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From “I Love You” to “I Love You”: Learning to Love My Vocation

Wed, 11/25/2020 - 02:33

From “I Love You” to “I Love You”

“I love you”
Comes to birth, subterranean,
Underneath hardened layers of earth.
Moving tectonic plates patiently
Occasionally erupting spectacularly
Other times shifting ever so slightly, building tension,
Until a massive break
Sends a seismic shock through unsuspecting rock,
Unsettling settled states of thought.

“I love you”
Forms new mountains at which to marvel
And opens deep canyons
Bearing hidden crystal caves.
Laboring,
Out of primal core forces
Bearing new creation.

“I love you”
It just was the most believable utterance of that phrase I’ve ever heard, while sitting in an utterly unremarkable conference room transformed with incense and song into a place open to worship; somehow breaking through the stubborn habits of conventional self-assurance I felt forced to carry. 

“I love you”
Carried me to demanding moral commitments
And difficult decisions.
It took over a decade
For me to admit my resentment;
To have the courage to question
whether I could honestly say yes
To where “I love you” had led,

“I love you”
Now felt like a snare
It’s beauty commanding my commitment
But it’s demands bearing dissatisfaction;
The doldrums between
“I love you” and “I love you”

From “I love you” to “I love you”
Is the journey of a vocation.
Our attempt to respond to love
Reveals the truth
That we are not what we ought to be.
We see, eventually,
That we don’t love that which has loved us freely
Or that we don’t love the ways of love
When it has lost its luster.

From “I love you” to “I love you”
Is the journey of faith;
To believe
That if you allow every other love
To stand in submission
That you are not letting everything that matters go
In a deranged act of self-immolation
But are instead selling all
For the pearl of greatest price.

From “I love you” to “I love you”
Requires transformation
Of amorous emotions.
Metanoia
Means more than abandoning sin;
This is only where to begin.
Metanoia
Means mining deep desires;
Ploughing through old pleasures.
And as farmers and miners know
It takes painstaking patience
To turn rough rock
And hard land
To a new life,
True
To its destined end.

From “I love you” to “I love you”
Is a pilgrim’s journey.
But blind
Not knowing
(Even if you think you know!)
What you will find,
What you must leave behind,
Or who you will become.
Persevere through the growing pains,
Because the promise
Is it’s better
than whatever you planned.

-//-

Photo by Jaclyn Moy on Unsplash

Categories: Things Jesuit

How a Road Trip with a Retired Franciscan Led to a Jesuit Vocation

Tue, 11/24/2020 - 01:00

Shortly after my graduation from Texas A&M University in 2006, I joined a group from St. Mary’s Catholic Center in bringing Fr. Curt to his new home in Cincinnati. Fr. Curt, an elderly Franciscan friar, ministered in the Catholic Center and was beloved by students. When we heard that he was retiring, we decided that it would be better to send a group of students to help him move so that he wouldn’t have to make the long drive alone. Little did I know how much of an impact this road trip would have on my life.

I always had this idea that guys that become priests know from a young age. There are some priests I know who I swear were born wearing a Roman collar. Well, I didn’t grow up with that desire. Far from it! And because of that, I never considered the possibility of becoming a priest. 

I grew up in a Catholic family, but really took ownership of my faith when I was in college at Texas A&M. Still, I never gave consideration to a vocation to the priesthood. Until, of all things, a cross country road trip with an elderly Franciscan friar.

Along the way, we stayed at different churches and schools and met with members of different religious orders. I had avoided vocations events, but had God finally tricked me into attending one? Our first destination was New Orleans, and we went to visit the Jesuits. When I heard that at the end of a long day of driving that we would have to listen to a presentation by a group of priests, I was annoyed. This is not what I was expecting! But much to my surprise, I was captivated by the talk. One of the Jesuit speakers had also graduated from Texas A&M, and his work abroad had motivated a deep desire to work with the poor and marginalized. He talked at length about the Jesuits: their community life, the variety of ministries that they engaged in, and how they seek to help those in need wherever they are. 

All of a sudden, I felt a spark in me. It never went away. 

My accidental vocation-promotion road trip continued. The very next day we visited a group of religious sisters. Their vocation promoter talked about how discerning the religious life is like dating: you don’t just choose to marry the first person you see. You have to “date” different religious orders because they have different qualities, charisms, and personalities. 

“What does that mean?” I wondered. I just assumed that all priests were the same. The fact is that I mostly only knew diocesan priests, who are the typical priests that work in parishes and remain in the same geographic area or diocese. And I didn’t feel called to that life. Other priests belong to religious orders, like the Franciscans, Dominicans, Benedictines, and Jesuits, which each have their unique characteristics. When I learned that the Jesuits engage in ministries like teaching and social projects, and move around a lot, that expanded my idea of the priesthood. It’s funny for me now to realize that the whole trip was focused on moving a Franciscan priest to his new home, but at the time I didn’t know a thing about these different religious orders!

My surprising moments of grace didn’t stop with that road trip, despite the fact that I continued to avoid pursuing a vocation to the priesthood for years.

 

The original road trip. Fr. Curt Lanzrath, OFM, is in the center.

 

*****

A few years later, I found myself on another road trip (notice the theme?) with a few friends in New Mexico. We had a chance encounter with a few Jesuits. I casually mentioned that I was interested in the Jesuits, but I scoffed at the lengthy formation process of ten to twelve years. One of the Jesuits told me very plainly, “Jesuit formation is like cooking with a slow cooker. It takes a little longer, but it’s always better.” I was surprised that not only did the length of formation not bother him, but that it was a point of pride. 

Jesuits kept popping up in my life. Months later, a Jesuit priest came to the parish where I was working in Houston to give a Lenten mission. During his visit, I was reflecting on the vow of obedience that religious profess. That did not sit well with me. I didn’t like the idea of giving up control over what I did with my life. Well, without any prompting, this visiting priest made a passing remark to me: “You know what I love about the Jesuits? They really listen to your passions and let you do what you want.” Huh? That did not sound like the image that I had of a lifetime of rigid obedience. While I could now add a few caveats to his comment, it was a surprising moment of grace and insight. And it was exactly what I needed to hear. 

*****

With all of these moments of unexpected grace pilling up, I finally caved in. I told my pastor that I was thinking about the Jesuits, but I was still plagued by doubts. He asked me what I was actively doing to aid my discernment. I told him that I pray about it often. He told me that prayer was key, but that I needed to aid my prayer by actively doing something, like meeting with Jesuits or going on a discernment retreat. He made me realize that God might send me all the signals in the world, but God wasn’t going to pick me up and take me to the Jesuits. God would never move me. I had to move.

I finally attended my first discernment retreat. (Well, I guess it was my second depending on how you count my cross-country road trip with Fr. Curt.) On the way to the retreat, I had a frank talk with God. “God, I’ve been on the fence for a few years now. I feel this desire, but I just don’t know what to do. Please- I have to know. I want to leave this retreat with an answer. Please let me leave with an answer.” I laughed to myself as I thought that it probably wasn’t going to work out that way. “Now that I’ve asked for certitude,” I thought to myself, “I’m definitely not going to get it.”

I was wrong.

The retreat lasted for five days, with two days to meet Jesuits and learn about their life, followed by a three-day silent retreat. One of the best experiences for me was interacting with Jesuits and seeing the community that they shared. The brotherhood between Jesuits, the community life that I love so much now, was something that I had not experienced or expected. 

The Ignatian retreat introduced me to praying through my imagination, and it was in those prayers that God helped to ease my mind. My doubts and fears transformed into peace and confidence. My final hang-up was the thought of giving up control. Who could dream bigger for my life than me? Why would I surrender that control? 

How fortunate for me that this retreat was during Advent. In reading the stories of Mary and Joseph, God was telling me how wrong I was. Mary and Joseph surely had their own plans for how their lives would go, but God invited them to something more. God literally entered the world in the Incarnation because of their willingness to let go of control. As it turns out, someone just might have bigger dreams for me than I do for myself.

Overwhelmed by grace, I left that retreat with the certitude that I asked for. I entered the Jesuit novitiate six months later.

****

I have now been a Jesuit for almost ten years. It is a long process, but I’m enjoying the slow cooking. I have been to more places than I had ever been before. I have had the opportunity to meet some of the most amazing people. And I went from being an only child to having more brothers than I can count. 

Have I experienced any doubts since the certainty I felt on that retreat? Absolutely. I continue to wonder if I can do this and if I’m worthy of it. 

As I continue to seek those answers, I keep going back to what I learned throughout my discernment process. God is everywhere and speaks through those around me. I have to be honest with God and ask for what I want. But ultimately, God will never force me to move. I have to move. 

Are any experiences in our life truly random? I used to be the kind of person to say “Everything happens for a reason.” I don’t believe that anymore. Instead, I believe that God can give reason to all that happens. Including a cross country road trip.

 

I visited Fr. Curt during my pilgrimage in my first year of joining the Jesuits, to let him know how important that trip was to me.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Christ the King: Drawing Close | One-Minute Homily

Sun, 11/22/2020 - 01:00

Today we celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King. Ian Peoples, SJ, reflects on drawing close to the king who says, “Whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me.” Based on the readings for Sunday, November 22, 2020.

I can’t really tell who that is…I think it’s Jesus?

Hi, I’m Ian Peoples and this is my One-Minute Reflection.

Even the people we know and love best are unrecognizable if we are too far away. It’s easy for me to recognize my mom if she’s across the room from me. It’s much harder for me if she’s across the street. Impossible if she is across the block!

My point is that we need to draw close to those we love in order to recognize them.

That’s what Jesus exhorts us to do in today’s gospel. You cannot feed the hungry without drawing close to them. And visiting the sick and imprisoned is the very act of drawing near. In drawing close, we come to see them for what they are: sick, suffering, but most importantly, we recognize they are God’s Beloved.

