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To dispel all illusions at the get-go, the harvest celebration at Plymouth Bay in 1621 was not the first Thanksgiving, and the sooner mentions and references of it are ejected from our broader culture, the better.
Celebrations of thanksgiving – Hallmark cards about the so-called First Thanksgiving notwithstanding – are well-documented throughout human history and in different cultures. Most are rooted in traditional religious celebrations of the harvest, such as the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles (known as Sukkot) and medieval harvest festivals. These harvest celebrations fused with days of praise and thanksgiving to God for many blessings and, most strikingly, for a pardoning of transgressions. What is unquestionable is that these celebrations were never simply individual acts of thanksgiving, but communal.
In the early decades of the American Republic, these first celebrations of Thanksgiving were established by presidential proclamation, the first by George Washington on October 3, 1789. Washington’s proclamation is remarkable in several respects: first, it calls for a day of thanksgiving for the blessings of God upon the entire populace of the United States with scant mention of individual blessings, and second, the entire latter half of the proclamation is a call to seek forgiveness for the many transgressions of the young American nation. The proclamation is befitting a nation struggling in the aftermath of war and revolution to establish peace, liberty, and justice, a project still awaiting fulfillment.
But very little of Washington’s proclamation lives on in our contemporary celebrations of Thanksgiving. There is no mention of gratitude for friends and family, nor is there any mention of turkey, cranberry sauce, or potatoes, let alone the ridiculous modern ritual of the presidential pardoning of a turkey, as if a particular kind of poultry were in need of our clemency. The focus is on God, and the gratefulness and remorse a community owes to God’s providence and justice. The privatization of Thanksgiving, in contrast, seems to be a 20th century phenomenon, with a communal day of prayer and gratitude being replaced with a turkey-stuffed day for individuals, celebrating their own graces (or not) from the year passed in a comfortable personal cocoon of family, friends, and perhaps a game of football.
This is a mistake, a kind of historical amnesia with baleful consequences. We have made Thanksgiving a day to turn inwards upon ourselves when the heart of the day is the grateful recognition of graces that have been bestowed upon the whole community. While embracing the day as a celebration of family and friends, we have deadened ourselves to Thanksgiving’s implications for us as members of communities. We are carefully shedding God and our neighbor, with an extra helping of pumpkin pie as our only reward.
Any healthy recovery of Thanksgiving will necessitate a re-ordering, with God restored as the proper focus paired with a deeper sense of communal gratitude from us. Therein lies the rub, however: for what can we legitimately show gratitude in our communities in the present moment?
I don’t mean to suggest that God is not deserving of our gratitude. Rather, I want us to ponder if we would not be engaging in an unhealthy bit of hypocrisy by expressing thanks to God when we’ve made our worlds the way they are. Dare we thank God when our communities are struggling with poverty, violence, division, and despair? Read the news; read the stories of war, famine, exploitation, greed, and suffering. What can we honestly be thankful for when we’ve turned our backs on each other?
There is not much, which leaves us with one: God has given us a chance to do better. That can be the source of our gratitude, for it gives a chance to dream, strive, and pray to build a better world in the corner of it shared with us. Be grateful for the chance to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captive, to bring recovery of sight to the blind and welcome to the stranger, to meet the needs of our brothers and sisters, to let the oppressed free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. Why not use Thanksgiving as a chance to engage in a bit of penance and a new beginning?
Let me end with the words of Abraham Lincoln and William H. Seward, two of the greatest Americans of all time, who by this proclamation established this day as the day for Thanksgiving, providing for us an ethic of communal gratitude and penitence to serve for all time:
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens…to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend…they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife …and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.
“Your room is a lot smaller than it looked,” said my parents when they sat down on the chair I FaceTime them from every Sunday night. “Yeah? Well, check out this view.”
After two and a half years of FaceTiming from South Dakota to Wisconsin, my parents came to visit. We had two and a half days to see it all. Strategy: six essential tasks, hope for the best.
Task 1: Meet as many mentors as possible. By luck or by grace, this was surprisingly easy because both of our school’s Lakȟóta elders were in the lobby and staff lounge as my parents walked in.
“Mom, Dad, I’d like you to meet Uŋčí… that means grandmother, and like the students, I’ve felt like she’s been a wise grandmother for me these last couple years…”
Task 2: Ride along on the after-school bus route. It’s crazy looking into the rear-facing mirror to see my parents, the ones who saw me off on the bus for twelve years, sitting with my students in the grey leather seats.
To my delight, I also saw that Betty and Donna, upstanding third-graders, were fulfilling their assigned duty of bus companion for my parents: “Betty, Donna, can I ask you a favor? My parents are going to be riding the bus tomorrow, and they haven’t ridden a school bus in a long time. Would you mind sitting with them and making them feel welcome? Maybe telling them a little bit about our school and Pine Ridge?”
Task 3: Eat dinner with Jesuits. “Nope, you can’t sit there— that’s where Brother Mike always sits.”
Task 4: Chaperone Youth Pow-wow. All the students in the gym, all their dancing regalia unpacked from rolling totes, they took turns helping one another to fasten their beadwork and braid each other’s hair. The bus parked and the kids hard at work, my parents turned to me and asked, “What do we do now?” “Enjoy it. This is a privileged place to be…
Tȟéča Wačhípi Okȟólakičhiye means Youth Dancers’ Society, and all the schools on the reservation take turns hosting one each year— we host ours at the end of October. Pow-wows are an incredible chance for students to come together and to compete in the traditional Lakȟóta dances or the Lakȟóta handgames they’re playing over in that hallway— maybe we can have Talon teach you the rules later, if you want!”
Task 5: Go to mountains. “After long weeks at school, I love coming up to the Black Hills to clear my mind, to hike, to pray, to camp—Mom, you’ve never seen mountains, right? Oh, man. Ahhhh, you’ll love it.”
After an hour of quiet drive through the early rolling foothills, the question came: “Garrett, does it ever feel weird to you being the only white man in places like that? I mean, it was weird, noticing that we were the only white people in there, but yet we felt so welcomed—those other chaperones and the kids and your friend in the drum group were all so welcoming, but we couldn’t help but notice that we were outsiders there. Do you feel that a lot?”
Three hours of conversation ensued, punctuated and paused only for the passing buffalo, scenic selfies, and lunch on the rocks. Race and ethnicity, power and privilege, colonialism and the Church, Jesuits on the reservation and immigrants in our hometown, solidarity and social justice, Christ’s call and our challenges and slip-ups therein…
Even though we talk every week, we told stories on that winding drive that we had never told each other before. Summiting peaks of honesty, growth and support I never thought we could or would or even should—I didn’t even think to plan what became this deeply shared reflection.
Ironically, coming down was the hardest part, Mom backseat-driving me around the hairpin turns—“Mom, STOP. I know what I’m doing. I’ve done this with ice and snow on a bus full of children. I am a South Dakota bus driver. I can handle this.” Dad liked that.
Task 6: Go to Mass. I couldn’t imagine my parents’ visit without them staying for Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart. Praying with my parish home, meeting the rest of the choir and trying their best at the post-communion Lakota hymn; it was the perfect send-off for their long drive home.
Planning my parents’ visit forced me to ask: what makes this home? How can I invite them into it? Home is a moving target, but I cobbled together my best itinerary based on the who’s, what’s and where’s that matter.
I tried to show my parents all the things that made this home, but they found it themselves. We completed all my tasks, but it wasn’t until they started asking questions that we really got it:
Yes, home is the people I live for and live with.
Yes, it is the places I go to teach and rest and hike.
But, home is also the big questions I live as a privileged white man on the reservation, trying to answer my Christian call to kinship— even and especially in places where Church history hurts and my skin color represents violence.
We had two and a half days to see the life of two and a half years. We didn’t waste a moment. From my friends and favorite places all the way to my challenges and insecurities, I knew they got it when the questions came out.
They had a lot to talk about on the sixteen hour trip home.
And our FaceTime conversations have been easier since– no more backstory needed.
You offer a challenging vision of the magis that pulls us beyond ourselves and beyond our comfort zone. How would it challenge us on race?
I have recently begun thinking about racism as a soul sickness. We can talk about racism as a political issue, as a sociological phenomenon, but for me, as a faith-based scholar and activist, I understand racism as a soul sickness. It’s that profound warping of the human spirit that enables us to create communities that favor one racial group, white people, over darker skinned people. By creating an inner spirit that’s indifferent. So even if white people aren’t’ deliberately racist, they’re not using the “N” word, they’re not actively discriminating. We become complacent or indifferent to what’s going on in our society. We don’t know, and we don’t want to know. And that’s a shriveling of the human spirit. So if racism at it’s core is a could sickness, then we need to provide a remedy that can reach the inner reaches of the human spirit.
I think for so long we tried to address racism with rational arguments. We simply give people the facts. Give them the information. Then something magical’s going to happen. But I think that racism is something that malforms us. I think of racism as a formation system.
It tries to form an identity. And I think racism in America forms us into false identities. So it’s not a matter of things that we do that are wrong, we’re formed in a way of looking at the world, which in some cases keeps us from seeing the injustice that’s there. And so we need not just change policies, but we change policies without changing a malformed identity, that malformed identity’s going to find new ways of expression and that’s where spiritual concepts like the Magis can be very helpful. Not in terms of dictating public policy, but in terms of forming, correcting our malformed identities so we can be open, then, to the more creative public policies that need to be in place.
Where does the soul sickness come from?
I wish I knew the answer to that.
I’ve often thought about this, that the opposite of love isn’t hate. The opposite of love is fear. And I think what’s happened in America is that many white people lack the empathy or resist the empathy that would call to change because they fear what that change might look like. It’s kind of akin… let’s take it out of the realm of race for a moment. We know about ecological irresponsibility and we hear the fact that the Earth cannot sustain everyone on the planet living the way Americans do.
And it calls us to very fearful types of choices. And I think that because we’ve never had a racially just society, if we did it’s going to call for us to live in ways that we’re not accustomed to. I think many white people, if they’re honest with themselves, they realize, they know that the playing field isn’t level. They have an understanding of that. But then they fear, “okay, what does it mean if we level the playing field? Where does that leave me?”
