7 Surprising Ways that Pope Francis’ Encyclical is Calling You to Change

Pope Francis’ approach to climate change is surprising. He affirms practical and common-sense wisdom about how to care for the environment – for example, by turning down the heat, using less plastic, and reducing water use – but his encyclical also contains a much broader diagnosis of why we should be worried about climate change.

At its root, Francis says, climate change is the result of the “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin” (2). Our irresponsible use of the earth, Pope Francis tells us, is a reflection and a result of our damaged relationships with each other and our distance from God.

It’s tempting to think that Pope Francis’ encyclical is just for the politicians, lobbyists, and environmental groups, but he’s actually talking to the everyday person. “All of us can cooperate as instruments of God for the care of creation,” he writes, “each according to his or her own culture, experience, involvement, and talents” (14).

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Suicide and Man’s Search for Meaning

Occasionally, I’ll come across a movie on TV that features Robin Williams in one of his many famous and brilliant roles. I’m a huge fan of so many of his movies (from his family comedies to his more serious pieces), and it’s always great to catch one unexpectedly on a lazy Sunday afternoon. However, now when I see one of his films, I’m instantly reminded that he is no longer with us—that the magic he could muster on the silver screen will never again be new or original.

I didn’t know Robin Williams personally, yet I was really upset when I heard about his death last summer. By all accounts, this tremendously funny and talented man was a kind and generous one as well. I grew up watching his movies as a kid, and some of my favorites—Hook, Mrs. Doubtfire, Aladdin, Jumanji—conjure a fond, pleasant nostalgia for my childhood.

But I’m not only upset because he can no longer excite, amuse, and entertain us with his gifts for comedy and drama, but because he had reached such a dark and awful place that he saw death as the only remedy. It’s tragic enough when someone dies, but there are no words to describe the sadness that surrounds one who ends his or her own life.

Williams struggled with depression, addiction, and supposedly early-onset Parkinson’s disease. My heart goes out to those who struggle with these or similar conditions. I’ve struggled myself with serious bouts of depression and anxiety, and know many friends and family members who struggle as well.

Of course, I can’t claim to know the pain and suffering he experienced, which was uniquely and personally his own—especially at those last moments of his life—but I can understand the sense of despair and purposelessness that can blanket one’s thoughts, tugging one down to a place no one should ever go.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, over 39,500 suicides occurred in 2011 (the most recent year for which data is available), which comes out to someone committing suicide every 13.3 minutes. This is simply shocking and horrible. So many people in this country are suffering secretly, silently, and alone.

We hear in the Gospel that Christ healed the sick and those suffering from all types of maladies. I think we can assume that though we only explicitly hear about Christ healing those with physical, and of course spiritual, ailments, Christ also healed many who suffered from mental illness, addiction, and other unseen conditions.

In addition to the miraculous healings that Christ and His Church did then—and still do—Jesus offers us one other possible remedy: a message of hope, meaning, and joy.

I’m eternally grateful for a faith that gives me a sense of meaning—a call for living. The darkest aspect of depression, the illogic of it, is the thought that life is meaningless: that we are simply the result of chance, and therefore anything outside the realm of the material (as scientism professes) isn’t objectively real.

When a culture or person believes this to be true, there is a great danger of becoming depressed and despairing. If things are going great in someone’s life, then it’s easier to believe this idea that life, at its core, has no meaning and to keep moving forward in life. But if life becomes difficult and challenging, it can seem perfectly reasonable to assume that ending this useless stint in the universe is a valid option. The question can easily become, why not just flip off the light switch?

Victor Frankl wrote a book called Man’s Search for Meaning, which is an account of his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Frankl, a trained psychiatrist, recounts that the prisoners who found a way to survive despite the unfathomable misery of the situation often did so through finding meaning for their existence. They were able to transcend the hell of their reality by fixating their heart and will on something purposeful, such as their family, a loved one, or God.

Frankl called this theory Logotherapy, which “is founded upon the belief that it is the striving to find a meaning in one’s life that is the primary, most powerful motivating and driving force in humans.”

Now, I’m not suggesting that those who suffer from depression or some other condition just need faith. We all suffer. People are broken and sick. And we should seek out professional help if necessary to address our sickness; God uses us—His people—to be instruments of His healing grace.

I’m also not suggesting that Robin William’s suicide, or anyone else’s, occurs because they failed to see meaning in their lives. The reasons and theories surrounding suicide and its causes are vast, complicated, and not fully understood.

I’m simply suggesting that we need a culture that enfleshes hope, joy, and meaning at its core—one that promotes the inherent dignity and worth of every life. A culture that proposes the existence of a God who loves us and has created us for some purpose and calling, a God who breathes meaning and joy into our lives, even when we’re beset by pain, suffering, and mourning.

