Six Things to Know About Pope Francis’ Upcoming Encyclical

This post by Henry Longbottom, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

A thinly veiled piece of climate alarmist propaganda.  A groundbreaking exposition of Catholic ecological thinking. Well intentioned but economically naïve.  A slippery slope towards extremist environmentalist positions.

Such are the reactions to Pope Francis’ ecology encyclical—and it hasn’t even been published yet.  Nevertheless Vatican sources have confirmed that the encyclical will appear in just over one week.  It is reported that it will bear the title “Laudato Si” (Praised Be), a quotation from a St. Francis’ prayer praising God for creation.

The media storm created in the run-up to the forthcoming document is both unparalleled and exciting.  The optimist in me hopes that the encyclical will demonstrate the way the Church is responding to a critical “sign of the times” confronting our age.  I hope it is yet another opportunity to champion the rights of today’s poor, with an eye towards the well-being of future generations as well.  But, I also have a nagging suspicion that the encyclical’s detractors may blunt the evangelical potential of a document showcasing Catholic theology of creation stewardship.  The mainstream media have given platform to critical voices. With characteristic hyperbolic aplomb, a Fox News report has claimed that if Francis goes through with the encyclical, he “will be aligning himself with some Church enemies … which will test the faith of some Catholics.”

So we have a task on our hands.  Building on the legacy of Popes St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the encyclical will further provide a footing and a framework for Catholic environmental initiatives.  But when it is (finally) published, we need to be equipped to answer the critics.  More importantly, we must be in a position to frame the debate on common ground and emphasize the positive elements of this encyclical.  How can we do this?

Here are six suggestions for the task:

1. Remember it’s not only about climate change.

Now the encyclical is almost certainly going to deal with the moral obligations of responding to the challenges of climate change in terms of prevention and mitigation.  But it will put climate change in the context of the bigger picture of the increasing disconnect between humans and their natural environment.  We often speak of humans having “dominion” over the earth. Some frame this as a human response to a divine injunction in Genesis. Others (perhaps of the non-biblical persuasion) appeal to the scientific progress of modernity. Far more than ever before, we can understand, harness, and even re-direct nature to our own determined ends.  In either case, when dominion becomes self-interested domination, we are seeing (clearly, if sadly, in the rearview mirror) that this model of custody is simply not sustainable.

Climate change is just one symptom of an unsustainable consumption and wasteful use of resources, compromising the present and future flourishing of human and non-human species alike.  Other symptoms include the alarming rate of species extinction, destruction of forests, and desertification.  To paraphrase the Catholic broadcaster Mary Colwell, climate change is not the only “environmental” game in town.

The poor are the first to suffer when it comes to any and all forms of environmental degradation.  This is the case with rising sea levels and increased typhoon risk due to climate change.  But it’s also the case when it comes to social and political instability, caused by issues like water scarcity.  Consider: when a country experiences resource shortage or instability, who has easiest access to water: the well-to-do or the poor? Who has the ease of mobility to find (and procure) clean resources?  Impacts on human health — e.g., from air pollution or rubbish accumulation — disproportionately affect the economically disadvantaged.  We might also consider the plight of indigenous people who are functionally evicted from their land and forests to make way for mining activities or logging.  The encyclical will likely talk about care for the environment through the lens of solidarity with the poor.  In doing so, it will critique the shadow side of our consumerist economic models.

Such a critique is nothing new in Catholic thinking. It simply picks up and develops Benedict’s notion of the disjuncture between human ecology and the natural order outlined in Caritas in Veritate.   Christiana Peppard puts it nicely in her recent article in America: whilst Pope Francis has a “special charism for poverty and the environment, he is not inventing it ex nihilo, he is amplifying the unified message of his papal predecessors.”

2. Climate change “propaganda” – According to whom?

Much of the rhetoric leveled against the forthcoming encyclical emanates from pressure groups that deny anthropogenic climate change.  Take for example the US based Heartland Institute, which is urging its supporters to “tell Pope Francis global warming is not a crisis!”  They are highly critical of the Pontiff’s frequent calls for action over climate change and were especially dismayed by his personal involvement in the Lima Climate Change talks in December 2014.

The Heartland Institute is keen to spread its message. On April 27 it held a gathering in Rome to persuade the Pope that he has got it all wrong about climate change.  The meeting was deliberately timed to coincide with a Vatican-hosted conference on the moral dimensions of climate change that took place on the following day.

Now I couldn’t possibly comment on the underlying agenda of these lobby groups (their sources of funding, for example) but it’s worth noting the short shrift Church leaders have given them: “The ideology surrounding environmental issues is too tied to a capitalism that doesn’t want to stop ruining the environment because they [certain movements in the United States] don’t want to give up their profits,” quipped Cardinal Oscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, who is a member of Francis’ so-called C9, a kind of ‘papal cabinet’ of nine cardinals from around the world.

