Conflict, Complexity and Hope: The Millennial Experience

The world is awash in conflict.  The push and pull for supporters to back a particular position is broadcast and often inflamed by digital media.  Suicide bombers wager that death will bring notice to their cause.  They trade their own lives for the publicity and the chaos that ensues when their heartbeat stops.  American politicians, campaigning in a context of democracy, actively engage in attention-getting stunts that translate into tweets and re-tweets, which they hope might eventually turn into votes.  Individually, we post what we think are compelling or insightful messages to our facebook feeds and measure the reception of these posts by the number of “likes” or comments. 

I am beginning to wonder what we lose as a society when we measure the value or worth of an idea by the number of followers, tweets, likes, and hits?  How does the digital revolution contribute to the ground game for justice?  Every day, there are men and women who are laboring to affect change without the hope of a head turn, much less a re-tweet or like.  Many, many of them are simply rising with the sun each morning to face another day of hard work.  They don’t have a marketing or public relations staff advising them on what to tweet when or what image should be paired with their facebook post.  They soldier on with a deep sense of responsibility to make the common good accessible for all.

Earlier this month I started a new job in a fledgling parish-based organization tucked between the parochial school and the rectory.  Barbed wire and concrete do little to communicate the vibrancy inside the gates.  With each ring of the doorbell there is another moment of life unfolding.  I watch one of the priests, collar pushed to the side, papers balanced in one hand and a glass of water in the other, try to answer the door while also answering the phone.  Unfailingly, he greets the visitor with a smile and a kind welcome.  Meanwhile, the parish secretary holds court by the photocopier, turning out flyers for the upcoming health fair outreach.  A somewhat beleaguered young mom, toddler in tow, requests a package of diapers to bridge the days between now and her husband’s next paycheck.

I have worked in nonprofit organizations for over twelve years and several of those in settings with few resources, yet in each one, marketing was a preeminent concern.  I came to this position ready to lend my technological savvy to raise awareness of the challenges facing this inner city parish community and the good work they are doing here. Yet with each passing day I feel less and less comfortable with spending my time promoting the facebook page.  I have a front row seat to very basic Gospel principles in play.  Justice for the broken and abandoned is painfully slow to come, but it is being pursued humbly and earnestly.

One of my favorite contrarians, Wendell Berry, wrote, “I do not see that computers are bringing us one step nearer to anything that does matter to me: peace, economic justice, ecological health, political honesty, family and community stability, good work.”  I am not ready to wholeheartedly agree with him, but I am struck by his observation.  Is my best effort spent in doing the good work or in communicating the necessity of it to others?  What role should digital visibility play in advancing a good cause?  Millennials are perhaps the first generation to have the full range of wired resources at their fingertips, but also to be aware of the complexities that progress can bring.

For Sale

Chaput Makes Right Move, Sells Archdiocese’s $10 Million Mansion

The Philadelphia Inquirer announced this week that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia would be selling a historic property that has been housing the presiding cardinal or archbishop since 1935. The sixteen room mansion is valued at $10 million and sits on nearly nine picturesque acres near the edge of the city. It is presumed that in times past, immigrant parishioners were proud to see that the holy men who led the faithful were installed in beautiful rooms on lush grounds located far from the hard scrabble streets where they resided in crowded tenements. Even as late as the 1960s, against the backdrop of significant urban decline, the Philadelphia property was enhanced by a presiding prelate with amenities like a putting green. However, the mansion–and a seaside vacation house worth $6 million–has become a symbol of an embattled institution out of step with reality.

For Sale

This past week Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. of Philadelphia announced that the Archdiocese had sold their $10 million mansion.

Perhaps it is not surprising then that the impending sale comes this week as Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, OFM Cap. celebrates his first year in office. In a letter to parishioners on this anniversary, the Franciscan Capuchin friar remarked, “At the archdiocesan level, along with continuing legal challenges, we have serious budget deficit and liquidity issues.” He went on to explain that the local Church does have the means to resolve these material issues, presumably through a radical new approach to stewardship.

Toward the end of his letter, Chaput boldly asserts:

The task of renewal will require deep changes in the thinking, behaviors, structures, procedures and organizational life of the diocese… In the years ahead, we need to speak the truth to each other with charity and respect – but also candidly, and without fear. This is the spirit that should animate every level of our Church life, including every pastoral council and finance council in every one of our parishes. No one ‘owns’ the Church: not the bishops; not the clergy; and not our people. She belongs to Jesus Christ and to him alone. But all of us in different ways, no matter what our vocation, have responsibility for the Church and her mission. We need to hold ourselves and each other accountable for living the faith with clean hearts and genuine zeal. The mark of mature Christian discipleship is honesty tempered with love.

As a convert to the faith, and one who came to it in a time of great darkness in Philadelphia, I take heart in the archbishop’s words. He has made decisions that many men before him could not and did not. And yet, there is so much more to be done. Perhaps the cardinal’s mansion could house a new institute devoted to researching and promoting best practices in responsible fiscal stewardship and transparency in church governance. After all, the building is being acquired by St. Joseph’s University. What better way for the next generation of laity and clergy to learn from the pain of the past?