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The Deep Dive of Cross-Cultural Immersion

Thu, 08/17/2017 - 02:00

I was prepared for an ordinary workday in the field. I was dressed in nice jeans, comfortable shoes, my work polo and matching hat.

Five months into my job at the Roncalli Association-John XXIII, I had adapted to the rhythm. Part of the week was typically spent in our Managua office to arrange activities and keep up with the requisite reports. But the highlight of the job was the days spent out in the field with beneficiaries of our development projects in one of the various municipalities across Nicaragua.

This day, I was heading to Tipitapa, a semi-urban municipality located 20 miles up the highway from Managua. A few weeks prior, I had visited the local cooperative there to help run a one-day workshop on the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ about care for the environment. At the end of the workshop, participants developed a series of commitments to improve their local surroundings, including a plan to reforest the area along a local drainage canal. I was heading to Tipitapa with a co-worker this morning to plan the details of the reforestation project.

Or so I thought.

¿Por qué estás vestido así?
“Why are you dressed like that?” asked my puzzled co-worker, Gladis.

Porque vesto así cada vez que salimos de la oficina. ¿Qué pasa?
“Because I wear this every time we work outside the office. What’s up?”

Vas a morir en este calor y ensuciar tu camisa institucional. ¡Tenemos doscientos árboles de sembrar!
“You’re going to die in this heat and get your work polo all dirty. We have two hundred trees to plant!”

Um, excuse me? Two hundred trees to plant? Today?!? I thought we were planning the reforestation project, not, you know…doing it!

This was not a simple mix-up on my part. Gladis and I had spoken about this day several times. She had, to her knowledge, been very clear of the plan. But I had missed something in the conversation, because (did I mention this?) all our conversations are in Spanish. Despite two months of language studies and five months of daily practice on the job, I was still struggling with communication in a second language. And it was rarely as clear as that day in Tipitapa.

The cooperative members broke into laughter as Gladis recounted my misunderstanding. Frustrated with myself and embarrassed, I peeled off my work polo to spend the day planting trees in the sun in my sweat-stained white undershirt and heavy jeans.

Welcome to the deep dive of cross-cultural immersion.


Before my life as a Jesuit, I had spent time working abroad in South Africa. The experience impacted me in a variety of ways: it not only triggered my vocational discernment but it also inspired an interest in international development.

When I was sent to study at Fordham University as part of my Jesuit formation, a unique opportunity presented itself to further explore this interest. After a year of Philosophy studies, I enrolled in Fordham’s master’s degree program in International Political Economy and Development, or IPED. The degree tackles questions like why some countries have so much and others so little, and what political and economic factors contribute to these inequalities.

It was the perfect degree for my background and interest.

As I wrapped up the degree, it was time for the next stage of Jesuit formation, called regency, when a Jesuit spends a few years working in apostolic ministry. Most Jesuits spend these years in one of our many educational institutions, typically as teachers. In my case, with the IPED degree, I was sent to live and work in Managua, Nicaragua, for the Roncalli Association-John XXIII, a Jesuit-sponsored development organization.

On the one hand, I was thrilled. I loved my international experience in South Africa, which had helped guide me to religious life in the first place. And the website of the Roncalli Association was enough to show me that it was exactly the type of organization I wanted to work for: It was staffed by local Nicaraguans; they had projects in housing, health, environment and micro-finance; and it was Jesuit-sponsored with a clear focus on working with the most marginalized.

On the other hand, there was one glaring problem: I didn’t speak Spanish.


Not even the rigors of grad school can compare with full-time language studies. I started at a language school in Guatemala with five hours of one-on-one classes every weekday. I had arrived with a vocab of about 500 Spanish words (thanks to high school studies) and a familiarity with the present tense. My weekly vocab lists stretched into the hundreds, and the grammar lessons and verb tenses seemed endless.

This was not my dream scenario.

I continued with another month of conversation classes in Managua and then started work at the Roncalli Association. I also moved into a Jesuit community with a diverse collection of Jesuits, all of whom were native Spanish speakers. It was total immersion.

Transitions to new jobs and new cities always take time. My first semester at Fordham had been rocky, as I adjusted to living in New York and getting to know Fordham and its students. Fast forward two and a half years, and I found myself telling my Jesuit superior how comfortable I had come to feel there. I couldn’t walk around campus without running into someone I knew!

Contrasting that with my initial challenges of when I first arrived at Fordham, my sage superior commented that it is, in fact, unremarkable that we feel unsettled and disconnected when we transition to somewhere new. That is perfectly natural. What is remarkable is that somehow, after just a couple of years, we can come to feel so integrated and connected to a place.

These words sunk in deeply, and I came to depend on them as I entered into my experience in Nicaragua. It was perfectly unremarkable that I was struggling there. Along with all the typical challenges of transition, I was also learning a new language. How could I expect myself to feel connected and integrated when I was still communicating like a seven-year old?


The deep dive of cross-cultural immersion commonly evokes “culture shock.” (Wait, the rest of the world doesn’t function exactly like it does where I’m from?!?) But the layers of cultural difference go much deeper than the surface-level, and culture shock is nothing to dismiss. I have heard it described like an iceberg: 90 percent of the differences are hidden below the surface.

The obvious differences between the U.S. and Nicaragua (as with other countries) are things like language, food, folk music and dancing. Even a tourist on a weeklong trip can identify these differences. But the longer you spend somewhere, the more you become aware of the deeper differences. While language was my principal challenge in adjusting to Nicaragua, several other cultural differences emerged over time.

For example, Nicaraguans are more communally-oriented and less individualistic. To avoid overgeneralizing, let me offer a concrete experience of how this difference manifested itself to me.

One day at work, I was heading out of the office with a few co-workers. We were headed to the remote rural community of San Dionisio, about a two and a half hour trip from Managua. We were going to be leaving early in the morning and returning late. As a good Eagle Scout, I came prepared: I woke early enough to eat a good breakfast, I filled my water bottle, and I packed an energy bar in case I got hungry.

About an hour into our ride, one co-worker opened her bag and pulled out a bunch of breakfast cakes. She passed them around for everyone to share. My two other co-workers followed suit: they had each brought some food to share with the group. As they handed me a pile of food, I looked at my meager energy bar. How was I going to divide this four ways?

My focus was individualistic: “I’ll take care of me; you take care of you.” Meanwhile my co-workers were instinctively thinking communally: “We’re all going to be in that truck all day, so I better bring some food for us to share.”


My tendency in cross-cultural immersion is to think of my particular cultural experience in the United States as more enlightened than the local culture. In some cases, this disposition is not entirely misplaced. When a Nicaraguan uses a slang term for “gay” to make fun of another person, or a group of guys in a truck make cat calls at a young woman on the street, I can’t dismiss these things as “cultural misunderstandings.” They are simply offensive, whether they occur in the U.S., Nicaragua or elsewhere.

Butting into these cultural incongruities is draining and often disheartening. I was dismissed by a group of friends when I was explaining how calling someone “gay” in a derogatory way was offensive. “When it’s between friends,” they protested, “it’s funny.” They thought I just didn’t get their sense of humor. But this sort of humor shouldn’t be accepted in any context.

In other cases, my sense of American cultural exceptionalism is steeped in arrogance. Nicaraguan culture is much more formal. As someone more accustomed to calling priests and professors by their first name, I tend to dismiss such formalities as outdated. This is shortsighted.

Nicaraguans show a great deal of respect and deference to the elderly and the educated. My co-workers sign their names in email signatures with their college degree: “Lic. Name” for those with a bachelor’s degree, “Msc. Name” for those with a master’s, “Ing. Name” for engineers. A Nicaraguan would never use the informal second person (tu or vos) with a boss or someone a generation older. They would always use the more formal “usted.”

Who am I to dismiss this? This is not a less-enlightened vestige of past generations. This is a cultural reality that corresponds with underlying values. It deserves my sensitivity and attention.

Over time, I was discovering that there was a lot more to learn in Nicaragua than just Spanish.


A deep dive is not easy. In my first months in Nicaragua, I found it isolating. I couldn’t keep up with group conversations. I couldn’t chime in spontaneously. My jokes never hit. I didn’t feel like myself.

I started wondering what my community members thought of me. Was I a shy and quiet guy who didn’t have much to contribute and never joked around? Such a description would never come from a long-term friend of mine, but it pretty accurately describes my first months in my Managua community.

Suddenly I was terrible at things I had prided myself at being good at, like public speaking, chatting up strangers and spontaneous prayer. It was as if I was developing a second personality: Brian, the quiet and timid Spanish-speaker, who seemed quite unlike Brian, the charismatic English-speaker.

I remember sitting at a crowded table at a social event one night and feeling awkward about the silence. Normally, I would jump in with a question to the group or a comment to elicit conversation. In this case, I thought silently to myself, “Improving this situation is NOT my responsibility.” We continued to eat in silence.

At work, I was learning the ropes while collaborating with a very capable team of co-workers. I was not inherently good at my job. My master’s degree was a pretty piece of paper that paled in comparison to the knowledge gained from years of work experience, not to mention the cultural acumen inherent to local Nicaraguans working in their own country.

I was asked on one of my first days of work to make invitations for a forum on the environment. I returned to my desk, stared at my computer and asked what that even means in a country that doesn’t have street addresses or a postal service. Do I order them? Or make them and print them? Any Nicaraguan would know exactly what to do. I had to retreat right back into my boss’s office and ask, “So…how exactly do I make invitations?”


Amid the challenges and frustrations, I looked for ways to cope and survive. On an almost nightly basis, I called friends and family members back in the U.S. to have conversations in English. I watched a lot of American TV on Netflix. I sought out English-speaking friends.

This wasn’t the vision I had when I first arrived in Nicaragua. I had seen myself spending nights watching soap operas, soccer games and local news programs with the Central American Jesuits in my community. I was going to find a fun Nicaraguan peer group to socialize with on weekends.

But amid the daily struggle of adjusting to a new language and culture, what I needed most was familiarity and comfort. If I was going to be a good community member and productive contributor at work, I needed things that would fill my tank and not just drain me of energy.

Over time, I started to find ways to integrate and connect with local friends. I had my co-worker Gladis make me a playlist of some of her favorite Spanish-language pop songs. It became a workday routine for me to play Julieta Venegas’s “Me Voy” (“I’m going”) when 5:00 p.m. came around.

I joined a workplace basketball team. We made jerseys and entered a local league. While I still found myself yelling frustrations and cursing on the court in English, it was a great way to connect with peers while also releasing built-up tension through exercise and sport.

These were little things, but they went a long way to making me feel more comfortable and more connected. The little things never mattered so much.


I also prayed. A lot. My most fervent prayer was that time would move quicker. I knew that learning a language and culture is a slow and gradual process, but improvement and comfort increase over time. “If I could just skip ahead a few months, things will get easier!” I would pray.

I was drawn to a well-known prayer by the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called Patient Trust.

“We are quite naturally impatient in everything
To reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.”

Yes! Let’s skip over these intermediate stages of language acquisition and cultural adaptation.

“And yet it is the law of all progress
That it is made by passing through
Some stages of instability—
And that it may take a very long time.”

And it did feel like it took a long time. Although I prayed for time to speed up, it felt like it slowed down. My first year in Nicaragua felt like the longest year of my life. It crawled.

“Above all, trust in the slow work of God….
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
That his hand is leading you,
And accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
In suspense and incomplete.”

God was indeed at work. The reality is that if you want to grow you have to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. The deep dive of cross-cultural immersion is a big step into the territory of personal growth.

As a pious young Jesuit, I often prayed to grow in humility. But be warned: When you pray to God for a grace, God doesn’t just wave a magic wand and grant you what you asked for. God offers you an opportunity to grow into that grace. God didn’t just (POOF!) grant me humility. God sent me to Nicaragua to grow in it.


C.S. Lewis wrote that a truly humble person “will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” My immersion experience had turned much of my attention inward. I spent A LOT of time thinking about myself: my struggles, my weaknesses, my language, my culture. Me. Me. Me.

The people of Nicaragua have helped break that habit. I encountered people on a daily basis who were facing tremendous challenges in life and who were struggling through every effort to overcome them.

I met Blanca, who recovered from cancer to become a leader of her cooperative. She helped pioneer a partnership with the Jesuit university for her cooperative to run a food stand on campus three days a week to sell lunch and refreshments to students.

I met Juan José, an uneducated campesino farmer, who diversified his crops and adopted new techniques to avoid plagues and multiply his crop yield.

I met Sara, who has spent the last seven years working with a housing cooperative to get access to land and funds to build homes for themselves. They still haven’t found funding, so they continue to rent or live with family. But this year she joined our environmental and business development projects, and now she has a blossoming vegetable garden and a small business run out of her aunt’s house where she currently lives.

It doesn’t matter if I mix up verb tenses when I am talking with them, or slip into informal pronouns when a formal one would be more appropriate. These language and cultural differences do not carry as much weight when you develop personal relationships. People are people, and love and generosity come before judgement and condescension.


We are at our best when we let go of expectations and embrace who we can be. When I have prayed with the frustration of not feeling like myself in Spanish, I have realized that I need to let go of some things, like public speaking, where I excel in English but not in Spanish. Instead, I need to turn my attention to things that I can do in any language or cultural context.

I can laugh. Including at myself. Who cares if I dressed wrong for reforestation day? Why get frustrated and embarrassed? What good does that do? Why not just laugh it off?

I can pray. To grow in the graces I seek and to turn my focus to those in need. In prayer, I can spend more time with Blanca, Juan José and Sara, lifting up their needs and intentions and placing them before the Lord. I can accept my own limitations and let the Lord work through me.

I can love. I can support those in need and offer encouragement. I can be present, even when my contribution is understated or in the background. A smile or a hug can often convey more than words can.


“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”

It is a great privilege to take the deep dive of cross-cultural immersion. It is a powerful way to broaden your horizons and step outside of your comfort zone. It is too challenging for some to undertake, and inaccessible for many others. I recognize with humility the great privilege I have of spending these years in Nicaragua.

That, of course, does not mean it is easy. The deep dive can be isolating and lonely. It can stretch and pull you in ways you never knew you could be stretched and pulled. You can feel far from home, and sometimes even far from yourself.

But it is worth it — Oh, is it worth it! — for we do not go alone. God’s hand is guiding us. God’s face is revealed to us in those whom we encounter. God is there, working in us and through us.

Above all, we must trust in the slow work of God.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Making Mountains

Wed, 08/16/2017 - 02:01

Perhaps it’s the swamp water, bayou blood running through my veins, but whenever I see a mountain I immediately think two things: God, that’s bigI’ve got to climb it.

Only, I see them all the time: great masses of granite, heights, and slopes, often appearing from little hills and the gentle incline of the streets. They aren’t real mountains or real challenges, but something within me screams against all logic that I have something to prove.

Maybe it’s because I was raised at sea-level, but often I see more mountains to climb than there really are.


The top of the trail holds a beautiful lake, a final stop surrounded on three sides by mountains. I had finished the hike I had planned, yet my eyes naturally float to the peak of Mt. Evans dusted with snow and gleaming in the sunlight. It dares me, dares me to climb the rest of it. I am so close.

A small trail slithers left from the lake edge. I cannot see where it goes, but I can see the ant-sized specks moving along the ridge high above, winding their way to the summit.

I follow the trail through a mess of bushes until it disappears in a gravel scree, a slide of rocks leading straight up the cliff face. I pause looking intently at the stones, crags, and boulders before me: If this is the path, it is certainly steep.

Ten feet up the rubble—the incline shifts. The gentle but challenging 45-degree angle becomes a stifling +60-degree angle. My hands naturally move forward.

At first, I steady myself upon the slippery stones beneath my feet. Almost unnoticeably, my hands begin to bear a little more weight. But, I’m not turning back now.


Half an hour in, feeling sore and tight, I straighten my back. A strong pull grips my shoulders, ripping me backwards. The reality strikes me quickly, and I panic. For a split-second, I dangle…

I throw myself face-first onto the mountain, grasping and flailing for anything to stabilize me. The quartz glimmers in the grey and brown stones—mere inches from my face.

