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Spoiler alert: You know how this movie will end.
Well, sort of.1
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story ends ten minutes before the original Star Wars: A New Hope begins. It’s the story of that team of rebel spies who steal the plans for the Death Star.2 You already know that the rebel alliance is able to get its hands on these plans and eventually use them to destroy the Death Star. 3 You also already know that this team of spies remains ominously absent from the Original Trilogy. Their fate is likely gruesome.
So, why should you watch a movie where the characters you like will (almost certainly) die and you already know the ending?
Cause we like to know the full story of things we care about. We have an inherent longing to know how we got to where we are. Rogue One fills in the gaps of how the beloved Rebel Alliance, seemingly outmatched in every respect, has a chance against the Empire. It sets into motion the events that “shaped the morals of a generation.” It is the origin story of the New Hope.
You might say it’s like Christmas. We know how that ends too. After birth, Jesus will go on to be crucified and will resurrect from the dead and redeem the world. But it’s good to know the backstory. It might not have any direct bearing on your salvation, but you know you like begging posada and going to Christmas pageants at least a little. 4 It gives some concrete context to better understand and cherish the hope of Easter.So, in fleshing out the details of how those Death Star plans made it to rebel hands, I hope this movie will make us treasure our dear Luke and Princess Leia even more. Even though you know how it’ll end, sitting through the story would be worth it.
When Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elected the first Jesuit pope in 2013, there was a sense of corporate pride in our Society of Jesus. A Catholic wag quipped, “If you want to get a job done, call the Jesuits!” We had ample reason to rejoice.
Isaiah rejoices, too, in the first reading from Gaudete (“Rejoice”) Sunday:
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
Each time I hear these words, my mind returns to the sprawling Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, the fertile mountain plain that separates the Mediterranean sea from Syria. French Jesuit missionaries established a vineyard here in 1857, down the road from their sprawling mission-farm called the Convent of Taanayel, an Arabic word meaning “Spirit of God.” At 3,300 feet, the Beqaa valley enjoys dry summers and a water table fed by the melting snow of the Lebanon mountain range to the west, and the Anti-Lebanon mountains to the east.
The Jesuits had discovered there a series of underground caves which are still used to age wine. When French soldiers came to Lebanon after World War I, the French Jesuits introduced dry French red vines to the vineyards, which became wildly popular.1 The priests and brothers worked the vineyard in the Beqaa valley for 116 years, as wars came and went. Its fruit subsidized their missionary work throughout the Near East until 1973, when it was privatized as Château Ksara.2 Today, Château Ksara is the oldest, largest and most visited vineyard in all of Lebanon.
If you want to get a job done, call the Jesuits.
* * *
But there’s another story in the Beqaa valley. Just a few kilometers from these beautiful vineyards, you’ll find sprawling refugee camps full of displaced Syrians, living in rows of tarp tents. At the center of each of these camps is a modest school compound, which runs morning and afternoon sessions for the thousands of children displaced because of the war. In response to the six-years-long Syrian crisis, these schools were established by NGOs that soon found the project too unwieldy. That’s when they called up the educational arm of Jesuit Refugee Service, the international non-profit which provides housing, food, medicine and education — as well as psychological and spiritual accompaniment — for 900,000+ people in over 50 countries every year. When other organizations have to pull out, JRS steps in to serve.
If you want to get a job done, call the Jesuits!
* * *
Fr. Boom Martinez SJ has led educational outreach with JRS for the past few years. Fr. Boom invited A.J. Rizzo, SJ and me to help train dozens of teachers in Beirut and the Beqaa valley earlier this year. Some teachers were Lebanese, others Syrian. Some spoke French; a few knew English. All spoke Arabic — except the three American Jesuits! With translators, we worked intensively for two weeks, helping prepare JRS school teachers – many of whom were young refugees themselves — to work with Syrian kids. After intense days of planning curricula and practicing classroom management, we visited the schools where the teachers worked.
It was on these visits to the camps that my heart ached with pain — but also soared with hope.
The tents were surrounded by open sewers and garbage. The curious faces of world-weary parents peaked out of tent flaps, as our vehicle passed through the dusty roads. When we got out of our vehicle, children yelling to each other in Arabic came running up to us, smiling their toothy grins, eager to see these strange faces. Isaiah writes,
Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
Make firm the knees that are weak,
say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
with divine recompense
he comes to save you.
What did we three Jesuits, training a few teachers, hope to accomplish for these kids? What hope could we offer a world marked by prolonged violence? Not much, I feared.
But at one of the schools a simple sign in bright colors gives children renewed hope:
And at another camp’s school, a large word cloud greets students each day: You are a mathematician. You are an explorer. You are the future. You are respected. You are loved.
Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
This time it wasn’t Jesuits doing the heavy lifting. But we did get a first-hand look at the heroic love of selfless teachers – many refugees themselves — who clearly wanted to provide hope for their students’ futures. These teachers are Muslim and Christian, old and young alike. One older Muslim principal, Amena, was a college chemistry professor in Syria before the war. Now she runs a school in a refugee camp. But she smiles infectiously, adores her teachers and students, and runs her school on a shoe-string budget.
* * *
I marvel that it was not far from here – just a few hours’ drive south of the Beqaa valley — that Jesus Christ, born in a stable, became fully human. In an auspicious moment, God chose to enter fully the fray of humanity. This scorching-by-day, freezing-by-night corner of the world has seen the steady march of wars, religious strife, and displaced peoples for over 4,000 years.
We might take a minute to let this fact unsettle us — it was to this messy place that God sends his Son. Not to palaces of power, or to the quiet of ornate sanctuaries. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus challenges the crowds’ expectations of John the Baptist, who would announce the Messiah:
“What did you go out to the desert to see?
A reed swayed by the wind?
Then what did you go out to see?
Someone dressed in fine clothing?
Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces.”
The Jesuit missionaries in the Beqaa have long ago given up running Château Ksara — though bottles of Réserve du Couvent honor the history. Today they continue their work at the nearby Taanayel farm and retreat house. Jesuits have stayed there, despite wars raging around them, since they first arrived. The mission building has been raided before, and heroic Jesuits have been martyred there as recently as 1985. They minister to refugees, offer retreats and conferences for JRS workers, and employ dozens of locals who make dairy products like labné.3 The mission serves as a place of rest for Jesuits who work in Aleppo, Damascus, and other distressed places in Syria. Their work as Christian missionaries is not glamorous — but that is not what they signed up for.
* * *
In this bittersweet corner of the world, refugees camp next to vineyards that produce some of the finest wines in the world. And yet refugee kids go on being, well, kids — running and chirping, making mud pies, playing basketball as the sun sets over the landmine-scarred mountains near Syria.
They learn a little bit in school: You are a mathematician. You are an explorer. You are the future. You are respected. With the help of JRS, we dare hope that they learn, deep in their bones, that they are above all beloved children of God.
* * *
Ours can be a cosmically tragic world. It can be difficult to rejoice when we learn of suffering — our only option seems to be to turn away, as a way of protecting our hearts. Yet it is precisely to this beautiful corner of the world that our God saw fit to break in, to interrupt human activity. This God-with-us, Jesus, teaches us that pleasure is shallow, but joy — true Christian joy — makes room for pain at its center. And thus,
The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.
For that, we can certainly rejoice. Because when the task is to redeem the world, don’t send a Jesuit. For that, only the Son of God will do.
Consider making a donation this Christmas to the good work of Jesuit Refugee Service.
All photos were taken by the author.
I arrived early to the cathedral’s Christmas vigil to see the choir caroling. The vigil would begin at midnight, but even by ten I was dragging. It had been a long day, and a long week, and if I was honest with myself, a long year.
2012 was closing, and what a year it had been. I went on indefinite leave from law school. I moved from Louisville back to Louisiana. In the change of life plans, I picked up a job at an all-girls school teaching English and social studies. I was a first-year teacher redesigning my curriculum, in completely new territory—and by that I don’t just mean in terms of course content. Oh, and I had just finished my application into the Jesuits–which not only entailed paperwork and interviews, but discerning a life of perpetual poverty, chastity, and obedience in a Catholic religious order. All of this, packed into twelve months. As I sat in the pew waiting for the choir to start singing carols, I could feel the exhaustion of the year building. The longer I sat with it all, the more I felt like just going to bed. I was tired, slumping, and fading fast.
But then, a few rows ahead of me, two little hands gripped the back of the pew. A head of golden curls topped with a bright red bow slowly peeked over edge. The biggest blues eyes that I’ve ever seen stared back at me. Suddenly, the little girl popped up completely. She stood on the bench next to her parents looking towards the back of the Church. The little girl couldn’t have been much more than five. She wore a cute, red dress perfectly matching the bow, which was nearly as big as her head. She turned and hopped down from the bench and moved towards her parents. The mother looked just like the little girl, and the father held a baby boy wrapped in a blanket. She spoke excitedly to them; they smiled back and nodded. She scurried to the back of the church, but not before giving her little brother a kiss on the head.
She reappeared moments later with a stack of programs, which she then proceeded to hand out to everyone like an official usher for the event. When she got to me, I said thank you and gave her a smile. She blurted out “It’s almost Christmas!”
I laughed quietly at her cheerfulness as she skipped to the next row to hand out more programs.
The choir began with O Come O Come Emmanuel, and as I sang along I couldn’t help but notice the little girl proudly holding her program, standing on the pew, singing as loudly as possible. It made me sing a little louder too—in between the chuckling to myself, that is. Silent Night was up next, and this time she threw an arm around her mother seated beside her. They rocked side-to-side. A few more carols brought her bouncing along to Hark! the Herald Angels Sing and rocking an imaginary baby as she sang Away in the Manger. Of course, she was entirely hamming it up. Curiously, I found that as the night went on… I was singing louder. I think those sitting next to me were as well. The little girl’s energy and joy and excitement were contagious.
By the end of the carols, she just couldn’t stay awake. As the mass began, the little girl slept peacefully. Even though an hour before I had been exhausted, I was now wide awake holding onto her joy and energy instead of the stress of a long year.
As I wait for Christmas to get here, I can’t help but think about this past year. If I’m honest with myself… it’s been a long year, too. I can sit with it, allowing it all to rest upon my shoulders and cloud my head. I can let it lead me to despair and tiredness. I can allow it to immobilize me with fear. Or worse, I can let it make me cranky or cynical. All of which would distract me from the joy of the season.
Or, I can keep a look out for little joys: A hug from a family member. A card in the mail. A song on the radio. A snowflake. A decorated street. A favorite movie. A moment of quiet. A cheerful child wearing a big red bow. They might be tiny things, but as the little girl proved: they return everything lost in the busyness and stress of a year. They are contagious in their energy and hope. And, they remind me of all the things worth celebrating this year.
My favorite part of writing for The Jesuit Post is engaging with our readers. So I was grateful that my piece “The Wounded Church” provoked a vigorous reader response.
At a time when there are so few good spaces where people can intelligently and respectfully engage with each other, it means a great deal to me that our readers are willing to cultivate such a space with us at TJP.
It’s unsurprising – and therefore uninteresting – that some people comment solely to troll. What’s surprising and beautiful, however, is how many people comment out of a desire to share their experiences and to learn from others about theirs. It’s worth praying over how we can all dispose ourselves, individually and as a Church, toward a more meaningful and loving internet presence.
In this article I want to continue the conversation by drawing out and reflecting upon three themes that cut across many of these conversations.
My party is closer to Catholic teaching than the other party is.
Some readers are grappling with their partisan commitments. That’s essential work, and I am certainly not asking anyone to tear up their party membership cards.
