I Am…You Should Be

Many people have written books, article and blog posts titled (in exact words or close to them) “Why I am Catholic.”   A new book by a Catholic author just came out that appends to that phrase “and you should be too.”  The author is not the first to do so: Our Catholic Faith website, for example, has an entry with the same add-on.

I often find “why I am Catholic” or “why I am Christian” (or why I am [fill in the blank]) stories good reading.  The good ones can help me name things about my own faith, raise questions I need to grapple with, help me work though issues and so forth.

But I am not at all comfortable with the “and you should be too” part.  I don’t presume to know how God wants to deal with everyone else, and see no basis for my (or anyone else’s) ability to claim that everyone else should follow my faith.

I know this will upset some of my Catholic friends, but I have never thought my task as a spiritual director or retreat leader is to turn people into Catholics, but rather to deepen their experience of God and their understanding of what God is calling them to (however they name and understand God).  Christ is at the center of my faith, but I do not believe my understanding of Christ needs to be at the center of everyone else’s faith, or that my relationship with Christ is the model for everyone.

In his book Falling Upward, Richard Rohr writes

There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus, or history presented [in the Bible], despite our attempt to pretend there is.  The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone.

I would add to Rohr’s comment – because I see it consistently throughout the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament – that there is also an agreement that God calls on humans to be part of his plan for the healing of the world and the building of God’s kingdom.   One does not have to be a Catholic to accept that call.


We Are The Branches

In today’s Gospel from John, Jesus tells his disciples that he is the true vine and we are the branches.  And, he warns them, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me…Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing.”

For me, this is at one and the same time humbling and empowering, and it is both of those for the same reason.  What we do we do, not through our own power, but through the Spirit of God that flows through us.  Without that Spirit, we can do nothing; the branch without the vine will never bear fruit.  So it is humbling.

But at the same time, it is empowering because it reminds us that with Jesus, there is no limit.  “Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.”  I am reminded of the line from Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ, who strengthens me.”

The Gospel also reminds us that what we do we do for the glory of God, not for ourselves.  In the words of Psalm 115, “Not to us, O Lord, but to your name give the glory.”  We need to be mindful of that we are about God’s work and God’s glory, not our own.  Once in a while, even the most well-intentioned among us loses sight of that.  We are capable of of forgetting it is not about us, but about God.  

Jesus also tells his disciples that the vine grower – the Father – prunes the branches that bear fruit so that they bear more fruit.  We might ask ourselves today: Where do I need some pruning?  What in me needs to be pruned so that I can bear more fruit for God?

I or We

Today’s Sunday Review section of the New York Times included a piece titled Getting the Wealthy to Donate.

I had seen before statistics supporting the conclusion that wealthy people tend to believe they should give a smaller percentage of what they have than people with less wealth.  One explanation offered for this is that “because money allows people to achieve their won goals without depending on others, it cultivates a mind-set of self sufficiency that is at odds with a charitable outlook.”

None of that is what prompted me to sit for a long time staring at the article.  What caused that reaction was the suggestion that wealthy people could be persuaded to give more if requests were pitched differently. Instead of appeals to join with others to support a common goal, experiments showed that appeals that focused on personal achievement would be more successful.  So, in one experiment, the message “You = Lifesaver” generated more giving than “Let’s Save a Life Together.”  In another, higher donations were generated when people were asked to “come forward and take individual action” than when asked to join their community and “support a common goal.”

I suppose one reaction is the pragmatic one: Great, now we can market more effectively.  As the caption in the hard copy of the article suggested, “It’s easy.  Just cater to their sense of being the heroes of their own lives.

But as someone with a deep commitment to a discipleship in Christ that focuses on our being many parts of one body working together to fulfill God’s plan, I can’t help but being a bit saddened by the results.  They shouldn’t really surprise me.  I often speak (particularly when talking about the Two Standards meditation in the Spiritual Exercises of St. ignatius) of the emphasis on individual goals vs. the common good that exists in our society.