I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. I didn’t fall. I didn’t fall. I didn’t fall… No matter how many times I repeat it, it doesn’t stop my heart from racing. But, I’ve got to keep going.

In no way am I hiking now. No… Now I’m climbing.  I keep my chest as close to the mountain as possible; my weight is distributed between my fingers, hands, and feet. I feel like a spider creeping along the side of a building. Any time I lean back—even slightly—I nearly peel off into the great distance below.

I do the mental math—the tense pro-con decision-making which occurs when I suspect I’ve made a mistake, but correcting it seems so much more complicated than moving forward. I am ⅔ up the side of this mountain, and I am pretty sure that this is not an actual trail. I might be closer to the crest than the valley—yet, I have no idea how that is supposed to help me. But how can I turn back now?

A deep breath. My slow, calculated, careful movements continue.

Until, they don’t.

Behind me, open air. In front, a wall of granite stood perpendicular to the ground. Impenetrable and unclimbable. To my left and right: similar, impossible stone walls… I’ve climbed myself into a dead-end.

Halfway up this incline, I had realized that I was not where I needed to be. I was nearly certain—no matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise—that I had taken a wrong turn and was no longer on the trail. Yet, here I am. I had persisted to the point of no further options: Just me, the long drop, and the wall of stone.


Carefully holding a boulder, I turn. I look down… and way down… and, Oh hell. I’m really, really high up here.

A couple hundred feet below me a small winding path crosses the gravel incline I had just traversed. The trail, far below, gently wound up the side of the mountain. Switchbacks slowly, incrementally moving to the peak’s ridge. It practically looked easy.

I knew it as I climbed; I knew it in my bones. But, admitting I was wrong? Admitting I had taken a wrong turn? Never.


As my back rested precariously against the mountain, I said a silent prayer. Something about safety. Something about the beauty of creation. And then—more honestly—something about my own stupid stubbornness.

I could have walked up the mountain. I could have taken time to enjoy the scenery, perhaps taken breaks and breathed in the rushing mountain wind. I could have, but I didn’t.

Instead, I took on a mountain—despite the lack of safety precautions. I grit my teeth and stubbornly fought, scraped, and climbed up a path—despite the fact that I knew I had taken a wrong turn. I struggled up the gravel and boulders, trapping myself in an impossible dead-end situation—despite the fact that there was a better, easier path I could have taken.

In the end I had to climb, carefully, slowly, and dangerously down from my dead-end to the actual trail. I’m not sure what I proved in taking the hard way up the mountain, but the mountain seemed easier to conquer than the stubbornness which brought me there.

Perhaps it’s because I was raised at sea-level—or maybe it’s just because I’m more stubborn than I’d care to admit—but, I probably make most of the mountains that I climb.


Categories: Things Jesuit

I’m Not Welcome Here

Tue, 08/15/2017 - 02:58

During my junior year of high school, I participated in a university course away from home. One day during that year, I received news that I must call my mother immediately. I picked up the phone and dialed my parents number. My mother answered, telling me she had something important to talk with me about.

And then I heard words I will never forget – someone has painted a racial slur against you on our family fence: Lucas is a sand nigger.

I still cannot fully articulate the complex mixture of feelings that followed. Confusion – how is this even possible? Dumbfounded – racist people lived elsewhere, not in my community. Fear – will something worse happen?

And most profoundly – Is something wrong with me? Am I not welcome here? Do people in my own community prefer I didn’t exist?

There must have been a pause while I was on the phone with my mother, but I don’t remember to be honest. Too many things were happening inside me and between us. Maybe she told me how much she cared about me. Maybe I told her it’s okay. Maybe we were just quiet together, in that safe space. But I don’t remember. All I remember is that flammable cocktail of feelings.  And the silence. And the image of those words in my mind. And not knowing how to react.


Racist words, protests, and directed violence ought to make us angry. The recent protests in Charlottesville are no exception. We should be angry that some leaders – both civil and religious – suggested that multiple perspectives are worth respecting. This is legitimately infuriating.

But however righteous our anger, this fury has a way of blinding us from what victims of race-based hate acts experience and feel. Like me, many of these victims are usually not angry. They are terrified. They are confused about how the safety of home has suddenly become abrasive.  As the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham writes, they are afraid that going home means they might become a victim of domestic race-based terrorism.

We are right to condemn violence – both word and deed – that lead to fear, terror, and death. We should want true justice and right relationships in our communities again, especially for victims of identity-based hatred. That being said, condemnation is not enough.

Knowing that most of us are not victims of violence based on our skin color or other aspects of who we are, can we challenge ourselves to understand the feelings of those who are? Can we use our hearts to imagine what it would be like to suddenly be unwelcome and hated? Can we imagine what it might feel like to know that millions of people in our country would rather we didn’t exist?

This shift in imagination can change our political community. Without that shift, another white supremacist protest, like the one in Charlottesville, will inevitably occur. Next time, maybe it will be in our own city or town. And maybe someone we know and love will called by their mother to let them know of a racial slur painted on their fence, or the object of angry people carrying torches. 

But with imagination, perhaps we can imagine a new way to live together. There, perhaps then we’d become more empathetic. Perhaps we’d see the terror and lament of our minority sisters and brothers as our own. Perhaps we’d fight against “harmless” racial jokes and see how legitimizing them contributes to a culture of hatred and exclusion. And perhaps we’d give ourselves to the project of racial reconciliation – so that no one feels excluded, unwanted, and unwelcome.

It is unlikely that we’ll actually achieve this. But what we can do is commit ourselves to the struggle, the struggle for faith, and the struggle for racial justice which it includes.

Categories: Things Jesuit


Mon, 08/14/2017 - 23:01

Dear White Politicians, do not go to black churches today & tell us how much you hate racism. Go to white churches and tell them.

— Leah D. Daughtry (@LeahDaughtry) August 13, 2017

Dear white people, I write this to you.

In the hours following the Charlottesville terrorist attack, many Twitter users began using #ThisIsNotUs, proclaiming themselves against all violence. Others were attempting to distance themselves, saying while they voted for Trump, they absolutely did not condone driving a car into a crowd.

Physical violence has a way of drawing a line, of bringing out sentiments of “this is too far.” However, it can just as easily spur cries of “But the other side uses violence!” It was not long before #ThisIsNotUs was simultaneously condemning anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter. Violent attacks can leave us uncomfortable, needing affirmation that we are not the attackers. #ThisIsNotUs gives us just that distance, that ability to deny the possibility that we did contribute to this or other violence.

Two responses particularly stood out to me:

At this point #thisisnotus is still more about the white supremacists than the targeted, than the casualties WHY IS IT ABOUT YOU AGAIN?

— Sydette (@Blackamazon) August 13, 2017

Y’all: #ThisIsNotUs


— C.E. Little (@ItsMrLittle) August 13, 2017

But what if #ThisIsUs? I did not engage in the attacks. I don’t tweet anything racist. Heck, I don’t even tell jokes about race. I am, however, part of a system of racism. I may not do anything to outwardly express racism, but my whiteness benefits me by degrading others. I may not holler racial slurs, but I maintain power via economic and social structures. Unless I am actively trying to break down those structures, then I am culpable for maintaining racial violence.

#ThisIsNotUs changes the conversation from the horrendous effects of racism to worry about being called racist. It is more about protecting feelings than about fighting oppression. And frankly, through #ThisIsNotUs, white people created and actively maintain racial violence. As Pax Christi points out, “silence is insidious. It speaks racism softly, deceptively, and effectively.” The outright violence of terrorism hides subtle violence like purposefully disenfranchising voters of color, demanding closed borders, or even refusing to call the events of Charlottesville a terrorist attack. It covers up the ongoing effects of discriminatory housing policies, targeting by police, and gentrification.

Perhaps Fr. Bryan Massingale states it best in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church: “As a nation, we are still plagued with wary coexistence, latent suspicions, subtle exclusions, covert tensions, and barely concealed resentments – all rooted in an often unacknowledged but entrenched network of racial privilege and dominance.”

When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it.

— Cardinal Cupich (@CardinalBCupich) August 13, 2017

As Cardinal Cupich says, there is only one side to stand on. Catholics, Jesuits, and their institutions must decide which they will be on. This choice will take a great deal of reconciliation, which may very well be painful and difficult. As Lucas Sharma points out in his piece, it will take listening, empathy, and understanding of those who may experience racism differently than we do. We cannot wallow in the shallows of our racism, but must row to the deep, to the peripheries, where we can be companions in a mission of reconciliation and justice.

Whenever we say #ThisIsNotUs, we free ourselves from responsibility, from engagement, and from further action. I say these things because #ThisIsUs. Unless we as largely white communities acknowledge the oppression that benefits us, Charlottesville will continue happening. Even if further terrorist attacks do not happen, the violence of poverty and oppression will continue to flourish. We must be willing to examine our structures, our institutions, and our hearts, readily admitting when #ThisIsUs. We must be willing to apologize, to ask forgiveness, to pray and to walk alongside in liberation. As the US Bishops stated, “Let us especially remember those who lost their lives in Charlottesville and join them in standing against every form of oppression.”

Let us especially remember those who lost their lives in Charlottesville and join them in standing against every form of oppression.

— US Catholic Bishops (@USCCB) August 13, 2017

Categories: Things Jesuit

Trump in the Land of Castro

Sun, 08/13/2017 - 23:01

On June 17, I anxiously watched Trump denounce Obama’s shifts in American policy towards Cuba and roll some of the changes back, at least partially. Four days later I was supposed to leave on a flight to Havana to begin a trip I had been planning for three months. It was to attend a gathering of Jesuits in formation, see Cuba as it is today, and visit the home my family left over 50 years ago.

Change is slow in American politics. But things have been changing quickly of late: what if our Cuba policy was about to change abruptly? I decided I would call the people that should have the best information: Cuba Travel Services. If you click the link and read the banner, you’ll see reassuring text that did not yet exist post-Trump’s speech. When I called them, they told me I won’t have anything to worry about until an official statement is released by OFAC on Friday. Well, Friday is several days after I leave, so I’m definitely getting there… It occurred to me that this wouldn’t guarantee a  flight back from Cuba, without which I could not leave. It’s not that I was afraid of being stranded (very unlikely), but I figured that I needed to do my due diligence in the event something did go wrong – right?

I picked up the phone again, and this time called Southwest Airlines International. After a frustrating 40 minutes on hold, I finally got someone on the line who told me that I don’t have to worry about any of the flights from Cuba changing – most likely. Great! That’ll do. At least at this point, if something goes wrong, I can say that I tried. To be honest, if I got stranded in Cuba, I’m sure I would enjoy ministry there tremendously.

Monument to Jose Antonio Maceo, a Cuban general from their war for independence in the late 1800’s.

After the commotion, the calls, and covering my butt in the event of complications, the flight departed on time. It was a fascinating three weeks in Cuba.

There’s so much to be said about that trip that might come at another time. For now, I want to share one point about US democracy that only a combination of a Trump-style leader and an outside perspective could make so clear.

Our democracy is functional. It works. It provides real representation and the different branches of government actually have the power to  to check each other. The Cubans in the United States come from a country of 11.5 million inhabitants, but are politically influential enough in a country of 320 million citizens that the president makes policy changes they desire, or at least some members of their community desire.

And if things do oftentimes move slowly in this great nation, exasperatingly slowly at times, it is because of that vitally important power of checks and balances. Just look at Trump’s agenda. Trump has had 2 executive orders on immigration from ‘terror-prone’ regions blocked by the judicial branch, the legislation proposed to repeal and replace Obamacare died in the Senate, and the proposal for a 20% income tax on goods from Mexico to pay for a wall was dropped from tax reform plans that are being proposed.

Indeed, all Latin Americans I met were surprised that Trump, a political strongman, has not been able to simply do everything he promised. That is something we should not take for granted. No one else is doing so.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Secondhand Holiness: A Gift from My Grandmother

Sat, 08/12/2017 - 02:00

“How in God’s name did I get here?” I blurt out to the silent, grey statue of Christ Crucified. He is covered in bird droppings; hanging between oak trees on a warm, sunny, June afternoon. He doesn’t offer much by way of reply.

I am on the 8-day silent retreat we Jesuits make each year as I say this, and my question sums up, perhaps less than poetically, one of the reasons we Jesuits make these retreats. Where did I come from?, we ask. Where was God this year? Where I am being led? Where am I being called to again reaffirm my vows? How can I learn again to “see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly?”

But even though it sums up the broader message, I meant this question in the particular. How did I end up talking to a statue? How did I end up here — trying my best to be poor, chaste and obedient. How did I — a, gregarious knucklehead with the vocabulary of a sailor on furlough — end up in the world’s largest religious order? How did I end up a social worker on the Latino-side of a rust belt city? Or in migrant shelters in Mexico? Or working with men and women with HIV in St. Louis? Just how, Jesus, did I end up here?

The silence in reply to my query is thick. Then a single word pops into my head: “Grandmother.” I smile. Of course, I think, Grandmother is to blame for all this.


It has been said that Catholicism is maternal, a gift passed down from mother to child. That is true, but I would go one step further: a religious vocation is a gift from God passed down from our grandmothers. Grandmothers — whose strength and steadfastness made them sentinels of the faith, guardians of a bygone time when God was still the center of people’s lives. Grandmothers — whose piety, humility and selflessness show us how the faith is lived in deeds more than in words. Grandmothers — whose prayers were the water that softened the soil our hearts so that the Sower could plant something, anything, there.

Mercedes Josephine Galway McCarthy, my own Grandmother, was a force to be reckoned with. A force of class and of poise. Covered in lace and pearls, she did not suffer fools lightly. As long as I knew her she was called “Grandmother,” never Grandma, or Nana, or any other diminutive take on her title. Mer, as she was known to her friends, was a transplant to America’s capital from Newfoundland, and she carried with her that unique Irish-Newfoundlander brogue — as well as the dignity of seeing herself as one of the Queen’s subjects, a citizen of her Empire.

She imposed order on the world as she moved through it. Tablecloths were straightened, shirts tucked in, as she passed. When I had friends over to the house I would whisper a set of instructions to them before we entered the house, “Grandmother is here,” I would say. “Before greeting my parents you must go to Grandmother first. And, I know this is weird, but everyone calls her Grandmother, not Mrs. McCarthy. Lastly, she is going to kiss you, full on the lips. Do not resist.” I would pause, then, gauging their reaction, before finishing my admonition: “Consider yourself warned.”

My friends who were regulars knew the drill, and Grandmother took to them like they were part of the family. The new ones, although a little shocked by the kissing bit, caught on quickly, mostly because Grandmother was a magnet for laughter and conversation. She was the kind of woman who, with words as sharp and crisp as her starched tablecloths, could describe how Ross Douthat’s latest editorial was perfectly wrong, and in the next moment, and with equal eloquence, describe how Anna Wintour’s vision for her spring line was just right. Her erudition came, partially, from her morning reading, which religiously covered three things: Vogue, The New York Times, and her daily Missal.

In the evenings I would find her sitting in her high-backed chair drinking Johnnie Walker in a martini glass with a single ice cube. Seated upon her throne, there was never a doubt who was the matriarch of the McCarthy clan.


Jaysus, Mary and Holy Saint Joseph! Glory be to God!” Grandmother exclaims. There are tears in her eyes. I have just told her that I think I am going to become a Jesuit.

I am crying too, mostly because she is so thrilled by the news. She is so thrilled, in fact, that she has thrown her frail body into my arms. Despite being a foot taller and 60 years younger than her, in that moment, I was certain she was the one holding me. She is the person I was most excited to tell, but she was also the one I was most nervous about telling because, somehow, I felt that telling Grandmother about my desire to be a Jesuit made it more real, more dangerous; more confining. It was her blessing that I was seeking as I started walking this terrifying path.

In true Grandmother style, she hadn’t even finished embracing me — or wiping the tears from her eyes — before the reproach came. “But Matthew-darling,” she said, “the damn Jesuits? Why the damned Jesuits? Why not the holy Christian Brothers or the God-fearing Franciscans?” (It should be noted that Grandmother sent all of her sons and nearly all of her scores of grandsons, myself included, to Jesuit schools for both high school and college). I can only laugh — fully and joyfully. And she laughs then, too, and I ease her back onto her throne.