How can you do this today? Perhaps make eye contact with that man you see every day begging for change on the corner. Even if you don’t have money to give, give him the gift of a smile. Ask him his name. Perhaps pack an extra bottle of water to share with him.

These are small acts, but they affirm the dignity of God’s people in a big way.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Soccer, VAR, and Theories of Truth

Fri, 11/20/2020 - 01:54

Earlier this year I was running on a treadmill, which faced a big TV. The UEFA Champions League had resumed after being delayed because of the pandemic. Messi and company were playing, so I was running along with the squad. Messi scored one goal, and I hollered from the top of my lungs. Then, not long later, he scored another and I almost fell off the treadmill. It was a beautiful goal. Messi settled a cross with his midsection about eight yards out from goal. He opened up his shoulders as if he was going to shoot to the far side of the goal, then smoothly chipped it over the keepers outstretched body.

My stomach dropped even as I was pumping my fists. The ref had his finger to his ear. The Video Assistant Referee (VAR) was doing his dirty work. My fears were confirmed when the ref jogged over to the VAR review station on the sideline. A few long moments passed, then the ref jogged on  the field, blew his whistle,  made a signal with his hands, then pointed to where Messi first took down the ball before his goal. The ref decided the goal wouldn’t be allowed because of a handball. I had a few choice words as I pounded  my feet into the treadmill track. Screw VAR.

But why was I so angry? If I’m being objective, Messi’s forearm did play a role in him bringing down the ball, even if it wasn’t discernible to the naked eye at the speed of real life. But slowed down and zoomed in, anyone could see it. Handball. No goal. VAR is helping refs make better  decisions, right?

I had to grapple with a similar question a few years ago during an oral philosophy exam called the ‘De universa philosophia’, which tests knowledge of fundamental philosophy. In that test, one of the examiners, Fr. Joe Koterski, asked me to describe three prominent theories of truth: correspondence, coherence, and pragmatic. When I struggled a bit in answering the question, he translated it into concepts with which I was more familiar with: sports.

He used baseball instead of soccer. He asked, “what theory of truth is operational in the game of baseball as a whole?” It’s coherence theory, which means  beliefs are true as long as they are consistent among each other. For example, the infield fly rule rules a batter out if he hits a flyball in the infield when players are on first and second (true also if there’s a player on third), and there’s less than two outs. This makes sense in the context of baseball, but if you don’t know the game then it might seem senseless. The rule is to prevent infielders from purposely allowing the ball to drop to the ground in order to turn a double or triple play.

Then, Fr. Koterski asked me which theory is operational when an umpire calls a player out on a close play at first base. That would be the pragmatic theory, which holds beliefs are true to the extent they are useful. The umpire calling a player out is taking his knowledge, experience, and observation of the game and making a determination of that particular play.  

“Let’s take baseball for example,” he said, determined to help me understand. “Which theory is at work in the game as a whole?”

“Coherence theory,” something clicked, “because all the rules of baseball make sense of the context of the game. Every player is playing by the same rules.”

Fr. Koterski smiled. “Good. What about when an umpire calls a runner out on a close play at first base?”

“That’s the…” my mind is working, clarity is approaching quite fast now, “pragmatic theory at work. The ump is using his knowledge and experience to make a decision. His belief is correct to the extent that it is useful for the game.”

After this second theory, I knew which one was coming: correspondence. This theory holds that a belief is true if it corresponds to objective reality. Fr. Koterski asked what theory would require that ump to go to video replay to determine the call. Just like Messi’s disallowed goal, the ump could slow down, freeze, zoom in on the position of the players foot when the first baseman catches the ball. The ump could then alter or confirm his call with greater certainty that it corresponds to what really happened in that play. 

Fr. Koterski asked me which theory I think is best. And without hesitation I said this third one: correspondence theory. I think the gift of rationality helps us to arrive at genuine knowledge of reality, even if that knowledge is necessarily limited. The correspondence theory of truth gives objective grounds for ethics especially, since the other two theories can easily give rise to a sort of relativism I believe to be harmful.1 

So, why do I have a problem with VAR? 

The technology was only introduced to the big European leagues in the 2019-2020 season. And I feel like it disrupts the flow of the game. Every goal gets second guessed. No celebration is free of that gut-fear it will get overturned upon review. It used to be that a player simply glanced over his shoulder to make sure the sideline referee wasn’t holding up his flag indicating an offsides ruling. No flag? Go nuts. Do a backflip or something. Now, VAR measures in inches, sometimes what even looks like centimeters to determine a player wasn’t offsides. Doing a backflip only to have your goal overturned makes you look dumb. 

Even worse, just last week, Messi had a goal he scored for the Argentina national team called back because of a missed foul call on the other side of the pitch 27 seconds before the goal. TWENTY SEVEN SECONDS. Where do we draw the line?

I guess my real problem with VAR is that it makes the game feel less human. Even when the team I’m rooting for benefits from a VAR review, there’s still a bitter taste to it. I know my squad will be on the receiving end eventually. 

Perhaps this is analogous to why people don’t prefer the correspondence theory of truth in day-to-day living? Even if I have (or claim) access to objective truths, whether they be in the realm of religion or sexual ethics or politics, that doesn’t resolve the fact that human life is often much messier than I want it to be. Maybe people don’t like the correspondence theory of truth not because it feels less human, but less humane.

That doesn’t mean the correspondence theory isn’t the one we should be operating from. I personally think it’s our safest bet. And feelings aren’t always the most reliable things upon which to build an entire worldview. But what Fr. Koterski meant to show me by using the example of baseball is that  we necessarily operate under different truth theories depending on the situation we’re in. 

My dislike of VAR gives me cause to step back and consider how the truths I give credence to might not be the easiest to accept for some other person, team, group, or religion. It might actually go against their own truth claims.

And even if a close inspection gives me the satisfaction of  being “in the right” at some time or another, I have the foreboding knowledge that my team, my group, myself will eventually be on the receiving end of a foul call, will have a goal disallowed, will commit an action that doesn’t align with God’s vision of the world. And that knowledge will keep me from doing any celebratory backflips. 

Categories: Things Jesuit

Women’s and Gender Studies is Integral to My Vocation

Wed, 11/18/2020 - 02:33

Often, when I meet someone for the first time, it is my Jesuit life they are most interested in. Even when they know little about the Catholic Church, they are intrigued. When I share that I’m studying women’s and gender studies, assuming that piece of information isn’t quickly brushed aside, I am frequently assured that this is valuable because I will become a good resource for the Church and Jesuits on women.

It’s true the Church has routinely ignored, if not oppressed, women. However, the Church needs to listen to women themselves, not men explaining or theologizing about women’s experiences. Their perspectives should always be included but not through me or other men. Through their own voices. This point was also made clear by the highest governing body of the Jesuits: 

“In the first place, we invite all Jesuits to listen carefully and courageously to the experience of women. … Unless we listen, any action we may take in this area, no matter how well intentioned, is likely to bypass the real concerns of women and to confirm male condescension and reinforce male dominance.” 1

One has to look no further than the Vatican’s recent “McCarrick Report” to see how women’s voices are routinely disregarded in the Church. For example, when Mother Mary Quentin Sheridan, Superior General of the Religious Sisters of Mercy at Alma (Michigan), reported misconduct of then-Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan brushed off her allegations, stating, “she wanted to make herself appear important.” As theologian Natalia Imperatori-Lee remarked on this excerpt over Twitter, “Misogyny will be the end of this church.” 

I am not working on a masters degree in women’s and gender studies (WGS) so that I can be a “good resource” on women and other sexual minorities. I am working on this degree in order to better understand the experiences of people who are often marginalized, especially in the church, in order to become a more competent and compassionate minister of the Gospel. Perhaps this can be a model in the Church.

Developing these skills and understanding is integral to who I feel God has called me to be as a Jesuit. 

When the WGS department first caught my eye, it was not just a passing, “Oh, look at that.” It was something more. It was the feeling that my mind and heart were on fire. Excited. Hopeful. Joyful. Captivated. Stirred. It felt like confirmation of what I already identified as: a feminist. The experience was what, in Jesuit lingo, we would call “consolation.” The Spirit was moving me. As I continue my studies, I continue to feel God calling me here.

In the Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola encourages a prayer to imagine yourself with God looking down on the entire earth and being moved with compassion. When I look out on the world, I see a great many people who are oppressed and marginalized, many of whom are women. I see women struggling with the trauma of being raped. Women without access to prenatal care or safe and affordable childcare. Women whose murders at the hands of police are neglected because they are Black and women. Women feeling unsafe in their own homes because of the constant threat of being abused by their partner. Women whose work as caregivers is devalued. Transwomen and lesbians being othered and assaulted. Women being told it is their fault when they are sexually harassed. Girls fighting for an education denied them because of their sex. Women toiling all day only to return home and expected to do all the work necessary to care for their family. Children and vulnerable adults being abused by the very priests who are supposed to serve them. Women in the Church being routinely ignored because they are not men. 

I see these injustices and am moved with compassion to work for justice because I am both a Jesuit and a feminist. Studying women’s and gender studies (or, feminism) provides me with the analytical frameworks and tools to name these injustices, to learn how to better listen to marginalized voices, and to act to end patriarchy and other systems of oppression. This knowledge and labor is “integral to our mission” as Jesuits. WGS also helps me to see my own privileges and how I have and do participate in these unjust systems of oppression. Furthermore, it gives me another community with whom to work for more equality and dignity for everyone.

I am both a Jesuit and a feminist. Both are integral parts of my vocation. 

It is God who calls me to be both a Jesuit and feminist. 

