Unchecked Boxes and Encountering God and Holiness in Lent

I was never really a big Lent guy.  Advent was more my season.  Who wouldn’t prefer a decorated Christmas tree to a stringy palm branch, or singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as the snow falls outside the church to signing “Dust and Ashes” on a cold and wet March Wednesday, or a crèche with angels, stars, and barnyard animals to the Stations of the Cross with Roman soldiers, thorny crowns, and lots of weeping people?  Waiting for Santa Claus or waiting for a giant bunny?  Yeah, Lent was just never really all that appealing to me.

And then there was this whole practice of giving something up.  No chocolate.  No TV.  No beer! (Not sure what I was thinking that year).  Meanwhile during Advent it’s all that and more—Christmas movies, Christmas cookies, and Christmas presents.

Who could possibly prefer Lent?

I do now.  But it took the worst time of my life to get there.

On March 3, 2015, my alarm went off twenty minutes before it normally would.  I poured a cup of tea, grabbed my Lent 2015 Prayer Book, and opened up to the daily readings.  Lent was now in its second week and the rituals were in full swing.  Twenty minutes of extra prayer in the morning, one or two daily masses during the week, and an extra stop at St. Anthony’s for confession.  Of course, no pepperoni on my Friday night pizza, and there was the fasting when required.  It was all set up for me to get to Easter, look back, and say, “Well another Lent in the books. I checked all the boxes, so time to indulge in chocolate, TV, and beer.”  But is that what Lent is all about—checking the boxes?  Trying to live this pristine life of following all the rules for the sake of following all the rules?

That afternoon my Dad called and told me it would be best if I came home.  Mom was in the emergency room.  For the next three days, I did not leave the hospital.  What we thought was an innocent fainting spell was actually terminal brain cancer.  Six months later, my Mom was gone.

The three days at the hospital all merged into one continuous, out-of-body experience—like those dreams where you are half-aware that you are dreaming, except I couldn’t trick my brain to change the sequence of events.  By day three, I was exhausted and grabbed some shut-eye on a bench in the ICU lobby.  I was still wearing the same clothes I put on for work that March 3rd morning when I opened the Lent 2015 Prayer Book.  I hadn’t read it in three days, I hadn’t gone to mass, and I had been eating the same assortment of pre-made deli meat sandwiches from the hospital cafeteria, even on Friday. I hadn’t even prayed.  So much for Lent.  All the boxes were left unchecked.

What came next was a feeling of utter desperation.  Not only was it Lent, but my family was in crisis.  Shouldn’t I be in prayer overload?  I felt completely overwhelmed spiritually.  I felt this need to go on a rosary binge to save my mom.  Here she was facing death and it was up to me to pray seventy times times seven.  I kept replaying Matthew in my head, “Ask and it will be given to you.”  I was faced with this monumental task—to pray my mom back to health.  How?  Ten Our Fathers every hour?  100 Hail Marys a day?  Shouldn’t I leave the hospital immediately and go sit in a church and light a million candles?

My thoughts were interrupted when my sister came out to the lobby.  It was my turn to go sit with Mom.

Fr. Michael Himes, a theology professor at Boston College, emphasizes the importance of remembering that we are made “like God,” but we are not God.  It is not up to us to decide life and death.  And that is not only ok, but dignified in God’s eyes.  God so loved the idea of being human that God became one.  In Himes’ opinion, there is no more radical ratification of the dignity of being human than the concept of the Incarnation. Himes calls our attention to the fact that “the Christian tradition does not say human beings are of such immense dignity that God really loves them.  It does not say that human beings are of such dignity that God has a magnificent destiny in store for them . . . No the Christian tradition says something far more radical: human beings are of such dignity that God has chosen to be one.”

Himes encourages us to keep going.  So what, God became human?  What does that mean?  It means that it is in the human life of Jesus, a human life marked by the pain and suffering of a crucifixion, where we learn who God really is.  He explains, “The Christian tradition claims that absolute agape (which is the least wrong way to think about the Mystery that we name God) is fully, perfectly expressed in human terms in the life, death, and destiny of one particular person, Jesus of Nazareth.”  Himes finishes the equation with this—if God is agape, and God became human in Jesus, then the life and death of Jesus teaches us who God is and how to experience God’s presence.

And that is what Lent is all about—experiencing God in newer and deeper ways than we have before.  How do we do it?  By being authentically human, even when that means confronting brokenness.