Pope Francis has taken a keen interest in those with first-hand experiences of the effects of climate change.  During his visit to the Philippines in January 2015, he made a special point of visiting victims of typhoon Haiyan.  The significance here is that he is more interested in the voices of those who have everything to lose from continued ecological destruction and is less concerned with those who have something to gain in promoting a “business as usual” approach.

3. The Church is not walking into another “Galileo Affair”

One strategy for undermining the encyclical is to overemphasize the unsettled aspects of the science of climate change and give stage to a minority group of scientists who question anthropogenic climate change.  The reasoning given is a fear that the encyclical will commit the Church to an unsettled hypothesis of science, and thus irrevocably fetter the Church to the wrong side of history. Climate change skeptics (it is argued) pick up the heroic mantle of Galileo, whose heliocentrism eventually was proven correct to the shame of credulous Church officials. Thus the Church should cautiously refrain from landing — once again — on the wrong side of history.

The problem with this view is that it portrays climate change as an either/or issue between “self-interested alarmists” and “truth-speaking skeptics.”  The reality is more complex.  Social encyclicals (like the sciences themselves) seek to present the best thinking of the Church at the time.  It is reasonable for Francis — whose own academic background is in chemistry — to side with the scientific consensus (including his own Pontifical Academy of Sciences) on the link between climate change and human activity.

And let’s face it, the stakes are pretty high.  Withholding action (on the specious grounds of awaiting unanimous scientific agreement) is a risky strategy. There’s a justice issue here.  As Cardinal Turkson says, whilst the Church is not an expert on science, it is “an expert on humanity – on the true calling of the human person to act with justice and charity.”  The just and charitable person errs on the side of caution — especially when the well-being of the poor and vulnerable may be at stake.

4. Regardless of our preferences, the encyclical has something to say to everyone.

A more nuanced strategy taken by critics is to relativize — and thus minimize — the encyclical’s potential application. For example, the eminent Princeton law professor Robert George highlights the distinction between papal pronouncements concerning moral norms (binding on Catholics) and statements about disputed empirical fact (not binding). The argument is that since climate change is a question of empirical fact, the faithful are not bound by those parts of the encyclical relating to climate change.

But we make prudential judgments on how to interpret empirical facts — and derive from them moral norms — all the time.  The “theory” of anthropogenic climate change rests on the established fact of our reliance on non-renewable resources. Our current dependence on carbon-intensive forms of energy raises a whole host of underlying moral issues: Not just questions like “Who should profit from their extraction?” or “Whose resources are they to keep, share, exhaust, etc.?”  But more deeply, “To what shared first principles do we appeal when we disagree in our judgments of how to use finite resources?” The environmental and social impacts of e.g., mineral extraction, necessarily raise questions of prudential judgment about competing interests; and how we come to render prudential judgments requires us to reflect on our underpinning (if unspoken) moral norms.  For people of religious belief, moral norms draw from the well of faith claims in order to reflect on empirical facts and make prudential judgments.  For Catholics in particular (like Pope Francis or Professor George), environmental issues deeply involve the non-negotiable moral norms of care of the human person (because of our inalienable dignity, having been made in the image and likeness of God).

So in the end, we cannot realistically draw a solid black line between (1) what the Pope says about climate change and (2) what can be regarded as “real” moral issues.  Though we may be tempted to do so, we cannot nuance our way out of the moral demands presented in the encyclical, because they bear on the well-being of the human person.

5. Collective action on the environment is inherently Catholic.

A major bugbear of libertarian critics of the environmentalism is that a response requires international collectivist action.  As Michael Sean Winters has pointed out, they were are highly suspicious of Francis’ COP-20 address when he said that the challenges of climate change can only be confronted through “collective action” which overcomes mistrust and fosters “a culture of solidarity, of encounter and of dialogue.”  Surely, they ask, there is an anti-business and socialist agenda at play here?

And yet this is not what business leaders are saying themselves.  A recent Vatican-sponsored conference for business executives, academics and civil society leaders underlined support for just the sort of collective action on climate change the Pope is calling for.  Ecological meltdown can only be prevented through a framework of global governance that will stimulate enterprise and develop innovative solutions.  A ‘green economy’ incentivizes initiatives like the development of the Solar Impulse plane, which made its maiden voyage earlier this week.

The Church, as the world’s oldest and largest international organization, is uniquely placed to shepherd a collective response to environmental challenges.  The Church can help forge what Benedict’s Caritas in Veritate described as more “fraternal” ways of doing economic development.  The agenda here is strictly Catholic, geared towards universal human flourishing rather than narrow political ends.