And with God, we can help build and sustain such a culture. We can proclaim the Good News and set captives free by pointing others to God.

We may not have the power to heal others or remove their suffering completely, but with God, we can offer the “peace that surpasses all understanding.” In those moments we all have, those moments that tempt us to despair and send us into an abyss of darkness, we can hold firm to the promises of our God. We can contemplate His beauty in a world often tarnished by ugliness.

For Robin Williams and all those who have lost their lives to suicide, may God, in His infinite compassion and mercy, gather these children of His into His tender arms. May he give them rest and peace and show them continually how beautiful and loved they are in His eyes for all eternity.

Chris Hazell is the founder of The Call Collective, a blog exploring the intersection of faith, culture, and creativity, which looks to provide insights, reflections, thoughts, and advice on how to discern God’s presence and call (and how to respond with courage and faith). You can find him on Twitter @chrisjhazell and follow the blog’s latest posts on Facebook.


Stop Calling the SF Handbook Additions a Morality Clause

Every week seems to bring a new chapter in the debate over Archbishop Cordileone’s additions to the San Francisco teachers’ handbook. Opponents of the additions argue that the Church should be more inclusive, while supporters affirm that a Catholic archbishop should not be forced to change Church teaching based on prevailing public opinion. This ongoing debate clouds a more important issue–namely, that instead of affirming Catholic teaching, the archbishop’s new clause distorts the faith.

In defending himself against the criticism of a handful of Democratic Catholic legislators, Archbishop Cordileone asked the lawmakers a valid question: “Would you hire a campaign manager who advocates policies contrary to those that you stand for, and who shows disrespect toward you and the Democratic Party in general?”

Of course they would not. And that is why the discussion on this issue needs to change. Calling the handbook additions an “orthodoxy clause” or a “morality clause” implies that they sum up Catholic orthodoxy or morality, which they do not. Instead, the handbook asks teachers to affirm and believe Church teaching on a handful of issues, including abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage, and artificial reproductive technology, ignoring Catholic social teaching on dozens and dozens of other issues.

The archbishop, in fact, acknowledged this in his February letter to teachers when he wrote:

Confusion about the Church’s stance is prevalent in areas of sexual morality and religious discipline. For this reason, the statements for inclusion in the faculty handbook focus on these two areas. This focus does not imply lesser importance to Catholic teachings on social justice, which in fact are widely accepted and well interpreted in Catholic educational institutions. The areas requiring clarification are in Catholic teachings on sexual morality and religious practice.

If the archbishop actually believes that sexual morality and religious practice require clarification, then perhaps he has not spent enough time with his flock. Ask anyone, in Catholic schools or out, where the bishops stand on abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage, and I would bet that a vast majority of them can tell you that the bishops oppose all three. Ask them where the bishops stand on comprehensive immigration reform, a minimum wage increase, climate change, and the right of workers to unionize, and I doubt a majority could tell you.

That’s where confusion lies, and that is where the bishops have a duty to teach, clearly and forcefully.

Archbishop Cordileone has every right, indeed every responsibility, to ensure that Catholic school teachers are communicating the Catholic faith. If that is his goal, then he should add even more to the handbook. He should remind all teachers where the Church has stood for centuries on immigration, labor, and the environment. He should instruct them that it is not only evil to directly and intentionally end a human life before it is born, but also to let a child go hungry or be denied the essential healthcare that is his or her right as a person. He should teach all of them, whether Catholic or not, that these are essential to Church teaching, spelled out clearly not only by our current pontiff, but by Paul XI, St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and countless other popes.

This is Church morality. This is Church orthodoxy. Without these issues, we have a distorted Catholic faith.

Part of what makes the Catholic faith so radical, beautiful, and often difficult to follow is that it does not fit into any of the categories of our modern American political discourse. That important point is lost in the handbook additions, and that does a disservice to teachers, children, and all of the people of God in San Francisco.

Earlier this spring, an auxiliary bishop of San Francisco was named to head Archbishop Cordileone’s home diocese of San Diego. In his installation Mass last month, concelebrated by Cordileone, Bishop Robert McElroy said that we are all called to “foster an ecclesial culture which sees with the clarity of Mother Teresa and Dorothy Day that all forms of marginalization which deny the dignity of the human person are antithetical to the Gospel and repugnant to God.”

In one sentence, San Francisco’s former auxiliary summed up Catholic orthodoxy and morality far better than any handbook clause. Catholic school students and parents would be much better served if the archbishop required them to post that one sentence in every classroom.