Fr. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries, challenges us to re-envision how we encounter God:  “We tend to think the sacred has to look a certain way . . . cathedral spires, incense, jewel-encrusted chalices, angelic choirs.  When imagining the sacred, we think of church sanctuary rather than living room; chalice instead of cup; ordained male priest instead of, well, ourselves.  But lo—which is to say, look—right before your eyes, the holy is happening. . .”

I slumped into the metal chair next to my Mom’s hospital bed.  She was fast asleep, recovering from brain surgery, with a dozen tubes and wires connected to machines.  The room was peacefully quiet, filled only with the white noise of the ventilator humming in the background.  She looked so frail.

There was only one thing to do—I gently placed my hand over hers and squeezed softly.  It was that simple.  God did not want me sitting vigil somewhere in a church, fasting from meat, with a sack cloth of ashesGod wanted me HERE.  Right in that hospital chair.  Doing nothing more than holding my mother’s hand.  Because lo—right before my eyes the holy was happening.

It was not up to me to save her.  It was up to me to embrace her pain and suffering, embrace the limitations of humanness, and to say “I’m not here to cure, I’m here to hold it with you.”  It is in these moments when we find God and encounter the holy.  Because, as Boyle reminds us, “in Bethlehem, the words are printed in stone on the ground: ‘And the word became flesh . . . HERE.’”

In His final moments, Jesus embraced not only His own pain and suffering and limitations as a human, but embraced the pain and suffering of those around Him.  In one of His final lessons, Jesus reminded His disciples—and us—what was most important: finding God on the margins of human limitation by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the imprisoned, and accompanying the sick.  Not only did Jesus preach it, but He lived it.  During His final meal, amongst the chaos and uncertainty, He knelt before His disciples and washed their feet.  The next day, in the midst of His own suffering, He offered His comfort to the prisoner crucified next to Him.

Lent is winding down. Holy Week is here.  Let us remember that to understand who God is, to find God, to encounter the holy, is to follow the life and death of Jesus—who took on humanity.  All of it.  Even its pain and suffering.  Let us focus on encountering God this Holy Week.

How?  Try finding God and holiness outside the church, don’t worry about that turkey sandwich you made for lunch on a Friday, and hold the hand of someone who needs you.  Maybe it’s taking a walk with your spouse after a tough day at work.  Maybe it’s buying a coffee for the man who sits outside your office wrapped in a blanket.  Maybe it’s stopping by your grandparents’ house just to say hi.  Maybe it’s picking up the phone and calling that friend who really needs that phone call.

Lent is not about trying to be perfect.  It’s not about checking the boxes.  It’s about being authentically human.  Don’t run away from the brokenness, the pain, and the imperfections, because in those moments we encounter God.  As the women along the climb to Calvary learned, when we wipe the face of those in need, those suffering, those in pain, we see the face of God.

And that is why I love Lent.  It’s the perfect time to be human…together.

Patrick Nevins, J.D. (a graduate of Boston College and Suffolk University Law School) works for the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office in Massachusetts and resides in Natick, MA with his wife Jennie. 

 


10 Initial Observations on Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Exhortation on Young People, Christus Vivit

  1. Read the document instead of news reports about the document. Talk to Bishops and laity who were a part of the process instead of those paid to talk about it.
  2. Remember that the age range of “youth” refers to those 16-29 but is applicable to all young people making key life decisions (late teens, 20s and 30s)…think grad school not middle school.
  3. Pope Francis lives up to his title as Holy Father by calling young people to a radical holiness he models and speaking as a loving Father.
  4. I cannot recall a more kerygmatic or Christocentric Papal document that shows (not just tells) the Church how to proclaim Christ in the 21st Century. Especially moving is chapter four, where Francis lays out 3 truths: 1) God loves you 2) Christ saves you 3) Christ is alive!
  5. As a letter to young people, Pope Francis does not make concrete recommendations to the Church but regularly points back to the Final Document of #Synod2018. Read that next if you haven’t.
  6. The pre-synodal document, Final #Synod2018 Document, and #CHRISTUSVIVIT form a tryptic of theological reflection on young people, representative of the three phases of the synodal process.
  7. Instead of telling leaders and elders in our Church what to do, he models it for them: inviting young people together, listening to them, and speaking to them of Jesus Christ with tenderness and expectation.
  8. The implementation of Christus Vivit is not a new book or printed resource but a change in culture that prioritizes young people. This should make waves. Christian Smith’s early work (Soul Searching) shows that young people leaving the Church correlates with a lack of investment.
  9. Pope Francis raises up the dignity of youth and young adulthood and reminds Church leaders of all ages that this is a spark that must be kindled through mentorship and intergenerational friendship. Mentorship and intergenerational friendship isn’t ordinary and needs to be.
  10. Pope Francis gives young people the green light to run forward as missionary disciples and asks elders in the Church to trust them:

Dear young people, my joyful hope is to see you keep running the race before you, outstripping all those who are slow or fearful. The Church needs your momentum, intuitions, your faith. We need them! And when you arrive where we have not yet reached, have the patience to wait for us” (299)

Jonathan Lewis was selected by Pope Francis as a participant in the 2018 Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. He lives in DC and serves as the Assistant Secretary of Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.


We Can’t Let Outrage and Distrust Dominate Our National Discourse

Over the MLK holiday weekend, as I watched my Twitter feed slowly implode into a confused chaos of rage about yet another incident with a vague but obviously unpleasant narrative, I buckled up for another roller coaster surge of rage, confusion, refinement of rage, apologies, recasting of narratives, and the final digging in of heels into already confirmed worldviews.

As I navigated through waterfalls of tweeted ire, I found myself nodding my head with the professional empathy of my therapist. As I read varying convoluted takes with justifications and finger-pointing following the holiday weekend, I recognized myself in the tortured op-eds.

Our national discourse resembles the dialogues of my worst breakups.

I do not have extensive experience with the politics of the sovereign state, but, at the age of twenty-seven, I do have a healthy amount of experience with the politics of relationships: the platonic, familial, and romantic varieties. So let’s examine the state of our civic union.

Some breakups are triggered because of trauma: domestic violence, infidelity, a grave violation of the emotional or physical health of one of the members—breakups caused by an abuse of power—which reveals the relationship as inherently compromised and needing to be severed. The partners may indeed love each other and continue to see each other as good, but one or both of the parties have betrayed the truth of the relationship to the point that there is no other choice than to draw the curtain on that play.

These traumatic breaks are not the sort of breakups I have experienced. The breakups I am familiar with are the type that both originate and bear fruit in a distorted vision between the lover and beloved. These breakups are caused by a slow breakdown of trust: one party’s action—perhaps fearful, misguided, or thoughtless—is met with pain, judgment, anger, or perhaps a mirroring sense of self-preservation. Miscommunication occurs; plans misfire; misunderstandings compound upon one another. Offenses aggregate until the two persons in the relationship devolve into living in a truly partisan narrative—a she said/he said story where each person is living a radically different version of reality.

At this point, it is nearly impossible to regain a shared narrative. My communication with a partner at this point looks more like shouting at each other across a chasm than inviting each other into a shared reality. Any protest of the narratives we present to one another are simply transformed into further evidence for our own version of the events.

You say that I’m being possessive and needy—well, that’s exactly what an emotionally aloof control freak would say. 

You say I’m being an emotionally distant iceberg? Well you’re a neurotic, distrusting nag.

Once each of us has siloed the other into the role we have chosen for him or her—a role that may, indeed, be based on occasional or frequently-manifested qualities and personality traits—then we both can cement this relationship into a soothing narrative of self-delusion: you are categorically, pathologically wrong, and I am right.

We reframe each interaction between us in this selective new light, locating all the problems in our shared life within the other person, for him or her to fix:

You are only with me to assuage your insecurities.

You are a control freak who wants to micromanage my existence.

You are a person interested only in yourself and not truly in me.

Oh, we are now very far removed from the realm of actual, dynamic human relationship.

Instead of the dynamic relationship between two growing, living persons, we have calcified this relationship into an ideology—a rigid system of fantasy that absolves me of any need for conversion and locates within you a totalizing depravity. You must change; your ego, immaturity, and utterly absent self-awareness are the obstacles between us and happiness.

The question to be asked in the midst of both a relationship careening into a train wreck and in a society that is splitting itself in two with outrage is the same: how do we regain each other’s trust?

The distrust arises first and foremost out of fear: the fear that we, ourselves, are not good. The fear that we are not, pace Thomas Merton, shining like the sun. We are afraid that we will be found wanting, and that we, unlike our more successful and blessed compatriots in the human race, are doomed to failure, to disgrace—to being unloved.