6. Read it, absorb it, and talk about it!

Now I know we all lead busy lives and the general principle of “why read it first-hand when you can rely on another’s summary?” works pretty well more often than not.  But this encyclical is different.  Given the partisan nature of the reporting in the lead up to the document, the summaries that will be doing the rounds when it is finally released will be particularly agenda-driven.  So go to the source — read the encyclical itself.  And before reacting, meditate on the text with the same spirit of magnanimity with which we would hope our secular counterparts would receive other Church pronouncements.

Underlying the fears of many intra-ecclesial critics of Pope Francis is a lurking suspicion that he is yielding too much to secular peers.  His fans, on the other hand, argue that Francis is seizing an opportunity to make bridges with those outside the Church on a challenge confronting the whole of humanity.  But Francis’ fans and detractors alike recognize that the whole ecology debate is characterized by divergence and line-in-sand drawing. As in other politicized issues, the various “actors” are prone to simply talking past each other, relying on settled political allegiances and truisms.  And there is a real danger that this polarization is being brought into the Church in the interest of expediency.  So tolle, lege: pick it up and read it yourself, as a responsible citizen and Catholic!

* * *

In our reactions to Pope Francis’ ecology encyclical, let us aim to be conduits for dialogue and see it as our mission to “reconcile the estranged.”  Reconciling the estranged is, after all, one of the founding goals of the Society of Jesus.  The world may very well depend on it.


Invisible Things

This post by Brendan Busse, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

I held the mic. That’s about it. I had been asked to serve as an acolyte for the diaconate ordination of eight Jesuits here in Madrid. During an ordination liturgy the presiding bishop moves around more than usual — sit, stand, kneel, from one chair to another and back again. It’s like a byzantine improv game and mic-stands don’t walk. So, that was my job. I was a big bearded mobile mic-stand all dressed in white. I held the mic so that everyone else could hear what the bishop was saying and pray along in a language I still struggle to understand.

I held the mic and that was enough for me.

You get a pretty good view of the action when you’re the mic-man. You can look over the bishop’s shoulder and read along if you like. You can scan the congregation and see who’s paying attention or who’s sleeping, who wishes this place had better air-conditioning or who’s crying. You can wonder why they’re crying. Or, I suppose, you can watch those being ordained.

The ordination rite includes lots of promises. The deacons-to-be kneel and promise and kneel and promise again. It’s a bit like a nervous parent giving their kids the car keys for the first time. They responded to each inquiry like every kid does, “Yes, yes, yes, I promise, I promise, I promise.” Our adolescent wisdom tells us that in these circumstances it’s best not to say too much; just say ‘yes’ and get on with it. Eventually, instead of car keys, they receive the book of the gospels. In both cases, car keys or holy orders, they receive an enormous privilege.

And then we all watched the new deacons get dressed. This is not something you often do in public, watch another person getting dressed. That makes us uncomfortable, so we use another word — vested. I watched them get vested, in sparkly new vestments, freshly pressed and golden. And, in spite of my cynical self, I couldn’t help but notice something happening, something both very old and surprisingly new, something simple and sacred, something we call a sacrament.

***

Sacraments are like weather vanes; in the sacraments we make invisible things visible.

Why did I want to be a priest? I didn’t. But, in ways I don’t fully understand and can’t always articulate, things changed as I said yes to my vocation as a Jesuit. At some point I came to realize that while I don’t have all the answers (even if I sometimes foolishly think I do) I know enough to want only what God wants for me. I began to trust that this is what I’m asked to do by the Society of Jesus and, in turn, the Church. I suppose I also came to appreciate that what we all want most profoundly is to give ourselves in love and the Jesuits I knew lived their priesthood in this way, in loving service. I never imagined myself a Jesuit, nor a priest, yet somehow, in time, something I couldn’t see became visible, something I couldn’t imagine became real.

***

After the mass, in the cool evening air of the parish plaza I watched another father vesting another servant. She was maybe three or four years old and hesitant — I don’t want to wear the coat, Papa. But he was insistent, gentle, but insistent — Ay mija, but it’s cold tonight and you’ll need it. Her hesitance softened and she seemed to enjoy his embrace as he knelt behind her, wrapped his arms around her and buttoned the coat, thoroughly, carefully, one toggle at a time.

As he stood up again she leaned back against his legs. Looking up from her freshly toggled coat, she caught me watching her vestiture. I smiled. She threw her arms wide open and beamed a joyful grin of pride, as if to say, Look at my coat! Isn’t it lovely! Her joy had nothing to do with my liturgical celebrity status (even if I was the best mic-stand ever) but it did have something to do with recognition. She was overjoyed because an invisible thing — the love and care of her father — had been made visible in her well-buttoned coat.

Hers was the joy of the sacraments. Mine was the joy of witness.

***

To watch these companions of mine be ordained was a beautiful thing; something I’ve known to be true (their capacity to serve, to proclaim, to comfort) was recognized publicly; something invisible was made visible. They are generous men. This was not the first time they had lain humble before the saints, not the first time they held someone’s hand in prayer and promise, not the first time they offered themselves in service. And it will not be the last. Still there are other invisible graces that they can and must make visible in our Church.