But when I hear someone explaining why his or her party conforms more closely to the teaching, I worry that we have failed to learn a valuable lessons from this and many other elections. Is party superiority really the point worth pressing? At what point do we begin to worry that we’re more invested in winning arguments and elections than re-uniting a politically divided church?
To put the point more bluntly: why does it seem that many Catholics are more committed to defending their political party than the Church?
Catholics need to change how they think about politics.
We have to move beyond the two-party binary. No one disputes the parties are there and they matter. What deserves dispute, however, is that our conversations should be molded and our options determined by that system. That means finding conversations and dialogue partners whose conclusions are not predetermined by party orthodoxies.
We have to move beyond zero-sum games. The partisan influence in the Church not only puts unreasonable limits on what we think, but it also makes us think that the other side has to lose so that we can “win.” While there is such a thing as healthy competition, the divide-and-conquer approach cannot be imported into the Church without undercutting the love that is supposed to bind us together. We need to seek understanding with those with whom we disagree, not their defeat: reaching out to others, not retrenching in our own positions.
We have to find new forms of witness. Believe it or not, how we vote every four years is not the most meaningful expression of our faith in Christ Jesus. If you really believe that faith matters to politics, then you need to find ways to show that and live it out the other 3 years and 364 days. That could mean re-committing to the corporal acts of mercy, or getting more involved in your parish, local government or schools. It can mean choosing to be an agent of peace with estranged family or friends, between divided factions in your homes, neighborhoods, schools and cities.
In short, Catholics need to see their presence in politics as a ministry of reconciliation. The U.S. does not have many models of what that reconciliation looks like, but we know what reconciliation looks like in our families, in our churches, in our own souls. I have even seen that reconciliation on the TJP website and Facebook page! We can and must witness to that reconciliation for the world.
The “other side” is disingenuous.
There is real mistrust, pain and confusion in the American Church over politics. That was very plain from many readers’ reactions. “I have experienced a great deal of hostility and bitterness,” many readers wrote, “and I don’t see how we can have an honest conversation.” Cheap unity and superficial peace won’t do because they won’t last.
But there is another danger, one to which we have already succumbed. The great risk we run with polarization is that we stop talking with and listening to people who disagree with us. And when we stop engaging them, it becomes easy to treat them as enemies and their arguments as covers for power-grabs. Then dialogue becomes not merely absent but impossible.
A TJP article is not going to fix that. Indeed, only the lived experience of a different mode of relations is going to overcome that hurt. And only real human connections are going to create genuine good will, where we can get to a place where we can presume the good intentions of others.
But how do we get people of different political persuasions in the same room? How do we get them to start not with what divides them, but with what unites them?
Reconciliation is going to be hard work.
In conversing with readers, I often heard despair. Despair is not a pleasant thing, and particularly not when it comes with the frustration that now is the time when we should be doing something.
But this despair might be the “rock bottom” that some of us needed to hit to realize that we have a problem. Indeed, a few readers expressed a loneliness at having felt politically “homeless” for many years. Sadly, they are no longer quite so lonely.1 But maybe the recognition that we are homeless is a start in the right direction.
Reconciliation was never going to be easy. And a renewed desire to engage in it is not going to make it easier or happen any faster, as many readers reminded me.
What are the obstacles? The life and social justice movements live in different worlds. That’s in part because they tend to live in different political parties, in different parishes, in different regions of the country and in different social classes. In those different worlds, the possibilities for healing can look very different. We need to cultivate a Catholic imagination, one that sees the possibilities for as well as the limitations of unity in the world.
What is a “Catholic imagination”? I will have more to say about that soon. But we know this: a Catholic imagination has to be catholic in the literal sense of universal: an imagination that takes in all of reality, not just the pleasant and world-view-confirming parts. Where political ideologies want to remake all of reality after the image of their own myopic views, it is a distinctly catholic task to remind politics of what it desires to forget: both the suffering and pain that speaks to human failure, but also the joyful transcendence that speaks to a power beyond the human.
It is also deeply Catholic in the sense of suffused with God’s presence. It is, after all, God in all things that is the profound basis for any sort of universality. And God shows that the “universal” is not a cold, logical abstraction, but an invitation to what is lovingly and beautifully truly human – because it is divine. And that is a source of hope.
We may feel at times homeless. Given the times in which we live, perhaps something would be wrong with us if we did not feel homeless. But being homeless need not mean being hopeless. Thank you, all our readers at TJP, for that beautiful reminder.
For English, click here.
Hoy es la fiesta de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Con aproximadamente 20 millones de visitantes anuales, la Basílica de la Ciudad de México – donde ocurrió esta famosa aparición mariana – es el sitio de peregrinación católica más visitado en todo el mundo. Sobre todo hoy. Miles de peregrinos desfilan por kilómetros a través de las calles de la Ciudad de México, muchos avanzando paso a paso de rodillas.
Mientras tanto, parroquias católicas en todos los EEUU también celebran, especialmente esas parroquias con una población latina grande. De hecho, la Conferencia de Obispos Católicos de los Estados Unidos (USCCB) declaró hoy como un día de oración y solidaridad con familias de inmigrantes. Por lo tanto, vale la pena reflexionar sobre qué podemos aprender de esta devoción popular, sobre todo este año mientras asimilamos las elecciones y la atención puesta en los inmigrantes de nuestros vecinos del sur.
Sabemos que el nuevo presidente electo Donald Trump quiere hacer América (los EEUU) grandiosa. Es una meta admirable en la que la mayoría de nosotros está de acuerdo: queremos que nuestro país sea grandiosa. Pero ¿qué significa esto exactamente? Miremos las lecciones de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe.
Antes de comenzar, un breve resumen de la historia: en el año 1531, la Virgen María se le apareció a un joven campesino mexicano llamado Juan Diego. Como evidencia de la aparición, María llenó la túnica de Juan Diego con rosas fuera de temporada. Cuando soltó las rosas en frente del arzobispo local, se reveló una imagen cautivadora de María en la túnica: una mujer morena envuelta en un manto cubierto de estrellas, encima de una luna creciente y llevada por un ángel. La tilma original continúa mostrándose detrás del altar en la Basílica de la Ciudad de México para los millones de peregrinos que llegan a visitarla y rezarle.
Entonces, ¿qué enseñanza tiene Nuestra Señora sobre cómo nuestra Iglesia puede ayudar a hacer América grandiosa?
1. Todos tenemos derecho al sentido de pertenencia y merecemos respeto.
María se le apareció a Juan Diego como una mujer mestiza con piel morena. Lo opuesto a las imágenes cristianas con piel blanca traídas por los misioneros europeos, esta imagen de María tuvo un efecto transformador. Posterior a la aparición muchas conversiones se dieron entre los indígenas mexicanos. Si contamos las conversiones, esta aparición fue más exitosa que muchos de los años de esfuerzo de miles de misioneros.
¿Por qué tuvo un efecto tan transformador? Porque los indígenas se pudieron identificar con esta imagen de María. Ella incluso le habló a Juan Diego en su lengua nativa de Nahuatl. María entró en su pueblo, como una de ellos. Ella le dio a la gente un sentido de pertenencia.
La Iglesia Católica en los EEUU necesita reforzar este sentido de pertenencia hoy para hacer grandioso a nuestro país. Otros católicos no deben sentirse como extranjeros ni desconocidos dentro de nuestras parroquias. Esto incluye a aquellos quienes son migrantes en nuestro país, con o sin documentos.
Palabras feas y odiosas hacia los inmigrantes u otros degradan su identidad como seres humanos. Mientras la mayoría está de acuerdo que nuestro país necesita mejorar nuestra política y las acciones que toma con respecto a los inmigrantes, nuestras parroquias tienen que ser sitios acogedores. Los migrantes en los EEUU normalmente están huyendo de situaciones de violencia, peligro y dificultades económicas para viajar una larga distancia con la esperanza de una vida mejor.
Y casi nunca se hace más fácil su vida al llegar a los EEUU. Los inmigrantes enfrentan prejuicio cotidiano, sin respeto a su estado legal. ¿Cómo es cómplice nuestra Iglesia en esto? ¿Cómo podemos ser más inclusivos y más acogedores?
Para ser un país grandioso, tenemos que ser un país acogedor y respetuoso.
2. Los pobres y los marginados merecen una voz.
La Virgen María se le apareció a Juan Diego, un campesino nativo. Ella no se le apareció al obispo ni a los soberanos coloniales. De hecho, ella visitó a Juan Diego cuatro veces, y su única otra visita fue al tío enfermo de Juan Diego.
Los pobres, los enfermos y las comunidades indígenas merecen atención y apoyo. Ellos merecen una voz en nuestro país si queremos ser grandioso.
Todavía hay una amplia división económica y esta desigualdad crece constantemente en nuestro país. Tantos los seguidores de Bernie Sanders como Donald Trump son ciudadanos que mayormente están enojados con el sistema económico que ha dejado salarios estancados para las clases bajas y medias, mientras que los ingresos de los millonarios siguen creciendo.
También se trata a los enfermos como marginados, especialmente cuando se presenta un diagnóstico no favorable en un niño no nacido. Se abortan niños no nacidos que tienen síndrome de Down con una frecuencia alarmante. Se discute un mayor acceso a los abortos como una manera de combatir el brote de Zika y su relación con la microcefalia.
Para notar la opresión a las comunidades indígenas, solamente necesitamos prestar atención a Dakota del Norte donde se atacaron violentamente a los manifestantes contra los oleoductos hace unas semanas.
Nosotros como la Iglesia Católica necesitamos recordar nuestra opción preferencial por los pobres, que incluye a los que no tienen recursos, a los niños no nacidos y a los indígenas. Si la prueba moral de una sociedad es su tratamiento a los más vulnerables, ¿aprobamos esa prueba? ¿Cómo escuchamos las voces de los marginados en nuestro país? ¿Cómo amplifica sus voces nuestra Iglesia?
Para ser un país grandioso, tenemos que escuchar estas voces.
3. Estamos juntos en esto.
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe es amada y venerada en México, pero el Papa Pío XII le dio el nombre más amplio de “Patrona de las Américas,” que los Papas posteriores han reiterado. Esto nos debe recordar nuestros intereses comunes y el bien común.
Si hablamos sobre migrantes en nuestras comunidades u otros países de nuestra región, debemos reflexionar más sobre qué constituye realmente el bien común.1 Para ser grandioso, nuestro país debe estar preocupado por el bien de todos, no solamente de los ciudadanos estadounidenses. Un enfoque de aislamiento o combativo con los países vecinos en un espíritu de excepcionalidad estadounidense se oponen a este mensaje.
Incluso las políticas menos polémicas contra los migrantes, como la deportación de todos los criminales convictos, puede resultar en un gran desastre fuera de los EEUU. Actualmente una razón de la violencia de las pandillas y el aumento de drogas que afecta fuertemente a Centroamérica se remonta a la deportación de los EEUU de criminales en los años 1990. Los EEUU deportaron a criminales y esto, a la cultura de drogas y pandillas hasta países sin recursos para enfrentar esta situación.
Las remesas (los fondos que los emigrantes envían a su país de origen) de las personas que viven en los EEUU constituyen literalmente miles de millones de dólares anualmente hacia economías pobres a través de las manos de las clases bajas y medias. Las remesas pérdidas a causa de la deportación o el aumento de impuestos en este movimiento de fondos puede tener efectos negativos en todas las Américas.
Nuestra atención a los pobres y a los miembros desempleados en nuestra propia comunidad no pueden servir de excusas para ignorar la necesidad de cuidar a los demás. Estamos juntos en esto, y estamos llamado a construir el bien común. ¿Cómo podemos nosotros, como Iglesia, construir puentes en lugar de muros?