So we take this fear and place it on someone else (passing off blame for biting the apple is the oldest trick in the book). You are the problem—I am not less than lovable, you are less-than-loving.

If there is anything harder than accepting, with full-throated faith, that we are good, it is accepting that we are good and still have much improvement left to do. It is much easier to settle for quick categorization and stereotypes that permit no change, conversion, or grace.

It is difficult to permit our fearful brains to cultivate this attitude towards ourselves: that we are shining like the sun and are called to grow brighter still.

Yes, I am a good writer, but I am not yet the best I can be.

Yes, I am kind, but I can still become less judgmental and abrasive.

Yes, I am lovable and I do love—but there is still plenty of fear in my heart which perfect love has not yet cast out.

It is hard enough to believe this of ourselves. It is mighty difficult to bring ourselves to believe this of others who have hurt us. And it is nearly impossible to cultivate this vision of ourselves and others when we are placed in the collision course of a breakup, when battle lines have been drawn, when we pit ourselves against one another and when we are sure that our victory, our claim to lovability, goodness, or righteousness can only be won by vanquishing the other, by proving them unworthy, disgusting, and unrighteous.

If you are not seeing your neighbor or your relationship through the lens of charity, said a wise priest once, then you are not seeing the truth. To see the truth takes trust.

It is easier to dismiss someone than to listen to them, for we may have to heed them. Their words may place a claim on us and call us to change. But if we read our Gospels, then we will discover that is exactly what discipleship is: the voice of a stranger addresses us while we tend our nets and says: you must change your life.

Perhaps a Native American elder, a teenage boy, or an ex-boyfriend are not Christ speaking to us.

Or perhaps they are.

Perhaps the Christ who “is lovely in eyes not his” can be found by listening to our neighbor with kind ears and approaching them with loving eyes.

For once we are in a true relationship, once we have accepted together that we are in a common project together, then we can begin to trust—to trust that this other person, underneath their own ideologies, also wants the good life—a polis of happiness and justice—and love.

I in no way make light of those differing visions of building life together in a just society, even as I know how fragile the task is of building a common life together in a relationship. But the core, essential glue of both is trust: faith that this person loves me and wants my happiness and flourishing. Only then we can listen to them—accept feedback, take seriously their counsel, disagree with them and offer our own clear-sighted critiques. Our communication can be truly constructive instead of a state of war.

We are not at peace with others, wrote Thomas Merton, because we are not at peace with ourselves. Those who are at peace with themselves, Merton continues, are only so because they are at peace with God. Because they know that, ultimately, they are loved in their imperfections, in their goodness-but-not-perfection. To be at peace with myself and with God means that I have begun the hard journey of responsibility: of accepting that I am good and have more goodness yet to become, of accepting that not only do I shine like the sun, but so does my neighbor.

Renée Darline Roden, a recent 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.


We Need a Whole Life Response to Extreme Access-to-Abortion Laws

My son Theodore was born when he was 36 weeks and 2 days old. Together, his body and mine decided that that was the time his life would transition from one lived inside the womb to one lived outside of it. His birth day was not the day that his life began, it was the day it changed from depending upon an umbilical cord for nutrition to depending on breasts, from being swaddled in amniotic fluid to being swaddled in arms, from sleeping on my bladder to sleeping on my chest. Many things changed the day Theo was born, the value of his life was not one of them.

I write today in response to the extreme access-to-abortion bills being passed, proposed, and considered in several states across the country. My current home state, Vermont, has proposed one of the most severe, calling for unrestricted abortion access for anyone at any time for any reason.

The emergence of these extreme access-to-abortion bills in several states during a time of intense polarization in our country presents a unique opportunity for those who value life at all stages—who often straddle political party lines—to unify. If the pro-life movement acts and reacts in meaningful and intentional ways at this particular moment in history, it has the potential to definitively gain momentum.

The proposed Vermont bill highlights and systematizes values (or the absence of values) in a way that has roused many dormant pro-lifers, and even thoughtful pro-choicers, to speak out against it.

I use the word “dormant” to describe those who, like myself, consider themselves decisively pro-life, but typically disagree with the narrow focus of much of the popular pro-life movement and therefore tend to stay on the sideline when it comes to publicly advocating against abortion. “Thoughtful pro-choicers” refers to those who, while holding positions (contrary to Church teaching) that allow for abortion to be considered in the early weeks of pregnancy or in regulated, informed, medical settings, feel that the proposed bill goes too far in its allowances.