And that is a real painful realization to come to. And a fearful realization to come to. Because if I really accept that as true, then I can’t live at peace with the way things are. And that’s going to call me to live in ways that I can’t even imagine what that’s going to look like and what that’s going to feel like. I think it’s that fear that holds us back, and it’s the genesis of the soul sickness.
Another thing I find challenging and hopeful in your book, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church, is the need for lamentation.
Yes, because I think lamentation is the response that happens when you realize how broken the world is and all you can do is grieve and rage. The inspiration for that came from something I remember reading about Apartheid South Africa. During Apartheid South Africa one of the few times that blacks and whites could be together on a quasi-integrated basis was at funerals.
Especially for… what happened at funerals for activists who were killed for protesting Apartheid brought whites and blacks together, and together they could mourn and they could grieve. And they became situations of mourning and grieving and protest not simply at the loss of life, but at the whole situation of injustice. And so you had people from both the socially advantaged, the racially advantaged, and the racially disadvantaged coming together. And what could unite them both was their common grief, their common lament. These protests, these funerals became catalysts for resistance because it gave people the visceral strength and energy to continue in a struggle despite the pain and despite the risks and despite the dangers. And it become ways for white South Africans to say that “I am not going to define myself the way my society has defined me. And I can grieve over the social injustice that make me more privileged than others and it gives me the energy, then to continue to protest and to work against that system.”
And so lament, again, is not something that’s rational or intellectual. It’s much deeper than that. It gives you the passion to continue to work for a justice that will take you into places that you can’t even imagine. It makes you realize, “this is not right. This is not right and I am not going to let my society define the limits of my convictions and my values and my faith.” And both groups can be brought together over a common lament and grief. Even though they are in different social situations and they are defined different racially, but this becomes the common space then. Where they can work together to change a system which is harming both of them. But harming them in different ways.
Do you see spaces for lamentation in the United States?
There haven’t been yet. You know, the closest analogue to this is what happened at Georgetown with the apology over Georgetown and the Jesuits’ complicity in the sale of 272 African men, women and children slaves. I remember being in my office at Fordham, and I watched the whole thing on livestream. In that moment, in that whole prayer experience, you had a model for lament that you had honest recognition and accounting and responsibility, you had the descendants of the enslaved community present, and you had a real acknowledgment that there was a real, not just injustice, but a real evil that was done.
And it was a ceremony that was not… it wasn’t an uplifting or joyful ceremony. It was at times painful, and yet it was also a tone of hope that this could be the basis for a new beginning. Not a pretty type package and now it’s over, but this is the basis for a new beginning. As I said, I sat in my office, and I was almost dumbfounded. I couldn’t believe I was hearing what I was hearing. I thought I would never hear a group of largely American, white men come to the insight of admitting that “we were wrong. We did great harm. We’re sorry, and we know that nothing we can do can undo that, but with you, the descendant community, we want to move forward. But we’re not going to tell you how that’s going to be done. We want to walk with you and learn from you how we do that.” That can be a tremendous model for what needs to happen not only in the Catholic Church and other places, but in our nation.
And my hope and prayer is that the Society of Jesus continues and becomes a real trailblazer in pointing the way for what genuine lament and further steps can be. That we can be a model then for not only what the Catholic community needs to do to really come to grips with this horrible evil of racism, but that we can also then be a model for the rest of society.
It is beautiful. So what I’m thinking is that. These are the things we’re doing. They’re not public policy things, but they’re the things that have to happen is we’re going to implement better the policies that we do have and we’re going to create better public policies and institutional practices. But we’ve got to be moved and have our hearts cracked open, and that’s what happened during that stations of the Cross service. And that’s what I think happened at Georgetown. It wasn’t perfect by any means. But it was certainly the most forthright effort that I’ve seen to date in the Catholic Church.
It’s clear, Father Massingale, you have a clear sense of mission and a vocation to this priestly life you live for justice.
I think, again, the narrative we can get trapped in is to think, “it can never change.” Or it’s going to be hopeless, or there’s no way out. And I don’t believe that. I believe that every generation has its own challenges, and so, our hope is to pass the baton on and have you guys do it. The fact that you’re doing this media thing, which I don’t always understand. I’m not on social media at all. But you’re using it, you’re creating this platform by which the message of Gospel can reach other people in different ways. And that gives me a great deal of hope. So thank you.
In the 7th grade, my mom made me attend an etiquette dinner. The dinner was for professional students at Saint Louis University where Mom taught, but she took the opportunity to stick me in an ill-fitting sport coat and teach me some manners. (Depending on who you ask, it nominally paid off.) One of the biggest features of the dinner? Learning acceptable dinner conversation. “Never talk about religion and politics” was the principle maxim, though Mom also would get a bit annoyed when my sister and I made fart jokes.
So what can one talk about at dinner? What topics should feature and which should we steer away from? With Thanksgiving a few days away, these decisions are important. After all, we all know the way Uncle Mike reacts when we bring up [insert topic here].
In the United States, we have a mainstream political paradigm that decides what is acceptable table conversation. They are those words and phrases that can be widely used without creating conflict or facing repercussions. These small-talk conversations happen at all kinds of public events, like at Jesuit gatherings – we talk about weather rather than racism, about which of our home cities is more athletically gifted rather than gentrification.
In the United States, our shared acceptable vocabulary is built on words and phrases like middle class, unity, freedom, hearing both sides, and our way of life. I especially include the American Dream, support our troops, and patriotism.1
As a whole, this is the vocabulary that forms the conversations which are comfortable and do not push boundaries. They present the values that we are expected to uphold. Even in Eminem’s anti-Trump freestyle, he still managed to say he supports the troops. These words and phrases frame what one may discuss and support, especially in polite company.
But what about the Gospel? What if the Gospel message falls outside the limited framework of socially acceptable dinner conversation? What if the Gospel pushes the boundaries of comfort? In my mind, faith demands two things: rejecting conversation expectations that limits faith and being willing to enter dialogue.
Christ regularly dined and spent time with those well outside the socially acceptable crowd. In my mind, Christ is the awkward dinner guest who brings up healthcare disparities between women of color and white men; or in his own time, allowed an unclean woman to approach him while a wealthy citizen looked on. It is the duty of faith to reject restrictions on dialogue and engagement with the world.
This rejection of “acceptable” conversation can be incredibly difficult come Thanksgiving. I have friends – social workers, academics researching health care disparities by race, teachers in low-income schools, and nurses in high-violence neighborhoods – who every holiday feel like they have to hide their true lives and vocations because they do not make for comfortable dinner conversations.
When people do ask, these friends have to describe why they live committed to the poor, why they love the people they do. They have to explain why they’re attentive to systematic economic injustice or structural racism. Yet the “polite” conversation often doesn’t allow them to use their own vocabulary or experience. They have to stay within a mainstream paradigm. They are restrained or limited in what they can say.
Perhaps the more difficult side of this coin is creating dialogue. Let’s recall that Jesus took time to discuss with the wealthy man why he showed such great love to the unclean woman. I would find great exhilaration in mounting my soapbox and proclaiming why I reject these limits on hot-button topics and why I am righteous in my point of view. Yet this attitude will by no means change hearts, including my own. Doing so will simply solidify others and myself in hardness of heart.
Dialogue cannot happen with a hardened heart. Even more than speaking, dialogue requires listening. As a privileged white male, I must be wary of speaking on behalf of those who face oppression. It must rather start with listening: to those who have shared their stories of racism, of accompanying students who face incredible odds, and supporting friends facing harassment. When I speak, it is best to speak of my own experiences of love, grace, and mercy.
One of my former Jesuit superiors emphasized the importance of “I”-language. This meant using phrases like “I think…”, “I feel…”, “I sense…”, “I hear…”, etc. instead of over-generalizing (“it was wrong of you…”) or asserting my interpretation on someone else’s words (“you said…”). It takes great practice, but has paid dividends in my life. Doing so has pushed me more fully into the conversation, as well as made space for others to join in. It has made me a more intentional speaker; more importantly, it has made me a better listener.
Predetermined conversations limit us to standardized experiences and vocabulary. “I”-language allows others to speak outside that standardized experience. Along with active listening, it is vital to dialogue and breaking down otherwise forbidden conversation walls.
This Thanksgiving, there will be wonderful meals and excellent conversations. Some of these conversations might push the limits of what is socially acceptable. The predetermined subjects of football and weather will only take us so far. Moreover, these conversations can easily exclude the Gospel or prevent the opportunity to reflect critically on the realities we encounter in our life and work. To truly be a people of faith, we must be willing to enter into those uncomfortable and socially-unacceptable conversations, and what better time than Thanksgiving. We must be willing to dialogue, that is: to listen to others and approach them with an open and loving heart.
May your Thanksgiving be full of politely political dialogue that breaches your comfort zone, yet welcomes all to the banquet.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Tim Sackton.
The greatest risk is to not risk anything. For this week’s (extremely) brief One-Minute Homily, Fr. Michael Rossmann, SJ, reflects on the fear of the Lord and the danger of not taking risks. Based on the readings for Sunday, November 19, which you can read here: http://bit.ly/2zLesGr
One murder. One detective. Twelve suspects. Twelve different possible motives… But could there also be mercy and human brokenness lying beneath this mystery?
The movie opens with our Belgian detective Hercule Poirot solving a murder in Jerusalem relying upon a single clue. The obsessive genius of the man catches each detail—each detail of every moment. That compulsion to see the world as if it could be perfect, drives the man into correcting the angles of ties, measuring the size of his breakfast eggs, and even sleeping with a mustache guard to maintain the comical wisps and swoops.
Yet, his vision offers the audience insight and even a challenge. Soon after departing from Jerusalem, he boards the train from Istanbul to Paris—a train ride which leads to the inevitable murder mystery offering insights into 12 different people’s brokenness.
“I see evil on this train… A passenger has died. He was murdered. The murderer is on the train with us now, and every one of you is a suspect. So, let us catch a killer.”