-//-

Photo by chloe s. on Unsplash

Categories: Things Jesuit

Anti-immigration sentiments aren’t leaving with Trump. What can we do about it?

Thu, 11/12/2020 - 01:00

Last Saturday night, Joe Biden gave his first address to the nation as President-elect. He posed the question: “What is the will of the people? What is our mandate?” Then he proceeded to list a series of great battles of our time, including coronavirus, the economy, health care, racial justice, and climate change.

One thing that was not included on his list: immigration.

Throughout the campaign, Biden has advocated for immigration reform while distancing himself from the Obama administration on the issue of immigration, which featured record levels of deportations. And he has decried Trump’s nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric. But he needs to go further. Immigration needs to be a priority near the top of the list.

We cannot wait for that to happen. Change needs to happen in more than just one office in the White House. It needs to happen in hearts and minds across our country. The U.S. Catholic Church, each and every one of us, needs to take an active part in reshaping the conversation around immigration. We need to advocate in a stronger, more unified voice on the need for immediate policy reform. We must take the lead.

*****

Since March, immigrant communities in the United States have been facing an increasingly precarious situation. Immigrant workers in general account for a disproportionate share of coronavirus-response frontline occupations like physicians, home health aides, hospital room cleaners, food producers, and grocery store staff. 

Not surprisingly, undocumented migrants in the United States are even more vulnerable, deprived of access to social-safety nets like unemployment insurance or cash assistance from recent relief packages, despite paying billions of dollars per year in taxes. They also continue to face the constant threat of deportation, which has caused many to be afraid of seeking testing or treatment if they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms. Ironically, many undocumented migrants have continued to work because their industry has been classified as “essential,” even as they are treated as disposable, deportable, and undeserving of many public benefits.

The already precarious situation of migrant communities in the United States has been exacerbated by restrictive policies from the Trump administration. Appealing to health concerns, the Trump administration has expanded travel restrictions, slowed visa processing, and accelerated the return of asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants to their home countries. Immigration detention centers have had alarming cases of outbreaks of coronavirus that are spreading among migrants and staff. At one point in April, President Trump pledged on Twitter to suspend immigration during the pandemic, and then attempted to block new green cards

All of these policy decisions fell in line with President Trump’s hardline approach to immigration which has been a fundamental component of his platform since the early days of his presidential campaign. Under the guise of health protocols, President Trump has been leveraging the pandemic to advance his anti-immigration agenda.

*****

Catholic Social Teaching is unambiguous in its support of the rights of people to migrate to support themselves and their families, with particular concern for refugees and asylum seekers. The document “Strangers No Longer,” published in 2003 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) along with the Catholic bishop’s conference of Mexico, calls us to embrace the reality of migration, and it outlines extensive proposals for public policy changes.

More recently, Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the USCCB, along with other Catholic leaders issued a firm response to Trump’s attempts to restrict immigration: “The President’s action threatens…to fuel polarization and animosity…The global crisis caused by COVID-19 demands unity and the creativity of love, not more division.”

Pope Francis, for his part, has placed the issue of migration at the center of his pontificate. Shortly after his election in 2013, his first papal visit outside of Rome was to the small Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, the epicenter of migration into Europe. The news of migrants dying at sea was “like a painful thorn” in his heart. In his homily there, Francis spoke of a “globalization of indifference,” through which we have become accustomed to the suffering of others and insensitive to their cries. Reflecting on the thousands who have died trying to cross the sea into Europe, Pope Francis poignantly asked, “Has any one of us wept because of this situation? We have forgotten how to weep, how to experience compassion.”

*****

Our Catholic faith begs us for a conversion of hearts on behalf of migrants. Pope Francis offers us the antidote to the globalization of indifference: a “culture of encounter.” This approach has the power to convert hearts and move us to a compassionate response.

He introduced this concept at the very start of his pontificate, preaching on the Vigil of Pentecost in 2013 about the importance of encounter: “It is important to be ready for encounter. For me this word is very important. Encounter with others. Why? Because faith is an encounter with Jesus, and we must do what Jesus does: encounter others.” 

As Francis outlined at the Vigil of Pentecost, a culture of encounter is “a culture of friendship, a culture in which we find brothers and sisters, in which we can also speak with those who think differently, as well as those who hold other beliefs…They all have something in common with us: they are images of God, they are children of God.” 

Building a culture of encounter is about putting aside differences and seeing commonality: our shared humanity and the dignity of each person as created in the image of God. It’s about breaking down our self-centered introspection and growing indifference to others. It’s about experiencing compassion and remembering how to weep for those who suffer.

Can we build a culture of encounter around migration? 

Bringing together groups of U.S. citizens and immigrants can serve as a method of transformation and conversion for all parties. For U.S. citizens, talking with migrants about their experiences and motives for travel can create a real dissonance with the rhetoric of migrants as criminals and threats. Those false narratives and unfounded stereotypes cease to hold up when you get to know the authentic narratives of actual migrants. Similarly, for migrants, the experience of encountering U.S. citizens who want to know their story, or who are offering humanitarian assistance in their time of need, can be transformative. It can help break down their fears about the attitudes of U.S. citizens towards migrants. Thus, encounter becomes beneficial for all parties involved.

What can an experience of encounter look like?

*****

In the summer of 2018, I spent a month on the U.S.-Mexico border in the town of Nogales, Arizona to volunteer at the Kino Border Initiative (KBI), a binational organization coordinated by six Catholic organizations working on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border in the area of migration.

KBI’s mission is to promote immigration policies that affirm the dignity of the human person and a spirit of bi-national solidarity through direct humanitarian assistance for migrants, social and pastoral education, and engagement in research and advocacy efforts. During my month at KBI, I spent most of my days helping out in the comedor, an aid center on the Mexican side of the border that provides meals for migrants, along with distributing clothing and personal care items and providing orientation for social services and legal assistance. I also spent some time accompanying immersion trips that had come from high schools and colleges around the United States to learn more about migration and encounter the reality of the border. What I learned and experienced during my time there was how KBI is modeling a “culture of encounter” and providing a valuable opportunity for interpersonal solidarity

The approach to building a “culture of encounter” modeled by KBI can be replicated in a diversity of environments. There are meaningful ways to have authentic encounter within our local communities, even if we live far from the border and cannot travel right now. Immigrant communities are vibrant throughout the United States, including in Catholic parishes and schools. 

To build a “culture of encounter,” a local parish or school would be a good place to start. Initiatives that bring students or parishioners face-to-face with immigrant communities, even ones done virtually or at appropriate social distances, can help to foster a spirit of hospitality and correct personal and collective outlooks that might otherwise remain stuck at the level of ideology. KBI’s approach to encounter can help show the way.

*****

We can break down an approach to encounter in three chronological steps: preparation, facilitating encounter, and follow-up. While this would work best for in-person activities, these steps can also guide an approach to virtual events that seek to achieve the same goals.

The first step is preparation. 

Encounter between diverse populations can be a complex experience. It is undertaken more fruitfully when there is adequate preparation beforehand. Most fundamentally, this includes planning and logistics. We cannot assume that encounter will happen organically, so we have to be deliberate in planning it. Preparation also goes beyond logistics to include learning about different cultures and contexts, like the history of migration along the U.S.-Mexico border. Preparation should also involve establishing appropriate boundaries for an experience of encounter. Confidentiality, for example, is vitally important if someone is opening up about their migration experience or their legal status. 

The second step is actually facilitating encounter. 

Facilitating encounter means bringing people together from diverse backgrounds, including U.S. citizens and immigrants, to interact and share. This could be done as a virtual event or with masks and proper distancing. It should provide opportunities to spend time with migrants and hear their stories, in order to humanize the immigration issue and shed light on its complexity. These kinds of conversations are best facilitated by experienced leaders, who are well-trained and knowledgeable and who can help navigate the complexities of the issues. If you don’t have experienced leaders on staff, look for immigration organizations in your area and reach out to them.

To avoid the risk of reinforcing problematic divides, the best approach to the encounter is one where members see themselves as being a single community (such as a united faith community, or even just as part of the broader human family), with relationships set on equal terms. Everyone involved has something to offer and something to gain from the encounter.

The third and final step is follow-up.

Follow-up begins with creating time and space for reflecting on the experience and processing it. Stepping outside of one’s comfort zone can be a jarring experience, so there is great value to reflecting on the experience, including in conversations with others. In addition, follow-up should also include continued engagement and broader advocacy efforts after the encounter is over. Building a “culture of encounter” brings about conversion and that conversion should compel us to action. 

All three of these steps (preparation, facilitating encounter, and follow-up) can be adapted for local efforts to build a “culture of encounter.” These steps map out a path to conversion through building a “culture of encounter” that brings together citizens and immigrants alike to recognize our common humanity and to encounter Christ in one another.

*****

With the physical distancing measures in place, the opportunity to authentically build a “culture of encounter” is more difficult. Yet the need for encounter and conversion remains and ever increases. Pope Francis asked: what will our response be “in the aftermath”? 

While more will be possible when the pandemic passes, we cannot simply wait until then. Change will take time, years even. We can start the process now, by educating ourselves and others on the issues and by organizing virtual or appropriately-distanced events.

As we near the turning of a new year and the beginning of a new presidency, we need to take the lead in building a “culture of encounter” across the country. The bishops wrote in “Strangers No Longer” that the Church is called to be a sign and instrument, and for too long, the U.S. Catholic Church has not taken enough steps to respond to that call on the issue of immigration. Let’s take the lead now.

President-elect Biden has promised sweeping immigration reform. This is a dramatic about-face from the current administration. We need to hold him to those promises. But change in the White House alone does not mean that anit-immigration sentiments are fading. They still persist.