Maybe it is a quixotic dream, but I’d be happier to find ways to instill in everyone (wealthy or not) the sense that we are part of a team in pursuit of a common goal, rather than to feed into the promotion of individual achievement and its accompanying illusion of self-sufficiency and autonomy.


Consent to the Possible Consequences

On this day before Mothers’ Day, I gave a day of retreat and reflection for women at Christ the King Retreat House in Buffalo, MN.  The theme of the day was The Role of Women in Healing a Wounded World.   Some women came alone, others came with friends, others came with their mothers or daughters or sisters.  It was a wonderful day.

In the final session of the day, I shares some vignettes of a number of women who, either individually or in conjunction with other women, made a real difference in our world.  I think looking at the stories of such individuals is a source of inspiration and strength, and combats our fears that in the face of such enormous wounds, our small contributions don’t mean much.

Among the women I shared about were the four North American churchwomen were killed in El Salvador by U.S.-trained death squads on December 2, 1980. Their bodies were found in a shallow grave in a barren region some 15 miles from the San Salvador airport.

One of the four was Sister Ita Ford of Maryknoll, who had spent years in Chile before her time in El Salvador.  Ford was targeted specifically by U.S.-backed Salvadoran death squads because she stood up to them in defense of the disappeared.

I shared with the women something Ita wrote to her sister in 1980:

You say you don’t want anything to happen to me…I’d prefer it that way myself — but I don’t see that we have control over the forces of madness, and if you could choose to enter into other people’s suffering, or to love others, you at least have to consent in some way to the possible consequences. Actually what I’ve learned here is that death is not the worst evil. We look death in the face every day. But the cause of the death is evil. That’s what we have to wrestle and fight against.

“If you chose to enter into other people’s suffering, or to love others, you at least have to consent in some way to the possible consequences.”

That, it seems to me, is what love is.  One cannot love without consent to accepting the possible consequences of that love.  For Christ that meant dying on a cross.  For Ita Ford it meant staying in El Salvador when doing so was crazily dangerous.  For each of us there may be some other cost.  But we “at least have to consent in some way to the possible consequences.”

Three Biblical Pairs

Last night was the final session of the book discussion group I facilitated at Our Lady of Lourdes Church this spring.  Our subject was Amy-Jill Levine’s Short Stories by Jesus, about which I’ve written before.

In our session last night, we considered three chapters, those dealing with the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, the Widow and the Judge, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.  Many good observations came out of our discussion.  One is that we would do well to curb our tendency to decide one party is the “good guy” and the other the “bad guy.”  Each of these stories is much more nuanced than that.

For example, in the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, we tend toward thinking one “was justified” and the other not.  Levine suggests that this either/or reading is encouraged by what some commentators suggest is a bad translation. The word commonly translated as “rather than” they suggest is better translated as “along side that one.” That suggests both the tax collector and Pharisee are justified. Others think the better translation is “because of” or “on account of”, which would suggest the tax collector received his justification on account of the Pharisee.

Levine writes:

The translations of “along side” and “because of” make greater sense in historical context, and they also prompt the greatest challenge of the parable. Judaism is a communitarian movement in which people pray in the plural, and in which each member of the community is responsible for the others.

We have seen that the Pharisee has more good deeds, a greater store of protection, then he could need. First-century Jews then might conclude that the tax collector has tapped into the merit of the Pharisee as well as, given the location and his use of atonement language, the communal aspect of the temple system. Just as one person’s sin can create a stain on the entire community, so one person’s righteousness can save it.

We would be do well to spend some time reflecting on how our view is changed if we accept that neither party in these parables of “pairs” is totally virtuous and neither ought to be written off.


How We Deal With Those We Believe are Wrong

Part of my morning prayer these days includes reflecting on Brendan Byrne’s commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, Lifting the Burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the Church Today.

In the section I used this morning, Byrne comments on Matthew 18:15-18, where Jesus provides “a carefully gradated structure of fraternal correction,” instructing his disciples:

If your brother sins, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.  If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.  If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.  If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as your would a Gentile or a tax collector.

