Time for a More Personal Approach to Marriage Prep?

Of my many, many shortcomings, the one I perhaps dislike most is that I am not easily impressed.  It is a fault born of a blessed life, but a fault none the less.  On my second and final day of pre-Cana last weekend I tried, not always successfully, to keep this in mind.

Like on the first day, all of the content was solid.  Couples should be able to communicate with one another, have a shared set of expectations for how married life will be lived, and be able to formulate a budget and financial plan for themselves.

Additionally, I have nothing but praise for all of the speakers, who were a good mix of ages and conditions.  Even when I wasn’t engrossed in what they were saying, it certainly was not because they were presenting it poorly.  The young, attractive, clearly in love couple who spoke about their experiences with Natural Family Planning were especially effective, I think. Read More


My Not Entirely Enthusiastic Trip to Marriage Prep

For a recovering political junkie like myself, it was fascinating to watch the 2014 and 2015 assemblies of the Synod of Bishops, each of which focused on family life in the 21st century.  I followed every development, story, and twist closely, and I, like many, am eagerly waiting to see what Pope Francis will decide to do in its wake.

The need for the Church to do a better job in marriage preparation was a frequent theme throughout the assemblies.  This intuitively made sense.  If we do a better job preparing couples before they get married, we will eventually solve the much larger and more challenging issue about what to do when some of those marriages break down and end in divorce.  More and better marriage preparation seemed to be an obvious solution.

A funny thing happened a few weeks after the most recent assembly closed, however.  I got engaged, and suddenly more marriage preparation classes sounded like a terrible idea.  My girlfriend and I want a short engagement and a spring wedding, which means ski season falls right in between when I asked if she would and when I will promise that I do.  Being from San Diego she could not care less, but I’ve been doing my snow dance for weeks now.  The idea of giving up long awaited lift tickets to attend marriage prep courses was not an appealing proposition.

When I told my girlfriend, who is not Catholic, that we would have to attend, her first reaction was to ask if “they are going to teach us how to have sex.”  I replied that I’ve never been married before so I didn’t know for certain.  I suspected, though, that while they will explain to us what the Church teaches on the matter, I don’t think anyone is going to need instruction on the mechanics.

That was, if you can call it a complaint, the last time she complained about giving up two long Sundays in the Archdiocese’s Pastoral Center.  I, on the other hand, made it clear several times that I didn’t want to attend, ski season or not.

It is important to me to be married in the Church.  My girlfriend, on the other hand, has no desire to be married in a Catholic church and is only doing so for my sake.  I am attending the classes because this is what my church asks of me, and she is attending solely because she loves me, yet somehow I am the one only making my displeasure known.

We attended our first class last Sunday—while my friends were on the slopes—and the gentleman who was running the program began by welcoming everyone, and especially the non-Catholics present.  I squeezed my girlfriend’s leg under the table at this comment, and think it meant more to me than it did to her. Read More


If We Are Going To Kill Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, We Shouldn’t Sanitize It or Turn Away

The population of my hometown in 1801 was 2,000 hardy souls. On September 10th of that year, 10,000 people gathered on the Town Common. What caused the population to swell to five times its usual size? A good old fashioned hanging.

Earlier that year, Jason Fairbanks murdered his girlfriend—or failed in his half of a suicide pact, depending on who you believe. The jury thought it was the former and sentenced him to die, but he escaped and nearly made it to Canada before he was captured, returned to Boston, and finally acquainted with the hangman’s noose.

The story made headlines around the country, which was no small feat just 25 years after the founding of our republic. In our own day, the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev for the Boston Marathon bombings was watched around the nation and around the world, and especially here in the Hub of the Universe.

If ever there was a case for putting a man to death as punishment, surely this is it. However, I don’t want to see a needle inserted into the younger Tsarnaev’s arm in Indiana. Instead, I want to see him held in a pillory on the Boston Common for a few days, and then executed by firing squad.

Let his blood pour down Beacon Hill, past Frog Pond where children splash and frolic, and pool at the site of the Liberty Tree. I hope far more than 10,000 people show up to watch in person, and that it is broadcast live on every TV station in America for those who can’t make it to Boston.

If we are going to send him off to meet his Maker, if we have decided that he is no longer fit to breathe the same air that we do, if we have raised ourselves up so high that we feel comfortable declaring that he is a monster, not formed in the image and likeness of the same God who fashioned us, then I want as many people as possible to see just how far we have been reduced.

