Syria on my mind.

On June 28, 1914, shots rang out in the streets of Sarajevo killing Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. His death would plunge nations into the First World War. Millions died.

Fast forward to 2017, Syria is in the middle of a civil war, a war against terror, and a proxy war all wrapped in a single bloody conflict. I will not pretend to fully comprehend its complexities but, for our purposes, suffice it to say that you have those against the Assad regime, you have Assad and his army, and the terror group ISIS in a three-corner fight of sorts. Russia and Iran support Assad, while the US and the Western nations support various groups seeking the ouster of Assad, or hope to be independent like the Kurds.

Normally, the Syrian conflict should be just that: a conflict between Syrians but the presence of Russia, who actually resurrected its mothballed aircraft carrier to join the conflict, the US and its allies, and Iran, is making this a quagmire worthy of 1914 Sarajevo. While Russia and the US rely mostly on their air and special forces to assist their chosen sides, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards openly cross the border to fight for Assad, or against ISIS. The US and Russia may have thousands of troops in or around Syria. Iran has tens of thousands.

Worse, the conflict is starting to draw in other players. Israel bombed Syrian positions when wayward Syrian rockets flew into its territory. Parenthetically, Israel has also sent overtures to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), which is in its own struggle against Iran for dominance in the Middle East. The Saudis, despite the fact that Osama Bin Laden and al-Queida — the terrorists behind 9/11 — were KSA-linked, is also pro-US. The US is also traditionally pro-Israel. The US also recently approved a billion dollar arms deal with KSA and its president’s opposition to the Iran nuclear deal entered into by his predecessor, which KSA dislikes, and his threat to abandon it are all common knowledge.

Recently, the KSA and the United Arab Emirates (UAE or Emiratis) with Egypt and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar supposedly because the latter praised Iran (and Israel) and supported terrror groups like ISIS. Qatar denied the accusations but, curiously, the emir of Qatar thereafter called on Iran to congratulate its president for his re-election, which naturally pissed off KSA and the Emiratis. Turkey, which is fast becoming distant from the West, is siding with Qatar. The US president, contrary to what US diplomats were saying about the rift claimed credit for KSA and the Emiratis move to stop terrorist financing from Qatar. Russia appears to be sitting on the fence on this one having interests to protect with both KSA and Qatar; however, it appears to be more sympathetic to Qatar as its diplomats and state agencies have been meeting with their Qatari counterparts after the rift. Still, its energy needs require it to keep itself on the good side of KSA.

Then we have the US Senate passing a bill threatening Russia with sanctions for interfering with US elections. It still has to be approved by the US House of Representatives and Trump but, essentially, it seeks to penalize Russia’s energy program and anyone who assists Russia in said program. This does not sit well with the European Union (EU), especially Germany, who have companies involved in those programs. The EU sees the action as contrary to the agreed approach for joint action of the EU and the US when it comes to sanctions against Russia. It’s bad enough that Trump is alienating his Western allies in NATO. This can openly break the tenuous relationship between Trump and the EU-NATO. Germany has already voiced its concern that the EU can no longer rely on the US for leadership. Trump, with his America First byline, couldn’t care less it seems.

Finally, China and Russia, whom many have interpreted to be the biblical Gog and Magog, have recently decided to create a roadmap to military cooperation, among other things. Russia may no longer be as influential as it was at the height of the Cold War but nobody can deny the growing influence of the resurgent China whose efforts to create a new Silk Road is allowing it to create a sphere of influence from Asia to Africa and Europe. If we stick to the biblical interpretation that China and Russia are Gog and Magog, then they will bring with them a third of the earth. At the moment, Turkey and the Philippines appear to be among those willing to join them.

So, we have the US with KSA and its allies, China and Russia with Syria, Iran, Turkey, Qatar and the 1/3 of the world, the EU acting independently of the US and without the U.K. due to Brexit, and, somewhere out there, Israel, which freely bombs anyone that threatens, or it perceives to threaten, its existence.

Even if Syria is not our generation’s Sarajevo, it is certainly one of the falling dominoes leading to an unimaginable war. With all these interconnections, it is not difficult to imagine someone rightly or wrongly deciding to go after Israel and with that one move pull in the nations with all those strings binding them together into another world war, and where nations are armed with nuclear weapons, it just may be the real war to end all wars.