Poirot’s investigation into evil backfires. Before his untimely death, Ratchett sits with Poirot in order to discuss some business. In their interchange, Poirot asks, “And, you are innocent?” Ratchett chuckles, “You’re fun.”
Shortly after, Ratchett dies and the investigation begins. The only problem is that as the investigation takes us into the life of the murdered, his death becomes appealing. As we learn about him, he grows more and more detestable—a wake of destruction, abuse, and deceit emanate from his life.
At the same time, the suspects grow more and more sympathetic. One drinks to numb the pain of failure. Another lies about her romantic relationship, because she fears prejudice. One mourns the loss of loved ones. One hides from her fears in a bottle of barbiturates. These 12 suspects may not be innocent, but they certainly are wounded.
But then, does that make Murder on the Orient Express a movie which advocates for a sort of karma-like justice? Does it assume that you get what you deserve, or that the murdered had it coming?
No—which is perhaps one of the most peculiar tensions within the movie. As detective Poirot searches through clues, interviews the suspects, and deduces the linkages between the murdered and each passenger, he is driven by the fundamental belief that murder results in a “fracture of the soul.”
Poirot adheres to a personal philosophy which views the world in black and white: the perfect world and the world which has fallen. For Poirot, there are those who are good and those who broken and evil—fractured shells of humankind. Murder remains unacceptable, despite the slowly growing list of reasons why the murdered may in fact have deserved such a gruesome fate. Yet the more he investigates, the more Poirot sees that it is not simply the murderer who is fractured by the violence, but it is also the victims and all those affected by the loss.
Poirot’s particular attention to each detail and person leads him and the audience to a tense realization: Maybe we are not to be the judges? Maybe, we are called to mercy for those who are broken—no matter their faults or sins.
Maybe, The Murder on the Orient Express isn’t about a murder at all. Maybe, the mystery in which are meant to dwell is in fact the mystery of mercy, accepting the brokenness and woundedness of others.
Knowing that with mercy and love, they may one day find healing… And, despite the sins of their past, they might move onto a new track and a new life.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of CNS/Fox.
For English, click here.
Imagina esta escena:
Es medianoche en la residencia jesuita de un campus universitario. Está oscuro afuera, y todo es tranquilo. La universidad se encuentra en el casco urbano de una metrópolis grande que se duerme a esta hora. Del mismo modo, los seis residentes jesuitas están profundamente dormidos.
La comunidad, al igual que en otras comunidades universitarias jesuitas, cuenta entre ellos con el rector y el vicerrector de la universidad, algunos profesores y otras personas que trabajan en proyectos sociales de la universidad. En una casita al lado duermen una empleada de la comunidad y su hija visitante.
Es una escena familiar, reconocible a cualquier ex-alumno de una universidad jesuita.
De repente, el sonido de puños tocando la puerta rompe el silencio de la medianoche. Siguen gritos, y cinco de los seis jesuitas emergen de la puerta de atrás, aturdidos y vestido con batas de dormir. Hombres armados les ordenan que se acuesten boca abajo en la grama.
Se da la orden. Cada uno recibe un disparo en su cabeza.
Asustado por el ruido, el miembro mayor de la comunidad emerge de la puerta, pero ve la carnicería y regresa adentro. Avanza sólo unos pocos pasos antes de que los soldados lo confronten, le apunten y disparen.
En la casita contigua a la comunidad jesuita, otro soldado vigila a la cocinera de la comunidad y su hija. “No dejen testigos” fue la orden. Él les dispara a las dos.
Así resultó ser que en horas de la madrugada del 16 de noviembre de 1989 en la Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) en la ciudad de San Salvador, soldados salvadoreños entrenados en los EEUU masacraron a este grupo de ocho personas y los agregaron a la lista de más de 75,000 víctimas de una guerra civil que duró más de doce años.
Recordemos los nombres de los seis jesuitas que fueron asesinados, además de la cocinera y su hija.
- Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.
- Ignacio Martín-Baro, S.J.
- Segundo Montes, S.J.
- Amando López, S.J.
- Joaquin López y López, S.J.
- Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.
- Elba Ramos
- Celina Ramos
Al conmemorar hoy el aniversario de este trágico evento, ¿qué lecciones podemos aprender de estos mártires modernos?
- El Evangelio es peligroso: hoy tanto como siempre.
Es una tentación pensar en el martirio como un remanente de otra época. Evocamos imágenes de cristianos ofrecidos a los leones en la antigua Roma o misioneros europeos asesinados por indígenas, preocupados estos últimos tanto por la política como por la fe de los extranjeros.
Sin embargo, los cristianos continúan siendo perseguidos y asesinados por su fe. Los mártires de la UCA muestran una evidencia clara de esto. Su muerte sigue siendo sentida por aquellos que los conocieron.
Un miembro de esta comunidad jesuita de la UCA, Jon Sobrino, viajaba para dar una presentación en una conferencia cuando sus compañeros jesuitas fueron asesinados. Evitó que le dispararan por una coincidencia en sus planes de viaje. Ahora en sus primeros años 80, el P. Sobrino sigue llevando el mensaje de sus compañeros jesuitas y habla en contra de la injusticia.
Además de los mártires de la UCA de El Salvador, tenemos varios otros ejemplos de los peligros de predicar el Evangelio en nuestro mundo de hoy:
- En septiembre, la Iglesia beatificó el primer mártir nacido en los EEUU, Stanley Rother, quien fue asesinado mientras trabajaba con mayas en un pueblo guatemalteco en 1981.
- En 2014, el P. Frans van der Lugt, sacerdote jesuita, fue asesinado a tiros por terroristas yihadistas en el jardín de un centro comunitario en Homs, Siria.
- En marzo de 2016, cuatro hermanas de las Misioneras de la Caridad (la orden religiosa fundada por la Madre Teresa) formaban parte de un grupo de 16 personas asesinadas por soldados del Estado Islámico de Irak y Siria en Aden, Yemen.
Sí, la persecución persiste. Estos ejemplos muestran cómo la misma naturaleza de ser cristiano profeso, en estos casos como religiosos consagrados o curas ordenados, puede ser causa suficiente para el asesinato.
Obviamente, no todos nosotros seremos mártires. Sin embargo, incluso para aquellos que viven más lejos de la violencia de los ejemplos anteriores, ser testigos proféticos del Evangelio puede ser una acción peligrosa. En sociedades cada vez más secularizadas, a menudo es impopular, si no francamente detestado, hablar con fuerte convicción religiosa. No tenemos que buscar más allá de los comentarios en línea de varios artículos religiosos.
Impulsados por nuestra fe, debemos continuar asumiendo la responsabilidad de predicar el Evangelio, sin importar lo peligroso que sea. Es poco probable que nos cueste la vida, pero ¿qué podría costarnos?
Oremos para que, a través del ejemplo de los mártires de la UCA, Dios nos dé el coraje que necesitamos para proclamar con valentía el Evangelio, aunque sea peligroso.
- Nuestra fe debe orientar nuestra vida y trabajo.
Nuestra fe no es algo que practicamos una vez a la semana los domingos por la mañana y luego la guardamos en secreto. Es algo que debería orientar nuestra vida cotidiana, nuestro trabajo, nuestras relaciones, incluso nuestra política.
Los mártires de la UCA son ejemplos inspiradores de la fe integrada en la actividad de la vida cotidiana, incluyendo el funcionamiento mismo de la universidad donde trabajaron.
El objetivo del ataque dirigido por el ejército estatal fue el P. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., el rector jesuita de la universidad. Había hablado fuertemente sobre la defensa de los derechos de la mayoría pobre del país y contra la dictadura militar. El gobierno opresivo lo consideraba subversivo y una amenaza para su control. Pero el P. Ellacuría no pudo separar su fe de su trabajo como rector de la universidad. Su fe le exigió hablar en contra de la injusticia, proclamar el Evangelio y hacer que esto fuese central en la misión de la UCA.
El P. Ellacuría lo dice mejor en sus propias palabras, durante el discurso de graduación en la Universidad de Santa Clara en 1982:
“Una universidad cristiana tiene que tener en cuenta la preferencia del evangelio por el pobre…la universidad debe estar presente intelectualmente donde más se necesita: para proveer la ciencia a los que no tienen la ciencia; para proveer habilidades a los trabajadores a aquellos que no tienen habilidades; para ser una voz para aquellos sin voces; para dar apoyo intelectual a aquellos que no poseen las calificaciones académicas para legitimar sus derechos. Hemos intentado hacer esto.”
El P. Ellacuría sabía los riesgos que entrañaba proclamar el Evangelio. Haciendo referencia al Arzobispo Oscar Romero, quien fue asesinado en El Salvador en 1980 mientras celebraba la Misa, el P. Ellacuría reflexiona, “En un mundo donde reina la injusticia, una universidad que lucha por la justicia necesariamente debe ser perseguida.”
Él experimentó la plenitud de esa persecución con su propio martirio.
En vez de encerrar nuestra fe como un “asunto privado,” debemos permitir que nuestra fe informe nuestra vida pública y las decisiones diarias que tomamos. Debemos preguntarnos: “¿Cómo es que lo que hago todos los días nace de mi relación con Dios?”
Oremos para que, inspirados por los mártires de la UCA, podamos poner en el centro de nuestras vidas a Dios y permitir que eso oriente nuestra vida y nuestro trabajo.
Han pasado casi tres décadas desde su asesinato, pero el legado de los mártires sigue vivo. Inmediatamente después del asesinato, varios jesuitas de otros países se ofrecieron como voluntarios para venir a El Salvador para mantener la UCA en funcionamiento y garantizar que la muerte de los mártires no acabaría el valioso trabajo en la universidad. El día de hoy, la UCA sigue siendo una de las universidades más reconocidas de Centroamérica.
Cada año, miles de personas se reúnen en El Salvador para la vigilia que conmemora la vida y el testimonio de los mártires de la UCA. En los EEUU, la Red Ignaciana de Solidaridad organiza el Encuentro de Familia Ignaciana para la Justicia cada mes de noviembre para unir a las personas para reflexionar sobre cuestiones de justicia y fe, y también abogar por un cambio de política con sus congresistas.