In Terre Haute, the first of the three drugs that will be injected into Dzhokhar’s veins is a barbiturate designed to paralyze him. This isn’t done for his benefit, but for ours. The Congress of the United States has decreed that killing criminals is acceptable, but that we shouldn’t have to see them twitch and gasp for air and struggle to live on the table. What a gruesome thing that would be to have to watch.

I want us to see his death in all its ugliness and know it is our tax dollars paying for it and our public officials carrying it out. I want to see his body pierced with bullets, just like he ripped the flesh of hundreds with shrapnel from a bomb he made “in the kitchen of your mom.” We rightfully condemn him for what he did. Let us see if we have the stomach to witness such a horrific act and to know that it was carried out in our name.

We shouldn’t kid ourselves about what is happening. Dzhokhar is now supposed to die in a clean, sanitary, orderly room, far from Boston and far from most Americans. There is nothing clean or sanitary about what we are doing, however. It is murder. His death certificate will list homicide as the cause of death. We shouldn’t try to sugarcoat it.

I have made no secret about the fact that I stubbornly hold on to an angry grudge against the brothers Tsarnaev. That makes me far from impartial, but I say shoot him. Then, as we stand over his bullet-riddled corpse, let us ask ourselves if we are really any better than he is.


Sermon on the Marathon

Two years ago I declared that Deacon Mike Rogers was a better person than I am. Last year I admitted that I still hadn’t forgiven Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the recently convicted Boston Marathon bomber. Now that the last athlete has crossed the finish line of the 119th running, I confess that I still hold an angry grudge against that coward Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan. And, as if the list wasn’t long enough already, we can add Bill and Denise Richard to the list of people who are better than me.

The Richards lost their son after Dzhokhar stood behind him for four minutes on Boylston Street and then placed a bomb at his 8-year-old feet. Little Martin lost his life, his sister Jane lost her leg, and their family, and our city, has never been the same since. Somehow these remarkable people have found it within themselves to forgo vengeance and have called upon the United States government to take the death penalty off the table.

The 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is one of my favorites in all of scripture, but that may be because I have such a tough time with it. In His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord teaches us that “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” That sums me up pretty accurately. Shortly thereafter He says that “when someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Two years later, I’m still the one who wants to do the striking.

Jesus finishes by imploring us to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” While I pray for a conversion of his heart, I don’t know that I will ever love any of the Tsarnaevs. I am certain that I don’t want to love them, and recognize the hardness of my own heart in that sentiment.

I have always opposed the death penalty, but here my reluctance to seek an eye for an eye is not because I see the face of God in this 21-year-old terrorist. Instead, it is because if he lives another 60 years, he will likely spend 57.5 of them in a solitary cell. With little to do but think, I hope most of those 23 hours a day are spent contemplating the families he destroyed in the city that accepted and aided his family when they arrived on our shores as refugees.

I will never be fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, an event where people train for years to shave seconds off times that are measured in hours. Like everyone who has ever come close, however, I can’t tell you the number of times in the last two years I have thought about how I could have run five minutes faster, placing my family directly across the street from little Martin Richard. I continue to thank God I was so slow.

April 15, 2013 was one of the best, and then worst, days of my life. After running 25.5 miles, the brothers Tsarnaev pressed me into service for another mile, and eventually I want to say that I have gone the second mile with them. That finish line, painted in forgiveness, has proven to be even more difficult to cross. For now, I am still one who mourns. I pray that someday I may be merciful.


America Runs on Race

I understand why people don’t want to talk to their barista, of all people, about race. I can also understand why they don’t want to talk about race at all before, well, before they’ve had their coffee in the morning. Still, it is a conversation we need to have, and I applaud Starbucks for at least attempting to do something about it.

From Ferguson to New York and everywhere in between, there has been a great deal of evidence recently that at least when it comes to race, we are not one nation, united. Whether or not you side with the officers or the protesters or both or neither, it is clear that there is a great deal of anger in many communities.

Last week I had an academic curiosity in understanding whence all that anger came. This week, I very much want to know, and if it takes talking to the girl behind the counter (Dunkin Donuts doesn’t have baristas) to gain some clarity, I’m willing to do it. What changed from last week to this? I was called a racist. Not only that, but it was so early in the morning that I hadn’t even put pants on yet, much less had a cup of coffee.

