Teaching Beyond One Specialization

It’s not an exaggeration for Dr. Craig Steven Titus to claim that it’s a small world or that God is really present with people in their everyday lives. While pursuing his Doctorate of Sacred Theology at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland), he encountered Dr. Gladys Sweeney, former dean of Divine Mercy University’s (DMU) Institute for the Psychological Sciences (IPS). She introduced him to the University and, as the saying goes, the rest is history. At DMU, Dr. Titus serves as professor and director for the Department of Integrative Studies. He has also written a book titled Resilience and the Virtue of Fortitude: Aquinas in Dialogue with the Psychosocial Sciences (CUA Press, 2006), edited 10 books, and published numerous articles. His commitment to research and teaching goes beyond one specialization; his expertise consists of an interdisciplinary understanding of theology, philosophy, and mental health practice. During a meeting with Dr. Titus, you will quickly learn that he’s prompt, action-oriented, and detailed, yet he’s still able to laugh. Interestingly enough, after nearly 16 years at DMU, he still considers his students as a prized asset and finds his multi-disciplinary work with colleagues to be “fascinating.” Here’s what he had to say about his work at Divine Mercy University. Q: How long have you been a faculty member at Divine Mercy University and how did you get involved? Dr. Titus: I’ve been involved in different ways since 2002, when I was first hired as assistant professor to teach the integration courses. It was the year prior to that that I came to know the university because of its first dean. Former IPS dean Gladys Sweeney came through Switzerland, in route to Rome for a conference, with some students. She had invited Fr. Servais Pinckaers to speak to the students on the theme of happiness. However, since he fell ill, he asked me to speak in his stead. At that time, I was finishing up my doctoral dissertation at the University of Fribourg (Switzerland). After giving the lecture, Dean Sweeney suggested that I present my candidacy for the position at IPS that was free because Fr. Benedict Ashley was retiring. Fr. Ashley was the theologian-philosopher who first designed and taught the philosophy and theology courses that prepared for the integration of Catholic thought and the psychological sciences. My experience in dialogue between theology, philosophy, and psychosocial research on resilience and the virtue of fortitude prepared me for work at Divine Mercy University. Q: Which courses do you teach and how do they add value to the university’s overall mission? Dr. Titus: I teach classes on: philosophical and theological anthropology; practical reason and moral character; and marriage and family. The courses are formative of the clinicians’ Christian identity and understanding of the person. They engage the student’s mind and heart in wisdom from theological, philosophical, and mental health sources. These courses train the students to see the whole person, family, and society, to enrich their vocation to heal. Of course they need further integration training in the University’s clinical classes to become competent in mental health practice as a whole. The integration thread throughout all the courses promotes an understanding of the person in terms of the origins, development, and flourishing of the person—in everyday and ultimate perspectives, which include issues of human nature, relationality, and God. The students come to the university because of its commitment to the Catholic-Christian understanding of the person, family, and society. Students appreciate being taught to see more of the person, including the person’s callings to commitments and truth, to interpersonal relationships, and to a future that gives meaning to the present.   Image Caption: Dr. Craig Steven Titus, director of the Newman Lecture Series, speaks with the late Dr. Michael Novak before the 2015 lecture begins. Dr. Novak was a Roman Catholic social philosopher and a professor at Catholic University of America . The Newman Lectures feature speakers who are widely recognized for their contributions to the fields of psychology, moral and political philosophy, theology, and law. This lecture series is held under the sponsorship of Divine Mercy University and seeks to promote an international conversation among various disciplines that treat the human person. Q: Are there any particular resources used in your courses that you feel are unique from other counseling or psychology programs? Dr. Titus: One of the major differences between courses at DMU and those at a secular counseling and psychology program are the sources that underlie one’s vision of the person. A Catholic-Christian vision of the person is rooted in the sources of reason and faith that protect the psychological sciences from reductionism, that is, seeing too little of the person, family, and society. This vision of faith and theological reflection is rooted in the experience of the Word of God found in Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture (the Bible)—teaching that is passed down through the succession of the apostles. This Catholic-Christian perspective is found in: the patristic reflections of the early Church writers (such as St. Augustine); the Magisterium (such as St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis), including the Councils (e.g the Second Vatican Council). It draws upon the writings of men and women, who throughout the Church and the ages have carried the message of Christ forward. Other sources of wisdom are Christian and non-Christian philosophy from Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, and so on. And of course, there are the sources wisdom from current psychological sciences, evidence-based techniques, and best practices in the mental health field. In drawing from the psychological, philosophical, and theological wisdom traditions, we are convinced that, since truth is one, there is something very important to be learned by the psychological sciences and the practice of counseling. These new sciences offer further understandings of how people can experience suffering, anxiety, and depression, and how they can find ways to come out of those difficulties using the means that are necessary and helpful – including psychotherapy, group therapy, psychopharmacology, and everyday contact with people, which also can be therapeutic. Q: What has been the most rewarding part of teaching at Divine Mercy University? Dr. Titus: Perhaps it’s the classic response, but the most rewarding part of teaching at DMU is the contact with the students. Together with the students, the instructors engage wisdom, understanding, and knowledge vital for mental health professionals. I support very strongly the unity of the human person and the importance of their experience. Even in our diversity of cultural experience, there is wisdom, there is truth. When one seeks to teach and share experience, while recognizing the dignity of each person and God’s presence in it all, it’s really an experience of learning as well as teaching. Our students are highly motivated and committed to the program. Their active participation allows me also to have feedback from them about their experiences, the reality of being a community, and their search for the truth of the person, family, and relationships. The classroom becomes a type of community of inquiry seeking together to understand more about experiences of difficulty and failure as well as of life, love, and flourishing. Q: Who has inspired you throughout your career? Dr. Titus: I have two primary mentors in my life: - Fr. Servais-Théodore Pinckaers: it’s because of him that I went to Europe to study. He was a leader in the renewal in the Catholic Church that sees morals as being rooted in the virtue of Charity-love—God’s love, a friendship love—and in the movement of the Holy Spirit. Fr. Pinckaers’ approach to moral action and spiritual life is both normative and virtue-based. He affirms the importance of acts, agents, purposes, vocations, and being open to transcendence (that is, God, including the gifts of the Holy Spirit). - And the other primary mentor is Fr. Benedict Ashley: it’s because of him that I was hired at DMU. He set up the integration program at DMU. His study of Catholic anthropology, morals, and bioethics prepared him for dialogue with the psychological sciences. In parallel, my study of resilience (psychological sciences) and the virtue of fortitude (based on the thought of Thomas Aquinas) prepared me for dialogue with the psychological sciences, drawing on the model used by Fr. Ashley. Image Caption: Book cover for Servais Pinckaers' piece on "Renewing Thomistic Moral Theology, published by Catholic University of America and edited by Dr. John Berkman and Dr. Craig Steven Titus. Q: Are you involved in any research teams or professional associations or organizations that have helped you stay current in the field? Dr. Titus: I belong to seven professional associations – including The Society of Christian Ethics and American Catholic Philosophical Association, and the Catholic Psychotherapy Association (as an academic member). I think that the best way to stay current in the fields that I am concerned with is through engagement in research and dialogue. The co-editing of and the contributions to the Catholic-Christian Meta-Model*Volume has involved extensive scholarship – the bibliography is 60 pages long. If I had taught philosophy or theology at a different university, I would have been centered within one discipline or one specialization. But, by the nature of Divine Mercy University we take a multidisciplinary approach – where philosophy and theology are required to dialogue with psychological sciences. This interdisciplinary commitment complements specialized research and prepares for integrated clinical work. To be engaged as a philosopher and theologian with psychologists, I have had to be attentive to the meanings of terms, the methods of research, and the way that truths about the person and relationships are communicated.  For example, understanding human experiences of attachment, caring, and charity-love, can be integrated by a Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the person, which includes psychological findings (e.g., through attachment theory on secure attachments), philosophical reflections (e.g., on virtues such as benevolence and friendship), and theological insights (e.g., on vocations and God’s love for every person). Such an interdisciplinary approach enriches our understanding of the person (e.g., because of the inclusion of vocations and virtues), thus benefiting the mental health field, in general, but also the client, in particular. There is great benefit when the three sources of wisdom work together for each person. *The Catholic-Christian Meta-Model of the Person – presented by university faculty and other collaborators – is a forthcoming volume of research that elaborates a basic training approach for integrating a Catholic-Christian understanding of the human person, psychology and mental health practice. Download a copy of the foundational document “Psychological, Theological, and Philosophical Premises for a Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person.”

