What Hauls People Aboard

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.

God’s Charity and Bears

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.

The Pope Speaks to Congress

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.

Even Death on the Cross

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.  The second Mass reading for today is the beautiful plea to humility in the Letter to the Philippians:

Brothers and sisters:
Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

Theodore of Studios wrote this: “How splendid the cross of Christ! It brings life, not death; light, not darkness; Paradise, not its loss.” An instrument of torture becomes a tree of life!

Why do we continue to celebrate the cross? Christ gave us the answer to that: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”  Today is not just about looking at and celebrating what Christ did.  It is about our modeling of his live and his death.

Junipero Serra: A Controversial Canonization

As many or most of you know, Pope Francis will canonize the Franciscan missionary Junipero Serra during his upcoming trip to the United States.  (Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1988.)

The decision to canonize Serra is not without controversy.  Some claim that Serra was responsible for the torture and death of large numbers of indigenous people.  He is accused of having set up forced labor camps.  Others argue more generally that the missions in California “created a legacy of poverty and invisibility” and that “tribal people still suffer the impact of missionaries.” There seems to be no denial that, at a minimum, Serra’s missionary activity (in the words of Father Michael Perry, minister general of the Order of Friars Minor), “may have had ‘unintended consequences’ and may have used methods contrary to the ‘sensibilities of people today.'”

In an article in the current issue of America Magazine, Jeffrey Burns talks about the best and worst of Serra.  he then relays an encounter recorded in a biography of Serra in which Serra and his companions were struggling in the rain and sinking into the ground as they walked.  They came upon a group of Chumash Indians, their previous encounters with had not gone well.  Although Serra and friends feared the worst, “the Chumash approached, took the 63-year-Serra by the arms, lifted him up and carried him some distance to solid ground.”  The encounter deepened Serra compassion for the Chumash.

Burns writes

What we celebrate with the canonization of Junipero Serra is not a failed missionary policy nor the imperial colonization and subjugation of a land and people – and certainly not the death of so many indigenous people.  What we celebrate is a man burning with missionary zeal who loved and engaged the native people of California.  We celebrate the contemporary native Californian Catholic community, who bear witness to this complex history and are, perhaps, Serra’s greatest legacy.

At the same time, let us celebrate the heroic efforts of California’s native peoples, who were not merely docile victims but a strong, proud people who were forced to negotiate a complex and at times bewildering new environment.  Let us celebrate that moment on the beach where two people met to share that most basic of human gifts – kindness.

I’m guessing that will not be enough to satisfy many upset by the canonization.  But it may remind us that saints are not, and never have been, perfect.

Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity

Today is what we sometimes call “Trinity Sunday,” – the celebration of the Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

The Trinity is one of the doctrines of Christianity it is not very easy to explain. What does it mean to say that “there are three Persons in one God”?  When I memorized that line in Catholic grade school, they showed up a picture of a shamrock.  I confess that in my head, what I heard when I thought of the Trinity was I “Rub-a-dub-dub, three men in a tub.” (OK – my theology was not all that sophisticated in first and second grade.)

Michael Himes, who has a way of explaining difficult ideas very simply, suggests that the best way to understand the Trinity is by the statement in the First Letter of John that God is love. The love in John’s Letter is the Greek agape (as opposed to the other forms of the word love sometimes used in the Gospel – the Greek eros or phileo. Himes writes:

We say that God is the peculiar kind of love known as agape, perfect self-gift. To put this in other words, the First Letter of John claims that if one wants to know how to think about God, God is least wrongly thought of as a particular kind of relationship among persons, specifically the relationship of perfect self-gift. Now, that is a remakable claim: God is least wrongly to be thought of as a relationship, as what happens between and among persons.

St. Augustine speaks of the Trinity in similar terms, speaking of the Trinity in terms of God as Love, Beloved and the Love between them. The Trinity thus conveys the truth that God exists in a relationship of love.

Thus, when God the Trinity says in Genesis, “Let us make man in our image,” the image in which we are created is one of a community of love. We know God most fully, we are most fully who we were created to be, when we live in loving communion. And that, I think, helps explain why Michael Himes suggests that the Trinity “not one doctrine among others,” but “the whole of Christian doctrine.”

