One of the books I am reading is Journeys Home 2: The Journeys of Men and Women to the Catholic Church, edited by Marcus Grodi. As its name suggests it is a collection of conversion stories of a number of men and women who have found their way to (or back to) the Catholic Church.

I want to share a small excerpt written by someone who was formerly a Dutch Reformed Calvinist. He writes

Like all converts I ever have heard of, I was hauled aboard not by those Catholic who try to “sell” the Church by conforming it to the spirit of the times by saying Catholics are just like everyone else, but by those who joyfully held out the ancient and orthodox faith in all its fullness and prophetic challenge to the world. The minimalists, who reduce miracles to myths, dogmas to opinions, laws to values, and the Body of Christ to a psycho-social club, have always elicited wrath, pity of boredom from me.

Francis and the Family

We kicked off the new year of Adult Faith Formation at Church of Our Lady of Lourdes with a program on Pope Francis. Our goal was to have some discussion both of the Pope’s visit to the U.S. and of the themes of the first two and a half years of his papacy.

Family was one of the themes that generated a lot of discussion in our gathering. The family has been a frequent theme in Pope Francis’ talks. He has repeatedly said that the family as an institution needs to be protected. Speaking in Bolivian he said,
“I would like to mention in particular the family, which is everywhere threatened by domestic violence, alcoholism, sexism, drug addiction, unemployment, urban unrest, the abandonment of the elderly, and children left to the streets.” In his address to Congress on Thursday morning, he said

It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and beauty of family life.

And in his talk during yesterday’s Celebration of Families, he called family “the most beautiful thing God has made”, calling it a “fundamental pillar of social life.

Pope Francis has resisted efforts by both the left and right to pigeonhole him into limiting family discussion to controversial topics like same-sex marriage, divorce, or contraception (and in his speech to Congress he did not mention any of those by name). Rather, he wants to focus on the range of challenges affecting the family, and he has called on the bishops to find concrete solutions to the difficult and significant challenges facing families. In his speech to Congress, the particular family issue he called attention to are (in his words) “those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young.” He said that while many of them look forward to a future of countless possibilities, “so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair.”

During our discussion, someone raised the question of what we, as Catholic parishes, are doing to support families, especially families with young children and single mothers. It is an important question. As our discussion of this question suggested, there are a range of issues, including young couples who don’t feel they have the wherewithal to start a family, to those who do not have an extended family to help support in times of difficulty.

There are a range of things we might do to support that family. A start is asking ourselves what we are doing now and what are the needs of our communities. These are questions all of our church communities should be asking themselves.

Yesterday I had the fortune to be present at two events featuring Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ, Distinguished Professor of Theology at Fordham University in NY and a prolific, challenging and inspiring author. In the afternoon I attended her visit to a small seminar of MAT at St. Catherine’s University, where I teach as an adjunct, and in the evening I attended the public talk co-sponsored by St. Kate’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity and Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality.

The afternoon session was informal. No presentation, just dialogue with Johnson, with questions ranging from her recent ecologically-focused work and some of her earlier writings. At one point, when the subject of women in the Church had been raised, someone asked her why she stays in the Church. She spoke about the need to stay in to help move the institution forward and about the value of community.

More importantly though is the truth of our faith. In that context, Johnson relayed a story from the event at Fordham a couple of years ago that involved a dialogue between Steven Colbert and Archbishop Dolan of New York. At one point during that, someone asked Colbert why he stays in the Church. As relayed by Johnson, Colbert said, “because the story has a happy ending.” At which point he stood up and walked to the front of the stage and gesticulating, said excitedly, “The tomb was empty!” A good reminder during time when our discussion of various issues involving the Church – whatever they may be (and they vary for different people) – get us frustrated or angry or upset. We have a truth claim about death and resurrection, and above all, that is what matters.

In the evening, Johnson focused on the environment, making a case for our concern for the whole of creation and for moving away from a human-centered locus of concern. She grounds her argument in both evolution and Christian claims about creation and Christ, connecting Christ not only to human beings but to all of creation and the world. (For a full exploration of her argument, see her newest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love.)

She ended her talk discussing the need for conversion to the earth, suggesting three aspects to that. First, intellectual conversion, that is, a turn from a human-centered to a God-centered view that has room for seeing all creation as meaningful. Second, emotional conversion, by which she means a need to feel compassion for all living creatures and all of nature. And finally a practical conversion that calls us to think about all of our choices in terms of their effect on the environment.

It may be that Johnson overstates in saying that Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato si, is the most important encyclical ever written by a Pope. But no one can ignore the damage we are doing to our home and the importance of taking action to preserve it.

I watched the livestream of Pope Francis’ address to Congress this morning and hope many of you did as well. You can read the text of his talk in its entirety here, and I encourage you to do so.

Many people will be parsing, summarizing and analyzing the speech and I do not plan to do so here. Let me just mention a couple of things that struck me.

