Latest from the Jesuit Post
What do you hope for? Simeon and Anna were holding out hope to see the Messiah and their hope was realized in the baby Jesus. Josef Rodriguez, SJ, reflects on hope and the great Hope of Jesus Christ. Based on the readings for Sunday, December 27, 2020.
What are you holding out hope for?
Merry Christmas! I’m Josef Rodriguez, and this is my One-Minute Reflection.
We are finally into the Christmas season. I know I’ve found myself singing, “Yes we need a little Christmas, right this very minute!” even before Advent started. Today we focus on the Holy Family; and in Luke’s Gospel we hear about their encounter with Simeon and Anna, two wise individuals who had been holding out hope for the coming of the Messiah. They were waiting for the first Christmas with even more anticipation and excitement than we have in 2020.
In challenging times like these, we find ourselves holding out hope, whether it’s for the New Year; for the end to wearing masks and safe-distancing; or for a realization of true justice for all human persons from womb to tomb. Simeon and Anna remind us that every single lowercase ‘h’ “hope” should be motivated by the one capital ‘H’ “Hope.” This Christmas season, let’s reflect on what our hopes are and invite Jesus to take part in them.
Merry Christmas from the Jesuit Post!
The cry of a baby reminds us of their presence in our lives. Today we celebrate Jesus Christ making himself known to us through the cry of a newborn baby. Matt Stewart, SJ, delivers this special Christmas Day One-Minute Homily.
Of all days, Christmas is a day when we should all hope to hear the lovely cacophony of babies crying at Mass.
I’m Father Matt Stewart, and this is my One-Minute Homily.
When babies cry, we are reminded that they are there with us. And Christmas is a sacred invitation for us to sit with and contemplate the deep mystery of who God is and continues to be: that God is with us, in the flesh, every moment of every day.
The Almighty, who holds the entire universe in His hands today becomes a baby who must be held in the hands of his mother. The King of Kings, attended by the heavenly court and worshipped by angels, today is surrounded by barnyard animals and adored by shepherds.
And the most eloquent way for God-with-us to announce that reality is not through teachings or parables or words of mercy and love, but with the wordless, beautiful, and heartrending cry of a newborn baby.
I expected a look of shock, and maybe some tears. At the very least I thought he’d wince. My hand was shaking a little. What would he think? There’s no way he’d remember this, right? I knew I would though.
I met my friends when we were freshmen in college. By the grace of God (acting through some random Residence Life staffer) we were all assigned to the same floor in our freshman dorm. They started dating about the same time I started seriously discerning joining the Jesuits. She was accepted to law school about the same time I was accepted to the novitiate. They moved to Ann Arbor. I moved to Syracuse.
By the time they got engaged, they had moved to Boston. I had moved to New York City. They decided that they wanted to be each other’s adventure companion for life. My daily adventure was teaching high school boys about morality and the Bible. All three of us knew we’d found something worth hanging on to.
I did one of the readings at their wedding and cried a little. We danced a lot and celebrated well into the wee hours of the morning. He started grad school. I moved to Boston and did the same.
I knew she was pregnant before they told me. Your best friend can’t just refuse a cold beer on a hot August day and not expect you to get suspicious. I knew they’d been talking about starting a family. The beer really gave it away though.
The next eight months weren’t all smooth. There were doctor visits, tests, and a global pandemic. But they got through it together, and I was grateful to be along for the ride.
I stood at the bottom of their steps on May 1st holding a couple bags of groceries. They stood just inside the door. She was holding their three-day-old son. My nephew. It was love at first sight.
Seven of my Jesuit brothers and I were ordained as deacons on September 20th. I’m helping out at a great parish in South Boston and have been incredibly grateful to dive head first into ordained ministry. I love preaching, assisting at Mass, and chatting with parishioners. But the baptisms have been the highlight.
Kids are involved, so something is almost guaranteed to go off-script, and it’s entirely guaranteed to be joyful, memorable, and holy.
There was the little girl who, seeing me hand her sister’s godparents a baptismal candle, interrupted, “I want a candle too!” Another day the family decided to improvise their answers to the renunciation of sin and the profession of faith.
ME: Do you reject Satan?
THE PARENTS: Absolutely!
ME: And all his works?
THE PARENTS: Mmhmm!
ME: And all his empty show?
THE PARENTS: Sure do!
And then there was the baby boy who, seeing my hand outstretched to anoint him, lunged his head forward and rinsed the oil off my thumb in a flood of drool. The parents and I laughed. I resolved to tell the story to my housemates later. The children became members of the Body of Christ. And we’re all holier for it.
I’m utterly convinced God calls each and every one of us to the exact same vocation: to love. The way in which God calls us to love is a much trickier question to figure out and a more winding road to walk. My friends’ path to marriage and parenthood started about the same time as my journey to ordination. We’ve been walking together (both literally and figuratively) for the entirety of our adult lives.
At 10:00 a.m. on Sunday, September 21st, our shared journey found us, along with a few friends and family members, at the parish where I’d just finished giving my first homily. I hadn’t been ordained for a full 24 hours yet. We gathered around the font.
I glanced up at my friends. What would our 18-year-old selves say if they knew that this moment was where this path of life and love would lead us? It’s tough to say which of the three of us would have been the most surprised by this scene. I prayed that their son, my nephew, would give and receive that much love – no, more, even more – as he began his life as a Christian. I plunged my hand into the water and started pouring.
“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
I still struggle to find words to explain what it meant, baptizing my best friends’ son as one of the first things I did after ordination.
There was no look of shock, no surprise, no tears, not even a whimper. Just love.
Sometimes we feel more comfortable giving gifts rather than receiving them. Hunter D’Armond, SJ, reflects on Mary and how we need to humbly receive God’s grace before we are able to give to others. Based on the readings for Sunday, December 20, 2020.
Why is it so awkward receiving Christmas gifts???
Hi, I’m Hunter D’Armond and this is my One-Minute Reflection.
If you are anything like me, you might enjoy giving other people gifts, but when it’s time to receive a gift, well, it becomes a little uncomfortable.
We shouldn’t worry, though, because I think Mary felt similarly when the angel Gabriel told her, “Hail, full of grace! The Lord is with you.” The gospel says she was troubled and didn’t know what that meant.