The approach modeled by the Kino Border Initiative shows us the necessary steps to take: preparation, facilitated encounters, and follow-up. We urgently need to put these steps into action in our local communities. This is the best way to create a hopeful path to positive change beginning with personal conversion through encounter that reshapes attitudes towards immigration. Personal conversion through encounter should then compel us to advocate more widely on behalf of vulnerable migrant populations that are seen and treated as our sisters and brothers.

 

//

Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Gage Skidmore.

Categories: Things Jesuit

My Vocation Story is a Tale of a 20 Year Approach/Avoidance Conflict

Wed, 11/11/2020 - 02:33

For my seventh birthday, I asked my parents for a lectionary. At age nine I donned black and a white collar for “Career Day.” As a kid, I saw priests as helpers and healers, working to ease the suffering of others in a special way. It’s what I wanted to do. So, there was no doubt that come my eighteenth birthday, I was joining the seminary. That didn’t happen. Why? 

Because life. 

Other interests eclipsed the childhood dream. I got older. I grew in understanding of my sexuality and started dating. I wondered if  this God-business was an elaborate, cosmic joke.

The stretch of my life after childhood is what I call the twenty-year approach/avoidance conflict concerning my vocation.

I was at once both drawn and resistant to religious life. Though I always found ways to lounge, dip, and skip around the edge of the priesthood pool, I was never quite able to take the plunge.

At eighteen, I studied theology and philosophy at the University of San Diego. After graduation I still wasn’t ready. So, I bounced over to Boston and earned a Master of Divinity. It’s there I first met the Society of Jesus. Even so, I was still hesitant to take the dive. So, I skipped back to San Diego and began a two-year stint as a hospital chaplain. My primary unit was oncology where I could journey with patients for extended periods of time. 

I remember one patient, John. I was with him when he was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer and throughout his hospital stay as he fought it, nobly. I was also with him eight weeks later when he finally slipped, in a more definitive way, into the hands of God.

John’s family asked if I would preside at his celebration of life service. They weren’t particularly religious, so the ceremony was held at La Jolla Shores – a large public park with movie-like vistas. As expected, the moment was filled with tears and laughter, music and stories. When it was time to leave, each guest was given a small baggie – a token of gratitude – which I opened on my way back to the car. It contained a memorial card and a few other mementos. At the bottom of the bag were three brown balls, each about the size of a half-dollar, attractively wrapped in cellophane packaging.

Chocolate truffles! I thought.

A brief sidebar: For most of my life I’ve struggled with compulsive overeating, weight, and body image issues. For years, my 5’8’’ frame groaned under 260 pounds. Though I had lost a significant amount by Johns’ funeral; food is still a complicated trigger for me.  

So, I’m walking back to my car, contemplating my most recent recommitment to a healthy diet and exercise, and with each step, I’m summoning the willpower to resist. I tried distracting myself with the pretty sights and sounds of the shore until finally I snapped “Aww, to hell with it!”

I tore open the cellophane packaging and popped a truffle into my mouth. Something was wrong. I stopped chewing and released a giant glob onto the sidewalk. These were not truffles.

I looked back at the tattered cellophane, and an attached note I had overlooked. It read:

Dearest Guest. Thank you for being here to celebrate John’s life.
Enjoy these organic manure fertilizer compost balls…
Throw them in your garden and watch the flowers bloom.

What a hilarious lesson I applied to spiritual life: if you’re going to demand signs from God (like I had done about my vocation over the years), then you had better learn to slow down and read them! 

Months later, I was again at the beach, knowing my time in San Diego was coming to an end. I was once more torn-up inside about next steps. Suddenly, a Mary Oliver poem popped into my head. Oliver writes:

I go down to the shore in the morning
and depending on the hour the waves
are rolling in or moving out,
and I say, oh, I am miserable,
what shall —
what should I do? And the sea says
in its lovely voice:
Excuse me, I have work to do.

I was approaching thirty years old, two decades since that initial passionate surge toward priesthood, and I was miserable, emotionally frustrated, spiritually fatigued. Then it struck me how self-centered my discernment had become. I had long agonized figuring out my vocation, what I should do, fixating on my uncertainties born of unceasing questioning that I forgot it was never about me in the first place. 

On that beach, it was as if I heard Jesus say, “Christopher, you’ve wanted to be a priest your entire life. You’re as miserable as a sea refusing its tides. Take the leap. We have work to do.”

I don’t regret the time it took to get to the Jesuits. It’s ok to be patient as we discern our vocation. I just realized that to delay further would have been indulgent. 

The world’s sufferings I wanted to ease as a child remain. The pains and divisions in our church, world, nation, and families are legion. Each of us has a part to play. Read the signs, don’t get bogged down, keep moving. For Jesus calls to us all, and says in his lovely voice, “we have work to do.”

-//-

Photo by Guduru Ajay bhargav from Pexels

Categories: Things Jesuit

Light Your Lamps and Be Ready | One-Minute Homily

Sun, 11/08/2020 - 02:00

Do we have enough oil for our lamps? Fr. David Romero, SJ, reflects on being ready for the Lord by being active disciples in the world, here and now. Based on the readings for Sunday, November 8, 2020.

In Hamilton, Aaron Burr says he’s willing to wait for it…I’m not.

Hi, I’m David Romero, and this is my One-Minute Homily.

There’s urgency in our readings this week. The theme? Stay watchful and ready for the coming of Love into this world.  The bridegroom is soon to arrive, but he is delayed.  Some prepare their lamps for that great advent, while others don’t.

It’s about responsible discipleship. Discipleship isn’t passive waiting for the end times. Like the maidens, Christians may know what is needed—oil (i.e. good deeds)—but they may lose the opportunity for proper action.

Vigilance isn’t simply waiting for the future – it’s engagement in the present that determines the future. It’s about preparation now.

The time we are given is precious and precarious, and we want to live lives that “matter.” But our struggles to make a living derail us from making a life, a life that is centered on love, on an awareness of God’s presence, and on contributing to the greater good of all.

Today is a good day for us to check our lamps, and the light we are producing.

Categories: Things Jesuit

How C.S. Lewis’s Literary Criticism Can Help Our Media Consumption

Fri, 11/06/2020 - 02:00

Multiple hurricanes have battered the Gulf Coast and wildfires continue to ravage California and Washington. A global pandemic continues to wreak havoc. The realities of racial injustice and the cry of those who will no longer be quietly victimized ring out more and more loudly. Political discourse deteriorates and partisan fragmentation worsens, especially as we pick up the pieces from an election that reflected the deep level of division in the US.    

Is now the time to think about C.S. Lewis? 

In a recent article for America Media, Thomas Harmon argues that our current era of uncertainty and fear around COVID is an opportune time to read Lewis, who spoke and wrote during the time of uncertainty and fear that was the Second World War. Even so: Is now the time to consider C.S. Lewis’ thoughts on literary criticism? Truth be told, I am not sure, even as I write this. 

Several years ago I went on a bit of a writing kick and came across some of Lewis’s essays on criticism. I jotted them down in my journal and have periodically returned to them, increasingly so in the last several months. It seems to me that we need as many sources of inspiration as can be found in order to overcome the manifold crises which surround us.

Here are nine rules for literary criticism that Lewis laid out in his On Criticism (published posthumously in 1975). While directed to those who would criticize fiction, they provide helpful reminders for us as we engage in a reality that can so often seem unreal.

1) Honesty

“One mustn’t tell lies,” writes Lewis. It is as simple as that. Yet how tempting it can be to suppress parts of the truth in, for example, our social media posts. Perhaps we feel as if the deeper point we wish to communicate gets “lost” in too many facts or too much context. Perhaps we post or promote what others have written without considering how the truth is used or presented. Being honest means being honest: neither suppressing part of the truth nor using facts to suggest what is false.

2) Read Carefully

Lewis cautioned would-be critics to only write in their reports what could be supported by the specific work they were reviewing. When we read a post from someone we know well or follow frequently, or when we read an article from a news source whose outlook and biases we feel we understand, this can be easy to forget. We can easily fall into imposing a background onto a piece that does not actually belong there. Read what is written and judge based on that.

3) Be Careful About Assuming Historical Influence

It can take a long time for a written work of fiction to make its way through the publishing and printing process. Depending on the book and the publisher, years could separate the writing of the work and its availability on store shelves. For this reason, Lewis would caution critics not to read contemporary events too easily into a work of fiction – even if they seem to fit . What seems immediate and newly relevant may in fact have been going on for some time. Perhaps we should exercise similar caution in casting the entirety of blame onto current individuals for broad and complex social ills. 

4) Do Not Psychologize

Most of us are not psychologists. Those who are trained psychologists tend to rightfully shy away from diagnosis from afar. Lewis reminds those who would judge the words of others not to attempt analysis on the author’s subconscious. It can be difficult enough to correctly identify my own motivations and inner feelings, and even those closest to me remain personified mysteries. How much more so the protester, the reporter, the politician on the other end of my screen? As with Rule 2, we must rely first and foremost on what is said and written, not on some meaning we think we can identify lurking in the background.

5) Check Wording

When we seek to post, to publish, to speak we have a duty to make sure to mean what we say. It is an easy trap to fall into using sarcasm and protestations of humor to cover a slip of the tongue (or pen or keystrokes). Taking the time to consider our words allows us to speak with sincerity and to therefore be taken at our word. This is a high bar. It is therefore equally important to be gentle with ourselves and with others when what is typed or said is later clarified or recanted. We all make mistakes. A brief pause before hitting “post” may not prevent mistakes, but it will make them less frequent (and our contrition for them more believable).

6) Criticize the Content, Not the Author

Lewis uses Aristotelian categories for this, reminding the critic to be concerned with the Formal Cause (what makes an argument bad) and not the Efficient Cause (why the speaker made a bad argument). It is also called an ad hominem argument: ignoring the words and attacking the one who made them. How commonplace this is! Perhaps the greatest temptation here is to respond to an attacker with attacks. We are tempted to treat others the way they treat others, instead of how we wish to be treated. If we wish to be heard, to be taken seriously, then we must offer others the same courtesy.

