Lenten Reflection Series: The Source and Summit of the Christian Life

Tonight we begin the Triduum. Tonight we gather together in remembrance of Christ. Tonight we celebrate the institution of the Paschal Meal and join in the Supper of the Lamb. This meal is what the Church has called the “the source and summit of the Christian life” (c.f. Lumen Gentium, 11), so it is important to reflect on what it means.

Our readings today help root the meal in its context within the Hebrew Bible, the Passover meal. In this meal, the Israelites gathered together to eat, to watch, and to pray as they prepared for God to deliver them from slavery. The blood of the lamb marked their homes and saved their children from death. In Ex 12:4, God commands that the meal be offered with generosity. The poor must be invited in. A man’s neighbor becomes his responsibility. The one with more was called to invite in the one who had less.

This reminds us today that to eat at the supper of the lamb is to come with open hands. Ready to give and ready to receive. Tonight Christ bends down to wash our feet and invites us to imitate his posture.


Gambling with Innocent Lives: The Death Penalty and a Flawed Criminal Justice System

Early this month Henry McCollum, North Carolina’s longest serving death row inmate, walked out of prison a free man. He has spent the majority of his life—30 years—behind bars for a crime he did not commit. Thanks to DNA evidence, we now know that the confession extracted by police in the early 1980s was in all likelihood the result of a scared kid who was looking for a way to go home, rather than a piece of real evidence.

This is a sobering story.

The assumptions of a few law enforcement officers not only unjustly cost Henry McCollum many years of his life, but would even have taken his life had not DNA evidence emerged. Many of us are left wondering how many more Henry McCollums there are. How many men and women have been killed in the name of justice for crimes they did not commit? How much blood do we unknowingly carry on our hands? How many wrong convictions will it take before we reevaluate the death penalty?

I was particularly touched this week by reading an article by McCollum’s attorney, Kenneth J. Rose, on the case. In it, he states:

With Henry finally free, some people expect me to feel satisfied, or even happy. The truth is: I am angry. I am angry that we live in a world where two disabled boys can have their lives stolen from them, where cops can lie and intimidate with impunity, where innocent people can be condemned to die and where injustice is so difficult to bring to light.

This opinion gets at the heart of the matter. Not only does our justice system make mistakes with life and death hanging in the balance, all too often the system is simply broken. Injustice is evident throughout the system. We see injustice in the demographics of those who are prosecuted. We see injustice in the laws we enforce. We see injustice in the litigation. We see injustice in the sentencing. And we see injustice for the returning citizens who leave our prisons. The recent release of Henry McCollum (as well as his brother Leon Brown, who was also released after serving 30 years of a life sentence) is simply the latest example of a damaged system leaving damaged people, families, and communities in its wake.

We are giving the right to kill to a system that is broken at every level.

Recognizing that human life is sacred and that it should never be taken if recourse to other action is available, the Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty should be avoided in contexts where other means of protecting the lives of those in the community are available (CCC 2267). Catholic teaching is also clear that the death penalty is never an ethical recourse in situations where there can be any doubt of the guilt of the condemned. This latest example of the fallible criminal justice in the United States strengthens my resolve to continue to fight to see an end to the death penalty throughout all 50 states and US territories.

To find out news and information about how you can get involved, please check out the good work that is being done by the Catholic Mobilizing Network to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

For further reading on Catholic teaching about the death penalty see:


The Moral Scandal of Hunger

“We shall awaken dullness and rise vigorously toward Justice” – Hildegard of Bingen

Hunger is a human reality that impacts lives in every corner of the world. All humans need food to live, and all societies struggle to make sure that the right to food is extended to all people within their care. One of the powerful forces that helps to bring food to people all across the world is the Church.