But at the end of Mary and Gabriel’s conversation, she humbly accepts this gift from God in saying “may it be done to me according to your word.” It’s by humbly accepting this tremendous gift from God that she is then able to give birth to the greatest gift to the world: Jesus Christ.
So, following the example of Mary, let us remember that the more we allow ourselves to be filled up with God’s gift of grace, the more we can give birth to Christ in our own lives.
“Mr. Braithwaite, today I want to pray for my mom because she took my phone last night and I was really bored and I pray that she gives me my phone back tonight.”
A quick follow-up: “I also want to pray that she gets her phone back because I tried to call her ten times last night and she didn’t answer and I didn’t know her mom took her phone.”
I start all of my math classes with prayer and virtually every day one of the girls prays that technology will be returned to them. Or else, new technology is desired: “I pray that my dad realizes that I really deserve an iPhone 12 for my birthday.”
The boys’ focus is a little bit different. Someone usually prays “that tonight our Fortnite campaign will win by reaching level 150,” before rattling off his classmates’ sophomoric usernames.
I didn’t know what to expect when I started my classes with a freeform prayer. I recalled my own 10th grade English class, when such open-ended petitions could sometimes ratchet into endless lists of pleas to God. “Please save the oceans, and the polar bears, and the rainforests, and the dolphins…” On and on my classmates would go until a large portion of class time had been eaten up.
Prayer is different in Jesuit communities, where the petitions at Mass are also open for additions from the congregation. People have usually asked us to pray for them, and we focus on the difficult pregnancies and cancer diagnoses and lengthy job searches of the people in our lives. It’s an unspoken rule that we pray for those dramatically in need both outside and inside our communities.
With my seventh graders, I hear something I don’t think I’ve ever heard among Jesuits.
“Today, I want to pray for myself.”
Their reasons for praying for themselves range from the sacred to the profane. Students have prayed for themselves because they’re angry about a mean text message a classmate sent and also because they spilled a big cup of soda yesterday afternoon. They’ve needed prayers because they spent all night on the toilet after eating too many cookies and because they’re really hungry that morning. One girl prayed for her brother because his showers are too long and another because his room is too messy. They’ve prayed to receive new phones and to win in Among Us 1 and not to get in too much trouble when they get home tonight. These twelve and thirteen-year olds seem to understand, intuitively, that God is interested in every part of their day.
And unlike Jesuits (and many other adults) I know, they are unashamed in telling God exactly what they want.
As Fr. Jim Martin, SJ likes to remind us, “Advent is all about desire.” God took on human flesh and understands that our days are full of regular everyday hopes and dreams and fears.
As a Jesuit, others frequently invite me to carry the struggles of their life with them. I’ve been asked to pray for friends-of-friends going through agonizingly slow deaths, for families rent asunder by a daughter coming out of the closet, for addicts whom rehab never seems to help. I love to pray for these people during Mass and during my own personal prayer. Sometimes this intense outward focus can blind me to my own needs.
In the face of such immense pain, who am I to ask for God’s help?
Sure, I might be exhausted from the pandemic, or frustrated that I can’t control a math class, or anxious about the election, but that all pales in comparison to everyone I’m praying for. What my students have taught me, though, is that behind this faux-humility is my false belief that I can probably resolve my exhaustion or frustration or anxiety by myself. I’ll give myself a self-care day or study a classroom management technique or quit Twitter for a week and all will be well. No need to ask God’s help! In sharp contrast, one of my students prayed for herself because she’s frustrated and embarrassed and upset about the fact that it takes her two hours to wash ten dishes (she timed herself the night before).
After three months praying with a bunch of twelve-year olds, I find I’m adopting their shamelessness in praying for myself.
“Dear God, I pray for myself not to look at Instagram too much today.”
“Dear God, I pray for myself to love this student better.”
“Dear God, I pray for myself to remember that the election is in your hands.”
This Sunday, we’ll hear about Gabriel coming to visit Mary in Nazareth. He’ll let her know that she will be the means through which God enters the world. As you know, she accepts quickly, without much hesitation.
As I pray with the Annunciation, I envision the seventh graders I teach everyday. Mary was just about their age when Gabriel came to visit. Like my students, Mary intuitively grasped that God was actively working in the world. Like them, I’m sure she knew that she could bring all her wants and desires before the Lord.
As I near the end of Advent and the great feast of Christmas, I look to a whole host of twelve- and thirteen-year olds to bring me closer to those essential desires. God wants to hear about the mundane and sublime realities of my daily life. Do I have the humility to offer them to him?
The one percent who run major corporations doesn’t seem to be a virtuous lot. So, why would Pope Francis and the Vatican announce an alliance with some of the richest business leaders in the world?
The Council for Inclusive Capitalism announced last week that they were officially partnering with Pope Francis and the Vatican. The Council is a high-powered alliance of top CEOs and global leaders seeking to “make economies more inclusive and sustainable with a movement of bold, business-led actions that span the economic ecosystem.” Collectively, the members represent 200 million workers and over $2.1 trillion in market capitalization.
“Inclusive capitalism” is an updated market system that is “more sustainable, trusted, equitable, and inclusive” but that preserves the ability of capitalism to deliver wealth and prosperity. In order to change the system, individual corporations make “commitments” in four broad priority areas: People, Planet, Principles of Governance, and Prosperity.
Commitments range from Estée Lauder making it’s packaging more environmentally friendly to Mastercard “expanding annual spending with Black suppliers by more than 70%” to EY aiming “to positively impact 250 million lives by 2025 and 1 billion lives by 2030.”
The sleek website is peppered with snippets of corporate moral-speak that could have been taken from the vision statement of any 21st century conglomerate: “long-term value for all stakeholders,” “diversity and equality of opportunity for individuals,” and “strive to minimize negative impact,” for example.
But the Council has the blessing and moral authority of Pope Francis behind it and its members will meet annually with the pope and Cardinal Peter Turkson, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development.
Pope Francis, however, is well-known for his sharp critiques of global capitalism. He writes in Evangelii Gaudium:
“Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
It may seem strange that this same pope is joining hands with “guardians” of inclusive capitalism such as the CEOs of Visa, Mastercard, Bank of America, BP, et al., but I suspect that the Holy Father may be employing a classic Jesuit tactic: “in their door and out our own”.