Vincent Gragnani is former staff writer for The Southern Cross in San Diego. He has also written for America, One, St. Anthony Messenger, and U.S. Catholic, as well as various non-Catholic newspapers and websites. He is currently a communications professional in New York City.


How to Think Like Huck Finn

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer often get lumped together as middle-school books, 19th-century young-adult novels. After all, the two books share a central cast of characters and concern themselves with the often miscreant adventures of pre-teen boys. Yet Huckleberry Finn is a much more serious book, and it has come to occupy a central position in the American canon in a way that Tom Sawyer never could. Twain’s aspirations are different in his later book, essentially a coming-of-age story, a bildungsroman.

Huck’s journey is one that takes him away, literally and figuratively, from the world of Tom Sawyer. The book begins with Huck’s rejection of the hijinks of Tom’s gang, and on his trip down the Mississippi with the escaped slave Jim, Huck finds himself in situations that call for him to put aside Tom’s prankish ways and adopt the ways of a man. By the novel’s end, in spite of the attitudes prevalent in antebellum society, Huck comes to see Jim not as the property of Miss Watson but as a person worthy of freedom. Ultimately, Twain casts him as an individual, distinct from his social milieu, and in doing so offers a blueprint of sorts for educators everywhere who attempt to cultivate in their students a commitment to justice.

A crucial scene in this regard occurs late in the novel, when Huck and Jim have finally extricated themselves from the clutches of the Duke and the King, two swindlers who have never outgrown the Tom Sawyer Life Stage. Jim has been captured and is being held at the Phelps’ farm, and Huck, who for the entire story has been feeling guilty about not turning Jim in, decides to write a letter to Miss Watson back in St. Petersburg and tell her to come down and get her slave. He writes the note, and feels much better now that he’s no longer a deviant and committing a crime by helping a slave escape.

Before he sends the letter, though, he begins reflecting on his journey with Jim. He thinks of Jim’s kindnesses to him, of the friendship they had come to share. “Somehow,” Huck thinks, “I couldn’t seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind.” And he looks at the paper he had written:

It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

“All right, then, I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head, and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t. And for a starter I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

Here lies the moral center of the book. The journey on the raft with Jim has forced Huck to consider the slave as a human being, and Huck cannot return to his former perspective. Huck’s conscience comes into direct conflict with his society’s values. When he tears up his letter he not only rejects Tom Sawyer’s ways, but those of an entire culture as well.

When I teach this book I have a hard time getting my students to realize just what kind of a decision Huck makes here. He really thinks that he’s doing the wrong thing, and will pay for it with eternal damnation. Yet he does it anyway. Huck’s not helping Jim escape because he knows it’s the right thing; he’s helping Jim escape even though he’s been taught it’s the wrong thing. Huck would never put it in these terms, but he’s tapped into a natural law that contradicts the rules of the Christian society in which he’s been raised. Following that natural law means being “wicked” in the eyes of the world, and Huck is willing to do it. His decision is one entirely devoid of righteousness.

It’s nearly impossible for my students to imagine themselves in a similar situation. When would they ever find themselves going against accepted opinion without simultaneously feeling righteous about their decision? A student standing up for a classmate being bullied in the lunchroom is taking a risk for sure, and acting heroically, but he or she is acting with the understanding that it’s the “right thing to do,” something validated perhaps not by peers but by parents, teachers, administrators, and anti-bullying campaigns. The proliferation of clubs and activities dedicated to worthy causes—to respecting others, to ending injustice, etc.—makes it easier for students to stand up for what is right by bestowing on their actions the authority of a group. Similarly, in Catholic schools everywhere campus ministry offices have made mission trips and service projects their heart and soul, providing students with valuable opportunities to join in groups to encounter those living on the margins of society.

These programs are an important part of any educational experience and are life-changing for many, yet amount to incomplete preparation for the kind of independent decision that Huck wrestles with. One of the undesirable effects of the culture of awareness weeks and mission trips is that students rarely have to think for themselves. What kind of independent thought is required in the decision to wear an armband calling to for an end to bullying? In this culture, the decision to help those in need often requires as little moral courage as playing intramural soccer.

Students also are aware that these kind of experiences are great resume-builders. It’s not surprising that schools often market their mission trips with pitches along the lines of “have fun with your friends and help those in need!” or “spend a week among the poor and never see the world the same way again!” In doing so, they portray the service experience as ultimately serving the student. If someone else gets helped out in the process, even better.

