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Learning to Rejoice with Refugees

Thu, 12/15/2016 - 02:14

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.

View from the schoolyard of a refugee camp, with Syria in the distance.

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.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Joy (With a Big Red Bow on Top)

Wed, 12/14/2016 - 01:57

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.


The cover image, from Flickr user Ana D, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Homeless But Hopeful: The Wounded Church, Part II

Tue, 12/13/2016 - 02:14

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.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Guadalupe: Cómo “Hacer América Grandiosa de Nuevo”

Mon, 12/12/2016 - 02:21

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.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Guadalupe: How to Make America Great Again

Mon, 12/12/2016 - 02:14

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.

Categories: Things Jesuit

What I Do Have To Give

Wed, 12/07/2016 - 02:01

“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.

Categories: Things Jesuit