If the sacraments are about making invisible things visible, then so too unthinkable things thinkable, unknowable things knowable, and impossible things possible. In any Christian community worthy of the name the impossible to imagine must become the rock of faith; the mute given voice, the naked clothed, the hungry fed. As baptized members of the body of Christ we are all called to be who God is in the world. Take that idea seriously, that is to say, actually believe it, and it will change everything.

And what about that little girl? Where will she find a place of leadership and ministry? She stands with many women in our Church waiting for and worthy of recognition, deserving of more meaningful authority. That ordained ministry has been a prerequisite for administrative responsibility in the Church has both corrupted our sense of the priesthood (confusing sacramental service for power and prestige) and excluded women from positions of ecclesial leadership. To see the treasure of their talent, however, we’d be fools to think that a generous grace is not already given them. And yet, if we’re slow to recognize this grace our daughters may grow cold; their joyful enthusiasm may fade away.

Invisible things beg for recognition and we ought to rejoice in their revelation. There is more grace begging for visibility and more faithful servants ready for responsibility. There are more coats and more toggles. There are more voices in need of a microphone.

The work of the sacraments is this: to make visible the grace already given, to make possible the promise already present. We hold the mic, we give voice to silent prayers, we lay our hands on one another in blessing and we vest one another in love. The grace is God’s to give and the promise fulfilled in mercy. As I imagine my own ordination, still a few years off, I hope always to remember my vocation as a big bearded mic-stand and I hope never to forget the joy on that little girl’s face after her father’s love was finally made visible in something as simple as a well buttoned coat.


No SNAP for You!

This post by Nathaniel Romano, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

Seinfeld, once the anchor of NBC’s “Must-See TV,” gave us many memorable characters, including the so-called “Soup Nazi.” A temperamental restaurateur sells soup that is praised far and wide. However, he is very particular about how his customers must behave. Only the worthy get soup; the rest are dismissed with a curt “No soup for you!”

Apparently the Soup Nazi is the role model for a new strain of legislative misbehavior. Missouri Republican Rick Brattin wants to ban poor people from eating steak and seafood, as well as energy drinks, cookies, chips, and soft drinks. That’s not hyperbole. The language is taken straight from the bill he has introduced to the Missouri State Legislature. Thankfully, though, he won’t ban coffee. So, hey, at least we know that the working poor will be caffeinated enough to get through their hectic and irrational work days.

To be clear, the bill would not tell stores to refuse service to poor people. Rather, it would eliminate what sorts of foods would be eligible for purchase for those on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP, more commonly referred to as “food stamps,” is a federal program to ensure that everyone in the United States has sufficient and nutritious food. Although a federally-funded program, it is administered by the individual states. Thus, each state is able to set certain requirements over and above the federally-mandated income rules, and each state has leeway to limit how the program is used.

Legislators like Mr. Brattin are apparently seriously agitated by the possibility that SNAP recipients are indulging in luxury items, like the aforementioned seafood and steak. They are upset at stories, like this one Fox News ran a few years ago, where someone proudly discusses how getting a job “isn’t for him” and uses “our wonderful tax dollars” for such indulgences as lobster and sushi. It is, in all honesty, a re-hash of  Ronald Reagan’s old “welfare queens driving Cadillacs” trope. These stories play on fears and anger that someone is gaming the system and avoiding real work to get big payoffs.

It was a ridiculous charge when Reagan made it. It is a ridiculous charge when Mr. Brattin and his colleagues (and Fox News) make it. And it will be a ridiculous charge the next time someone decides to announce publicly what financially distressed individuals should or should not be allowed to buy.

SNAP is not a set of coupons allowing someone to get what she wants from any old grocery store. One does not simply walk into Whole Foods, hand over your SNAP card and announce, “Oh, I’d like some surf & turf tonight. Give me lobster tail and a juicy porterhouse.”  Or, if you did, you’d likely not be eating too much the rest of the month.  Because, of course, SNAP, like many forms of public assistance, is incredibly stingy, both in terms of who qualifies and in terms of what benefits are received.

To start off, the federal government already limits what can be purchased with SNAP benefits. Generally speaking, you can only use SNAP benefits to purchase groceries – grains and breads; fruits and vegetables; meats, fish, and poultry; and dairy products. “Junk foods” do qualify as foods (at least legally), and so can be purchased, as can live animals traditionally purchased for human consumption (think the lobsters in the tank at your local fishmonger).

That seems fairly broad, but there are restrictions. Benefits cannot be used to purchase hot meals, vitamins or nutritional supplements, non-food groceries, pet food, beer, wine, or other alcohol, or food to be consumed on the premises.1 Also, retailers must be approved to receive SNAP benefits and, of course, must agree to accept them, something they are not required to do.

