You can't screen for Down syndrome before about 10 weeks, and something like 80% of Down syndrome fetuses are aborted. If red states ban abortion, we could see a world where they have five times as many children with Down syndrome and similar numbers of other disabilities."  

Since our society legally believes unborn are expendable, Dr. Hanania does express very matter-of-factly our culture's norms, which makes it sound reasonable to eliminate those that are not preferred.  

If Dr. Hanania and others seek a world of peace and justice, perhaps they should look at people with Down Syndrome's impact on others. I do not have a child with Down Syndrome; however, I have many close Catholic friends who allowed their child to live. These children with Down Syndrome are certainly not "normal," because they can love others in ways "normal” people often struggle to do; they love as Christ loves.  

My observation of these individuals is that they accept and tolerate others. They seem to lack the ability to prejudge people. Their personalities exuberate in the simplest things. They are gifts to humankind, because they remind us about how Christ calls us to love others unconditionally. The world is lacking 80% of those individuals now because of abortion.  

Dr. Hanania's brazen comment epitomizes why we need a month of Respect for Life. When it becomes legal and, worse yet, acceptable, not to find value in categories of individuals who are not preferred, we can never live in a just society.  

More importantly, we are intentionally disrupting God's plan for his Creation. Every life needs to be respected; every life has a purpose. When some judge that others aren't worthy of their contribution, we can't ever have peace. When allowed to live out their God-given purpose, every person contributes in ways that make for a better world. Respect Life month reminds us to always fight for those lacking the dignity God intends for their existence. God intended those beautiful human beings with Down Syndrome and others with disabilities to make us better human beings.  

Betsy Kneepkens is director of the Office of Marriage, Family, and Life for the Diocese of Duluth and a mother of six. 

Father Nicholas Nelson: October: the month of the Rosary

Growing up, one of our favorite movies was the animated film “The Day the Sun Danced: the True Story of Fatima.” I can’t tell you how many times we watched it. I highly recommend it for families. It tells the story of Our Blessed Mother’s appearance to three young Portuguese children in 1917. For five months, angels and our Blessed Mother appeared to Francisco, Lucia, and Jacinta. In July, Mary told the children, “You continue to come here. In October, I will tell you who I am, that which I want, and I will do a miracle that all can see and believe.” The children shared this news with anyone who would listen. 

Father Nick Nelson
Handing on the Faith

On Oct. 13, 1917, roughly 70,000 people gathered for what would be either the vindication of three young Portuguese children or their utter humiliation. The children had been continuously ridiculed by the townsfolk. That day was a rainy one, and there was mud everywhere. Yet that didn’t keep the people from coming to the prescribed place. At noon, Lucia, moved by an interior impulse, told the people to shut their umbrellas and to pray the rosary. At that, a light appeared, and then Our Lady arrived. Only the children could see her. Lucia then asked her usual question, “What do you want of me?” 

Our Lady replied, “I want to tell you that a chapel is to be built here in my honor. I am the Lady of the Rosary. Continue always to pray the rosary every day. The war (World War I) is going to end. And the soldiers will soon return to their homes.” She continued, “Do not offend the Lord our God anymore, because he is already so much offended.” 

What happened next was visible for all those who were present and people as far away as 25 miles. One eyewitness, Mary Allen, said: 

“Suddenly the rain ceased, the clouds separated, and I saw a large sun, brighter than the sun, yet I could look at it without hurting my eyes, as if it were only the moon. This sun began to get larger and larger, brighter and brighter until the whole heavens seemed more brilliantly lighted than I have ever seen it. Then the sun started spinning and shooting streams of light, which changed it to all colors of the rainbow …. At the same time, it started getting bigger and bigger in the sky as though it were headed directly for us as though it were falling on the earth. Everyone was frightened. We all thought it was the end of the world. Everyone threw themselves on their knees praying and screaming the Act of Contrition.” 

This lasted for about ten minutes, and afterwards everything was completely dry as if it hadn’t rained in weeks. 

