Growing Up White in White Spaces: Incomplete Glimpses of Trinitarian Communion

Where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships? I learned it in Oakville, Missouri at Queen of All Saints Catholic Church: on Catholic Youth Council (CYC) sports teams, at De Smet Jesuit High School, and through my family. I was grateful for these loving communities. I still am. They inspired many moments of joy and laughter, offered me friendship, taught me teamwork and sharing—and patience and prayer and self-giving love—and in so doing gave me a glimpse of the ever-loving Communion of the three divine Persons whom we celebrated last month on the Feast of the Holy Trinity.

On that Sunday, amid the civil unrest prompted by the latest incident in our history of systemic racism, I once again noticed the incompleteness of the image of the Trinitarian Communion that my upbringing offered me. To be sure, no image of Communion offered in our finite temporal reality could ever completely convey the grandeur of the Trinitarian Mystery. Every child’s upbringing will provide glimpses of the Trinity in the communion they experience through ordinary human relationships, but they will each have blind spots in their vision of the Trinity that is the infinitely knowable Communion of divine Persons. Prompted by this intersection between our nation’s civic life and our liturgical year, I would like to offer a reflection on the blind spots that my suburban St. Louis upbringing left on my understanding of the God who is Communion. I believe such individual reflections can be a key step in unraveling systemic racism and living in full unity with God as members of His Mystical Body.

So I ask again, where did I—and you—learn Communion through human relationships?

Oakville, a community of about 10,000 people during my years there, sits at the southernmost tip of St. Louis County. The result of suburbanization, it offered a safe and calm environment as a child. I would run out to the ice cream truck in the summer, umpire at QAS, explore the natural beauty of Bee Tree Park, enjoy frozen custard with my CYC teammates after games, and excitedly pester police officers for the free Cardinals baseball cards they passed out to kids in this tranquil St. Louis community.

When I was 18 and geolocating myself in stories more expansive than Oakville’s, I researched the demographics of the suburban community, and what I discovered was striking but not surprising: Oakville’s population was 98% white. The most recent US Census data has “White Alone” at 96.2%. Neither percentage is surprising given the de facto segregation brought on by mid-century “white flight” to the suburbs, an American phenomenon particularized in suburban communities like Oakville.

Queen of All Saints, my local parish, reflected the racial makeup of Oakville itself. Through my nine years of Parish School of Religion (PSR) classes, my approximately 17 seasons of CYC sports, and my 15 years of weekly Mass attendance there, I can only recall knowing of a single black member of our parish community. (The fact that he stood out to me in itself reveals the distinctiveness of racial minorities in such an overwhelmingly white parish). When I listened to my priests’ and deacons’ homilies, I heard the wisdom and holiness of God’s ordained faithful, but only from the whites among God’s ordained faithful. When I lined up before the CYC soccer, baseball, and volleyball games to open our competition in prayer, I did so alongside loving teammates and coaches, but only white teammates and coaches. When I attended adoration, I kneeled in silent prayer with other broken yet devout searchers, but only the white subgroup of broken yet devout searchers. After I worshipped at Mass and waited as my dedicated mom and stepdad chatted with other parishioners, I was absorbing community life, but only community life between white parishioners. When I checked in with my supervisors and laid out pregame instructions to coaches as a CYC umpire and referee, I encountered men and women modeling the virtues cultivated by youth sports, but only white men and women with white cultural fluencies. My formation in Christ at QAS was rich and textured, but nonetheless incomplete in presenting me with the racial and cultural diversity that lives through, with, and in Christ’s Mystical Body.

At DeSmet Jesuit High School, a community still close to my heart, I gained a more representative, though still incomplete picture of the Church in St. Louis. Across 8 semesters totaling 54 courses, I had zero black teachers. On my six or seven high school retreat experiences, I don’t recall ever hearing a black speaker. During my one season playing soccer and four playing volleyball, I never had a black teammate or coach. In my all-honors core schedule, I do not recall having a single black classmate in my honors classes—meaning that I learned about the international slave trade and Western imperialism in AP World History class without any black classmates, I learned about the United States’ fraught racial history in an AP US History class without any black classmates, I had peer-to-peer discussions about Miranda rights and affirmative action in an AP US Government class without any black classmates, I considered the racial dynamics of Shakespeare’s Othello in an Honors World Literature class without any black classmates, I read Huckleberry Finn in an AP US Literature class without any black classmates, and I read through invaluable works of the Western literary canon in an AP World Literature class without any black classmates. Consequently, some of the most valuable insights afforded by my academic education were cultivated in my mind without being filtered through the perspectives, objections, insights, and experiences of any black members of the Mystical Body. Some of my most unconscious assumptions about authority, intelligence, academic knowledge, course content, and social norms were established in the wonderful, loving, academic environment of De Smet, but one nonetheless lacking the presence of any black voices.

Systemic racism, to be sure, was addressed in my Morality and Faith & Justice courses. The former was taught by Mr. Donahue, a man I privately criticized at the time as a “bleeding heart liberal”—a “snowflake” before the word itself gained such as disparaging and politicized definition—but whom I now recognize as a Christian more fully attuned to Christ’s summons than my argumentative, intransigent teenage self would allow. I grew more deeply in love with Christ at De Smet, and that Jesuit Catholic community certainly set the moral foundation that makes this very reflection possible. Still, my experiences there left me with blind spots in my conception of the Holy Trinity’s Communion which we find reflected in our human relationships.

I share all of this for several reasons. Let me first address some objections that I have come to expect given the ideological blinders worn by too many Americans when discussing race-related experiences. I do not share these reflections as a performance of self-flagellation for white guilt. I do not share these reflections out of deference to the illiberal demands of leftist, identitarian zealots. I do not share these reflections to heap shame on white St. Louis Catholics or on faithful communities as beautiful and good as Queen of All Saints or De Smet Jesuit High School. (De Smet in particular appears to have begun intentionally addressing the racial disparities in society and in their school community by increasing the racial diversity of their faculty, establishing race-conscious scholarships, and providing student programming to heighten racial consciousness.)

Rather, I share all of this so that my fellow white Catholics can reflect on their own blind spots and work to see and hear the nonwhite members of the Body of Christ. My hope is that white Catholics throughout the US might commit to, as St. Louis’s Archbishop Carlson recently urged, “listening to our brothers and sisters of color and learning about their experiences, their triumphs, their struggles and sorrows” so that we Catholics can walk together through these tense and perhaps transformative moments in our nation’s history.

How can we do this? Plan parish movie nights around racial justice topics. Start a small group to read the US Bishops’ pastoral letter on racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts.” Email your Catholic school’s administration and request new programs. Ask your diocese to host a Theology on Tap series about being bridge builders across our nation’s and your city’s racial divide. Speak to your children about systemic racism—not just overt prejudice—and share with them the names and stories of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Such actionable and reasonable steps, even if potentially uncomfortable, would strengthen Christ’s Body and provide a new angle from which to see the Trinitarian Communion alive in our world.

Michael Jezewak is a high school theology teacher who has been formed by Jesuit, Christian Brother, and Augustinian Catholic educational institutions.

Second Line Remembering: Toward a Theology of Zoom Liturgies

Our Predicament

In these past few months, which have unpropitiously—or, perhaps, fortuitously and providentially—included the holiest days of the Christian year—the Triduum—American Catholics have found themselves in the unusual predicament of having regular access to Mass unavailable to them. Even in typing out that overlong sentence, it becomes clear how narrowly—geographically and historically speaking—widespread access to the Eucharistic feast has been an assured constant in the lives of Catholic Christians. Throughout Christian history and still today in the Amazon, rural North America, the Middle East, and Asia, Christians have found themselves prevented from participating in the sacrament that is the source and summit of the Christian faith. In solidarity with the Christians we too often forget, most Catholic Christians across six of Earth’s seven continents find themselves now in the third month of Sundays without Mass, days uninterrupted by a thirty-minute liturgy of thanks.