It’s then, between sips from her martini glass, that she tells me, “You know that your mother has been telling me stories of your behavior… come to think of it, those Jesuits might be the only group equipped to handle the likes of you!” Then she laughed again. Her smile straightened before she said, “It is nice to see that my prayers have paid off. After all these years, finally a religious in the family! You’re welcome!”

There it was, the full arc of Grandmother. There she was, all her glory on display in a matter of moments: pride, reproach, faith, laughter, authority, prayers, and mostly, mainly, irreplaceably: love.

Mercedes Josephine Galway McCarthy

Most of my childhood memories of Grandmother involve “going to church”. This was due, in part, to being a member of a colossal and fertile Irish Catholic family, going to church was part of every holiday: religious and secular. As a child I never knew the difference between the two, because every holiday, baptism, or anniversary of my Grandfather’s death involved putting on a tie, going to Church, and having a feast at an aunt’s house afterwards where I could take off my tie and play with my hordes of cousins in the basement. Looking back, I see the role of grandmothers in the larger tapestry of our faith. Grandmother colored the way I see the world so deeply, the way I see myself within it. All grandmothers color the way we see the world and see ourselves in it. They call forth from us our very best. As children, that may have meant proper manners and saying our prayers. As adults, that means living authentically, with humility, knowing your life is meant to be of service to something larger than ourselves, for others. Grandmothers, and women of faith in general, are living witnesses to the resurrection through endless acts of mercy. Grandmother evangelized me, unbeknownst to me, through her joy, her service and her prayers.


Grandmother went home to the God who loved her into being the same week I bound myself to God by taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Two paths that both lead closer to the Jesus that she loved so dearly. She did not make it make it to my vow mass. Words fail to describe how much I miss her.

The last time I spoke with Grandmother on the phone, in her last days on earth, she was mostly incoherent. I carried on, talking of the vow mass, of who was coming, of what I had done that summer — trying to again play my part in our repartee so that she might remember how to play hers. But she couldn’t. Couldn’t at least, that is, until the end of our conversation, when she bid me farewell the same way she always had, “I’ll pray for you, Matthew, darling.” It was enough.

I think of all this on a stone bench in front of a stone statue of the Crucified One, the One who does — sometimes, in some ways — answer our questions. “How did I end up here?” By the love of God and the love of my Grandmother.  

And then come the tears, just as they had while holding Grandmother five years before.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Jesuit Life-Hack: Making the Summer Last

Fri, 08/11/2017 - 00:54

We all know the feeling. The stillness and heat of the summer settle upon you: you see the calendar, realize the move-in date, or a friend asks what your schedule for next semester looks like… And then it hits you: summer is nearly gone.

Thankfully, our pop culture contributors at The Jesuit Post—master procrastinators at heart—have composed a list of last-minute solutions designed to help stretch your summer. Our list of things to enjoy, to play, to binge, and to do… All are aimed at encouraging you to soak in the last vestiges of sunshine and freedom before the 2017-2018 school year begins.


“Don’t Stop Believing in Late Summer Concert Tours” — by  Emanuel Werner, SJ

Lady Gaga performs at the 2017 Superbowl.

Here’s a thought: Why not hit up a couple great summer concerts to unwind and listen to music that moves your heart and soul?

Music is deeply spiritual and has a way of igniting the human spirit. Music invites us to share in the inspirations of the Spirit who moves us towards goodness, beauty, and love. Go get some! And enjoy the show! Here are my top three recommendations for must-see summer concerts to make summer last:

Lady Gaga is off to a very hot start on her world tour. I saw her perform about seven years ago, and she was excellent. Dynamic. Ferocious. Powerful. Thoughtful. Provocative. And yes, Faith-Filled. A must-see performer.

Ed Sheeran is also on a massive tour across globe. His music is inventive and getting a ton of air time these days. His rhythmic guitar, charming voice, and stellar storytelling connects his listeners to the tender moments of their own lives. His gifts are the hallmark of a great singer-songwriter who is a pleasure to witness at work. Check him out!

Last but certainly not least, my favorite guitarist of all time, Mr. John Mayer, is still holding it down on a world tour that started in late March. He keeps adding tour dates because he loves his craft, and people come out in droves to share in such love. I can’t wait to see him for the second time this summer in late August after seeing his amazing debut in Albany, New York. I just can’t get enough of his jazzy-blues-electric manifestations of guitar bliss! A true master!


“The Fastest Game Alive”  — by Sean Barry, SJ

Sonic the Hedgehog.

If video games are your thing, Sonic Mania comes out on August 15th. Since I grew up playing the  classic Sonic the Hedgehog games on the Sega Genesis, I got excited when the game was first announced. From all that I’ve seen, this game is poised to continue in the vein of those 16-bit games, complete with some of the zones from the first four games.

Made by Headcannon and Pagoda West Games, Sonic Mania comes from people who have a tremendous love for the franchise. After all, they were the ones who produced the iOS ports of the original two Sonic games. For them, this is a labor of love, and I’m eager to see what they’re going to do with it.

If you grew up playing classic Sonic games, then here is your chance to revisit the retro feel of the early 90s or to pass along the fandom to a new generation. If this is your first foray into the world of Sonic, then let this be a chance for you to see just why a whole generation of gamers fell in love with the Blue Blur. Make sure you have seven Chaos Emeralds handy, because this game is going to go Super Sonic.


“A Superhero Escape from the Semester” — by Colten Biro, SJ

ABC Television’s Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.S.

As the semester begins, do you need an escape from reality? Need a bit of super-powered, empowerment? Do you need a little last-minute summer binge?

If so, Netflix offers a range of binge-worthy superhero escapes. For those of you interested in the Marvel Universe, I highly recommend Marvel’s Agents of Shield. The series takes you from the Avengers (2012) movie through the current movie releases. Agents of Shield rests upon allusions to the Marvel movies, but more importantly it provides the background and connections which build into an all-encompassing universe. It offers the perfect supplement to the films and demonstrates Marvel’s complicated, interconnected, and well-written universe. Agents of Shield is exceptional in terms of acting and storylines, and it is visually spectacular—certainly demonstrating special effects worthy of the big screen.

Netflix Originals also offers a range of Marvel miniseries: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Iron Fist. Each one provides both a pleasant escape and deeper exploration into larger social themes: rule of law, consent, race, duty, and identity. They are also binge-worthy and rightfully deserve an honorable mention as you seek ways to escape the impending doom of the semester.


“Roll Your Windows Down and Groove ”  — by David Inczauskis, SJ

If you have a car, go out for a joy ride and listen to Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” on repeat full blast. If you don’t have a car, pretend that you’re buying one and test out the bass with Charlie Puth’s “Attention.” (MGMT says there’s always time to pretend, and that’s the perfect oldie to add to your 2017 late summer playlist).

Music marks spaces of time and turns them into memories. A Jesuit classmate and I hear a slightly dated pop song on the radio, and we identify it by our year in high school or college. It sparks some lovely conversations about the past—mostly, we share  embarrassing stories and then audibly wonder, “What were we thinking?”

Make new memories. Find a car, pick up your friends, and head to the nearest beach or mountain. Roll the windows down and begin to sing/scream the lyrics to your favs.

There’s no way I’m returning to the school year without some such ecstatic experience, and you shouldn’t either.


So to all of you looking with longing at the calendar, hoping for a moment or two more of freedom, or simply trying to find a way to soak up a little more joy before the semester… We in the Pop Culture Section wish you good luck!


The cover photo is courtesy of Pexel. 

Categories: Things Jesuit

Parks in Peril, Part II

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 23:01

In 1910, the largest fire in American history ripped through Montana, Idaho, and Washington. It torched over 3 million acres (4,700 sq mi) swallowing Western boom towns, mines, and communities. While the country had recently begun protecting national parks, this massive fire led to greater appreciation and protection of national forests.1

For many, the Smokey Bear fire danger signs often present the most visible image of what threatens our federal lands. News of fires dancing up and down the West burn across our television and tablet screens. While the fires are certainly dangerous, the question remains: what’s most threatening to federal public lands?

In Part I, we explored what makes our public lands so great. Now in Part II, let’s take a look at what’s endangering them. The greatest threats to public lands can be broken into three categories: direct human impact, indirect human impact, and neglect.


Direct human impact

Some of the most visible signs of human impact on public lands come from visitors/users themselves. The continuing increase of visitors to public lands has put a massive strain on natural resources. While visitors create necessary revenue for federal lands, the incredible number has begun degrading natural resources and detracting from visitor experiences. One might think of simple things like littering (which has an incredibly negative impact), but other issues arise from use. For example, hiking off-trail in sensitive areas destroys fragile vegetation and creates massive erosion through the destruction of specimen like cryptobiotic crusts.

Even staying on trails has an impact. Cars, bikers, hikers, and horseback riders alike typically stay on trails in order to reduce damage, but they still degrade lands by creating noise, moving invasive species, and dramatically impacting the behavior and lives of animals. Trails typically go through beautiful areas for our enjoyment, but they also dislocate animals that inhabit that area. Animals that do stay often become too comfortable with human presence, putting them in danger. Every year, hundreds of large mammals are euthanized or killed because of car collisions, interactions with humans at campgrounds, or crazy stories like people thinking a baby bison is cold and trying to put it in their car.

Perhaps the greatest direct threat to public lands is encroaching development. This typically comes in the form of semi-urban areas near rural public lands. However, it also includes farming, ranching, mining, and logging. There are over 11,600 inholdings in national parks, or property that was owned prior to the establishment or expansion of the park and is now located inside the current park boundaries. Many of these landowners have begun developing this property.

Other developments have been spreading just outside the parks. Towns like Jackson Hole, WY and Pigeon Forge, TN have gone from quaint tourist stops to booming urban centers, frequently accommodating guests who spend their days on neighboring public lands. In Colorado, once-sleepy mining towns like Aspen have exploded into ski resort meccas, increasing their population over 600% since 1950. While much of this development is for commercial use, a great deal is also used for oil & gas drilling, logging, and mining for mineral resources.

Encroaching development threatens public lands because public lands are not free-standing ecosystems. These ecosystems rely on their surrounding areas. The massive growth of nearby communities and resource extraction projects interrupts everything from water use, to mating seasons, to wildlife corridors for broad-range animals like wolves, mountain lions, or elk.

The damaging effects of human impact are wide-ranging, both individual and systematic. They are the most visible impacts on public lands, threatening the life that calls them home. The direct impacts, however, are just the beginning.

Indirect human impact

Indirect human impact includes broad and widespread human activity that ultimately impacts public lands. The far-and-away greatest indirect impact is climate change, itself bringing on a myriad of other challenges and dangers. The high visibility of direct impact like trail damage or littering more easily garners public reaction and engagement. However, indirect issues can be far more insidious because they take longer to show their damage or have no direct fault. For example, who is responsible for the disappearing glaciers at Glacier National Park?

Climate change presents one of the greatest challenges to our world today. It impacts every person and ecosystem. Public lands – often the home of sensitive species – face massive challenges responding to climate change. What will erratic weather do to sensitive areas like Yosemite, Everglades, or Denali? Climate change’s impact on public lands could be truly catastrophic, damaging ecosystems, visitor experiences, and the lives of animals. Large, typically resilient mammals like bison are even experiencing physical changes in response to blazing summers and warm winters.

Regarding forest fires, as stated in both parts of this series, they are absolutely vital for healthy forests.  Trees like the giant sequoia cannot exist without fire. In 1988, fires sprinted across Yellowstone, spurred by drought, high amounts of tinder, strong winds, and a hot summer. Close to 800,000 acres (about 36% of the park) caught fire. While these blazes were infamous for their destruction, they also brought new life and hope.

While some forest fires are caused by neglect or recklessness (e.g. cigarettes or illicit campfires), others come from decades of poor management and fire suppression. And now things are getting worse. Climate change has been initiating more devastating fires through an increase in droughts, excessive temperatures, and dry climates. Each of these contributes to the perfect conditions for uncontrollable fires. When fires grow too large or viciously hot, they can annihilate chances of regeneration. Rather than offering the typical advantages of a forest fire (like opening the cones of lodgepole pines or getting rid of built-up plant debris), extreme forest fires reduce everything in their path to ash, leading to other negative secondary impacts like flooding and erosion.

Wandering off the trail directly damages lands, but at least this problem is easily spotted and has clear remedies. The large-scale, indirect impacts from climate change are all the more insidious because they are less visible, easily attributed to somebody else, and too readily dismissed.

Map of federally-owned lands in the U.S.



While many of the dangers to public lands stem from direct and indirect human impact, one of the greatest threats facing public lands is our neglect. Federal land agencies face a massive backlog of deferred maintenance, largely due to lack of funding. Highly visited areas like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Great Smoky Mountains can generate revenue to tackle some of their maintenance needs. But what about less-visited parks that nonetheless protect vital ecosystems, like Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison? They’re part of an almost $12b maintenance backlog.

One result of this funding shortage is that it forces federal-to-state or federal-to-private land sales. These sales are promoted in the name of small government, but primarily emerge out of a desire to open areas to ranching, drilling, and mining. Both large and small-scale landowners are hoping to open more federal lands to resource extraction.

Perhaps you remember the Bundy standoffs in both Oregon and Nevada. These standoffs came from a general distrust of federal government, a demand for self-determination, and an effort to privatize public lands, especially by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Although the Bundy’s played a role, the standoffs in part came about due to neglect and underfunding for the BLM. For branches like the BLM, resource extraction is part of their mandate. However, privatizing these lands removes them from the accountability and responsibility of the American public. Even turning federal lands over to the state drastically reduces oversight, management, and access for public enjoyment.

Whether it be deferred maintenance or privatization for resource extraction, neglect threatens the spirit of democracy and responsibility encapsulated by public lands.


The biggest threats to America’s public lands fall into three main categories: direct human impact, indirect human impact, and neglect. Each of these bears its own unique dangers. The direct impact is easily seen, thus often the most acted upon. Indirect impacts are more easily overlooked, as the blame gets spread around and no action is taken. The neglect of federal lands threatens to push them into state or private hands, drastically cutting recreational access and leading to greater environmental damage. Each of these dangerous categories threatens our federal public lands and carries its challenges.

Let us know in the comments what you think are the biggest threats, and what we need to do to protect these lands. Be sure to check back for Part III on how you can get involved!


Categories: Things Jesuit

Silencing the Man, Not His Message

Mon, 08/07/2017 - 23:13

I was sitting in my dorm room in Taiwan on a warm autumn day in 2009 when I found out that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Little did I know that, a year later, someone living just 80 miles away would receive that very same honor.

Liu Xiaobo (Xiaobo is his first name) is just one of many Chinese, both in China and abroad, who has worked tirelessly to create a freer China. The Chinese people are aware that, while economic progress has skyrocketed for many, social progress has only inched forward for most. Therefore, on the U.N.’s Human Rights Day in 2008, hundreds of activists (which quickly grew into the thousands) signed Charter ’08, a declaration advocating for social and political reforms.

These activists call for reforms that you and I in the U.S. assume to be a given, one of which is freedom of religion. In China, any person of faith – whether Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian – faces constant harassment from both local authorities and those in Beijing. These range from being followed by plainclothes police officers and being passed over for a job promotion to being prohibited from fasting during Ramadan and having your home church torn down overnight. In extreme cases, authorities can arrest anyone they deem to be a “threat to national security”: and being religious in an atheistic society is reason enough.

Something as harmless as signing a petition that the government was never going to take seriously was enough of a reason for the Chinese Communist Party to arrest Xiaobo.

In a dark twist of irony, the authorities sentenced Xiaobo to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009. On that day, I was back in California already, enjoying the warmth of a fireplace and a feast on the table surrounded by loved ones. Meanwhile, half a world away, Xiaobo was torn from his wife – who has been under house arrest ever since – to spend more than a decade in a cold, isolated prison cell, likely subject to much torture.