Such justice-oriented activities are important for students’ growth but don’t demand from them the kind of strength of conscience that Huck’s situation demanded of him. Aware that he was condemning himself to hell, Huck tore up his letter anyway, a choice which benefitted no one except Jim. The decision required true courage because, unlike the decision to join a club or go on a mission trip, it isolated him completely from those around him, and it did not promise to bolster his social standing.

How can Catholic schools develop the independent growth of conscience and moral courage that Huck exhibits? One essay I’ve shared with students in the past addresses this very issue. It comes in the form of “Solitude and Leadership,” an award-winning lecture given by William Deresiewicz to the plebe class at West Point in 2009. In it, Deresiewicz, former Yale professor, argues that the two terms in his title are not a contradiction but are, in fact, reciprocal. To become a good leader, not just one that serves as a “yes man” to someone higher up in the chain of command but one who guides others onto the right path, one must grow comfortable with spending time alone in thought. Drawing heavily on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and holding up a pre-Paula Broadwell David Petraeus as a model, Deresiewicz claims that a good leader is a good thinker, and a good thinker is one who knows how to be introspective, a task that requires freedom from all kinds of distraction (not just the most recent ones):

Thinking for yourself means finding yourself, finding your own reality. Here’s the other problem with Facebook and Twitter and even The New York Times. When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do now—older people as well as younger people—you are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else. That’s what Emerson meant when he said that “he who should inspire and lead his race must be defended from travelling with the souls of other men, from living, breathing, reading, and writing in the daily, time-worn yoke of their opinions.” Notice that he uses the word lead. Leadership means finding a new direction, not simply putting yourself at the front of the herd that’s heading toward the cliff.

So why is reading books any better than reading tweets or wall posts? Well, sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes, you need to put down your book, if only to think about what you’re reading, what you think about what you’re reading. But a book has two advantages over a tweet. First, the person who wrote it thought about it a lot more carefully. The book is the result of his solitude, his attempt to think for himself.

Second, most books are old. This is not a disadvantage: this is precisely what makes them valuable. They stand against the conventional wisdom of today simply because they’re not from today. Even if they merely reflect the conventional wisdom of their own day, they say something different from what you hear all the time. But the great books, the ones you find on a syllabus, the ones people have continued to read, don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day. They say things that have the permanent power to disrupt our habits of thought. They were revolutionary in their own time, and they are still revolutionary today.

I am always interested to see my students’ reactions to this essay. Their generation has been encouraged to rise to the top by accruing accomplishments (think of David Brooks’ “The Organization Kid”), and they never fail to be startled by Deresiewicz’s insistence that the best leaders are forged in solitude, thoughtfully encountering the world’s greatest ideas. Introspection, the essay argues, is the essential requirement to being a great leader. Huck Finn, who had to remove himself from his social milieu and think as an individual in order to see Jim as a human being, would agree. He was only able to do the right thing because he was no longer influenced by his peers, because he was no longer thinking as a member of his society, which Twain presents as essentially childish, Tom Sawyer’s gang writ large.

The fruit of introspection is language, and academic writing is where students are called on to respond thoughtfully to the great thinkers of the past—writers, artists, philosophers, and scientists alike. As an English teacher, I’m biased, of course, but I’d argue that if true leadership arises from the ability to think deeply about a subject, then reading and writing are the incubators of true leaders. Christian service projects and social-awareness groups expose students to the realities of injustice, but reading and writing form the individual conscience, without which all action aimed at ending injustice is but sound and fury.

I don’t mean to suggest that campus ministry offices in high schools and colleges start reading Things Fall Apart instead of sponsoring trips to Africa. Such group action is irreplaceable, because just like Huck, students need to encounter human beings who suffer from injustice to help bring an end to it. Instead, we should recognize that classroom teachers, especially those in the humanities, share the responsibility for forming students’ consciences. In order for Christian service to avoid becoming an exercise in groupthink, we must commit ourselves to developing independent thinkers. Perhaps reading and writing about Huck Finn can actually help our students think like him.

Mike St. Thomas received his Master’s Degree in Literature and teaches English at a Catholic high school in Rhode Island, where he lives with his wife and daughters. He writes about literature and Catholic education at thecatholiclitclassroom.blogspot.com.


Mercy is a Person: Reflections on the Papal Bull “Misericordiae Vultus”

Pope Francis’ Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy may at first glance strike many as a bureaucratic document of little interest to Christians around the world. Reading the text of Misericordiae Vultus, though, makes it clear that this document is anything but unimportant. Francis has given us a beautiful meditation on the meaning, nature, and calling of mercy – the word that best describes the scope, mission, and substance of his pontificate. By proclaiming the Jubilee of Mercy, Francis wants to invite the entire Church into a special time when “the witness of believers might grow stronger and more effective,” and his invitation to convert and renew our faith starts from these few precious pages.