Our states seem to be on the cusp of re-opening, Churches about to host again the celebrations of the Eucharist. It seems that in-person Mass attendance is imminent for the physically fit. We are eager to “return to normal,” find a “new normal,” and relegate our experience of eucharistic deprivation to an uncomfortable episode that we can quickly leave behind. But perhaps we would do well not to let the uncomfortable solidarity of sacramental deprivation in which we have been dwelling pass without reflection.

The hearts of the Church’s members yearn to participate in the Eucharistic feast, but the promise of Christ to remain with his Church, always, to the end of the world (Mt 28:20), while sacramentally fulfilled by the Eucharist, is a promise that holds true even in spaces where the Eucharist is not. Christ’s presence in his mystical body—the Church—opens up endlessly new spaces in which we can participate as an ecclesial body in this strange new time.

Empowered by the reality of the mystical body of Christ, present in the Eucharist and in the fundamental sacrament of the Church, Catholic Christians can use the new tools and spaces of their particular epoch to create new forms of communion and offer new modes of witnessing. While I remain deeply skeptical of the internet, screens, and digital communication, it is clear that whatever space that opens up, Christ can be made present there. If Christ can harrow even hell, it seems quite possible he can redeem Twitter.

In response to the isolations and distancings of COVID-19, the Church has responded in creative ways to the absence of our physical celebration in the Eucharist. These stop-gap measures merit theological reflection, since, as actions of the Church, they are inherently theological actions. There are two forms of these liturgies I will examine, which have raised theological questions for me concerning their nature and action. The first liturgical form is digitally participating in live-stream Masses. While debates go back and forth regarding the benefits of live-stream Masses, the live-stream Mass has been the mode by which many Church members who are homebound, elderly, or ill have attended Mass before the current pandemic.

But, before examining this more popular form, I will examine a liturgical form that held surprising profundity in my experience of it: the lay-led Liturgies of the Word. Empowered by the Eucharist, by Christ’s presence in his mystical body, Christ is truly present wherever Christians gather in his name (Mt 18:20). Christ is present in the prayer happening via video call, in private homes, or among families participates memorially, albeit not sacramentally, in the liturgical actions of the Eucharist. These lay-led prayers recreate liturgical participation in a particularly poignant and theologically compelling manner. This essay is an attempt to both share my own experience of prayer in a time of pandemic and to offer a theological explanation for how the grace of the Eucharist operates in the liturgies of these lay actions and digital spaces.

Primary Tensions

The two primary tensions in the phenomena of digital witnessing to Eucharistic celebrations that must be addressed are the physical and spiritual participation and the local and universal dimensions of the Eucharistic celebration.

The Eucharistic celebration is always the action of the whole Church, not simply of the priest. It is a sacrifice offered in the name of and with the Church universal. Wherever the Mass is celebrated, the whole Christ is there, meaning that Christ’s mystical Body, the Church, is present there. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines the Church as, inseparably, the liturgical assembly, the local community, and the whole universal community of believers (§752). “The Church” is constituted of the persons throughout the whole world whom God gathers together through the sacrament of Baptism.

This universal Church is physically incarnated in local communities and is made present as a liturgical celebration in that local community. The Church, the sacrament of Christ in the world, expresses herself most fully in the Eucharist, the paradigmatic sacrament of the Church, who is the sacrament of Christ. As part of Christ’s mystical body, the local church can never be separated from the Church Universal. Thus, each local celebration includes members of the local community who may not be gathered physically at the Eucharistic table and all those members of the Body of Christ, on either side of death, who are alive in Christ. The Eucharistic banquet is a local gathering of a universal communion.

When we witness a Mass via live-stream, we are bearing witness to a local action whose locality we may or may not share. We enter, as witnesses, into the action of a local Church community. But without our physical presence in that shared locality, what does it mean to participate with that local congregation in the Eucharist?

Furthermore, digital liturgies question the limits of “locality” and “presence.” As we witness digital, remote Masses, we no longer are simply spiritually present to that Mass as part of the mystical universal body of Christ. What, then, is the nature of our digital-physical presence at the banquet of the Lord?

The path forward through these tensions that I will propose is memory. Lay liturgical celebrations and remote participation in local Eucharistic celebrations are driven by the fundamental action of the Eucharistic liturgy, anamnesis.

A Digital Triduum

As news of COVID-19 swamped the headlines, as Masses in Italy began to be canceled, and as Lent all too quickly approached Easter, I began to dread its impact on the approaching Triduum. Inevitably, Masses were canceled—and would stay canceled through Easter. In an already devastating news cycle, that realization was greeted with the numb sorrow that permeated March 2020.

But the disruption of liturgical routine is in step with the kairos of the moment. The world has been thrown into a crisis, in the socio-political sense, in a Barthian one. The Church has the capacity, the theological tradition, and the scope of sacramental imagination to respond to watershed moments like the current crisis with creative hope and faith. The Spirit of God assures us that God acts and that God is not bound by the past, but that God is “doing a new thing” (Is 43:19). We can be sure that, just like our brothers and sisters who go without the Eucharist throughout the world on a regular basis, that God is with us in this unexpected and disturbing moment. In a crisis, the liturgies we celebrate, as expressions of our public witness, respond to the reality of God’s continued presence in the Church, even in an environment that poses barriers to the Church’s physical gathering.

Instead of live-streaming services, for the Easter Triduum this year, I participated in lay-led liturgies. Although scattered across the country, a community gathered in an Upper Room of Zoom, digitally bearing witness to the threads of friendship and networks of connection that bind members of Christ’s Church together across state lines and time zones.

First, my experience of participation in the Triduum was due in large part to the traditional practices of physical extra-liturgical experiences. The importance of the Great Fast on Good Friday became doubly significant, as it marked, in a manner the missing liturgy usually did, the liturgical significance of the day. Although unable to gather and participate in the liturgy of Christ’s Passion, our bodies were able to observe Christ’s suffering and death through their hunger. This reemphasized the singular importance of extra-Eucharistic practices in the Church’s liturgical life.

Second, the physical symbols of the liturgy took on a deep significance. On the Easter Vigil, our senses are immersed in physical symbols. Playing with the dualisms of Christianity (light and darkness, the earthy and transcendent, death and life in the waters of Baptism), the Easter Vigil offers a rich cornucopia of sensory memories. In our Zoom liturgy, we began the Easter Vigil liturgy in a dark kitchen. My roommate and I passed the light of Christ between our household candles, recalling the Vigil’s opening liturgy of light. Together, my roommate and I lit a homemade Paschal Candle, in front of a small Pyrex bowl baptismal font.

These symbols clarified the sacramental focus of the Easter Vigil—Baptism. While we missed the full Easter Vigil celebration in the Eucharistic feast, we celebrated the Easter Vigil’s chief liturgical significance as the celebration of Christian initiation. As the traditional celebration for the baptism of new members into the Church, the Easter Vigil remains the night each year in which each member of the Church recommits herself to her own Baptism. Through the recitation of the baptismal promises, each member of the Church commemorates their initiation in Christ’s death and Resurrection. At each Easter Vigil, Christ’s ecclesial body crosses with Christ through death to new life in God (Rom 6:3). The catechumenate does this through their baptism and confirmation, and the Body of the Church does this through the profession of our baptismal vows. Although there was no Mass, our Zoom congregation repeated the solemn promises of our baptism, commemorating our baptism into life in God.