Las balas disparadas por el ejército salvadoreño se robaron la vida de los ocho mártires. Pero su legado sigue vivo. Continuamos su misión cuando predicamos el Evangelio, sabiendo su peligro. Continuamos su misión cuando integramos nuestra fe en nuestra vida y trabajo, poniendo en el centro a Dios.
Al aprender estas lecciones y ponerlas en práctica, seguimos manteniendo a los mártires de la UCA vivos y presentes.
Mártires de la UCA, rueguen por nosotros.
Haga clic aquí para español.
Imagine this scene:
It is the middle of the night at the Jesuit residence on a university campus. It’s dark outside, and all is quiet. The university is located in the heart of an urban metropolis which is fast asleep at this hour. Likewise, the six resident Jesuits are peacefully at rest.
The community, like many university communities of Jesuits, counts among them the rector and vice-rector of the university, a couple of professors, and others who work in social programs at the university. In a small house next door sleeps a university employee and her visiting daughter.
It’s a familiar scene, recognizable to any alumnus of a Jesuit university.
Suddenly, the sound of fists pounding on the doors of the residence pierces the midnight silence. Shouting ensues, and five of the six Jesuits emerge from the back door, groggy-eyed and clothed in nightgowns. Armed men command them to lay face down in the grass.
An order is given. Each one is shot in the back of the head.
Startled by the noises, the oldest member of the community emerges from the doorway, but he sees the carnage and turns back inside. He makes it only a few steps before soldiers confront him, take aim, and fire.
At the cottage next door to the Jesuit community, another soldier is standing guard over the community cook and her daughter. “Leave no witnesses” was the directive. He shoots them both.
So it came to be that in the early morning hours of November 16th, 1989 at the University of Central America (UCA) in the city of San Salvador, American-trained Salvadoran soldiers massacred this group of eight, adding them to the list of over 75,000 victims of a civil war that raged for over twelve years.
Let us remember the names of all six Jesuits who were killed, plus the cook and her daughter.
- Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J.
- Ignacio Martín-Baro, S.J.
- Segundo Montes, S.J.
- Amando López, S.J.
- Joaquin López y López, S.J.
- Juan Ramón Moreno, S.J.
- Elba Ramos
- Celina Ramos
As we commemorate the anniversary of this tragic event today, what lessons can we learn from these modern day martyrs?
- The Gospel is dangerous: now as much as ever.
It is tempting to think of martyrdom as a remnant of an earlier age. We conjure up images of Christians being fed to lions in ancient Rome or European missionaries killed by indigenous populations, wary of the newcomers as much for their politics as for their faith.
Yet Christians continue to be persecuted and outright killed for their faith. The UCA martyrs show clear evidence of this. Their loss continues to be felt by those who knew them.
One member of that Jesuit community at the UCA, Jon Sobrino, was traveling to present at a conference when his fellow Jesuits were murdered. He avoided being shot in the head by a coincidence of his travel plans. Now in his early 80’s, Fr. Sobrino continues to carry the mantel of his Jesuit companions and speak against injustice.
Beyond the UCA martyrs of El Salvador, we have various other examples of the dangers of preaching the Gospel in our world today:
- In September, the Church beatified the first American-born martyr, Stanley Rother, who was killed working with Mayans in a Guatemalan village in 1981.
- In 2014, Fr. Frans van der Lugt, a Jesuit priest, was shot and killed by jihadist terrorists in the garden of a community center in Homs, Syria.
- In March of 2016, four Missionaries of Charity sisters (the religious order founded by Mother Theresa) were among a group of 16 people murdered by ISIS gunmen in Aden, Yemen.
Yes, persecution persists. These examples show how the very nature of being a professed Christian, in these cases as vowed religious or ordained clergy, can be sufficient cause for assassination.
Of course, not of all of us will be martyrs. Nonetheless, even for those who live farther from the outright violence of the above examples, being prophetic witnesses to the Gospel can still be a dangerous prospect. In increasingly secularized societies, it is often unpopular, if not downright detested, to speak with strong religious conviction. Look no further than the comments sections of many religious articles.
Compelled by our faith, we must continue to take up the charge to preach the Gospel, however dangerous that might be. It is unlikely to cost us our lives, but what might it cost us?
Let us pray that through the example of the UCA martyrs, God might give us the courage we need to boldly proclaim the Gospel, dangerous though it is.
- Our faith should inform our life and work.
Our faith is not something we wear once a week on Sunday mornings and put back in the closet afterwards. It is something that should inform our daily life, our work, our relationships, even our politics.
The UCA martyrs are inspirational examples of integrating faith into the activity of everyday life, including the very functioning of the university where they worked.
The target of the state military-led attack was Fr. Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., the Jesuit rector of the University. He had been outspoken on defending the rights of poor majority of the country and criticizing the military dictatorship. The oppressive government viewed him as subversive and a threat to their control. But Fr. Ellacuría could not separate his faith from his work as university rector. His faith compelled him to speak out against injustice, proclaim the Gospel, and make this central to the mission of the UCA.
Fr. Ellacuría says it best in his own words, given during the commencement address at Santa Clara University in 1982:
“A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor…the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate. We have attempted to do this.”
Fr. Ellacuría knew the risks that came with proclaiming the Gospel. Referencing Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980 while celebrating Mass, Fr. Ellacuría reflects, “In a world where injustice reigns, a university that fights for justice must necessarily be persecuted.”
He experienced the fullness of that persecution with his own martyrdom.
Instead of boxing up our faith as a “private matter,” we must allow our faith to inform our public life and the daily decisions that we make. We must ask ourselves, “How is what I do every day born out of my relationship with God?”
Let us pray that, inspired by the UCA martyrs, we might place God at the center of our lives and allow that to inform our life and work.
Nearly three decades have passed since their assassination, but the legacy of the martyrs lives on. In the immediate aftermath of the assassination, Jesuits from around the world volunteered to come to El Salvador to keep the UCA running and ensure that the martyrs death would not put a stop to the valuable work of the university. To this day, it continues to be one of the strongest universities in Central America.
Every year, thousands of people gather in El Salvador for the vigil ceremony that commemorates the life and witness of the UCA martyrs. In the US, the Ignatian Solidarity Network hosts the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice every November to bring people together to reflect on issues of justice and faith, as well as advocate for policy change with their members of Congress.
The bullets fired from the Salvadoran military took the lives of eight martyrs. But their legacy lives on. We carry on their mission when we preach the Gospel, knowing how dangerous it is. We carry on their mission when we integrate our faith into our life and works, placing God at the center.
In learning these lessons and putting them into practice, we continue to keep the UCA martyrs alive and present.
Martyrs of the UCA, pray for us.
This past weekend Bill McCormick, SJ, sat down with Father Bryan Massingale, professor of theology at Fordham University and priest of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, at the 20th Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, where he gave a soaring keynote address on race and America.
Father Massingale, is this your first teach-in?
It is my first teach-in. It’s been fantastic… The energy, the commitment, and the insight of the young people has been truly edifying. It gives me a shot in the arm. It’s been a very hopeful experience.
It’s like a pep rally for faith and justice. That’s an amazing experience. It really is, and that the students were listening intently, I noticed during the keynote. Many of them had traveled during the day to be here, but yet they wanted to be there and they were extremely attentive. It was really awesome to be a part of that experience and to grow from their excitement and their enthusiasm and their commitment. This is one of the most hopeful events in the Catholic church.
I think that there’s a narrative in the Catholic church right now that because of the shrinking number of religious and we’re closing parishes… Basically, we’re in an institutional narrative of consolidation. You can get depressed when you think we’re in a contraction mode. But when you’re in an atmosphere like this, you realize there is a vitality and enthusiasm, which transcends the kind of institutional narrative contraction. You see there are people who are really on fire and who really want to make a difference and make a difference because of what they’re learning in Ignatian institutions. That’s a very hopeful thing to be a part of.
That’s very hopeful and it’s a little surprising because the narrative about so many young Catholics today, particular millennials in general, is that they’re not interested in religion and they’re nones. Maybe they’re spiritually, but they’re certainly not religious.
I think part of it is that we haven’t found a way to make traditional language of faith compelling to them or show them how it illumines their own life experience. I think part of our problem is to find ways to show how language like the common good or solidarity with the poor, or even the communion of saints, how that makes sense out of their life experience. One of the images I used in my talk yesterday was the image of a relay race. That we’re in this relay race for justice, that I will probably never get across the finish line but that’s not my role in the race. My role in the race is to run my leg of it and to do what I can so I can pass the baton to those who will come after me.
It’s not up to me necessarily to cross the finish line, but if I don’t run my race as well as I can, then those who come after me can’t do what they need to do. Something that people can really bear mind to.
I think the challenge for us going forward is to have a more intentional dialogue with the human experience of the millennials or however we want to call that, call that generation, and our faith, and to show how they can mutually inform each other. I think part of our problem is that we’ve not presented our faith in ways that are compelling enough. We present it more of an abstract doctrines rather than it’s living ideas that have a real impact in people’s lives.
Do you see a special role, since this is the Ignatian family, for Ignatian spirituality and its distinctive lexicon in the project to make faith more compelling?
I’m trying to wean people away from cura personalis and being “men for others.” I still believe in them deeply. But I think they’ve become kind of shock-worn. They’ve become almost too familiar.
Whereas magis, I mean, first it’s in Latin, so of course it’s going to be a little more mysterious. But the magis is that, from how I understand it, it’s that inner longing, that restlessness for that which is always out of our reach, but that which beckons us and allures us, and entices us to reach beyond where we are now.
It’s that inner dynamism of spirit that leaves us dissatisfied with the way things are and always calls us forward into the deep. Into the beyond. Into the realm of mystery that we never stop understanding. That we can never fully comprehend. And when we talk like that, students don’t always get what you’re talking about, but because they can’t get what you’re talking about they’re fascinated and want to know more. Because I think that there’s an inner hunger for more. There’s an inner hunger that the way the world is right now is not the way it ought to be and as I quote Albert Einstein last night; if we’re going to change our society, we have to change the way we think. We have to change the way we live. We need more than just a new strategic plan.