St. Ignatius wrote in a letter to Jesuits on mission, particularly in dealing with people of means:
In any conversation where we are trying to win a person over and ensnare him for the greater service of God our Lord, we should adopt the same procedure the enemy [the devil] uses with a good soul… The enemy enters through the other’s door and comes out his own… [W]e, [acting] for good, can praise a person or go along with him on some particular good point, passing over in silence any bad points he may have. Once we have won his love, we will better get what we want. Thus, we go in his door and come out our own.
Pope Francis may be entering the door of “inclusive capitalism” in hopes of leading the industry leaders out the door of economic justice according to the understanding of Catholic Social Teaching.
In this effort, the Holy Father has his work cut out for him.
One difficulty is that St. Ignatius’s advice was intended for interpersonal relations and may not work well between institutions. Corporations might just use the Vatican as moral cover, rather than opening up to genuine reform in decision-making processes. It’s unclear what kind of contact or input Pope Francis or the Vatican will have with the “Guardians” beyond annual meetings.
The values and commitments of the member organizations certainly represent good and noble aspirations, but for a work “under the moral guidance of His Holiness Pope Francis” there is a dearth of reference to his actual thoughts on economic life and its place in human flourishing. Rather, most of the Council’s standards come from the World Economic Forum (WEF) and the U.N. Sustainability Goals.
In his comments to the Council, the pope reminded the members that “authentic development cannot be restricted to economic growth alone but must foster the growth of each person and of the whole person… it involves a renewal, purification and strengthening of solid economic models based on our own personal conversion and generosity to those in need.”
In other words, a good life is about more than material prosperity. Living well entails conversion and sacrifice, not responding to ‘incentives’ and engineering ‘outcomes.’ For substantial systemic change, there needs to be a paradigm shift in capitalism, beyond what might skeptically be called “greenwashing” or window-dressing of exploitation.
Another challenge Francis is up against is the reality that business leaders are beholden to their own boards of directors and shareholders who might be noble and generous people, but who have a vested interest in maximizing shareholder value. What constitutes “value” is exactly what’s at stake, but this and other legitimate concerns about the very structures of capitalism do not appear anywhere in the Council’s vision.
For example, there is no mention of labor or labor unions in the articulation of the guiding principles, although the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is involved. Catholic Social Teaching has a strong tradition in support of workers’ rights to organize which could be a point of challenge for some of the corporations involved.
With at least one foot in the door to the world of international commerce, Pope Francis has an opportunity to improve the system of global capitalism. He and Cardinal Turkson might be uniquely positioned to call the business tycoons and thought-leaders to a conversion from a profit-driven, individualistic, technocratic paradigm to a pursuit of the common good, subsidiarity, and solidarity. I hope and pray they can, little by little, draw these leaders to seek a true common good.
Is it too early to be joyful? Fr. Matt Stewart, SJ, reflects on what it means to be joyful, even when we are still waiting for the Lord. Based not the readings for Sunday, December 13, 2020.
“Joy to the world, the Lord has come!” What? Too soon?
I’m Father Matt Stewart, and this is my one-minute homily.
Today, the third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday” which means “Rejoice!”
We hear this call throughout our readings today. Isaiah cries out “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” Today’s Psalm exhorts us to let our souls rejoice in God. And Paul tells the Thessalonians to “Rejoice always!”
Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit, so when the Spirit is at work in us people will experience us as joyful. There are ways in which we have brought joy to others, and even experienced it ourselves, even in a year as challenging as this one has been.
So…what are all the ways that joy has been real for you this year?
As we embrace the joy of the Spirit alive in us, both heaven and nature can start singing “Joy to the World” already today, even though the Lord hasn’t come quite yet.
Sitting in my warm room, it’s difficult for me to get the motivation to brave the cold. Even running down the road to the local grocery can feel like a burden. Yet, as I pray over the Gospels, I am reminded of the effort and resolve demanded of people who wanted to be healed. We see it in the woman with a hemorrhage reaching for Jesus’s cloak. We see it with the Canaanite woman persisting on behalf of her tormented daughter. We see it with the crowds coming to Jesus in the wilderness. And how does Jesus respond?
“Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. As evening approached, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a remote place, and it’s already getting late. Send the crowds away, so they can go to the villages and buy themselves some food.” Jesus replied, “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”1
Imagine a barren place. Hard caked mud. Flies buzzing around your ear. Weeds sprouting up between your feet. And the sound of water lapping up against a gravely shore in the distance. There’s no comfortable place to sit, and the heat of the sun is making you dizzy. You have hazarded this sun in order to see Jesus. You have walked miles and miles, believing that this preacher from Nazareth could provide what others could not. And then, you see ill friends being healed. Consolation. But the men standing around the healer look anxious. You hear one of them whisper, “send them away.” This makes you feel nervous. What will you do if you are sent away?
Perhaps, like me, you are discerning how you should spend your holidays? You are praying and asking God to show you how to be present to your loved ones and still keep them safe. As I prayed with all my anger, frustration, loneliness, and hunger for loved ones this holiday season, I was reminded that God often provides for us in ways we don’t expect or even necessarily want.
About five years ago, I had just arrived in a rural part of South Korea to teach elementary students. I felt all alone and depressed. In just two months of arriving in this new town, where communication was difficult and I had no established community, Christmas had arrived. I listened to holiday jingles play as I sat alone in local coffee shops. And as I drank my Americanos, I realized that I didn’t even know if there was a church nearby. I feared that on Christmas day, which was fast approaching, I would be alone in my one room apartment, cooking up instant ramen on an electric burner. Then Christmas morning came. I had gone out shopping at the local convenience store to grab some breakfast, and as I unpacked my groceries of junk food and beer, I received a message on Facebook.
The local English teachers had invited me to an English speaking service and a meal after. I didn’t know any of the details, but that Christmas afternoon I found myself on the local bus, sitting between two grandmothers and their own groceries. Through an industrial complex, and down a road where chicken coops were stacked on the left, there was a little Presbyterian church, and outside of it, smiling faces expected me. I remember that church and the instant coffee and sweet bread that was often given out after church services. It became a place of belonging and the other people I met there would become friends that would support me throughout the year ahead.