“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy.” With these opening words, Francis sets the tone for the entire document and identifies the core of “the mystery of the Christian faith.” When Christians speak of mercy, they are not merely advocating for gentleness, compassion, generosity, and understanding. Mercy certainly entails all of these things, but mercy is first and foremost a description of God’s nature. The call to become merciful (Mt. 5:7) is not simply an invitation to a more non-judgmental way of looking at others and ourselves; it is the invitation to “be merciful as your Father is merciful,” (Lk. 6:36) that is, to participate in the very way in which God loves his creatures.

This is the Christian program of life, one that is “as demanding as it is rich with joy and peace.” What it means to be merciful is not left to our imagination, though. Mercy is not an ideal that we try to reach through our own ethical efforts. Mercy is a “concrete reality through which he [God] reveals his love as that of a father or a mother, moved to the very depths out of love for their child.” It is not an abstract idea, for “mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth.” Mercy is a person. To encounter mercy we need to encounter a person, Jesus of Nazareth. We would not know what mercy is, if it were not for the encounter with the forgiving and compassionate glance with which God came to meet us in Jesus Christ. In fact, “with our eyes fixed on Jesus and his merciful gaze, we experience the love of the Most Holy Trinity.” We can confidently repeat John’s confession that “God is love,” (1 Jn. 4:8) for this love has been made “visible and tangible in Jesus’ entire life.”

Everything in Jesus’ life speaks of mercy. His gestures and his words witness to what mercy is, for “he read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need.” It is this glance capable of discerning and meeting the deep yearning of the human heart that makes Christianity as fascinating today as it was at its inception two thousand years ago. God desires our well-being; he wants us to be happy, full of joy, and peaceful. He “does not limit himself merely to affirming his love, but makes it visible and tangible,” so that we may experience the fullness that comes from the encounter with God’s mercy.

These are but a few of the precious meditations on the mystery of mercy that Francis offers us in this bull. Even such beautiful meditations, though, could be perceived as the description of a lofty idea or of a beautiful aspiration that does not really touch our lives today. How does mercy remain visible and tangible today? What is the concrete reality through which God reveals his love to the men and women of the twenty-first century? It is the Church, Francis tells us, whose primary task “is to introduce everyone to the great mystery of God’s mercy.” As do the words and deeds of Jesus in the Gospel, so too the Church’s “language and her gestures must transmit mercy, so as to touch the hearts of all people and inspire them once more to find the road to the Father.” Mercy is the foundation of the life of the Church, and the Church’s credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. “Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident.” Mercy needs to be present not just as a word, but with the same concreteness that we see in the Gospel. Mercy is not merely refraining from condemning; it is to be generous with others as God has been immensely generous to us. We are called to be instruments of mercy, which means that we have to open our hearts to those living on the outmost fringes of society, overcoming our usual indifference and reaching out to those who are wounded and in need of help. Following Jesus’ steps, we too need to share our meals with sinners, without closing ourselves in our self-referential righteousness. Only in this way, in fact, will the Jubilee not be just another formal event, but an authentic “year of the Lord’s favor.” (Is. 61:2) A moment, that is, in which the entire Christian community will follow Jesus “to bring a word and gesture of consolation to the poor, to proclaim liberty to those bound by new forms of slavery in modern society, to restore sight to those who can see no more because they are caught up in themselves, to restore dignity to all those from whom it has been robbed.”

Touched by God’s presence and closeness to us, we too can show mercy to others. In a time when everything in our culture seems to conspire against faith and authentic human communion, “the preaching of Jesus is made visible once more in the response of faith Christians are called to offer by their witness.” Francis desires for the Jubilee to be a time when, steeped in mercy, Christians may go out to all, bringing the goodness and tenderness of God. By contemplating the face of Christ and listening to the Word of God, the Church is called to be a visible witness of mercy amidst the confusion and suffering of our time. This is the greatest contribution that the Church can give to our broken society: not to have an alternative position on the various issues of the day, but to be an alternative where true justice – that is, mercy – is proclaimed, lived, and pursued.

Misericordiae Vultus is not the work of a bureaucrat. It is the heartfelt invitation to each one of us to rediscover the joy that comes from the encounter with the tenderness of God’s mercy. “The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.” May we all answer this call cheerfully and promptly.

Alessandro Rovati earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore di Milano, Italy in 2015. During his graduate work, he studied under the guidance of theologian Stanley Hauerwas, during which time Dr. Rovati combined his extensive philosophical training with theological reflections on the current life of the church amidst contemporary society. He is now working as an Adjunct Faculty in the departments of Theology and Political Philosophy at Belmont Abbey College in North Carolina. 