7) Remember the Difference Between Intention and Meaning

So far these rules have emphasized the actual argument of the post, article, or speech we encounter and cautioned us to ignore backgrounds (real or imagined). Here Lewis notes the distinction between an author’s intention in composing their work, and the meaning that work has once shared with others. An author is in control of their own intention, not of the meaning of their work. While we must carefully avoid presuming intent (remember Rule 4), once a post or article is shared, the context of the times and of the past statements of the author give shape to its meaning. And the meaning is important! (We could say, even more important than the intention.) Remember that the importance of meaning goes both ways, however. When we write or speak we cannot control the broader meaning of how it will impact others. This does not absolve us from the responsibility to listen.

8) Consider the Surface Meaning Before Going Deeper

If any author knew about allegory, it was C.S. Lewis, the author of the Chronicles of Narnia. He cautions critics that just because something can be read as an allegory, does not mean that it is one. In other words, the author’s intent may have been to say only what they said, without hidden meaning. This does not mean that there is no hidden meaning which affects others. When this happens, it is important to remember Rule 5. 

9) Criticize Most What You Know and Like

This may be the most difficult of all. When it comes to books, Lewis notes that no critic should judge a work in a genre that they do not enjoy. Each genre has its own style and rules. A literary critic should only judge those works which belong to a genre whose rules they know well and in which they only wish to see the best. Perhaps we should focus our most frequent criticism not on those with whom we disagree, but on those whose projects we agree with and whose good we are most eager to see. This requires a shift from placing our energies on seeing enemies defeated to seeing friends and neighbors succeed. If we are honest and sincere in this pursuit, we may find a startling and beautiful truth: we have far fewer enemies and far more friends and neighbors than we first thought.

Categories: Things Jesuit

What Deer Hunting Taught Me About Prayer

Thu, 11/05/2020 - 01:34

One of the more difficult sacrifices I made when I entered the Jesuits was giving up hunting, the very sport which is my namesake. It’s not that Jesuits aren’t allowed to hunt, as some may think, but more because Jesuit life, especially in formation, isn’t conducive for having access to places to hunt and ample time to spend in the stand. 

To my surprise and great delight, the Lord gave me an opportunity to bow hunt again earlier this month. I gave my bow away to my friend Cade before I entered the Society of Jesus in 2017, so my loving family shipped up my dad’s old bow, some camouflage, and a few other hunting essentials. My Jesuit brother Michael Peterson and I took to the woods in northern Michigan in land we’ve never hunted. We didn’t have much time to cut trails, scout the land, make shooting lanes, hang stands, and do everything else that is conducive for a successful hunt. Prior to entering the Jesuits, my family would begin preparations for the season a couple months in advance. Michael and I had two days. Our odds of killing a deer looked slim, but both of us were more excited to be in the woods than anything else. 

In this return to the woods, so much felt familiar: the early wake up to get to in the woods before daylight, the slow movements in the stand so as not to get spotted by the deer, and even using scent-free soap, shampoo, deodorant,  and laundry detergent so that my scent would go as undetected as possible. It was my first time bow hunting as a Jesuit, and while the hunting experience felt similar in many ways, there was something  different about it. I was able to appreciate it in a new way.  In fact, I had a moment when I was hunting where God opened my mind to something special: not only did hunting as a kid teach me to pray, but it taught me how to pray

While I could not have named it as such when I was a kid, interiorly I felt my soul being shaped and formed in the silence of God’s voice and the beauty of God’s woods. St. Francis of Assisi  sees nature “as a magnificent book in which God speaks to us and grants us a glimpse of his infinite beauty and goodness,” as Pope Francis says in Laudato si’. I fell in love with this magnificent book of nature, and spent almost all my free time in the fall and winter in the deer stand. Undoubtedly, much of my current spiritual life was formed in the long, coldish hours of Louisiana fall and winter.

In addition to carving out a space for silence in my soul, hunting taught me the importance of showing up, no matter what I feel like doing. Identical to hunting, prayer can be uneventful, boring, and dry. Days and weeks can pass by without seeing a deer, or in the world of prayer, without sensing God’s presence. Regardless, we have to ceaselessly show up in the stand if we want a shot at a trophy deer, and we have to always go back to the chapel seeking God’s grace. One of my greatest deer hunts in my life came when I killed an incredible buck with my dad as I was a last minute replacement for my younger brother who elected to sleep in instead of go hunting (sorry, Ben). In order to kill a deer, you have to put time in the stand. So too with prayer, we have to spend long hours with God so we can best receive the grace He wants to give to us.

The greatest feelings a hunter experiences comes after sitting alone in the woods for hours on end, when suddenly, you see or hear that you are not alone any longer. The world stops, and it is just you and the deer. You get what we call in the hunting world, “buck fever.” Your heart begins to beat so loud that you get scared the deer might hear it, and your hands start to shake uncontrollably. You sit perfectly still focusing on every movement the deer makes. Time pauses, and the hunt begins. 

My most graced moments of prayer have been almost identical to this experience: after long hours in the chapel, seemingly alone, my heart drops, and I realize that I’m not alone. I sense God’s presence. The only thing that matters is the next move God will make. The one difference between praying and hunting is that when I’m praying, there is no hiding from God, and I’m the one being hunted.

Categories: Things Jesuit

A Vocation Story: The Hug I Never Gave

Wed, 11/04/2020 - 02:33

I thought being passionate meant enjoying an activity or job so much that I would always be happy. But it was not until I met my friend Bob that I would have my heart opened to the true depths of passion.

I met Bob when I was a first year Jesuit novice living in Massachusetts. I was spending a couple months discerning whether or not medical school would be part of my Jesuit journey while also living at Campion Center, a home for convalescing Jesuits from the New England area. Meanwhile, Bob was moving towards the end of his Jesuit life having recently stepped down from many years of teaching at universities throughout the country. After about ten years of living with cancer, he no longer had the energy to continue his work.

We were quite different. I was a 22 year old kid from California, wore shorts and flip-flops, carried myself with an informal San Diego vibe, and spent my free time running around and playing sports. Bob was from the opposite side of the country having grown up in a small town in Massachusetts and had a much more serious persona, although he was a master of witty humor and clever word play. He presented himself formally as one would expect of a highly educated professor. But despite this stereotypical juxtaposition of West Coast versus East Coast personalities, I found myself gravitating towards him.

One day, Bob invited me to accompany him to his hometown. We drove down to southeastern Massachusetts and shared a meal with his brother. We played with the dogs and walked around the large property as he recounted stories of his younger days. Afterwards, we took a detour crossing into Rhode Island and pulled into a public beach overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Bob told me to go and stick my hand in the water, “Now you can tell people you’ve made it to the other coast.” I was far from home, beginning an uncertain path towards becoming a Jesuit-physician. That day Bob made me feel like I belonged, like I was part of his family.

Returning home to the novitiate in California, I missed Bob tremendously. Everyday I wondered: Would I see him again? Is he in pain? Was there anything I could do from so far away to let him know how much I care? I felt inadequate. I couldn’t do anything medically to treat him, and I couldn’t even be present with him. We kept in touch through e-mails and phone calls. I sent him silly photos and videos hoping to help him smile through rounds of chemotherapy or days lost to fatigue. Despite all of these, I felt like it wasn’t enough.

***

I was sitting in my graduate philosophy class when I received news that Bob was close to death. I sprinted home, closed myself in my room, and immediately called Bob’s nursing staff. I asked if they could hold the phone to his ear so I could whisper some final words good-bye to him.

They said it wouldn’t be possible.

Once again, I felt inadequate. There was no action that would allow me to express my love for him as he passed from this life.

Not until 5 years after Bob’s death, could I finally return to Massachusetts to visit the cemetery where Bob was buried. I ran up and let my tears fall onto the grave as I wrapped my arms around his tombstone finally giving him the hug I never gave him while he was alive: the hug I would have given him when I last saw him had it not been for the painful tube placed in his chest. The hug I wanted to give him right before he died had I not been living in a different part of the country; the hug I would give him every day if he were still around to listen to the ups and downs of medical school; the hug he deserves for changing my life.

The pain in my heart that day stung like the day of his death. My mind was filled with the sound of his voice, the conversations we shared, and the suffering through which I had accompanied him. As I sat by his grave, I realized that my deepest desire had not changed one bit these past five years. All I want is to show my love and care for Bob.

***
My very first rotation as a third year medical student found me on the hematology-oncology service, a subspecialty of internal medicine focusing on diseases of the blood and cancers. I visited my first patient: a middle-aged man suffering from cancer ready to share his story with me. After conducting a health history and physical exam, I reassured him, “We’re going to do everything we can to care for you.” I walked out, paused, and smiled as I remembered Bob.

As a man of faith, I believe Bob is still alive. He is alive every time my heart sinks when I meet a patient with a terminal cancer diagnosis. I couldn’t give Bob a final hug good-bye, but I give him that hug every day as a physician-in-training. Bob helped me to understand my passion and showed me how to express the love in my heart through the care I give my patients. Words cannot express my love for Bob, I hope my actions can.

-//-

Photo courtesy of the author.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Letters to the Candidates: Concerns from a Catholic Perspective

Tue, 11/03/2020 - 00:30

Editors’ Note:  Our writers co-wrote these letters to both the major party candidates for president. We invite you to read both the Letter to President Trump and the Letter to Vice President Biden.

From the Writers: As mentioned in Dan’s article last week, we write these letters to Vice President Biden and President Trump as Catholics who wish to name crucial ways in which both candidates are out of alignment with Catholic teaching. Our letters are not endorsements of either candidate, nor are they attempts to determine whose views are more in line with Catholic teaching. 