As we finished the short simple service, where the preaching was done by a Mexican-American missionary, we made our way down the neighborhood and into a buffet. The restaurant, as I remember it, was more of a cafeteria. And the people around me? Some of them I had only known a few weeks and some I had never met before. Yet we were able to connect and laugh. Jajangmyeon black noodles filled my plate. One of the older church ladies kept offering me potato salad. A Filipino teacher dressed up as Santa Claus started distributing presents to the parishioners. People that were almost strangers welcomed me into their community and I became a part of it for a short time. That Christmas was certainly different than any before.
Grace is an important component of my prayer life. Sometimes I begin my prayer by asking for a particular grace, be it patience or understanding or compassion. Other times the grace comes unasked for and the only thing to do is name it. The grace I received that Christmas was God’s closeness, even during a time when I couldn’t fully appreciate it.
So that brings me back to discerning. How should I spend the holidays? How should I prepare myself to spend this Christmas season? When I pray with this memory, I am reminded to trust that God will give me the grace I need. Sometimes decisions are difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to do what we think is right. Yet, God is there offering his support.
This article contains some spoilers for Parasite (2019) and Hillbilly Elegy (2020)
Netflix’s recent drama Hillbilly Elegy has gotten a lot of flack for its portrayal of poverty in rural America: critics have called it “exploitative”, “condescending”, “terrible”, and claim that it creates “anthropological distance, not human empathy”. A recent article in America (our sponsor organization) asked whether it might constitute “poverty porn”.
Contrast that with the response to another movie about a poverty-stricken family, 2019’s blockbuster Parasite, which had the critics hailing it as an “epic lesson in class warfare”, “a riotous social satire”, and saying that it “dissects themes of class warfare and rigged systems in a wholly original way”.
All of these reviews start from the unwritten premise that systemic political change should be the goal of any film that deals with poverty. They miss a more fundamental distinction between these two excellent works of art — the worldview from which they were created.
On the surface, there are similarities between the Appalachian memoir and the Korean comedy — both are stories of bootstrapping young men whose financial fortunes lead to questions of identity and belonging. Both are family dramas of suffering and struggle with poverty. Both admit the systemic difficulties faced by the poor. But Hillbilly Elegy offers a hopeful vision of what people can do in the face of challenges, where Parasite leaves little hope beyond violent revolution.
The biggest difference is belief in something beyond the material. Parasite is marred in this world of things and sees the struggle to get stuff as the primary aspect of the human condition. The capitalistic economic system is problematic because certain classes of people cannot attain material success, thus the situation is hopeless. Violence is the inevitable result because people cannot help but resent those who have more than them.
For Hillbilly Elegy, there is a realm beyond the material, where love and relationships are most important, without reference to material goods. Material goods are necessary means for success in life but they are not constitutive of that success. Although the references to God are fleeting, there is a sense of an eternal perspective in Hillbilly Elegy that is absent in Parasite.
In Parasite, the Kim family is driven by the need to make money. The unemployed college-aged son finds a position as a temporary English tutor to a very wealthy family, the Parks. Gradually his sister, father, and mother end up working for the family as art therapist, driver, and housekeeper respectively. Meanwhile, the Park family is oblivious of their relation to one another and utter lack of credentials.
Of course, the story of the Kim family begins from a state of desperation as they scrounge for food in their basement apartment. But as they infiltrate the rich family’s home, their goalposts shift quickly from feeding themselves to opulence. In the climatic scene of the first half of the movie, they get drunk on imaginations of what life will be like when they own the house.
At the beginning of Hillbilly Elegy, Ohioan J.D. Vance is a Yale law student preparing for internship interviews and suffering from imposter syndrome. His big-break opportunity at a fancy dinner is interrupted by a call from his older sister telling him that their mother had overdosed again. The film flashes back and forth between J.D.’s childhood and his return to Middletown, Ohio, to help his long-suffering mother.
In a distinctly American way, wealth and poverty are a motif in Hillbilly Elegy, but Vance’s story is far more focused on love and family and how money plays a complex role in our lives. For example, in one scene, the young J.D. turns away from drugs and apathy when he sees his grandmother, “Mamaw”, asking for more food from the Meals on Wheels service so she can feed him. Her poverty led to his conversion.
In another scene, J.D. attempts to steal a TI-89 calculator from RadioShack so Mamaw has to lay some tough love on him, but also ends up buying him the calculator, an act of love which is impossible for the rich.
The Kims also clearly love each other and value family, but quickly resort to fraud and theft, greed and violence in their pursuit of wealth and status. Money for them is to be acquired at nearly all costs. They are willing to sacrifice to make each other happy, but even that happiness is defined only in terms of material prosperity.
One might accuse Hillbilly Elegy of naivete for offering a vision of the American Dream that rings hollow to so many poor families. Perhaps the over-the-top violence of Parasite feels more authentically capitalistic. But Hillbilly Elegy resists the claim that one need only work hard and sacrifice then worldly success will follow. Mamaw puts it:
“You gotta take care of business; you gotta go to school; you gotta get good grades, to even have a chance… I’m talking about a chance. You might not make it, but you sure as hell won’t if you don’t try.”
If both the Kims and the Vances think that the probability of pulling themselves out of poverty is low, what is different about their approaches? One difference might be their tolerance for vice — the Kims aren’t above stealing and manslaughter, but the Vances only tolerate domestic abuse and drugs. Neither family is quite the model of moral rectitude.
The true difference is this: The Kim family wants to be rich. The Vance family wants to be happy. Those goals are not mutually exclusive, but human beings were not made simply for material success. It’s perfectly natural to desire wealth as a means to supporting your family or expressing your creativity, as in Hillbilly Elegy, but when we lose sight of a higher goal, we will suffer the violence, separation, and imprisonment that concludes Parasite.
Image from IMDb
Jesus wasn’t what people expected. What do we expect from Jesus? Christopher Alt, SJ, reflects on John the Baptist’s message of repentance and the importance of checking our expectations. Based on the readings for Sunday, December 6, 2020.
A friend once told me: “Expectations are resentments under construction.”
Hi, I’m Christopher Alt, and this is my One-Minute Reflection.
I once visited a restaurant with all kinds of hype. After my meal, I thought, “meh”. It simply didn’t live up to my expectations. If that was my feeling for a restaurant, I can only imagine what people must have felt when they first met Jesus.