By our interactions with one another, we witnessed physically and digital to the liturgical memories of the Easter Vigil. Participating in the essential actions of the liturgy, our digital liturgy created a secondary order of commemoration. Through our unified remembrance of the symbols of the Easter Vigil, we created a space of memory, a community of witness.

The Zoom community participated spiritually with the churches throughout the world celebrating the Vigil at that moment. But through our physical actions and gathering in the present, through the physical forms of the liturgy, we made our memories of the Triduum present in the here and now. The digitally witnessing community made our past physical experiences of the liturgy present again through our collective remembering. These liturgical actions via Zoom found their source in the memorial action of the Eucharist. Our digital observance and witnessing to the mass is an action derived from the Mass’ own anamnesis.

Witnessing Memory

Most Catholics, myself included, have found our physical participation in Mass each Sunday relegated to watching the Mass via live-stream, through praying together, or spiritual recollection. Our absence from the Eucharistic table can create the false impression that the laity’s presence at the Eucharistic table is inessential. But lay participation in the liturgy is not ancillary to the celebration of the Eucharist. Canon Law insists, “Except for a just and reasonable cause, a priest is not to celebrate the eucharistic sacrifice without the participation of at least some member of the faithful” (Can. 906). Our participation is not optional. Augustine insists that the Church, its laity and its clergy, are all members of the whole Christ. “To [Christ’s] flesh the Church is joined, and so there is made the whole Christ, Head and body.”[i] The Mass is not the private action of the priest, but always, everywhere, the action of the mystical body of Christ constituted by the baptized community of the faithful.

Thus, the laity are called to active participation in the Eucharist, to offer the actions of their bodies and souls in the participation in the ritual of anamnesis. Our participation in the Eucharist is fundamentally a spiritual reality. The Mass is a cosmic action of the whole Christ, drawing all creation together at the Eucharistic table as an offering to the Father. All members of the Body of Christ are included and offered up in the action of the Eucharist. Our spiritual participation in the Eucharistic banquet, then, continues, despite our physical absence from the Mass.

But far from precluding physical participation, spiritual participation in the Eucharist necessarily leads to physical participation. Our physical participation in the sacrament is not a parallel participation to our spiritual partaking, rather it is the action that necessarily follows from the spiritual communion. Our physical participation in Christ’s gift of self is the necessary expression of the spiritual partaking. This physical expression of spiritual communion is enacted most properly and fully in the sacramental participation in the Eucharist.

If we watch or listen to a liturgy via live-stream, our participation is no longer simply spiritual. Our ears, eyes, and bodies witness the celebration of the Mass. Our eyes are physically witnessing something, our ears hear words. Our tongues move in harmony with the prayers of the Mass, or if we choose to pray silently, the synapses in our brains move without the tongues. Our bodies may move to genuflect or stand, or they may sit on the couch, but nevertheless, they are physically participating.

These secondary physical participations witness to the primary physical participation of the local church community in the Eucharist. With our bodies, we become an appendage to the local gathering body. As we watch or listen to the Mass remotely, we participate physically in its memory.

What is meant here by memory? By memory, I mean the action of communal commemoration. Memory is the act of making that which is not currently present present in our own particular here and now. When a communal remembering is “snatched out of its ‘pastness’ to become a living genesis of today.”[ii] In our own particular lives, we know that a picture can make present to our hearts the same joy we felt in the moment of the memory, a particular room or school building can summon up memories of old faces, meeting an old friend can recall to the present a version of ourselves that has past. The Eucharistic prayer’s anamnesis, a sacramental making-present the memory of what has past, is a communal sacramentalization of this function of human memory.

From its inception, the all-consuming monolith of the internet has daunted cautious minds with its labyrinthine limitlessness. A Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, tantalizing with the fruit of endless search engine answers, the internet is also a space that offers the simulacrum of unlimited connection, unfettered by borders, time or space. The internet plays directly into our curiositas and concupiscence—it offers us seemingly unlimited fodder for our acquisitive desires.

COVID-19 has demonstrated the power technology has to connect us and the great joy that meeting via digital platforms can bring. But it has also emphasized for us how poor a substitute for personal, physical contact digital connection is. Video conferencing may seem like a simple simulacrum of conversation, but academics inform us that our bodies innately respond differently to communication over a screen. In the absence of physical contact, our minds have to process information through verbal cues that would otherwise be communicated between bodies. Living our lives in what some Silicon Valley entrepreneurs might deem the most efficient manner, operating out of a single space, only emphasizes our dependence on our surrounding environment and contextual community to act (and live) appropriately.

Despite plentiful critiques of its effect on our brains, hearts, and bodies, the internet, at its best, is meant to be—and can be—a space of witnessing memory. At its (rarely seen) best, the internet offers users the opportunity to bear witness, dimly, as in a mirror, to others’ lives. Through social media, we participate in the memories of others, on the internet, memories are continually snatched out of their “pastness” and into the present of commemoration. “Live-streamed” events heighten this participatory nature, as we participate in the memory and fact of the event as it is occurring.

Made possible by the internet’s nature as a space of witnessing memory, listening to or watching a Mass via live-stream is different than other forms of observing. Watching a play in a theatre is not an act of memory, the play’s action occurs before the audience on the stage, the audience lives in the present moment with it, their breath, attention, and imagination are essential participants in the fact of the play’s happening. Watching a movie is not an act of memory, since the story happens outside of the viewers’ realm of experience and physical location. The audience is not invited to participate, but rather to meditate upon the events unfolding on film. But the internet and other spaces that host “live” events function as unique spaces of witnessing memory. The audience is invited to “bear witness” to an event in which they are not essential participants.

Witnessing an event via a screen, however, can never be a full, direct participation in the instant of its happening, as we are removed from the event by both distance and by time. As anyone who has experienced a five-second delay or a lag between the audio and video of a film can attest, in a live-streamed video event, we are not perfectly “live” or in the moment of the event. Our witnessing is mediated by a secondary space.

While our witnessing participation is not a full participation, through live-streams, we are present in a unique space and manner to a particular celebration of the Eucharist by a local community. The action of witnessing an event by participating in the fact of it happening in a space in which we are not located but that we make present in our own here-and-now is an action of memory. The event is snatched from its pastness and is made present in communal commemoration.

The Mass is always an act of remembrance, anamnesis, the sacramental action of liturgical, communal memory. Our digital participation in the memory of the Eucharistic celebration draws its life from that anamnesis that is the fundamental action of the mystery of Eucharistic celebrations. Absent the ability to participate sacramentally, we, as the Body of Christ, can physically commemorate our participation in the Lord’s banquet in a para-liturgical manner, through these digital spheres, these “second line Eucharists.”

Second Line Parades and Second Eucharists

In New Orleans, second line parades are an established tradition of liberation, with its roots in African American resistance to the oppression of the human slave trade. Sponsored by New Orleans’ Social, Aid, & Pleasure Clubs, exuberant brass band and jazz parades are a pillar of New Orleans culture. The “second line” refers to the neighbors and the community members who accompany the main “first line” band in the parade. Although not constitutive of the parade proper, the second line members, like the band members, participate in the essential function of the parade. Their accompaniment is an act of witness, a secondary participation in the superabundant, overflowing celebration of the parade band itself.

Their action, although taking place in the present, is a sacrament of memory. The second-line band makes present the music of the main band in a new geography, in a new temporospatial locality, in new bodies. Their music brings to a new present, in a new moment, the action of the main band. Their communal action brings alive into their own secondary community the living action of the principal band. Together, making music, the second line’s actions call to mind its traditions deep roots in memories of liberation and resistance. Contemporary second line bands bring into the present its deep past of celebration and enaction of freedom from enslavement, making the past present in the here and now.