This apparition of Mary, the miracle of the sun, and her messages to us through the children have all been affirmed by the Catholic Church. She identified herself as “Our Lady of the Rosary.” She is the patroness of our diocese, and the rosary has been a staple of Catholic life for centuries. And throughout her appearances at Fatima, she stressed over and over again the importance of praying the rosary. 

When we speak of liturgy, liturgy is public and official. A Mass offered by a priest by himself is still considered public. And by official, we mean that there are specific rules for the rites. When we actually consider what the church says and teaches in regards to liturgy, it is very precise, and not a whole lot of room for personal taste. On the other hand, when we consider devotions such as the rosary, devotions are private and orthodox. This means that a rosary being prayed by a stadium full of people is still private, in a sense. And by orthodox we mean that there aren't as many rules and guidelines, only that it must be orthodox—it must be consistent with the Catholic faith. 

So, there are many ways a person can incorporate the rosary into their life. There is a lot of freedom to praying the rosary. You can pray all five decades every day. You can pray just one decade a day. When you pray the rosary, you can focus on the words you are praying or you can meditate on the mysteries. You can add Scripture passages between the decades or even between each Hail Mary. You can pray it kneeling, sitting at home, or even while you go for a walk. 

October is the month of the rosary. Oct. 7 is the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. This is a great time to begin or to begin again to pray the rosary daily. Our Lady told us that bad things will happen and will continue to happen unless we pray the rosary for peace in the world. Pray it individually. Fathers, gather your family to pray it at night. Eventually when I was in high school, we would pray a decade every night as a family. We would begin with each of us saying something we were thankful for and something we wanted to pray for. Don’t worry if the kids are antsy or restless. It’s OK if it is a little messy. It’s the intention and effort that matters.  

Our Lady of the Rosary, Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us! 

Father Nick Nelson is pastor of Queen of Peace and Holy Family parishes in Cloquet. He studied at The Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Reach him at [email protected].

Deacon Kyle Eller: Coming to believe in God’s love for us — and for every single person around us

Call it my inner poet shining through or call it a divine encounter and grace from God — in any case, it happened many years ago, soon after my conversion to the Catholic faith, at plain old Cub Foods in Duluth of all places.  

Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

I was shopping for groceries, and suddenly my heart was flooded with wonder and joy and awe at the fact that God was holding every single person in that crowded store in existence at that very moment, that he created each one of them with full intention, that he knew each one of them more deeply and intimately than they knew themselves, that he loved them with a love so profound I could not even imagine it — the love that went all the way to the cross — and that his deep desire was to be in communion with each of them into eternity.  

This was true for all of them, without exception, whether they had any inkling of this or not. His love for the hardest person to love in that whole building was infinitely deeper than my love for the people I loved most.  

Of course, I “knew” this already, in an intellectual way. Any Christian does (or should). This is stuff from Christianity 101. It’s central to the entire Christian perspective on just about everything — why we're here, why Jesus came, why he sent the apostles and the church forth into the world. 

Pope Benedict XVI frequently and beautifully alluded to this truth. In the Mass to begin his pontificate, when he received the fisherman’s ring, he said: 

“Only when we meet the living God in Christ do we know what life is. We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary. There is nothing more beautiful than to be surprised by the Gospel, by the encounter with Christ. There is nothing more beautiful than to know Him and to speak to others of our friendship with Him.” 

In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), he describes an encounter with this divine love as the heart of Christian faith and central to our own lives and faith. Quoting St. John, he says: 

We have come to believe in God's love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” 

These things are easy to understand in the intellect but, I find, harder to grasp and keep firmly in the heart and soul. In fact, I think that’s why people so often treat these truths as empty platitudes and sometimes criticize preaching that focuses on it as a kind of cop-out, as a way of avoiding the challenging “hard teachings” of our faith. Of course it’s possible to turn them into empty platitudes, but if we truly grasp these truths in the heart and soul, if we truly understand their implications for ourselves and those around us, they are anything but empty platitudes. They are life-changing, life-giving realities that one feels can and should infuse our every encounter, and the very truths that undergird all the teachings of our faith, including the unpopular ones. 

When I call to mind that moment in Cub Foods, I will often have an echo of that experience. But in day-to-day interactions, dealing with a difficult person, it can be so hard to remember the truth of it and live out its call in the way I treat them. 