Most anticipated a powerful political messiah who was gonna wipe out the Romans, and instead, they got a poor, backwoods, son-of-a-carpenter, who preached mercy. And who ultimately suffered a humiliating death. Their expectations were way off. And for some, their resentment turned murderous.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist shouts “Repent,” which means “Change your mind!” In other words, John was telling people to check their expectations.
As we begin this liturgical year, our lesson might be this: be willing to check expectations; to change your mind, trusting that God’s promises might be fulfilled in ways more wild than we could’ve ever dreamed.
At seven years old, I told my mother I’d think about being a priest when I grew up, “if they still needed them.” And at twelve, I was convinced I was supposed to be a priest and dove headfirst into my faith.
Two years later, I had no interest in priesthood or religious life. But God doesn’t give up so easily.
When I was on my junior Kairos retreat in high school, I went to confession. When I was done, I thanked the priest for his vocation and mentioned that I once thought about doing what he was doing. He told me God might still be calling me to priesthood, but I dismissed the idea. After all, I had been dating the same girl for almost two years at that point. We broke up seven months later, but that didn’t affect a significant change in my thoughts about priesthood.
Others, however, could see that potential in me. During my senior year, I remember my mom asking me if I was still thinking about being a priest. Confused, I told her that I wasn’t. My classmates voted me most likely to be a priest, but I just chuckled to myself and shrugged the thought off.
I met the Jesuits when I enrolled at Loyola Chicago (LUC) and began attending daily Mass. A class I took in the spring of my sophomore year at LUC helped shift my entire perspective on my life and the Church. It was called “Church in the World,” and the professor taught us the basics of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), a topic I was only vaguely familiar with.
Every class left me pondering the implications CST should have on my life. Ultimately, I was left with one question above the others: how was I going to live out my faith when I graduated? What was I going to do for a living that would allow me to be a good and faithful Catholic?
Near the end of the semester, a possible answer to that question presented itself when three young Jesuits 1 came into the class and talked to us about why they had decided to become Jesuits. I was captivated with their stories and how they’d found their way to a vocation.
One of the men had a promising career in politics ahead of him, but he gave that up to be a Jesuit. Another was engaged to be married before he realized that God was calling him to something else. None of them had any regret from leaving their previous lives behind. They found joy in their decision to follow God as Jesuits.
That night, I wrote in my journal that I could see myself as a Jesuit. These men seemed so alive and happy with where they were. And the other Jesuits I had met were academically brilliant, inspiring in their preaching, and full of a deep love of God.
In considering the question, becoming a Jesuit felt like a natural solution to my question from class. In a way, it even felt like the “easy” solution. Jesuit life would allow me to live with people who would help me to grow in my faith. Of course, being a Jesuit would have its share of sacrifices, particularly the prospect of forfeiting the possibility of any romantic relationships. Seriously considering a Jesuit vocation meant embracing these sacrifices.
Still, I tried to dismiss this solution. I told myself becoming a Jesuit didn’t make sense. I would have to change the plans I had for my life at that point, and I didn’t want to do that. But, no matter how much I ignored it, the desire to be a Jesuit kept coming back. It hounded me. I decided to talk to a good friend, a student two years older than me and the man who had taught me how to pray a few years prior.
I stared at the ground as I told him that I was thinking of, maybe, possibly, becoming a Jesuit. He smiled warmly and congratulated me on the news. He said that, he had once thought about being a Jesuit. I exhaled. And then I talked about all of my fears, doubts, and insecurities. He listened patiently, nodding at points.
But I didn’t convince him becoming a Jesuit wasn’t my vocation. Instead, he affirmed my process of discernment. He told me to not be afraid to keep exploring the vocation.
A few weeks later at daily Mass, the priest preached on the day’s first reading from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. He said that if the early Church was from God, it would last (as it has) and if it was not it would fade away. I smiled and laughed at myself, knowing then that this was to be my lens in discernment: if the thought of a Jesuit vocation persisted, it must be from God.
Thanks to a lot of prayer and conversations, some two years later I showed up to the Jesuit novitiate in St. Paul, Minnesota in August 2013. I was nervous, but I took the first step through the door, trusting that this was God’s call.
Now I’ve been a Jesuit for seven years. The little signs of the call were there all along, and in hindsight they seem obvious. But it took other people to pull my vocation out of me.
What are God’s people calling out of you?
St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius were best friends. Their mission both separated them and kept them close when they were separated. Ian Peoples, SJ, reflects on true friendship on the Feast of St. Francis Xavier.
What if your best friend is a saint—and so are you?
Hi I’m Ian Peoples with the Jesuit Post.
St. Francis Xavier was a great missionary, but in all his travels he never lost touch with his great friend Ignatius.
The two were inseparable: becoming friends in college and later founding the Society of Jesus. What brought them together also separated them, when Ignatius as superior of the Society missioned Xavier to Asia. They would never see each other again: Xavier died on a partially deserted island off the coast of China.
In one of his last letters to Ignatius, Xavier wrote “[You have] written to me that you have a great desire to see me before you leave this life. God our Lord knows what an impression these words of great love made upon my soul, and how many tears they have cost me whenever I recall them…”
We can’t always be close to our loved ones, but Francis Xavier shows us we can bridge earthly distance through spiritual friendship in God.
St. Francis Xavier,
Pray for us.
A few months ago, a friend introduced me to WeCroak. It’s an app for my phone, and it’s premise is simple. According to its ‘about’ page: “In Bhutan they say that contemplating death five times daily brings happiness.” So five times a day, with no discernible schedule, I get a push notification from WeCroak that says, Don’t forget, you’re going to die. When I tap the notification, it takes me to a simple screen – a black background with a quote about death in white letters. And below the quote, the name of the person who said it.
Some are pithy, familiar phrases:
“Death takes no bribes.”
Benjamin Franklin said that.
Others are a bit more, shall we say, graphic:
“The other side of the ‘sacred’ is the sight of your beloved in the underworld, dripping with maggots.”
Thanks for that, Gary Snyder.
Others still hit me instantly and deeply:
“The dead are notoriously hard to satisfy.”
That’s from Jack Spicer.