Blessings on this Solemnity of the Most Holy Trinity.

Pentecost Astonishment

Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day on which Christians celebrate the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples of Christ, and the day that ends our celebration of the Easter season.

In his book Walking With Jesus: A Way Forward for the Church, Pope Francis writes that a “fundamental element” of Pentecost is astonishment.  He writes

Our God is a God of astonishment; this we know. No one expected anything more from the disciples: after Jesus’ death they were a small, insignificant group of defeated orphans of their Master. There occurred instead an unexpected event that astounded: the people were astonished because each of them heard the disciples speaking in their own tongues, telling of the great works of God (cf. Acts 2:6–7, 11). The Church born at Pentecost is an astounding community because, with the force of her arrival from God, a new message is proclaimed—the resurrection of Christ—with a new language, the universal one of love. A new proclamation: Christ lives, he is risen. A new language: the language of love. The disciples are adorned with power from above and speak with courage. Only minutes before, they all were cowardly, but now they speak with courage and candor, with the freedom of the Holy Spirit.

Thus the Church is called into being forever, capable of astounding while proclaiming to all that Jesus Christ has conquered death, that God’s arms are always open, that his patience is always there awaiting us in order to heal us, to forgive us. The risen Jesus bestowed his Spirit on the Church for this very mission.

Take note: if the Church is alive, she must always surprise. It is incumbent upon the living Church to astound. A Church that is unable to astound is a Church that is weak, sick, dying, and that needs admission to the intensive care unit as soon as possible!

Happy Feast of Pentecost!

Race and Justice

Yesterday I moderated a program at Our Lady of Lourdes on Race and Justice, the inaugural program in Lourdes’ new Salt and Light Series.  We had a panel of three speakers, each of whom spoke for about ten minutes, after which we had time for dialogue and question and answer.  The three speakers were Archbishop Emeritus Harry Flynn, Nekima Levy-Pounds (my colleague at UST Law School and the newly elected President of the Minneapolis NAACP), and Tom Johnson former county attorney and former president of the Council of Crime and Justice.  It was a moving and sobering event.

One of the things that was mentioned was the pastoral letter on racisim Archbishop Flynn released in 2003, In God’s Image.  Archbishop Flynn talked about the circumstances of his issuing it and the reaction (positive and negative) he received, and Professor Levy-Pounds noted that she assignes the pastoral letter (along with Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail) to her students each semester.

When I went back to look at the pastoral letter again when I got home yesterday afternoon, I realized how that the words the former Archbishop used to introduce his letter are as timely and important today – perhaps more so – than they were when he wrote them in 20o3.

Here is the Preface to In God’s Image:

Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

In the Hebrew Scriptures the prophet Micah gives us a simple but very challenging formula for holiness. He writes,

“… This is what Yahweh asks of you: Only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)

This is the spirit that I hope all of you will bring to the discussion of racism and racial justice in our church and in our society. We cannot be a church that is true to the demands of the Gospel if we do not act justly, if we do not act to root out racism in the structures of our society and our church. And we cannot achieve personal holiness if we do not love tenderly, if we do not love and respect all human beings, regardless of their race, language, or ethnic heritage.

Only if we do these things can we expect to walk humbly with our God. For our God is a God of love and justice, a God who made all of us in His image. Racism is a denial of that fact. It is an offense against God. I realize that the subject of race can be a very difficult one for all of us. Yet I am convinced that we must address it with honesty and courage. For it remains a significant and sinful reality in our midst.

I am issuing this pastoral letter as an invitation to discussion and dialogue. I hope all of you will accept this invitation by taking part in discussions in your parish and community. By engaging in such a dialogue, we can all enhance our understanding of the role that race plays in our lives and we can join together in working to combat racism in all its forms.

Thank you for your commitment to the values of human dignity and racial justice.

God bless you,

Most Reverend Harry J. Flynn
Archbishop

You can read the pastoral letter in its entirety here, and I encourage you to do so.