The central concern for feeding the hungry is rooted in the ministry of Jesus himself. On the hills of the Holy Land nearly 2,000 years ago, as Jesus first gathered his disciples who noted that those around him were hungry, he had compassion on them and sent his followers to “give them something to eat” (Matthew 14:16). In fact the table became one of the central settings for Christ’s own ministry. Around the table, Jesus taught others (Luke 14). Around the table, Jesus served (John 13). Around the table, Jesus offered grace (Matt. 26). Around the table, Jesus healed (Luke 14). Around the table, Jesus was revealed as risen (Luke 24).

The table was a central place for Jesus’ life and ministry and has remained a central place for the life and ministry of the Church. In the New Testament, we see that the Church would gather weekly to break bread (Acts 20:7). They appointed leaders dedicated to feeding those in need (Acts 6:1-7). They even fed their enemies (Romans 12:20).

Generation after generation, leaders in the Church would call the people back to find their ministry rooted anew in gathering around the table to be fed and to share the life they had found together by feeding the hungry. One of my favorite examples of this is seen in the preaching of John Chrysostom, who teaches:

“Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? …. Apply this to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter… Do not, therefore, adorn the church and ignore your afflicted brother, for he is the most precious temple of all” (On the Gospel of Matthew, Hom. 50).

Similarly, Basil offers following wisdom: “The bread that you store up belongs to the hungry” (Homilies). In these words, the fathers instructed the Church to view what they hold as given to be gifted. The Christian’s bread is always to be broken and shared. The hungry are always to be viewed as icons of Christ, to be cared for. Over and over, the fathers of the Church raised their voices, declaring:

  • To ignore the hungry is to ignore Christ.
  • To withhold food from those who need it is to steal from God.
  • To feed hungry people is an act of high worship and a participation in Divine Liturgy in the holy of holies.

This teaching has continued into our current age, and has gained new gravity as the Church of the 21st century has had to wrestle with a world that now has the resources to feed every person, yet still allows million to die each year from starvation. In Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate, this moral crisis is laid out:

“‘Feed the hungry’ is an ethical imperative for the universal Church, as she responds to the teachings of her Founder, the Lord Jesus, concerning solidarity and the sharing of goods. Moreover, the elimination of world hunger has also, in the global era, become a requirement for safeguarding the peace and stability of the planet. Hunger is not so much dependent on lack of material things as on shortage of social resources, the most important of which are institutional.

The issue of ending hunger is no longer an issue of scarcity—it is an issue of justice. There is more than enough food; actually, there is much more than enough. The Church now is faced with addressing what Benedict calls the “institutional” shortages which keep people hungry. Pope Francis has called this situation a scandal, asserting:

“It is well known that present production is sufficient, and yet millions of persons continue to suffer and die from hunger, and this is a real scandal…. In this regard I would like to remind everyone of that necessary universal destination of all goods which is one of the fundamental principles of the Church’s social teaching. Respect for this principle is the essential condition for facilitating an effective and fair access to those essential and primary goods which every person needs and to which he or she has a right.”

In short, we are in the midst of a grave moral crisis. The world produces enough food for all people to eat, but people still starve. Christ is hungry all around the world, but our institutions withhold our food from his hands. Every time a child dies from malnutrition, it is a sacrilege. Each mother who cries out for food but finds no relief testifies against us.

I am guilty of this grave sin.

I am a member of one of the world’s richest nations and have a voice that can influence policy, yet too often I am silent. The effort of picking up the phone or a pen to let my elected policy-makers know that hunger is a priority that matters to me is an inconvenience, and so I remain inaudible and ineffective.

However in the midst of this grave sin, there is also great hope.

In 1990, 2 out of every 5 people suffered from serious malnutrition. Today that number is 1 in 5. Hunger has been halved. This amazing progress has been due, in large part, to faithful Christians who have taken the time to let leaders know that feeding the hungry is an essential value that should be perused.