Honoring St. Patrick With Moderation

When we look at the calendar and see that St. Patrick’s Day is right around the corner, many of us may salivate knowing that our local pubs and bars will be decorated and playing Celtic music, with Guiness and green beer flowing endlessly like the great falls of some romantic Irish waterfall, and when the day comes, we celebrate even more the week before and the week after the holiday. And then the following morning you find yourself staying in bed sick. Most of the adrenaline in your body has vacated the premises, leaving only a small amount to get you to roll around under the covers in desperate search of a position that will calm the heavy throbbing in your head, or to get up and rush to the bathroom or the nearest trash can to vomit. It’s highly doubtful that St. Patrick--one of the most popular and highly recognized Catholic saints in the world--would’ve expected that kind of celebration of his feast day. Born in Roman England, he first entered Ireland as a captive of pirates as a fourteen-year-old, and wasn’t able to escape and return to England until he was twenty. [caption id="attachment_645" align="alignleft" width="240"] St. Patrick often used a clover when teaching about the Holy Trinity.[/caption] In his memoir, The Confession of St. Patrick, he describes experiencing a vision that prompted him to study for the priesthood. He was eventually ordained a bishop and, in the year 433, was sent to preach the Gospel in Ireland. Throughout his 40-year stay in Ireland, he converted thousands of people, built churches throughout the country, and performed many miracles up to his death on March 17th, 461. Approximately 33 million people celebrate St. Patrick’s Day each year, and with his feast day falling within the season of Lent, Catholics and Christians are able to set aside their Lenten restrictions and are able to indulge in whatever they gave up, e.g. if they gave up snacks and stout. The day also became a celebration of not only the holy man, but also Irish heritage, culture, history and traditions around the world. According to Wallethub, over 55% of Americans plan to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day and are expected to spend a collective estimate of $5.6 billion. “For some, any reason to drink more is a good enough reason,” said Divine Mercy University Associate Professor Dr. Stephen Sharp, a specialized instructor for the Addictions Counseling course (COUN 650). “But for others, it may simply be part of the ‘spirit’ of the holiday, in this case St. Patrick's Day. It could as well be Christmas, New Year (even Chinese New Year), or the 4th of July.” Today, St. Patrick’s Day is ranked the third most popular drinking day of the year. According to WalletHub, 152.5% more beer is sold and 13 million pints of Guinness consumed (an 819% increase from the rest of the year), and 32% of men admit to binge drinking on St. Patrick’s Day.    “I'm not sure we can say that binge drinkers ‘go out of their way’ to drink more when there is a social opportunity to do so,” Dr. Sharp said. “They may just simply take advantage of the socialized opportunity to celebrate using alcohol. In ways, a culture of drinking on holidays has contributed to problems created by over-imbibing.” But with greater consumption comes a greater need for greater responsibility. Seventy-five percent of fatal car crashes over St. Patrick’s Day involved a drunk driver, and 59 people were killed in St. Patrick’s Day drunk driving crashes in 2017. Between 2013-2017, 44% of people killed in drunk driving crashes during the St. Patrick’s Day holiday were between 21 and 34 years old.   “Law enforcement recognizes the patterns,“ Dr. Sharp continued, “and often has a bigger presence, and has also helped to sponsor the idea of ‘designated drinkers’ and the use of services for transportation to keep drinkers from behind the wheel of an automobile. With or without the cultural influences of alcohol consumption, those choosing to use alcohol have the ultimate challenge of drinking responsibility on these celebrated occasions.” Unfortunately, it seems to be a difficult challenge for many. Alcohol abuse is currently one of the largest public health crises in the United States, and it kills more people each year than overdoses. According to the Center for Disease Control, six people die from alcohol poisoning every day, and further research shows that alcohol consumption will only grow in 2019, even as population growth is expected to slow.     “Too much of almost anything can be harmful,” said Sharp. “Extended over-use is probably the most hazardous to your health. Our bodies are remarkably able to recover from the occasional over-drinking simply by remaining abstinent from it for a period of time.” When we don’t allow our bodies the chance to recover, our drinking may contribute to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and other organ damage, especially the liver, which is the organ charged with keeping our bodily system clean by removing toxins. When we regularly overload our liver, we may pay the price over time. But as mentioned before, our body is a remarkable system capable of near miraculous recovery, but only when given the opportunity to do so. But the risks are not just bodily. Poor drinking habits can be destructive enough to damage our relationships that often do not recover, including those within our family. “Behavior problems resulting from alcohol use and abuse can stretch the limits of those who love us, and that we love,” said Dr. Sharp. “Moments and phases of intoxication may result in engaging in other risky and damaging behaviors and in having a lifelong impact on the quality of our life and those precious relationships. This also often takes a toll on children of alcoholic parents as binge drinking may be part of a bigger cycle, and is often an unpleasant experience for the child.”    According to Dr. Sharp, it is also widely observed that concurrent mental disorders will accompany a substance use disorder. It is not uncommon to see depression, anxiety and substance use co-occurring in an individual. “Did the anxiety appear before the depression,” he said, “and were they present prior to the onset of substance use? Or, did the substance use begin and the other mental disorders begin subsequently? The answer is that this is highly individualized in differences, distinctions, and similarities to others. It depends on the person, their history, and the narrative of their life story. “A short and simple answer is often right beneath the nose, though,” he continued, “and that is if using alcohol is creating problems in your life at any level such as work, relationships or legally, then you may have a drinking problem and should seek the help of a professional.” As we celebrate the life of St. Patrick and everything Irish in communion with each other--whether it be in person or in spirit--let us do so in safe, moderate and healthy fashion for ourselves and each other.    

Lent: The Season for Habit Formation

There are two things that many of us seem to get wrong: the days leading up to Christmas, and the days leading up to Easter. In the days leading up to Christmas--which can begin as early as May--we find ourselves in a consistent rush: fixing budgets, planning trips, scheduling reunions, flying to pageants and concerts, collecting items for feasts and bakefests, and purchasing lots and lots and lots of presents. We leave very little time and room for reflection, charity, prayer, and preparation for Christ’s arrival. With Christmas now past and the liturgical season of ordinary time coming to a close, our attention turns toward Easter, and the season of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, where we follow Jesus on his adult journey of teaching, ministry, prayer, healing and suffering right up to his crucifixion and death on Good Friday. Tradition held by Catholics and Christians around the world maintains the element of sacrifice, of “giving up” something for the whole 40-day season of Lent. So how do we get the original meaning of Lent wrong? We engage in the tradition for all the wrong reasons. Like Christmas, we take Christ out of Lent. We may not do so consciously, but we often find ourselves using Lent to achieve internal or worldly goals. We give up junk food or monitor what we eat when starting a new diet, or abstain from beer to lower the cholesterol and clear the mind. We give up some TV so we can manage time better or focus on other interests. “We all have these interior movements,” said Divine Mercy University Adjunct Professor Dr. Ian Murphy during last month’s webinar titled The Power of Habit: Therapeutic Techniques From St. Thomas Aquinas. “What St. Thomas Aquinas teaches us is that these interior movements--these appetites, these passions, these emotions--are not the bad guy, but we can’t do whatever they say. If we do whatever they tell us to do, then we’re not truly free of them. We become slaves to them. But we can’t ignore them either. They’re an integral part of us, and they were originally created to support our happiness.” We may see the season of Lent as a second chance with the New Year’s resolution we missed, except with