Si queremos ser un país grandioso, tenemos que preocuparnos sobre cómo hacer un mundo grandioso.
La historia de la aparición de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe tiene cientos de años, pero las lecciones todavía aplican hoy en nuestras vidas. Si queremos que América sea grandiosa, debemos comenzar con estas tres lecciones.
Una América grandiosa será un sitio donde se incluye y se respeta la gente, donde tienen sentido de pertenencia. Una América grandiosa defenderá a los más vulnerables, incluyendo a los pobres, a los enfermos y a los grupos marginados. Una América grandiosa luchará por el bien común de todos los estadounidenses, mientras que también se preocupa por el bien de todos.
No es una tarea fácil, pero por lo menos, tenemos una buena intercesora. Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Patrona de las Américas, ruega por nosotros.
La imagen es cortesía de la cuenta de FlickrCC de Sacred Heart Cathedral Knoxville.
Haga clic aquí para español.
Today marks the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. With an estimated 20 million visitors annually, the Basilica in Mexico City – where this famous Marian apparition occurred – is the most-visited Catholic pilgrimage site in the world. No day is bigger than today. Thousands of pilgrims are parading for miles throughout the streets of Mexico City, many advancing step by step on their knees.
Meanwhile, Catholic parishes throughout the U.S. are also celebrating, especially those parishes with a large Latino population. In fact, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) announced today’s feast as a day of prayer and solidarity with families of immigrants. So it’s worth reflecting on what we as Americans can learn from this popular devotion, especially this year as we digest the election season and the attention placed on immigrants from our southern neighbors.
After all, President-elect Donald Trump wants to make America great. It’s an admirable goal that most can agree on: we want our country to be great. Now what exactly does that mean? Let’s look to lessons from Our Lady of Guadalupe.
First, a quick refresher on the story: in 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to a young native Mexican peasant named Juan Diego. To provide evidence of the appearance, Mary filled Juan Diego’s tunic with out-of-season roses. When he released the pile of roses in front of the local archbishop, a captivating image of Mary was revealed on his tunic: a dark skinned woman wrapped in a star-covered mantle, standing on a crescent moon and carried by an angel. This original tilma continues to be prominently displayed behind the altar at the Basilica in Mexico City for the millions of pilgrims who come to visit and pray.
So what does Our Lady have to teach us about how our Church can help make America great?
1. We all belong and deserve respect.
Mary appeared to Juan Diego as a mestiza woman with a darker skin tone. Contrasting with the typical white-skinned Christian images brought over by European missionaries, this image of Mary had a transformative effect. Waves of conversions among indigenous Mexicans followed the apparition. If we tally conversions, this apparition was more successful than years of efforts by boatloads of missionaries.
Why did it have such a transformative effect? Because indigenous people could identify with this image of Mary. She even spoke to Juan Diego in his native language of Nahuatl. Mary came among them, as one of them. It gave the local people a sense of belonging.
The U.S. Church needs to reinforce this sense of belonging today to make our country great. Fellow Catholics should not feel like outsiders within our churches. This includes those who are immigrants to our country, documented or not.
Unwelcoming or hateful rhetoric toward immigrants or others degrades their personhood. While most would agree that our country needs to work on its policy and the actions it takes in regards to immigrants, our churches must stand as welcoming spaces. Migrants to the U.S. are typically fleeing situations of violence, distress, and economic hardship to make an arduous journey in the hope of a better life.
And life rarely gets easier on arrival in the United States. Immigrants face prejudice on a daily basis, regardless of their legal status. How is our Church complicit in this? How can we be more inclusive and more welcoming?
We need to be a country of belonging and respect to be a great country.
2. The poor and marginalized deserve a voice.
Mary appeared to Juan Diego, a native-born peasant. She didn’t appear to the bishop, nor the colonial rulers. In fact, she visited Juan Diego four times, and her only other appearance was to his bedridden uncle.
The poor, the sick, and indigenous communities deserve attention and support. They deserve a voice in our country if we want to be great.
We continue to see the economic divide widen as inequality grows in our country. Support for both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump drew significantly from Americans upset at the economic system that has left stagnant wages for the lower and middle classes, while facilitating income gains to the super rich.
The sick are also treated as outcasts, especially when a diagnosis arises in an unborn child. Babies with Down Syndrome are aborted at alarming rates. Broader abortion access has been discussed as a way to counteract the Zika virus outbreak and its connection with microcephaly.
To see the oppression of indigenous communities, we need to look no further than North Dakota, where protesters to the oil pipeline were being violently attacked a few weeks ago.
We as a Church need to remember our preferential option for the poor, which includes the economically struggling, the unborn child, and native peoples. If the moral test of a society is how the most vulnerable are treated, are we passing that test? How are the voices of the marginalized spoken and heard in our country? How is our Church working to amplify their voices?
We need to listen to these voices to be a great country.
3. We are in this together.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is beloved and revered in Mexico, but Pope Pius XII gave her the broader title “Patroness of the Americas,” which subsequent popes have reiterated. Let this serve to remind us of our common interests and the common good.
Whether we are referring to migrants in our communities or other countries in our region, we should give more thought to what honestly constitutes the common good.1 To be great, our country needs to be concerned with the good of all others, not just American citizens. Isolationist thinking or combative approaches to neighboring countries in a spirit of U.S. American-exceptionalism run counter to this message.
Even less controversial policies against migrants, like deporting all convicted criminals, can have devastating effects outside of the U.S. One component of the gang and drug violence ravaging Central America traces directly back to the deportation of convicted felons in the U.S. in the 1990’s. The United States deported not just the convicted felons, but also the accompanying drug and gang culture, into countries poorly equipped to handle this influx.
Remittances (or money sent back to a home country) from immigrants living in the U.S. push literally billions of dollars annually into struggling economies through the hands of the poor and middle classes. Lost remittances from deportation or increased taxes on this form of cash flow could have significant ripple effects across the Americas.
Our attention to the poor and unemployed members in our own community cannot be provided as an excuse to overlook the needs of others. We are in this together, and we are called to build the common good. How can we as a Church work on building bridges instead of walls?
We need to care about making a greater world if we want to be a great country.
The story of the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe might be hundreds of years old, but the lessons we can draw from it apply to our lives today. If we want America to be great, we can start with these three lessons.
A great America will be a place where people are included and respected, where everyone feels like they belong. A great America will stand up for those most in need, including the poor, the sick, and marginalized social groups. A great America will work for the common good of all Americans, while also giving concern to the greater global good.
It is a tall task, but at least we have an intercessor. Our Lady of Guadalupe, Patroness of the Americas, pray for us.
Image courtesy Flickr CC user Sacred Heart Cathedral Knoxville.
“How many more days until Christmas break?”
“It just can’t get here soon enough…”
“I’m not sure if I’m going to make it.”
These are the stock phrases this time of year, and most of the time they’re spoken in the staff lounge. It might be unanimous among teachers that the “Most Wonderful Time of the Year” is always preceded by “The Most Wearisome” –
“…with papers for grading
and students for chasing
just to get them – sitting still;
November was chock-full
of too much and then more,
my brain is just melting like snooooooow!
It’s the most wear-i-some time…of the year!”
So, when it’s November 29th, “BUS DRIVER SUBS NEEDED: PLEASE SIGN UP” is the worst email subject line to land in your box. One of our veteran drivers found work elsewhere, vacating nine school days of morning, afternoon and evening routes.
I’m juggling too many hats as it is. I have my Monday and Tuesday routes already. I have to coordinate Mass on Thursday followed by security duty at the girls’ basketball game. Friday it’s senior movie night. Sorry, Transportation Department. I just can’t. That would be my expected response.
So imagine my surprise when instead, I instantly opened the email, exploring the gaps in the sign-up sheet with wide eyes.
I wish I could do it all, but it’s two weeks to go before Christmas break and I don’t have much to give anymore. But I also don’t have that much to do. I know – I made a list.
Here are my goals for the next two weeks: Category 1. Class (Senior Faith, Service and Justice): finish the fourth unit, vocabulary quiz, poster contest. I can do that. But just that. Category 2. Campus Ministry: Advent Mass, Chief Red Cloud Day celebration, immersion trip applications. I can do that. But just that. Category 3. Miscellaneous: Secret Santa Gift, Volunteer Retreat, Birthday celebration for James? I can do that. But just that.
It’s not that I’m tired; I’m averaging eight hours a night with yoga, running and workouts in full-swing. I feel great physically. Long bus runs? No problem. It’s just that my brain feels like mush, my every last bit of mental energy cashed in during a marathon October and November: class retreats, prayer services, blood drives, Mass, an all-school panel and a student advocacy trip to Washington, DC. Back to back to back to back. I’m sleeping again, but thinking is a no-go. Creativity is normally my wheelhouse, but my brainstorming process right now looks more like a cartoon character trying to run on ice, feet fluttering before an epic fall, dramatically, flat on my back.
It’s a season of giving. We don’t always get what we hope for, and sometimes we can’t give as we’d like to. If my students are hoping for the same excited, creative and animated teacher these next two weeks, they can cross their fingers, but I’d advise them not to hold their breath. If they’re looking for November’s trend to continue with two Campus Ministry programs a week, breaking new ground and reviving old traditions, all I can say is sorry. But I’ll be back, full-swing in 2017. I promise.
Scanning the driver sign-up list I saw that Porcupine, Sharps Corner and Rockyford were the main stops; doing the math quickly in my head, I figured the bus run was about two hours round trip. Living in rural South Dakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, it goes without saying that our bus runs are long, but this is the big daddy, or as the students like to say in Lakota, the Até Tȟáŋka, the one reserved for the veteran driver – who just quit. All the morning routes were open on the sign-up sheet. Compose message: “Hey, I think I’m game- but I need to learn the route. Can I ride along tomorrow afternoon?” Reply: “That would be great! Thank you!!!”
Friday morning at 4:45 AM, under the clear sky and cold stars, I turned the ignition on bus #2.
As I pulled off campus, I visualized the route before me. Badlands Visitor Center near Rockyford at 5:55. Sharp’s Corner at 6:10. Gooseneck at 6:15, and Evergreen at 6:25. I’ll make sure the bus is warm for you, I won’t miss your stop, I’ll slow for the bumps on Highway 18 so as not to wake you, and I’ll announce the spectacular sunrise at the Wounded Knee junction. I can do that. And come by my office later, where I won’t be working up a storm. You can have some popcorn, we can listen to the Vince Guaraldi Peanuts Christmas album, laugh about how I almost missed your bus stop this morning and glow in in my Christmas lights thrown beautifully over the bookshelf. I can do that.
And I did. We made it. Just in time for school breakfast at 7:32, beaming.
The cover image cam be found at pexels.
Usually I try to sound eloquent when I speak with God. I attempt to impress upon God that eighteen years of Catholic education have taught me both appropriate communication with the Divine, as well as a strong foundation in English grammar. In prayer, God and I quaintly agree to use modest language:
“Dear God, I am fairly displeased with the way and manner unfortunate events have left me in a state of emotional uncertainty, a kind of limbo. Please help me see your work and to labor alongside you.
Thanks for listening,
That’s my usual Advent prayer – gentle words spoken around a softly glimmering wreath. I patiently await the day of justice and Christ’s return to the world.
But frankly, I am tired. I am tired of trying to sound more perfect and pious than I truly am.
This Advent, I want to scream and curse. I want to do more than just “rend my garments.” I want to smash s*** with a baseball bat and give it the middle finger when I am done. And I want that to be my Advent prayer.