The Way of Perfection: Carmelites in Contemporary Life

Today marks the 500th birthday of St. Teresa of Avila, the saint whose name I took at my confirmation. Teresa is a looming figure in Catholic history. A reformer, writer, and mystic, she was one of the first women to be named a Doctor of the Church, an honor which acknowledges the saint’s important theological contribution to the Church. Her writings, which discuss busy-ness, distraction, and dryness in prayer, seem written to a modern audience stuck on their i-Phones and tied to their G-Cals.

Teresa has not only impacted me through her spiritual writing, but through the women who carry her Carmelite charism. I’d like to share a bit about two groups of women—one in Indiana and one in Jordan—who have supported my spiritual life at crucial points in my journey.

The Carmelites of Indianapolis at the Monastery of the Resurrection

As a child, I often attended Mass with my family at the Carmelite monastery in Indianapolis. Each week, a local Jesuit priest would say Mass for the dozen or so sisters and a diverse group of Catholic lay people, including those in openly gay partnerships. The service was different than any other Mass I’d been to before, or have attended since. We sung the Gloria with non-gendered language; we passed the Eucharist throughout the rows and consumed it together; and we sat quietly after Communion, meditating as a song played from the CD player in the corner. The radical equality and solidarity preached by Jesus was mirrored in the Mass. I will never forget the soft, high voices of the sisters singing, or the passion with which Sr. Terese proclaimed the readings.

Carmelites are traditionally a cloistered order and, in the past, the sisters never left the monastery. In the early 2000s, these sisters still maintained a simple life of prayer, silence, and community within the monastery, but they often ventured out into the community to see the Harry Potter movies and go to Target. They were funny, relatable, and smart, reading dozens of newspapers and magazines each week to keep abreast of current affairs. This self-education on current events was another way they stayed connected to the world outside their walls. After reading about the Iraq War, the clergy sex abuse scandal, or the Second Intifada, they came together and prayed, lifting up the world’s suffering to God. Eventually, their prayer and reflection moved beyond the monastery in a more concrete way—through PraytheNews.com, a website developed by my dad’s advertising agency. The site featured the sisters’ prayerful commentary on world events, in addition to resources about Carmelite prayer and the history of the order.

These sisters taught me what it means to be socially conscious, and convinced me of the efficacy of prayer even when prayer seems hopeless. Through their encouraging words every week, they helped to nourish my vocation—something I can only recognize now with hindsight. They are still some of my biggest cheerleaders and I continue to correspond with Srs. Terese and Jean Alice now and then.

Because of the sisters’ old age and small numbers, they had to discontinue the PraytheNews website and move from their beautiful stone monastery to another religious community in eastern Indiana. But their impact is still felt through their prayers, as Sr. Terese’s reflection illustrates in her poem Hidden Friends:

I like to pray in the morning

When all is quiet.

 

In the summer,

I frequently go outside

And walk the monastery grounds

Or sit in the courtyard.

 

In the winter, when the mornings are dark,

I prefer to sit in my very small room.

The windows are high,

so that only skyand the tops of treescan be seen.

Periodically, the twinkling red and white

Lights of a plane far upIn the Heavens

Punctuate the blackness.

I try to picture the passengers traveling

To their destinations,and I wrap them in prayer.

“Where did they begin their journeys?

What loved ones wished them well?

Whom will they meet when they land?

What calls them to be traveling at this hour?”

I hope them all

In my heart and pray

For their safety and their happiness,

Though they do not know

This unknown friend

Sitting in a monastic cell.

Sometimes, I wonder if one of them is looking

Down on the miniature trees and houses, seeing

The lights of the city,

Sending down silent blessings

Upon me—an unknown friend

Cradling me in prayer.

We could be sending arcs of blessing

Like rainbows through the skies.

Elisa and Amabel: Teresians in Amman

I met Elisa Estrada and Amabel Sibug in 2012, when I first lived in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan during college. They helped out with the Mass I attended—Elisa orchestrated the readers and Eucharistic ministers, while Amabel played guitar for the music ministry. During that time, they were friendly, kind faces, but I didn’t get to know them well until I returned to Jordan in the fall of 2013.

I was quite emotional on my first Sunday back in Amman, unsure if I could manage the nine months away from family and friends. When I walked into Mass, Elisa immediately recognized me, gave me a hug, and asked me, “Would you like to read?” She, like the Carmelites, also knew how to tend my vocation—I enjoy participating in the Mass by reading the Scripture passages. I sat in the pew, trying to pray before Mass began, but was still overwhelmed by the transition to my new home. Elisa noticed I was upset, and scooted next to me on the pew. “It is so nice to have you back,” she said. “We’re glad you’re here.” Her hospitality and welcome caused me to cry a new wave of tears, one of gratitude and relief. This interaction was a sign of the friendship that would emerge over the next year.