First, the Pope picked named four Americans in our history who “shaped fundamental values which will endure forever in the spirit of the American people.” The four were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. He identified these “sons and daughters of America as embodying four dreams: liberty (Lincoln), equality (King), social justice (Day) and capacity for dialogue and openness to growth (Merton).

A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did, when it fosters a culture which enables people to “dream” of full rights for all their brothers and sisters, as Martin Luther King sought to do; when it strives for justice and the cause of the oppressed, as Dorothy Day did by her tireless work, the fruit of a faith which becomes dialogue and sows peace in the contemplative style of Thomas Merton.

I confess I was particularly thrilled with the inclusion of Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, both heroes of mine. My hope is that their mention by the Pope will create a broader interest in the lives, works and writing of both Day and Merton.

Second, there was a great emphasis on dialogue in Pope Francis’ address and a warning against the kind of divisiveness that has characterized American politics and encouragement of the renewal of a spirit of cooperation. He warned of the need to guard against the temptation of “the simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” Rather, he suggested that “[t]he contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps.” Our goals should not be “to imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers: but rather to reject violence and hatred in favor of “hope and healing, of peace and justice.” The Pope’s words on dialogue, cooperation and avoidance of divisiveness are as important for each of us as they are for members of Congress.

There were a number of important issues mentioned by the Pope, such as capital punishment (he repeated his call for global abolition of the death penalty), the family (which he suggested is now “threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without”) the environment (he made reference to his recent Encyclical and our need to protect our home). If you missed the live coverage of the address, I encourage you to read it.

A Papal Visit

By now it has escaped no one’s notice that Pope Francis arrived in the United States yesterday. Perhaps you’ve seen the video of his arrival and greeting by President Obama on the tarmac. (You can find it here.)

The Pope’s six-day visit is packed, with activities ranging from an address to Congress (the first time a Pope has given a speech to Congress), the canonization Mass of Junipero Serra, a multi-religious service at the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center, and a visit to a correctional facility. (You can find the full schedule here.)

First and foremost, the Pope is a spiritual leader, and this visit is an exciting one for Catholics. But it will be worthwhile for everyone to listen to what the Pope says during his visit. As has been the case from the beginning of his papacy, this is a Pope who challenges all of us – left or right, Republican or Democrat, Catholics of all stripes, all Christians, indeed, all “people of good will.”

Some will be ready to criticize whatever the Pope says – whether it is about climate change, the economy, or anything else. Others will criticize things he doesn’t say, such as those who think he should change the Church’s position on issues like contraception or women’s ordination.

My encouragement is to listen and reflect on his words, whether they are spoken at a Mass homily or before Congress. And find a forum for discussion of his message. For example the Church closest to where I live will host a Thursday evening gathering where people listen to a tape of the address before Congress and then discuss. The Church at which I direct RCIA will have a program between Masses on Sunday to discuss the themes of Pope Francis’ papacy. Whatever the venue you find – let the first step be listening and reflecting.

Today was the second session of the Fall Reflection Series I am offering this fall at the University of St. Thomas School of Law.  The reflection series is titled Jesus Speaks and it is designed to deepen our appreciation of fundamental Christian teachings drawn from the words of Christ.  Each session includes a talk, time for individual reflection and some sharing of the prayer experience.

The focus of today’s session was The Beatitudes. Pope Benedict XIV wrote that “the Beatitudes express the meaning of discipleship.” They are meant, not as a series of sweet platitudes, but as ways we ought to orient and live our lives.

Since I have given so many talks on the Beatitudes, I decided to do something different today. For each of the Beatitudes, I invited the participants to share something of their understanding before offering some thoughts of my own. It was a rich discussion and I think broadened how many (including myself) thought of some of the Beatitudes.

At the end of our discussion, I distributed prayer material on the Beatitudes participants may want to pray with this week. You can find a copy of the that handout material is here.

If you wish to hear a recording of a talk I have given on the Beatitudes, you can find one here.

Our session continues next week with a focus on the Eucharist.

For Marriage

I am in New York for the celebration of the wedding of my nephew Michael, a joyous occasion for them and all of their family and friends.

I offer to Michael and Megan, and to all newly-married couples, this blessing from John O’Donohue. He titles it For Marriage.

As spring unfolds the dream of the earth,
May you bring each other’s hearts to birth.

As the ocean finds calm in view of land,
May you love the gaze of each other’s mind.

As the wind arises free and wild,
May nothing negative control your lives.

As kindly as moonlight might search the dark,
So gentle may you be when light grows scarce.

As surprised as the silence that music opens,
May your words for each other be touched with reverence.

As warmly as the air draws in the light,
May you welcome eah other’s every gift.

As elegant as dream absorbing the night,
May sleep find you clear of anger and hurt.

As twilight harvests all the day’s color,
May love bring you home to each other.

From John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us


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