Remembering the UCA Martyrs: The Costliness of Jesuit Education

I’ll never forget standing in the rose garden at the UCA—the Jesuit university of El Salvador—and being hit with the costliness of Jesuit education. On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper Elba, and her teenage daughter Celina, were dragged out of bed in the middle of the night, taken into the courtyard of the Jesuit residence, and murdered. This barbaric event followed fifteen years of death threats issued against the Jesuit community plus countless letters, phone calls, and radio announcements calling for the expulsion or murder of the Jesuits. Bombs had been placed around the UCA campus more than a dozen times in the preceding fifteen years—in the library, printing press, and computer center—to discourage and destabilize the Jesuits’ approach to education. The Jesuits’ call to end the civil war through dialogue and a commitment to peace was perceived as a betrayal and a threat to those in power. The Jesuits refused to be silenced. They paid the price with their lives. And this week, we remember them.

I return to El Salvador this week to commemorate the life and death of Joaquin Lòpez y Lòpez (age 70), Ignacio Ellacuría (age 59), Segundo Montes (age 56), Juan Ramón Moreno (age 56), Amando Lòpez (age 53), Ignacio Martín-Baró (age 47), Elba (age 42) and Celina (age 15) Ramos (the women stayed the night in the Jesuit residence because they thought it was safer than venturing home and they were killed following a military directive to “leave no witnesses”). This week delegates from several AJCU institutions will learn what these eight people lived and died for. We will reflect and pray with photographs of their bloodied bodies, wincing at the brain matter strewn over the grass, an intentional act to warn against the “danger” of being “subversive” like these scholars, teachers, and pastors. We will gather in silence in the rose garden, where bushes covered in blooms signal new life and hope: resurrection triumphs over violence and death. I am in awe of what the Jesuits sacrificed in love for the people they taught and served.

The Jesuits died in solidarity with 75,000 Salvadorans who were threatened, tortured, and killed during the civil war lasting from 1979 to 1992. This war was propped up by $4.5 billion in aid from the United States, with many soldiers trained at Ft. Benning in Georgia. Some analysts suggest the Jesuits’ death helped spur the end of the civil war, since it garnered international attention and a Congressional investigation led by Rep. Jim McGovern. The Stations of the Cross in the UCA chapel depict the crucified people of El Salvador enduring a brutality that Jesus unmasked and intended to end by his own suffering and death. In reflecting on the death of his Jesuit brothers, Jon Sobrino explains that the Jesuits were killed because they challenged the idols of wealth and power, interfering “with the idols by telling the truth about the situation [of the ordinary Salvadorans, the poor and oppressed], analyzing its causes, and proposing better solutions.” Sobrino adds, “This is essential work for a university and central to our faith. If I have learned anything during these years in El Salvador, it is that the world in which we live is simultaneously a world of death and a world of lies.…These Jesuits wanted to free the truth from the slavery imposed on it by oppressors, cast light on lies, bring justice in the midst of oppression, hope in the midst of discouragement, love in the midst of indifference, repression, and hatred. That is why they were killed.”

As a professor at a Jesuit university, I wonder how well we honor the legacy of the UCA martyrs. What are the idols in our cultural context that we need to unmask and destroy? What lies keep people from embracing their inherent dignity and freedom? What are the chief obstacles to hope, love, and justice? Are we living up to the “higher standards” for Jesuit higher education, as articulated by Dean Brackley, a Jesuit who volunteered to serve in El Salvador as a successor to the Jesuits who were killed? Do our Jesuit schools and universities put prestige above solidarity? Are our college budgets driven more by basketball operations or a robust bottom line than by making our institutions accessible to all, especially those who may not be able to afford tuition? Are we more focused on national rankings and reputations than social analysis and social (and ecological) responsibility? Do our goals and strategies focus more on currying favor among parents and alumni (to secure donations) than the unending conversion to ever more transformational love? Yes, Jesuit education should aim for excellence (academic excellence is needed to solve complex social problems, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach would remind us), but Jesuit education is about much more than ensuring rigor or assessing outcomes; it is about humanization, reconciliation, and liberation. The Jesuit value of magis is not about doing or having more, but creating a world that more closely reflects God’s hope for the fullness of life for all, aspiring toward a truly global common good. As Dean Brackley proposed, the measure of our success lies in who our students become, evidenced by their “downward mobility” in showing up to the marginalized and excluded, taking responsibility for healing a broken and sinful world.