Elisa and Amabel both work at the Pontifical Mission Library, an institution of the Catholic Church which serves the whole community, both Christians and Muslims. Children and adults alike come to check out books in Arabic and English, and to participate in religious events or skills workshops. I made use of the library as well, coming on free mornings to work on my research.

Originally from the Philippines, Elisa and Amabel have spent decades in Jordan. Elisa has been with the library since she helped open it in Amman’s Jabal Hussein neighborhood 40 years ago. They are members of the Teresians, a community of lay men and women who live out the spirituality of St. Teresa and the Carmelites. Their members are spread around the world, and most work in educational ministries. As single women, Elisa and Amabel live together in an apartment with a chapel, and every Friday, they welcome foreign workers—many of them Filipino—into their home for a meal. Elisa and Amabel serve and live among struggling but ordinary communities: Palestinian refugees, domestic workers, the elderly and the sick. They live out the Gospel injunction to “love thy neighbor” with sincerity and humility, attempting to walk with Jesus throughout their day. During my visits to the library, Elisa and I would often talk about her prayer life, how she was relating to Jesus and what He was teaching her. Usually, the message was trust—a message I constantly needed to hear. I now wish I had written down those conversations.

One afternoon in October 2014, Elisa and Amabel took me with them on a mini-pilgrimage to two holy sites in northern Jordan. One of them was Tell Mar Eliyas, or the Mount of St. Elijah. Legend holds that Elijah was born in a town in northern Jordan, and that as a child he would climb a nearby mountain to pray. The Byzantines built a large church on this mountain, and its intricate mosaic floor is partially intact today. At one end of the ruins is an old tree, with many ribbons and pieces of cloth tied to it. Muslim pilgrims also come to the site with particular petitions and pray to Elijah to intercede for them.

Elisa, Amabel, their friend, Petra, and I explored the site and sat in silent prayer alone. The Carmelites’ style of prayer is characterized by silence, and they trace this emphasis back to Elijah, who was unable to find God in the storm, the wind, or the fire, but only in calm silence. I was grateful to pray at the place where Elijah prayed as a child, and where Carmelite spirituality got its start.

Teresa’s women

I am so grateful to these women of St. Teresa, who have supported me in times of growth and struggle, and who model her challenging “way of perfection,” an avenue to God defined not by the avoidance of sin, but a path defined by self-giving love. Through their humble service, they live out this saying of St. Teresa, which might as well have been uttered by Jesus Himself:

The important thing is not to think much, but to love much and so do that which best stirs you to love.

Jordan Denari is a Research Fellow at the Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. She graduated from Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service in 2013, afterwhich she lived in Amman, Jordan on a Fulbright research scholarship.


Is the Francis Effect Real?

In the two years since Pope Francis’ election, the phrase “Francis Effect” has come to describe the unique impact of Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s papacy. But what exactly is the Francis Effect? Can we measure it? Is it real?

In evaluating the Francis Effect, there are two components to consider: the popular media’s narrative and the attitudes and actions of the people.

First impressions have a lasting impact, and Francis’ first impression on the world was far-reaching. Wearing a simple white cassock, rather than the elaborate papal robes, he stepped out onto the balcony as the first Jesuit to become Pope, the first Pope from the Americas, and the first Pope from outside of Europe in more than one thousand years. Taking the name Francis—yet another unprecedented move—signaled to the people that his papacy was something new.

Francis’ first impression especially impacted the media. Coverage of Pope Francis depicts him as a peacemaker who loves the poor. While his predecessors were barraged with accusations of abuse cover-ups and corruption, Francis has largely avoided getting pulled through the mud.

This is despite the fact that Pope Francis’ call for a church that embraces the poor is rooted in centuries of Catholic thought. In 2008, Pope Benedict said, “If we refuse to share what we have with the hungry and the poor, then we make our possessions into a false god.” Before him, Pope John Paul II called each person to “personal conversion through a concrete sign of love toward those in need.”

This isn’t to say that Pope Francis has not provided unique leadership to the Catholic Church. Through symbolic actions – from hugging a disfigured man to returning to the hotel after his election to pay his bill – he has led humbly. When asked about gay Catholics, he lovingly responded, “Who am I to judge?” On the issue of divorced Catholics, he asked the Church to “open the doors.” He’s been instrumental in an historic return to normalized relations between the United States and Cuba.