Rather, we write with the intention of inviting both Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump to consider where their viewpoints and policy positions are inconsistent with Catholic social and moral teaching.

Finally, neither letter is meant to be exhaustive of the issues. In fact, due to space constraints, we have decided to focus mainly on one issue per candidate. 

Please join us in praying for our country in the coming days and weeks: for a peaceful election and for every person to generously work for the building of the common good and the promotion and protection of the dignity of all, particularly the most vulnerable. 

Letter to President Trump here.

Letter to Vice President Biden here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Letter to President Trump: Welcoming the Stranger

Tue, 11/03/2020 - 00:25

Editors’ Note: This is one of a pair of letters written to the major party candidates for president. See the letter to Vice President Biden here.

Dear President Trump,

We write to you as Catholics and citizens. We regard these principles of Catholic Social Teaching as essential: the dignity of the human person and the promotion of the common good. These principles, and many others, are held dear by Catholics throughout our country. 

There are many Catholics who support you in large part due to your position on the issue of abortion, which the US Bishops have re-affirmed as the “preeminent priority.” As you well know, many Catholics are passionate supporters of the Pro-Life movement, due to their belief that the dignity and life of the human person, including the unborn from the moment of conception, must be respected and protected.

In your address to the UN General Assembly in September, you promised that “America will always be a leader in human rights.” This past winter, you made history by being the first president to attend and address the March for Life. In your remarks, you united yourself with those gathered “to defend the right of every child, born and unborn, to fulfill their God-given potential.” You went on to state that “Together, we must protect, cherish, and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life.” 

This is language that many Catholics take seriously, not just when it comes to being against abortion, but across many other issues. 

We are writing to ask you to make good on your words. The US Bishops have been very clear: “All the life issues are connected, for erosion of respect for the life of any individual or group in society necessarily diminishes respect for all life.” (§25) We ask you to extend your concern for the human dignity of all persons and to seek policies that protect all life: whether it be the life of an unborn child or the life of a child seeking safety at our borders; whether it be religious minorities abroad or racial minorities who continue to endure racism and racist violence daily here in our country. 

Specifically, we ask that you reconsider your policies on immigration, particularly the separation of children from their families, the “Remain in Mexico” policy, and your desire to further build a border wall on our southern border. You have spoken of your desire to protect and honor the lives of children, both born and unborn. And yet due to policies under your administration in 2017 and 2018, there remain over 500 children whose parents cannot be located; furthermore, US border authorities have expelled Central American children unaccompanied to Mexico, a foreign country where they likely have no family ties. Though the separation of families was discontinued, the “Remain in Mexico” policy makes migrants wait for asylum claims that will take months, maybe years to process, further exposing vulnerable people, including children, to starvation and violence. When we think of these children, we cannot help but recall the Holy Family who fled their homeland to protect the life of their precious child. (Mt 2:13 – 15)

We echo Pope Francis’ remarks that the “builders of walls … will become prisoners of the walls they make.” Though Catholic teaching on immigration does say that sovereign nations have the right to control borders, we question whether building a wall serves that purpose effectively, and we agree with Bishop Mark Seitz of El Paso, TX who has written: “[The wall] is not just a tool of national security. More than that, the wall is a symbol of exclusion, especially when allied to an overt politics of xenophobia. It is an open wound through the middle of our sister cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.” 

Both of us have spent time on the border in El Paso, receiving migrants and asylum seekers, many of whom have had small children with them and carry almost nothing with them. We have listened to their harrowing stories of fleeing violence and dire poverty in their home countries. We have seen the face of Christ in their faces. Being in their physical presence has reminded us that our nation’s broken immigration policies must be mended and made more humane, loving, and centered on the dignity of persons. 

We wish to point out as well that your rhetoric about immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers does not respect their dignity and worth as human persons. At various rallies and speeches, you have used terms like ‘invaders’ and ‘killers’ over 500 times to refer to migrants. This rhetoric not only dehumanizes people, but stirs xenophobic and racist attitudes among many and increases the specter of violence. Mr. President, your rhetoric carries great weight among many. Bishop Seitz’s letter, cited above, was in response to the 2019 mass murder, una matanza, in El Paso, which left 22 dead and many more wounded. This matanza was motivated by racism and xenophobia. 

Additionally, nearly 2.5 million have temporary residency due to TPS, pending asylum cases, and DACA. Your decision to terminate TPS status for hundreds of thousands of people and to deny further application to young people eligible for DACA threatens to cast many individuals and families into uncertain and potentially deadly situations. Though we are relieved that you have not entirely ended protection for those who currently hold DACA, we ask that you back policies that would grant DACA holders a more permanent status, through working with Congress to pass the Dream Act. We ask that you support young people who contribute positively to the building up of our society. 

We have chosen to focus much of our letter on issues related to immigration. We do so knowing that it is not the only issue where your administration’s policies conflict with Catholic teaching. We have serious reservations about your actions (and lack of action) regarding racism and racist violence, your support of capital punishment, and your administration’s rollbacks of environmental protections. 

Whether you win or lose this election, we ask that you use your remaining time in office to advance policies that promote the dignity of all persons.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Letter to Vice President Biden: Protecting the Unborn

Tue, 11/03/2020 - 00:20

Editors’ Note: This is one of a pair of letters written to the major party candidates for president. See the letter to President Trump here.

Dear Vice President Biden,

We have been wanting to write to you for some time now to share our thoughts with you as fellow Catholics. Our hope in writing this open letter is that you might be moved by a concern that we and many other Catholics share. We would like to see a day in our nation when the God-given dignity of every human life is honored. Like many Catholics, we are concerned by the onslaught of attacks on human dignity: racism, unjust treatment of migrants, militarism, nuclear proliferation, mass incarceration, capital punishment, and environmental degradation, to name only a few. You have expressed concern about some of these evils, and for this reason, many Catholics support you.  

However, we need to talk about abortion. It is clear from your record and past comments that your position on this issue has fluctuated with much interior struggle. You have stated that you believe, as a matter of faith, “that at the moment of conception there’s human life and being,” however, you are “not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God-fearing people that have a different view.” 

First, if your intention is to avoid imposing upon the consciences of citizens, then we must challenge your support for public funding for abortions, which compromises the moral freedom of those taxpayers who object to participating in grave evil. 

Second, if, as you say, the child in the womb of her mother is a human being, your silence on her behalf allows her life to be thrown away. Why does her life not count? To maintain a consistent position on the value of human life, we think that you ought to agree that the denial of the humanity of certain persons perpetuates unjust attitudes and structures throughout our society that make their lives disposable. As Pope Francis asks, “How can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings, however troublesome or inconvenient they may be, if we fail to protect a human embryo, even when its presence is uncomfortable and creates difficulties?” (Laudato Si’, 120)  

Solidifying this connection between the dignity of the unborn and universal human rights, Pope Francis writes, “Defense of unborn life is closely linked to the defense of each and every other human right. It involves the conviction that a human being is always sacred and inviolable, in any situation and at every stage of development. Human beings are ends in themselves and never a means of resolving other problems” (Evangelii Gaudium, 213). We know that this is the way that Christ loved all whom he encountered, especially those on the margins, as persons not as problems. With this in mind, we want to point out the ways in which the violence of abortion targets the poor, racial minorities, and people with disabilities ostensibly as a means of remedying social problems. 

Many who support abortion rights advocate for the elimination of poverty by eliminating people, an attitude reflective of the eugenicist leanings of Margaret Sanger and other framers of the abortion rights movement. This history and reality of this connection is only recently being acknowledged by abortion rights advocates. In the U.S. in 2014, some 75% of women who received an abortion came from low-income or impoverished families. 28% were Black and 25% Hispanic. The overrepresentation of such women among abortion recipients indicates our society’s failure to support them, a failure that drives them towards a soulwrenching choice. When it comes to disabilities, even the lowest estimates show that at least 50% of prenatally diagnosed Down syndrome children are aborted. Sadly, it has become easier to discard a child who is poor, Black, or disabled rather than to take on the noble task of providing for the basic needs of their families.      

We have been saddened to see you and other Catholic Democrats tow the party line as it becomes ever more extreme in its support of abortion not only as a limited, rarely exercised matter of conscience but as a fundamental, easily accessible health care right. In the past you expressed your opposition to taxpayer funding for abortions domestically and abroad in order to protect the rights of conscience of those who are morally opposed to abortion. Today, unfortunately, that is no longer your public stance. The same can be said of your position on late-term abortions. Instead of rising to the call to work for bipartisan solutions and unite citizens in a shared concern for the lives of the most vulnerable and for the dignity of women—women who deserve better than abortion—you have chosen an extreme platform that further divides us.  

Borrowing language from your religious belief, you speak of a “battle for the soul of the nation.” It seems to us that this is your opportunity to be a prophetic witness, to show the character of your soul, and take a stance for what is right even when it costs you. In good conscience, how can you choose the dogma of your political party over your conviction that a human life exists in the womb? 

Over the years, we have been listening, and we’ve heard you speak with sincerity about your Catholic faith. In 2015 when many were pressuring you to run for the presidency, you did not listen to the voice of your supporters, but rather expressed a sense that God was calling you to something else. We see this as evidence that you are a man of discernment, so we encourage you to listen to the voice of God in your life. 

Maybe it will resound in these words of Pope Francis: 

It is not “progressive” to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life. On the other hand, it is also true that we have done little to adequately accompany women in very difficult situations, where abortion appears as a quick solution to their profound anguish, especially when the life developing within them is the result of rape or a situation of extreme poverty. Who can remain unmoved before such painful situations? (Evangelii Gaudium, 214)

No matter the outcome of the election, we hope that you will be moved to use your platform to promote and defend the dignity of all human life.