Activists stage a sit-in demanding the release of Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, outside China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong on 10 July, days before his death. (CNS photo/Bobby Yip, Reuters)

The world seemed to have forgotten about him until three weeks ago, when the authorities released him from prison due to cancer. However, they would not let him leave the country to seek medical care. As a result, Xiaobo died soon thereafter.

I am taking just a moment today to pray for Xiaobo and his wife. And even though the authorities in Beijing have chosen to be more like Kim Jong-un than Abraham Lincoln, I am praying for them as well, because “China’s dream should not be a show of military might; China’s dream should incorporate Mr. Liu Xiaobo’s dream — implementation of democracy, allowing every Chinese person to enjoy freedom and dignity and making China a country everyone can be proud of,” as the President of Taiwan said in her statement on Xiaobo’s death.

At a prayer service a couple days ago, Joseph Cardinal Zen, the ever-provocative former bishop of Hong Kong, compared Xiaobo to the Prophet Jeremiah. Cardinal Zen said, “You are like the sheep waiting to be killed. We have begged God’s justice for you. But your wisdom reminded us the mission of a prophet naturally includes suffering. We dedicate you and your wife to God for the renewal of our country.”

Cardinal Joseph Zen addresses a student rally outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters in 2014. (CNS photo/Liau Chung-ren, Reuters)

Xiaobo is truly a person who has offered his life (oblatio vitae) in the struggle to improve the lives of the average person in China. Though not a Christian, his life shares a similarity with the life and mission of Jesus: his life demonstrates what it means to be a suffering servant, engaging in a seemingly quixotic quest ending his life with little tangible results. And for those of us who are Christians, we have the hope of the Resurrection that one day, the 12 million Catholics in China will be able to live out our faith as freely as Jesus calls us to live.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Why the Spadaro/Figueroa Article is Divisive

Sun, 08/06/2017 - 23:01

Be sure to check out Danny Gustafson’s counterpoint to this essay!

While the reaction to the recent Civiltà Cattolica article by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. and Rev. Marvelo Figueroa has been incredibly diverse, analysts as diverse as First Things (especially Altieri, and Weigel) and Commonweal (Annett, and Faggioli) have treated the article at depth and many agree that it is a “must read.”

I agree that this article is a “must read” for people interested in the dialogue concerning Catholic participation in American political life, but I disagree about why. First, this article should be read because it is a curious example of exactly what is wrong with contemporary discourse. Although the authors might have intended to prompt a healthy conversation, and I think they have some great points in mind, the article misses its mark and falls into many of the pitfalls that prevent cooperation toward the common good and undermine authentic dialogue.

Second, the article should be read because the subject matter it was attempting to discuss needs to be wrestled into rational analysis if Catholics are going to be able to cooperate in leading the country towards a greater commitment to the common good. Still confused by the last presidential election, the American people need patient voices to guide us to a better understanding of our political reality and a more effective expression and realization of our deepest values. These authors, in this article, do not provide those voices. In fact, I predict that if those on the same side of the political spectrum continue with the potentially alienating language found in the article by Spadaro-Figueroa then they could very well end up facing a second Trumpian term, further Brexitesque surprises, and a continued rightward shift in American and European politics.

As a Catholic ethicist who considers himself a moderate conservative, and who voted with great difficulty in the presidential election, I am sympathetic to many of the points made in the article and to the general suspicion of the Catholic-Republican (and Catholic-Democrat) uncivil unions. So let me explain three reasons why I think this article falls so short of its task. First, it ironically demonstrates the conflictual mode that it supposedly condemns. Secondly, and most crucially, it fails to define who exactly it is talking about and is, therefore, a precariously ambiguous ad hominem attack. And finally, it is an almost perfect manifestation of the conflictual mode of discourse that seeks to land punches instead of persuade. I do not know what the authors were trying to accomplish, but walking through my reactions to the article as they developed while I was reading it will shine light on how each of these three issues can be seen to be at play therein.

I received a link to the article from a conservative friend who prefaced it with, “We finally see what Pope Francis thinks of US conservatives.” Suspicious of such a pretext, I opened the article with initial excitement because we are certainly in need of a careful and fair analysis of the uncomfortable marriages between Catholics and the dominant political parties in the US. I was hoping for a Tocquevillian analysis of the matrix of the American political reality from a foreign point of view. The American situation is a fascinating matrix composed of varying interpretations of various Constitutional elements, especially the First Amendment and the Constitutional limiting of the role of the federal government in effecting the common good. This matrix is particularly American and most of the differences between political “conservatives” and “liberals” of the same basic world-view presuppositions (like Catholics considered as a bloc) extend from the legitimate diverse interpretations within this matrix. Informed analyses from Italian and Argentinian perspectives (which operate within a very different matrix) could be rather helpful. As many a scholar tends to do when reading a journal of this repute, I flipped to the notes to see what other authors we would be treating. My heart fell when I saw the three paltry little notes of perplexing provenance. Were Spadaro and Figueroa really using a platform of this stature to engage the decidedly fringe but curiously influential views of an American blog? No inclusion of articles from America Magazine, First Things, nor mention of John Courtney Murray, H. Richard Neibuhr, or his brother Reinhold?

Although the article does not approach the American situation from the context of the matrix I believe is most pertinent, I continued to push forward, willing to follow the authors in their hastily constructed history of a fascinating phenomenon in evangelical Christianity. Having previously been an Evangelical Christian myself, I could recognize the contours of the eschatological vision they were drafting, even if they chose odd sources, imposed an exogenous interpretive structure, and operated with opaque presuppositions. I remembered reading Hal Lindsey, Left Behind, and This Present Darkness when I was a kid, so I could recognize some of my own Evangelical experience in their hasty sketch.

But my willingness to follow turned quickly to confusion when the authors deployed the word “Manichaean”. The popular application of the term “Manichaean” to a simple ideological dualism might be acceptable when, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski used the phrase “Manichaean paranoia” in reference to George W. Bush’s foreign policy a 2007 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But one would expect greater precision from a man with the theological training of Spadaro. There can be no confusion that one can side definitively in an ideological battle, or even a literal war, without even a hint of Manichaeism. True Manichaeism insists that goodness and evil inhere in things and not in ideas: it is a radical rejection of God as omnipotent, providential, and the unique creator. I’m pretty sure Augustine would frown at this figurative use of this ancient religion. And I’m certain that both of Pope Francis’s immediate predecessors would furrow their brows at the insinuation that taking a definitive stand ideologically is inherently dangerous or antithetical to the gospel. The article might have hit its intended mark had it used the categories established by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture instead of making the odd, and Augustine-in-the-grave-turning, misdiagnosis of Manichaeism. The subsequent wondering about who these people are who practice such a radical ontological dualism leads us to the greatest confusion of the whole article and the reason why I believe its good points are obscured by its potential divisiveness.

As I continued to read I started wondering in earnest, “Who are the authors talking about?” More personally, I was curious about how I was to engage the article. Was I part of the intended audience, the intended ad hominem target, or a mere spectator in an ironic campaign fear mongering? (Personal note: of the mongerings, fear is my least favorite, since it almost always extends from a total lack of interest in the underlying values and principles of the “other side”.)

When the authors finally turn their attention to la civiltà cattolica proper, in the section that begins with “Fundamentalist ecumenism,” my heart sank. Drawing exclusively from the evidence of the article, alas, it seems I can consider myself as part of the intended ad hominem target. Let me explain why, because here is where the conflictual mode of the article comes into clear relief. As I read I felt like the authors were attempting a three-punch-combo to annoy/defeat their foe and entertain/delight their sympathizers.

The first is more of an “eye-poke” than a punch. It is executed via the association of the Catholic conservatives—whom they call “Integralists” without sufficient definition—with the previously defined “Manichaeism.” Augustine flirted with Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity. He subsequently, and vehemently, fought against the religious movement and its leadership. I don’t know if Spadaro and Figueroa were intentionally connecting Catholic conservatives with Augustine’s later nemesis, but it’s a connection that is potentially provocative and annoying to a group that often self-identify as Augustinians.

After the eye poke, the first “jab” comes the insinuation that the mode of action of this group of “Integralists” (a term the authors have left quite mysterious) is one of a bastardized “ecumenism”. The authors admit that there is an irony to this punch, since they insist that the Integralists “condemn traditional ecumenism.” But it is in the definition of this “well-defined world of ecumenical convergence” that the true irony is found. Instead of anything that bears any resemblance to true ecumenism (either the formal ecumenism that has followed Vatican II or the practical ecumenism I take part in every day as a Navy chaplain) according to the article the ecumenism of which the Integralists are accused is nothing more than a mere Venn overlap of social concerns. What are the elements that are found within the “well-defined” Venn overlap presented by Spadaro/Figueroa? The article says that they are “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters considered moral or tied to values.” This Venn overlap is what defines these nasty Catholic Integralists. I assume that neither Spadaro nor Figueroa would agree with this assertion….but it’s what the article actually says. This is where the train comes off the tracks and deep confusion follows.

The final “knockout punch” comes in the assignment of a motivation to the Catholic Integralists (part of which I now seem to be associated through the Venn characteristics). The authors state explicitly that the motive of these Catholics is hate…manifested in wall-loving, culturally purifying actions and satiated best at the wells shared with terrorists and jihadists. The bogeyman has fully arrived, and his mode and motive have been established (no matter how foreign both may be to any actual practitioner of whatever Catholic Integralism is). This is a purely conflictual mode. But the specifically embarrassing problem is that any novice practitioner of spiritual direction, counseling, or pastoral care should know that the exogenous assignment of motivations violates one of the few inviolable principles of the field, i.e., it is impossible to know the motives of other people unless they willingly share those motives. In fact, the only answer to the question posed in the title of this article is: only Spadaro and Figueroa know what they intended. Nevertheless, those authors assign a fully articulated mode and motive to these insidious Integralists. This hijacking of the interiority of other people is a subtle form of emotional violence that is all too common in contemporary discourse and inevitably causes resistance and division in those with opposing views. It is a form of ad hominem demonization. Instead of refuting the ideas as expressed it simply states that those ideas can be dismissed because they extend from essentially evil motives, using only ideological pressure instead of persuasion. Therefore, at this point, the camps necessarily divide. Those on the conservative end of things, who share some if not all of the elements in the deplorable Venn overlap, become defensive, and those on the liberal end of the spectrum gather behind the authors insisting that this is a long-delayed and much-needed critique. (Little more than saying, “Yeah! What they said!”)  I have no idea what the authors intended to accomplish, but this reaction is completely understandable in today’s climate of ideological hostility.

U.S. President Trump, whom Spadaro and Figueroa argue has been likened to the Emperor Constantine by some on the Religious Right. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

My final emotion in reading the article was one of bewilderment. The fact that an article that warns against the evils of one group’s aligning their theological and political ideation in the public realm ends with a strong appeal to the geopolitical theory of the world’s most authoritative religious figure is a delicious, although indigestion producing, irony. After the insidious opponent’s mode and motive have been identified by the authors, while their own presuppositions and motives remain mostly obscured, the official geopolitical position of the current Pontiff is thrust forward as the solution to the problem. I am deeply sympathetic to Francis’s vision; however, since the Pontiff’s approach to this topic is so different than his immediate predecessors, neither of whom hesitated to make judgments about the relative value of various ideological systems, it is a surprising appeal to authority and it left me bewildered. From the article it seems that for Spadaro and Figueroa it’s ok to make direct appeals to religious authorities and employ ideological presuppositions when engaged in public life—as long as they are authorities and presuppositions with which they agree. I sat back and thought, “Well, this is going to go badly. Conservatives will feel offended and liberals will titter with glee at having their own presuppositions echoed back at them.” And over the next several days it happened exactly that way.

My brothers and sisters of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), please don’t let this most recent setback to productive dialogue obscure the path forward or diminish our commitment to ending the conflictual model. When engaged in dialogue with someone of a differing view don’t be afraid of conflict, shy away from disagreement, or be afraid of making judgments with respect to ideas. But, in order to avoid falling into the conflictual model, follow these simple steps: 1) make clear and manifest your own presuppositions and motivations (even though this renders you more vulnerable); 2) attempt to understand the position of the other party in terms of their hierarchy of values; 3) express your opinions in terms of your hierarchy of values; and 4) do not assign exogenous presuppositions or motivations to the other party but allow them to establish these for you. We can move forward, but we have to stop the adolescent conflictual mode of discourse. It might not produce much click-bait, enjoy the high-fives of those in our own echo chamber, or help the web stats of our blogs…but it will help us advance as one unified Body of Christ.


Categories: Things Jesuit

A Modest Endorsement of “A Surprising Ecumenism”

Sun, 08/06/2017 - 23:01

See here for Brian Reedy’s counterpoint to this essay.

At some point I heard it isn’t polite to discuss religion or politics at dinner. If that’s true – and boy do I hope it’s not true, because these are my two favorite topics – then you should absolutely not bring up this recent article by Antonio Spadaro, SJ and Marcelo Figueroa.

I myself found Spadaro and Figueroa’s thoughts to be insightful and thought-provoking – as the wide variety of responses their article has generated indicates – even if not the final word on the interreligious dynamics of “values voters” presently at play.

In the article, Spadaro and Figueroa posit an “ecumenism of hate” (all quotations are drawn from the article), which they say has brought together extreme wings of both the Catholic Church and Evangelical fundamentalists. The portion of the Church included in this ecumenism is called “Catholic integralism,” which is essentially the view that the state should be subordinate to the Church and, historically, opposed ideas such as popular sovereignty and separation of church and state. Although Spadaro and Figueroa fail to clearly define their terms (a big no-no when I was working on my philosophy degree!), by “Evangelical fundamentalists” they are presumably referring to Protestants, often non-denominational, who subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible.

This union between two seemingly disparate groups, Spadaro and Figueroa argue, has become particularly potent in U.S. politics. They point to a variety of people and events in U.S. history that have been shaped and guided by this worldview. As it stands now, this “ecumenism of hate” is marked by a few key ideas: the United States is blessed by God and is therefore good; any number of bad outside forces are attempting to corrupt this goodness; and the world is approaching a final, apocalyptic conflict between good and evil. The authors also point to some of the key political issues uniting these two groups: abortion, same-sex marriage, religious liberty, and lack of concern about climate change. As the piece continues, Spadaro and Figueroa point to several significant ways in which this union influences America’s theo-political culture.


Political-religious validation vs. political-religious motivation

This piece could be read to say that politics and religion have no business influencing each other. However, such a reading would be inaccurate, to say nothing of uncharitable. My reading of the article is that Spadaro and Figueroa argue that politics and religion have no business validating each other. As I understand Spadaro and Figueroa’s point, politics, whether individual politicians or overarching political movements, should not co-opt religious language or imagery to justify its agenda, most especially when said agenda is ultimately incompatible with that religion’s beliefs. Following the same vein of thought, religions should not turn to the political sphere to increase their power in society. Such a process of using one type of power or influence to validate the other ultimately cheapens each of them.

However, I am absolutely not about to say that religion and politics ought not influence each other. Quite the opposite. One need only look at the Civil Rights Movement, the USCCB’s calls for comprehensive immigration reform, or Jacques Maritain’s involvement of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to see prime examples of religion providing both motivation and vocabulary to engage a political issue. The difference between these causes and the approach Spadaro and Figueroa warn against is that, while they acknowledge opposition and seek to change it, they do not strive to acquire power in order to forcibly impose their agendas. Conversely, neither do they simply engage controversial topics for the sake of supporting political forces they may see as “allies.”

Critically looking for coherence between one’s political and religious beliefs is of the utmost importance. Subordinating one to the other for the sake of gaining more power does a disservice to both.


Pope Francis poses with Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, left, editor of La Civilta Cattolica, and Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, superior general of the Society of Jesus, before a meeting with editors and staff of La Civilta Cattolica at the Vatican Feb. 9. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano, handout)

The Absolutizing Instinct

One of the most intriguing points I find in this piece is its insight into the theological underpinnings of so-called “values voters.” Spadaro and Figueroa push these underpinnings to their natural conclusions and expose the underlying vision behind them.

