Father Mike Schmitz on what many get wrong about God, prayer
By ANDREW HANSEN
Two of America’s most popular podcasts are about Catholicism and are hosted by a priest. Let that sink in. Father Mike Schmitz, a priest of the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain for the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, is the host of the popular podcasts, The Bible in a Year (released in 2021) and The Catechism in a Year (released in January). His podcasts have reached No. 1 on the charts, racking up hundreds of millions of downloads. He is also a national speaker, offers weekly homilies on iTunes, and has appeared in videos for Ascension Presents on YouTube, garnering tens of millions of views. Catholic Times Editor Andrew Hansen sat down with Father Schmitz on Jan. 5 in St. Louis during the SEEK23 Conference to talk faith, prayer, and how we can get loved ones to return to Church.
You travel the country meeting thousands of people. In your conversations with people, what have you found is the most compelling thing about the Catholic faith that people either don’t know or under appreciate?
The individual is very important. I know people who have said like, “The Eucharist was something I never knew. I never realized the importance of the Eucharist until this moment where everything clicked, everything changed.” Others, who will say, “I was so confused, and it was the Church’s authority, and I realized, wait a second, all Christianity comes from the Catholic Church. Jesus founded this. When I got the piece of authority, it was everything.” Or people who have devotion to Our Lady. All those big pillar type things.
Ultimately, if there is something that I keep going back to, it is that regardless of what someone knows about the Church or the Lord, the most basic truth most Christians are raised with is this truth that they hear many times that God loves you. Most Catholics don’t actually believe that God loves them. They think God merely tolerates them. I have seen the difference. The difference between a person who is like, “I heard that God loves me, but what I really think is that He is OK with my existence, but if I am lost to Him forever, it doesn’t really matter to Him. Or, if I am close to Him, that doesn’t really matter to Him. I don’t really matter to Him.” As opposed to, the cross means something. There is a reason, and the reason isn’t because God tolerates you, it’s because He actually loves you and loves you in a way that you can never live up to. To let that truth break into a person’s heart, it changes everything. I think every Catholic needs to know that.
We’ve seen the statistics that only about 30 percent of Catholics attend Mass. If you had 30 seconds with someone who has fallen away from the faith and doesn’t attend Mass, or maybe only goes on Christmas and Easter, what would you tell them?
I would first say, ask the question, “Why? If you are not coming to Mass, how come?” The most compelling argument, and it could be, I’m kind of lazy. I’ve talked to people about how come they haven’t been to Mass, and ever since the lockdowns, how come you haven’t come back to Church? “I don’t know, I just kind of got out of the habit.” That’s the only reason! There is no deep thing like, “I hate the Church, or I don’t think it’s true.” It’s just they kind of got out of the habit. So, my first question I would ask is, “Has anyone asked you or invited you back if you are not going to Mass … how come?” Then, we can start talking. Someone can say, “I’ve never seen the point.” OK, let’s talk about that then. Or it could be something along the lines of, “I don’t really think that Catholic Church is right on X, Y, and Z.” OK, we can talk about that.
But, we treat people like a problem, as opposed to people. They are names, not just numbers. I think part of that means asking them, “What is your experience?” Bishop (Robert) Barron has this whole thing on the four main reasons why people, young people, have stopped going to Mass. Some of them are that they don’t like the Church’s teaching on some kind of aspect of morality. Others it was because they stopped going and no one asked them back. That’s a pretty wide gamut, a pretty wide range of reasons people are not there.
What is your advice for people when they are trying to persevere or need help, so they turn to prayer, but then “God didn’t answer their payer” and they feel like “God left them hanging”?
The fourth pillar of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is on prayer. One of the subsections is called, “The battle of prayer.” It’s one of my favorite sections in the entire Catechism. It talks about this. It says that the witness of the lives of the figures in the Old Testament, New Testament, the great saints, and even Jesus Christ Himself, all testified to this: Prayer is a battle. It’s a gift of grace, but it’s also a determined response on our part that is difficult, it’s a battle. The recognition of it that it is hard to persevere in prayer, well, yeah, in fact, that term faithfulness means steadfastness. It ultimately means perseverance in so many ways. It means other things as well. It’s that image of Moses, as his hands extended with Aaron and Hur holding up his arms as Joshua is battling the Malachites. That sense of, as long as he stood there, the Israelites would win. But, if he didn’t have that prayer, if his hands drooped down, the Malachites had the better end of the battle.