It’s probably the most subversive concept in the Jesuit lexicon because you can never fully put your arms around it because it’s always going to take you to someplace new. Someplace different. Because it’s going to demand that your heart becomes broken so you’re open to that which is beyond you.
The magis to me is what the Ignatian 30 day retreat is all about. And I think especially when we’re looking at issues of racial justice or ecological justice. We’ve got to be drawn beyond where we are. And that’s where I think the Magis, the more we can think more about that term… I’ll just say it’s full of pregnant possibilities that we haven’t begun to fathom yet.
This is one of the most moving descriptions of the Magis I’ve heard.
The great joy of my ministry as a professor of theology at Fordham is to try to create within students those who will do what I’m doing and more. I don’t want them to do what I’m doing. I want them to be equipped to do what they’re going to do. And hopefully they’ll build on what I’m doing and take what I’m doing in directions I can’t even imagine. That’s the Magis.
I think unless we become more intentional about recapturing the inner dynamism of that word it can become denigrated to be a synonym for the American understanding of Magis, which means, “bigger, better, and improved.”
Stay tuned for Part II of TJP‘s interview with Fr Massingale!
Everyone wants to be “woke.” We fight over who is more self-aware, who sees more of what’s wrong with the world, and how we contribute to injustice. We hope awareness will lead to change. But what if a self-aware person is still a bad person?
A few days ago, BuzzFeed ran an article on the Louis CK piece that was originally titled “Louis C.K. Was Supposed To Be One of the Good Guys,” where the author expressed shock and disappointment at C.K., who has been accused by five women of doing unwanted sexual acts in front of them.
While C.K.’s comedy routines have often been vulgar and transgressive, the author (and others) assumed that his ideals would keep him from evil. “C.K. was supposed to be one of the good ones. He was self-aware, routinely talking about how easy it is for men to indulge (or at least fantasize about) their worst instincts around women.”
He had feminist opinions and helped female comics advance their own careers. Surely such a man who thought the right things and knew how the truth applied to him would be immune to such depravity, right? Right?
All of us are broken in some way. We have seen so many pieces in the news and on social media of sexual harassment and violence that it is hard not to know someone who is implicated. Even people who seem to have all the right opinions can do all the wrong things. That is when it hurts the most.
Perhaps if there is one thing we take from the wildfire of scandals that have been brought to light recently, it is that no one is immune. In the #MeToo campaign on social media, many women (and a fair number of men) came forward as victims of sexual harassment. The perpetrators were all sorts of people—no set of professed beliefs made a person good or immune to temptation. People who knew what was right still chose what was wrong.
There is no such thing as being too smart to do bad. There is no set of ideals we can believe in that will make us to be good. We cannot firmly resolve with the help of our intellects or our woke-ness to sin no more. It just isn’t enough. We need a firm resolution of action.
C.K. has now publicly confessed, which is commendable. But he (and we) still need to move forward–to sin no more. We look at what has happened, and we see the brokenness that everybody has. We see love and sorrow–the desire to do good while living with the choices to do bad. And we see hope for the future. C.K. wants a better future, so does BuzzFeed, so do the rest of us. But we need a way to get there. After the confession, we need contrition to have growth.
This is why I love the Act of Contrition. It is a prayer of growth. And it is an amazingly human prayer. A human combination of love, sorrow, and hope for the future that finishes by asking for help. Asking for the help of God’s grace to sin no more and avoid the near occasion of sin. Because we are talented at sin. We are virtuosos at being broken.
Right opinions and good intentions won’t save us. We need something new—we need a bit of help. We need that prayer that is a mixture of love and sorrow and hope for the future, and most of all, that help from God’s grace. We need that Act of Contrition.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user David.
Got Coffee? What other fuel do we need to stay awake and be vigilant for Christ? Take a minute and check out this week’s (extremely brief) reflection with Brother Mark Mackey, SJ based on the Sunday Readings for November 12, 2017: http://bit.ly/2z21zaP
For years, readers have been asking Father Greg Boyle when he’ll write a sequel to his New York Times #1 Best Seller Tattoos on the Heart. Each time, he gave them the same answer: “Someday, when I have time.”
Somehow, between a full-time job at Homeboy Industries, masses at juvenile hall and camps, quinceañeras at Dolores Mission, and hundreds of speaking events all over the nation each year, Fr. Greg (or “G” as the homies affectionately call him), made the time. That book will be released this upcoming Tuesday, November 14.
Fr. Greg’s simultaneously hilarious and breathtaking voice can be heard on every page of Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. What he offers in this book are stories that cause us to laugh, cry, pray, and, most importantly, invite us to build his vision of kinship – a community where there is no divisions, no “us” and “them,” but simply us. Through these stories, he has one aim in mind: a oneness and mutuality that holds together and preserves diversity:
It would see that God created an ‘otherness’ so that we could find our way in mutuality to kinship. Margins manufactured by God, perhaps, so that we’d dedicate our lives to their erasure. We are charged not with obliterating our diversity and difference but instead with heightening our connection to one another.
Our task, it seems, is to find ways to build connections that simultaneously celebrate our differences and create a sense of unity.
This continues to be a daunting task, one in which we might find ourselves worn down or weary. Certainly, Fr. Greg is no stranger to the long work of justice – work that he calls remaining faithful to God rather than to measures of short term success.
To get a sense of how Fr. Greg continues to build mutuality day after day, we asked him to respond to two questions:
Early in the book, you tell us that “we believe that God is inclined to decline our credit card… that God is not who we think God is.” Can you tell us a moment when you personally found this to be true in your own life, or watched your experience of God expand beyond your wildest dreams? To put it in other words, what was a time that you realized you are a diamond covered in dust?
Fr. Greg: The invitation is constant and everyday: to welcome in the tenderness of God in all its spaciousness and expansive mercy. The discovery, then, every day, is of the God we ACTUALLY have – and not the partial God we’ve settled for. God is in the tender glance. I see this every day in the homies who carry more than I’ve ever been asked to carry and yet they pull this off. When I had to lay off 300 workers during the financial meltdown, there was only tenderness from the homies… God’s own countenance.
You invite the reader not to be a savior, but to simply savor. Can you give us an example of something that you’ve savored in your life?
Fr. Greg: Our choice, constantly, is to save the world… or savor it. I vote for savoring. The trick of course is that we save by savoring. When we snap to attention and delight in the person in front of us, truly listen, and allow ourselves to be reached by the other, we all get saved. Then, finally, it’s not about me but about the one seated in front of me. The ego recedes and real kinship happens. One chooses to savor with kindness and everything looks differently.
Our egos often get in the way of the hard work of kinship, though. We find ourselves hurt by others, scared by difference, and cling to the false sense of security that comes with the known. What might happen if we took up the call to allow our egos to recede?
Take the example of Mario highlighted by Fr. Greg in Barking to the Choir. Mario is asked what advice he’d give to his son. When he says he doesn’t want his children to turn out like him, the woman who asked the question stands up again and tells him that she hoped his children would turn out like him:
“Why wouldn’t you want your children to turn out to be like you?” she said. “You are gentle, you are kind, you are loving, you are wise.” She steadied herself, planted herself firmly. “I hope your kids turn out to be like you.” There was not much of a pause before all one thousand attendees stood and began to clap. The ovation seemed to have no end. All Mario could do was hold his face in his hands, overwhelmed with emotion.
In a simple moment, Mario hears for the first time that he has become a wonderful man worth being proud of. He is able to experience and savor a moment of tenderness. What might happen if we do the same – if we allow ourselves the space to accept tenderness in and from others? Might we find the mutuality Fr. Greg is invited us towards?
From that simple moment of tenderness is the heart of Fr. Greg’s call to us. When we offer that same tender glance to others, we give from the blessings that we’ve been entrusted so that the ballroom of kinship Fr. Greg describes might be fuller, lovelier, and wilder than we could have ever dreamed possible.
Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship can be purchased online at the Homeboy Industries Store, major online retailers, and local bookstores. Visit the website of Homeboy Industries to learn more, make a contribution, or patronize one of the many Homeboy Enterprises.
Cover photo courtesy of Homeboy Industries.
One of the things I love most about being Catholic is the sheer volume of details—names, places, images, practices, etc.—that make up our Church. It would take multiple lifetimes to investigate the half of them. Every so often, I like to dig a little bit deeper into one of these details. It seems that no matter what I investigate, I always come away with my faith deepened and understanding expanded.
My most recent side-project has been looking into the history of the title of Mary: Mother of the Church. It’s a strange title for Mary for several reasons – although, really, which title for Mary is not strange? We’re dealing with supernatural mysteries here! It’s one of the most recently-awarded titles for her, only being proclaimed officially by Pope Paul VI in 1964. In Latin, the title is distinguished from another frequently-used Latin phrase by only one letter. “Mother of the Church” is Mater Ecclesiae, while “Mother Church” is Mater Ecclesia.
The image of the Church (rather than Mary) as mother was frequently employed by early Christian writers and artists. Perhaps the popularity of referring to the Church as mother led Bishop Sergio Méndez Arceo (Cuernavaca, México), during the debate over the title at Vatican II, to crack irreverently, “If the Church is our mother and Mary is the Mother of the Church, then Mary is our grandmother.”1
The origin of the official title goes back to the Second Vatican Council, where Mary was a contentious topic. During the second session of the council in 1963, the bishops voted 1,114-1,074 not to dedicate a separate document to Mary alone, but rather to include the theme of Mary in the constitution addressing the Church (what eventually became Lumen Gentium). With a difference of just 40 votes, this was by far the most contentious vote at the Council.
Nevertheless, a year later, while promulgating the completed Lumen Gentium (or, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church), Pope Paul VI proclaimed Mary “Mother of the Church” in a discourse closing the third session. The pope thus made this title official, certainly to the delight of those on the losing side of the narrow vote, who generally supported expanding Mariological doctrine to its maximum extent.