As the article explains, the worldview uniting these particular wings of the Catholic Church and Evangelical fundamentalists can be described as “neo-Manichaean.” A person engaging this worldview would see everything in black and white. Any given cause, person, event, or idea is either absolutely good or absolutely evil.

Unfortunately for neo-Manichaeans, the world is not so simple.

Part of the human condition, at least in many people I have met, is an innate desire to reduce all situations to black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. William Lynch, a 20th-century Jesuit author, refers to this drive as “the absolutizing instinct.” This tendency to ignore or erase the nuances of situations, people and ideas is essentially what neo-Manichaeans do, either consciously or subconsciously.

Beyond merely being wrong, the absolutizing instinct ultimately leads those who follow it to miss out on so many of the creative tensions of our world.. Rather than taking the time to find common ground or build bridges, they declare anyone with whom they disagree, even partially, to be an enemy. Instead of recognizing the possibility of improvement in a challenging situation, they declare it irredeemable. Instead of being able to work within shades of grey, they see only themselves as “white” and everything else as “black.”

When one reduces everything to absolutely good or absolutely bad, one misses the opportunity to critically engage with the world as it actually exists. The real tragedy of this worldview is that it discourages hope and ignores the fact that we are called to cooperate with the grace God pours out on the world.


Shortcomings and Objections

Important as these insights are, this article is not a complete or exhaustive analysis of these groups’ roles in American culture and society. A few significant critiques immediately stand out to me.

Spadaro and Figueroa might be giving practitioners of the “ecumenism of hate” too much intellectual credit. I can’t help but wonder if the members of these groups have thought through, or even care about, their theological and philosophical underpinnings. Instead, perhaps they simply identify more deeply as members of their particular political party, movement, or social group than they do as members of a religion. In this case, they would be evaluating situations in light of their political commitments and then seeking to validate these political conclusions in light of their religious connections. This same critique could be made of religious people on both sides of the political spectrum. To what degree do I, do we, simply use religion to try to validate my preferred political positions? Conversely, how open am I to the challenge the Gospel offers to my political beliefs?

I understand that neither Spadaro nor Figueroa is from the U.S., but a cursory look at the recent history of religion and politics in the U.S. might offer a simpler explanation for the Catholic-Evangelical alliance than the one they offer. I can’t help but wonder if the Catholics integralists and Evangelical fundamentalists haven’t grown closer together simply because they have found themselves sharing the same political camp for several decades now. A simpler explanation of why these two groups’ worldviews have come to look increasingly similar would be that religious leaders seeking increased political influence during the initial rise of the “Moral Majority” and similar groups found a warmer welcome in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party. Because the GOP was more willing to listen to these religious people’s concerns, the religious leaders of these movements found themselves able to exert the influence they had been seeking. As a result, any leaders from these different religious groups could find themselves sounding and acting increasingly similar after several decades of sharing political space. While this may not invalidate Spadaro and Figueroa’s points, taking the time to understand the historical origins of this alliance may lead better insight about how and why it functions in the present.

US President George W. Bush is one of the figures accused by Spadaro and Figeruoa of introducing a “Manichaean” element into contemporary US politics. (CNS photo/Larry Downing, Reuters)

Do Spadaro and Figueroa themselves actually fall into a neo-Manichaean absolutizing instinct? In this response, Charles Camosy, a professor at Fordham University, raises the possibility that this is exactly the case. To substantiate his point, Camosy points to the “caricatures” of George W. Bush, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump included in the piece, as well as his own experience in interacting with more progressive Catholics on topics such as skepticism regarding climate change, focusing primarily on abortion in the context of other life issues, and people who voted for Trump. In each of these instances, Camosy has observed a hateful absolutizing instinct at play in attempts to criticize those who Spadaro and Figueroa would include in the “ecumenism of hate.”

I don’t think Camosy’s critique lands, at least in the context of the article he’s responding to. The only references to Bush are his own words and the observation that Osama bin Laden referred to him as a “great Crusader.” Bannon only comes up because he has incorporated some of the world views of some of the figures mentioned in the article. The references to Trump come from an observation of his diction on Twitter, a note that another of the figures discussed in the article officiated at Trump’s first wedding, and then a discussion of how an ultra-conservative Catholic blog covered his election. All of these references strike me as not so much caricatures invented by Spadaro and Figueroa but as direct quotations by the people themselves or about them by obviously extreme sources (bin Laden and Church Militant). Finally, I’m not sure how the lack of civility between liberal and conservative Catholics detracts from Spadaro and Figueroa’s observations.

However, Camosy’s objection raises a critically important question that Spadaro and Figueroa would have done well to address: how do we talk about and with those whose worldviews we find lacking or troubling? If they, or I, were to adamantly label practitioners of the ecumenism of hate as evil, stupid, or intransigent, we would be falling into the same sort of absolutism under critique in this article, to say nothing of denying the possibility of redemption lying at the heart of our faith as Christians. However, pretending that differences in worldviews are inconsequential and thus there isn’t any conflict to be had would be both dishonest and simplistic. It seems to me that the real source of dialogue, and eventual bridge building, comes not from permanently affixing labels on one another, but rather from taking the time to learn more about the other and ask why they hold the beliefs they do. This approach requires an appreciation of nuance, openness to finding points of common ground, and the ability to acknowledge differences.


Rejection of Fear

Even given these objections and shortcomings, Spadaro and Figueroa have pointed out some troubling realities of the current state of religion and politics in the United States, the most pressing of which is offered in their conclusion. This piece ends on a note that is both hopeful and challenging. Much of the ecumenism of hate seems to be driven by instilling fear in its audience. The presentation goes something like this, “X is cause disorder. Disorder is scary. Therefore X is bad. We are the opposite of X. Therefore we are good, we will combat and triumph over X, and you won’t be afraid anymore.”

In the final lines of their article Spadaro and Figueroa juxtapose the image of a border fence crowned by barbed wire with the crown of thorns atop the crucified Christ on Good Friday. Poignant those it is, much like the rest of their article, this image, again like the rest of the article, needs to be deepened and extended to fully reflect our identities as Christians. The pain, suffering, and chaos caused by both our contemporary theopolitical situation and the crucifixion can and must give way to the fear and uncertainty of Holy Saturday and the messiness of constructively engaging those with whom we disagree. Only after entering into the tomb and burying our own absolutizing instincts can we emerge into the hope and unity of Easter Sunday.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Finding Hope in Honduras: Padre Melo’s Fight for Human Rights

Fri, 08/04/2017 - 23:01

Latin American Jesuits are raising the alarm about threats against human rights defenders in Honduras, including attacks aimed at discrediting the work and threatening the life of Father Ismael Moreno, SJ.

Moreno – affectionately known by all as “Padre Melo” – is director of the Honduran Jesuit radio station, Radio Progreso, and the Honduran Jesuit social action and analysis center, the Reflection, Investigation and Communication Team (ERIC). He is recognized internationally for promoting human rights in a country characterized by its weak institutions, official corruption and an extremely high murder rate. The broadcast station Radio Progreso reaches many rural communities, as well as the country’s largest cities. It serves as an important independent voice in a country where powerful interests control most broadcast media. And Padre Melo is a particularly coherent independent critical voice, one that Honduras very much needs.

Padre Melo has recently been attacked for his efforts to promote dialogue and advocated for those most marginalized in Honduran society. During student strikes last year at the national university, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras (UNAH), Padre Melo sat at the negotiating table at the request of the students, who felt he would listen to them and be a voice of reason. While agreements were reached between both parties and the overall prognosis appeared to be positive, that optimism did not last long. This year student strikes and protests returned to the UNAH, protesting the continuing stigmatization and criminalization of students by university authorities.

Retaliation was swift: 19 university students were arrested and suspended for five years, accused of occupying and damaging one of the university buildings, and three university students were found guilty this past June for occupying university property during demonstrations in July 2015. These punitive actions have garnered international attention at the highest level: the Office of the UN High Commission for Human Rights in Honduras (OACNUDH) expressed serious concern about the conviction of the three students in July 2015, and emphasized that these unjust judicial actions are being applied widely in Honduras: “in penal processes initiated particularly against human rights defenders, indigenous communities, Garifunas and peasants, encouraging their criminalization and indictment.”

Additionally, the university has brought in police forces and contracted private security forces to remove students from the buildings, which have resulted in injuries and building damages. Recent murders have also drawn concern for the physical safety of those exercising their right to peaceful protest. On July 23, the father of student Andrés Gómez, one of the 19 arrested, was murdered after supporting the demonstrations and attending the judicial hearing of his son. On July 11, a student active in the student movement was murdered.

Father Ismael Moreno, S.J.

Padre Melo has responded to all of this by re-doubling his efforts to promote dialogue, vocalizing the need for the inclusion of all perspectives at the table, especially the university students, who should be treated as the important dialogue partners in the reconciliation process that they are.

Despite his role as reconciler, Padre Melo has been attacked by the UNAH for “instigating” recent violence. In the midst of protests this past July, the UNAH rector, Julieta Castellanos, accused Padre Melo of “agitating” the student movement, and of “promoting practices and behaviors that… generate violence among the university students.” The UNAH has also terminated its academic agreement with the Jesuit center for social action, analysis and human rights, ERIC.  These moves came after Padre Melo accompanied the Venezuelan group “Guaraguao” to a concert hosted on the university campus at the students’ request.


This public attack against Padre Melo by the UNAH rector is both a threat to an independent information source and a threat to his life and the lives of those he works with. It is embedded in a larger narrative that makes any dissenting voice the “enemy.” Individuals and organizations in Honduras supporting marginalized and oppressed communities and peoples are themselves being subject to a similar form of stigmatization and criminalization. Those who advocate for justice, for the defense of the rights of the marginalized and excluded, are being discredited, criminalized and assassinated throughout Honduras.

The concern for human rights defenders and all of those who are considered in the “opposition” or “threats” to the political-military-business establishment that maintains power in Honduras is not only the risks involved for these individuals and organizations, but also the limiting of these spaces of public debate, dialogue and critical thinking, all of which are key to a democratic society. At a celebration of the 60th Anniversary of Radio Progreso this past December, for instance, Emilio Álvarez Icasa, former Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, argued that the spaces available to criticize and denounce the government in Honduras have become fewer. To the extent that these spaces are limited, so too is democracy truncated.

Padre Melo has expressed concern for the treatment of human rights defenders, environmentalists, journalists, student movements, all those who comprise the “opposition” to the dominant forces who are unable to control these groups. Those forces, he argues, engage in the stigmatization and criminalization of those participating in social protest and the human rights and environmental groups advocating for the defense of human rights and natural resources. In a recent article that quoted Padre Melo, he states that there is a four-stage progression to that process: first, these individuals and organizations are ignored; second, they are stigmatized; third, they are criminalized; and lastly, they are assassinated.

Given this reality, the UNAH rector’s accusations are extremely alarming. Powerful sectors of Honduran society that feel threatened by the work of Radio Progreso and ERIC can use Sra. Julieta’s words and accusations to defame and de-legitimize these institutions. In a country where violence and impunity reign, the rector’s insistence that Padre Melo is disrespectful of authority and promoting chaos and anarchy can only be viewed ominously. Her words, Padre Melo shows us, are part of a process to ignore, discredit, criminalize, and kill all opposition.


There has been an escalation of risks and threats not only against Padre Melo, but also the team of ERIC and Radio Progreso who receive, along with Padre Melo, protective measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In the last several years, two employees of ERIC-Radio Progreso have been murdered – Carlos Mejía in 2014 and Nery Jeremías Orellada in 2011 – and threats have been made against 16 employees since the 2009 government coup. In late March 2017, a defamation campaign targeted Padre Melo, Salvador Zúniga, a distinguished indigenous leader, and members of the Civic Council for Popular and Indigenous Organizations in Honduras (COPINH) – whose founder, Berta Cáceres, was killed last year. The campaign tried to discredit Padre Melo and these other individuals and organizations, accusing them of having ties with money laundering and narco-trafficking. Human rights defenders and indigenous organizations registered concern for the further victimization of human and environmental rights groups through this defamation campaign, aimed at weakening, stigmatizing and even criminalizing these individuals and organizations. Radio Progreso-ERIC argued that this defamation campaign was being used as a façade to conceal and divert attention away from what was happening simultaneously in New York, where the testimony of the brothers who operated the Cachiros, a Honduran narco-trafficking organization, was implicating some government officials and business leaders in Honduras.

Padre Melo at a protest

The human rights, media communication, social analysis and accompaniment work that they undertake put them at greater risk of stigmatization, discrediting and even death. And this occurs in a context characterized by weak and corrupt Honduran institutions, impunity and unsolved murder cases, and the lack of protection for human rights defenders, environmentalists and journalists. Honduras continues to be the most dangerous country for environmental activists (based on the number of assassinations per capita) with 127 activists killed since 2007, 14 of them killed in last year alone, including international known Berta Cáceres, according to Global Witness.

On July 29, a day after the UNAH rescinded the agreement with ERIC with the public accusations by Sra. Julieta, Padre Melo published this on his Facebook account:

We will continue to cry out for a culture of peace. Speaking for myself and for my team at ERIC and Radio Progreso, we remain fully open to dialogue and to search for rational solutions no matter how adverse the context. And even though the path seems closed, there is no other way because the accusations which are so direct and threatening on the part of Sra. Julieta, have left us exposed and much more vulnerable to the immense powers that are behind her. What my team and I, in particular, can expect is physical aggression on the part of criminal forces, to be forcibly disappeared, to continue to be discredited and stigmatized in many ways, or at the very least to be sued and sentenced and end up in the Pozo prison. We will continue to be promoters of peace, education and full civic participation in freedom and democracy and the rule of law.

In a statement released on the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, July 31, the Central American Jesuits, with support from the Conference of Provincials for Latin America and the Caribbean of the Society of Jesus, expressed the following:

We want to declare that the attacks directed against Fr. Melo are the consequence of working to defend the human rights of all sectors of society and of accepting to be mediators for “reconciling the estranged,” … The defense of human rights of the most excluded populations is the horizon that guides the work of the Society of Jesus in Honduras. Fr. Ismael Moreno and the team of ERIC-Radio Progreso are a model and valiant example of the Mission of the Society of Jesus that was reaffirmed in the 36th General Congregation, where it defines its central Mission as the reconciliation of humankind, as a single expression of the reconciliation with God, with people and with creation (GC 36, Decree 1, Life and Mission).

We are certain that none of these attacks will be able to undermine the firm integrity of the efforts of ERIC-Radio Progreso, of the members of its team and of its director, Fr. Ismael Moreno. Their search for “solutions which are fully human” for all the people of the Republic of Honduras, and especially for those people who we should care for most as Christians and as Jesuit companions of Fr. Melo, which is to say for the poor and oppressed to whom we must give preferential option, as preached by Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, our one Lord. For these reasons we support, reaffirm and admire the labor of Fr. Ismael Moreno and the entire team of ERIC-Radio Progreso.”

Along with the Latin American Jesuits, there has been an outpour of support of and solidarity with Padre Melo and the team at ERIC and Radio Progreso from individuals and organizations from across the country, voicing their deep concern for the recent attacks against Padre Melo. Concern has also been raised internationally from solidarity groups, human rights groups and most recently US Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, who issued a statement expressing concern about the increase of risk for human rights defenders in Honduras, explicitly mentioning Padre Melo and the entire team of Radio Progreso and ERIC.


The author with Padre Melo

This story has a personal dimension for me. Padre Melo has been my mentor, someone I have looked up to ever since I met him prior to entering the Jesuits.

Last year I was at a conference with Melo. A month earlier his dear friend and fellow promoter of justice and peace in Honduras, Berta Cáceres, had been brutally killed in her home. He gave me an affectionate huge, saying “querido compañero,” resting his head on my shoulder. He was the compassionate, cariñoso, affective compañero and brother all who know him love.

In the midst of the violence and despair symbolized by Berta’s death, I had to ask Melo: how do you all do what you do? “It’s the hope we have facing whatever problem,” he answered. No one can take that hope away from Padre Melo, however challenging and dangerous his work.