In a land full of oil, it just takes a wayward match to set things on fire. Some may say that it has all been prophesied and it will be impossible to stop it but I am a man of Faith and, therefore, believe that it does not necessarily have to end in Armageddon. My faith may be the size of a mustard seed but I believe it can move mountains, and we are promised that whenever two or more of us agree on Earth, then so shall it be in Heaven. If God can be persuaded by Lot to stay His hand from judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah, certainly places that seem to deserve God’s judgment, then we can also cry out to our Father to spare us from that terrible judgment.

Yes, Syria has me worried but I still choose to be hopeful about our future.

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A Nation of Laws not of Men

If the recent spectacle in the US is anything to go by, then it should confirm everything we have known about Donald Trump from the beginning: he believes that his word is law, and everyone should obey him.

When he was just running for the presidency, we heard how he boasted that he would just grab a woman he fancies by the pussy because he believes he can, and for the most part, he was right. His victims were too shocked or scared to do anything about it. It is a totally predatory thing and indicative of his attitude in general, to women in particular. There was even that creepy clip where he greeted a child and said that he would date her when she’s eighteen. 

He fancies himself to be the ultimate businessman (let’s just forget all those bankruptcies he went through in the meantime). A great negotiator. THE man to be reckoned with.

Of course, not everything worked out as planned. He thought he can just ban Muslims from entering the US. The courts thought otherwise.

He wanted to change Obamacare with a single stroke. It didn’t quite work out that way. His first attempt was withdrawn even before it was ever considered by Congress.

Worse, his choice as Supreme Court justice could not get through and so he had to get his Republican lackies to change the rules for it to happen.

He bullied his way in the meeting with world leaders in Brussels and was ridiculed for it.

Now we see him trying to convince the head of the FBI to end the Flynn investigation. I compared that to a mafia don trying to tell a cop to look the other way. When he didn’t, the mafia don made him disappear. He must have thought he was still at the set of The Apprentice. “You’re fired!”

Unfortunately for him, like some of the mafia attempts to off someone that fails, Comey comes back from the dead to haunt him, and his testimony might take the don down.

The New York Times has an article that likened the attempt to have Comey drop the Flynn investigation to sexual harassment. Scary.

His seeming disregard for climate change and human rights are even more alarming. While pulling out of the Paris accord on combating climate change may arguably be a good thing because how can a man who thinks that climate change is a hoax convince the world to take it seriously, it also sends the wrong signal that a developed industrialized country will not help, or might even work against, fixing climate change.

Trump’s economic policy appears clear: make the most money with the least restrictions. Take away all the climate change concerns so big oil can do as they please, and coal can be big again — never mind that renewable energy is actually becoming cheaper and more efficient to operate. Now, they are taking down Dodd-Frank that was enacted to protect investors after the Sub-Prime Mortgage meltdown and the depression that followed in its wake. Chipping away here and there in the hope that money comes in. That’s his vision of a great America. 

Look at all that and you realize he is just about one thing and one thing only: The Donald; and he wants the Donald to have absolute power.

It is not surprising that he would be envious of people like Russia’s Putin and Xi of China because, in their respective countries, their word is law. Laws conform to the leader’s wishes rather than have the duly elected representatives of the people make laws that the president will then execute, which is how a democratic government should work. Trump believes his word should be law because, in his mind, he alone can save the US.

Unfortunately, the US Congress, filled with a Republican majority, is slowly giving him what he wants. There will be hell to pay. Maybe they think that Trump is still manageable and they can make him do what they want then dump him after one term — if not sooner removed by impeachment — or once they can come up with a suitable replacement. 

Here’s the thing, once you give power to a demagogue, and the people are drunk with illusions, it will be hard to reign him in and get the balance of power back among the three co-equal arms of a truly democratic government.

I could say the same of the Philippines with a president some quarters hail as a savior of the nation. His insistence on the supremacy of the executive arm over the others is troubling. His minions in Congress, particularly the speaker of the lower house, shares the view — at least, when the judiciary is taking a contrary view; otherwise, he would be pleading that the people respect the decision of the courts. It’s maddening.