November, we formally mark the recollection of our beloved dead, has passed away. Now we’re in the season of Advent, a penitential season, a time to take stock of what we need and whether we’re willing to wait for it. And, as if All Souls and Advent weren’t a reminder of death, we’re still living in this pandemic, which has claimed the lives of nearly 1.5 million people worldwide.
With all this death surrounding me, I’m not sure that five-times daily reminders have done anything for my happiness.
As a Jesuit in formation for the priesthood, I’m taking classes at Boston College that are all over the place. In a single day, I might be reading about the role of authority in the Catholic Church, Anselm’s satisfaction theory of atonement, W.E.B. Du Bois’s groundbreaking work as a sociologist of religion, and the history of the Rites of Ordination. Latin phrases come at me rapid fire – lex orandi, lex credendi (what we pray is what we believe), sensus fidei (sense of the faith) and sensus fidelium (sense of the faithful), among others. I’m often scrambling to keep it all together, a nod to the rich and complicated reality of my faith tradition.
I also take classes that are geared toward developing skills – at some point, I have to learn how to say Mass, how to hear a confession, how to baptize someone, how to offer a graveside service, and how to preach.
Recently, I and some of my preaching classmates offered attempts at a funeral homily, which means that we’ve all been lingering on death and its place in our world. Don’t forget – we are all going to die.
The exercise yielded more questions than answers. What’s the right thing to say? What’s the wrong thing to say? What’s the right tone? Did I make too many hand gestures? How do we face the fact that some people don’t want to hear anything we have to say? Or, of what our faith offers in response to the death of a loved one? And on, and on, and on. Questions. Uncertainty. Mystery.
Two things were abundantly clear to me this morning. One: we are never alone in facing death. Two: we have no choice but to face it. It will come.
A good question to ask this Advent: for what do we wait?
I think I can safely say that the entire human race is waiting for this pandemic to end. As is often the case when I am sick and forget what it feels like to be healthy, I have almost forgotten what life before this pandemic was like. I sometimes forget that I live in Boston, and I have forgotten the joy of getting a burger at a pub and playing trivia.
We’re waiting for 2021 and the hope of a crowded table once again. We’re waiting to be with each other, to give hugs recklessly, to actually be in Madison or Omaha or Chicago, and not just Zoom with friends who are there.
We’re waiting for justice for immigrants, people of color, the unemployed and underemployed, the unhoused, the sick with no access to healthcare, the imprisoned. We’re waiting for turbulent airplane rides and trips downtown on the Green Line. We’re waiting for a new president, and for perhaps some freedom from thinking about the election every single day.
And, we’re waiting again for God to come among us, to come as close to us as we are to ourselves. It is the here but not yet, the gift of a God who chooses to live alongside us and work actively in our lives, to suffer with us in life and in death, to show us what it means to love.
WeCroak has, I think, made me happier. Why? Because it reminds me that I’m not waiting to die. I am waiting to live again.
COVID-19 is not the first pandemic of our lifetime. But we’re certainly acting like it is.
Missteps, misinformation, and pandemic-fatigue have propelled the virus into a brutal new wave of infections in the United States and elsewhere around the world. Have we learned nothing from the last eight months?
Or how about the last forty years?
The AIDS epidemic emerged in 1981 when the CDC published the first official reporting on what came to be known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Since then, nearly 76 million people have become infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and a staggering 33 million people have died from AIDS-related illnesses. Those are statistics that almost make the coronavirus look tame by comparison with more than 60 million cases and counting, and 1.5 million deaths.
What can we learn from nearly 40 years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic? What can it teach us about our way forward as we continue to confront the coronavirus pandemic? Turns out, a great deal.
Both HIV/AIDS and COVID-19 have infected millions of people around the globe and millions have died from these diseases. Narratives of disinformation and clinical confusion exacerbated the spread of both these diseases: Do masks really make a difference for the spread of COVID? (Yes!) Does AIDS only affect gay men? (No!)
Stigma can travel hand-in-hand with disinformation. When coronavirus first hit the United States, many Americans cast a stigma on people of Asian descent, with outright hate crimes or by insidiously calling it the “Chinese virus.” While those sentiments have largely subsided in the mainstream, AIDS activists continue to challenge the stigma that AIDS is a disease for people who are “morally inferior,” casting judgement on high-risk groups like gay men or people who inject drugs. When this stigma ostracizes individuals and stifles public action, the inherent dignity of human persons is violated, and lives are critically endangered.
Admittedly, there are marked differences between HIV/AIDS and COVID-19. COVID results from an airborne virus that spreads quickly and easily. If symptoms manifest, they appear between 2-14 days after exposure to the virus. For the majority of patients, their bodies can overcome the virus and develop antibodies with minimal medical intervention.
In contrast, HIV/AIDS is primarily transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids during sex or by sharing needles when injecting drugs. It develops much slower in the body than COVID, and it can take years for symptoms to manifest. Unlike with COVID, our bodies are unable to overcome HIV and there are no antibodies that resist it. Heavy medical intervention in the form of antiretroviral treatment (ART) has made it possible for people to live decades with the disease. But there is still no cure and no preventative vaccine.
A cure for HIV remains elusive, but we can learn a lot from forty years of fighting the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Allow me to offer three important lessons from HIV/AIDS that should shape our way forward with the coronavirus pandemic.
- Prevention before infection effectively eliminates the spread of the virus.
Only someone who has HIV can pass it on to someone else. And once a person is infected with HIV, there is no cure. Thus it is critically important to prevent infection in the first place.
Drugs that reduce mother-to-child transmission of HIV prevented a staggering 1.4 million estimated new HIV infections from 2010-2018. And a groundbreaking trial in 2011 revealed that people taking ART are 96% less likely to transmit the virus. In other words, the medication provides a double benefit of treating the virus and cutting transmission rates. National and global responses to HIV/AIDS have recognized the twin need for addressing treatment and prevention.
The lesson for fighting coronavirus is that measures that prevent infection in the first place are critically important. Wearing masks, social distancing, quarantining after exposure, and even widespread lockdowns are not simply suggestions that we can choose to abide by or disregard. These are critical methods for preventing infection in ourselves and others.