When he received the Rafto Prize, Melo, echoing the vision that animates Radio Progreso and ERIC, said, “I believe profoundly in life, and I profoundly believe in human beings and I deeply believe that the good will prevail against any kind of evil and violence. Because of this I am happy to share my life and my work in the world.”


Categories: Things Jesuit

Everything is (NOT) Satisfactual

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 23:01

Do you know what movie the iconic song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” is from? Or what movie Disneyland’s Splash Mountain is based on? If you answered no, Disney has succeeded in hiding its most offensive film, Song of the South.

Song of the South is set on a southern plantation during the Reconstruction Period after the Civil War, although this tidbit isn’t overtly stated. This 1946 film depicts African Americans working at the service of the white wealthy plantation owners. While they are slaves no longer, their “happy” service greatly downplays their less than pleasant situation as they appear still perfectly content with life on a plantation. One is left to assume that the emancipation of slaves magically healed the master/slave relationship. The viewer can conclude that the horrors of slavery were erased from everyone’s memory – including the former slaves.

But we know the truth: No amount of Disney Magic can fix that.

Perhaps Disney sees this as they have chosen to keep this film locked away in its vault in the United States. But why has Disney deemed this movie “socially unacceptable” for us but perfectly fine to be sold abroad? Should a “socially unacceptable” movie have an attraction based on it as Splash Mountain is essentially a monument to this film?

Disneyland’s Splash Mountain: A monument to a racist film?


I first saw this movie when I was 8 years old and my grandma procured a copy from abroad and had it converted to VHS. Though too young to fully realize how this film could be construed as offensive, I did pick up on the fact that the black people seemed inferior as they were talked down to and bossed around.

Knowing how even children can sense the racial disparity in the film, recent Disney Legends Award honoree Whoopi Goldberg wants to dialogue about this movie in the hopes of bringing it back to the public. I, for one, am in agreement.

Not acknowledging the prejudices that were commonplace in the past ignores the fact that these stereotypes ever happened.  As humans we continually grow and change. So do our social consciousnesses. In learning from our mistakes we can learn how to avoid them in the future. It is easy to dismiss tasteless humor and stereotypes as a product of the past, but is that enough?

On the one hand, the animated sequences of this film are beautiful and the film unfolds in a  quintessential Disney storytelling way. It’s a story about Uncle Remus, a storytelling man, who children look up to, listen to and learn from.  Uncle Remus conveys hard truth to help Johnny to cope, grow and learn about real life. In this way, Uncle Remus acts as a wise figure and true adult role model, guiding Johnny. I’m willing to bet that Uncle Walt saw a bit of himself in him – one who teaches children to find good adult role models, look past race, and make friends.

But if these were to be animated today, the dialect in which the Br’er Rabbit, Br’er Bear, and Br’er Fox speak would need to be rethought. The term “tar baby“ must be omitted. The take-away points of the stories would be changed to be inclusive, not simply directed at the service of Johnny’s problems. For example, the first lesson Uncle Remus teaches Johnny through a tale is that “You can’t run away from your trouble’s. Thar ain’t no place that far.” This might be a fitting lesson for a rich white boy, but does it send a message of complacency for those who were once enslaved?

Let’s face it –  no one wants to talk about slavery. This is the ugliest, most embarrassing and painful chapter of our history. And in a happy Disney film, who would want to treat this downer? While Disney’s intent is to entertain, it never really does concern itself with accurately portraying history. But ignoring the horror of slavery is not really owning that it was wrong in the first place. It’s less painful to look the other way. The film suggests that not talking about it is the way to go. Uncle Remus spends a lot of time reminiscing and teaching Johnny through stories, but the character omits any recollection of slavery.

Br’er Rabbit and the “Tar Baby”

For a film that doesn’t acknowledge slavery, it has no problem accepting that black people have a servant’s role on a plantation. When Johnny first arrives on the plantation, he is assigned an “ill-kempt but good natured” (the movie’s words) black boy to look after him. As an 8 year old, this was strange to me: it would be as if I went to visit my grandmother and she told the boy next door to look after me. Consequently, this film told me something about how the wealthy white folk could control the black population. Furthermore, Johnny’s grandmother who runs the plantation refers to to Uncle Remus as a “meddling old rascal.”

Another clear lesson Uncle Walt hopes to impart on us is that we ought to look past class when we make friends. Johnny befriends Jenny who lives in a shack on the edge of the plantation with her mom and two brothers who bully her. Johnny’s mother doesn’t like the idea of him having this lower class friend, and even tries to dissuade him from inviting her to his birthday party. Jenny and Johnny don’t seem to notice that they are from different worlds. Does highlighting the difference in classes try to ignore the racial issues?


The theme that wills out for me is the how friendship is found in unlikely people despite the difference that would seek to divide. Whether your friend is an older black man or a poor girl from the lower class, deep within us is a kinship that would rather see unity that division. Sure this is a Disney film where happily ever afters reign supreme. But maybe Song of the South does give us a real insight as to how the world could be, in spite of all its troubles: a world  where you choose not to subscribe to social and economic structures that promote disunity.

So what’s good about this movie? Why should we want to see it finally come out of Vault Disney?

  • It’s the first color film shot by famed cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who shot such masterpieces as The Grapes of Wrath and Citizen Kane.
  • It was the first Disney movie to have an African American in a lead role, who incidentally went on to win an honorary Academy Award for his performance.
  • Walt Disney Animation perfected its technique of mixing live action with animation.
  • And let’s not forget that iconic song which also won an Oscar.

Aside from the films accolades, the core of the story tells us universal truths that people of all ages, colors and class can relate to – that we can envision a world of unity. This is a magnificent, albeit flawed, piece of art.

That being said, for a re-release to be in order, there must be mutual sensitivity on all sides. We all need to recognize the way African Americans are portrayed on the plantation. However unintentional it may be, it is in fact offensive to our black brothers and sisters. Not admitting this most certainly downplays the horrible experience of Reconstruction America for African Americans. Art does reflect current understandings of life. As unfortunate as it is, this Disney film was no exception. Acknowledging the mistakes is a heroic and honest, and this is what is needed for healing and respectful dialogue.


The Walt Disney company has progressed by leaps and bounds over the decades. The company truly attempts to produce entertainment that is non-offensive. Examples of this would be its treatment of racial issues in Academy Award winner, Zootopia and the upcoming changes to a scene in the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction at Disney theme parks. Any future re-releases should be be preceded by a commentary that puts the film into context, not unlike what Whoopi Goldberg did for the DVD release of Tom and Jerry cartoons.   

I don’t know if Disney will ever re-release Song of the South, but this obscure movie will remain in our consciousness as long as the world continues to enjoy singing “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” takes a five story plunge on “Splash Mountain,” or is able to get this movie aboard. If Song of the South can be viewed in its proper context we’ll learn to avoid the mistakes of the past and enjoy a film that is “mighty satisfactual.” “And that’s the truth.”

Photo Credit Disneyland Cast Member: Coleen Palmer



The cover image is featured from

Categories: Things Jesuit

Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There

Thu, 08/03/2017 - 02:00

“Your disease has a downward trajectory,” said the doctor to the man. The former was among the best cancer doctors at one of the best cancer hospitals in the world. The latter was a man a few years shy of 60, no longer young but not yet old. An awkward silence opened after his awkward sentence.

What the physician meant to say was: “You are going to die. This disease will kill you, and sooner rather than later.” There are many reasons that sentence was almost unpronounceable in that shiny medical tower. From there death, and the disease that caused it, was a dread enemy to be fought and conquered. The unintended consequence of this view is that death’s eventual arrival on the horizon suggested that someone had failed.  

The patient, who was perhaps even more allergic to bullshit than to the cancer in his blood, asked for a clarification: “I don’t understand. What are you saying?”

“I am saying that there is nothing more we can do for you here. I am sorry.”

Later that afternoon, the patient took an ambulance ride from Manhattan to the Bronx, from hospital to hospice. It was not a long trip, but it was the last one he would ever take.

This was not a trip that he had expected to make that day.


We looked like Good Humor men, decked in white from head to toe. White shirt, white pants, white socks, white shoes. Bounce some sunlight off our (mostly) pale skin and looking directly at us became a hazard to retinal health.

It was the springtime of our first year as Jesuits, which for me and my seven classmates meant one thing: “hospital experiment.” From the time of the order’s founding, we Jesuits have often found ourselves ministering in hospitals. This is particularly true of novices – those in their first two years of formation – but not only them. When Ignatius sent several of his first companions to the Council of Trent as theological experts, he instructed them to fill their spare time ministering at a nearby hospital.

The novices of my province have been going to Calvary Hospital, a hospital-scale hospice facility in the Bronx, for over forty years – since the days when nuns in full habits roamed the halls as nurses. For all that has changed at Calvary and in the Church over those forty years, one thing has not: the hospital experiment is one of the most important experiences of a Jesuit’s early formation.

Calvary is a remarkable place. It specializes almost exclusively in palliative medicine, particularly in pain management and end-of-life care for the terminally ill. Most of its patients suffer from various forms of cancer, and they pass through the hospital’s doors knowing that their next bed may well be their deathbed. It is, as I have become fond of saying, a “wonderful terrible place.” Terrible because even the best of care cannot diminish the suffering borne by so many there. Wonderful because patients at Calvary are treated with unrivaled dignity and compassion; cared for not only physically, but spiritually and emotionally as well.

Though we were men seeking to be Jesuit priests, we entered the hospital not to offer spiritual care, at least not in a formal capacity. We were there to serve as orderlies, not chaplains, and this for several weeks. Practically speaking, this meant our days were filled taking care of physical needs. If you were a male patient looking for a bath, a shave, or some help eating your meal, we were your guys. When the bedpan eventually filled, we could help you with that too. And when death came, as it always does, the preparation of a patient’s body became our somber privilege.


It was over eight years ago now that I met “the patient,”  just a few days after that fateful conversation took him on a drive to Calvary. The patient and I had arrived at the hospital at just about the same time, albeit for very different purposes, and we had both been assigned to the same floor upon our arrivals. The first thing I noticed, even before the patient and I met, was a poster that hung in his room: publicity for the forthcoming biopic of Julia Child, “Julie & Julia.” It bore the image of an ascot-wearing Meryl Streep, her grinning face framed by two splayed turkey legs.

I remember laughing when I saw it. I remember because laughter was a pretty rare occurrence in those first days at the hospital.

Some days later, I was assigned to help with his care. Only then did I learn that “the patient” was named Tom.1 My assignment to his room meant that each day we would spend a good deal of time together.


Actually accompanying a person in their last days – sharing the experience with them – is an extraordinary thing. Most of us do not inhabit this space very often or very well. This is, in my experience, partially because we do not find ourselves in such positions often. But it is also because we expect this space to be filled with the spectacular, the epiphanic, when in reality the imminent horizon of death draws nearer through the kind of things we don’t pause twice to consider: sleeping, eating, bathing. And talking.

Years later, it is the conversation that I remember most. Not necessarily the topics, which were so ordinary that I have lost many of the details, but rather the time. Initially, we were strangers and so spent a good bit of time getting to know each other. We talked of home and family at first, and then of education and career. We were sketching a roadmap to the present; coming to know one another.

Armed with that knowledge, the topics deepened. We talked about Tom’s partner, whom he had buried and grieved; struck down like so many others in the first wave of the AIDS epidemic. It was in this way that love and loss, those strange twins, made their appearance in our conversation. And eventually we talked about God, indirectly at least, as a 20-something novice explained why he wanted to be a priest to someone with a complicated relationship to organized religion.

There was also a lot of laughter, and not just the first time I spied the Meryl Streep poster. In fact, I laughed often during the weeks that I spent in that room. (In the end two people, even one dying and one in formation to be a priest, can only spend so much time talking about death and God.) Perhaps that may seem counterintuitive, and maybe even irreverent. I felt awkward the first time we laughed together in his room. I mean, who laughs while tending someone’s hospice bed?

I did. And Tom laughed as well, along with many of his friends who came to visit. It is easy to forget that life in the shadow of death is still life, and that an ordinary part of living – even living with extraordinary suffering – is laughter.

I do not mean to suggest that our time together was all levity. The shadow that Tom’s impending death cast was real, and it was at times difficult for him to bear, as it was for his friends and family – and for me. But I do mean to suggest that it was not all darkness around that deathbed. You have to know that the darkness we felt was tinged by a light, a light that shone from the beauty of his life, even as it neared its end.

I mean to say that there were tears of sadness and tears of joy. I mean to say that to see only darkness when there is also light is a thing worse than simplification. It is humbling reality to fit our emotions. It is selective blindness.


Inhabiting the perimeter of a deathbed, or the space that surrounds someone’s suffering, is not something we regularly elect to do on our own. Most often, as with an illness, it is thrust upon us, arriving without warning or invitation. Perhaps surprisingly, our inner resistance to really “being there” – being present to the person rather than to ourselves – is often directly proportional to our emotional proximity to the person lying in the bed.

Some weeks before his death, before his condition took a final turn for the worse, Tom began contacting friends and colleagues to say goodbye. Several times I witnessed these types of in person encounters between Tom and visiting friends. I could see that it was hard for them to be fully attentive to these sad conversations. I admired those who adopted this attitude; admired that they honored the gravity of what Tom was doing by initiating this kind of a dialogue.

But this response was far from universal. One of his friends, when met with the news that Tom had returned to inpatient care, said blithely: “Oh, I’m sure you’ll beat it.” When, through tears, Tom informed his colleague that in fact he would not “beat it” and would soon die, the person was literally unable to respond. This truth was too hard to look at. The call ended shortly thereafter.

“Nothing in life was as ugly as death,” Graham Greene has written. This is one way to view the reality of suffering and death. It is certainly the most prevalent; the one I saw most often at Calvary. Faced with the death of another, most of us are afraid to meet its gaze – even when the dying person is not. We cannot, or will not, look it in the face, especially when it concerns one we care for.

At the most basic level, we might think of the “downward trajectory” doctor; the one who knows full well what he is saying but cannot say it. Perhaps in contemporary medicine – where death is treated as an enemy, only to be surrendered to reluctantly, at the end of a losing “battle” – this is understandable. Admitting defeat in such a circumstance could weaken one for the combats to come.

But as I walked the halls of Calvary Hospital I realized that Tom’s friend or his doctor weren’t the only people who had difficulty acknowledging the reality before their eyes. The flood of folks who brought “Get Well Soon” cards to friends or relatives who were going to die within days could be included here. And, if I’m being honest, I need to be included here as well. Whether with Tom or with any number of other patients, it was easy for me to overlook the gravity of their illnesses, especially on their “good days.” At some level this was a coping strategy for an assignment that could easily prove oppressive. But in the end, impending death will not be prevented by pretending things are otherwise.


Members of the Society of Jesus make the Spiritual Exercises – a retreat assembled by our founder, Ignatius of Loyola – at least twice in our lives. This retreat takes place over roughly four weeks, and during each week we ask for a particular gift from God. The third of these weeks is spent – jarringly, painfully – meditating on the suffering and death of the man who lies at the center of our life: Jesus. Ignatius asks us to pray a strange prayer as we do this. In his words, we are ask God for  “sorrow with Christ in sorrow, anguish with Christ in anguish.” We are called, in other words, to be present to the suffering of someone that we love, to feel it and dwell within its space, all the while knowing that there is nothing (or at least very little) we can do to end that suffering.

We choose to be present at the foot of the cross, to be present when someone we care for is languishing painfully before our eyes. As the late Jesuit peace activist and poet, Daniel Berrigan, was reputedly fond of saying: “Don’t just do something. Stand there.”

This is hard. Like the apostles who had followed Jesus until the moment that it mattered most, we also face the temptation to flee. There are multiple ways to do so, and actually running away is just one of them.