Broadening the scope of the anti-abortion argument to embrace and promote a “whole life” perspective could be the most effective way to protect the specific life of the unborn child.

While often the whole life movement is found calling for those who value the lives of unborn babies to equally value the lives of immigrants, women, non-Christians, those with black and brown skin, prisoners, the ill, elderly, and disabled, among others, now is the time for us to vociferously persuade those who value the lives of many marginalized and vulnerable people that the unborn baby does, indeed, fall into that category. Comparatively, it seems to me that this should be a much easier task.

The pro-choice movement has successfully and effectively framed the abortion conversation as one of women’s rights, ignoring the life and vulnerability of the child. But in what other situation does pitting one group’s rights against another’s result in justice? Creating such stark divisions has often been used to preserve oppression, while justice has been achieved by greater solidarity among the vulnerable and a both/and approach.

Rather than argue for the rights of the women or the rights of their children, we must emphatically reframe the conversation as one of wholistic human rights. Let us not be tricked into the lie of binary thinking just because it is presented as progressive. There is nothing progressive about discounting the humanity of one group of people for the benefit of another. That is a practice that has been used for centuries to preserve the power of the elite.

Whole life proponents have argued that tying legal restrictions on abortion to support for parental leave and protections against pregnancy discrimination could attract a much wider base of support. Promoting and supporting legislation that both restricts abortion access and offers concrete alternatives helps change the question from “Who gets to flourish?” to “How can we ensure mutual flourishing?”

The original version of the Vermont bill stated that “a fertilized egg, embryo, or fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law.” After a public hearing on the bill at the Vermont State House and a committee debate about “how far the bill should go in codifying the definition of personhood under Vermont law” the next morning, the House Committee removed this particularly troubling sentence from the bill before passing it out of committee. While changing nothing in practice, this small measure gives me hope that some of the testimonies delivered at the public hearing did reach the ears and hearts of our lawmakers.

The Vermont bill, as it currently stands, is still upsetting in that it allows for unrestricted abortion for anyone at any time for any reason. However, something stopped the representatives in that committee from definitively claiming that the baby in the womb was not a person. Maybe we can still convince them that it definitely is a person, and that person, like all others, has human rights.

These extreme access-to-abortion bills appearing across the country do not represent who we are as Americans seeking just and humane policies of inclusion that value women, families, the marginalized, and the vulnerable. We can, and must, do better.

Stephanie Clary serves as the Manager of Mission Outreach and Communication for the Diocese of Burlington and the Assistant Editor of Vermont Catholic.


In the Wake of Another Crisis, Remembering Who the Church is

“I love the Church.”

This is the answer I give when people ask me why I’m on my seventh year of school working on yet another theological degree, or when DC Uber drivers ask why I moved to the district.

I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic school from kindergarten through eighth grade and Catholic universities from my undergraduate years to my current pursuit of a PhD in Catechetics. My mom brought me along to daily masses before I was old enough to go to school, and my grandmother taught me the Hail Mary and how to pray to my guardian angel. My favorite classes in elementary and middle school were always religion, and one of the best days of my life was when I stepped into St. Peter’s Basilica for the first time when I studied abroad in Rome during my sophomore year at the University of Dallas. Since my senior year of college, I have been involved in some form of lay ecclesial ministry, and I am preparing to continue catechetical ministry upon the completion of my degree in Catechetics. For most of my life, my love of the Church has remained untested. “Catholic” was the most important part of my identity and the way I’d immediately describe myself to anyone who asked.

Last summer, the sexual abuse crisis challenged this core component of my life and identity. I spent the summer interning at the Archdiocese of Washington, so when the news about Archbishop McCarrick began breaking, I felt like the crisis was unfolding immediately around me. When Cardinal Wuerl, someone who I had long admired for his contributions to the Church and the field of catechetics, started to come under fire for the way he handled reports of McCarrick’s behavior and abuse cases, I was geographically in the eye of the storm. One day soon after the news of the crisis had broken, I distinctly remember leaving my internship one day to see Cardinal Wuerl getting into a car in the parking lot at the archdiocesan pastoral center. At first, my immediate reaction was to be “star-struck” because of how much I admired him; but when I observed myself in this feeling and remembered what was going on in the Church around me, I felt betrayal and sadness—things I had never before felt about my own Catholic identity.