Perhaps my Advent prayer is like the author of Lamentations, voicing frustration both to and at God. Lamentations cries out in more than just sorrow. Jesuit theologian Richard J. Clifford states that Lamentations expresses “grief, anger, something near despair, acceptance, glimmers of hope and joy, and an indomitable will to carry on.”
Indeed, Advent turns to that glimmer of hope and joy. A common Advent image is the light fighting back the darkness. As winter collapses in around us, we turn to the flickering candlelight. We focus on the light we know is coming. We acknowledge that yearning for God’s justice and mercy.
But I cannot run from the darkness to the light. That would be unfaithful.
If I go straight to that light, then I deny the real pain and suffering around me, the darkness that I and others so deeply experience. I deny that I have hollered at my computer when reading news of hate crimes. If I go straight to the light, I deny the pain of my Latino students being told “Say goodbye to your parents.” If I go straight to the light, I reject the fear of my Muslim students, told that they are terrorists. If I go straight to the light, I tell my black students that swastikas and KKK symbols appearing in their neighborhoods are of no concern.
If I go straight to the light, I am telling my students that their fear is invalid and showing my friends that their grief is unfounded.
There in that darkness, I will cry out with fury and anguish like the author of Lamentations. In its opening chapter, Lamentations begs God for intervention and the restoration of Jerusalem: once a princess, but now a slave. It sorrows for a once-great city, reduced to poverty and destitution. It bemoans oppression, poverty, and abandonment.
My own Book of Lamentations? It would go like this: God, how could you let Flint get poisoned and left as a desert? How could you let foreign oppressors come and ravage the land of North Dakota? Why do those who swear in your name to protect others end up killing members of the community? Why are you idle as we enslave communities of color in cycles of poverty? What is with this bull s***? God, why the f*** did you abandon us, and when the hell are you coming back?
I am not the only one feeling this way. Recently, two Lutheran ministers took that spirit of frustration, hurt, and anguish, and found a way of praying with those emotions. Co-authors Tuina Verma Rasche and Jason Chesnut created “#F**kThisS**t: An Advent Devotional.”
Rasche states, “I had been filled with so much anger and so much rage because of police shootings, the destruction of black and brown bodies, and the racism and vitriol tied to the 2016 presidential election. These emotions fueled much of my writing and energies in the past months. I thought this anger and rage would keep me, in this body, fueled to write during the season of Advent, yearning for God’s justice in the midst of so much that has gone wrong in this calendar year.”
I am not trying to avoid the light of Advent and the impending coming of Christ. But I can’t simply dispel the darkness, thereby ignoring all the pain, tumult, and injustice found there. I stay in the darkness because that is where I can best perform my vocation as a Catholic, Jesuit, and teacher – standing in solidarity with those who cannot escape the darkness. I demand that God bring the light, destroying injustice and heartache. And damn it, until that day comes, I’ll be swearing and lamenting at the top of my lungs.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Petras Gagilas.
This is a difficult article for me to write.
As a Filipino-American, I am not used to having the Philippine president gain so much notoriety, so often. Since his June 2016 inauguration, President Rodrigo Duterte continually captures world headlines: He’s claimed to dissolve long standing U.S. Relations. He’s graphically engaged in name calling heads of state. Above all, he is accused of sponsoring extra-judicial killings involving notorious drug dealers.
The world has responded in contradictory ways. World leaders have condemned these killings accusing Duterte for ignoring the rule of law in regards to formally prosecuting drug dealers. Yet many Filipinos, disagree and continue to support his presidency: Duterte finds himself with high approval ratings supporting his actions.
So what do we make of this?
I am not completely sure how to approach it. Full disclosure, my parents are immigrants from Davao, the city Duterte was mayor for over 30 years. My family and friends so vigorously campaigned for Duterte hoping for some change. His election created great excitement over the possibility of social and economic progress. Earlier this spring, I visited the Philippines and sensed that people – young, old, rich, poor – really looked to Duterte to deliver a different vision for the country everyone loved. They saw a charismatic, no-nonsense politician, who brought order, calm, and vitalization back to Davao. Wanting that for the entire country, they elected him later that spring.
As North Americans, we are lucky enough to come from nations where the law works towards justice. But for Filipinos, the rule of law has a very different connotation. Defeatism, corruption, and woe are summarized in my family’s response to previous Philippine Presidential Elections: “Nothing will change. Corruption is too embedded in the system.”
It was not until this past election that Filipino people saw hope for Philippines – via Duterte. They encountered a mayor who tackled crime, created order, and put his people before himself. He was not the conventional candidate. But he vowed to face his number one priority: the war on drugs and the need for safe communities.
Sure, political decisions are difficult and there are consequences. How do I reconcile the human need for safety, law and order coupled with the seemingly disposability of some life? Am I too far removed from the scene to truly understand the immensity of the drug situation?
Extrajudicial killings remove any possibility of conversion or reconciliation. Yet, the quest for the rule of law and order is valued in a country plagued with non-stop corruption and despair. Is it possible to be in the in between? Must I choose a stance, or can I struggle with this a bit more?
Are there solutions that could be taken given more thought, like the drug rehabilitation program started by Cardinal Tagle to encourage a safe recovery process? Can justice be served in a way that dignifies the human being, but also confronts the challenges of injustice and crime?
The total of who I am – a Jesuit, Filipino, American – carries complexities and ambiguities. So much of who I am is wrapped up in the story of an island 7,000 miles away. I am both frustrated and sympathize with layers of unknown when communities and countries like Philippines face life and death realities. So often, it is easy to join a bandwagon of an all or nothing approach. Yet, this time, I am moved to investigate more deeply into what I can do.
So much of the world today is looking for a response to their anger and frustration. We look to promises and rhetoric that will ease the trials and burdens of our day-to-day life. Quick relief is not cheap or easy. Yet, in the midst of the confusions of life, discernment is key in these situations. Discernment forces us to slow down, reflect, and see where God is working.
Given that being Filipino is an essential part of my identity, I continue to struggle with the decisions of President Duterte. But I turn to so many Filipinos for inspiration. In times of trauma, uncertainty, and pain, they look to faith. Devotions, pieties, and prayer run deep for those looking for comfort from the weariness of life. In fact, they are crucial in discerning how to respond for Filipinos.
Perhaps in a time of uncertainty, where decisions of life and death are made, we look to prayer in an attempt to hope for relief from a tense reality. We use it as a tool of discernment as we decide how to actively seek true justice and peace.
Image courtesy of FlickrCC user Prachatai.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think Disney? Mickey Mouse? Disney Theme Parks? A pretty princess? Or maybe, you just think about “wish[ing] upon a star, as dreamers do.” Love it or hate it, I’m sure have you have an opinion about Disney.
Let me state my opinion right off the bat: I LOVE Disney! Growing up in Southern California, I was raised on a steady diet of The Disney Channel, Disney movies and, of course, Disneyland. I first learned about Disneyland when I tuned into an old TV special where an enthusiastic Walt Disney showed us his plans for “The Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction. I have been spellbound ever since. I visited Disneyland so much that I pretty much grew up in the shadow of the Matterhorn 1.
From the time I was five years old, my dream was to work at Disneyland. And I did–for 15 magical years! Whether it was helping guests select a decadent candied apple from the “Hunny Spot” in Pooh’s Corner, printing out a photograph of them as they plunged down a five-story drop at Splash Mountain, commandeering a yellow submarine as they searched for a clownfish named Nemo, or piloting the Disneyland Monorail to take exhausted guests back to their Disneyland Resort Hotel for some relaxation, as a cast member 2, I had the job of my dreams.
Walt Disney once said, “If you can dream it, you can do it.” His imagination was the key to his vocation. And, without a doubt, he had a very clear image of what he thought a princess should be.
Since the premiere of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” back in 1934, Disney princesses have fit a particular profile. They’re beautiful. They’re honest. They’re caring. They sing well. And they ALWAYS fall in love with a prince! Cinderella and Aurora follow this Disney princess profile. Nothing was more important to these leading ladies than finding “true love,” being rescued, and living happily ever after with their prince. Snow White sings “Someday My Prince Will Come,” Cinderella sings “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes,” and Aurora sings about meeting her prince “Once Upon a Dream.”
These fairytales are classics, thoroughly enjoyable, and masterfully animated all by hand. But let’s be real, these protagonist princesses have little to no depth.
In recent decades, Disney has introduced us to: Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tiana, and Rapunzel. Although some of these princesses broke the “Disney mold” in certain ways (some by being non-white and other by being portrayed as strong, independent women), they have one thing in common: they inevitably end up with “true love” and happily ever afters. Even Elsa and Anna’s story in “Frozen, which was not so much about romantic love, Anna still winds up with a guy!
But now the princess profile is changing with Moana of Motinui. Actually, we’re not even supposed to call her a princess! She tells Maui (played by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) “I’m not a princess– I’m the daughter of a chief.” Moana is a character that anybody- girl or boy- can relate to. She is more than just pretty- she’s inspirational.
Moana refuses to be complacent. She sails beyond the reef not to find a partner, but for a love that is rooted in family and her island community. She sees the best in everyone, and even recognizes value in her sidekick chicken, Hei Hei, who others automatically dismiss as stupid. Moana is a seeker who knows that to find out who she is, she will have to test the limits of what she can do. This is no damsel in distress. As she deftly navigates the dangers of the Pacific Ocean, I found myself thinking, “I want to be like her!”
Moana is undeniably as three dimensional as the beautiful CGI world she inhabits 3. Voiced by a native Hawaiian, fourteen year-old Auli’i Cravalho, her character feels remarkably authentic. Compared to the princesses of Walt Disney’s creation, Moana feels real and relatable.
Romance is nowhere to be found in Moana. In fact, Moana completes a near-impossible task with very little from a male character. This is a far cry from the Disney princesses of the past. And it sends an important message to children: that gender should not limit them, nor should others’ expectations define them. The strongest message Princess Moana sends out, is that relying on a superficial “true love” will not yield a meaningful happily ever after and that putting others first is what true love is all about.
It’s fitting that the top track from this movie is the remarkably beautiful and haunting song, “How Far I’ll Go.” Moana belts, (or maybe even boasts!), “If I go, there’s no telling how far I’ll go!”
As we think about how far Disney princess have gone since the days of Snow White, we can look to a future where Disney will go even further in giving us strong and relatable female characters who will help children dream of a different type of ‘happily ever after.’
For the first time in my life, I’m disappointed in J.K. Rowling.
Suffering isn’t new to the Harry Potter saga. There are unforgivable curses, Dementors that can suck out a person’s soul, executioners of magical creatures, and dark wizards who seek to purge the world of Muggles and Mudbloods, giving rise to an elite race of people, small and proud and supernaturally superior.
But there are good guys, too: Harry, Ron, Hermione, and a cast of new characters who are trying to peacefully co-exist with non-magical folk like me. They are fueled by love, and they protect each other from needless death and destruction. And, in Rowling’s Potter stories, the good guys win.
Somewhere in between those who cause pain and those who seek goodness are the wizarding governments.
The government in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them has legalized the death penalty. In this latest installment of the Potter franchise, set in the United States in 1926, we are shown vividly the reality of magical execution. It appears to be a terrible death: the accused is suspended over silvery, toxic liquid in a metal chair and lowered into perpetual oblivion.
The wizarding world has its prisons and punishments, to be sure. But for a community (even a fictional one) so plagued by sadness in the face of unnecessary, otherworldly death, capital punishment doesn’t seem to be the answer. I think that may be true for us here in the real world, as well.
Many Christians in the US today fail to acknowledge the difference between a truly robust, Christian ethics of life and a socially conservative moral ideology that respects life in some areas but disregards it in others. The latter is exemplified by Christians who are vehemently anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment. Recently, Nebraska (a state that is 75% Christian) voted to reinstate the death penalty by an overwhelming majority. The majority of Christian faiths reject the death penalty outright, but many Christians in Nebraska voted to reinstate it anyway.