a partially structured strategy and timeline. Even in the Church, many of us confuse worldly growth or preparation with spiritual growth or preparation. But in doing so, we might become more worried about staying on track with a certain practice, instead of considering if that particular practice is helping to actually convert our hearts, allow us to analyze the depth of Christ’s sacrifice and teachings on earth, and bring us closer to God in the first place, because Lent is about re-centering our will to His and living that out in the world. “We can think of Lent as a time to eradicate evil or cultivate virtue,” said Blessed Fr. Fulton Sheen, “a time to pull up weeds or to plant good seeds. Which is better is clear, for the Christian ideal is always positive rather than negative. A person is great not by the ferocity of his hatred of evil, but by the intensity of his love for God. Asceticism and mortification are not the ends of a Christian life; they are only the means. The end is charity. Penance merely makes an opening in our ego in which the Light of God can pour. As we deflate ourselves, God fills us. And it is God’s arrival that is the important event.” A good Lenten practice would actually be for us to take spiritual inventory of our lives and determine where we need growth. One means of doing this, especially during the season of Lent, is what’s called Virtuous Habit Formation. St. Thomas Aquinas defines virtue as an operative disposition toward the good. In other words, virtues are repeated performative actions that internalize into perfective habits that form our character according to our ultimate purpose.   “We don’t do whatever our feelings, passions, and appetites tell us to do,” said Dr. Murphy. “In other words, we don’t do whatever our ‘inner selves’ say. But we don’t ignore our feelings either. Rather, we appreciate our emotions as an integral part of us. We consult our emotions for illumination as we discern; and with a conscious receptivity to the Holy Spirit, we allow prudence to order our emotions. And we also allow emotion to wake up the powers of the soul whenever rationality and will grow cold and lose sight of their higher calling.” Those interior movements mentioned earlier can become disordered within us, and in their disorder, they can wreak havoc. Consider that person who does offer that up moderate drinking upon returning home. After a hard day’s work or a day full of stress and anxiety, that person may be looking forward to that nearly instant gratification of relaxation and stress reduction. Despite any health or anxiety benefits, the frequent repetition of this practice wires the mind to expect; that person becomes disposed to pursuing those glasses of wine or pints of lager after each hard day, and may begin to see it as a regular remedy to a lingering stress.    “All this is the key to our therapeutic technique: repeat actions,” said Dr. Murphy. “If the acts be multiplied--if you keep doing things over and over again, even a small thing, an allegedly tiny baby step--if you repeat it, a switch is thrown inside of you, and the synaptic pathways in our brains are rewired. We become inclined to behave that way. We become disposed to behave that way.”   Our “giving something up” for Lent is not merely an offering in the Lenten tradition of sacrifice, or an offering in reverence to Christ’s sacrifice, or just us utilizing the season as an annual detox, fat burner or dietary starting point. When we remove the worldly value of the things we offer up--when we apply virtue to our commitment to change our habits--we understand that we’re not just giving something up. We’re giving something over, and the less we take, the more we open ourselves to the richnesses of God’s love, filling the voids left by our bottles of our worldly desires.    “This is the key to our wellbeing,” said Dr. Murphy, “to our flourishing, to our happiness. We are created, we are fallen, and we’re also redeemed. In our fallenness, things that were created for good get disordered. But in our redemption, they can be re-ordered again.” Lent is not our mulligan when we miss our New Year’s resolution. It is not our self-improvement project, our annual detox or our new diet plan. Lent is a renewal of our promise to walk with Jesus into the desert, into the city streets, even to the foot of the cross, with our hands in His the whole way. Lent is about our relationship with God and with Christ; and that relationship, like any other, has trials, distress and joy. Sign up to learn more about Divine Mercy University's graduate programs in counseling and/or psychology.