The “teflon pope” seems to continually avoid negative media coverage. This is especially surprising since Pope Francis often makes off-the-cuff comments that are easy to misconstrue. In January, Francis spoke out against the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, but warned that “a punch awaits” those who insult others. In an industry known for taking remarks out of context, most media outlets correctly reported that this was a joke and within the context of the pope condemning the violence.

At the same time, Francis has received credit and praise for things that he didn’t do. This past December, a viral news story attributed a statement made by Pope Paul VI on animals going to heaven to the current Bishop of Rome. Paul VI has been dead for nearly 40 years. The New York Times even got it wrong—on the front page.

It’s easy to see a general pattern in media portrayals of Francis. He gets credit and the benefit of the doubt where others have not. Sometimes his statements affirming traditional Church teachings are ignored, since they do not fit the media narrative.

It’s what psychologists call confirmation bias, an effect in which we are more likely to notice and remember events that confirm our worldview than those that challenge our existing beliefs. Once a mental schema is formed, it is difficult to process new, conflicting information. The media formed an image of Pope Francis as a progressive, attuned to the sensibilities of those on the left, and confirmation bias maintains this narrative, even in the face of undermining evidence.

If the Francis effect is seen as a major transformation, we may have to consider it a media effect at this point—one largely created and perpetuated by the media. And though the impact of the media’s positive coverage of Pope Francis is important, the pope is not a media personality. Positive media coverage is a tool—not a goal—for Francis.

The real effect of Pope Francis must be seen in the metanoia—the change of heart—of the people. There is no clear evidence of such a change at this point.

Francis enjoys high favorability ratings in the U.S. and around the globe that would make any U.S. president jealous. But popes are generally likeable.

Even though the average attendance at papal audiences has doubled and tourism in the Vatican has seen a bump, people aren’t fighting over space in the pews. Mass attendance, as well as the number of self-identified Catholics, has remained stable. In the year Pope Francis was elected, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported a 1.1% decline in volunteerism, the lowest in more than a decade. And there is not yet data to support a Pope Francis-specific increase in charitable giving.

The Francis effect, then, is hard to measure. But is it real? The enthusiasm and joy exhibited by Catholics and non-Catholics alike in response to Pope Francis’ papacy are real, even if they are not measurable.

Christians have long been accustomed to leaders whose “outcomes” are not easily measured by traditional means. After all, Jesus’ ministry garnered no accumulation of wealth or political power and quickly ended in his crucifixion. To see the impact of Jesus, it was necessary to wait three days, until Easter Sunday, and two millennia later we are still waiting to fully embrace the radical and continued effects of the ministry of Christ.

People frequently say that the current pontiff reminds them of Jesus. For a Christological faith, having the leadership be Jesus-like seems like a minimum requirement. But it turns out that Jesus sets a hard example. Jesus’ leadership was radical and surprising. He overturned the status quo and included the outcasts. The Catholic Church is an institution in the world and has sometimes been distracted by worldly desires. A pope that reminds people of Jesus, then, is returning to its true character.

Will Francis’ papacy bring people back to the Church and increase the faith of current Catholics? Will Pope Francis’ inspirational leadership on encounter with the excluded make our churches and our societies more compassionate, welcoming places? We don’t yet know. And to find out, we’ll need to be patient.

In the long term, we know not yet what awaits. The Church is two-millennia old and moves slowly. Meaningful change within the Church is accomplished over years and decades, not overnight. In the 1960s, the Second Vatican Council set out to renew the Church and participate in a dialogue with the needs of the current world. Francis’ papacy is one of the fruits of this Council, fifty years later. In our instant-gratification culture, saying that Pope Francis has not had an immediate, measurable impact may seem like an indictment of him. But Pope Francis is not making a bag of microwave popcorn – he’s preparing a slow-simmered reinvigoration of Catholicism.

Will the first ripples of change translate to tangible effects? Only time will tell. For now, we move into the next stage of Francis’ papacy, where we will see what effect Francis will actually have.

Though there are those who dismiss this initial phase as a media illusion, in reality, the energy and enthusiasm generated during this phase has the potential to sustain and animate the Church’s work in the years ahead. Like the first years of falling in love, the giddy beginning is not a distraction, ruse, or fantasy but rather is necessary to the work of building a strong foundation on which to grow.

Even now, we can see the stirrings of transformation. These changes are small—less than a blip in surveys or data. The first way they will manifest is in the metanoia that will accumulate over decades—small choices and new thoughts that are the precursors of what is to come.

Jenny Heipp is a PhD candidate in anthropology at Washington University in Saint Louis.