Beyond these restrictions, the government limits who can receive SNAP benefits and how much an individual receives. The calculations are quite strict.2 Restrictions come in two flavors – income limits and asset limits. Households are limited both in the amount of income coming in, as well as the amount of personal assets — bank accounts, vehicles, etc. — that they can have.3 For example, a single individual can make no more than $1,265 per month; for a family of four, the limit rises to $2,584 (the numbers are slightly different if there are elderly members). To put that in perspective, $1,265 a month is $7.90 per hour, assuming a forty-hour work week over a four-week month. So, if you make just over minimum wage and are full-time, you won’t qualify.

Assuming you do qualify, your benefit is relatively limited.4 An individual with no income gets the monthly maximum of $194. As her income goes up, her benefit will go down. But, even if you get the maximum amount, you haven’t won the grocery jackpot. That $194 works out to just under $7 per day in a 30-day month. At three meals per day, that is just about $2.67 per meal. Hardly luxurious.

Remember our surf & turf eating friend from above? Were he to actually try to eat that on his SNAP benefit, he would find himself scrimping for the rest of the month. At a local Omaha-area Walmart, a relatively inexpensive place to buy groceries, a simple and inexpensive version of surf & turf would run just over $20 dollars, or about a tenth of your total maximum potential allotment for an individual. For one meal. Clearly, no one is getting rich off SNAP (or other government assistance for that matter). So why the fuss?

Mr. Brattin admits it openly to the Washington Post. He thinks poor people should not be spending taxpayer money on what he considers luxurious.

“My intention wasn’t to get rid of canned tuna and fish sticks,” he said. But he also insists that people are abusing the system by purchasing luxury foods, and believes that that must be stopped, even if it ends up requiring the inclusion of other less luxurious items.

“I have seen people purchasing filet mignons and crab legs with their EBT cards,” he said. “When I can’t afford it on my pay, I don’t want people on the taxpayer’s dime to afford those kinds of foods either.”

As you can see, his concern is not with the nutritional values of the food, but with the perception that these people should not have this kind of food. Canned tuna is OK. Ahi tuna, though, is clearly out. Processed fish sticks are acceptable. Fresh fish, not so much.

Nutritionists already are concerned about SNAP benefits and healthy eating. And that might be an interesting discussion to have. The conversation sparked by this kind of legislation, however, is misguided. Worse, it is uncharitable. It reflects an unhealthy attempt to stigmatize, marginalize, and control a population already suffering under heavy stigmas, living on the margins, and heavily controlled by burdensome government regulations and police interactions.

Why should any of us care how a particular family chooses to spend its money or what it chooses to eat? All of our families make choices regarding food that is subject to second-guessing by others. Maybe we splurge on steak because it is our son’s birthday. Maybe we buy a pack of cookie-dough flavored Oreo’s just to have a simple snack at the end of the day. Maybe we just buy whatever’s on sale.

Rules such as the law being proposed in Missouri aren’t about healthy eating. And they are not about preventing fraud or making the system function better. They are about shaming. They are about judging. They allow us to make a moral judgment about a person and tell that person how to behave. At some level, they allow us to punish someone for being poor. Food is an essential human right. And rules like this embarrass people for daring to try to exercise that right with dignity.

If we say we’ll feed someone, but only on our own terms, we are not doing it for them, but for ourselves. It is already difficult enough for someone to get access to sufficient nutrition. There is no need for us to be smug and insufferable about what sorts of nutrition we’ll let them have access to. We don’t need to be latter-day soup nazis.

— // —

  1. Certain elderly and disabled recipients can use SNAP benefits in exchange for hot meals at pre-approved restaurants. The idea behind this is that food is not particularly helpful when someone lacks the means to actually cook it.
  2. Similar calculations govern most, if not all, programs that form part of the so-called “safety net.” Beyond income limits, certain immigrants or other non-citizens are excluded from these programs. Because, of course, poor immigrants don’t need to eat?
  3. Such calculations are quite complex. The link above contains the full chart for both assets and income limits.
  4. The government assumes that a household will spend 30% of its income on food. Thus, a “maximum allotment” is determined based on the income eligibility. The specific applicant has his or her monthly income multiplied by 0.3, that amount is subtracted from the monthly maximum allotment, and the difference is the actual benefit.

How Long? Not Long: Our Need of Rest and Renewal

This post by Brendan Busse, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

At the end of the 5-day march from Selma to Montgomery, Martin Luther King, Jr. noted that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Some days we may feel the curve of this arc but many days we sense only its length. “And how long?” they had asked. It was a dignified version of the question every tired child knows too well: “Are we there yet?”

We’re not there yet. It appears to be, as Mandela would say, a long walk to freedom…and even longer still to justice and peace.