Byrne writes the following:

The steps are designed to preserve the errant brother or sister as far as possible from public shame.  The goal is to “win” the brother or sister in the sense of bringing him or her to an understanding of the matter that will result in conversion and full integration into the holiness of the community – in contemporary language, to make the procedure a growth opportunity for all concerned.  If this does not work, then recourse must be had to more serious steps, bringing in two or three witnesses, then “the church”, and ultimately, if the person persists in refusing to listen, proceeding to excommunication – a last resort that was, on the lines of Paul’s instruction in 1 Cor 5:1-5, intended to be remedial and temporary rather than final.

The first line of the passage I just quoted was the one that first jumped out at me, for it seems to me that today it is too often that our first step is one of public shame (a particularly easy first step given social media).  That makes me wonder if we have lost sight of the goal of bringing others into conversion and full integration, rather than punishing them.

Byrne acknowledges that the specific disciplinary procedure outlines really only works in a small local community, but I think the implications of the teaching: keeping in mind a goal of conversion and reintegration and making public shame a last resort, are still ones worth keeping in mind.

Postscript: This is the second of Byrne’s Gospel commentarys I am working my way through; I started with his book on Luke (The Hospitality of God).  I have found them very helpful.

Peter’s First Cure in Acts

This morning Fr. Dan Griffith and I co-presented an Adult Faith Formation session on The Spirit of the Risen Christ in Acts.  Fr. Dan opened our session by setting the context and talking about the opening episodes of Acts: Christ’s Ascension and the Pentecost event. I then focused on the post-Ascension mission in the early days of the church. Specifically, I addressed the several episodes that make up Acts Chapter 2 verse 14 through Chapter 3: the first cure effected by Peter (about which, more below), Peter’s first two speeches, and the description of the communal life of Jesus’ followers. Although these are descriptions of the early church, in Jerusalem, they speak very much to our lives. And so as I talked about the episodes, I suggested a number of questions for reflection.

We know that whenever sick people came to Jesus in faith, they were healed. He healed those who were spiritually sick and those who were physically ill. The early church continued to act as Christ did. As the apostles preached the gospel, they healed many people.  The first of those healings is recorded in the beginning of Chapter 3 of Acts:

Now Peter and John were going up to the temple area for the three o’clock hour of prayer. And a man crippled from birth was carried and placed at the gate of the temple called “the Beautiful Gate” every day to beg for alms from the people who entered the temple. When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them. Peter said, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, [rise and] walk.” Then Peter took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles grew strong. He leaped up, stood, and walked around, and went into the temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God. When all the people saw him walking and praising God, they recognized him as the one who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, and they were filled with amazement and astonishment at what had happened to him.

Peter, who blew so many things during the life of Jesus, is confident of the power of the name of Jesus and the Spirit of God working through him. And, through the great spiritual power released through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the Spirit, the man is healed.

We have all been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. Do we walk with the confidence Peter did?

There is a short beautiful line at the end of the third chapter of Ephesians that speaks of God’s ability “to accomplish far more than all we ask or imagine, by the power at work within us.” And the equally beautiful line in the fourth chapter of Phillipians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Do I believe that? Does my way of being in the world reflect that belief?

But more than the actual healing, in this description of Peter’s healing of the cripple there is an incredible model for us in how we deal with those we encounter.

Peter and John, going to the temple heard the man crying out. They listened to him, letting him know he was heard.

Then Peter looked intently at him, as did John. They didn’t glance on their way, but they looked at him, letting him know he was seen.

Then Peter touched him, taking him by the right hand. I can see someone without them knowing they are seen, I can hear someone without them knowing I have heard them, but touch is always mutual. And there is such power in touch, the kind of touch that conveys comfort and compassion. (When we touch someone in pain, we don’t catch their pain from them, but we do transmit our comfort and compassion.)

Then Peter spoke to the man and said Rise up and Walk – healing him.

Most of us don’t have the power to cure illness the way Peter cured the man’s inability to walk, but we can heal their suffering by our encounter with them. And be the cause of their praising God.

Do we hear those crying out?

Do we see them – really see them – look at them?

Are we willing to touch them?