As Tom’s condition gradually deteriorated, two forces competed within me. I recognized them both from the experience of making the Exercises months earlier. One was the urge to stay, to be fully present to this person and to the full breadth of his life – including his death. The other was to bolt, in one way or another. In other words, I know all too well that we search, even unwittingly, for reasons to be absent from one in need and therefore from our discomfort. Sometimes we may be physically present, but still elude the reality before our eyes until death removes all possible denial. In the same vein, we face the temptation (and that is precisely the word) to make the suffering of our loved one about us rather than about them.

The most common way that this happens is the effort to “make sense” of what the other person is going through. “Why?” is a beautiful human question. It is a natural question when we face suffering and death. Patients go through this, too, but often emerge from this stage of grief long before their friends and families. Our search for an answer, to glean sense from the senseless, can keep us from being present to the reality, to the person, that is actually before our eyes. Even these many years later, I cannot – or, better still, will not – suggest a “reason” for the suffering I saw at Calvary. I am afraid that in addition to making the experience about me, this would blind me to the light – actual, abundant light – on display there.


On the face of it, the work at Calvary might seem rather dark. We cared for the dying. We washed the bodies of the dead. There were days that it actually was dark, no question. And yet those who dwell in darkness are often most sensitive to the presence of light.

Not long before I arrived at Calvary, a friend passed me a copy of the Jane Kenyon’s Otherwise: New and Selected Poems. Kenyon herself was no stranger to sufferings: hers included both a long battle with depression and her eventual, untimely death from leukemia in 1995. One evening before mass, when Tom’s suffering grew more acute and the end of his life came squarely into view, I found myself alone in a Jesuit community chapel, with Kenyon’s poem “Let Evening Come”2:

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

As evening came in Tom’s life, I found myself having to check my own resistance to that twilight. I did not want to let it come. This man, who had been a stranger weeks before, was no longer that. Now I looked forward to our conversations – looked forward to going to the hospital each day – and was not prepared for it all to end. Perhaps I had temporarily forgotten that he had come to Calvary to die. The only choice available to me was rather stark: either stay with him to the end or flee, in whatever form that might take.

The end came abruptly. His rather consistent pain level spiked one day, and managing the pain quickly required doses of medication that, while keeping him more comfortable, also left him hovering just below the border of consciousness. As with all medicines, this effect also had side-effects, and the latter complicated Tom’s underlying medical conditions. It was a Passion; one he bore with courage.

Tom died on a Friday, right before I arrived at work. My first task on that last day was to help prepare his body for burial. It was a tremendous honor, and a sad one.


I first arrived at the hospital for work on Easter Thursday, when the liturgy of the Church is still delirious with joy that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and thereby destroyed its power forever. In fact, our presence at Calvary coincided almost exactly with the fifty days of the Easter season. During my first days at the hospital, I remember feeling a kind of whiplash between the bright joy of the Easter season and the dark realities we witnessed at the hospital. It was jarring to sing our Easter “alleluias” each evening after the pain and death and sorrow of Good Friday each morning and afternoon.

Fittingly the liturgical color for the Easter season is white – the same color in which we were clad from head to toe as we walked the dark hallways. It took some time, but a few of us took to calling our blinding uniforms our “Resurrection Whites.” It seemed, and seems, appropriate.

Then as now, it is light – not darkness – that I see at the heart of my time at Calvary. It is light, not darkness, that the suffering and dying offer to bring into our lives. It is light, not darkness, that they offer to leave in our busy hearts. The least we can do is stand there.


Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user Jo Naylor, found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Sweating It Out

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 02:00

Jumping out of my lofted bed in half-panic, I turn off the wailing alarm. The elusive peace from the silence is replaced by fatigue and dread. It’s 6am on this mid-January morning in Iowa. My school bag and duffel bag full of sweats are ready to go; all I have to do is throw on my winter coat and stumble into Dad’s car. We head to Ottumwa High School together, he to work and me to train before class. I have lofty goals for my junior-year wrestling season, and I’m fueled by the certainty that my opponents in the 130-pound weight class have a similar objective. But before I can even consider attaining mine and crushing theirs, I have to make weight.

Sitting on the locker room bench, I pull out the extra two sets of sweats. Before layering up, I put on my plastic suit. Plastics are what they sound like: pants and a long-sleeve top made out of non-breathable plastic. Sweat pours out in these.  

I can drop five pounds in thirty minutes jumping rope and sprinting in plastics. My body screams for oxygen and I gasp greedily between rounds.

“ohmygodicantbreathe,” says one voice in my head.

“Don’t be soft! Suck it up. Your next opponent is doing one more lap right now,” the internalized coach inside my head responds.

These sacrifices generate toughness. And toughness, I’ve been convinced, is the principle characteristic of a champion.


Waiting to board my plane, I watch a young mom chase down a toddler while holding an infant in her hands. There’s more worry on her face than kids can produce. She hands off her children to their dad and walks away. While it’s unusually warm, she’s not wiping sweat from the corners of her eyes.

I smile. I’ve been that mom. To be clear: I haven’t reared my own children. But what I recognize in the mom is something I’ve only starting doing recently: depending on loved ones when my spirit says I can’t!

Refusing to surrender on those high school winter mornings helped me achieve the personal glory I was striving toward as a wrestler, but I’ve greatly misapplied that philosophy outside of sports. Struggling emotionally? It’ll pass. Too many responsibilities? Buckle-down and pull through. Feeling pain? Tough it out. In rare moments I’ve allowed others to sustain me, but with great stubbornness and difficulty.

Loved ones have always shown up for me, waiting for me to drop the tough guise. I never really got St. Paul’s “when I am weak, then I am strong” thing until I admitted I couldn’t do it – any of it – on my own. Self-sufficiency was, and still is, a farce.


Mitakuye Oyasin,” Roger belts out, which prompts the doorman to rip open the sweat lodge’s canvas doors, letting in sweet, sweet oxygen. The built-up steam bellows out the openings as light rushes in. Seated with my back to the door, I turn and lie face-down, nearly sticking my head out the door to suck in as much of the cool air as possible. When I peek back at the faces around me, the look in their eyes match my thoughts: “There’s no f$%*#& way I can go on!”

A sweat lodge structure.

Ten of us have just completed round one of inipi, a healing and purifying prayer ritual of the Lakota tradition also known as a sweat lodge. In round two, all of us take a turn expressing our reasons for being there. For family, for those in professional transition, for spiritual freedom, for loved ones plagued by the disease of addiction, for an end to racism, for peace. More reasons are reiterated and added. Our spoken intentions are harmonized with Roger’s chants. Searing steam forces me to breathe through my mouth. I sneak sniffs through my nose to take in the odor of the sweetgrass burning over the 28 red-hot stones.

I look at my companions after round two. While we’re still relieved for a brief break from the sensory overload, I no longer see the same panic in people’s eyes. Reminded of the intentions behind our sacrifice, we experience an injection of resilience and last two more rounds.

Pouring sweat. Difficulty breathing. Making a sacrifice. A bit like training in plastics, but something feels different. While we still heard that little voice inside that says I can’t!, we were comforted by the solidarity of our struggle. Much more fortifying than a voice that says don’t be soft!, our communal tenderness gave us strength. I can’t sweat when I’m severely dehydrated. I can’t give if I’m empty. True tenderness, not blind toughness, opens us to receive what our spirits need – refreshing us after an intense sweat.


The cover image, from Flickr user Chris Hunkeler, can be found here. The embedded image of a sweat lodge, from Flickr user Rachael Moore, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Dunkirk: A Different Day at the Beach

Tue, 08/01/2017 - 06:13

In Dunkirk, director Christopher Nolan tells the story of the 1940 British evacuation from France at the outset of World War II. The film, which cleverly plays with converging timelines, focuses on a soldier on the beach (played by Fionn Whitehead), the harried naval officer directing the seemingly hopeless evacuation (Kenneth Branagh), the civilian called to sail his small yacht across the Channel to pick up soldiers (Mark Rylance), and a Spitfire pilot desperately flying to protect the ships from aerial attack (Tom Hardy).

Dunkirk doesn’t shy away from the horror of war. More to the point, Dunkirk doesn’t let you shy away from the horror of war. You cannot ignore the constant strain and pressure war puts upon human beings and the terror that violence induces in its victims – nor should you. Nolan makes you look at the evil human beings will do to each other and doesn’t permit you to turn your eyes to anything else for the entirety of the film.  

Dunkirk depicts with considerable historical accuracy one of the most dramatic moments of World War II: as German forces rapidly advance into France, the outgunned British Expeditionary Force of 400,000 soldiers beat a hasty retreat to the beaches of Dunkirk, roughly 50 miles from the English coast.  With disaster looming, the British faced the almost impossible task of evacuating their army before the Germans overran the defenses on the beach. With the help of a massive flotilla of civilian ships and boats, the British managed to evacuate the bulk of their army before the Germans seized control of the beaches.


In a tightly-paced 90 minute film, Nolan manages to do justice to most elements of the Dunkirk evacuation, including the disorganized British retreat to Dunkirk, the relentless German air attacks on the beach and in the English Channel, the numbing despair of soldiers waiting on the beach for evacuation but not expecting it, and the unexpected arrival of a motley civilian fleet of yachts, fishing boats, and barges that evacuated the remaining troops. Most remarkably, the film maintains considerable dramatic tension in a movie that depicts a relatively well-known historic event.

That description makes the film seem like a standard movie from its genre. I assure you that it is not. Reviews that critique Dunkirk as if it were simply a paean to a heroic event of great significance or an empty and grey war spectacle miss the point: Dunkirk is neither a sentimental war story nor a bloody festival of guts and gore. There is very little sentiment in Dunkirk and even less blood, though there are the requisite deaths and explosions.

Christopher Nolan is aiming at something different than the usual war film. Nolan discards all the typical tropes. There is no band of easily-recognized ethnic stereotypes talking about life in the old neighborhood or schooldays before the war, or wistful images of a sweetheart back home for whom our plucky warrior pines. The dialogue is sparse, and the few bits of humor are grim and laconic. Hans Zimmer’s score is terse and minimal, serving to amplify the metallic sounds of war; the rare moments of rousing anthem are harshly undercut by subsequent moments of sheer terror and chaos. This is a film that drops a moment of levity simply to make the subsequent sound of incoming German dive-bombers even more disheartening.

The minimal character development that Nolan employs throughout Dunkirk points to Nolan’s larger focus: this movie is only minimally about any of the individuals involved in the evacuation. Rather, Dunkirk is about the nation itself, grappling with the ongoing and ever present possibility of total defeat and destruction. Nolan walks you past soldiers who see death circling ever closer, and their countrymen’s frenzied (and miraculously successful) attempts to avert it. And even though you know that most soldiers will be successfully evacuated, you still don’t believe it will happen until you see soldiers walking through an English train station.

Most surprisingly, Dunkirk is a strikingly spiritual film. Though there is little overt religiosity in the film, it is a film that demands prayerful reflection. Through Dunkirk, we can look at the part of the world that still waits eagerly for the dawning of a new heaven and a new earth, the part of the world that cries out still for the fullness of redemption and new life. The drama of human dysfunction is fully on display in Dunkirk, as the strain of war and violence wreaks havoc on the humanity of the evacuating soldiers and the sailors who convey them.


The actual events of Dunkirk are nearly 80 years in the past. Yet, watching ships sink in the surf while men and women struggle to survive for just another moment is hardly irrelevant. Obliquely, Dunkirk harkens to the ongoing crisis of migrants and refugees. Everyday we read reports of ships more ramshackle than the wooden yachts of the English Channel foundering in the Mediterranean and the deaths of far too many men, women, and children, who like the men and women of Dunkirk, sought refuge and safety. We ought not avert eyes to them, either.

Go see Dunkirk. Do not look away from the history that Christopher Nolan is showing you. Peer deeply at the world of the past in its ugliness and beauty and let it inspire to keep your eyes open to the present world, too. Let an ethic of open eyes be the first step of many towards a growing solidarity and fraternity with all those standing upon anxious beaches desperately waiting for the chance to reach safe home.


Images courtesy FlickrCC users Craig Duffy and deepskyobject.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Interview with James Martin, SJ: Part II

Mon, 07/31/2017 - 00:14

Part II in a two-part series. Part I available here.

TJP: In your book and in many subsequent comments, you note that LGBT Catholics are often singled out in ways that other groups are not, noting, for instance, that people who do not always and everywhere love the poor are not publicly singled out. What are you trying to show with such examples?

Martin: What I’m trying to show is straightforward: that they are often the only group whose sexual morality, or morality in general, is placed under a microscope.  For example, we don’t have bishops issuing documents on why someone who is divorced and remarried without an annulment cannot received a Catholic burial.  We don’t have priests thundering from the pulpit about couples living together before marriage.  We don’t have Catholic schools firing people who have children out of wedlock.  These days it’s mainly LGBT people who are targeted. Why just them?  That’s the question. To me, it’s a sign of what the Catechism calls “unjust discrimination,” something we are supposed to avoid.

More basically, if adherence to church teaching is going to be a litmus test for employment in Catholic institutions, then parishes and dioceses need to be consistent.  We need to ask people to adhere to all church teachings, not just those that focus on LGBT issues.  Those would include Gospel values: caring for the poor, loving one another, forgiving one another.  The “weightier matters of the law,” as Jesus would say.  When I say this, the response is often that same-sex marriage is a “public scandal.”  But I’d suggest that someone working in one of our institutions who is cruel or vindictive is also a scandal.  And it is quite public.

Father Gil Martinez, CSP, pastor of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City, introduces Father James Martin and Xorje Olivares, a member of Out at St. Paul, an LGBT outreach ministry, at a conversation at the parish on Building a Bridge on July 19.


TJP: Within the United States, many identify the promotion of tolerance and respect for LGBT persons with the political (and often secular) Left. How can the US Church make the loving acceptance of LGBT persons a non- or even trans-partisan issue?

Martin: Good question.  It’s surprising to me that tolerance is sometimes seen as an issue of the “left.”  Because not only do I know a few intolerant people on the left, but Christians on the “right” are also (obviously) committed to the Gospels.  Moreover, part of Christian love is respect.   What I’m calling for is a meditation on the ways that Jesus approached people who felt that they were on the margins: first, by welcoming them.  So the key is, as always, inviting people to meditate on the ways that Jesus approached things.  And that is indeed trans-partisan.  Jesus transcends those categories.


TJP: Tell us about the Scriptural meditations in your book. What led you to include them?

Martin: For many years I’ve done–like many Jesuits, priests and religious, and pastoral workers–a kind of “informal ministry” with LGBT people.  And I’ve found that some passages from Scripture have consistently been helpful for LGBT people who are struggling with their faith.  Psalm 139 (“I praise you for I am fearfully and wonderfully made”) is one of them.  It’s such a powerful tool for people, and helps unlock things for them in prayer.

Likewise, I wanted to include selected passages from the New Testament that I feel can help people gain insight in to the ways that Jesus treated people who felt marginalized in his time—like the story of the Roman centurion’s servant, and Jesus’s encounter with Zacchaeus.   In the book, I invite readers to use some of the practices of Ignatian contemplation with these passages.  What might God want to tell us in our prayer?

And here’s something strange I’ve noticed:  almost every reviewer has ignored the entire second half of the book—the Scripture meditations and invitation to prayer.  It’s baffled me.  When else does someone review only half of a book?  And I’m not sure why that is.  On the secular left, perhaps they cannot enter into a conversation about spirituality, or they think it’s useless.  On the far right, perhaps they cannot admit that these passages might have something new to say to us about LGBT people.   When I’m feeling in a darker mood, I wonder if it’s because a few on the far right feel that LGBT people can’t have a spiritual life.

In any event, if you read most reviews, it’s as if I only wrote one half of the book.  Very strange.  And for me, the second half is by far the more important part.  Because the first part is an invitation to dialogue, but the second part is an invitation to prayer.



Parishioners wait in line to meet Father James Martin after a talk at Sacred Heart Church in South Plainfield, NJ, on July 9.

TJP: How do the sacraments figure in this bridge-building?

Immeasurably.  And, as I see it, the most essential sacrament in this discussion is baptism, for both groups: LGBT Catholics and church officials.