A terrifying characteristic of COVID-19 is how easily it spreads, including through asymptomatic carriers. Too many people have lowered their guard because of asymptomatic cases. This is a disregard for personal safety. It is a disregard for the common good. And this is precisely how COVID-19 is spreading so effectively: people are unwittingly sharing it with neighbors, family members, and co-workers. One person might be asymptomatic, but they can pass the disease to someone who ends up on a ventilator. Or dead.
Preventing infection in the first place can eliminate the spread of the virus. Adopting preventative measures like wearing masks and social distancing is everyone’s responsibility.
- The “terrain” matters.
Louis Pasteur, the French biologist and chemist who discovered the principles of vaccination (and pasteurization, his namesake) is said to have noted on his deathbed: “The virus is nothing, the terrain is everything.”
Understanding the biology of viruses like HIV and coronavirus is not sufficient for curtailing the damage it can do to a human population. We have to look beyond the virus itself and examine the “terrain.” The terrain comprises the economic, political, social, and cultural factors that result in differential susceptibility to a virus. These factors are largely under our control. Too often, the combination of these factors results in structures that oppress people, violate human dignity, and heighten inequality, which constitutes social sin.
A variety of economic, political, social, and cultural factors have complicated the global response to HIV/AIDS.
Economically, extreme poverty has been both a cause and consequence of HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa. On the one hand, lack of resources for prevention and treatment have driven the region to the highest AIDS rates in the world. On the other hand, reduced life expectancy and the depletion of the labor force have drastically decreased economic productivity.
Political leadership has shaped national responses to HIV/AIDS, often with dire results. For example, the former President of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, denied the link between HIV and AIDS and cast skepticism on Western pharmaceuticals. In the early 2000s, he limited the availability of live-saving medication that resulted in an estimated 330,000 lives lost along with 35,000 babies born with HIV during the first half of his presidency.
Social factors like the lack of access to healthcare services and education further drive the AIDS pandemic. Getting tested, accessing sexual and reproductive health care, and learning prevention strategies are all methods for reducing HIV rates.
Cultural factors like gender roles and agency in sexual relationships have heightened women’s susceptibility to contracting HIV. Women now account for nearly half of all people living with HIV worldwide, and 59% of new HIV infections in sub-Saharan Africa.
The lesson for fighting coronavirus is that our response needs to be attentive to the economic, political, social, and cultural factors at play. To date, President Trump’s leadership in responding to the pandemic has contributed to the United States being the country hardest hit by the disease. In comparison, the government’s quick and attentive response in countries like South Korea and New Zealand has led to astoundingly low rates. Developing a comprehensive National COVID-19 Strategy in the United States, based on lessons learned from the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, would be an obvious starting point and is already long overdue.
Insufficient initial investments in testing and contact tracing, politicizing preventive measures like mask wearing, emphasizing individual liberties over a sense of the common good: these factors constitute our current terrain. This terrain is allowing the coronavirus to flourish in our midst.
The spread of the virus has exposed existing inequalities. In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis writes: “If everything is connected, it is hard to imagine that this global disaster is unrelated to our way of approaching reality, our claim to be absolute masters of our own lives and of all that exists.” On Thanksgiving Day, he called for a deeper societal conversion in an op-ed for the New York Times: “what is revealed is what needs to change: our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by, the relationships we have neglected.”
Yet rather than responding collectively in order to change what has been revealed, many have begun to normalize COVID deaths as though they are unavoidable and unpreventable. But that’s just not true. An adequate political response combined with social and cultural shifts can dramatically alter the trajectory of the virus.
Because the terrain matters!
- Marginalized communities are disproportionately affected by the terrain.
There’s an old African American aphorism: “When white America catches a cold, black America gets pneumonia.”
The United States has stabilized and begun to reduce the number of new HIV infections every year, but minority populations continue to be disproportionately affected. In 2018, Black Americans accounted for 13% of the U.S. population, but 42% of the roughly 38,000 new HIV infections. Latinos make up 16% of the population, but account for 27% of new infections.
On a global level, low- and middle-income countries similarly suffer more acutely from HIV/AIDS. East and Southern Africa, in particular, has borne the brunt of the pandemic, with over half (54%) of global cases of HIV despite this region accounting for only 6% of the global population. The regional explosion was initially fueled in part by the high costs of treatment. It took until the early 2000s for generic drugs to cut prices for developing countries.
The lesson for fighting coronavirus is the urgent need for a coordinated response for marginalized communities. The false narrative that “COVID doesn’t discriminate” obscures the reality. Black people have been dying from COVID-19 at twice the rate of white people. Latinos are nearly three times more likely to be infected than white people. Native American populations, like the Navajo nation, have been hit particularly hard, and so have immigration detention centers and prisons.
The reason these communities have higher rates is not because members of these communities failed to take the pandemic seriously. In his article titled “Stop blaming Black people for dying of coronavirus,” Ibram X. Kendi cries out: “Black people are not to blame for racial disparities. Racism is to blame.” Heightened susceptibility is a direct result of the terrain, infected with racism, that has worked dramatically against minority groups. Socio-economic factors that existed long before the arrival of COVID have resulted in minority groups living in more crowded conditions, working in essential fields, confronting bias in medical care, and suffering from discrimination and institutionalized racism. COVID-19, much like HIV/AIDS, is merely exposing these long-festering wounds.
Marginalized communities are at higher-risk because of the terrain. A preferential option for the poor and vulnerable compels us to respond by resolving structural inequalities and prioritizing these communities going forward.
The prospects for our future with COVID-19 are plagued by uncertainties. Sky-high infection rates in the United States paint the picture of a bleak winter. But promising results from vaccine trials offer rays of hope. Even still, a vaccine won’t address the underlying societal forces in the terrain that have been exposed. Where we go from here depends on how we choose to respond.
The lessons of nearly forty years of history with HIV/AIDS should shape our way forward. Prevention before infection remains fundamental to stopping the spread, and we need to take individual and collective action to adopt recommended preventative strategies. The terrain of economic, political, cultural, and social factors needs to be addressed head-on, beginning with a national COVID-19 strategy that addresses imbalances in these factors that facilitate the spread of the virus and hinder our response. Marginalized communities that are disproportionately affected must be prioritized going forward in regards to regular testing, distribution of preventative equipment, and access to medical care, including a vaccine, along with addressing the structural injustices that perpetuate unequal health outcomes.