During our many years of Jesuit formation our Constitutions require us annually, in addition to an 8-day retreat, to take a few days of silence and prayer to renew our vows. It’s a strange thing to do since our vows are perpetual and they don’t, technically speaking, require renewal. But the wisdom of our founder Ignatius is evident in the fact that we — work-addicted Jesuits, like all mission-driven people — need the rest and the reminder that these retreats provide.

We need to remember, even and especially, the things we know to be permanent. We need to remember what we’re living for, what’s worth fighting for. We need to remember our fundamental call to love and to serve and we need to ask for the grace necessary to fulfill it.

For this, we need time and space. We need renewal and rest.

***

On the first day of our retreat I took a short walk to a small outcropping of rocks up the hill behind the retreat house where I stumbled upon the foundations of an old castle watchtower. This happens when you live, as I do, in a place like Spain where an old pile of rocks isn’t always just an old pile of rocks. There was a wide view and plenty of solitude. There was a strong breeze, some hardy shrubs, and a few lone pines gnarled by years of, well, simply standing their ground in this rocky and windswept place.

Among the scrub brush and the boulders I noticed an impressive collection of trash, the usual detritus one finds in the transitional places between our great cities and the wilds that surround them. The trash in these liminal places is always medicinal — cigarettes and beer bottles, condoms and junk food. There is a hint of desperation in every piece: a butt, a bottle, a bag, and a bang. I don’t mean to be crass, only to acknowledge that this trash was carried here by someone in want of something. What had been a watchtower was now a field hospital for the urban soul.

Here was something human. Here were traces of cravings and the quest for their relief. Here were hidden love affairs and lonely acts of self-destruction too shame-ridden to be shared. Here was someone looking for something or running from it. Here was a person on the long walk to freedom hoping for a bend in the road.

***

The second day I walked a bit further on than the first; just a few hundred yards further up the trail, but here there was no more trash, only the cold breeze and the brush. I crushed some dried lavender buds between my palms and held my hands over my nose and mouth drawing the first few deep breaths I can remember taking in months. I let my fingers rake down through the full length of my beard which is now too long or not long enough – I’m not sure. And then there were tears. For no reason at all. Or tears for every suffering yet unfelt yet suffered still. And yet, it wasn’t sadness that I sensed, but a kind of freedom — serenity.

I found the sunny side of a boulder to lean against. Between the light of the setting sun and the cold breeze, the tears and the lavender, something very much like peace came over me. I sat there without urgency or concern. I sat still for a moment and received something lovely, something worthy of the name Spirit. I sat with a heart full of gratitude for the life I’ve been given to live, for the labor I’ve been called to undertake. I sat there until I felt ready to stand and walk again. How long? It wasn’t long. But it was enough for me.

***

We need rest. We need hard work and creativity and struggle and sweat, but we also need rest. If we’re going to respond to the challenges before us, if we’re going to heal the wounds behind us, we need rest. The world is a weary place of late and we could use a break, a few deep breaths and a moment of silence. We need a place to get off of our feet for a while. We need to set our eyes on a distant horizon. We need to sense again the arc in this long road that bends towards justice.

During the final night of our retreat it snowed. Light flurries continued throughout the morning as I walked along the same path as the days before. Soft flakes had fallen on the hard places and the barren, on the trash and on the trees. All was blanketed with snow. There is no better word for this than ‘blanketed.’ There is a tenderness to it — something of the heavens reminding us to be still, reminding us that sometimes conditions are perfect for the magical, the tranquil, the beautiful, and the free.

This is not only a convenient metaphor. As my drought-stricken Californian friends will understand, snow is also water in reserve for the dry months ahead. I hope the memory of this moment sustains me like the snowpack sustains our urban life. But even so — even as a metaphor, a reminder of serenity — it was a turn towards peace, and that was enough for me.

I returned to the over-heated retreat house full of retired nuns and young Jesuits. We gathered together in the chapel. We knelt before the consecrated bread and wine and we spoke again the formula of our vows: “Almighty and Eternal God… you have given me the desire to choose this life…I ask you now, again and always, only to give me the grace I need to fulfill it.



Born in Love: On Advent and Adoption

This post by Eric Immel, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

There’s a book for everything. Everyone Poops is a seminal tale that comforts children when they start to realize that their bodies produce smelly, tummy-turning gifts for their parents. Other books teach us where our belly buttons are, how bulldozers and cranes rest after long work days, what personified upright-hopping inchworms and lady foxes do for a living, and just how curious monkeys can be. In my case, they taught me about the thing I remember learning first in the world–that I am adopted.

I have never met my biological mother. I know her name–Nancy. She sent me a Chicago Cubs jersey in the mail once.  She might live in Chicago, where I am now. She is the reason I am here, not in Chicago, but in the world. A Jesuit, sitting in a library, avoiding the papers I have to write and the books I have to read, and thinking of her.