We’ve been over the fact that the Catholic Church’s teaching on the issue of life does not align completely with either major political party in the United States, and yet there is still a presumed expectation to choose between two distinct sets of beliefs. One advocates for the preservation of life before birth, and the other advocates for the preservation of life in the face of crime and punishment. Neither advocates fully for life in both situations.
To be pro-life is to reject the death penalty in all but the most extreme cases. St. John Paul II himself stated that these cases are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” But we don’t do that as a country, and our leadership hasn’t stepped up to support life on both ends of the spectrum Sadly, a world that many look to for inspiration – the magical world of Harry Potter – doesn’t offer a better way either.
Until now, I saw the heros of Harry Potter preventing death, sparing the innocent and guilty alike, keeping souls intact and embodied, and caring for all members of the magical world, including the non-human and non-wizard types. The entire story is about self-sacrificial love and how we are called to respond to the gift of that love. Harry Potter himself is “The Boy Who Lived.”
Fictional worlds serve as model of inspiration for us in the real world. They shape our moralities, they call us to courage, and they often lead us to paths of hope, even through the greatest darknesses we can imagine. I wonder if J.K. Rowling, with her immense audience, could use her influence to show that on the side of goodness, life must be protected from start to finish. As people who deeply celebrate “The Boy Who Lived,” let’s together create a world that witnesses to the gifts of his, and all, life.
Many knew Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach as the leader of the Jesuits throughout the world. As for me, I only knew him as a simple Jesuit!
Let me explain. Back in August 2008, I was spending a year with the Jesuits before I officially entered the Society of Jesus,1 and Fr. Kolvenbach had recently resigned from being Superior General. He decided to come back to Beirut, where he was previously the provincial.
I can’t forget our first encounter. I was confused about how to introduce myself and what I would say to this great man. He replied with one word: “Hmmm, l’avenir!” I only understood a little French. I had to ask what it meant: “the future.” What an encouraging call from the “Black Pope” to a young candidate to the Jesuits!
During that time, I used to see him around in our residence. He worked as the assistant librarian. He had a silent presence and was surrounded by what I called his mystic halo. He was always in his cassock, walking prudently and acting very formally at the table – but never when you approached him to chat!
Later, during my philosophy studies, the Jesuits in Lebanon welcomed the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, Cardinal “Mar Bechara Boutros al-Rahi.” The humble Kolvenbach always wanted to be treated as any other normal Jesuit, so he first refused to sit next to this person, who was one of his students in theology at the University of Saint Joseph in Beirut. Father Peter waited near the door of our residence next to the provincial, who tried hard to convince him to sit next to the Patriarch. Fr. Kolvenbach resisted until his local superior, another Dutch Jesuit, said to him with laughter, “You know, I am your superior now. You obey me, and you sit next to him.” Immediately, Fr. Peter replied, “I obey.”
Fr. Peter was the perfect example of a Jesuit for us, particularly in how he humbly dealt with his illness. He disliked taking any advantage of his former post and was a model of obedience. It was thus easy for his superiors in Beirut – I can count five of them during the last eight years – to have the former Father General in their communities because he was easier for them than a stubborn scholastic like me…
I would often salute him in Armenian, “Parev.” Father Peter – Parev – first came to my province in 1958 and was inspired by the work of the Jesuits with Armenian refugees. He became an expert in the Armenian language and stayed in the Near East and served the people whom he loved.
Now, I write this meters away from the school where he first served in Beirut. He inspires our Jesuit life and mission by his delightful example. He inspires me to live my life peacefully, humbly and gratefully.
If there has been one overused line in the past three weeks, it’s the trope: “The election taught us…”
We didn’t need this election to teach us that our country is polarized or that there is no “Catholic vote.” As commentators have said for years, political polarization shapes the Catholic electorate as much as the general electorate: there is no “Catholic vote,” but rather a “conservative Catholic vote” and a “liberal Catholic vote.”
For decades, the U.S. Church electorate has been divided between “pro-life” and “social justice” camps. For “pro-life” Catholics, abortion defines their political participation, because abortion touches upon the key issue of respect for life. “Social justice” Catholics are interested in a broad range of issues stemming from their commitment to protecting the human person against violations of their rights.
Stated thusly, the two camps seem to have a great deal in common. But pro-life and social justice Catholics tend to be distinguished not just by the policies they emphasize, but by their partisan preferences. Pro-life Catholics have found a home in the GOP, and social justice Catholics tend to be Democrats. The two groups, in other words, have allowed themselves to be defined by our two-party system.
There is no question that the two parties have divvied up the Catholic vote, as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego noted recently:
“The central issues of Catholic social teaching that our society faces at the present moment really bifurcate the partisan divide in our nation,” said McElroy. “The Democratic Party emphasizes certain of those teachings and embodies them more fully, and the Republican Party embodies others. Because political leaders are forced into those partisan molds, particularly during partisan campaigns, they often don’t reflect the spectrum of Catholic social teaching to a great degree.”
This division was starkly illustrated by the platforms of the vice-presidential candidates. While they were both strongly influenced by Catholicism, it seemed to be their political ideologies that determined which teachings of the Church they did – and did not – embrace.
A common argument for distinguishing the two sets of issues is to treat opposition to abortion as a non-negotiable principle, and to see most policy issues related to social justice as negotiable applications of principles.
The trouble is, such arguments tend to sharply divide principles from applications, as though principles were Platonic abstractions floating in the ether with no purchase on reality, and the applications mere observations with little theoretical foundation. It then becomes hard to see how our practice and theory mutually influence one another.
But it has always been the Catholic tradition that political reflection sits squarely between theory and practice. As the Jesuit Social Research Institute notes, Catholic Social Teaching has to be both “organic and systematic,” so as to take stock of “social realities, ethical principles, and application of those principles to current circumstances.”
So what do we gain from accepting the balkanization of the U.S. Church?
Pragmatically, pro-life and social justice interest groups deprive themselves of key allies when they don’t see their causes as mutually related.
Intellectually, both “sides” deprive themselves of the full significance of their own arguments when they treat their causes as isolated policy positions.
Most importantly, treating life and social justice issues as separate has wounded the U.S. Church. Reconciliation between the life and social justice movements needs to be a high priority for the Church in the coming years. In the months to come, most Americans will likely go back to ignoring politics. Yet much rides on keeping citizens engaged beyond “the tired quadrennial debate about whom we can vote for.” Catholics must hold a Trump presidency to its espoused pro-life values, and work towards long-term reconciliation, not short-term goals.
Taking the long view, the Catholic Church cannot depend upon the parties as a credible engine for turning our deepest faith commitments into policy. The parties have gotten us into this mess and are unlikely to get us out of it. Catholics and all people of good will must become better at articulating the basis for what we believe, and how it can translate into a better life for all peoples. This will require pulling away from political modes of thought and recovering yet again what it means to be Christian in the first place.
Indeed, when I wrote about being Catholic and Democrat or Catholic and Republican this past summer, the ensuing debate between our readers revealed the misunderstanding, pain and sadly even hate between the two camps. Reconciliation between pro-life and social-justice Catholics will not be easy. It is a long process that requires building trust, becoming open to criticism, and even being willing to criticize ourselves in the pursuit of love-guided justice. That road will not be easy, but it is more necessary than ever to walk down it.
Yes, there are liberal Catholics and conservative Catholics. But at a time when politics is such a mess, we must pull away from ideological attachments and see ourselves as Catholics. And we must do this not to deny but to affirm the nobility and necessity of politics.
Once, during International Food Week at my grade school, a kid in my class called me a turd burglar from across the lunch table. I was no such thing, and he needed to know it. In retaliation, I launched a handful of German potato salad at him, filling his bowl-cut hair and brace face with a blitzkrieg of greasy, bacony slop.
“ERIC IMMEL!” A howl razed the room — the hair-netted lunch lady across the cafeteria saw the whole thing. She dropped her industrial spatula, shuffled toward me, and grabbed my upper arm – the kind of Vulcan death grip that leaves streaked red hand prints on the skin. To the principal’s office I went, but not without protest. “He started it – he called me a turd burglar,” I whined, hand still slathered with the evidence of my crime. I knew there was no chance for recompense.
Our house was just minutes away by car, and my mom was there in no time. The principal judged two weeks of indoor recess as fair punishment, and Mom concurred. Tears welled behind my eyes. No touch football for two weeks. She didn’t even listen to my side of the story. When I was a kid, my mom never stuck up for me.
Sometime in late 1981, I can envision that a young couple met for a date. They started off with a few beers and discussed Ronald Reagan’s ‘war on drugs.’ They found a little bistro and shared a plate of chicken Parmesan. He got sauce on his pressed white shirt and tried to hide the red stain with his tie. She noticed and smiled to herself over his concern. Hand-in-hand, they walked along a quiet city corridor, fire-colored maple leaves crunching beneath their almost dancing feet. Afterward, those two people made love and I was in the making. Their love maybe didn’t last, but I did. Nine months later, I was born into the world and given away.
But what if that hadn’t happened? What if my biological mother had, against all odds, given birth and kept me close to her? What if it were just her and I, sleeping side-by-side in a small apartment? What if, at some point, she introduced me to a new man, and he and I went to baseball games together? What if, when I was three or four, maybe ten, I stood next to them both in an ill-fitting tuxedo, beaming up at my new dad as he slid a diamond ring onto her delicate finger?
As I imagine this, one simple, tough question sometimes bubbles up inside me: what was in her heart that made my other mother – the one I’ve never met – let me go?
The woman who gave birth to me is not the woman who came to my school on the day of the German potato salad debacle. She is not the one who stayed up with me all night when I was sick with stomach flu, not the one who caved when I begged for sugary cereal instead of Crispix, not the one who taught me how to drive a stick-shift. She is not the one I think of when I think of my mom.
There is mystery and miracle in motherhood. My mom, who has always stuck up for me, and who knew what was best when I launched that handful of potato salad decades ago. Some of the amazing young women I teach, going to school full-time and working part-time, all while raising toddlers. My friends and my sister, relatively new mothers who face the world with the responsibility of caring for their kids, even if their kids don’t agree with the strategy.
I’ll be home on Thanksgiving for the first time in five years, and I’m already planning lunch on Friday – leftover scoops of decadent goop piled high in a mixing bowl and devoured alongside some malty, winter beer, ice cold and opened a little too early in the day. My brother and sister will be there. They may call me a turd burglar. They may get a handful of stuffing or green bean casserole in the face.
My mother will sit alongside us in her tan armchair, the newspaper unfolded across her lap. She’ll adjust her head occasionally to make full use of her bifocals, navigating the difference in text size between headlines and actual news stories. She may comment about the state of American politics. More likely, though, she’ll point out $20 of Kohl’s Cash that expire on Saturday and remind me that I could probably use a new pair of jeans.
This is my life. It’s her life, too. I have always been cared for. I have always been loved. My mother – the one I sit with the day after Thanksgiving and the only one I’ve ever known – is proud of me, and my eyes soften nearly every time I think of her. At the same time, the woman who courageously brought me into the world, perhaps now married with children of her own, is and will always be responsible for my eyes, my bald head, and my heart.
Despite Donald Trump’s Twitter protestations, Saturday Night Live has not settled for skewering Himself alone. Hillary got her share of ribbing. And this faux infomercial, The Bubble, fixes educated urban liberals in its crosshairs. If you haven’t taken a look, take a minute now:
A cheery voice calls to us: “Welcome to the Bubble! The bubble is a planned community of like-minded free-thinkers – and no one else!”