Categories: Things Jesuit

What Would Fr. Matt Do? Remembering Fr. Matt Gamber, S.J.

Mon, 11/02/2020 - 02:33

More and more, the desire grows in me simply to walk around, greet people, enter their homes, sit on their doorsteps, play ball, throw water, and be known as someone who wants to live with them. It is a privilege to have the time to practice this simple ministry of presence.

– Henri Nouwen (1932-1996)

I was greeted with heartbreaking news the morning of October 17, 2020: Fr. Matthew Gamber, S.J. had died suddenly the previous day at the age of 61.

I first met Fr. Matt when I was two years old. I don’t remember much from those early days, but I do recall that on quiet Saturday afternoons in the late 1990s, when he was teaching at Xavier University and I was in primary school, Fr. Matt often stopped by our house just to say hello. He usually arrived unannounced, and he always brought gifts: a sweet treat for the kids, sometimes flowers for my mom or a re-gifted sweater for my dad.

With a smile and plenty of hearty laughs, Fr. Matt would greet each member of the family in turn, and he made it a point to receive a full update on how everyone was doing. His memory always impressed me; in more than two decades he never seemed to forget what all seven of my siblings and I were up to—where we were in school, what our majors were, which jobs we were starting. His distinctive way of saying the word “Oh-kay” while sipping his wine or nibbling on a cookie as he listened to our life updates still rings in my ears.

Fr. Matt was part of the family. Since our extended family lived hours away, he took on the role of Uncle Matt. When he came over, he simply relaxed with us. We ate, drank, chatted, prayed together. Before everyone had smartphones, Fr. Matt would use my dad’s computer to check his email. In the summer he came to the pool with us to swim laps. Occasionally, I even found him taking a nap on the living room couch.

Like any good Jesuit, Fr. Matt’s ministry as a priest took him all over the world—Chicago, Tampa, Spokane, Rome—and yet he found a way to be with us for important family events: a vacation to the Outer Banks in 1999, my sister’s baptism in 2001, my brother’s wedding in 2011, grandma’s funeral in 2018. Despite his wanderings, his priestly friendship never wavered.

In the Formula of the Institute, the founding document of the Society of Jesus, St. Ignatius exhorts his Jesuit sons to work for “the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful.” In difficult moments of discernment, Fr. Matt did precisely this for my family. When my parents were trying to decide whether to move the family to a new house, Fr. Matt pronounced a confident, “Of course you should!” We moved shortly thereafter. When I was agonizing with a decision to leave the diocesan seminary, Fr. Matt sat me down at an Italian bistro and calmed me down. I joined the Jesuits a year later.

Like many of his Jesuit predecessors who were famous letter-writers, Fr. Matt stayed in touch better than almost anyone I know. He always sent a note, a postcard, a job update. Most recently, in August he wrote to congratulate me on my first vows as a Jesuit. As I opened his note, memories rushed back from early childhood; he had included a gift card for (what else?) but a delicious dessert: Ted Drewes Frozen Custard, a St. Louis specialty. I made a mental note to send a thank-you, but I hesitated. Now it’s too late.

Fr. Matt was, of course, a spiritual father to more than just my family. He had a deep devotion to Pope St. John Paul II, and he emulated the late pontiff in his ministry to young people, leading trips to several World Youth Days. In just the last few years, he had become one of the most relied-upon confessors in Cincinnati. At every youth retreat, conference, or event, Fr. Matt was there, bringing reconciliation to God’s people.

Only recently, since following Fr. Matt into the Society of Jesus, have I come to realize how unique it was to have had such a terrific mentor in my youth. He was a good priest who was simply there; he brought the presence of Christ right into our home. I never knew him in any formal capacity—he was neither my teacher nor my parish priest—yet his example sowed the seeds of a religious vocation in me. In his love for the Lord and for my family, his infectious laugh and unshakeable joy, and, perhaps most importantly, in his sheer presence, he gave me a model of how I too might care for the people of God.

Fr. Matt was truly a friend in the Lord. I often ask myself, “What would Fr. Matt do?” and it has not led me astray. I pray for his repose and that one day he will intercede for us as well.

-//-

Photo provided by the author.

Categories: Things Jesuit

All Saints Day: Becoming Holy by Habit | One-Minute Homily

Sun, 11/01/2020 - 02:00

Today is the Solemnity of All Saints! As we remember the holy ones that inspire us, Martin Ngo, SJ, reflects on how we are all called to holiness. It’s more than a check-list, it’s a matter of habit. Based on the readings for Sunday, November 1, 2020.

We are what we repeatedly do. Wait a minute that’s not from the Gospel, is it?

Hi, I’m Martin and this is my One-Minute Homily.

You got me. That’s our guy, Aristotle. But the connection there to our Gospel deals with one word: habit. For those of us who love to-do lists like myself, I’m sorry to break it to you, the Beatitudes from the Gospel today are not a checklist. Blessed are the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, the merciful, and so on – these each can be seen as building on the prior, and each takes practice.

Ugh, so much work.

But actually, what if we started by asking, “When was the last time I felt deeply loved?” This felt reality changes everything. The confidence that one is securely loved and is an inalienable child of God makes one yearn for holiness. Not the kitschy romanticized pie-in-the-sky notion of holy sainthood that exists out there; but real holiness; an authentic human being burning with love and capable of bearing unceasing persecution by faith in Christ.

That’s a lifelong habit worth becoming.

Categories: Things Jesuit

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez: Welcoming All as Christ | One-Minute Saints

Sat, 10/31/2020 - 02:00

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez was a Jesuit brother who spent years as a door-keeper. He became renowned for his hospitality and advice. Br. Ken Homan, SJ, reflects on the life of Alphonsus Rodriguez, who teaches us that being a saint isn’t just about big actions, it’s about living a life of everyday love.

Peter isn’t the only saint who watches the gate.

Hi, I’m Br. Ken Homan with the Jesuit Post.

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez is an exemplar of love in the face of tragedy. Before he even turned thirty-five, Rodriguez lost his father, his wife, and all three of his children to death. So at thirty-nine years old, Rodriguez entered the Jesuits as a brother. This means he shared the same vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but wasn’t called to priesthood.

For over forty years, Rodriguez served as the door-keeper to the Jesuit university in Majorca, Spain. He greeted those who passed, distributed alms to those in poverty, and spent hours in spiritual conversation with those seeking advice or consolation. He knew that each person at the door was Christ coming knocking.

Some saints are known for incredible deeds. Rogriguez is special for his everyday love, making him easy for us to emulate. Despite his hardships, Rodriguez sought to always love God. And he loved God by loving his neighbor. Like Brother Alphonsus Rodriguez, we’re all called to a life of everyday love.

St. Alphonsus Rodriguez, pray for us.

 

Categories: Things Jesuit

Review: In Dread of Resurrection in “Suspiria”

Fri, 10/30/2020 - 01:24

This article contains some spoilers for Suspiria (2018).

There is a simple truth when it comes to the Resurrection: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”.1 We are to be encouraged by the martyrs, by all who gave their lives in service of God, to be willing to die to our old lives and embrace eternal life with God. In the Christian imagination, this rebirth to new life only comes through surrendering to the power and grace of God. In Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Suspiria, we imagine the disaster that comes from trying to control our resurrection. The horror of this resurrection comes not from clinging too tightly to the past, but from willfully ignoring the (sometimes painful) beauty of memory.

We are introduced to our protagonist, Susie (Dakota Johnson), as she runs away from her Mennonite home in Ohio to join an all-woman Berlin dance company. She leaves behind everything she knew for the sake of her dream, and is well rewarded: Susie soon becomes the lead dancer in the company’s upcoming show. However, the older women who run the company are secretly a coven of witches, using the dances as rituals to enhance their power and hurt those who threaten them. 

Despite the growing dread that ‘something’ is wrong, Susie moves into the dormitory and spends all of her time surrounded by her new community. And as she becomes more and more entangled with the witches, Susie shows no regret about her previous life. The movie returns several times to Susie’s home farmhouse, where her mother (Malgorzata Bela) lies, bedridden, slowly gasping for air. But as her birth mother is dying, Susie makes a new home in Berlin. The young dancer seems to seek a new birth that will allow her to deny her stern and abusive mother.

Susie is caught between two warring factions within the coven, the sides led by Madame Blanc and Helena Markos (both played by Tilda Swinton). Blanc and Markos see potential in the young dancer, but disagree on what to do. We are presented clearly with two fantastical visions of rebirth, by two midwives: Blanc wants to mold Susie in her own image as a witch (literally giving Susie her dreams); Markos wants to consume Susie and achieve a sort of apotheosis as the witch-deity Mother Suspiriorum. Until the final moments of the movie, we are unsure which path Susie will take. But regardless of the choice, Susie rejects any ties to her previous life, and her previous mother.

Watching Susie twist and turn in her bed every night with bloody and horrifying dreams, we might be surprised by her willingness to enter into the coven. Yet Susie does not fear death, because she sees nothing worthwhile in her old life. Unlike Christ redeeming our suffering through the cross, she sees no redemption from her pain and boredom. Given the bleakness of an uninteresting life in a strict religious household, Susie becomes drawn to the dark promise of a new birth among the witches. 

St. Paul writes to the Corinthians, regarding the resurrection of the dead: “It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. … What I am saying, brothers and sisters, is this: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.”2

Susie, like Paul, seeks a new body in order to be changed into something imperishable. She would happily let her old life die, if it means a new life of glory and power. Where Paul trusts in God’s grace by accepting his own weakness, Susie trusts in the coven’s power to supplement her own ambition. Markos is unrepentant in her selfish desire for eternal life. Blanc tries to guide Susie into wielding her growing power. But both encourage Susie to turn her back on anything good in the world.