Putin, Trump and their ilk want to have a nation of men, not of laws. There will be a point of reckoning when the people can no longer tolerate the abuses by such men. Even countries such as China know that there is a constant danger from those opposed to such a concept. It is their fear of such an uprising that makes them an oppressive state that belittles human rights allegedly for the sake of the common good.

This is no way to live out our lives living under the dictates of would-be Caesars. We cannot willingly forsake the freedoms that others have paid for with their lives for the covenience of short-sighted solutions to everyday problems. We need to live in a nation of laws where no man can ever be above it even if he is a duly elected president. Allowing ourselves to be lulled to sleep on our rights is not patriotism. It is nothing more than a surrender to absolutism. That is a price too high to pay for an illusion of peace.

We lived through such a hell once. Never again.

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The World is due for a correction.

I was talking to my dad this morning and our conversation drifted here and there. Out of nowhere, he suddenly said “I have a theory: democracy will kill itself. Why? The objective of democracy is to make everyone equal. People will never be equal in one aspect or another. So, it will fall on itself.”

If we look at the world around us, then we can easily see what he means. The rise of the populists is a worldwide phenomenon that appears poised to engulf the whole world. 

The root of all of this might be traced to the recent troubles with globalization. The near collapse of the global economy brought about by the greed of the largest banks in the US. One can say that the principles of democracy that made the big banks free to do as they did caused the global financial crisis. That caused people to fear what democracy has wrought despite the fact that the global financial crisis was brought about more by the lack of effective regulation to curb that greed that caused all the mess rather than a failure of democracy itself. 

Then there were those who were not able to benefit from an inproved economy. If you look at the last six to eight years in the Philippines and the US, then you would note how their economies have improved over time. The problem is that not everyone have felt the effects of that economic upturn. 

From there grew the strangest, strongest opposition to our democratic institutions that led to the take over by populists. Powered by social media (including hacks and bots), and driven more by anger and hate rather than any clear program of action, populists have managed to take control over the Philippines and the US. 

Similar movements have tried to get ahead in other parts of the world. So far UKIP in the UK has failed to make any headway although it was, surprisingly, able to get the UK to vote for BREXIT, and it may now be paying the price for it.

Le Pen in France is already having a hard time at it and a European nation had rejected a populist party.

I suppose that the world have seen what populists can do to a country and decided to go against it. In the Philippines, a misguided war on drugs is blamed for the deaths of 6,000 men, women and children, while the US is grappling with a rising  nationalist agenda. The planned replacement of Obamacare was embarassingly pulled out and its anti-Muslim immigration executive orders have been slapped down by US courts. If this is how populists run their country, then it is a terrible future ahead for them and all those thinking of electing populists into office.

However, this is all part of what it means to be a democracy. The citizens were free to elect populists into office (let us put the issue of hacks and bots aside for now). One might say this is just a phase where nations try to press the reset button to get a reboot.

The hope is of course that after this terrible experiment, there is still something left to reboot. We get over that, then democracy will rise again. Perhaps, democracy will in fact kill itself as my dad says but it is quite capable of bouncing back into existence like a phoenix from its ashes. It is a dream I have…

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I, God.

Today, we live in a world that is quickly losing any sense of appropriate boundaries in everything, and yet creates the most baffling restrictions.

Imagine this: we want to be able to criticize someone’s religion but his race is off-limits. The logic behind this is suppose to be one’s beliefs are different from who he is in his very core.  In other words, while we can supposedly change our beliefs like our religious beliefs, one’s race is something so fundamental in a person that criticizing it would be attacking his very person. Now, think about that. First, what if a person’s belief was so ingrained into him that one cannot easily separate one from the other? You think it is not possible? Think again. Recall all the hurt a single satirical illustration of the Prophet Mohammed in Charlie Hebdo caused. You think this is an extraordinarily singular event? It is not. That one illustration, even when cloaked in what we call one’s freedom of expression, did not just hurt the few who attacked the magazine’s offices but the majority of all Muslims. One can say much the same thing about Catholics. There are just some things that they feel they cannot compromise such as issues like abortion and contraceptives. Any debate allowing or restricting these will always be contentious, at times violent. Certain beliefs are part of someone’s inner being.