I am a landlord, and one of my apartments will soon be empty. I went out of my way to accommodate a prospective tenant because I know he is in a tough position, and having been down on my luck before, I wanted to help if I could. I had very kind and generous landlords as a renter, and I have enough on my soul without acting like the unforgiving servant.

In the end, I decided that he wouldn’t be a good fit, and told him via text that it wasn’t going to work out but wished him luck in finding a place. When I woke up the next day he had responded by saying that he was going to “chalk it up as not having the right complexion.”

To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. I have been accused of many things before, and many of them have been true, but this was a first for me. I started to respond by saying that I knew he was black from his website before he even showed up at the door, but decided I didn’t even want to have that conversation with him. I usually keep a pretty even keel, but the day after St. Paddy’s Day, he really got my Irish up. It stayed with me all day, and still bothers me.

It would be better if we could #RaceTogether. But why don’t we already? I really, really want to know why this guy would immediately assume that the reason I decided not to rent to him had anything at all to do with the color of his skin. In fact, the woman to whom I eventually rented has skin several shades darker than mine, and I’m very much looking forward to being neighbors with her for a long time to come. So why was that his first response? What made him draw that conclusion?

One of my favorite people of all time is Bobby Kennedy, and in the past few days I’ve been going back to the words he spoke the night Martin Luther King was shot:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

How little we have progressed since Bobby Kennedy spoke those words on April 4, 1968. Two short months later he would himself be taken down by the bullet of an assassin with similar hateful motives. In his eulogy, Ted Kennedy prayed that “that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.” Amen to that.

I grew up in one of the most Irish towns in the most Irish state in the Union. I went to college in a majority black city, but spent the vast majority of my time on my lily-white campus.   The only time I’ve ever been in the minority was when I lived in a place with no racial majority, and in any case it was the most racially harmonious place I’ve ever seen.

The people mocking Starbucks may not “have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train,” and I get that. I would be happy to buy your grande double mocha latte if you would explain it to me, however. I’ll make the effort my hero asked me to make decades before I was born. I’ll even buy your next 400 coffees if that’s what it takes.

In the meantime, like Bobby Kennedy, I hope you will join me in saying a prayer for our country and for our people. We clearly need it.


Mahalo, Pope Francis. Ho’omaika’i ‘ana, New Cardinals

During my glorious year living in Hawai’i, my Sunday routine was pretty set. In the morning I would walk to Waikiki Beach, rent a surfboard, and pretend like I knew what I was doing. Then, on my way home, I would stop at St. Augustine’s Church for the 5:00 Mass. I always cut an interesting figure sitting in the last pew in board shorts and a pair of flip flops (or rubber slippers, as the locals say).

Everyone else was either a well-dressed tourist or a member of the Tongan community in their traditional clothes. The Mass was designed for the latter, and while everything spoken was in English (except the final blessing, which was in Hawaiian), everything sung by the choir was in the Tongan language.

I came to love the music and the mass just as much as I did the surfing, although I must confess I wasn’t any better at it. I also came to develop an affinity for the Kingdom of Tonga, as I did for all things Polynesian. So, when I read the list of new cardinals made at last weekend’s consistory, I was pleased to see the name of Soane Patita Paini Mafi, bishop of Tonga.

What I wasn’t expecting to see is just how small that diocese is. Of the 100,000 people who live on the 176 islands that make up Tonga, only 15,000 of them are Catholic. This is not, to say the least, a traditional Catholic powerhouse where you would typically expect to see a red hat. It also shows in a concrete way what Pope Francis means when he says that the church should go to the peripheries.

After Pope Benedict stepped down, I questioned why “25% of the votes [in the College of Cardinals] go to the small country of Italy and less than 10% go to the entire continent of Africa, especially when the Church in Italy is in decline and in Africa it is growing by the day.” Pope Francis seems to be asking the same sorts of questions. Of the 20 Cardinals he elevated last weekend, only five are Europeans. I still think there is quite a way to go to reform the College of Cardinals, but once again I am pleased with the track this pontiff has placed us on, and where his priorities lie.

Africa now has 12% of the votes in the College, an all-time high, but it still doesn’t bring it even close to proportional representation. In the 20th century, the Church in Africa grew 6,708%, from 1.9 million to more than 130 million. Cardinal-electors from the developing world now make up 41% of the College, up from 35% when Pope Francis was elected, but two-thirds of Catholics live outside the West.