The movie is set in 1977, in a divided Berlin during the uprising of the leftist Red Army Faction against the government, caught in the wake of WW2. In this world, Blanc tells Susie to give up on ever finding peace; anything that appears good is only a facade. In the aftermath of death and destruction, Berlin only finds more terror. Blanc warns the young dancer, “Today we need to break the nose of every beautiful thing.” 

It is this rejection of beauty that allows Susie to turn so readily on her past. She sees no worth in her memories, and likewise cannot imagine anything good ever coming from her difficult upbringing. Bereft of hope, she sees the only way out through the bloody resurrection promised by the witches.

For those of us who believe in salvation history, even difficult memories are worthwhile to hold onto. In the Bible we read painful stories, listen to prophecies and psalms of rejection, anger, loss, and terror. We remember those stories, because they remind us that God is always with us, even in our desolation and utter despair. We remember that God loves us, even when we choose sin. These memories become beautiful, despite their apparent ugliness, because they remind us that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”3

Our flesh and blood, as they are now, will not inherit the kingdom of God; but that does not mean we should forsake our bodies and memories. To trust in the resurrection is to find the beauty in our earthly bodies, and embrace our own bodies as created out of love. For the coven, it’s unclear if the whole ordeal (and its violent consequences) will make anything better. They all seem caught in the same loop, reenacting the same desires through generations. Without hope, without beauty, we can only stand in dread of new life. 

Suspiria is available for streaming on Amazon Prime. It is rated R for “disturbing content involving ritualistic violence, bloody images and graphic nudity, and for some language including sexual references.”

Categories: Things Jesuit

Did you know? It’s OK to Curse in Prayer.

Wed, 10/28/2020 - 02:33

I started teaching 7th and 8th grade math at Brooklyn Jesuit Prep in mid-September. I had been eagerly awaiting the first day of school after months of quarantining and packing and moving. For over a year, I’d been conversing in prayer with Jesus about how excited I was to finally arrive.

Less than three weeks later, the city and state required our school (along with hundreds of others) to transfer to all-online learning. Cases were spiking in specific neighborhoods and the risk of transmission was too high.

As the kids filed out of school, I cheerfully promised them I’d see them on Zoom! Inside, I was crushed.

I had helped to COVID-proof the school with the other faculty members. I had hustled my way through the first weeks teaching a new subject. I had experimented with masks to be sure my voice could be heard over New York City traffic.

Suddenly, none of that mattered. I was thrust into something totally new. I no longer needed to wear a mask, but wrangle a group of thirteen-year-olds I could barely see through their tiny on-screen boxes. As soon as I finished my first online lesson, I complained to Jesus in prayer.

“Have you abandoned me?” I cried. “Couldn’t we have gotten through three weeks? A month? It was going so well!”

But I felt Him urging me on. During the first few days, the Holy Spirit buoyed me with creativity, imagining new ways of learning through the screen. Still, I felt spent. 

I complained to my mom over the phone. “It’s tough,” I explained, “not everybody has a great internet connection or the right kind of computer. We need them to be in the building to ensure they’re really absorbing the material.”

“You should see it here,” she said, describing a $40,000-a-year private school down the street from my parents’ house. They had been running normally since early September. She reported seeing more hand sanitizer than a hospital and enough outdoor tents to house a circus.

As she explained how comfortably this school seemed to be managing COVID-19, what had started as disappointment grew into anger. I took this rage right to Jesus again in a litany of curses. 

[This is a family website, so I’ll use Jesus’ own word, “woe,” in place of what I actually said.]

“Woe to the political leaders who failed to plan for school re-openings over the summer! They prioritized petty interpersonal squabbles over the well-being of children.”

“Woe to my neighbors who have defied orders to wear masks, hosted massive indoor gatherings, and put us all at risk! Your proud defiance condemns you! Have you no care for your neighbor?”

“Woe to you, Americans who have grown blind to the inequality around us. How is it fair for rich students to continue their education seamlessly while poorer students struggle? Have you forgotten that we belong to each other?”

It felt good to express my frustration so plainly to Jesus. He’d been walking with me since I’d started discerning this mission. He’s listened carefully along each step of the way. I trusted he would listen well to these frustrations. Sometimes that’s all I need from prayer, a moment to express feelings that fear or anger or politeness prevent me from expressing anywhere else. 

In this case, I wanted a little bit more, too. I wanted either a master plan to re-open schools safely, or a miraculous reduction in COVID cases, or an Exodus-like curse upon the house of any number of politicians.

I didn’t get that.

After a few days of raging, Jesus finally responded in exactly the way I needed. In the midst of my morning prayer, I felt a hug. Jesus didn’t have any profound words to offer me about how we were going to single-handedly undo trenchant inequality across the United States and the world. Instead, He wrapped me in His arms. He knows that when I’m really angry or really scared or really tired, that’s the first thing I need. He calmed me down. 

Plus, he focused the energy of my anger on resolving the issues I could control while continuing to beg His intercession about the rest.

And he wasn’t too mad at me about all the bad language. He’s heard it all before.

-//-

Photo by Christopher Ott on Unsplash

Categories: Things Jesuit

When It Comes to Civil Unions, Pope Francis Meant What He Said, but That Might Not Be What You Think

Tue, 10/27/2020 - 00:16

Pope Francis, once again, has made headlines with another informal quotation. This time it is about homosexual couples and civil unions. His remarks have caused confusion and dismay on one end of the pew, and overwhelming delight and high hopes on the other. As with previous comments, the problem is not so much what Francis stated, but rather how the news media has presented and interpreted his statement. Before we make any quick judgments, we should take a look at what Francis actually said and the contexts and intentions of his words.

It would help to see what Francis originally said in Spanish:

Una persona homosexual tiene derecho de estar en la familia. Son hijos de Dios y tienen derecho de [estar en] una familia. No se puede echar de la familia a nadie, ni hacerle la vida imposible por eso. Lo que tenemos que hacer es una ley de convivencia civil. Tienen derecho a estar cubiertos legalmente. Yo defendí eso!

Which translates into English as:

“A homosexual person has the right to be in the family. They are children of God and they have the right to a family. You cannot throw anybody out of a family or make someone’s life impossible for this [reason]. What we have to do is make a law about civil unions. They have the right to be covered legally. I defended this!”

It should be noted that “convivencia civil,” does not simply mean “civil coexistence” or “civil conviviality” as other Catholic sources are trying to claim. Rather, Francis indeed meant “civil union.” In many Spanish-speaking cultures, the term “unión civil” is used, but in Argentina the legal term for civil unions is “convivencia civil.”

First, these comments do not constitute a declaration of official teaching ex cathedra by Pope Francis, nor is it a statement out of nowhere, in opposition to prior teaching as the media is spinning it to be. This is instead a continued expression of pastoral care. It is one that continues to echo what previous popes have stated in the past, though perhaps not in such a bold way as this pope has: namely, that persons of the LGBTQ community have human dignity and should be treated as persons, not as subhumans.

Second, there remains a question of the original context of his words. There is an abrupt change of topic in his quotation, from talking about respecting the place of an LGBTQ person within a family to talking about protection under the law. The change of topic might not follow Pope Francis’s original thought as the source and editing of the clip has been called into question. There is a missing link here, one that can provide clearer context to what Francis means.

Regardless of what exactly Francis said, it seems that every article, whether in English or Spanish, has followed the same format. First, each article begins with a juicy exposition of the quote from the documentary Francesco. Then, there is an expression of surprise that this is the first time any pope has made such a statement. Next, a faulty interpretation of his words is offered, followed by some historical background with cherry-picked quotes from the 2003 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) regarding the legal recognition of homosexual unions. And finally, to add context that can actually enlighten Francis’s words, a passing reference is made to his time as Archbishop of Buenos Aires when he advocated for civil unions instead of marriage laws.

This sensationalization distorts the pastoral import of Pope Francis: he cares for all his flock (especially those who suffer, like homosexual persons who are excluded from their families). And essential to this care is a fidelity to the truth of marriage. As such, he sees civil union laws as prudent for two very pastoral reasons. On the one hand, he seeks the protection under the law of LGBTQ persons who have for a long time been ostracized. On the other hand, while granting that legal protection, he does not seek to compromise the definition of marriage as the Church recognizes it. This was his original intention as Archbishop when he encouraged his fellow bishops to advocate for civil unions when the Argentine government was going to be passing a law regarding homosexual marriage despite Church teaching.

In other words, Francis’s support for a civil union law was not something out of the blue and against Church teaching. Instead, he was speaking from and into a particular government context. If governments will be passing laws about non-heterosexual relationships anyway, they may as well be encouraged to do so in a manner that still preserves the rights of the Church in that state.

Outside of the United States, there are Church and sociopolitical realities in which LGBTQ persons are not only being discriminated against but are directly persecuted. At this point, the law needs to intervene to protect their human dignity. Furthermore, many countries have yet to decide on the issue of legal recognition of homosexual couples.

Pope Francis has been very clear about upholding Church teaching. At the same time, he has been very clear about giving pastoral care to the LGBTQ community, which is incidentally what the CDF document of 2003 encouraged pastors to do.1 What has been overlooked is that many in the Church have failed to uphold the dignity of LGBTQ persons and have allowed them to be demonized, in the truest sense of the word. 

Ultimately, Francis in his statement is not going against or changing Church teaching, as the news media is sensationalizing. Rather he continues to give an example of a pastor, towing the line of pastoral care and doctrinal fidelity. Instead of obsessing over the words “civil union,” perhaps we should hone in on the phrase that nobody in the media is talking about: “Son hijos de Dios!” (“They are children of God!”)

Categories: Things Jesuit

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