All are welcome to live in this utopia — which looks a little too much like Brooklyn — but the price of admission is comically prohibitive. A scruffy white 30-something assures us: “the bubble is a diverse community and safe space for everyone. We don’t see color here. But… we celebrate it!” His black friend winces uncomfortably, brilliantly. “So if you’re an open-minded person, come here… and close yourself in!”
* * *
The day after Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, many on the campus I am at looked like they had an existential hangover. In the week before election day, I was reading the work of a French thinker, René Girard, for a class on secularism. As I read about his theory of scapegoating, I saw how it was playing out on the American political scene. Societies – all groups of peoples – experience tension and discord, and the desire to restore peace requires identifying a destabilizing culprit — enter the scapegoat. This person (or subgroup), once identified as guilty, is sacrificed in the sure hope that the society can once again go on living in harmony. Because of the comparative civility of modernity, Girard reasons, we don’t permit grand spectacles of human sacrifice any longer – witch trials, public hangings, etc. But the dynamics of scapegoating have not gone away, they have just gone underground.
They have become, I submit, American politics. Up to the election day, the reasoning for many Americans went something like this:
All will be well in the country once Clinton wins her rightful place. Trump will be banished into political oblivion, a cautionary punchline. Then we can finally move towards unity and healing. Stronger together.
But then Donald Trump won the Electoral College, and the country has been roiling and convulsing since.
Girard notes that when we cannot easily rid society of a culprit, the thirst for assigning blame goes underground, fragmenting in sometimes ugly ways. Thus today individuals “do everything they can to conceal their scapegoating from themselves, and as a general rule they succeed. Today as in the past, to have a scapegoat is to believe one doesn’t have any.”
This last line struck me between the eye, since many commentators – and indeed about half of our nation – have spent the past weeks wondering how someone like Donald Trump could come to be elected president. Donald Trump, who has tapped support among rural, largely white, Americans. Donald Trump, who has publicly and vociferously scapegoated individuals (and minority groups, and entire nations…) for America’s problems. “When we suspect people around us of giving in to the temptation of scapegoating,” Girard writes, “we denounce them indignantly. We ferociously denounce the scapegoating of which our neighbors are guilty.” Indeed, in the past weeks many Americans have taken to publicly denouncing the president-elect and his basket of depl—er, cabinet prospects. Most recently, the cast of Hamilton called VP-elect Pence on the carpet after he saw a performance of the show, and made a spectacle of it on social media. But to what end?
I am not interested here in defending, or evaluating Trump’s choices since election. I am interested here in considering how people of good will should engage with people who voted differently. Girard cautions us against grand gestures of denunciation: “We could use our insight discreetly with our neighbors, not humiliating those we catch in the very act of expelling a scapegoat. But more frequently we turn our knowledge into a weapon, a means not only of perpetuating old conflicts but of raising them to a new level of cunning.” Our awareness of social inequities and inflammatory language causes a moral response of revulsion, and rightly so. But in the very act of attempting to correct a wrong, Girard warns, humans tend to employ the same ugly tactics.
“MOI?? I’m not scapegoating,” we tell ourselves. “I’m speaking truth about the racism and sexism I see perpetrated by Trump and his vision of America.”
But the good impulse to protect the innocent and the underrepresented, Girard says, subconsciously sends us on a quest for a new scapegoat. Hence we “practice a hunt for scapegoats to the second degree, a hunt for hunters of scapegoats. Our society’s obligatory compassion authorizes new forms of cruelty.” When scapegoating the leader does not work, we redirect anger at an other, mimetically — aping one another with the cruelty of mutual suspicion and impugned motives. This mimetic violence — mutually enforced aggression — is part of how humans interact in any distressed social groups. All the more subtle, Girard says, when we feel certain of our moral superiority. If you find yourself getting irritated and saying, “Yeah, but that is exactly what Trump supporters do all the time…” then you’re falling into the cycle of scapegoating that propelled him to power in the first place.
The breakdown that Girard describes is most dangerous when we do not recognize the hunt for what it is. We claim the mantle of unimpeachable moral clarity; whereas our opponents – Trump supporters – reflexively operate out of some Procrustean white privilege that feels threatened by women, minorities, etc. Indeed, media interviews with some folks at Trump rallies — and reports of subsequent hazings of minorities — have done little to disabuse us of that interpretation. But I have read many strongly-worded pieces in the past weeks — on Slate, the Guardian, the New York Times, Huffington Post, etc. — to the tune of “there is no morally defensible way to have voted for Trump, because to do so is to approve of his miscreant statements on [sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc.].” Yes, I have read all 282 of Trump’s disparaging Tweets. I understand his status as a loose cannon, at home and abroad. I share the frustrations and am genuinely uncertain about the future. To be clear – I would not, could not, did not vote for Donald Trump. But I also cannot, will not deny that there are legitimate issues that have attracted Americans of good will to vote for Donald Trump. My concern is when we conflate Trump’s words with his supporters’ reasons for supporting him, as if the two were coextensive. But to do so is dangerous, because…
Drawing conclusions based on perceived motives is a fruitless, unfriendly game. I take as an example my beloved home state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin was one of the states not to go for Trump in the Republican primaries. It has gone Democratic every election since 1984, supporting Obama twice on his promises of hope and change. In the 2016 Democratic primary, Wisconsin went for Bernie Sanders, as one of many parts of the country that have witnessed economic stagnation and decline for the largely-rural working class.
Here is where things get interesting.
In the presidential election, the same counties that were Sanders supporters in the primaries came out overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. This came across as a surprise and betrayal to the Democratic party. But to read many election post mortems, Trump’s upset in places like this was not attributed to the Bernie-lovin’ concern for economic stagnation among working-class Americans. Rather, the cause was something much more nefarious — deep-seated racism, fear of minorities, foreigners, and/or women, etc. Suddenly the ugliest aspects of Donald Trump’s rhetoric (sexism, racism, etc.) became the diagnosed reason for support of Trump, rather than one of the repugnant side-effects that voters made an uneasy peace with.
But do the facts bear this post-election narrative? Could not the economic plight, rather than racism and sexism, offer some explanation of Bernie-turn-Trump supporters? My reasoning here is speculative and not conclusive, I admit. But the limits of speculation is precisely my point — no commentators, save the voters themselves, can speak honestly about voters’ intentions. I am not exonerating – let alone defending – Trump’s statements. Yet we should be wary of diagnosing others’ intentions, for two reasons: 1) it flattens complexities in ways that muffle unpleasant truths. Wisconsin is a case study in the danger of overlooking raw data to fit foregone conclusions.
But also, 2) presuming bad motives of others only breeds mutual distrust (remember Girard’s mimetic violence?). By all means, we can and should challenge Trump on his public statements. But how we do so in a civilized society is important, as what has been done thus far has not born much fruit. Girard’s analysis about righteous anger and our thirst for a culprit is instructive: “The insight regarding scapegoats and scapegoating is a real superiority of our society over all previous societies, but like all progress in knowledge, it also offers occasion to make an evil worse. Let’s say I denounce my neighbor’s scapegoating with righteous self-satisfaction, but I continue to view my own scapegoats as objectively guilty. My neighbors, of course, don’t hold back from denouncing me for the same selective insight that I point out in them.”
This, Girard points out, is because humans, like all creatures, are mimetic. Monkey see, monkey do. You are questioning my good intentions? Well then…right back at you, pal.
[Click ‘unfollow,’ return to the Bubble.]
And so the world spins…fingers point across the aisle…hands wring within the party…and coastal fists shake at intolerant illiterati who pepper the countrysides… A few zinger interviews with a few racist Trump supporters suffices to dismiss the whole lot of ’em. The problem, then, is that all Trump supporters end up looking like Pennsatucky from “Orange Is the New Black.”1 Small wonder, then, that a few vociferous Trump supporters should respond with mutual distaste, perhaps even embodying the caricatured hatred that has been ascribed to them. Breitbart News did not, I submit, arise in a vacuum. And younger alt-right standard-bearers — like the trolling Milo Yiannopolis, and the white supremacist Richard Spencer — have been incubated in the same university cultures that champion safe spaces and identity politics. Are they repugnant to the mainstream? Yes. Is it surprising that they would develop in the modern political climate? Not at all.
* * *
The comparatively peaceful co-existence of different groups in America has set America apart from other nations and parts of the world. It is imperfect and incomplete, no doubt. But in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, we realize that competing identity groups – the smaller communities we associate with and for which we have sympathies – have become something of an obstacle to national unity. Mark Lilla’s provocative opinion piece in the New York Times argues that the siloing into smaller identity groups has proven divisive. Doing some soul-searching as a Democrat, Lilla writes that
“Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions.”
In 2016, the American working class – largely white and without a college degree – found champions in outsiders like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. They have sought protection from economic downturn, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, and high rates of suicide. This plea for sympathy rankles many urban, educated whites — particularly those of us who are loath to admit that history guarantees no people or nation unflagging success and stability.
The narrative of “white male privilege” — so often invoked as the root of all modern inequalities on university campuses and comment sections — can not neatly account for the rural white male, who is pleading for sympathy. We are left with a vague contempt for the proximate: “he should be doing okay in life, but he isn’t…and the fact that he looks enough like me makes it okay to dismiss his plight.” We can see how unnerving this is by seeing where our sympathies do, and do not, lie. We educated, liberal types go on service trips halfway around the world to encounter the other…but are less jazzed about visiting the working poor across town. We spend more for locally-sourced vegetables, organic breads and artisanal cheeses…and shake our heads at whites in poorer areas who “choose to shop” at Wal-Mart, the only store around for miles.
“The Wire” movingly portrays the scourge of drugs and poverty in Baltimore, and Black Lives Matter has awoken us to the plight of our African-American communities as they face violence with police. Yet are most of us educated urban types prepared to sympathize with a single white mother, whose son has PTSD after fighting in Afghanistan? We can laugh at the plight of “Drunk Uncle”2 on SNL, because who doesn’t have a down-and-out relative like that? We roll our eyes at the goofy white meth-heads on “Orange is the New Black” and “Breaking Bad.” But we are not directed to feel sympathy for their plight. Instead we laugh at how they managed to squander the white privilege that their cultural betters didn’t. There is, nestled even in this negative image, some embedded expectations of what “whiteness” and “success” means. As Girard puts it, “scapegoating phenomena cannot survive in many instances except by becoming more subtle, by resorting to more and more complex casuistry in order to elude the self-criticism that follows scapegoaters like their shadow.”
* * *
I wish I had a neater end to these ponderings. I don’t really, other than to say that the socio-political landscape has shifted under our feet in unsettling ways. This is disorienting, and may well be for a while. But for many people, feeling unsettled is a daily reality. And unless you have the resources to move to the Bubble, we cannot settle for burying our heads in the sand. What should we do, moving forward? I don’t have answers, but I do have some thoughts.