We are living in an unprecedented point in history. Experts now believe that if we can make ending hunger a priority for world leaders in the next year, we can actually see an END TO WORLD HUNGER BY 2030! All it would take is for the Church to cast off the drowsiness of complacency and to lift her voice toward justice. I pray you will consider lifting your voice for the hungry as a spiritual discipline and an element of your discipleship this year, so that we might live in a world where, for the first time in history, all are fed.


Why Ending Hunger is a Pro-life Issue

Life is our most fundamental right. I believe each person is entitled to their own life, each government is bound to protect the lives of those within their borders, no person has the right to take the life of another, and every life is a sacred gift no matter how long that life is. This is why I have counted myself as a member of the pro-life movement for many years. I am convinced that a person’s life is worth saving, worth living, and worth defending.

Although I am pro-life, I have become deeply concerned with how the pro-life movement seems complacent in standing up for policies that would protect and preserve one of the most basic needs of each human life: food.

The global community stands at a unique point in history. We have, for the first time, the real possibility of effectively ending hunger in the world. Since 1990 the number of hungry people in the world has been halved. Global poverty is on the decline. Technology, public policy, and international cooperation have opened new possibilities that previous generations never would have thought possible. Organizations like Caritas Internationalis and Bread for the World are now forecasting that we can see hunger ended within a generation. We have the possibility of living in a world where people going hungry is something only found in history books—not in the distant future, but within the next decade or two. The millions who die each year from hunger can be saved. All it requires is global leadership, a strong will, and a commitment to stay the course toward ending hunger.

The pro-life movement would be natural allies in this work. Not only does feeding people save the lives of those who are at risk of dying from hunger, it also strengthens the cause of the unborn.  As conditions become more stable for children and mothers, and food becomes less scarce, mothers are better prepared to receive a child and less likely to resort to abortion. Not only that, but partnerships like 1,000 Days and the Scaling up Nutrition Movement focus not only on providing care for unborn children, but also fight to make sure that children and mothers are given proper nutrition up until a child’s second birthday. Fighting hunger is the right thing to do—it saves the lives of millions of children and creates a world where millions more can be welcomed into a healthy home that is open to life.

Working for food security is working to strengthen a culture of life from the womb to the tomb.

I have been encouraged by a number of pro-life leaders who have taken this cause to heart. Take, for example, Rep. Chris Smith (R – NJ), Co-chairman of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, who recently took up the cause of global nutrition. Calling malnutrition the “great killer of children,” he has called for supporters on both sides of the aisle to sponsor legislation that addresses providing nutrition for mothers and children from the moment of a child’s conception to their second birthday. Helping provide food in this crucial window, Smith emphasizes, is “life-affirming, and can save the life of both mother and child.” I couldn’t agree more. Pro-life Democrats have also taken up the cause. For example, former congressional representative and US Ambassador Tony Hall has made ending hunger a top priority throughout his career and now serves as the director of the Alliance to End Hunger.

In spite of this encouraging leadership, there is still a great deal of timidity among far too many to stand up for ending hunger. Recently Paul Ryan, a vocal anti-abortion Catholic, crafted a US budget that cuts the International Affairs budget by a devastating eleven percent in addition to sharp cuts that have already handicapped our ability to provide lifesaving care to millions due to sequestration cuts. Another outspoken member of the pro-life movement, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Ca), has recently pushed a provision through the Coast Guard authorization bill which essentially subsidizes the shipping industry out of the USAID budget and would result in 2 million fewer people receiving the food they need. Pro-life advocates have remained surprisingly silent on these issues.

Today half of all child deaths are nutrition related, but these kids don’t need to die. The end of hunger is on the horizon. We can create a future where children don’t go hungry. Yet our pro-life policymakers are too often the hands that steer our course away from this goal. It is time for the pro-life community to begin to champion food security. It is time to fight for life.


Lent is not a self-help program

Morning Prayer at Bread for the World on Friday was about connecting to the heart of Lent.  I often find it useful to remind myself of why the Church began to practice Lent each time the season gets underway.  It’s NOT about losing a few pounds, or a time to kill bad habits, or even helping us to gain self-control over sins and failings.