Our liturgical celebrations of the past two months have broken open a new liturgical space, or perhaps more properly, brought into the mainstream of American Catholic consciousness a liturgical space that was created with the first broadcast Mass on live television. Then, and now, in Masses streamed on the internet, this digital presence at the table of the Lord enacts a “second line Eucharist.” The second line Eucharists are an act of ecclesial memory by which we are able to witness to the Church’s sacramental remembering occurring in Eucharistic liturgies across the world.

Our extra-liturgical participations that spring from the spiritual reality and the physically expressed memory of our liturgical actions are these second line Eucharists. As we participate in a live-streamed Mass, physically bearing witness through our ears, our voices, our eyes, or our bodies to the local community elsewhere, we make present the function of the universal church.  Our spiritual participation bears fruit in a new kind of physical participation. The community we build with one another, on the margins of the liturgy, creates a new expression of the Church’s life, a rich para-liturgical participation in the Eucharistic sacrament.

Found in the lay-led gatherings via a video call, by which we gather together in a physical commemoration of Eucharistic gatherings, and in houses across the world, streaming Mass onto a screen, second line Eucharists are the joyful expression of the sacrament of Christ’s mystical body, the Church. The Church’s fundamental identity is the remembering Body who eternally, perpetually, snatches the historical memory of Christ’s love unto the end out of the past into the present, so that his sacrifice is the “living genesis”[iii] of each moment of the Church’s existence today.

Renée Darline Roden, a graduate of the University of Notre Dame’s Master of Theological Studies program, is as an editor and playwright in New York City. Her writing has appeared in Howlround Theatre CommonsAmerica, and Dappled Things.

[i] Augustine, Sermon on 1 John, §1.2

[ii] L-M. Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1995) 233.

[iii] Ibid.

The Wounded Healer in a Time of Pandemic

What does it mean to be a minister in contemporary society? Henri Nouwen posed this question in 1972, nearly 50 years ago, as the opening sentence to The Wounded Healer. The world was not under lockdown, but his analysis of the modern person is called into stark relief in a world grieving and fighting a coronavirus. His insights allow us to better serve people in this time, especially those who are isolated by social distancing, our medical workers, and the sick they serve, in whom we see the image of Christ. He reminds us, “The Christian way of life does not take away our loneliness; it protects and cherishes it as a precious gift” (90). This pandemic will pronounce the loneliness of the sick, the doctor, and the person isolating for safety.

Nouwen writes that the modern, suffering person is “inward,” “fatherless,” and “convulsive,” which are essentially three elements of loneliness. An inward person is “convinced there is nothing ‘out there’ or ‘up there’”, and as a result, the search for meaning turns inward (32). In the isolation of quarantine, as the person sits alone with nothing but the internet and (perhaps) their immediate family to entertain them, the person will be forced to think. A non-believer will probably not engage in prayer in the traditional sense, but they will be forced to slow down, because all of the distractions they normally fill their lives with won’t be there. The busy father who uses the fact that he coaches his son’s Little League team as a way to avoid the fact that he never listens to that son won’t have that as an excuse. The busy small business owner who works 70 hours a week to put food on the table won’t have the distraction of work as a way to avoid the deep introspection that allows him to realize that he hates his job. The twenty-something who lives alone won’t have her constant socializing in various groups as a way to distract from the fact that she has no close friends to whom she can open her life. All of these people will be forced inward, to seek. They can “no longer be busy to avoid a painful self-concentration” 996).

Of course, they will not find meaning inside themselves, because only God can fill their need. Because all the distractions that keep people from seeking are gone, this is the perfect opportunity to preach the love of God to these people. We can “deepen this pain to a level where it can be shared” (99). However, if the Church relies on old modes of authority, it will not be able to speak to the modern person, because of the modern person’s fatherlessness.

The fatherless person is one who rejects traditional authority. In the modern world, many people have been hurt by authority figures. In Nouwen’s world, people were fearful of atomic warfare and disheartened by the government’s failure to eliminate the poverty outside their door (35). While the 20-somethings of 50 years later are not existentially fearing atomic warfare, they do have similar feelings about groups that claim authority. They have witnessed or maybe even served in the longest war in American history; they are losing their jobs as the economy experiences a second major crash in the past dozen years; they see horrible sex abuse coverups by the Church they believed in; they see divorces by their parents who won’t speak to one another anymore. Who doesn’t let them down? Their friends—because if a friend leaves, that’s normal. The 20-something is dominated by “the tyranny of the peer group” (7), which has a different kind of authority. To reject the peer group, which is seen as more reliable than the “fatherly” group, is an act of non-conformity, not one of disobedience (35). It will cause shame, not guilt, and as a result is to be avoided at all costs, because not to do so will cause loneliness.

They also want to change the world; they are so dissatisfied with the world that they’ve grown convulsive. They know “the world shouldn’t be as it is, but see no workable alternative,” so they, without the good example of an authority they respect, turn to dangerous answers (38). Suicide, alcohol abuse, drugs, protests without clear legislative goals—these are all symptoms of what Nouwen calls convulsion. They can’t see an answer, but because authority is untrustworthy, the answers of the government and the Church must necessarily be wrong. In the quarantined world of today, symptoms of convulsion are the desire to go out and party. If there’s no hope for the future and the world is lost anyway, why should they not enjoy themselves with the little time they’ve got left?

Hence, the form of authority the Church needs to rely on is accompaniment, as Pope Francis would say, or hospitality, as Nouwen would say. A dictatorial form of authority will not work for a group of people who have learned to reject dictatorial authority, because the groups who claim such authority have hurt them. The Church, which is seen in some ways as enabling child abuse, cannot say on its own authority: “Pray. It will calm you.” It must earn a different kind of authority.[1] And this is the perfect opportunity, because most people will become seekers. By becoming the peer of the seeker, the Church can lead the seeker to hope and growth. Because people have fewer distractions, they are turning inward.

How can the Church gain the authority it needs to offer healing and hope in this time of suffering? Obviously, the goal of ministry is to lead people to growth. But the promise (and threat) of “Heaven, Hell, Purgatory” (18) are not motivating for the modern seeker because the Church has lost its authority for many. In this moment of crisis, there are Christians, even some Catholics, arguing that our spirits are more important than our bodies, so we should go to church, despite the scientific consensus that this will kill people. Of course, this will make the Church lose even more of its authority, when its reputation has already been tarnished by decades of mismanaging the sexual abuse crisis.

Nouwen offers great insights on gaining this authority.. He has already identified a problem, and the problem is intensifying. Now, we must learn from his proposed solution.

He offers compassion as the way that a Christian minister gains authority, as it answers the problem of fatherlessness directly (45). He writes, “Compassion is born when we discover in the center of our own existence…that our neighbor really is our fellow human being” (45). Compassion allows us to look into that inward, fatherless, and convulsive person, and see ourselves in them. As Christians, we might want to believe that we’re not inward. But if we look deeply, we understand that we are familiar with the temptation to not rely on God. We like to believe that we’re not fatherless, but everyone knows the feeling of wanting to be accepted by someone their own age—maybe a crush, maybe a popular person, maybe a friend. We like to believe that we’re not convulsive, but right now, in the fear of the coronavirus, many of us have felt the temptation to give up. The authority of compassion can respond to the desire to be led by a peer, while offering the central Christian message, which is hope in the resurrection. Through compassion, I can show you that I have the same fears, the same struggles, as you, but that because I have tended to them, I can enter into yours and help you heal. Hence, we are in some ways “peers”, in that I derive my authority from similarity, but I am not one who desires to lead you in a destructive way. I want to use our similarity to offer you the love of God and the hope of the resurrection, along with positive, creative outlets.