When the details of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report came to light later in the summer, I was shocked and in pain; the Church that had become the core part of my identity was being destroyed. While the events of the report happened years ago, it still angered me that they not only had taken place, but that this was also the Church I had inherited as a future catechetical leader and theologian. It was impossible not to question my own future as a theologian, member of the faithful, and lay ecclesial minister. As more and more reports, stories, and accounts surfaced, the things I loved about the Church were challenged. My anger and disgust only increased as the letter of Archbishop Vigano was released in August, due both to the thought of Pope Francis mishandling reports of abuse and the blatant attempt to use the crisis as an attack on Vigano’s ideological enemies. Not only were cardinals, bishops, and priests refusing to take responsibility for the pain they were continuing to cause, but many also tried to shift the blame onto marginalized Catholics and hijack any discussion of the crisis with their own agendas. My Church was self-destructing.

As the summer months ended, the local Church of Washington, DC was left trying to cope with the Vigano letter, credible accusations of sexual abuse by McCarrick, and the mishandling of cases by various clerics. Through the months of August to December, I attended panels and round-table discussions held by my university, and also spent time processing the events of the crisis with friends, colleagues in ministry, and professors. While it helped to acknowledge my own anger and know that I was not isolated in my emotions about the crisis, these conversations often made it harder for me to find any peace in the midst of the crisis. I heard others blame “the gays” for the crisis, priests who expressed confusion at the anger of the laity, and priests and laity accuse Satan of attacking the Church through the accounts of sexual abuse survivors. Frequently, I had conversations with people who tried to reassure me, by appealing to the embattled history of the Church, that the crisis would pass. Online processing of the crisis also increased my anger; entire organizations and websites declared war on their ideological enemies in the name of “saving the Church,” while bishops and priests continued to fan the flames by taking sides on the Vigano letter.

During this time, my love for the Church had morphed into anger and confusion. I wrestled with the idea that, as a future catechetical leader and theologian, my task would be to form individuals to be more engaged, more bound up with this deteriorating Church. At best, I would be responsible for finding ways to help heal a wounded Church for many years to come. But at worst, I might be involved in engaging others in a Church so systematically broken that my own future ministry might cause more pain. Struggling to hold the tension of my vocation to catechetics and my strained relationship with the Church, I reached out to a former colleague and mentor in ministry. In our conversation, she did not appeal to Church history or blame a certain “side” of the Church; rather, she challenged me to remember Who the Church is, rather than what the Church is.

In my own processing of the abuse crisis, many people have reminded me of this line in the Gospel of Matthew: “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).  However, because of the conversation with my former mentor, my own healing and peace have started to come from Jesus’ question to Simon Peter and the disciples from the preceding few lines: “He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15). Jesus establishes the Church on the shoulders of Simon Peter after his recognition of Jesus as the Messiah and the Son of God. A question of who, rather than what.

As the stories and reports of the crisis continue to flood Catholic consciousness in the United States even today, I hold the tension of my love for the Church and my pain at her discord by rooting myself in Who the Church is: Jesus Christ. In order to remain, although with difficulty, faithful to the Church, I have to allow my love for her to be shaped by who rather than what. The Church is Jesus Christ, but it is also my grandmother who taught me my prayers, my parents who raised me in the faith, the Dominican sister who fostered my love for the Church in middle school, the wonderful pastor and lay women I worked alongside in a parish in graduate school, my friends and colleagues in ministry, the Jesuit and diocesan priests in my doctoral cohort, and the Carmelite community here in DC who have embraced me. Though the entire Church has been ravaged by individuals who have perpetuated a systematic problem of power in the sex abuse crisis, I return to my own experience of Who the Church is to gain strength and continue living out my own vocation.

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 second year PhD student studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.


Church of Displaced Persons

Eight years ago I wrote a short article about why our Church needs victim-centered reform, a reform that first listens to the victims of abuse and then takes appropriate action, without defensiveness or denial. I argued that Christ is most present to us in those victims of abuse who have long suffered in silence.

In those eight years, I’ve been perpetually disheartened by the inability or unwillingness of our Church to create mechanisms of accountability and transparency that apply to our bishops—or more importantly, our unwillingness to take stock of how power is too often acquired and exercised in a most unchristian way by those in our Catholic Christian Church.