Our Lady Shares the Sacrifice of Motherhood

In the mountains of southern Italy, there is a monastery that shelters the iconic twelve-foot high Black Madonna icon of the village of Montevergine, attracting pilgrims from all over the world for hundreds of years. On February 2nd and September 12th--the feast of the Purification of Mary and the feast of the Most Holy Name of Mary, respectively--a festival takes place in celebration of Montevergine’s Blessed Virgin. Travelers from all walks and ways of life climb the 300 plus steps up the mountain to the hilltop monastery--singing, dancing, playing tambourines and drawing parade floats along the way--to adore, pay homage, pray to and praise in thanksgiving of Our Lady of Montevergine’s love. [caption id="attachment_601" align="alignleft" width="162"] The 12-foot high icon stands behind the altar of the Montevergine Monastery. Crowns were added to Mary and the Child Jesus in 1621, and the lower part of the image was added between 1712 and 1778. Image source http://interfaithmary.net/blog[/caption] The miraculous history of the Black Madonna throughout the world shows a long, loving history of the Blessed Virgin Mother watching over her children wherever she has appeared. Many miracles have been attributed to these iconic images, including the Polish icon of Our Lady of Czestochowa--known and revered as the queen and protector of Poland--and Our Lady of Montevergine specifically is believed to have interceded in the miraculous rescue of a gay couple in the middle ages who were en route to worship before her icon, but were captured by an angry mob and were beaten, stripped, tied up and left to die in the frigid temperatures. Such incredible moments in history have led millions of people to look to her as their spiritual mother and source for guidance and motherly comfort, but her life on earth itself is a testament to motherhood’s strife and sacrifice, while showing the loving path for mothers all across the world. Throughout the month of February we’re celebrating, focusing and worrying about love and finding love, and it’s almost insulting that we neglect to celebrate and acknowledge the love that moms bring to us and the world, literally with every breath they take. But many young women today feel a sense of fear at the prospect of struggling with motherhood, especially if they lacked a positive mothering experience growing up. Others may fear what the commitment entails or feeling that they may not become the great mother they had. “It’s a commitment,” said Fr. Robert Presutti, Chaplain at Divine Mercy University, “meaning you are sort of throwing yourself into the unknown. You can’t determine what this child is going to be like in any way, shape or form. How is having a child going to impact your own life? It’s a risk, and like all risks, we face it with a little hesitation. “You think about beings that are just ‘gimme, gimme, gimme’,” Presutti continued, “and don’t have much to give back. What more than babies, right? But at the same time, you realize they’re giving a whole bunch, that we didn’t even realize we needed. Very often, it’s in our own coming out of ourselves and our own false securities that we discover true happiness, true security, and the joy of sacrifice, especially in motherhood.” But we only need to look at Mary, not only for her guidance and understanding, but also to help imitate any mothering skills that fall short. As we sing her praise, we may forget that Mary was human too. Mary was a real woman on earth who faced the very same fears and struggles mothers do today. She was a wife and mother who committed herself to doing all of the things that a great parent does: preparing and cooking meals, washing and mending clothes, washing dishes, changing diapers, worrying about her child as he matured, and going to bed exhausted after each long day of hard work caring for her husband and son. “There is certainly a lot to contemplate,” said Presutti. “She is a humanly mother, like all other mothers but, perhaps, like no other mother. And talk about making yourself completely vulnerable! God was asking a lot of Mary, and Mary threw herself into it. The only question she had for the angel who appeared to her was in regards to God’s expectations for her and it would all come about. Everything else was unknown and an absolute risk. And Mary allowed herself to be shaped very deeply by her child. A child inevitably shapes the mother.” Mary’s actions on earth exemplified the virtues of a loving mother--acceptance, patience, trust, endurance, courage, and strength. She said yes to carrying God’s only son--a request that was not only daunting but also unheard of--and stayed true to her promise with her beloved child unto the very end: from giving birth in a stable, to fleeing to Egypt to protect her newborn, to standing with her son as He grew up, and being with her son where no mother ever wants to be: in His final hours, watching in horror as He was condemned, brutally tortured and executed before her eyes.   “With God’s grace and Mary’s example,” said journalist and author Marge Fenelon in her book, Imitating Mary: Ten Marian Virtues for the Modern Mom, “we can overcome any obstacles to becoming the loving, wonderful mothers we’re meant to be. In Mary, we have a mother worthy of emulation, but who is fully human with the same experiences and emotions we have. In her life, we find example, and in her virtue, we find inspiration. Mary can show us how to be the mothers we want to be — the mothers we can be.” Becoming a mother can be one of the most joyous moments a woman will experience in her life, and the love she feels for her child far outweighs the challenges that they may face in their future. It is not an easy journey, but Mary’s example sheds light on the path to overcome the fears and obstacles to becoming loving mothers.    “Whenever God acts in our life,” said Father Presutti, “He always applies those aspects: there’s sacrifice, and there’s a bliss to it. Whatever God does for us, He makes it a gift to others as well. The gift that God gave to Mary was highly personal and individualized to Mary, in a way only in which He could do. And through Mary that gift is a gift to every one of us.”