1) We should recognize that scapegoating is cyclic and mimetic – and giving in leads to mistrust and fragmentation. If Girard is right about scapegoating, then the higher our perceived moral ground, the subtler our scapegoating gets. Searching for a guilty party to blame and denounce feels Twitteriffically thrilling – but accomplishes little. Public denouncements — like the flippant 3am tweets that prompt them — can become a defiant dodge from engaging people with whom we disagree. In our grand gesture of rectitude, we burn the chance to find a common ground with the other. As the philosopher Michael Sandel puts it, “to achieve a just society, we have to reason together about the meaning of the good life, and to create a public culture hospitable to the disagreements that will inevitably arise.” This means we refuse to engage in too-easy barbs and labels, even when they are lobbed at us. Even if — especially if — they come from the Tweeter-in-Chief elect. Baby steps, friends! But still…
2) In no uncertain terms, we must intelligently and clearly oppose the smoldering fringes of racism and sexism. But to do that, we must be ready to distinguish bona fide racism, from people of good will whose concerns are not our own. Where children are ridiculed or belittled for being black, or Latino, or gay, or a girl, or Muslim — we adults must speak up. We do well to have students get to know different types of people from an early age. But we also must teach our children to choose their battles, to rise above the fray, and to defend themselves and their values when necessary. We cannot wait for daycares, high schools, or university classrooms to be spaces where ugly ideas are verboten, or bullying becomes extirpated. As this election cycle has shown us, the public square doesn’t come with padding, and attempts to silence fringe voices results only in greater resistance.
3) We are all thoughtful captains of our souls. What unites us all is not our small-group identities, our language, or even the fact that we happen to reside in the United States. More fundamentally, we are all humans — sensitive creatures, equally (ir)rational, with our own crosses to carry and emotional scars. Hillary supporters are complex creatures who made prudential decisions on election day; so, too with Trump supporters. We are a diverse country, and the world watches and learns how we do(n’t) honor diversity in all its forms — racial, sexual, religious, as well as ideological. In the words of one commenter to Mark Lilla’s article, “the grandest and the greatest expression of diversity resides in the creativity, the character and the contours of an individual’s mind and animating spirit — not in the particulars of biology and body parts. We cannot move quickly enough away from thinking of ourselves as captives of our particulars, and towards a vision of ourselves as captains of our souls.”3 And before we demand civility from others, we might take a minute to think – how far do my sympathies actually extend? As Fr. Greg Boyle writes, “Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry, rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it.” Who do I stand in awe with, and who is beyond my compassion? What group do I need to grow in understanding of? And finally,
4) Stay hopeful and engaged in the common good. Many friends from other countries marvel at how much emotional and mental energy we put into politics in the US. Thank God for the gift of life, and the ability to exercise freedoms, however imperfectly, in a democracy. Donald Trump may end up being a decent president, especially if he addresses the anxieties of those who did not vote for him. I am not holding my breath – but I remain hopeful. More importantly, we should be grateful that politics is not the only means we have of working out the common good. We have churches, community organizations, and educational institutions that minister to those most in need of our attention and support. Give your time to these communities, rather than reading another too-long think piece about the dire state of America.
Life is for the living – so get out there, and be great, America!
–//– Artwork of Fragmented Eagles by Anna C. Simmons, used with permission from artist.
The most hopeful moment of November 2016 comes this Friday, when Netflix releases the long-anticipated Gilmore Girls new season.
This has literally been years in the making. Fans, disappointed by the ending of the popular television show in 2007, are excited to see favorite characters Lorelei Gilmore (Lauren Graham) and daughter Rory (Alexis Bledel) rapidly speak back and forth over a cup of coffee at the kitchen table.
Gilmore Girls was a nightly ritual for my Jesuit Volunteer Community in 2009. I’d come home from work, open the door, hear tears, and know instantly: my roommate was watching another episode. Together, we’d watch her DVD copies, nostalgic for a past we participated in during our middle and high school years. And now that all seasons are on Netflix, young people who might have been born when it premiered are just as hooked as we were.
In anticipation for the new season, pop-up “Luke’s Diners” appeared across the country in October. Last week, Vogue offered a list of the top 13 episodes to watch before the relaunch. And when the trailer was released by Netflix, Carole King’s “Where You Lead,” the show’s theme song, caused many fans to cry.
Gilmore Girls is one reboot among many in the last few years. Netflix also released a new season of Arrested Development in 2013. That same year, long time ABC soap operas All My Children and One Life to Live had albeit short relaunch. Currently, Golden Girls has an Off-Broadway revival – with puppets. And, maybe wanting to relive their childhood, fans await the release of the new Power Rangers movie.
And of course, Netflix produced the relaunch of Full House, or as they call it, Fuller House last year. Within days of its premier, Netflix confirmed a second season. While the data may be unreliable, some say Fuller House is Netflix’s most watched show.
What drives us to watch relaunches of old shows rather than new series like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmitt? What compels us towards nostalgic TV watching?
Nostalgia signifies longing for the past. We long for that time when things were better – even if they never were. This drives our political preferences, regardless of our political orientation. And according to journalist Peter Marks, when politics are too hard, nostalgia allows us to retreat out:
In an age of high anxiety — economic or political — we tend to reach into the cabinet of our comforts and scrounge for reminders of stabler periods. So now, it seems, is prime time for nostalgia.
He wrote that on November 5th – just three days before our presidential Election.
In these moments of uncertainty, commodified TV nostalgia is easier to digest than reality. We can watch old episodes that elicit that perfect moment of the past. We can also watch the relaunch and enter back into that story that swept our imaginations. There we might imagine ourselves part of a stabler community,a community of viewers who are in love just like us.
The tension with these communities of viewers is that they can numb us from action. Take the mother in the movie Joy who is stifled by her daily soap opera: she finds herself unable to change for years, and is addicted to the false sense of security offered in her show. Escaping into television, we too run the risk of becoming a less intense version of her.
But could nostalgia be offering us something, more than just an escape from national instability? Peter Marks seems to think so:
As much as nostalgia seems a regressive phenomenon — a retreat to the consolation of what makes us feel unchallengeably secure — the fact is that the things we long for tell us something about who we are today.
For many people, our country is in a moment of post-election national soul-searching. By returning to a place where we found love, connection, joy, and struggle, the Gilmore Girls revival [or other favorite show] might offers us one space for personal reflection.. And maybe then, finding some renewed hope in something meaningful from the past, we can move beyond simple escape.
The question for us is whether we find ourselves in a chronic retreat from reality or recharged for action and engagement. If we’re empowered rather than stinted by nostalgia, we can garner the strength needed to seize the infinite possibilities that are in front of us.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user jeffmason.
So, you’re going home for Thanksgiving. You’ll be seeing all of your extended family for the first time since the election. You’ve been dutifully ignoring1 your relatives’ Facebook posts all summer and fall, as they post link after link supporting some political candidate you find loathsome. And next week you’re going to be sitting next to them at what may well be both literally and figuratively the longest meal of the year. All the pumpkin pie in the world might not be enough to balance out the bitterness of this prospect.
Let’s be honest. The election is probably going to come up in conversation. You’ve got a few options in determining how to respond.
A.) Pray fervently that nobody mentions the events of and following November 9th. If the topic never comes up, nobody will need to acknowledge they disagree with each other. For better or worse, praying to avoid adversity might not be your best bet2, so instead your better bet is to pray for strength for what could be a challenging conversation.
B.) Let the election come up, but either ignore it or pretend that you don’t disagree with what your relatives are saying. I like to call this the Obi-Wan Kenobi option. Bad news though, you aren’t a Jedi.3 Trying to obviate a serious disagreement through a wave of the hand, temporary deafness and muteness, or polite smile/grimace isn’t going to help anything.
C.) Engage in honest, charitable, forthright dialogue.
What the heck does that mean? If, or when, one or another of your relatives starts singing the praises of a politician you simply can’t stomach, don’t fill your mouth with another forkful of stuffing, no matter how good it is. Instead, if someone shares their support for a politician with whom you have objections, ask what makes them support this individual. What attracted them to this candidate? It would come as a surprise that someone supported Donald Trump because of his xenophobic and misogynist language. I would similarly doubt that anyone voted for Hillary Clinton because they think her handling of her emails shows great decision-making. For the sake of these conversations, let’s presume that people had reasons for supporting their particular candidate, even if we might disagree with those reasons or their final choice of candidate.
That being said, it would be a disservice to avoid these points of disagreement. Between passing the mashed potatoes and pouring the gravy, take some time to ask your relatives how they were able to overlook the issues you find problematic or even dangerous about their chosen candidate.
At the same time, be willing to share why you disagree, how you made sense of your own candidate’s shortcomings, and what you might find concerning about the results of the election. You have the right to ask your relatives questions, they have the right to ask you questions, and everyone has the right to be heard out.
Let’s be clear though. The goal of these conversations doesn’t need to be universal agreement or the abandoning of your beliefs. As a friend of mine recently put it, “Jesus didn’t call for cheap unity and fake positivity…He called for justice, love, and mercy.” There are real, genuine disagreements to be had, and the many groups put at risk by the campaign promises of our President-elect deserve not only to be heard but to be supported and protected.
Instead, we share our views, ask questions, raise issues, and desire to better understand the perspectives, concerns, and hopes of those who voted for someone else. Even if it’s uncomfortable, even if it’s difficult. Maybe we don’t come to agreement, maybe we don’t leave the conversation any more satisfied by our relatives’ political views than when we started. But if we don’t give ourselves the chance to more meaningfully engage those with whom we disagree, what path forward is there?
Ask bold questions. Listen openly. Share honestly. Pass the cranberries.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Phillip Guyton.
The month of November is, among other things, a month dedicated to the promotion of Jesuit vocations. While I’m glad we have a month to encourage interested and available young men to consider our way of life, it’s also worth remembering that vocation – being called – is for everyone. Many young people are looking to discover their vocation, and we at TJP want to help in that kind of discovery. So, here are five steps for anyone trying to discover their own call, Jesuit or otherwise.
1. Put all possibilities on the table:
Many people repress legitimate vocational desires by closing doors on themselves. Start by opening those doors. Eliminate the phrase “I could never be a…” from your vocabulary (except, of course, for actual impossibilities – “I could never be an NBA center,” for example). Imagine all of the inspiring people you know – writers, artists, teachers, activists, advocates, etc. – perhaps some are religious sisters or priests; some are married, some are single. Remember that, at some point, they all had to risk staking their life on a particular path. Most of our heroes lived joyful lives of generosity and prophetic witness by having first opened themselves to unlikely possibilities.
Young adult Catholic? Put religious life on the table. Trust me, at first I didn’t think so either. The point here is to include all possibilities, however countercultural or unthinkable, and to see what happens inside of you as you consider them. There is no true vocation without real freedom, and one way of understanding ‘real freedom’ is to say that you’re not ‘really free’ to do something unless you’re also free not to do it. You’re free to get married, for example, but accepting that call in real freedom means you’ve seriously considered other options. When considering a vocation, put all possibilities on the table and then see where your deepest desires find the freedom to expand. When you follow real freedom it generally leads to self-giving acts of love. Freedom? Generosity? Love? That’s vocation.
2. Experiment with experience:
Dedicate a year or two to test your deepest desires in real-life experiences. Identify concrete experiences that will help reveal more doors, even as they appear to close others. Make a weekend retreat (or longer!) to reflect on your vocation in prayerful conversation with God. Commit to a year of service or consider a part-time job or internship that stretches your field of vision. Don’t just live with the fantasy of who your heroes are. Experiment with the reality of their heroic way of being in the world. These experiences will give you actual ‘data-points’ to refer to as you make your own vocational decisions.
A very low-risk version of this experimentation is to simply pretend that you’ve already made a choice: Spend a month telling yourself that you’re going to be a parent (or a nun or a writer or what have you). ‘Live’ with that decision, and then talk with God about the hopes and fears you have around that choice. Try another month imagining another call and note any differences. Does one leave you more or less excited? More courageous? More curious? More alive? That’s vocation.
3. Phone a Friend:
A call, by definition, involves voices and perspectives other than our own. Talk to a friend about what you’re considering and ask them to check-in with you about it from time to time. Good friends won’t tell you what to do, but they will reflect back to you your own hopes and frustrations. A trusted friend can help to affirm or encourage you when they see you blooming or wilting. Good friends recognize your joy and they can help you follow its lead by their encouragement and their support.