Second, when we are willing to accept actions as part of one’s freedom of expression — such as flag-burning that offends ultrapatriots — to the point of protecting it under law, then why wouldn’t something far more extreme be covered? When jihadists took exception to Charlie Hebdo’s satire and attacked, would that too be an expression protected by law? No less than Pope Francis did note that if you say something against his mother you may expect to get punched in the nose. Rights are never absolute yet we’ve lost sight of that simple truth in the drive to be more our selves.

Third, think of the other extreme. Why shouldn’t one be able to criticize another’s race? If we all have the right to speak what we want, when we want, under the great umbrella of freedom of speech, then surely one should not be restricted by something as “silly” as another’s feelings. Of course, that would be racism but, again, in a world quickly losing all sense of restraint, racism is just becoming another norm. This should not be.

We are turning too much in on ourselves. Deciding for ourselves what was set long ago. Imagine a white woman who identified as black. People ridiculed her and yet we allow people to identify themselves as male or female even when they were born female or male respectively. Taking everything to extremes, there are some who now identify as animals. We laugh. They are serious. Again, think about it: why shouldn’t they be able to choose what they want to be? Countries are now allowing children as young as ten to choose their gender, or just be someone other than who they were upon birth. Why draw the line on one’s ethnicity?

This world is changing…and not necessarily for the better. There are commentators who have noted the similarities (not literal naturally) of the situation today with the period prior to the First World War. Rising from the Industrial Revolution, a great many felt they were not part of the progress brought about by the new age of the 1900s. This is no different from those who now feel left behind by globalization of the 2000s. Germany of the 1910s wallowed in its sense of entitlement yet feared encirclement, which shadows 2010s’ China’s current situation. Populist movements as well as strong men proliferate then and now. If these situations tell me anything, then it is that people are turning more in towards themselves or their country. Think Brexit and the not so new US first policy of Trump. Other countries have been in it longer with nothing much to show for it. What does the U.K. and the US think it can do better? Yes, economically, they are in a much better place but the future is not so promising.

We note how much our children appear to be driven by a sense of entitlement. Again, more of one’s self over the many. Even their collective action betrays a bias towards self. Self. Self. And even more Self. Be it the individual or the state, we are more and more about our selves. What do we want? We want what we want. And we want more of it. We cannot sustain such a way, a philosophy, a movement. That can only lead to disaster. Remember, if these times mirror the early 1900s, then we are just a short time away from a great war. Three minutes away according to the Doomsday Clock. Is that what we want?

We need restraint. A healthy dose. As Agent Phil Caulson said in The Avengers, we can do with old fashioned. We need to be old fashioned. We may not really want it but we definitely need it.

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The Family Business

I’m one of those who believe that public office is a public trust. You don’t take it for your self. You take it because you sincerely honestly want to serve, and when you’re done, you walk away from it clean.

Philippine politics, however, is best described as a family business. Some may believe that their family has an obligation to lead their constituents but, honestly, I think that’s just an excuse to hold on to power. Apologies to my friends in politics.

How can I not be skeptical when families just try to get around term limits by making other family members fill a post in the interim while they cool their heels in another post until they can get back the post. Sometimes, one family gets into an agreement with another family and they just swap posts as term limits come and go. The most comedic episodes happen when the fillers refuse to vacate the post and a family feud or clash of clans ensues. If that doesn’t prove that Philippine politics is a family business, then nothing can ever make you see that.

It’s also easy to see why they would tenaciously hold on to power. There’s lots of money to be made, and even more benefits to enjoy not counting the “prestige” one gets from being honored as one of the pillars of the community. Don’t believe people when they say the Government does not have money. It’s there. It’s a question of where does it go and what are they using it for. Look at Congress. Lawmakers are elected to do one thing: make laws but they award themselves millions of pesos to be disposed of as they alone may decide. It may get audited but if they have full discretion in its disposition, then how could it ever be seen as unlawful?

If that isn’t bad enough, then it appears there’s a new twist to the family business: literally make the post a family business. Who best to exemplify this but president-elect Donald Trump. In his discussions with world leaders, he isn’t shy about bringing in his children to sit in. Mind. Blown. In a bad, very bad, way. This businessman turned president of the US is also father to his children running the family businesses. We are looking at a minefield of conflict of interest issues right there. And they sit with him while conferring with other world leaders? Incredible.