On this World AIDS Day, let these lessons also serve as a reminder of the work left to be done with HIV/AIDS.
The early stigma around COVID may have faded, but stigma around HIV remains prevalent and continues to slow progress in ending the pandemic. Several COVID vaccines are in the pipeline with promising results, but there is still no vaccine for HIV and no cure. There have been tremendous global investments in the COVID response, but funding for HIV/AIDS has been declining, with low- and middle-income countries receiving decreasing international assistance. Lockdowns and border closures due to COVID have impacted the production and distribution of ARTs, which could lead to half a million additional deaths from AIDS-related illnesses in the months ahead.
Following the lessons learned by the HIV/AIDS pandemic can help us emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic. And as we move forward, let’s not forget the other pandemic that continues to ravage our world.
Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Alachua County.
As a Jesuit Brother, one of the questions I am most frequently asked by non-Jesuits is if I am a priest. When I answer that no, I am not a priest, the next most frequently asked question is when I am getting ordained. After I explain that I am neither a priest nor in the process of becoming one, a frequent follow-up question is, “Why don’t you want to be a priest?”
The confusion is understandable. Statistically speaking, most people have never met a Jesuit Brother. As of this year, there are 2,070 Jesuit priests and scholastics (Jesuits in formation to become priests) in the United States and Canada and 109 Brothers (and a good number of these are older and no longer in active ministry). Aside from the numbers, there are historical reasons the Society of Jesus emphasizes the priestly character of its mission.
As we conclude Jesuit Vocations Month, here is one Jesuit’s reflection on the Brother vocation and how it can help us all reflect on vocations in general.
Though we sometimes refer to the “Jesuit brothers” as a way of simply addressing Jesuits, and will sometimes even call a Jesuit scholastic , “Brother So-and-So”, to be a Jesuit Brother is a distinct vocation with a long history in the Society of Jesus.
When Ignatius of Loyola and his companions became formally recognized as a religious order by Pope Paul III in 1540, each of them was an ordained priest. Given how important hearing Confessions was in their early ministry, and how they already had a remarkable reputation as a group of “priests, learned and poor,” this small, close-knit band of the Society of Jesus was imagined as a society of priests.
Only a few years later in 1546, however, Ignatius once again approached Pope Paul III. The popularity of the Jesuits had grown so quickly, and so many ministries were being taken on, that help was needed. Paul III allowed the Society to admit both spiritual and temporal “coadjutors” (helpers). The coadjutors were to make the same vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as other Jesuits, to be under the authority of Ignatius (and other Jesuit superiors), and to “share in all the good works which will be done in the Society.” The temporal coadjutors, who aided in the physical maintenance (artistically, financially, and administratively) of the various ministries, today are called Jesuit Brothers.
A Brother is a Jesuit, having made religious vows and under the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. Their role, historically, is to help maintain Jesuit institutions, to provide support to the priests in the missions, and to collaborate with both Jesuits and non-Jesuits in the various works of the Society. While the role of helper can take many forms in many different situations, it remains, I believe, the guiding principle of this vocation.
I live the role of Brother most often within Jesuit community. I certainly feel the drive to go out and serve the Lord in the poor, the marginalized, students, and all people. In a particular way as a Brother, however, I feel the call to support my fellow Jesuits. Most often this is through small gestures: listening to, laughing with, working through a problem or project with the guys I see everyday. Ultimately, the Brother vocation, for me, means being ready to provide my presence and a cup of coffee (I am always up for a cup of coffee).
As the frequently asked questions I mentioned at the beginning attest to, the Brother vocation also provides a witness to the intentionality behind all vocations. Because so many think priesthood is the default role of a Jesuit, the choice of being a Brother stands out. This aspect of choice is part of all vocations, however.
It can be tempting to just let life direct us to our vocation (“If I meet the right person, then I guess I am called to be married”) or to wait for God to make our purpose abundantly clear (“If you want me to be a priest, just tell me!”). There can be a real desire for a “Damascus moment” – as when St. Paul, on the way to Damascus, was confronted directly by the Lord and given an unambiguous new direction in life.
Most of us, however, are not given such clarity in vocational discernment.
A vocation is a calling and it is also a choice. When a couple marries, they are drawn together in love and they must also actively choose to maintain and nurture that love. It does not “just happen”. When someone takes vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience as a consecrated religious they recognize that their calling is a gift from God and that they must actively choose to maintain and nurture that gift. When a man takes vows as a Jesuit, he must recognize a call from God to the priesthood or to the brotherhood and he must actively choose to live out one of those vocations.
For me, being a Brother means being a helper. Perhaps the Brother vocation can help remind us that we are all coadjutors with the Lord, choosing to cooperate and collaborate with God’s will in our lives.
The question is not why I do not want to be a priest but why I want to be a Brother. The answer? Because the Lord invites me to this life and I choose to work with Him in it. All the cups of coffee are a bonus.
The Advent season has begun! Martin Ngo, SJ, reflects on the fact that we aren’t so good at waiting, but God can use this time to shake us back to our senses and change our hearts. Based on the readings for Sunday, November 29, 2020.
But mommy, I want it now!!!
Hi, I’m Marteen, and this is my One-Minute Homily.
And just like that, we’re back in Advent, the season of hopeful waiting. Why is waiting so difficult? If pandemic lockdown has taught us anything obvious, it’s that we’re not very good at it. We know this. Living in a culture that glorifies instant gratification doesn’t really foster the watchfulness that this season is about. On top of this, let’s face it, 2020 has been the never-ending year. If anything, it has shown us how very broken, vulnerable, and stubborn we are.
For our religious ancestors, the Israelites, hardness of heart was the worse sin. Why? Because when I decide that I am set in my ways, no change can happen. That’s not a living faith. Isaiah’s words today strike with prophetic force – I mean, he is a prophet – begging God to shake us back into our senses. Lord, don’t just take away COVID, and the many injustices of race, gender, poverty, and so on; conform our hearts to yours. Let us see your face. Teach us the lifelong grace of waiting for you this season.
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.
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;
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”
Of amorous emotions.
Means more than abandoning sin;
This is only where to begin.
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,
To its destined end.
From “I love you” to “I love you”
Is a pilgrim’s journey.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.