The example for the Christian is always Christ. In what way do we see Christ active today? Nouwen offers us an insight, referencing a legend from the Talmud. Most of the poor, covered with wounds, unbind all their wounds at once, then rebind all of them (88). “But he [the Messiah] unbinds one at a time and binds it up again, saying ‘Perhaps I shall be needed; if so I must always be ready so as not to delay for a moment” (88).

Who do we see binding one wound at a time, so that they can be of service to those who need it? Medical professionals are one example. Some medical professionals are even living in hotels so as to not expose their families to sickness. They bear the wound of not being with those who would be the most supportive so that they can help those in need. They are sharing the loneliness of the sick person who cannot be visited by the one they love. This is not to mention the immense psychological toll of being unable to save everyone, which can help them enter the pain of the person they are watching die alone. But none of these pains stop them from taking the necessary risks to serve those suffering. They are acting with true compassion—entering into the suffering of the sick, putting themselves at risk, and doing their best to share and alleviate the suffering. Given that we see Christ in the medical worker, what can a Christian minister learn?

The compassion of the medical worker is an example to the Christian minister. Despite changes in our lifestyles, we can still be compassionate. The inward, fatherless, and convulsive people now have all sorts of time to express their desire for something deeper, and Christian ministers have more time to speak with them as our programming drops. Without having to run speaker series, because nobody can come to them, we have more time to have a one-on-one phone conversation with a seeking person. The person at the parish, whom you know well and nobody else does, is probably seeking. Call her. Listen to how she’s doing. Ask questions. Talk about how she’s doing. If she wants, she might say, “Why? Where is God?” You can offer the witness of a God who experienced human suffering and is willing to share her suffering today. You can’t do it in person; but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it.

Nouwen knows that the minister feels unnecessary. The modern person, who is fatherless and inward, does not want a minister who gives them hope out of a tired old story they’ve heard a thousand times. But Nouwen also recognizes that when all the distractions go away, the person will search for meaning. With no opportunity to get drunk with their friends, that 22-year-old college senior who just lost his graduation experience, will be forced to reflect. This is the time the Christian minister can be useful. People could lose all sense of hope as their friends die, they lose their jobs, and they live alone. But the Christian minister can resist that. There is a hope of healing, whether before or after death (82). This hope is one of connection. The suffering of meaninglessness, of not seeing a way out, can be overtaken with connection, as we live as the Body of Christ. You, the minister, are the first sacrament of that connection.

In short, Nouwen has keenly identified the state of the world. He identifies the current state of the unchurched as one of inwardness, convulsion, and fatherlessness. The pandemic will only exacerbate this as we distance. The Christian minister has the opportunity, if they use compassion as their form of authority, under the example of the medical doctor or nurse, to offer hope that the world is now more ready to receive.

Nick Frega is a pastoral associate at Sacred Heart Parish in Newton MA, working in liturgy, faith formation, and bereavement. He has an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and a BA in Religious Studies and Politics from Fairfield University

[1] Of course, the authority of the peer group is not one we prefer to the authority of the father. It can lead to crushing shame when a person feels they have let their peers down (Nouwen 37). The point is not to argue in favor of that kind of authority, just to recognize it as real and a truth we need to respond to.

In a Pandemic, Our Whole Lives Are Sacramental and Liturgical

It was the middle of Lent when the general public of the United States realized, in a dramatic and sudden fashion, that we were facing a global pandemic. As businesses closed, jobs were lost, physical contact was cut off, and schedules and calendars dramatically altered, the human race found itself in a seemingly unprecedented, universal experience of Lent. It was a Lent underscored, highlighted, and punctuated with not just abstinence, but absence: absence of normality, participation, physical presence, and a sense of the future. Like a well-written screenplay heightened by a carefully crafted dramatic score, the experience of Lent was amplified through the novel coronavirus. The coronavirus and Lent taken together had a consonant sound and meaning.

But, now, the Exsultet has been pronounced. The paschal candle has been lit. We now find ourselves in the season of Easter, yet the pandemic continues its course and absence still is felt. How are we, as Christians, just a few days ago present with Peter, the Beloved Disciple, and Mary Magdalene at the tomb of Christ, finding ourselves in such a state of cognitive dissonance? How are we to move forward with Easter joy, ourselves following the command to “go and tell,” when people continue to die, loved ones lose their jobs, and we still face an uncertain future? To shelter ourselves from cognitive dissonance, it may be easier to remain in Lent, to feel as if the Resurrection didn’t happen, to assume that Christ remains in the tomb.

How are we to move forward? The Church shows us. Every year, whether with or without a global pandemic, after Easter, the Church herself continues forward. With Christ’s Resurrection, Lent concludes. Mother Church accompanies us, inviting us to live each day more deeply in the Resurrection of Christ. She also asks us, the baptized, to accompany her newest children, neophytes who have received the sacraments of initiation at Easter. The Church moves forward together, past the boundaries of sacred and profane. During the Easter season, the Church’s focus is to help neophytes “grow in deepening their grasp of the paschal mystery and in making it part of their lives through meditation on the Gospel, sharing in the Eucharist, and doing the works of charity” (RCIA, #244). In other words, in the Easter season, the Church seeks to mature and extend what the neophytes have experienced in their journey of the catechumenate and in receiving the sacraments for the first time. The Church moves forward together towards integration, an elimination of the boundaries that separate our “faith life” from “the rest” of our life. The Church invites us to consider in community how we are being saved through all of our life, not just the parts that we or our culture name sacred or religious. In other words, the Church invites us to recognize the effects, emotions, and experiences of what the Paschal Mystery has worked over on us. After the trauma of the passion, death, and Resurrection, the Church herself moves forward through a practice called mystagogy.

Mystagogy is the “introduc[tion] into a fuller and more effective understanding of mysteries through the Gospel…and experience of the sacraments” (RCIA, #245). It unfolds in an encounter with beauty in the liturgy that leaves us craving more, seeking connections between our life and the Church’s sacramental life. The ancient mystagogues such as Augustine and Cyril invited the faithful to this process through sermons, expounding upon liturgical and sacramental signs by connecting these outward signs to meanings and uses in scripture and culture. We continue the example of Augustine and Cyril when we open ourselves up to the inbreaking of meaning of the liturgy and sacraments for our entire lives through mystagogy. In mystagogy, the Church elucidates how the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus spills over into every area of the neophytes’ lives through sacramental and liturgical signs. Mystagogy is neither teaching nor learning; it is neither simply reflection nor contemplation. Rather,

“[mystagogy] is less an explanation and more an exploration; it is less an explication and more an evocation. It works like sonar: it plumbs the depths not to deny the depths, but rather to point out how deep they actually are. It works like diving gear: it allows one to breathe in depths otherwise inaccessible and to swim down and surface buried treasures otherwise overlooked.” (Augustine and the Catechumenate, 424).

Mystagogy is not an intellectual treatise on theology that holds a particular set of canons or tenets. It is the viewing of something from different angles, a method of beholding mystery from different vantage points. In mystagogy, we are invited to let go of our narrow view of what the sacraments, liturgy, and the nature of Christ are about. Mystagogy seeks not simply to form us intellectually in our faith experiences of the liturgy and sacraments, but rather incites our curiosity to discover what sacramental and liturgical meanings lie at the heart of our cultural, societal, and personal experience. It breaks down what we hide from God, opens us up to be freely overtaken by the waters that washed us in Baptism.