Before we all say, well, this is just Trump being unconventional and putting his personal stamp (or maybe the family seal) on the presidency, please stop and think what all this actually means not just for the family but what ramifications it has for everyone whether they be in business — think unfair advantage — or politics, which is absolutely worse because it involves not just commercial relations but policies and foreign governments if not countries. That’s Trump, Inc. for you.

I mean, the king of reality TV is about to make the weirdest reality show yet: Living in the White House with the Trumps. There goes the neighborhood, and in this case, that means the whole world. Oh. My. God…

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Gog and Magog

In prophecy, Gog and Magog figure as a great threat first to the nation of Israel (in Ezekiel), and then to the Christian Church (in Revelations). It is said that even the seer Nostradamus mentioned them in an epistle to the then king of France. Whoever they are, whatever they are, it seems that they are coming, bringing with them death and destruction.

If you look at the world today, then you will note the growing tension between the US and its allies on the one hand, and China, Russia and its growing band of allies on the other. Over the years, the old USSR and China have been branded the enemy by the West for its attempt to bring communism to the world principally by violent revolution. Communism has failed to rule the world but these two have not stopped, leveraging their economies instead.

This began sometime in the 2000s when they were lumped together with the other growing economies, Brazil and India, to form BRIC. South Africa was later added — to make it plural, BRICS, as the joke goes. By the 2010s, Brazil and South Africa have shone less brightly despite the former still managing to stage the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics. India, known for its call centers and tech exports is drowning in pollution. 

Russia too is hobbled by the weakening oil prices on which it has mainly relied to run its economy. Just trying to keep things afloat has cost Russia much of its reserves. Still, its efforts to remain relevant in the world today is evidenced by its participation in the Syrian conflict where it has actually called forth its aircraft carrier to participate in the campaign to bomb ISIS positions that is controversial at best since some of those bombed appear to be civilians opposed to the Hassad regime and rebel forces supported by the West.

Then theres’s China. China that owns most of US debt. China that has surpassed Japan to be the second largest economy in the world. China who has been developing advanced weaponry to rival those of the West and with more money to do it.

China who has proposed to build an organization that could challenge the IMF. China who has been investing a lot in Africa, and China that could consider leaving the UN.

With the way things are in the US, it is not likely to be able to lead the West as it used to since the end of the Second World War. Most likely, the mantle will have to be borne by Germany, of all nations. Even the UK is effectively out of commission. With everything so topsy-turvy, the likelyhood of China, Russia and their allies to build their own international organizations increases ever so higher. Our own president has declared his willingness to join this particular bandwagon, and Turkey has recently said the same. Whether it is just a threat to the EU for delaying its application for membership or not, the implications are quite enlightening. We are now facing a distinct possibility that the world will even be more divided than what it was during the Cold War. Back then, we still had one UN. We may soon not have that, which makes efforts to negotiate peace even harder, and with that the spectre of war looms ever greater.

So, what do all these have to do with Gog and Magog? Interestingly enough, Gog and Magog have been interpreted to mean China and Russia, or a group or alliance led by them.

When I started this, I noted how Gog and Magog have been seen as an enemy of Israel and/or the Church. Look at what is happening today: the US-Israel ties have always been strong but with the election of Trump, it appears to be even stronger now with Netanyahu in Israel. While Trump may be open to Russia’s Putin, he is less likely to be so with China. Bad for business and Trump is first and foremost a businessman. A trade war with China may eventually lead to a shooting war. So, if you want to see it as a purely biblical event, then it is a possibility.

For the coming of Gog and Magog to be a threat to the Church, I think that it is enough that its teachings be threatened, and if there is something China and Russia is known for, then that would be their poor record on human rights. Something that the Philippines and Turkey are recently being criticized for. Something too that the Church has long been fighting for. Yes, the Church is not perfect but it struggles to be perfect as its Heavenly Father is perfect. The fight, therefore, is real.

The danger posed by Gog and Magog is that they will bring with them a third of the earth. If they are China and Russia, then the Philippines will be among the third. Here’s the rub, in the end, Gog and Magog lose. 

Damn.  

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The Weight of the Cross

Something strange came up during the run up to the latest US elections that caught my attention: Catholics were being told not to vote for the political party that supports abortion. As a Catholic, one can readily understand where the Church was coming from. The Church has always been, and always will be, against abortion. After the elections, more news articles appeared saying how the Catholic vote propelled Trump to the presidency. Assuming this isn’t all just more fake news, I seem to have a problem with that.