Why Are We Keeping Christ in Christmas?

You’ve likely heard this slogan: keep Christ in Christmas. It’s the mission statement for the Knights of Columbus when they begin selling themed Christmas cards and bumper stickers, sending the proceeds to various charitable causes. It’s their annual effort to promote the true spirit of Christmas. It’s a slogan that’s typically echoed across social media, occasionally coming close to starting interweb and personal wars between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy Holidays” wishers. It is a movement to shift from an engrossment with materialism that intensifies in the weeks leading up to the holiday itself, and return to the light of Jesus Christ and the spirit of giving. We see it in giving gifts to others without expecting or asking for anything in return: gifts for children we’ve never met, their names hanging from the angel tree in the back of the church; gifts of donated food or funds or clothing for the homeless; the gift of bringing the spirit to the home bound, or simply providing the gift of assistance to those who have difficulty helping themselves. The Christmas season is also arguably the most highly anticipated and most festive time of year in the world, and everything gets a lot busier. Our lives become filled with Christmas pageants, recitals, home decorating, caroling, movie marathons, lots of holiday marketing and lots and lots and lots of shopping. Whether you’re a “Merry Christmas” person or a “Happy Holidays” person, it’s difficult to ignore that today’s fast-paced, consumer world creates a tremendous amount of stress and anxiety that can lead to a dreading of Christmas, a day which should be a holy, joyous occasion. “I think what people bemoan about the fast pace is not so much the fast pace, but precisely the materialism of it,” said Fr. Robert Presutti, Divine Mercy University’s chaplain and the director for Spiritual Direction Certificate program. “Unfortunately materialism itself, whether it’s Christmas or not, is deeply unfulfilling. It’s deeply frustrating because we were made for so much more than these material values. When you take Christ out of Christmas, what happens is just increased frenzy activity. I think the fact that people feel the way they do at Christmas is not so much about Christ being taken out of Christmas; He’s being taken out of human activity period. I think it’s a symptom of a much larger problem.” Perhaps, according to Father Presutti, we should try to disengage Christmas from the rural, slow-paced culture with which it has been historically associated, like a country setting where there’s plenty of space and snow is coming down. What does it mean to live it in the middle of a city? What does it mean to live Christmas in the middle of a lot of hustle and bustle? “When you think about the first Christmas, Mary and Joseph didn’t have a quiet time. They were going from place to place with quite a bit of stress. And yet, they were completely focused on it being totally for the Lord. And when the Lord came, that was the joy of Christmas,” said Fr. Presutti. Amidst everything that the season brings in our lives, do we leave any room to journey towards Bethlehem? Do we ever find ourselves capable of lowering our “Keep Christ in Christmas” shields, turn off the carols and marathons and remember how it all began and why we should be overjoyed? As we embrace, inhale and consume the season and spirit of Christmas in today’s world, what happens to us when we allow the Son of Man to be a part of it as well? “It’s something more radical than just keeping Christ in Christmas,” Fr. Presutti said. “I don’t know if illuminating the activity is going to somehow make Christmas more spiritual. But it is, in a certain sense, putting Christ in the center of the activity. Why do we go through the trouble of celebrating at Christmas parties? Why do we go through the trouble of actually making ourselves a little more tired to buy gifts? It’s because there’s a value--something so deep in this Christmas season-- that it’s worth it, and that becomes fulfilling.” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his 2005 Angelus address for the third Sunday of Advent, reflects on how the world has turned away from the true spirit of Christmas, citing how our consumer society suffered a sort of commercial ‘pollution’ that risks changing Christmas’s intimate, authentic spirit, marked by recollection, moderation and joy. Benedict also shares that, to break through chaos and commercial pollution, all we have to do is turn towards the crib: “The crib helps us contemplate the mystery of God’s love that was revealed in the poverty and simplicity of the Bethlehem Grotto,” he says. “The crib can help us understand the secret of the true Christmas because it speaks of the humility and merciful goodness of Christ, who ‘though he was rich, made himself poor’ for us (cf. 2 Cor 8:9)’. Jesus’ poverty enriches those who embrace it, and brings Christmas joy and peace to those who, like the shepherds in Bethlehem, accept the angel’s words: ‘Let this be a sign to you: in a manger you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes’ (Lk 2:12).” “Go back to the root,” Presutti said. “Don’t live Christmas the way modern culture has over the last 200 years; go back to the root. What is this Advent season? It’s a time of preparation to receive the greatest gift of all. We’re not celebrating, we’re preparing.”   The Advent season and the approach of Christmas compels us to keep in mind two things. First, that Christ came to us over 2,000 years ago out of pure love. He came to us incarnate as fully God and fully man, and that he entered into our world, with all its associated ugliness, pain, discomfort, cruelty and sin, solely for the sake of us. Secondly, is that Christ told us that he will come again. “Some writers have also stated that in preparing for Christmas,” said Fr. Presutti, “we’re actually also preparing for the second coming of Christ. We’re orientating our lives towards the Lord Jesus. By preparing to celebrate His birth, we’re also preparing for our final encounter with Christ, and it also prepares us for Christ who comes to us today in many different ways.” Let’s go back in time for a moment. In the winter of 1914--the fifth month of World War I--hostilities were at a standstill. After the Race to the Sea and First Battle of Ypres, leaders reconsidered their strategies, leaving their troops to maintain their positions in the trenches. In the days leading up to Christmas, British, Belgian and French soldiers laid down their weapons, left the trenches and approached their German enemy, exchanging gifts of food, cigarettes and other items. The truce also allowed the sides to bury their fallen comrades, who laid dead on the land between the two sides. The truce took different forms across the battlefields. One account described a British soldier getting his hair cut by his pre-war German barber; others spoke of pig roasts and kickabouts with makeshift soccer balls. Graham Williams of the Fifth London Rifle Brigade recalled the Christmas Truce beginning in song. “First the Germans would sing one of their carols,” Williams wrote, “and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started singing ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful,’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymns to the latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this really a most extraordinary thing -- two nations both singing the same carroll [sic] in the middle of a war.” After over 100 years, the Christmas Truce--which has been immortalized and fictionalized in novels, films and even an opera entitled Silent Night--is still remembered as a Christmas miracle and a true testament to the power of hope, humanity, and good in each of us, even in the truly darkest hours of our history. “Somehow,” said Fr. Presutti, “the presence of Christ guarantees what’s good, authentic and well appreciated in human culture, period.”
About DMU
Divine Mercy University (DMU) is a Catholic graduate university of psychology and counseling programs. It was founded in 1999 as the Institute for the Psychological Sciences. The university offers a Master of Science (M.S.) in Psychology, Master of Science (M.S.) in Counseling, Doctor of Psychology (Psy.D.) in Clinical Psychology, and Certificate Programs.