In short, Lent is NOT a self-help program.

Lent is about GOD helping us.

In every aspect of our prayer, our alms, and our fasting we are reminded of this reality.

  • Our prayer connects us to God: the source of our being and the sustainer of life. By giving space to an awareness of God, the door of our heart is opened to God’s grace and transforming love.
  • Our alms remind us how dependent each of us is upon the gracious gifts we have been given by God, and by our neighbor, and unite us with the God who is by very nature an image of self-gifting.
  • Our fasting reminds us that one does not live on bread alone, but that our lives are always gifted and sustained by God.

Lent is the place where we recognize that we can’t do it alone. We struggle to be faithful in simple things. We fail. We are in need of help.

In spite of our weakness, however, we are called to lift up the name of God in prayer.
In spite of our weakness, we are called to lift up one another in acts of service and love.
In spite of our weakness, we are called to imitate Christ who fasted for us.

How can we, who are so weak, hope to do these things? God has chosen to join us in our weakness, even to the point of becoming weak Himself.

On Friday, my colleagues and I joined in singing “I Need Thee Every Hour.” I had never thought of it as a Lenten song before, but it fits so well. Take a moment to listen to this creative and beautiful rendition, and think about how this perspective might deepen your Lenten journey this year.


Seeing the World Through “Bread–colored” Lenses: How Policies Affect Hunger

I see the world through “bread–colored” lenses. By this I mean that when I approach issues of politics, economics, the environment, immigration, worship, trade, agriculture, and just about everything else in this world, there is a question in the back of my mind: the way these issues impact how people will be able to eat. I have discovered that hunger is a barb that seems to follow all kinds of injustice. In a world where there is more than enough to eat, when people go hungry, it is often a sign that there are systems that can be changed and probably should be changed. I see the world through bread-colored lenses, and that is why I chose to work at Bread for the World.

Bread for the World is a collective Christian voice urging our nation’s policy makers to end hunger at home and abroad. I love this mission. I have given my life for the church. I spent 10 years working in local churches preaching, teaching, and leading people to encounter God, the just One, who leads us to work for justice. In that time, I saw the power of faith communities to affect change. We would go out on the streets to feed the hungry, help establish food pantries, work at soup kitchens, and participate in efforts around the globe that sought to free communities from hunger.

Gradually, I started to see that those efforts were an essential part of addressing hunger, but not a full solution. You can give a man a fish, or even teach a man to fish, but if the fish pond has been locked up and all the bait and tackle are taken away, he’s not going to be able to survive on fish very long. Many of the issues that cause hunger in the world today are systemic and global, and require global leaders to address the systems that keep people hungry and impoverished.

Bread for the World encourages Christian voices from across denominational traditions to come together and, with one voice, proclaim that food is a human right necessary for all of us to fulfill our most basic vocation, that of life itself. Bread has been able to cut across the divides of policy, theology, and political affiliation to make sure that members of Congress take seriously the concerns of hunger, both in this country and around the world. For the past 40 years, Bread for the World has been able to not only affect significant change in Congress, but also to equip thousands of churches and communities of faith to make addressing hunger a part of their spiritual lives together. Through the annual Offering of Letters and countless other mobilization efforts, prayer and action have been united, and communities have been equipped in their mission to invite the justice of God into the communities they inhabit.

I also see the world through Catholic-colored lenses. My faith inspires and enlivens every part of my life and work. My role at Bread for the World is to represent and reach out to Catholics in Bread’s work. I help ensure that everything that Bread does is not only compatible with Catholic teaching, but also that it can be enriched by Catholic teaching. The Catholic Church has a great deal to offer to ecumenical efforts to establish a just and equitable world, and I have the great pleasure of meeting and planning with Catholic leaders around the nation about how we can work together to bring the wisdom and resources of the Catholic Church to bear on the global movement to end hunger.