Until recently I took it that my adoption was relatively easy for all involved. My parents were looking to grow their family, and adoption was the way to do it. The arrangement was made before I was born, and on July 17th, 1982, while my dad was running some sort of road race, the call came in that I was on the way. Soon enough, I was nestled into a comfy crib at 2701 Lola Drive, out of the arms of the woman who bore me into the world, and into the home of my parents. I am their son now, the second of three adopted children, and their baby boy. Easy.

I grew in awareness of adoption and love while sitting in my parents’ laps and reading books.  The message was simple: you are loved because you are adopted, and because you are adopted, you are loved. I was proud of that. I felt unique. Love and adoption were inextricably linked. Once, in second grade, a class rival of mine called me an orphan–a clear attempt to shoot down my adoption pride–and while it hurt (I still remember it), it was easy to overcome. I am adopted, and I am loved.

***

During Advent of my first year as a Jesuit, a kind and thoughtful older priest gave us a three-day silent retreat. In his first talk, he posed a seemingly painless query: “Where did you come from?” Like a good little novice I settled in the dining room of our house to prayerfully ponder the question. Where I came from flooded my imagination as I retold my own story.

My life spread out before me. The cookie monster birthday cakes, the all-cousin wrestling matches in my grandmother’s basement at Christmas, the haunted house-inspired hand hold with my first ‘girlfriend’ in 6th grade (the zombies didn’t make my heart pound nearly as much as she did), the eighth grade and high school graduations (and piles of thank-you cards I never sent), the first 8-hour drive to St. Louis for college, the pain and joy of becoming an adult, the first real job, the bills and impending debt, the ashamed (and privileged) calls home for a little extra cash, and, of course, the discernment that led me to that table in that dining room in that novitiate on that day during Advent. That’s where I had come from.

But then, I opened the Bible, a different kind of book to be sure, but another one that I started exploring as a child. I read about a young woman named Mary. I suddenly realized–I always knew that I was adopted, but I had never really thought about the fact that I was born.

***

At some point, she figured out she was pregnant. I can’t ever know the true feeling of what that means, but here’s a reality: I was a mistake, the product of a love that didn’t last. At least, a love that wasn’t ready for me. I wasn’t expected or planned. I wasn’t wanted. There must have been fear, frustration, hurt, anger, and darkness. And yet, for nine months, she carried me, she fed me, she gave me herself and then she gave me away. I trust that the fear made way for faith. The frustration made way for conviction. The hurt made way for healing. The anger made way for love. The darkness made way for light.

When that angel showed up for Mary and told her, I imagine that her breath was taken away. She had been daydreaming about her betrothed, looking forward to a long life with him, raising children, working hard, enjoying his loving arms at night. In an instant, though, everything changed. Jesus was unexpected and, perhaps for a moment, unwanted. As the poet Denise Levertov writes, “This was the moment no one speaks of / when she could still refuse. / A breath unbreathed, Spirit, suspended, waiting.”

God waited and Mary responded in love. She remained in that love despite everything. She made Him possible. It is this that we celebrate, and this that we remember.

I am here because she loved me. She loves me because I am here. Jesus lived because she had faith. Jesus and I — just a couple of unwanted baby boys — born in darkness but adopted in love. If Nancy ever reads this I hope she knows that she is loved too. I hope she knows that she was brave and that I am grateful.


On Love and Dignity and Dying

This post by Jason Welle, SJ is also featured on The Jesuit Post.

Maybe by now you’ve heard the story of the California woman who shortly after her 29th birthday learned that she had brain cancer. About two months after her initial diagnosis, she learned that it was a very aggressive, incurable cancer and she was given six months to live. She and her new husband moved from their San Francisco home to Oregon, because Oregon allows terminally ill patients to end their own lives with the use of a physician-prescribed drug.

She is young. She loves her husband, he loves her. She has a pretty good idea of how the next months will play out. She wants her final months, and especially her death, to be dignified.

I understand all that. But I would like to tell you a brief story about another life. One that was also challenged by cancer, that was given a limited time, and that was also full of love and dignity.

Just over three years ago, my brother Tony was diagnosed with cholangiocarcinoma – a very rare cancer of the bile duct. He only knew at first that he was stricken with a vicious case of jaundice, but a quick-thinking physician sent him immediately for a CT scan. What they found was a massive lesion – 14cm – on his liver, and subsequent scans showed that it had already metastasized to the lymph nodes. There would be no cure, and his blood was so poisoned by jaundice that they couldn’t even start treating the cancer directly. That was in June, he was 45, and we would be lucky if he was still with us at Christmas. Tony, then, knew despair.

That summer we went as a family – Mom, Dad, Tony, and me – for one last trip to the Eastern Sierra, a wonderfully beautiful place crowded with so many happy memories; where we had spent dozens of summers together camping and hiking and fishing – being a family. One morning, Tony and I went for a slow, painful walk.