Often LGBT Catholics are told that they don’t belong in the church. And I remind them of their baptism.  I love the line from the Catechism: “Holy Baptism is the basis of the whole Christian life.”  It is the “gateway to life in the Spirit,” in another beautiful phrase.  Its importance cannot be overestimated.  Baptism incorporates us into the Church.  So our tradition couldn’t be clearer.   It’s important to root LGBT Catholics in the fact that Jesus Christ himself called them into the church.

At the same time, it’s sometimes good to remind those who work in official capacities in the church—clergy and lay alike–that LGBT Catholics are not only full Catholics by virtue of their baptism, but they have essential gifts to bring to the church, as all baptized Catholics do.  Jesus called them into the church for their salvation, but also to enrich the church by their presence.


TJP: As we have seen with the disputes over Amoris Laetitia, it is easy in controversies over sexuality to pit love against truth, with the group preaching tolerance holding to “love” and the group preaching orthodoxy holding to “truth.” How do you see yourself holding the two together?

Well, I don’t hold them together; they are held together in Jesus, who is truth and who is love.  So there is no real pitting anything against anything else.  Our orthodoxy, as well as our orthopraxis, is love, and that is the truth of who we are.

That’s why I continually return to the Gospels.  You cannot go wrong following what Jesus did.  And yes, I know that the Gospels have to be interpreted, and that people may disagree on those interpretations and applications, but for me some things are clear.  For example, Jesus was open to encountering people on the margins, he was open to listening to them, and he always led with welcome.

But overall, all these things are held together in Jesus Christ.  And as a Jesuit, everything I do, including the work with this book, is grounded in him.  Everything.




Categories: Things Jesuit

Millennial Wanderlust & the Pilgrim Saint

Sat, 07/29/2017 - 23:01

Ignatius lived over five hundred years ago in a time before computers, before cars, before the steam engine, before the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The printing press had been invented, but literacy was practically nonexistent. It was a time of nobles, knights, Christendom, legends, and castles…

All of which sounds terribly nostalgic and impossibly different from the world in which we live. The world of Ignatius Loyola seems more akin to Cervantes’s Don Quixote with the wild and comic figure of a knight, than the day-to-day monotony of cars, electricity, computers, and social media.

Our world seems messier than Ignatius’s, the battle lines are not clear and often I’m not sure who the ‘good guys’ are. Where Ignatius waited months for letters, I can find news, tweets, messages, snapchats from across the globe instantly delivered to the palm of my hand. It’s an entirely different world where I acutely feel the reality of my access to incalculable and inexhaustible information. I have unbounded potential, bounded within my own indeterminate direction… And, I don’t think I’m alone in this feeling.

“Wanderlust” is a bit of strange word to discuss, especially in the abstract terms of our modern realities in 2017. Literally, wanderlust refers to the strong desire to travel, but it can also refer to a desire not to stay still—a desire, insatiable and greater than your very heart can hold.

This term describes a fundamental tension in which many young adults live. There is a desire—screaming within us—to do something meaningful and big: “I can do it, and I can make a difference!” Which simultaneously echoes with the slight whisper which fills the air: “…But what do I do? What can I do?”

Lev Grossman’s The Magicians captures this feeling well: “Too many magicians, not enough monsters.” The quotation expresses the infinite possibility held in tension with a question of direction. There is a desire to prove oneself, but at the same time there is an emptiness, a question: “What am I supposed to do?”

Yet, for all the modernness of these feelings, Ignatius felt it 500 years ago. His autobiography can best be described as a wandering journey, a pilgrim’s tale. It’s because of this that Ignatius might have a special insight as to the millennial struggle. What worked to quench Ignatius’s wanderlust?

Our pilgrim wanderer lays out a program of finding our path: reflecting, seeking, and then doing.

With tweets, snapchats, facebook, email, and texts—let’s face it: our world moves fast. Often, the speed at which the world turns can leave us spinning. If we could slow the world down, then perhaps we could pause and determine what is good or bad for us. Sadly, that isn’t a realistic option.

Instead of the impossible, Ignatius offers a short daily practice called the Examen. The purpose of the prayer is to reflect upon those good things and good moments in such a way as to cultivate gratitude. And, in the same way, to notice those places which need a little attention or growth for the next day. Reflecting upon these things, we simultaneously cultivate gratitude and see the areas in our life which need growth.

This practice of reflection, even in the midst of the chaos of our modern lives, offers us a chance to get in touch with ourselves—to understand our strengths, failings, and most importantly our desires. Knowing these things about ourselves helps us to realize what we should seek.

Ignatius doesn’t stop at reflection, he aims us towards more. He says we should seek those good things, and especially seek those deep movements and desires which pull us outward. We should seek deep consoling encounters that last, not simply the fleeting moments of self absorption or immediate gratification.

These deep encounters and desires which we seek and cultivate are more like rivers than fireworks. Where fireworks might explode leading to the “ooh and aah” which carries us away momentarily, a river slowly pulls us towards something greater than ourselves. We experience these currents within us. They are the things which splash out in our genuine laughter and joy, but they are also the things which press out on all sides—leading us to the feelings of wanderlust and insatiability.

So Ignatius says that we should seek those deeper movements, those things of love, depth, and grace. By seeking what we love, we find meaning. As Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, once said:

What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.

Once we seek and find this love: What are we to do?

Ignatius answers that our restlessness and wanderlust can only be appeased by turning those things which we love over to others. That infinite capability and potential which we feel wrestling within our chest should be directed out from ourselves—towards God and others.

Ignatius himself discovered this method of discernment when he was bedridden at Loyola castle. After prayer, reflection, and seeking, Ignatius could barely hold himself still. He erupted from the castle to the road, wandering as a pilgrim and sharing his love and joy with others. It’s in this context that Ignatius makes the claim: “Love is shown more in deeds than in words.”

Deeds—sparked from our love and genuine passions—offer us a way to quench our wanderlust. This outpouring of self doesn’t so much as empty ourselves as fill us with purpose. Those deeds of love allow us to express ourselves, and even further, to become echoes of the very depths of our souls. Instead of holding within the ricocheting: “I can make a difference!… but what can I do?”, we become those dreams which were never realized.

We cannot contain those dreams, and yet we feel them rattling within our very bones. It seems like a modern problem—and perhaps it is—but a pilgrim saint confronted his wanderlust over 500 years ago. So what would Ignatius have us do with our wanderlust?

Ite, inflammate omnia … “Go, set the world on fire.” — Ignatius Loyola


Categories: Things Jesuit

Doct-her Who?

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 23:01

This Christmas, the Doctor will regenerate like never before.

Yes, you saw that correctly.  After 36 series, numerous specials, and a TV movie, Jodie Whittaker will be the first woman to play the lead role in the long-running British sci-fi series, and responses have been mixed to say the least.  Some have said that it is about time for a change, while others feel that the change is either a token move or an attempt for the BBC to be politically correct.  Still more are furious and even claim that changing the Doctor’s gender is an affront to the essence of the lead character.  

But here’s the thing: we’ve seen this transition coming.  In Series 8, classic Doctor Who villain, the Master appeared as a woman, going by “Missy,” short for Mistress.  And this transition worked, giving new life to a character who, previously, never quite had staying power.  The Master was hinted at during series 3 but he was one-dimensional.  He just wanted power and control.  By contrast, we encountered Missy directly in Series 8 without knowing who she was.  She wanted chaos and fun rather than control.

It was then that I started wondering if the next Doctor could be a woman.

Incoming head writer Chris Chibnall stated that he “always wanted the Thirteenth Doctor to be a woman.” 1 But he also did not want a gimmick.  Choosing a woman as the Doctor simply for the sake of having a woman reeks of tokenism and ultimately detracts from the character of the Doctor.  So it seems instead that his vision for the Doctor is rooted in his desire to explore the depth of the Doctor’s character.

Given his enthusiasm, it makes sense that Chibnall is taking the series in a new direction. Moreover, the choice of Whittaker shouldn’t be a surprise: he’s worked with her before on the BBC series Broadchurch and now is calling her his first choice for the 13th doctor.

Personally, I am pleased to see Whittaker cast as the Doctor.  While I say this never having seen her work before, she is a natural Doctor: when I saw her take off her hood and smile at the camera in the reveal trailer, she felt like the Doctor to me.  Key in hand, she happily recognizes the TARDIS as her own.  That simple joy felt real.  But more importantly, she is making a statement to a new generation of young women.


Throughout the course of Doctor Who, women have primarily been limited to the role of a companion.  Some of them have been tremendous forces in their own right.  That said, only the characters of River Song and Missy have stood out in the new series as women independent of the TARDIS.  River Song is a fellow time traveler who we later learn is the Doctor’s wife.  The fact that we encounter her in reverse order makes her simultaneously one of the most fascinating and tragic characters in the series.  We know how her story will end from the very beginning.  As the Doctor gets to know her better, she knows him less.

That said, neither of these women has ever been the Doctor.  They have always taken a backseat to the men in the titular role.   

Now, Whittaker is allowing young girls to look up to her as a role model.  This seems fitting for Doctor Who –  Science Fiction has long been a medium for social commentary. It makes sense that Doctor Who also tells young women that they too are important enough to be the hero, not just a companion.

When asked about her upcoming role as the Doctor, Whittaker responded that “Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change.  The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.” 2.  And she’s exactly right. The Doctor has changed in numerous ways through the years.  Matt Smith and Peter Davison were thought too young to play the Doctor, but they proved their worth.  Even the very concept of regeneration comes from the need to replace William Hartnell, the first actor to portray the Doctor, due to ill health.

At the end of the day, the Doctor is a time-and-space-hopping alien with two tremendous hearts.  The Doctor, no matter the body, always wants to make a positive impact on the universe.  The Doctor carries no weapons and yet is a hero.  Armed with a sonic screwdriver, and a TARDIS, the Doctor tries to save the day without violence, but instead with compassion and intelligence.

So long as Whittaker remains faithful to that core essence of the character, she will be a fantastic Doctor.  For me, it’s not the gender of the Doctor who matters but rather the lessons the Doctor teaches us as viewers.


The cover picture , “Doctor Who Returns,” is featured courtesy of Getty Images.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Languishing Lands and Parks in Peril

Thu, 07/27/2017 - 01:14

I grew up around national parks and forests. My family didn’t have the money to take four kids to amusement parks, and so we instead learned the joy of camping and hiking. For the last decade or so, I have developed an incredible love of outdoor spaces not just for the beauty they offer, but the values they represent.

I have had several opportunities to live out these values as a volunteer/intern ranger at Wind Cave National Park and Newberry National Volcanic Monument, as well as other trail-building opportunities. As part of our ranger duties, we are entrusted with the safety of both the land and the guests who visit.

With recent debates about the value, use, placement, and size of public lands taking center stage, I’m curious: what makes public lands so important? What threatens our lands, and who does that threat most affect? How can we protect it?

In this first of three pieces, we’ll explore what makes public lands so great and why folks love them.


A few weeks ago, I spent a Wednesday evening gazing upon moonlit mountainsides and stars among dancing pine branches. This was after whitewater rafting and walking through wildflowers in snow-melting meadows. These experiences are all thanks to federal public lands.

In 2016, the US National park Service welcomed over 330 million visitors, an increase over 2015’s 307 million and 2014’s 300 million. Likewise, national forests saw a 5% increase from 2005 to 2015, not including over 300 million people driving through forest scenic byways. Public lands are booming in popularity. From their incredible vistas, to their deep views into the past, to a chance to determine our future, federally-managed public spaces help define and shape America.

Federal public lands offer a great deal of opportunities to the American (and international) populace. Each major branch of public land management has a different mission, but are largely unified in four main areas: protect history and heritage; support environmental stewardship; provide opportunities for recreation; and manage federal resources.

Public lands do a great deal to tell the stories of America. Lands, resources, and communities tell the stories ranging from pre-Independence, to the Civil War, ancient and modern indigenous communities, and jazz. Many of these stories belong to communities often otherwise ignored and oppressed, including the history of how setting aside and maintaining these lands often involves oppression. For many persons, these public spaces offer a locale to encounter their own heritage and identity.

For example, in a tour of Wind Cave National Park, you would learn about the Lakota creation stories associated with the cave, the first white men to come across it, and how it became a park. Even reading about the origin of national forests gives one a sense of the cultural, political, and ethical questions facing America – were lands for logging, leisure, or both? Ken Burns stunning documentary series “National Parks: America’s Best Idea” tells how America came to be and how those stories get passed on.

These lands also protect vulnerable environments. The land – and frequently water – found in these spaces tell of our environmental past, often holding keys to understanding our future. They help us to understand climate change, environmental degradation, the importance of forest and grassland fires, and much more. They provide places to not only protect endangered species, but opportunities for wildlife to flourish.

Endless opportunities for recreation like hiking, photography, camping, hunting, mountain biking, and sailing abound in federal lands. Even driving along scenic highways can count as a recreational visit to federal lands. Approximately 153 million people live within 50 miles of a national forest. And federal lands are not just western wanderings. They can be found in our biggest cities. When one considers places like the Smithsonian Museums and the National Mall, Statue of Liberty, and Golden Gate Bridge in highly populated areas, the number of Americans living near federal public spaces and opportunities for recreation are astounding.

In many ways, federal lands are democracy in action. They are the amalgamation of resources managed by the federal government for, well, us! They point to the limits of commodification, and instead create spaces that have value beyond just dollar signs. Wilderness areas, for example, are places so wild and free from human interference that trail crews can’t bring anything more advanced than a Pulaski. We also have a say – indeed a responsibility! – in the management of a massive array of resources like forests, burial grounds, dams, and artwork.

In addition to these values, public lands provide incredible amounts of employment, especially in rural communities. In Montana, for example, the outdoor recreation industry provides about 64,000 jobs. Though it may not seem like many, that’s one in every 16 jobs in Montana. Nationally, outdoor recreation provides over 7 million jobs. This recreation generates almost $125 billion in federal, state, and local revenue.


These spaces provide rich encounters with the environment, history, and joyful pastimes. For many, they also provide an encounter with God. For authors like Emerson and Thoreau, public lands represented the fullness of transcendentalism, a possibility to encounter the divine in the wilds of nature. John Muir, who grew famous for his dedication to protecting the Sierras, stated, “Wander here a whole summer, if you can. Thousands of God’s wild blessings will search you and soak you as if you were a sponge, and the big days will go by uncounted.” He later commented, “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness. The galling harness of civilization drops off, and wounds heal ere we are aware.”


On a recent Facebook post from Rocky Mountain National Park, one gentlemen pointed out that the grandeur and beauty of the park were “about as close to God as one can get while still alive.” Another stated that the wilderness is “Earth as God intended,” a chance for us to be fully ourselves. One woman very eloquently said that, “[Wilderness] shows the glory of our Creator and it gives proper balance and health as He designed the earth to function! We need to be able to see The LORD manifested in His creation! Psalm 19 and Romans 1 and John 1,(The Bible).”

I recently surveyed my friends to see what made public lands so special to them. For many, public spaces are a place of reprieve. They’re a chance to relax, disconnect from technology. They’re therapeutic spots for deepening spirituality and restoring mental health. Public lands provide rich stories, often influencing our lives. For folks like my high school classmate Rob, these federal lands are “a quiet place to make sense of all our thoughts and knowledge and feelings, and hope to find wisdom and direction during our time there. And for some, it’s a way to connect with those close to us, or maybe not so close, and come closer in humanity as a whole. The scale and beauty of these places tend to lend perspective to those willing to drink it in…”

They’re the place of memories – hiking trips with dad or learning about the fight against slavery. Perhaps my friend and former coworker Marlene said it best: “My fondest memory was visiting Redwood National Park years ago with two young sons. Their faces were beaming with amazement as we walked through a grove of redwoods. It was not just a moment for me, it was a heartfelt ‘soulment.’”


What makes open spaces special for you? What are some of your favorite memories? What do you see as threats to these public lands? Let us know your thoughts in the comments and I’ll be sure to address them in the next piece.

Be sure to check back for the follow up pieces: the biggest threats to federal lands, and what we can do to get involved.

Categories: Things Jesuit