Since Vatican II, elements celebrating Mary as Mother of the Church have been added to the Church’s life and practice. For instance, the votive Mass of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, was added to the Roman Missal after the Council.2 Pope St. John Paul II had a monastery built on the grounds of the Vatican and dedicated it to Mary under this title. (This monastery currently serves as the residence of Pope Benedict XVI.) He also added “Mother of the Church” to the Litany of Loreto, the great Marian prayer invoking her intercession under various titles.3
The way in which the Church invokes Mary under the title Mother of the Church can be our guide into exactly what mystery this title means to convey. We can start with the text of Lumen Gentium itself, which claims that Mary cooperates with her Son in “giving back supernatural life to souls. Wherefore she is our mother in the order of grace.” (LG 61) Clearly, a biological mother’s function is to give life to her offspring. Mary physically gave life to Jesus, but her motherhood toward us members of the Church is of course different. Her motherhood to us is of a spiritual kind: she increases the life of grace in us.
So what does that mean? How exactly does the life of grace increase in us? Insofar as we are conformed to Christ’s life, we grow in the life of grace. And which person participated in the mysteries of the life of Christ in a preeminent way? Mary, of course. It was she who carried Jesus in her womb. She stood by while He hung on the Cross. She was present in the Upper Room, praying with the first Christian community, awaiting the gift of the Holy Spirit for all believers (Acts 1:14). Finally, she was assumed body and soul into heaven in imitation of her Son. These four moments in Mary’s life exemplify her close participation in the mysteries of the life of her Son.4
What about the rest of us, though? Are we able to participate in Christ’s life? Thankfully, the answer is yes. Pope Paul VI explains in his Credo of the People of God, “the Lord Jesus forms His Church by means of the sacraments emanating from His plenitude. By these she makes her members participants in the Mystery of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, in the grace of the Holy Spirit who gives her life and movement.” For us Christians, the life of grace begins with the sacraments. Jesus left the them to the Church as the means by which we may participate in, and therefore conform ourselves to, His life.
Mary understood better than anyone the benefits of being united to the mysteries of Christ. Mary desires that all humans receive what she received, so she works through the Church to give Her Son to us.
It is not as Bishop Méndez Arceo claimed. Mary doesn’t give birth to the Church, which then gives birth to Christians (making Mary a “grandma”). The Church is Christ’s Mystical Body, and Mary is the mother of the members of this Body. In a sense, the Church can be called a mother, too, because she provides the sacraments for her members. But the sacraments are provided by the members of this Body themselves. Priests provide the Eucharist. Spouses provide marriages. Bishops provide priests. This line of reasoning led the Church to the recent realization that if the Church has the characteristics of a mother, insofar as she gives birth to new Christians, this characteristic is derivative from the motherhood of Mary. From this perspective, the title “Mother of the Church” is aptly bestowed on Mary.
Pope Paul VI declared his desires for the Christian people in the same 1964 discourse, “We trust then, that with the promulgation of the Constitution on the Church, sealed by the proclamation of Mary as Mother of the Church, that is to say of all the faithful and all the pastors, the Christian people may, with greater ardor, turn to the Holy Virgin and render to her the honor and devotion due to her.” I hope that this dive into the title of Mary, Mother of the Church, will deepen your own faith and that you might entrust yourself to her in a way that helps the life of grace grow within you.
There was a gunpowder tension quivering in the air…
The words sat on the screen followed by a blinking cursor. It stared back at me as my fingers hovered over the keys. It wasn’t a bad start, but it felt wrong. Delete-delete-delete… My fingers extended in a miniature stretch, and then exploded into action.
He sat there leaning one shoulder on the wall, desperately tense from…
The cursor paused again. Damn. Still, not quite right. I raised my arms, reaching out to corners of my tiny attic room. I leaned my head back, gently rolling it around. Relax. Calm down. Get out of your head… forget the phone call, and just write.
Before my hands landed on the keyboard, I reached for my coffee cup. I took a sip, then a gulp, set the cup down, and closed my eyes tightly for a moment. Come on. What the hell is wrong with you?
I inhaled slowly, filling my entire chest with air. OK. Let’s try this again. Tap-tap-tap… I cleared the text and started anew.
It was impossible for him to hold the tense, flexed body forever, but that didn’t stop him from standing rigid in the slowly extending moment…
I released an audible “Blaaaahhhhh” as I removed my hands from the keys. No. No. No. I highlighted the line, and in a fell swoop sent it into oblivion. Colten, just write! My fingers returned poised in suspense like a drawn bow. The ideas and energy were there, but I was still stuck in the phone call. My lingering fingers twitched slightly—perhaps from the cold, the excess coffee, or even just the frustration. In a chaotic fervor, they hit the black keys…
My elbows planted themselves on either side of the computer. I held my face for a moment, knowing that I shouldn’t feel this way, knowing that I should be grateful or thankful, knowing nothing. Damn. Delete-delete-delete… I leaned back in my chair, and my hands found the keyboard again:
God. What the shit is going on?!
This time, I punctuated the line not with a pause but with my hands hitting the desk. In a single fluid movement—I stood, slammed the laptop shut, grabbed a sweater, and left my room for a short walk.
“So, we don’t know?” I asked.
“Well, it seems that the tests returned normal. Pretty well everything we’d want.”
“Ok. Good.” I paused before continuing, “But, then what caused the episodes?”
“Well, we can’t be sure. It could have been that you had vertigo which caused migraines—that’s not totally uncommon. Or, atypical migraines could have caused the syncope. That might explain the dizziness and weakness. Uncommon, but not out of the realm of possibility. Then again, it could have been some sort of virus. Whatever it was, it seems likely it’s done.”
“Huh… So, I’m cleared? I’m good?”
“Yeah. You are clear and good to go.”
“Yeah. Just—just be careful, and let us know if anything reappears—if any of the symptoms return.”
“Oh… So, they might return?”
“Well, Mr. Biro, we hope they won’t, but we don’t know.”
All clear, I thought. Yet, even with a resolution, I felt shorted. So, what was it? What had stopped me from running for months? What had stopped me from traveling internationally this summer? What had forced me to wear a heart monitor for a month? After all that—all I have are more questions.
When I returned from the short walk to my quiet room, I found myself struck by the words left on the screen.
The phone call earlier that morning had interrupted my day, but I continued my normal routine fueled by a feverish desire to continue onward. I took a shower, had a cup of coffee, and sat down to daily writing.
All the while, the anxiety bubbled below the surface: Be thankful it wasn’t anything serious. Be angry you don’t have answers. Why am I being so ungrateful? Why am I still worrying? Why am I furious? Why? No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop it from boiling over into the day or accidentally spilling into my writing.
As I sat staring at that the line on the screen, I felt comically guilty. It wasn’t that I had included God and an explicative in the same line, but rather, the sheer obvious humor of it all. How could I pretend this didn’t matter? How could I forget to pause with this, if only for a moment? How could I not bring this to prayer?
The sentence stared from the document, laughing at me. It wasn’t pretty, but it echoed the conflict raging within me. I was trying to bury my feelings and frustrations within fiction, yet this line felt like the truest thing I had ever written.
If I’m honest with myself, it’s probably my most sincere prayer.
It’s almost impossible to make it through prime time news without hearing a story about conflict. If you’re like me, you’re also tired of hearing about it. For once, I’d like to hear about groups of people that have resolved a long-standing conflict or at least agreed to genuinely listen to what the other side has to say.
This is why for the past year, I have been drawn to the 500th anniversary of the separation between Catholics and other Western Christians. For several centuries, most Christians believed that other Christians would go to Hell unless they turned away from their heresy and came back to the “true faith.” Many times, parents would even disown their children if they married a Christian from a different denomination. As a result, many lies were spread, which further deepened the distrust, division, and hurt.
The Catholic Church, however, formally extended an olive branch to other Christians 50 years ago and showed a willingness to have conversations about our experiences over these past few centuries. More importantly, the Church invited all Catholics to get to know members of other Christian communities. It was through these conversations and mutual encounters that led Lutheran and Catholic representatives to formally resolve the disputes of the Reformation.1
Not everyone, however, is willing to engage in these conversations. One of the objections is that such conversations lead to both sides settling on the least common denominator, thus watering down the faith and ignoring the lived experiences of Christians everywhere. They are concerned that these conversations with other Christians aim to ignore the differences between Catholics and Lutherans and, even worse, that doing so would promote the idea that truth depends on one’s beliefs: the popular modern mantra of “What’s true for me might not be true for you, and that’s okay.” They conclude that ecumenism is just a Trojan horse for destroying the faith, and Christian unity through this method is not worth the cost.
This is not what Christian unity is about. Reconciliation involves starting with the one thing we all have in common – faith in Jesus Christ as our Savior – but it does not and should not end there. In our conversations with one another, we always remain connected ultimately with Jesus, as branches remain connected to the vine.2 Only through Jesus are we able to begin making sense of the divergent experiences of our common Christian faith. Only through Jesus and the love that He shows are we able to correct others in error and admit when we too have missed seeing a deeper truth.
Practically, what does it mean to remain connected to Jesus in these encounters? Catholics and Lutherans, who have engaged in this dialogue at a high level and who have studied the fruits of dialogue for the past 50 years, have suggested three areas we can have more meaningful encounters: learn together, pray together, and work together.[3. Adapted from the document “Declaration on the Way: Church, Ministry and Eucharist.”]
The most obvious place to go to remain connected to Jesus is the Bible. Whether it’s in a church or in one’s own home, Bible Study groups allow us to begin hearing how the Holy Spirit moves through others’ experiences in the context of the life of Jesus and the context in which Scripture developed and is understood in our respective Christian faith traditions.
One of the most commonly missed opportunities for greater prayer together is the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which most parishes do not promote. We can take advantage of the prayers developed for this annual event to remind us of the common faith we share through Jesus, and that we continue journeying with each other towards full communion.
Even though we cannot all receive Eucharist together, we can jointly live lives of service and thanksgiving. Already we believe that our faith calls us to serve others in their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Organize a group (maybe your Bible Study group) that regularly serves a marginalized population around your churches. Most importantly, discuss how your personal relationship with Jesus and your Catholic or Lutheran faith tradition calls you to not just serve Christ in others but let Christ in others transform you.