There is perhaps little a pope can do that will have a greater impact on the long term trajectory of the Church than his appointments to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Mafi is now, at 53 years old, its youngest member. How many times will he travel to the Sistine Chapel (taking 4 planes to cover the 11,000 miles) to elect a successor to St. Peter? How many times will he be called upon for his advice, and bring the perspective of someone who grew up on an isolated island with 1/10th the population of my hometown of Boston?

As a leader, Pope Francis has shaken up the staid office of the papacy and breathed new life into the Church. Here in the United States, John F. Kennedy did the same thing with the presidency. We still have a long way to go before the College of Cardinals reflects the true experience and diversity of the global church but, as our only Catholic president said in his inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Pope Francis has begun. He may be 78 years old, but at least culturally it is clear that the torch has been passed to a new generation in the Church. Let us follow his lead.


Here’s a Tip: Pay a Just Wage

“I’ll tip if somebody really deserves a tip,” Mr. Pink explained in Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s classic film. “If they put forth the effort, I’ll give them something extra. But I mean, this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned they’re just doing their job.”

I have to admit, Mr. Pink makes a compelling argument. However, I part ways with him when he says that “I don’t tip because society says I have to.” As much as I don’t like tipping, I do it. For one thing, I know what Mr. White knows, that “waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It’s the one job basically any woman can get and make a living on. The reason is because of their tips.” (If you are interested, YouTube has the entire profanity-laced discussion, but I recommend the whole film.)

More importantly, I tip because of the social compact. In this country, we have decided that we are going to pay our waitresses (and waiters) very small wages, but that customers will make up for it with tips. Until that paradigm is changed, I am going to leave a healthy gratuity on the table every time I go out.

I believe, however, the time has come for that model to change. Catholic Social Teaching is clear on the imperative to provide a just wage to employees. I’m not sure an employer who expects their employees to depend on the generosity of customers is providing one, especially since it is only after a server has provided the service that the customer decides how much to pay for it.

When LeSean McCoy left a 20-cent tip on a $61.56 bill, he made an argument similar to Mr. Pink’s: “A 20-cent tip is kind of a statement,” McCoy said. “You can’t disrespect somebody and expect them to tip you. I don’t care who the person is.” That certainly is a statement, but I think it says more about the man who has a base salary of $7.6 million than the one who makes $2.83 an hour.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the running back’s server was terrible. McCoy still could have left a tip that respected the waiter as a person and laborer while still indicating his displeasure with the subpar service. For what it’s worth, it probably also would have saved him some negative press as well.

Tipping doesn’t apply only in restaurants. The Marriot hotel chain has implemented a program, probably well-intentioned, known as “The Envelope Please.” From now on, in each hotel room an envelope will be left to remind guests to tip the housekeeping staff. A much better system would be to have an additional few dollars automatically added to the bill at checkout, with that money given to the people who pick up our dirty socks and scrub our toilets.

I don’t know how much a Marriot housekeeper makes, but I imagine it can’t be much. By making an employee’s take-home pay dependent upon the whims of the guest, however, Marriot is passing the buck that rightfully lies with them. Restaurant and hotel owners, like all business leaders, “are responsible to society… to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits” when making all business decisions, including how much to pay their employees.

The great pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes reminds us that “remuneration for labor is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents.” All too many of these housekeepers, waitresses, and others in low-wage, tip-dependent positions are being taken advantage of, much like the immigrant in Cardinal Sean’s story. They certainly are not earning enough to raise a family in accordance with the minimum standards set down by the Council fathers.

I have to believe they are also exactly the type of people of whom the Lord spoke when He commanded us to “not exploit a poor and needy hired servant” and to “pay the servant’s wages before the sun goes down, since the servant is poor and is counting on them. Otherwise the servant will cry to the LORD against you, and you will be held guilty.”

Mr. Pink is right. A waitress is just doing her job when she fills my coffee cup. In return for that job, she should be paid a just wage and the tips should be reserved for truly exceptional service. After all, not every waiter can expect Charlie Sheen to continue the chain of love when they get stiffed on a tip.

After an honest day’s work, everyone should receive an honest day’s pay. It should not matter if Mr. Pink or Mr. White or Mr. McCoy walks through the door.