In the Philippines, the Church usually doesn’t identify candidates by name. They just provide the criteria that its members are then supposed to use to guide them in choosing their candidates. I have read similar statement from the US bishops, so, I guess that is the general rule. Whenever a church oversteps itself and engages in partisan politics, then it risks its status as a tax-free entity. I find that being a Catholic in the modern world can be challenging. Sometimes, impossible.

Let’s take the recent elections for example. Yes, we should stand against abortion. That is something we cannot compromise. Does that mean we automatically have to vote for the other party’s candidate? In a one-on-one contest, that seems to be the logical conclusion. However, what if the other candidate has shown himself to be racist, misogynistic and sexist? Are Catholics still obliged to vote for that candidate? Yes, that candidate may well be against abortion, or even same-sex marriages, another Catholic no-no, but if all his other characteristics are just as abhorrent to Catholics, then why would they vote for him?And if they are not obliged to vote for him, then should Catholics simply retreat from this world?

I do not think that that is the solution. Again, first, the point of the whole exercise is for Catholics to vote in accordance with their own conscience. The Church leaders are supposed to guide its people in reaching their respective decisions on who to vote for, or not vote for.

Second, we are supposed to vote in accordance with our conscience. If we consider one candidate more pro-Catholic in his or her views than the other, then it is possible that we simply vote for that candidate. However, if we think that neither of them deserves our vote, then we should just as equally be free note to vote. Not voting is itself a vote. That may mean we are less likely to influence the elections but that would also mean that we remain true to who we are. Other Catholics may reach a different conclusion but that is how the system is supposed to work.

I am troubled by what I am seeing in this world with the rise of populist leaders like Duterte in the Philippines and Trump in the US. Farage in the U.K. and Le Pen in France pose similar threats. I’m sure there is something similar elsewhere. Farage failed in the last U.K. elections but he got the U.K. to vote for BREXIT. Le Pen too failed in France but it was a close call. These days, they may yet win. The danger they pose comes mostly from the fact that they focus too much on themselves (or their country) setting aside what counts as common decency to achieve their objectives. The end justifies the means and they won’t let something like the law get in their way. Of course, the full impact of what this all means are still to be felt. We see glimpses of it in the Philippines with the death of over 3,000 people suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade, including “collateral damage”, and people being accused without due process. In the U.K. and the US, there were hate crimes reported after BREXIT and Trump’s win. The next four to six years will certainly reveal whether or not this populist experiment, some say revolution, is good or bad.

Today’s readings and gospel appear to calm us in the face of such uncertainties. Yes, things may indeed get worse before they get any better but, in all this, we have to remain faithful. We are to be models for others. We may even suffer persecution but we are reminded that, in the end, we will prevail, which actually brings me to my third and last point.

I do not believe Catholics should withdraw from the world in he face of all these trials and hardships. Instead, as the apostle Paul reminds us, we are to be models for others. If we want more pro-Catholic ideas in this world, then we have to actively promote those ideas. If we want more pro-Catholic candidates representing us, or running this or any other country then we have to have more Catholics involved in politics, not the Church leaders, naturally, but us, and if necessary present ourselves as candidates as well. This, I think, is what it means to evangelize in this day and age. We need to be active participants in the world to keep it safe and to guide it in the right path. We have to bring Catholic culture and beliefs to the fore.

With all that is happening, it is easy to lose focus and simply curse everybody to hell but that is not what we were called to do. In the face of evil, it is easy to condemn. The life of a Catholic, however, is never easy. To be models for others require us to live our faith in the open. To live, act and breath as a Catholic would regardless of where you are in society or the world. We have to know our faith, live it, and share it. That is not going to be easy in an ever increasingly worldly world but we are not alone in this. We are never alone because we rely on the strength that comes from the Lord. So, we endure. We strive. We make this world a better place. That is the cross we bear. It is not heavy though for the Lord also said that whenever we find our load heavy and are weary, we should go to Him, be refreshed, and take His load for His burden is light.

Things may not be the way we want it to be but it doesn’t matter. For us, the only thing that matters is to continue to live our faith in Christ.

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