As I look out at the world and see the bitterness and anger and division, at the demonization and dismissiveness and eagerness to “excommunicate” each other I can't help thinking of how different it would be if every professed Christian held in his or her heart the truth of how much God loves those difficult people. When I look at the despair and nihilism that are afflicting so many people, with rising rates of depression and anxiety, I can’t help wondering if it would help for people to know in a deeper way that we’re loved, to “come to believe in God’s love” for us, and to be among people who recognize that “each of us is necessary.” 

But how can we make that more of a reality? 

Based on the principal that we cannot give what we do not have, I think the first thing is to come to believe in — and to personally encounter ­— the love God has for us personally, and to receive that love, which is pure gift, not something we could ever earn. This corresponds to the deepest desires of our hearts. 

And it’s actually by this love of God in our own hearts that we can truly love our neighbors as we ought to, recognizing in each person a deliberate, loved creation of the most high God whose own hearts, whether they yet know it or not, are crying out for the peace, joy, and fullness of life that can only be found in the love of God. 

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]. 

Father Mike Schmitz: Duties weighing on us? Remember ‘backwards blessings’

I find myself consistently becoming more and more aware of the good things in other people's lives — and the lack of good things in my life. The demands of work and family and taking care of my parents is really weighing on me. 

Father Michael Schmitz
Ask Father Mike

This is such a fantastic question. And this is such a fantastic problem to have. 

I apologize: I can imagine that my excitement over your dilemma doesn't help all that much. But I hear something in your question that has resonated deeply with me recently. 

Students have recently returned to the campus where I serve as a chaplain for our Newman Center. After a year and a half of looking across the street and seeing the parking lot less than a quarter full and only having limited contact with our students, it has been such a blessing to see them in person and to have the parking lot full again.  

At the same time, since it has been so long since we have been able to have them all back, I have to admit that I became a bit accustomed to having more space in our little Newman House to myself. Now, I can't walk through the living room without noticing all of the dirt that students have tracked into the house. I walked into the chapel the other day and someone had left all of the lights on. I was trying to record an episode of the podcast for the Bible in a Year, but musicians were practicing for Sunday Mass in the basement, and I had to wait until they were done before I could hit “record.” On top of all of that, with so many students back, I am constantly tired and dream of the day when I will be able to get to bed at a normal hour for a middle-aged man! 

I was praying about all of this one day. And I have to confess that I was feeling a little bit salty (which is Gen-Z for “bitter”) about the lights and the mess and the noise and the lack of sleep. But then I realized something: there is a mess in my house because students feel comfortable spending time at our Newman House. The lights were left on in the chapel because our students have been choosing to make time to pray in the Lord's Presence. I wasn't able to record a podcast because we have students who generously offer their musical gifts and practice for Sunday Mass. And I've been tired because so many young people are responding to the call of Jesus to follow him, and they just want some guidance on how to do that. 

All of my complaints were actually “backwards blessings.” 

Would I prefer that the house was clean and no students were there? Would I prefer space and time to myself rather than having the chance to be a part of the miracle that God is working in the lives of future saints? How crazy would I be to trade having a front row seat to what God is doing on campus for a full night’s sleep? 

And I wonder if this isn't true for many of us. You note that you have experienced the demands of “work and family and caring for your parents.” Those demands are real. I would never want to minimize the difficulty and real suffering that accompanies so much of life. The idea of ”backwards blessings” isn't an invitation to ignore real trials and difficulties. But it is an invitation to look at the other side of things. 

Yes, our jobs sometimes place more stress on our lives than we prefer, but what a gift to have a job. Family can be a real thorn, with fights and disagreements and more demands on time and resources, but what a gift to have the responsibility of family. And certainly, it can be taxing to have to care for elderly parents, but the day is going to come when we would give anything to be able to care for them one more day. 

Again, I do not want to make light of real pain. But almost every pain in our life can be lightened by perspective. I wonder if this isn't why St. Paul invited Christians in Thessaloniki to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We can do this when we know that God is in all circumstances, and that even many of our pains contain hidden “backwards blessings.” 

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.