I have felt—as have many Catholics—like a displaced person, a refugee from my own religion.

And so I turn to literature.

In Flannery O’Connor’s The Displaced Person, the brilliant Catholic writer illustrates how God is perpetually pushing us out of our comfort zones. The short story begins with the arrival of Polish refugees fleeing the horrors of the Holocaust. Their arrival, facilitated by an aged and senile priest, intrudes upon a delicate social balance on a farm in the American south. The displaced Guizacs are reluctantly welcomed by the landowner, Ms. McIntyre, but the tenant farmer family, the Shortleys, are immediately suspicious. The Guizacs, however, quickly prove to be more efficient workers than the Shortleys, and the Shortleys are fired, becoming displaced persons themselves.

During their indignant exit from the farm, Mrs. Shortley has an apocalyptic vision as she suffers a fatal stroke:

There was a peculiar lack of light in her icy blue eyes. All the vision in them might have been turned around, looking inside her…  her huge body rolled back still against the seat and her eyes like blue-painted glass, seemed to be contemplating for the first time the tremendous frontiers of her true country.

In the end, Mrs. Shortley’s vision turns inwards as her sense of this world dissolves. Even as tenant farmers, she and her family had enjoyed certain privileges, their race and religion affording a certain psychological comfort, but the Guizacs’ presence, and her impending death, utterly shatters those illusions.

The hope we have in a God who will somehow spare us the tenuous journey towards divine intimacy, who will stay forever, to quote Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, “a ragged figure… moving from tree to tree in the back of our mind,” is quite simply, impossible, given who God is and how God chooses to break into our comfortable realities.

I think many of us Catholics are feeling like Mrs. Shortley or Ms. McIntyre, like our entire world has been turned upside down with the continuing revelations of abuse, conspiracy, and the forces of division who hope to use this crisis to fight their side of the culture war. I imagine, with many dioceses choosing to open their records to their local attorney general, that this is only the tip of the iceberg.

As much new pain and trauma as this will cause, it is an absolutely necessary step in repenting and helping us begin to see again the “tremendous frontiers of [our] true country.” Namely, it will point our Church towards the utterly humble and self-emptying cry of the One who calls us to sincere repentance and new life.  But that call can easily be ignored.

Ever present throughout O’Connor’s The Displaced Person are peacocks, who freely roam Ms. McIntyre’s farm (as they did O’Connor’s own). Ever a cynic and realist, she simply calls them “another mouth to feed,” and explains to the priest responsible for bringing the refugees that she’s let twenty or thirty of them starve, as she “didn’t like to hear them scream in the middle of the night.” But the priest remains ever transfixed by their presence:

The peacock stopped suddenly and curving his neck backwards, he raised his tail and spread it with a shimmering timbrous noise. Tiers of small pregnant suns floated in a green-gold haze over his head. The priest stood transfixed, his jaw slack. Mrs. McIntyre wondered where she had ever seen such an idiotic old man. “Christ will come like that!” he said in a loud gay voice and wiped his hand over his mouth and stood there, gaping.

Mrs. McIntyre tries to get him back to the subject at hand, namely, the refugees and the trouble they have caused her: “It is not my responsibility that Mr. Guizac has nowhere to go… I don’t find myself responsible for all the extra people in the world.”

Finally, exhausted by the complications that the displaced have brought into her life, she exclaims: “He didn’t have to come in the first place.”

The priest replies: “He came to redeem us.”

In listening to the victims and their terrible stories of injustice, perhaps we too can be redeemed and can come to realize that our picture of the world, however comfortable and coherent, was incomplete. More importantly, the degree to which we have been deaf to the cries of the victims is the degree to which we have been deaf to the call of Christ.

If there’s any hope, it is that this time, our reform may be real, radical, and utterly transformative.

Michael Sanem has a theology degree from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and writes at incarnationiseverywhere.com. He has written for US Catholic, God In All Things, and the Leaven, among other publications.


The Garden of Cats: On Heroism

“Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. It is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love.”  J.R.R. Tolkien

A couple of years ago, I spent several weeks learning everything I could about the war in Syria. I was writing a story set in Aleppo about a Syrian-American doctor who provides medical aid to war victims, and I researched the topic by studying news articles, maps, and timelines about the conflict. As I forced myself to look at pictures and videos of the dead and wounded, I remembered a comment one of my professors made after presenting a conference paper about spousal abuse in the Middle Ages. “Never write about anything,” she wearily advised us, “that it makes you sick to think about.”

