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.”


Romero Remains Relevant

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All day, every day, I hang out with about 55 Salvadoran teenagers. I’m a teacher, and I work with immigrant students in a neighborhood full of pupuserias and cumbia. Inside the walls of our bright, beautiful schools, the kids make it clear—they miss El Salvador. Their families aren’t clinging to Salvadoran culture because they want to change the US, but rather because they didn’t want to leave their homes at all. The journeys across the deserts and rivers of Central America and Mexico were not to come benefit from some mythical American dream, but quite literally to save their lives and the lives of their children.

The Death Squads of the Civil War have become history, but the violence continues. After the Salvadoran Civil War, the US had one major export to El Salvador: the gang culture of Los Angeles, which filled much of the power vacuum in the wake of the Civil War. In the San Diego International Law Review, Juan Fogelbach wrote about the risk factors that lead Salvadoran youth to the gangs: neglect, violence, poverty, lack of opportunity, and a family relationship to gangs. When seeking a solution to these problems, few options are offered to the poor of Central America.

In El Salvador, a handful of elite oligarchs continue to disenfranchise the rest of the nation. Even as mining revenue grows the country’s GDP, most families continue to live in abject poverty. Archbishop Óscar Romero, soon to be a saint, saw the same forces at work some forty years ago. He recognized that taking on the cause of the poor is dangerous, for individuals and for the Church. But without taking that danger upon ourselves, we cannot fully live Christ’s greatest commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

In the month before he died, Romero traveled to Europe, where he accepted an honorary document at Louvain and implored St. John Paul II against supporting the government in El Salvador. When speaking at Louvain, Romero said, “Once again it is the poor who enable us to understand what has really happened. That is why the Church has understood the persecution from the perspective of the poor. Persecution has been occasioned by the defense of the poor. It amounts to nothing other than the Church’s taking upon herself the lot of the poor.” Romero must continue to be our model for taking on the passion of the poor and accepting our own persecution for the defense of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The Salvadoran community in the US continues to experience persecution. Our government has stripped them of protection, and our immigration laws put families trying to escape violence in danger of deportation that is more like a death sentence. Can we put ourselves and our Church on the line to protect them the way Romero did?

Romero doesn’t only matter in the face of violence and injustice. He is also relevant to a Church battered and divided by politics. Especially in the US, it can be so easy for us to align ourselves with a party and to assert that a “real Catholic” votes a certain way. It isn’t so easy or simple. Romero’s only partisanship was to justice, to truth, to holiness. He didn’t broadcast the names of the missing and killed because he was a Marxist member of the Liberation Front. No, he preached against repression and murder because he believed in the unalienable dignity of the human person. The only label he wanted for the Church was one of unity and Incarnation.

In a homily given on November 11, 1979, less than six months before his assassination, Romero said: “We are not being political when during the homily we point out political, social and economic sins. Rather this action is the result of the Word of God becoming incarnated in our reality which often does not reflect the Word of God but rather the reign of sin. Therefore, the Word of God points out to people the paths of redemption.”

Santo subito.

Brigid Hogan is a teacher, writer, and reader who lives in Northeast DC


Why Do People Enjoy Films?

Why do people enjoy films? What is it about the cinema that we find so captivating? What draws us to sit in a dark room with strangers or alone on our living room sofas and stare at a screen for hours—sometimes experiencing a story we’ve visited many times before? From the first public film in 1895 to the thousands of films per year produced in 2017, audiences show up time and time again to watch light dance across a screen and tell someone else’s tale. Why? It can be argued that, initially, the human fascination with cinema stemmed from a sense of wonder at the possibility of harnessing and projecting moving images in the first place. It may not have mattered what was on the screen, for the very fact that a moving image was, in fact, on the screen garnered interest and allure. A century after film’s origination, this reasoning cannot explain why film is an 88-billion-dollar industry. While there are certainly still people who regard the ability to harness, manipulate, and project light an amazing feat, the vast majority of film-viewers must be drawn to the medium for alternate reasons. I suggest that the human captivation with cinema exists not because of what film is—controlled shadows and light—but because of what film does—sacramentalize existential human experiences.

I, myself, am intrigued and repeatedly fascinated by film’s ability to sacramentalize human experience. Having dabbled in the field of film production for several years, I appreciate the artform and understand the unique combination of creative instinct and technical skill required to produce a film. However, having more thoroughly immersed myself in the field of theological study, I am continuously intrigued by the myriad ways that these two areas of study illuminate each other. In doing theology, I often study God by studying God’s creation—creation that includes the wondrously multifaceted being referred to as “human.” While the human is just one being among many interconnected and mutually dependent creations, I have found a focus on the human (albeit not exclusively) to be beneficial to understanding how God works in the world. Viewing films with a framework of theological anthropology allows any film that captures human experience and shares it on screen to also provide a window through which one views the divine. It is this opportunity to witness film’s sacramentalizing effect on human experience that repeatedly draws me to the cinema. It is this invitation to experience humanity from different perspectives that encourages me to watch and re-watch my favorite films. It is this convergence of storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making that captivates me, as a theologian, and insists that I participate in the ongoing love that humanity has for the cinema.