Through learning, praying, and working together, we come to experience first-hand both the very real pain of a divided Body of Christ and the hope that our common faith in Christ can lead to profound conversions of hearts. Christian unity is about remaining in the love that Jesus shows us so that even when we know where we stand and where they stand, we are always looking for the way to one day stand together.
What do Darren Aronofsky’s recent film mother! and the Catholic Church have in common?
They’re both really weird.
The movie is a unique and disturbing interpretation of the story of God’s relationship with humanity. Aronfsky’s symbolism is obvious:
- Javier Bardem is God, the poet who creatively authors a two-part epic in which he plays the leading role.
- Jennifer Lawrence is a fusion of Mother Earth and the Virgin Mary. She’s Mother Earth in her role as the caretaker of the home, a symbol of the universe. She’s Mary in her role as the mother of the child that Bardem and humanity sacrifice near the end of the poet’s New Testament.
- Ed Harris is Adam, the first man to enter the house, the universe.
- Michelle Pfeiffer is Eve, the wife of Adam and the mother of two sons, Cain and Abel (played by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson).
The tale that connects them is mysterious and epic, occasionally beautiful and often creepy.
So apart from the biblical characters, what makes the movie weird and Catholic? I’ll give you three reasons:
Humanity kills Jennifer Lawrence’s son. Subsequently, Javier Bardem’s followers begin to eat his flesh. It’s not a pretty picture, but it is a clear reference to the Catholic Sacrament of the Eucharist. After all, we do claim that our most sacred ritual is a meal of Jesus’ flesh and blood.
The people that Bardem has created are prone to horrible wickedness. They are so evil that one wonders why he made them in the first place. They kill each other, and, finally, they kill his own son. Nevertheless, Bardem forgives them without blinking twice. His mercy is loco generous. The Church recounts the same story throughout the Bible’s history of salvation. Adam and Eve tragically sin, and one of their sons kills the other. Humanity is poisoned from the get-go, but God sends his own son to love them–even though he knows that they will murder him. This love is mind-boggling, even scandalous.
Bardem’s disciples mark each other’s foreheads with a strange substance. If you go to church for Ash Wednesday or Confirmation, you’ll see the same. They light hundreds of candles in dark spaces. If you visit a Catholic shrine, you’ll see the same. They pray in front of an image of Bardem himself. If you look at a Catholic icon of Jesus, you’ll see the same.
These similarities are uncanny. Aronofsky is clearly hoping to make a point about Catholicism–perhaps religion in general–and it’s undoubtedly a negative one. The movie comes off at best sacrilegious and at worst militantly atheistic, mostly because the God played by Bardem is a total psychopath. Like an egomaniac, he takes extreme delight in humanity’s praise, and he refuses to intervene as the universe goes up in flames. In an article and video, Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles has responded to the movie’s solemn critique of God. He is right to point out that the Christian God is in no need of humanity’s praise, being perfectly happy in himself as a community of three divine persons.
I would add to Barron’s critique by highlighting the film’s bait-and-switch concerning the relationship between God and his son. In the film Bardem hands his child over to the world for sacrifice as if he is completely separate and emotionally detached from his son. This detail makes all the difference in the world. It makes God seem cruel and cold. Who would smilingly give his kid to murderers?
Essentially, in mother! God is the torturer, the reason for evil in the world. However, in Christian teaching, God is the son, and this God-man himself enters the world for its salvation. He is not indifferent to the world’s suffering; rather, he becomes one of us to personally show us the path to peace and justice. In Christianity, humanity is the torturer of itself as a free agent capable of choosing good and evil. This distinction may seem a bit nuanced, but it’s simply high school level theology with which Aronofsky seems wildly unfamiliar.
Regardless of the movie’s theological error, it is a must-see. It restores to its proper place the most interesting–and strange–questions about the universe. In a world that is increasingly indifferent to religion, Aronofsky’s movie is like a slap across the face that says, “Wake up! There’s something serious at stake here.” In a generation of “nones” and “mehs,” mother! puts the viewer face to face with the primordial, stunning, and eerie truth: “If God exists, then everything changes.”
Granted, Aronofsky’s message is closer to, “If God exists, then everything is a nightmare,” but it’s a start. The movie gets an A+ in art but an F if we’re talking accuracy in a eighth grade religion class. But in terms of connecting the weirdness that links the two, it’s a start.
Aronovsky and I can disagree on the details.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Jennifer Lawrence Films of the Flickr Creative Commons.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church was first promulgated by St. John Paul II 25 years ago, October 11, 1985. In honor of this silver anniversary, TJP would like to point out some surprising things about the Catechism. If you don’t own a copy, it can be found on the Vatican website. Check it out!
1. Renewing your driver’s license soon? The Church encourages organ donation: “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity” CCC 2296
2. Think fake news is only a recent problem? The Catechism already condemns it: “Society has a right to information based on truth, freedom, justice, and solidarity: The proper exercise of this right demands that the content be true – and within the limits set by justice and charity – complete.” CCC 2494
3. The Catechism says we can talk of the motherhood of God: “God’s parental tenderness can also be expressed by the image of motherhood, which emphasizes God’s immanence, the intimacy between Creator and creature. The language of faith thus draws on the human experience of parents, who are in a way the first representatives of God for man.”
4. Thought lay people can’t administer sacraments? In the Roman Church, the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the couple[Footnote 2. Anyone can baptize in emergencies as well, per CCC 1256]: “According to the Latin tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ’s grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of Matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.” CCC 1623
5. The Catechism has a whole article (CCC 1928-1948) on social justice: “Society ensures social justice by providing the conditions that allow associations and individuals to obtain their due.” CCC 1943
6. Feel like Catholicism is just a bunch of rules? Well, actually the Catechism is not a rule book. Less than a third of the book deals directly with the moral life (paragraphs 1749-2557, out of 2865 total paragraphs, by my back-of-the-envelope calculations).
7. Concerned about climate change and pollution? Care for creation is there, even before Laudato Si’: “Man’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.” CCC 2415
8. Isn’t faith opposed to science? Actually, the Catechism praises science for its contributions to truth: “[M]ethodological research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.” CCC 159
9. God gave you your voice, let Him hear it! The Catechism encourages you to sing at Mass: “Song and music fulfill their function… according to three principal criteria: beauty expressive of prayer, the unanimous participation of the assembly at the designated moments, and the solemn character of the celebration.” CCC 1157
10. Lastly, our very own St. Ignatius of Loyola is quoted three times! All from his Spiritual Exercises:
- “Do not swear whether by the Creator, or any creature, except truthfully, of necessity, and with reverence” CCC 2164[Footnote 1. Annotations from the Catechism are generally referenced by “CCC” then the paragraph #], SE 38
- “Every good Christian ought to be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than to condemn it. But if he cannot do so, let him ask how the other understands it. And if the latter understands it badly, let the former correct him with love. If that does not suffice, let the Christian try in all suitable ways to bring the other to a correct interpretation so that he may be saved” CCC 2478, SE 22
- In contemplation, one “learns the ‘interior knowledge of our Lord,’ the more to love him and follow him” CCC 2725, SE 104
We’ve come inside from the road, a welcome reprieve from the brutally hot southern Arizona desert. Our host, the chief medical examiner, begins a thorough explanation of the death investigation services the Pima County morgue provides for Unidentified Border Crossers (UBCs). My companions and I have just traversed all of Mexico. We’ve been visiting migrant shelters for the last month.
“The combination of the intense sun and scavenging critters can pick a corpse clean in a matter of days. Tattered clothing might be the only clues we can work with.”
I bow my head at these words and try to shake off images of young men I have recently met – guys who might end up as nothing more than a pile of bones and tattered clothes. When I pick my head back up, I’m relieved our group has started moving down the hallway. We emerge into a brightly lit examination room. The stench hits me suddenly and hard. My childhood dog would smell like this after he had a good romp with an animal carcass in the cornfield.
On the steel table in front of us is a neatly ordered skeleton. It provokes memories of Frank or Tom or whatever-the-name of that plastic skeleton in my high school biology classroom was. Except the mostly-complete skeleton in front of me is pure collagen and calcium. The bones are clean, betraying what I thought would accompany the stench. If this skeleton is not identified, it will eventually be buried in the pauper’s corner of the Pima County cemetery.
We huddle in a circle after walking among the mass of UBCs gravestones.They die because they can’t carry on and their companions leave them. They lie down in the desert sand, starved, dehydrated, afraid, and abandoned. Then they turn into skeletons. The priest among us says Mass beside those graves. Somewhere, somebody else is praying for these skeletons by name.
Every November 2nd since 2004, I think of Trent and Zach.
Trent and Zach were my friends in high school. Both were the class below me. Trent and I had spent much of the spring and summer traveling together to compete in off-season wrestling meets. Zach was a fellow parishioner and sang with me in a couple of youth choirs. To say their tragic death in a car accident was traumatic would be an understatement.
At our school, all of our gear that year – sports equipment, tshirts, car decals – had their initials on it. Their names on the outside gave a glimpse of the terrible pain we carried on the inside, a profound vacancy we felt acutely in the activities we once engaged with them.
Somewhere in a box in an attic, that gear is buried away. But I don’t need their initials on my clothes. Though they’ve been gone and long time, they remain with me.
Students pour into the classroom at the beginning of the passing period. I’m busy pulling up my PowerPoint slides as quickly as possible so as not to waste time with it during the class period.
“You know what I did this weekend, Mr. Hanson?” It’s Catrina, and I wish she hadn’t asked. This particular period is rowdy. The slightest pause on my part could lead to total chaos. These few minutes before the bell rings are crucial. “What’s that?” I gave in.
“My brother was an organ donor, and I met the guy who got his heart.”
I immediately look up and set the wireless keyboard aside. “Wait, what?”
“Yeah, at first we weren’t going to meet the guy cuz he didn’t want to but then he changed his mind so me and my mom met him on Saturday. I got to listen to his heart – my brother’s heart.”