At one point on the walk, Tony looked at me through tear-soaked eyes and said,

“Do you really think God would hold it against me if I were to make my own decision about when to end it all?”

Or, in other words: Would it really be such a sin to stop the ordeal, the anguish, and the misery he knew he was facing?

“I don’t know,” I replied through tears of my own.

“But,” I went on to say, “what I do know is that we love you so much, and we want to be able to love you all the way through this; we would support you, and it would never be a burden on us to be with you and care for you even in your suffering. Tony, please, let us do that for you. Let us love you to the end, whenever that may be.”

But just after that, the biliary drainage catheter that the doctors had placed – the one that came out of his right side and connected to a bag that he wore strapped around his leg, the one that became a permanent part of his body – started to bring the jaundice under control. And once the jaundice came under control, his oncologist could start a chemotherapy regimen – smaller than recommended so Tony could handle it. Almost immediately, he started to make a turn for the better: he was in less pain, and the jaundice went away so he wasn’t always nauseous. His energy returned, and his spirits lifted.

Thanksgiving came – and oh what a Thanksgiving that was! And then Christmas came. The six months given to him when he was diagnosed came and passed. Tony once again felt strong, positive and happy. He was playing gigs with his band again, and he was going for hikes and soon enough short backpacking trips, and even going skiing. He fulfilled a dream of going to Italy, and got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Keck Observatory in Hawaii.

All the while, the reality of his illness was always right in front of him: chemotherapy every two weeks, regular replacement of the catheter, sometimes on an emergency basis when it got misplaced, like it did when Tony and I went to Glacier National Park and I had to drive him three hours to the nearest hospital. But really, for two years, Tony’s life was… well, it was like a miracle. He had his dignity, and death no longer seemed imminent. And we thanked God. Despair had been replaced by courage.

Last year, Tony had a major setback. He suffered an aneurysm on an artery attached to the tumor. He spent most of the summer in the hospital while his doctors tried to figure out a way to stop the bleeding; they finally came across a similar situation in a medical journal, and found the successful treatment via an unconventional method. Tony finally came home from the hospital, but he never fully bounced back. That summer marked a turn for Tony, and he knew it, but he kept fighting. And as one chemotherapy regimen ceased being effective, the doctors cycled through the next combination, and when that stopped, so on through the next.

Last December, on top of Tony’s illness, our dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. It had already spread to the bones by the time it was caught. There would be no cure for him either. He advanced very rapidly, and very soon his pain became unmanageable without the help of hospice. Even though Tony had his own fight, he was there to help my mom care for my dad. It was not easy for him, but Dad had been there for him when he first got diagnosed, and now Tony was there for him. Who wouldn’t do that for someone they loved? Courage was magnified by heroism.

Dad died this past May, at home, quietly, under the care of my mom and my brother, with the support of hospice. And the three of us, my mom, Tony, and I, we mourned together.

Just after my dad died, Tony got the news that he had run out of treatment options. There was simply nothing left that medicine could do to stem the advance of his cancer. So Tony made the decision – on his own, in his own dignity – to stop medical care and transition onto hospice. This time, I could be there for him. Steadily he declined. With the help of hospice, we could manage his comfort medicines, which we tried to balance between pain relief and giving him the lucidity he wanted. His friends had time to come and say goodbye. Then there came a point when pain relief mattered more, and we had the ability to manage that, and keep Tony comfortable.

One Saturday night at the end of July, my friend Fr. John came to the house. We blessed Tony with the waters of Baptism, and we anointed his head and his hands with the Oil of the Sick. I held Tony’s head in my hands, and I kissed him, and Mom and I told him we loved him. This time, however, we told him it was ok to let go. He didn’t need to fight any more. Just a few hours later, Tony died.

In the end, we couldn’t take away Tony’s suffering, or my dad’s. The sadness and grief still weigh heavily on me and my mom. I’m not sure I can say that Tony’s suffering and death were beautiful. In fact, it was messy sometimes. Yes, there was pain; it was painful for him even though we did our best to manage it, and it was painful for us who loved him.

But his dying was never without dignity. I asked Tony to let us love him through his sufferings, and we were able to love him all the way through to the end. And in letting us do that, he showed us courage and heroism, and embodied real dignity. Tony’s journey through his own illness, suffering and death was nothing short of courageous; but that he did all this and cared for my dad in his illness and death is simply heroic. Courage and heroism aren’t born in complacency or contentment, nor are they the hallmarks of fearlessness and ordinary strength. They are created in response to trials and suffering, and they’re evidence of the triumph of hope over despair. Dignity too is made possible through courage and heroism, but love makes all of these possible; love in time of affliction is the condition that makes dignity a reality.

No, dignity isn’t opposed to suffering; sometimes in suffering dignity reveals its truest face.