I haven’t followed her advice. I’ve written about drug cartels, animal cruelty, murder, and other unpleasant, even painful, subjects. But I can’t say that the full meaning of her words ever struck me the way they did during those weeks of immersing myself in the details of the greatest humanitarian disaster of our time. My fictional characters were always just that, and though their struggles certainly felt real to me as I mapped them out in my imagination, they had never been individuals whose real-life antecedents were drawing breath even as I wrote.

I doubt that anyone could have remained untouched by all that I read and saw: people gasping for breath after chemical attacks, a full-term baby scheduled for a breech delivery killed by sniper fire as his mother walked to the hospital, small children whose hands were blown off by cluster bombs they mistook for toys. I saw parents who refused to relinquish their dead children, a screaming man carrying the body of a headless boy, a couple whose five children were all ripped apart by the same barrel bomb. In June of 2016, pro-Assad warplanes bombed a health center for newborn babies, among other medical facilities in the city of Aleppo. By November, there were no hospitals left.

Studies have demonstrated that people who read literary fiction tend to possess greater empathy, and, as I imagine that goes double for those who write it, my reaction was perhaps unsurprising. Seven thousand miles from Syria, surrounded by my family, in good health and with nothing in the world to complain about, I spent several weeks in an emotional state bordering on a full-scale depression. Then, as a presidential campaign predicated on discrimination toward Muslims in general and refugees in particular unfolded in my own country, my sadness began to turn to anger. As Pope Francis prayed for Syria, François Hollande mourned the “martyred city” of Aleppo, and world leaders like Angela Merkel and Justin Trudeau welcomed in the displaced, Donald Trump announced his plan to prevent any Muslim’s immigration to the United States and, as if to add insult to injury, his son posted a tweet comparing Syrian refugees to poisoned candies. I had never been so ashamed of my country.

But amid the almost entirely bad news from Syria and the campaign trail, I unexpectedly began to encounter stories that affected me very differently. Fred Rogers, PBS’s “Mister Rogers,” used to recount how in times of crisis his mother reminded him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” I wasn’t looking for such people, but I found them—individuals with stories of incredible heroism and courage even in the face of unimaginable suffering. People like Doctor Firas al-Jundi, one of a few remaining surgeons at the only hospital left in Maarat al-Numan, and Malaika (last name unreported), head nurse at the Aleppo Children’s Hospital. Without enough medicine and with water too dirty to perform surgeries, Dr. al-Jundi stayed on, providing what medical assistance he could. When a reporter asked the doctor why he didn’t leave Syria, he replied, “If I did that I would abandon my conscience…Who would treat the people? I am prepared to die rather than to leave.” Malaika, whose family fled without her, slept at the hospital after an airstrike destroyed her home. She continued working, even as she underwent multiple surgeries to remove shrapnel from her own wounds. When asked why she stayed, Malaika—whose name means “angel” in Arabic—responded, “The children… If we leave these children, who will be here to help them?”

Mohammad Alaa al-Jaleel, an engineer from Aleppo who began driving an ambulance during the war, found himself caring for several cats who’d been abandoned by their fleeing owners. Over time their number grew to several hundred, and, with the help of an Italian liaison foundation, Alaa built a cat sanctuary that doubled as a playground for the besieged city’s children. I’ve watched videos of him, surrounded by cats and children in his Garden. “Someone who has mercy in their heart for people,” he says in one, “has mercy for every living thing.”

I write about these people in the past tense because I don’t know whether or not they’re still alive. In the hope that they are, I pray for them among my more general prayers. It gives me solace to say their names aloud—names that won’t appear in history books like Bashar al-Assad’s and Vladimir Putin’s, and that may never be spoken again once this generation dies out. These people and countless others like them remind me that no act is without meaning and no living creature too insignificant to merit kindness. They show that ordinary people can be extraordinarily good and noble, and that the Arabic proverb Lesa el donia bkhair—”Still, the world is good”—is true after all.

April Vázquez is the winner of the William Van Dyke Short Story Prize and a Pushcart, Best of the Net, and Orison Anthology award nominee. Her favorite line from a novel is “Jane had occasionally tried to develop her own hidden depths, but she never could decide what to hide or how far down.”