How You Can Address Income Inequality and Poverty

Recently the USCCB posted this presentation on income inequality. I thought it was a great place to start on raising awareness about how wage inequality impacts people who are living in poverty in this country. It’s a major problem but it doesn’t have any simple solutions, and the presentation doesn’t really offer any. The complexity of the situation has been weighing heavily on my heart because the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report that came out recently indicated that:

● The higher minimum wage would reduce jobs by about 500,000, or 0.3 percent of projected 2016 employment. The CBO admits that its estimates involve much uncertainty. Job loss, it says, might be as high as 1 million or as low as almost nothing. The half-million figure is its best judgment.

● Up to 25 million workers would receive wage increases, about 16.5 million below the proposed minimum and possibly 8 million more just above it. Wage increases would raise the incomes of families in poverty by about 3 percent, or $300 annually. The effect is muted because most people in poverty don’t have jobs and many low-income workers are part-time (47 percent).

●Higher incomes would lift about 900,000 people above the government’s poverty line in 2016 ($24,100 for a family of four). That’s about 2 percent of the projected 45 million poor.

A higher minimum wage would help a lot of people, but it could also hurt a number of people too, and it certainly isn’t a final solution to the problem of poverty in the USA. The situation can’t be reduced to one simple step. Hunger and poverty are complex issues, and if we are going to end them (which I hope we all would love to see) it’s going to take a lot of work on a lot of different fronts. What the USCCB presentation does is highlight the historical, theological, and statistical reasons why we should CARE about income inequality. Great job! I care about it, but now what should I do?

How can income inequality best be addressed and what changes might be put into place within a wider series of reforms?

I have recently been reading the new “Hunger Report” on “Ending Hunger in America.” It’s 250 pages long, but a faithful and fruitful discussion on the issues of hunger in America is presented in it. It addresses income inequality, jobs, local leadership, and national policy. It also takes the time to look at those on the margins who are often left out, excluded, and denied access to the programs, jobs, and services that can keep them secure. I highly recommend taking a look at it.  Each component in addressing poverty is complex and essential, and requires people who are willing to address the issues in their complexity.

As Catholics I believe we are all called to take action with our time, voice, and resources to make an impact in our communities. We should take time to talk and learn about poverty. We should take time to speak up about poverty to our friends and, more importantly, to our policy makers. We should take time to pray about poverty. We should take time to serve those in poverty. We should use our resources to support those in poverty.

I believe that income inequality is a crisis that will only grow if we don’t address it. It’s part of a larger problem of poverty in our nation. To fix it will take some difficult decisions, and actions like raising the minimum wage are certainly an essential part of it. More importantly, though, it also requires people who are willing to make difficult decision in their own lives to address it. As we approach Lent I encourage you to think about some ways that you can impact poverty as part of your spiritual practice this season.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. Connect your fast to Justice! I recently posted 5 creative fasting ideas that can help connect what you give up for Lent to the trials of those in poverty.
  2. Make letter-writing a spiritual practice. This is something I recently encouraged over at Bread for the World. Letters can comfort the grieving, embrace the lonely, uplift the discouraged, and carry love across the globe. A letter can also affect the lives of people you may not even know. Writing to your policy makers in Washington, D.C., can influence the decisions they make—decisions that affect millions of people both here at home and around the world.
  3. Give a little extra. Budgets are moral documents. They indicate what we value. Take a look at yours and evaluate if you can make a sacrifice anywhere so that you can help others who are struggling.
  4. Take time to pray about these issues. As we connect with God’s heart for justice, our own lives find strength and inspiration. Consider making issues of poverty a topic for prayer and contemplation. You might also consider taking a group though a time of prayer and study together. I am hoping to use this guide with my family this year. 

I pray God will bless you this Lent, and that you will be led into the heart of our just God and his love for all people.