There is something in there that points to us that God is here, God is working, God is active, but He is also calling upon our participation and cooperation with Him in that intercession. So, there is this recognition of prayer is going to be a battle and part of that battle is against whom? First, against ourselves because we can find a thousand other things to do rather than pray. Then, a battle against the tempter who does everything he can to keep us from union with the Lord. You and I were made for union with God. The evil one hates that so he does everything he can to keep us from going to prayer.
So, I have the inclination to go to prayer, even the idea and plan to go to prayer, and that’s when this distraction or that distraction … even when I show up, what happens? Well, there is dryness, there is distraction, there is this question like, “Why am I not heard?”
The Catechism addresses this. It says, “Why do we complain about not being heard in prayer.” The response is just remarkable because the response was written by a man who while he was writing that fourth pillar of the Catechism, he was in a basement in Beirut as it was being bombed out. So, he wasn’t this person in this really comfortable, five-star hotel or home saying, “Prayer is a battle.” No, he was literally in a battle as he is writing about this.
Why do we complain about not being heard? He said in the first case, this should strike us as being remarkable that when we are praising God or thanking Him, we are not particularly concerned about whether or not He hears our prayers. I pause there, and I am thinking, “You’re right!” If I need something from God, then I’m on my knees, my hands are folded in the right way, and I am saying all the right words, and I need You to hear me. But when I am thanking God, I am kind of like, “Oh yeah, by the way God, thank you for that.” I’m so casual about it. When it comes to thanking God or praising Him, I am not particularly concerned about whether or not He hears my prayers, but he (the writer of this part of the Catechism) goes on to say, “We demand to see the results of our prayers when we are asking for something. That reveals our image of God.” Is God a Father who cares for us and loves us, and who will only give us good things? Or, is God basically our ATM, he’s our divine slot machine, or vending machine where we go up to Him because we need something. I think that is the key.
What is one thing you have learned about the Bible or the Catechism as you’ve done your two podcasts?
The biggest surprise in the Bible were the prophets. The prophetic books, I have read them, but in a scattered way. All throughout Advent, we always read from the prophet Isaiah. But, I’ve never read Isaiah Chapter 1, verse 1, to the end of the book of the prophet Isaiah. Oh, and also along the way, trying to figure out what is he saying, what is he exactly communicating? But, here I am recording a podcast, I am going to read Isaiah, and at the end of this, I am going to have to tell people who are listening, “Here is what he just meant.”
So, I had to take the time to really dig in and say, “OK, when Jeremiah is writing, what is he saying when is talking about this prophet from Ephraim. What is Ephraim again?” So, that was really helpful for me because I need to at some point, I guess, an expert for the day, that was huge for me — to know the prophets and to realize the prophets were speaking to a particular people at a particular time then, and those words also spoke to me.
We see the pews not as full as we’d like and a lack of involvement in our parishes and schools. It can be deflating. What gives you hope for our Church?
One, were at SEEK23. There are 17,000 Catholic college students who are encountering the Lord Jesus, and it’s not just about this week for them. They are here because on a daily basis, there are missionaries on their campuses who are investing in them, who are walking with them, and saying to them, “Here is how you say ‘yes’ to Jesus right here, right now in your life.” I see that happen every day.
Also, when I read the letters and emails who did The Bible in a Year or are doing the Catechism in a Year, who have said, “I am 76 years old, I left the Catholic Church 50 years ago, but I listened to the Bible in a Year last year, and my life has changed, and I went to confession for the first time in 50 years.” Or, others saying, “I was a committed atheist. I started listening to The Bible in a Year, and I wasn’t sure why, but here I am and now believe.” I hear that all the time. There was another email that said, “I was completely lost, and here I am. God has found me.” Those are incredible signs of hope.
Answers taken from Andrew Hansen’s interview with Father Mike Schmitz on Dive Deep, the official podcast of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois. To hear more from their conversation, go to dio.org/podcast or search Dive Deep on all the major podcast platforms.