It’s also good to remember that sometimes a ‘good friend’ might be a ‘professional stranger’. We use therapy to heal wounds or overcome fears. Similarly, spiritual direction or pastoral counseling can be a place to explore vocational possibilities. Use these supportive conversations to identify desires, to clarify how God has been moving in your life, and to sort out where you might be called to move next.1 Listening to trusted voices of love? That’s vocation.
4. Make a Commitment:
Trust that it’s alright to accept a call even with bits of uncertainty still lying around. Any authentic vocation will always lead to a place where you will be asked to do things you never imagined yourself capable of doing. Sometimes the support you need is made available or visible only after you make a commitment. God doesn’t coerce us into a vocation with constant hand-holding or protection from all potential suffering. God does promise fidelity and accompaniment as we make our way in a life of self-giving love.
Commitment invests us in a mutual relationship where the one who calls us helps us to fulfill that call. Eventually, we come to realize that we can’t have it all — and that’s actually a liberating thing. This realization frees us to do the one thing we’re called to do with all of our heart. Vocation is a gift. It’s personal in the best sense: not private, but profoundly yours. Once you feel sufficiently clear that a particular path might be your path, make a commitment, gently let go of other options and take seriously the gift of your particular call. That’s vocation.
5. Keep your heart open
Once you’ve made a commitment, stick with it, look for confirmation over time, and be patient. Anything worth committing to takes a while to adjust to. We often regret decisions immediately after we make them — unsure about whether we made the right choice or grieving all the other possibilities we’ve left behind. In time, however, we come to realize that many of our best decisions involved a fair amount of risk and struggle early on.
In general, we can trust the Spirit that led us to commitment. We can trust the friends who accompanied us along the way. And we can trust that, come what may, we are never abandoned by the God who called us into being in the first place. In loving fully, courageously, and completely, nothing is lost. An open heart is a listening heart. And a life of open-hearted decision-making and self-giving love? That’s vocation.
Breathe in. Breathe out. That’s what I’m doing. Even now, a week after the election. I’m ready to rise up and weather the coming storm. I’m also in a complete daze. I’m also filled with hope. I’m also sad. Whatever it is I am, I’m breathing. I’m breathing in. And I’m breathing out. One breath at a time. I’m still alive. I’m able to walk, the winds blow, leaves fall and winter follows autumn, and before I know it I’ll say to myself, “I can’t believe it’s already Christmas!”
This is life. It changes. One moment to the next. And sometimes change is intentional, and sometimes it’s not. But when the change is deliberate, the pursuit is usually for something great. A person wants to share their life – they seek out a partner. A person dreams to change their career – they return to school. A person wants their country to be great again – they cast their vote. Yet, with this desire for change, there is always a chance change may never happen.
I’m constantly aware of my skin color; the sweet mocha brown that covers me is beautiful. But when others solely identify me as nothing more than skin color they ignore my whole person. I understand how the color of my skin can be (and has always been) a barrier between me and my American dream. I recognize how strangers, colleagues, even some of my own friends treat me differently. I want that disparity to change. But it hasn’t happened yet.
I watched them approach the circle. Four of them. White guys. And this was a peace circle, an intentional space designed for healing through conflict. But these guys in red caps and patriotic shirts proclaiming to make America great again brought an unwelcome intimidation, displeasure, and resentment. My peace was aggravated.
“Let’s begin by saying why we are here.” This was the facilitator. An affable young woman with dyed grey hair, a mellow voice, and a heart-shaped cookie cutter, a totem passed around to indicate whose turn it was to speak.
“I’m here to find peace.”
“I feel afraid and need to say it outloud.”
“I believe our country is divided, and I want us to unite.”
And then it was one of them. One of the white guys. The one with the red cap and blue shirt spelling out T-R-U-M-P. “I’m tired of being judged because of who I support. I’m being mocked, talked about, pointed at, and intimidated based solely on the color of my skin. I’m tired of it and it hurts.”
Breathe in. I‘m getting annoyed. Breathe out. I’m getting angry. Breathe in. Peace escapes me. Breathe out. He needs to change.
Eventually, it was my turn. The cookie cutter heart was placed in my hand. It was small. Metal. I imagined using it to make heart-shaped biscuits. And after a deep breath, I turned to the white guy, affirmed his presence in the circle and said, “You speak about discrimination. You speak about skin color. This may be new to you, but I and many people of color experience this everyday. Now you understand what we go through. Now you know how exhausting it can be. For me, that feeling never ends. Now you and I can finally be in solidarity with each other.”
The Trump supporter I encountered – he’s real. And there’s something like 60 million others. And these 60 million others wanted change. A kind of change I wanted for our country when I voted for Obama. Twice. And now we wait to see how this change will unfold. Because it will.
Change in my life is generally a good thing, but I’m struggling with the reality of this change. Struggling to see the positive, the optimism, the hope from this election. Yet, in struggle there is opportunity. And it came in the form of a red cap. A cap that became something like a skin color I used to define him as other. Exactly what is done to me. And though I stand behind what I stand behind – equity, respect, recognition – I judged him. Me. I did that. And rather quickly.
We introduced ourselves at the end of the peace circle. We shook hands. We spoke for a brief moment, then reentered our worlds, he in his direction, and I in my own. This moment with him was indicative of a hard change. The kind I didn’t ask for, the kind that was unexpected, the kind that can grow if I let it. I saw my blindspot. I saw my self-righteousness. I saw my own participation inside the great divide of our country. Walking away from him I realized for any unity to happen, for any change to occur, for anything great about America to come to fruition – it needs to begin with me.
This past weekend Bill McCormick, SJ, sat down at the Ignatian Family Teach-In with Sister Norma Pimentel, MJ, the Executive Director of Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Sister Norma became famous after her encounter with Pope Francis on international TV, and was a keynote speaker at this year’s Teach-In.
You’re a celebrity here at the IFTJ. How does that feel?
It feels great. But at the same time, if I stop to think about why I’m getting all of this attention, it makes me feel uncomfortable, because it comes from the suffering and pain of so many families. But the publicity brings attention to these problems. It emphasizes that there is a lot of pain and suffering.
I’ve received so much recognition. It’s almost as though now people hear me, that I have a voice. And so, I think that voice comes with big responsibilities, of saying what it is that we all should know and do, from what I see in my own life from helping families and how others must do the same.
How did you decide to enter religious life?
That’s some time back! I didn’t decide for myself, but God decided to pull me out of whatever direction I had made up my mind I was going in.
I was all set on pursuing my professional career as an artist. I stopped to take some time back home so that my dad would be okay with me moving on. In the meantime, I went to a prayer group, and in that prayer group that’s where things changed for me. For the first time experiencing the presence of God in a very special way that caught my attention. And it caught my attention so profoundly that my life took a 180 degree turn to get more involved with knowing God and serving Him with a religious community. A local religious community invited me a vocational retreat, and the rest is history.
Did you have a sense for what God was calling you to do specifically?
No, it was all an unknown future for me. All I knew was that I knew it was the right thing to do. And I wanted to know more about God and what it meant to serve Him. It was something that was unfolding in my life and I wanted to explore it and allow God to guide me. And that’s where it all started. It has been an interesting journey of discovery and living out my faith and growing in my faith as I move forward. I allow God to guide me in what I do and who I am.
What has it been like to be a leader in the Church as a woman?
I think it’s important to be yourself, and not be afraid to be anything other than yourself and who God is forming you to become. It helps to be able to relate with those whom you work with, and who you are inviting to respond to whatever it is that God put before you. The sense of respect for one another, that we may agree on some things and disagree on others, but that in those things that we do agree we can work together and that we make a difference together in responding to whatever it is before us. We focus on what we both believe is the right thing to do. That’s how thing start to happen.
You mentioned about being a woman, and that can get in the way when you think that we might not be recognized or respected because we’re women, but I believe from my own experience and what has happened since becoming so involved in Catholic Charities that people have come to respect me for who I am and not because I’m a woman or a religious or anything other than that we are doing the right thing. And I hope it’s because of that. Or maybe it’s a little bit of everything!
Conversations about immigration are difficult. How do you approach them?
I recently spoke at a gathering of consulates where I was one of two speakers, along with the head of Border Patrol. And he presented the border security importance of what his job was. And when I spoke, I said that I was going to talk about another vital element of life on the Border and work with immigrants: the need to respond humanely,and the reality we see in the Rio Grande Valley. The humanitarian aspect and reality for families who are entering this country fleeing persecution. I think some people need to spend one day with me and see for themselves. I think the power of such an encounter would really open many hearts and minds to the human reality of families desperately seeking protection..
What would they see if they spent a day with you?
They would see the presence of God right there. That’s why those who volunteer, something happens to the person who sees the families, the children, the mothers, and responds to reach out and help them. And that moment of connection when both of them come together and meet: right at that moment I believe that God becomes present. They experience it. I heard recently someone came to me and said, “I’m not Catholic. When you started this humanitarian movement, there was a friend of mine who was a very successful attorney who went to see what you were doing at Sacred Heart and became involved. And it changed him so much that he left his career and joined the seminary.” Another individual recently said to me, “Sister, I have been away from the Church, and since my experiences of helping these families, I’ve come back to the Church.” To me – these are extremely powerful experiences. I think that it’s God who becomes present to them in their lives, and that’s why it happens.
The RGV is unique place that many don’t know about. What would you say to people who don’t know anything about how God works on the border?
In our everyday lives, the Valley is obviously very unique and different. Even the way we speak is different… We tend to speak both languages at the same time! In any case, God becomes present to us in our daily life in the simple things of carrying on and understanding that some of our community live on both sides of the border.
Before 9/11, it was so common to go back and forth, half of your family on the U.S. side and half on the Mexican side. Now it’s so difficult to go back and forth. To realize the anguish and fear among the families, that you may have family members on the Mexican side, and worried about them because of the cartels and gangs and things like that. You hear the stories and you can only be in solidarity with their pain, and know that it is not easy for them to live that life. Those are the realities for many families in South Texas.
At the same time, it is a community that celebrates life and their faith. You see that when it comes to celebrating Advent, Christmas or Ash Wednesday, especially Ash Wednesday! Everyone seems to go to church on that day. When someone dies in the family. Those are special moments when we become one with each other. They help us feel that we are one with God and one with one another, and we stand together with whatever we have to live.
What dreams do you have for the Church in the future?
I believe that we must stand together in the values and principles that we believe in, that we should not hold back from speaking out and living our faith, especially when we see things that are not right. Our responsibility as Christians is to defend the rights and dignity of those who are most vulnerable and powerless in our society, and it’s not okay to be quiet. Sometimes fear can blind us to true reality that we are all one in God. As one people we can stand together and feel the courage to do what is right: that is what the Church of tomorrow should be like.
What do you think about Pope Francis?
Oh, he’s a wonderful man. He models for us how to be true to who we are as Christians, our calling. He embodies the word mercy, and he calls us to do the same.
Do you have any advice for the new president?
I support and pray for our new President so that he and all lawmakers will work for the common good in our country and in our world. I encourage everybody to support and prayer for our new leader as the answer is never to be angry or violent. That only drives us further apart.
I hope all elected officials will work for humane policies that are just and fair and reflect the needs of all people. Immigrants who are victims of crimes and violence are especially in my heart and in my prayers.
What has your experience been of the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice?
I’m excited to hear the enthusiasm of the youth, and their excitement that they have. That is so motivating, and so wonderful and inspiring. I wish I was young in this time, where there is so much to do. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
I think that what I’ve done is only be an instrument of God, to do what He has designed for me in my life. I’m glad that it can be of good help to others.