How does the novel coronavirus invite us to be mystagogues ourselves, seeking meaning in our sacramental experiences in this season of Easter? What is the subject of our mystagogy when we cannot receive the sacraments? Mystagogy’s points of departure are liturgical elements, such as what meaning for our Christian lives sacred chrism holds, or how the sacredness of water at baptism spills over to our use of water in our culture and society. However, in a moment where many of us have not experienced the sacraments in months, coronavirus invites us to a reverse mystagogy, to see our very lives as the liturgical and sacramental signs themselves. In this reverse mystagogy, we see that at the heart of our sacramental life as Christians is the mystery of the Incarnation broken through in our human experience:

“Sacraments are not exceptional and extraordinary events; they are standard and ordinary- like baths and dinners, kisses and loving touches, hugs and perfume, prayers and celebrations.” (Aidan Kavanagh)

In a time of this pandemic, we are invited by our painful situation to start with the premise that our lives, in every situation, are sacramental and liturgical. What meaning does our morning ritual of drinking coffee and reading the newspaper hold? Where is God in my choice to be patient with my partner in the midst of conflict and tension? Like the sacramental and liturgical signs explored in traditional mystagogy, this reverse mystagogy invites us to consider how the stuff of our lives leads us to behold the Mystery of God from several vantage points, from the cultural, liturgical, and spiritual, but also from the living room, the home office, and the neighborhood streets. Our relationships, hobbies, and concerns all speak loudly about what we love, hold dear, and would give our lives for. Have we considered that their words speak a spiritual meaning over the whole of our lives?

In being invited to mystagogy during this pandemic, we are invited to consider that the absences and voids we are experiencing are leading us somewhere, past the boundary between our spiritual lives and “regular” lives. We are being invited to see with a new vision, that it is all spiritual and sacramental. The absence of daily routines, the separation of loved ones, and the lack of comforting and friendly physical touch are themselves visible signs of invisible reality. The act of preparing a meal or calling a dear friend from a distance or the time spent with those already in our homes calls to us deeper meanings that speak to our human existence and our need for God. For all of us, there is a lack of something that we previously had before this time, a hunger for something we have tasted before. As Alexander Schmemann says, “Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God.”  We are hungry for something we have tasted before the stay at home orders, the empty grocery store shelves, the lay-offs, and the feelings of perpetual anxiety. But this thing, whatever or whomever it is for each of us, points us beyond to a feeling of hunger that will not be satisfied in this life.

This is the process of mystagogy: to move us forward. What we know about our faith and how we relate to God is deepened through its discipline. The longing, sadness, confusion, and anomie we feel without the presence of one another and the safety of our routines before this point back to our participation in the liturgy itself. That we, in the life we are living now, without ready access to the liturgy and sacraments as celebrated before, are called to recognize our original posture, which Schmemann calls homo adorans: “The first basic definition of [the human being] is that [they] are the the priest. [They] stan[d] in the center of the world and unif[y] it in [their] act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God.” In this situation in which we find ourselves, we are being called to unify what we name as sacred and secular and consider that all is an invitation to worship and bless. The pandemic invites us to this process of mystagogy, of recalling that our everyday lives are instruments of grace, that when contemplated, they reveal the meaning at the heart of our human lives: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16-17).

Colleen Campbell holds a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas, an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently a PhD candidate studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.

The Irishman in the Silence and Still of the Night

This article contains spoilers of the films The Irishman and Silence.

“Well before the light, hold me again with all of your might in the still of the night”

When it was announced that Martin Scorsese was making a film that starred Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, a film that focused on the killing of Jimmy Hoffa and the world of organized crime in the mid-twentieth century, most people probably expected a film similar to Goodfellas or Casino, one that portrayed the excitement and temptation of that criminal world along with the eventual comeuppance that comes for these characters. Yet The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest masterwork, recalls just as strongly his more explicitly religious works, films like Last Temptation of Christ and Silence. In this film focusing on the life of Frank Sheeran and his connections to both Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia through famed boss Russell Buffalino, there is a contemplativeness and a consideration of issues of morality that make The Irishman not just another addition to the list of Scorsese’s great films about American organized crime, but also a meditation on life and the choices one makes throughout it.

Scorsese’s use of the song “In The Still of the Night” by the Five Satins throughout the film, perhaps most notably at the film’s opening when we first encounter the elderly Sheeran, establishes that this is a story about reflection and contemplating what one has done with their life, particularly when they are nearing the end and thus exist “in the still of the night.”

We first encounter Sheeran in an assisted-living home, Scorsese’s camera making its way to him through a long tracking shot while the Five Satins’ song plays. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Scorsese acknowledged that a connection could be drawn between The Irishman’s opening shot and the famed Copacabana shot in Goodfellas even though both what the camera shows us and how it moves is quite different. Scorsese uses the extended tracking shot in Goodfellas, following Henry and Karen’s entrance into the famous nightclub by bypassing the line and going through the kitchen, to both display the life Henry leads (getting past the rules to get ahead, in fact all the way to the front) and to display the intoxication and magic of this life and world that would draw in Karen and Henry.

Scorsese uses the same type of shot to tell a different story in The Irishman. The camera slowly moves through the halls of the assisted-living home, passing a priest talking with someone while doctors and nurses move around elderly men and women in wheelchairs, past a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, while a song from many years ago plays on the soundtrack. While the movement of the camera in Goodfellas is floating, almost ethereal and magical, in The Irishman it has the staid and somber feel of someone going to give an important confession or revelation, a solemn march that makes it evident this is going to be a somber and considered story about reflection and assessment.

This opening, deliberate and carrying with it an appropriate weight, establishes that The Irishman will function as a cinematic examination of conscience for the Sheeran character.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an examination of conscience as “prayerful self-reflection on our words and deeds in the light of the Gospel to determine how we may have sinned against God,” a vital component of properly receiving the Sacrament of Penance. That act of reflection occurs as Sheeran recalls a trip he and Russell Buffalino took, driving to Russell’s niece’s wedding, that also precipitated Sheeran traveling to Detroit to kill Hoffa. By drawing upon these memories, he can recall the choices he has made and the life he lived. Sheeran tells this story after everyone he’s ever known has died; he is left with only his memories of the choices he made. The film stresses the ways in which those other figures, important ones in Sheeran’s life, all kind of fall away as time progresses. In addition to seeing Russell age and deteriorate before our eyes, viewers see title cards when certain figures are introduced in the story that say how and when the character dies. Yet as everyone moves on, Sheeran remains. He is, as he tells a nurse who checks up on him towards the end of the film, “still here” and “alive.” Being the only one left, Sheeran is left in the still of the night as it were, left alone to reflect upon the life he has lived before it will inevitably end.

The appropriateness of this song that recalls the “still of the night,” a time of  silence, manifests itself in perhaps the film’s most interesting and controversial character, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult. Peggy is a silent figure for most of the film, a choice that has led many to accuse Scorsese of diminishing the woman’s place. But her silence throughout the film, her still and constant presence, gives her a power she would not have otherwise. In essence, Peggy is the voice, or perhaps more appropriately the presence, of morality in the film. Throughout The Irishman, we see her as she silently and stilly watches Sheeran, observing and seeing if not what Sheeran does, then the kind of life he’s led.

The moment when Peggy speaks the loudest—both figuratively and literally–is in the wake of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance and death. As the news is reported on the television and her father watches, Peggy asks her father why he hasn’t called Hoffa’s widow regarding Jimmy’s disappearance, seemingly making the connection regarding her father’s involvement in Hoffa’s death. This was the final straw–the ultimate transgression–in Peggy’s eyes. Despite seeing Frank engage in so much illegal and immoral behavior throughout the film, it is this rebuke by his daughter, otherwise silent beside him and suffering while seeing these acts, that solidifies this understanding of him in our eyes. As the elderly Sheeran says, “My daughter […] disappeared from my life that day.” While the amount of dialogue that the character has is quite slight compared to characters played by DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci, her importance is all the greater. She is the specter of morality, the eyes of God as it were, there in the silence.