For the theology scholar, film offers “a compelling alternative route to religious experience at a time when we desperately seem to need it, with film functioning either as proxy for religion (Lyden, Plate) or a means of enhancing or perhaps even revealing existing faith (Sison, Nayar)” (Joseph Kickasola, John C. Lyden, S. Brent Plate, Antonio Sison, Sheila J. Nayar, Stefanie Knauss, Rachel Wagner and Jolyon Baraka Thomas, “Facing Forward, Looking Back: Religion and Film Studies in the Last Decade,” Journal of Religion & Film: Vol. 17: Iss. 1, Article 32: 53). Storytelling, life-experiencing, and meaning-making are all things that can be achieved through a written narrative, as well. But, there is something different, and I argue advantageous, about participating in this process via film. Using film in theology allows one to explore major theological themes in a contemporary climate, reminds one that theology has an unavoidable and important public dimension, and enables one to awaken the emotional and aesthetic aspects of faith that are often left unstimulated when reading text on a page: “Precisely because film as a medium works through the creation of an emotional response first and foremost, as a reaction to the visual image presented, film invites theological reflection to begin through an emotional channel” (Clive Marsh, “Film and Theologies of Culture” in Explorations in Theology and Film, 32-33). Viewers experience the material sensually and then think about it, instead of encountering the material intellectually and then being asked to apply it to lived experience. The primacy of sensory experience allowed by incorporating film into the study of theology provides a new way with which to engage theological material that is beneficial to the rigorous theology scholar and the non-scholar, alike.

Film’s power of visual imagery results in great influence over modern society. People are often likely to have more vivid memories of something they see and hear than something they read. Because of this, film’s influences naturally persist outside of the theater complex: “Film has stepped down from the screen to infiltrate political, social and religious lives. The argument here is that religion and film leave the temples and theatres, synagogues and living rooms, and meet in the streets, stairways, parking lots, weddings, funerals, cities and deserts of the US” (S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World, 79). People do not leave their filmic encounter at the door of the cinema. Once experienced, it unavoidably informs their lived experiences from that point forward. In a sense, our film viewing experience is nothing short of sacramental.

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


Practical Holiness

In his new apostolic exhortation, Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis offers a vision of holiness that is both deeply spiritual and deeply practical. I expected the former. In fact, when I first heard that the document would be about holiness, I wondered if it would have any practical resonance. A reflection on holiness could be inspiring, certainly, but would it speak directly to the challenges of faith in modern life?

I realize now that I did not give the Holy Father enough credit. Throughout the five years of his papacy, he has been consistently concerned with how the rubber meets the road for our Catholic faith. Gaudete et Exsultate is no different. This practical focus is yet another example of Francis the pastor responding to the needs of his flock.

Holiness often seems irrelevant or unachievable in our oversaturated, hyperconnected, postmodern world. Our lives are cacophonous, far from the cloistered silence that we imagine when we think of holiness. We divide our time between jobs, school, family, friends, hobbies, fitness, civic engagement, entertainment, and those rare moments that we can carve out for ourselves. Email, texting, and social media mean that others have access to us at every hour of the day. Silence is a foreign concept.

With all of these competing, urgent demands on our time and energy, faith becomes just one more responsibility to compartmentalize. It has its place in our lives (often, for forty-five minutes on the weekend) but that is where it remains.

Gaudete et Exsultate calls us to resist that compartmentalization, in favor of seeing our entire lives as a journey towards holiness. For Pope Francis, holiness is something we do. It has as much to do with how we carry ourselves through our lives as it does the amount of time that we spend in prayer: “We are all called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves” (14).

There are times when the document reads less like a spiritual reflection and more like a collection of best practices. Take, for instance, his discussion of the Beatitudes (65-94), which examines how each one can be put into practice today. Or, immediately after, read his treatment of Matthew 25, where he connects Christ’s great criterion for Judgment with the current plight of migrants and refugees (102-3). He even talks about how Christians should treat each other online (115). Holiness is active.

At the same time, Francis realizes that our world desperately needs silence. “We are overwhelmed by words, by superficial pleasures and by an increasing din,” he says. “How can we fail to realize the need to stop this rat race and to recover the personal space needed to carry on a heartfelt dialogue with God?” (29). Contemplation and action go hand in hand. Carving out time for silent prayer may be countercultural, but not because it rejects culture. To the contrary, “It is not healthy to love silence while fleeing interaction with others, to want peace and quiet while avoiding activity, to seek prayer while disdaining service…. We are called to be contemplatives even in the midst of action, and to grow in holiness by responsibly and generously carrying out our proper mission” (26).

This is the vision of holiness that we need today: deeply spiritual, active, challenging, and real. Instead of fleeing the world to find God, Pope Francis calls us to a greater mindfulness of God’s presence in our everyday lives and how responding to God’s call sanctifies our daily activity.  In his own words: “We need a spirit of holiness capable of filling both our solitude and our service, our personal life and our evangelizing efforts, so that every moment can be an expression of self-sacrificing love in the Lord’s eyes. In this way, every minute of our lives can be a step along the path to growth in holiness” (31).

John Dougherty is the director of campus ministry at Saint Peter’s Prep in NJ, and you can follow him on Twitter @johndoc23.