I stare speechless into Catrina’s eyes. Tears start to well up in mine, which causes her to tear up, which causes me to tear up even more. The chaotic noise of the rest of the students resisting the beginning of class fades into the background.
I rip two tissues from the kleenex box on my desk, handing one to her and dabbing my eyes with the other. We turn slightly toward the window, attempting to protect the sanctity of this moment by giving our backs to the rest of the classroom.
A skeleton on a cold metal table and a mass grave filled with the bones of unnamed people. The initials of friends who died too soon. The still-beating heart of a brother who passed away.
In the month of November, when I remember my beloved dead, I’m reminded of how they remain with me; how my relationship with them has not ended. They remain part of the present while giving a glimpse of the future. Somehow, through this reminder, their bones gain flesh again, I hear them speak their own names, and their hearts beat on.
The sound of hammer hitting nail continues to reverberate through imaginations five hundred years after it ceased echoing through Wittenberg. On this day, five centuries ago, Martin Luther posted his ninety-five theses and, so the story goes, began the Protestant Reformation. It is a moment that has been captured in art, drama, and film many times through those years—yet often it is remembered more as a symbol of the larger moment than as a particular historical event.
Admittedly, it is a captivating image: a lone, solemn man standing at the door of a medieval church, angrily nailing his list of grievances to a building that symbolizes to many the very thing he was criticizing. As a symbol, it is often used to suggest an underdog fighting a corrupt establishment, or a rebel taking a stand on conscience, or perhaps even a revolutionary bringing about a better system. Perhaps more than anything else, though, it evokes a sense of righteous indignation.
Righteous indignation is one thing our culture seems to agree upon these days, and so it is no surprise we would love to imagine a great moment of history so rich with it. Were Luther posting his theses today, we might expect him to use Twitter, or at least for the theses to quickly go viral. Social media has proven to be a prime venue for righteous indignation, surely better even than a church door was for Luther’s day. It’s not hard to find stories of people being fired because of Twitter controversies they started or which were started about them, stories of righteous indignation which can turn so easily to mob justice. As politics becomes more and more polarized, it’s hard to imagine an end in sight for the torch-and-pitchfork approach to social media or for the indignation both producing and produced by it.
And no wonder: Righteous indignation is a cheap high, and it seems to be one of the drugs of choice today, across generations. How satisfying is it to feel entirely right and just in one’s positions and to look down at the fool who just doesn’t get it, who is too blind or misguided or out of touch with reality to see how wrong they are? And righteous indignation allows you to look down on a person no matter how high up they are: I’ve seen it in different friends and family for the last four Presidents—and felt it myself towards all four, if I’m honest.
Yet before we are too quick to make Martin Luther the patron saint of righteous indignation, we might take a second look at that October morning. Whenever this event comes up in conversation, I love to ask people if they have read the ninety-five theses. In my experience, many have not, and I think often people would be disappointed if they did. Because of how much we lionize the moment, I think we expect searing critiques, direct assaults on the Pope and hierarchy, and a call for a whole new way of doing things (perhaps we can even imagine cries for democracy in the Church).
Here are just a few of the theses chosen at random:
“9. Accordingly, the Holy Spirit, acting in the person of the pope, manifests grace to us, by the fact that the papal regulations always cease to apply at death, or in any hard case.
22. Indeed, [the Pope] cannot remit to souls in purgatory any penalty which canon law declares should be suffered in the present life.
87. Again: What does the pope remit or dispense to people who, by their perfect penitence, have a right to plenary remission or dispensation?
94. Christians should be exhorted to be zealous to follow Christ, their Head, through penalties, deaths, and hells.”
Not exactly sick Twitter burns.
Nor are they particularly savage attacks on the hierarchy or the majority of Catholic practices. In fact, these propositions seem far more like sentences you would find in an academic or even committee document within a university or policy-making body. And here we find the balloon-popping truth about the ninety-five theses: their posting may not have been such a rich moment of righteous indignation and revolution. In Luther’s day, a theologian could do as he did to start a conversation—a disputation—over aspects of Church teaching and practices; it may have made him enemies, but it was not a rare occurrence.
Would Luther have felt some righteous indignation in his posting? I think it likely. Does this seem to be the driving force or the tone of his thoughts? Not at this point. That would come later. We seem to be premature in our celebration of the 500 th anniversary of the Reformation: it was not Luther’s ninety-five theses in 1517, but his refusal to submit to papal authority and his burning of the papal bull in 1520 that made his break with the Church official. Until that point, he was in a theological disputation within the Church of which he was an active member—something for which the Church always has room.
So why do we continue to remember Luther at the church door as the pivotal moment, and why do we build it up so much? For many reasons, I’m sure, but I’d guess at three worth reflection. First, because we love to lionize single dramatic moments of conflict and I think we Americans especially love criticisms of authority—and this moment is easily turned into that. This brings me to my second thought: we tend to simplify history, and to let later events reshape our understanding of earlier ones. We see Luther in 1517 through the lens of the whole Reformation which followed. Finally, I think it’s easier to latch on to this moment because Luther’s target hasn’t responded yet. By the time we get to 1520, it’s messy; both Luther and the churchmen who opposed him have had opportunities to mess up, go wrong, and hurt people. Righteous indignation is much easier before you have to see the face and recognize the humanity of your
target—and before you have a chance to say or do something stupid yourself.
By the end of his life, anger had come to be a hallmark of Luther, and to his own detriment. Yet perhaps when we remember the ninety-five theses today, we can remember them not as a moment of righteous indignation and self-satisfied criticism of authority. Maybe we can remember them as a call for dialogue and as a warning to the lasting harm that is caused when either side moves too quickly to righteous indignation.
Reform in the Western Christian tradition is two-fold: we look back to special moments of divine grace, but we also look forward to what God will continue to do. True reform also demands more than just a grievance or criticism. It requires a positive vision, an idea of what our Church or society ought to be. But most of all, as we consider our history today, let us remember that all Christian reform starts with less with righteous indignation than with our own conversion, our own need for reform. If we remember that, perhaps we can learn to have the kind of substantive dialogue that Luther tried to start five centuries ago.
We’ve all read articles and listened to arguments about how the Catholic pro-life movement needs to take a broader approach to life issues. Aware of my male privilege, the complexities of the abortion issue, and saddened by the ways women have been shamed in this conversation, I agree with those arguments. But as we close Respect Life Month, I am curious how often this argument is just an excuse to not talk about abortion at all.
You’ve probably read these words by Sr. Joan Chittister:
I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.
She is right. Too often, however, her words are used to limit rather than expand the conversation on abortion. Sister Joan is not calling us to forget the issue of abortion. On the contrary, she is challenging us to connect abortion to a wide variety of issues that demean the dignity of human life.
Where are the Catholics willing to promote SNAP programs, education equity, child care subsidies, housing vouchers, denounce systemic racism and LGBTQ violence, and still challenge the morality of abortion out loud? I think those voices could lie within young Catholic millennials and I wish they were louder.
There is a divide between “pro-lifers” who fail to preach a consistent ethic of life and those who resist various assaults on human dignity but neglect to question the morality of abortion. A voice is missing in our social, political, and theological conversations about life and dignity of the human person. If you’re a progressive Catholic, millenial or not, doubting whether you can or should be bolder in questioning abortion, I hope this will give you a place to start your discernment.
Pope Francis recently denounced abortion’s “eugenic tendency” while speaking to a conference on persons with disabilities. The percentage of babies screened positive for Down Syndrome who are aborted is astonishing: 100% in Iceland, 67% in the U.S., 77% in France, and 98% in Denmark. Francis explained, “An often narcissistic and utilitarian view, unfortunately, leads several to consider people with disabilities as marginal, without seeing the multifaceted human and spiritual wealth that they possess.”
The growing movement to eliminate people with Down Syndrome sends a false message that the life of those who live with Down Syndrome is less valuable, less necessary, and less cherished than those who do not have Down Syndrome.
That is sinful and wrong.
Earlier this month, Frank Stephens testified before a House Appropriations committee on Capitol Hill exclaiming, “I am a man with Down Syndrome and my life is worth living.” Speaking on the movement to limit Down Syndrome births, he lamented, “I completely understand that people pushing this ‘final solution’ are saying that people like me should not exist.”
He continued, “I don’t feel I should have to justify my existence.”
No one should. However, Frank and others will have to do so if this trend continues unquestioned. We need voices who will call others to think deeper about this issue, regardless of how inconvenient and unpopular it will be. Progressive Catholics especially have to be able to ask their fellow progressives, is this is really how we want to proceed as a people?
For millenials, that question alone will be difficult to engage, especially in progressive spaces like a university campus. Earlier this month the Students for Life group at St. Louis University erected a cemetery of innocents commemorating those living in poverty, the number of states still using capital punishment, and the number of abortions throughout the last year. It was a nonviolent remembrance of people often left unremembered and unreverenced. The modest cemetery, which consisted of 175 small wooden crosses in a school yard, was stolen overnight. Twice.
Dr. Fred Pestello, University President, wrote in a statement:
It is intellectually disturbing and ethically problematic that having a larger, more robust conversation about the value of life and finding common purpose is thwarted by ideological divides. I am not suggesting that we ignore our differences, but I am asking that we be willing to go to places that are uncomfortable, to spot the hurt in the world and in each other and to hold space for that pain.
Limiting the conversation on abortion is not progressive. Progress must include uncomfortable and honest conversations about how abortion has affected our cultural conscience when it comes to picking and choosing which lives are worth living, celebrating, and welcoming. Multiple feminist groups have done so and are able to speak to the issue much better than I ever could as man.
Regardless of one’s political stance on abortion, I hope that everyone would find this “eugenic tendency” deeply troubling. Let the lives, stories, and prophecy of people with Down Syndrome serve as a wakeup call and a source deeper dialogue within the abortion debate.
We began Respect Life Month with the deadliest shooting in U.S. history. We close it with horrifying knowledge of ethnic cleansing, suffering refugees, and nuclear threats. Let this all be a call to action and consciousness for young Catholics.