A connection can be drawn to Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Silence because of the importance that silence and the moment of declaration plays in each. In that film, two Portugese Jesuits travel to Japan to investigate whether or not their former superior has apostatized and minister to the hidden Christians. One of the priests, Father Rodrigues, wonders why God remains silent amidst the suffering of the Japanese Christians and, as he is captured by the Japanese authorities and pushed to apostatize, his own suffering. In voice-over monologue, Rodrigues says about God, “The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing?”

In the climactic moment of the film, Rodrigues finally hears the voice of God as he is faced with the choice of stepping on a fumi-e as a way of publicly apostatizing, breaking that silence. As all other sounds drop out, we hear the voice of God finally speaking, telling Rodrigues: “Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain.” Finally, in the closing moments of the film, we witness the following exchange in voice-over between Rodrigues and the voice of God:

Rodrigues: Lord, I fought against your silence.

God: I suffered beside you. I was never silent.

Rodrigues: I know.


Rodrigues: But even if God had been silent my whole life, to this very day, everything I do, everything I’ve done… Speaks of Him. It was in the silence that I heard Your voice.

God is with Father Rodrigues throughout Silence, suffering along with him. In The Irishman that silent presence comes in the form of Sheeran’s daughter, perhaps the figure most excluded from the world in which Sheeran is living, whose presence has true power and value.

The film ends with Sheeran, having grown old and infirm, beginning to concern himself with death and morality, precipitating a turn towards religion, specifically Catholicism. This begins as Sheeran sees Russell, who is now wheelchair bound and nearing the end of his life as well, going to a church service while they are both in prison for the crimes they committed earlier in their lives. Sheeran looks skeptically at the former crime boss, but Russell says to him, “Don’t laugh, you’ll see.” Sheeran has conversations with priests, attempting to pray, and eventually makes a good confession to one of them. Yet Sheeran struggles, unable to feel sorrow and remorse even as he attempts to reconcile himself. But despite the imperfections of his initial turn back towards God, Frank is still striving after something, if not redemption then forgiveness. In that same conversation with the priest in which he acknowledges he does not feel remorse, Sheeran asks himself “what kind of a man makes a phone call like that,”–a reference to the call Sheeran makes to Hoffa’s widow after his disappearance becomes public, with Sheeran not acknowledging his own role in Hoffa’s death.

We see the priest one more time in the final scene of the film, in Sheeran’s room at the assisted-living home saying the final words of the Sacrament of Penance and removing the purple stole from his neck, implying that Sheeran has experienced contrition and made a good confession. In the final shot of the film, as the priest leaves Sheeran’s room, he asks for the priest to “leave the door open a little,” and we see Sheeran sitting, framed by the slightly open door as the screen goes black and “In The Still of the Night” plays one final time. This calls to mind something that Hoffa himself did, as he would leave the door to his room open, which Sheeran noticed during their travels together. On the symbolic level, it reflects an openness by Sheeran for true contrition and forgiveness, in turn reflecting our own potential for penance and redemption. But it is something that can only come in the silence and “in the still of the night,” in which we must both examine our consciences and asses our sins as well as experience the feeling of forgiveness. Scorsese uses Sheehan, seemingly teeming with sin, just as he used the character of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, to convey that we are all in the world of sin and transgression, yet if we make a proper examination of conscience and ask for forgiveness, it can still be achieved.

The Irishman tells many different stories over the course of its three-and-a-half hour run time. It tells the story of organized crime in America as experienced by one man; it depicts the rise and fall of an important historical figure in Jimmy Hoffa; and it tells a story about the interplay between crime and business in America and how certain people became involved in that interplay to make their way in post-war America. In addition to all this, it is an extensive and thorough meditation by Scorsese on sin, our flawed human nature, and the need to do penance, as the film functions as an examination of conscience for the Sheeran character. Isolated from his family while all the figures he has known throughout his life fade into death, Sheeran grapples with the end of his life and what it has been. Left alone in the silence and “the still of the night,” Sheeran examines his past and assesses the transgressions that he has committed. Sheeran grapples with these sins and a desire to receive absolution for them, and Scorsese tells a story about someone who must address the life they’ve lived, what they have done and what they have failed to do, all before they reach the end of it.

Dr. Thomas Bevilacqua is a visiting lecturer in the English department of Florida State University. His dissertation, which he is currently revising into a book manuscript, examined the figure of the pilgrim in mid-twentieth century American Catholic writing.

Teaching in the Midst of Crisis

“The question that arises right now, more powerfully than any other, is, ‘What can conquer our fear?’…What kind of presence is capable of conquering the deep fear that grips us at the depths of our being?”

I read these words by Fr. Julian Carron, President of the Communion and Liberation movement, when the coronavirus was in the midst of ravaging the Italian region of Lombardy. Doubting that the virus would disrupt life in America as much as it would across the Atlantic, I didn’t realize how much his questions would resonate with my experience in the weeks to come.

My high school juniors, to whom I teach religion and philosophy, began asking me about what we would do if the coronavirus made its way into our area in New Jersey. I quickly dismissed their questions, telling them not to concern themselves with problems that had such a small probability. But as we received the announcement last week that our school would be ceasing in-school instruction and would turn to online classes indefinitely, I realized my nonchalant optimism would no longer be an adequate response.

My normally playful and at times goofy students began looking to me with a glint of confusion, even terror in their eyes. I could hear the vulnerability and neediness in their voices. Even the students who are usually dismissive of me began to expect some kind of answers or guidance.

“When are we going to come back? How long is this going to last?”

I lost count of how many times I repeated the phrase, “I don’t know.” I was faced with my limitation as an authority figure and my inability to gloss over the deep sense of uncertainty that began to overshadow us all.

What does it mean to be an authentic leader to young people, to be a true educator, in times of crisis? I felt myself swaying between different modes of response. I could play the sedated optimist and tell them everything would be fine soon enough. That this will pass and everything will be back to normal again. But to do so would be to lie to my students.

I could cast out the darkness with simplistic pietisms, saying to trust in God and pray that everything will be fine. And yet a simplistic, sentimental deity becomes more and more useless as the situation becomes more and more grim.

Perhaps the safest and most realistic option is to push the ideal of productivity, taking advantage of technological innovations to keep the workflow as normal as possible. I can strive to maintain my lesson plans without having to do away with too much of it in the hope of distracting the students from the radical disruptions from “life as usual.”

But my own fear, frustration, and uncertainty kept me from resorting to any of these superficial responses. Instead of clinging onto the surface of things, I began to peer beyond and wonder, “What does this all mean?” The series of questions that followed once we left school led me to begin to reflect more deeply on what it means to be an educator.

An email followed from my headmaster, a Benedictine monk, the next day reminding us that as members of a Christian community, our position in the midst of chaos and uncertainty is one neither of despair nor of invincibility, but of trust and curiosity. He reminded us of the Israelites walking through the Red Sea, being led forward through calamity. Our job is to “keep walking forward,” looking for ways we can learn from the change in our educational format and for opportunities to be innovative and inspire creativity. “Let’s allow ourselves to be surprised by how the Mystery can reveal new discoveries and opportunities in the throes of crisis.”

My headmaster’s attitude toward our new circumstances brought to mind the words spoken by Pope Francis to a group of Italian teachers back in 2014: “I love school because it is synonymous with openness to reality. At least it should be! Yet it does not always manage to be so, and so that means that the structure needs to be adapted a little.”

My first venture with online teaching the following Monday forced me to decide, will my attitude toward this be one of hardness or receptivity? Will I try to adhere to my usual plans as closely as possible, or will I go into this looking to discover something new about how to educate…with openness to what the Mystery has placed in front of me?

The Pope continued, “We do not have the right to be afraid of reality! School teaches us to understand reality. Going to school means opening one’s mind and heart to reality, in the wealth of its aspects, of its dimensions. And this is so very beautiful!”

But how can one find beauty in such difficult times? How can one find hope in a crisis? Instead of covering over these questions with mere optimism, industriousness, or despair, I decided to ask these questions whole-heartedly as I turned on my camera for my first lesson. I prayed to be able to learn something from the experience, and from my students.

As I began the lesson, I found myself surprised by how cooperative my students were, more so than usual. The timing of our lesson was about half that of the usual class period, so I found myself becoming more animated and theatrical as I bounced from question to question. As I started experimenting with different methods of conducting class discussions, students who rarely ever participated were suddenly attentive and enthusiastic. I was amazed by how such drab circumstances opened the door to new discoveries.

The pope explained: “Teachers are the first ones who must remain open to reality-with minds still open to learning! For if a teacher is not open to learning, he or she is not a good teacher and isn’t even interesting; young people understand that, they have a ‘nose’ for it, and they are attracted by professors whose thoughts are open, ‘unfinished’, who are seeking something ‘more’, and thus they infect students with this attitude. This is one of the reasons why I love school.”

Out of a desire to keep my thoughts “unfinished,” I reached out to several of my coworkers after the first day of online classes to exchange ideas. I was encouraged by their enthusiasm and openness to learning. Inspired by the headmaster’s exhortation to start looking for new ways to “create community” from a distance, one of the drama teachers proposed a conference call to do play readings with students just for fun. Another teacher invited a group of students to eat lunch with her over video conference just to check in with each other. Their creativity was contagious, and new ideas were soon percolating in my mind. The next day, I sent out emails to my students in philosophy club to start discussing Camus’ The Plague and to the students in our campus ministry to call in to do a novena using the Pope’s prayer to Mary for the end of coronavirus.

As I refer back to Fr. Carron’s letter, I am starting to see how much I need his questions and insights to guide me as I continue to ask what it means to be an educator to young people in the midst of a crisis:

“Young people need to see people whose lives, here and now, show the signs of God’s victory, of His true and contemporaneous presence, and therefore a new and different way of facing circumstances, one full of hope and an otherwise unimaginable joy that is channeled into an indomitable industriousness…What we need, therefore, more than any reassuring speeches or moral instructions, is to tap into the people who embody the experience of this victory, that there is a meaning in life proportionate to the challenges. Nothing could be simpler, because in times like this, when hysteria dominates, people like this are so uncommon that they stand out.”

The burden of being an authentic authority figure to these young people rests on my capacity to point them to a solid and lasting sense of meaning upon which they can stand even when their world is being violently shaken by uncertainty and fear. I know that I have no answer of my own to give them. All I have is the beauty that I see emerging within the companionship of my coworkers and the monastic community that guides us spiritually.

While all this beauty hardly eliminates the tragedy and extreme suffering brought on by this pandemic, I’m finding that my certainty of the Incarnation is deepening more and more. That Christ enters into the flesh is not a lofty theological idea, but a lived reality happening in front of my eyes. And in a paradoxical way, I’m grateful that this crisis is helping me to rediscover what it means to be an educator. I pray to keep Christ’s victorious presence in the center of my gaze as I continue learning from these circumstances.

Stephen G. Adubato teaches religion and philosophy to high school students in New Jersey and writes at Cracks in Postmodernity for the Patheos Catholic Channel.

Why Young Men Kill

It’s time we started talking about our young men, about why they become mass shooters, serial bombers, and homegrown terrorists. If any other demographic had demonstrated such a dangerous capacity for violence, we certainly would have probed deeper by now.

98% of mass shooters are men—and most are disaffected young men, whether American, Syrian, French, or Belgian—and they belong to and support a variety of religions and creeds. And yet, we are mostly silent about the demographics surrounding this particularly male phenomenon.

What makes this demographic so volatile?  Some studies suggest increased testosterone or the relative immaturity of young men as compared to young women combined with violence prevalent within entertainment culture and easy access to weapons, may create the potentially lethal combination that explains why young men are more likely to commit mass murder.

Many of the murderers also seem to share a common biography across racial, religious, and geographic boundaries: they were young men who were unable to come to grips with a complex world that did not live up to their own cultural, political, and social expectations. After this, they latch onto some ideology, extremist interpretations of their religion, and/or misogyny to justify their violence.

This awareness of a disconnect between our expectations and reality happens to almost all of us. Life doesn’t work out the way you planned, so you adjust.  Many people, unfortunately, tend to externalize frustration and often quickly turn to reasons “out there” for why things haven’t worked out. So if you can’t find a date, it’s feminism’s fault. If you can’t find a job, it must be the immigrants.

But what leads men, particularly young men, to act out their frustration through violence?

One thing missing from modern American culture is the initiation rite for young men. In almost all cultures, it was understood that boys did not just “become” men; rather, there was an intentional process that they had to undergo and that had to be acknowledged by the elders of the community. Without it, they’d become self-absorbed and violent.

Across cultures, the rites involved some form of separation from family, a humiliation of the ego, a time to grieve, an intentional or sacred wounding, and a time to be silent within nature. It was an intentional, liminal, vulnerable space, where life lessons could be learned through experience. It wasn’t about head knowledge, it was through body knowing.

Our culture initially used war as an initiation process, and when we weren’t at war, we used violent sports such as football or boxing to initiate. While imperfect, these substitutes could be helpful in teaching the young man about community, teamwork, and sacrifice.

According to writer and Catholic priest Fr. Richard Rohr, the intention of any initiation process is to communicate five hard truths:

  1. Life is hard.
  2. You are not that important.
  3. Your life is not about you.
  4. You are not in control.
  5. You are going to die.

The sacred experience of these truths would help the young boy transition into adulthood by desacralizing the self-absorbed ego, reintegrating him back into the community. If not initiated, the young man could become violent and narcissistic. Combine that with access to military grade weapons and extremist rhetoric, and you get a lethal combination.

In Britain an organization called a Band of Brothers has begun a process of initiation rites for formerly imprisoned young men at risk of recidivism. This joins a larger trend of male initiation rites for men throughout the western world.

After turning 25, I decided to attend a version of the male initiation rite. While the retreat was a simulation set within a Catholic Christian space, it helped me connect psychologically, communally, and cosmologically. Suddenly I saw things through a much broader vision than my own ego and the social expectations placed upon me. Suddenly I was unburdened of a lot of cultural baggage. I felt smaller, more humble, and yet also more free to live a good life, to live my life.

I’m aware that there is no one size fits all policy when it comes to any of this. But an anthropological reality remains, that our culture is missing something that many cultures believe is necessary for young men. And our culture is suffering from an epidemic of disaffected young men with access to deadly weapons.

Solutions abound for how to address this issue. Most are politically impossible given the current situation. But perhaps we could agree to some compromises in the meantime. We could raise the age that one could buy a weapon capable of committing a mass shooting. We could create some form of national service for young men and women. We, as people of faith, could draw on our rich history of initiation rites and network of Catholic high schools to reimagine how we form our young men in ways that don’t leave them radicalized by extreme ideologies.

We can and should talk about how these ideologies, combined with easy access to weapons, social isolation, and a lack of mental healthcare contribute to this issue. But we should also talk about the young men who commit the crimes: who they are, why they choose violence, and what we can do as a society to form them better.

Michael J. Sanem is the Director of Faith Formation at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri and studied history, philosophy, and theology at Loyola University Chicago and as a Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.