In his 1982 commencement address at Santa Clara University, Ignacio Ellacuría, the president of the UCA and primary target in the November 1989 attack, proclaimed:

We as an intellectual community must analyze causes; use imagination and creativity together to discover the remedies to our problems; communicate to our constituencies a consciousness that inspires the freedom of self-determination; educate professionals with a conscience, who will be the immediate instruments of such a transformation; and constantly hone an educational institution that is both academically excellent and ethically oriented … A Christian university must take into account the gospel preference for the poor … the university should be present intellectually where it is needed: to provide science for those without science; to provide skills for those without skills; to be a voice for those without voices; to give intellectual support for those who do not possess the academic qualifications to make their rights legitimate.

This vision of Jesuit education is what the world needs today. Too many people think that college is a commodity, reducing it to preparation for a profession, a hoop to jump through to land a job. Some people are more interested in “return on investment” than the process of education that sparks and shapes personal development, critical and creative thinking, and social transformation. In a time of rising social fragility and fragmentation, we need people living as witnesses to Jesuit values like cura personalis, “women and men for and with others,” and serving a “faith that does justice.” We need people who do more than look for faith, hope, and love; we need people who become sources of faith, hope, and love in their everyday lives.

This is why it is so important to remember the UCA martyrs, who were not simply fated to suffer a cruel death. They were people like you and me who put love in action. Sobrino describes his Jesuit brothers as men of spirit, men of service, and men of courage. The Jesuits worked tirelessly to meet the needs of the Salvadorans because they genuinely loved the Salvadoran people. He reflects, “they believed in a God of life, who favored the poor.” True to the Jesuit charism of “seeking God in all things,” they found God everywhere, and especially “hidden in the suffering face of the poor…in the crucified people.” He adds, “They also found God in those acts of resurrection, great and small, by the poor. And in this God of the lowly—God ever littler—they found the God who is ever greater, the true inexhaustible mystery, which impelled them along untrodden ways and to ask what had to be done.” Sobrino recounts, “They saw the poor from God’s point of view and walked with them toward God.” For this reason, they were not only “contemplatives in action” in the typical sense, but “contemplatives in action for justice” so that those deprived dignity, rights, and the fullness of life would not continue to be ignored, silenced, and trampled. The Jesuits were killed “because they had become the critical conscience in a society of sin.” They could not be intimidated or threatened into conformity, silence, or inaction.

Thirty years later, we remember the legacy of the Jesuits’ fidelity, love, and commitment to peace. But it is not enough to remember how they lived or died; we should emulate their spirit, service, and courage. We should join their fight for truth, justice, and freedom. We should share in their willingness to endure persecution. We should be partners in mission as agents of humanization, reconciliation, and liberation. We should settle for nothing less than personal and social transformation. This is what it means to embrace the costliness of love.

 

* Quoted material is from: Jon Sobrino, Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Martyrs of El Salvador and the Crucified Peoples (Orbis, 2003), 58-97.


How to Really Understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan

This Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) might be Jesus’ best-known story. How many times have you heard the phrase, “Good Samaritan”? Even non-Christians know the term suggests someone who is kind, generous, or brave. But few of us fully understand – much less live up to – the demands of Jesus’ teaching. Here are 10 things we too often miss in this story:

  • This is no ordinary story: A lawyer asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is no question more important for a Jewish person to ask. This story is not just one among others; it stands with Matthew 25:31-46 as essential for salvation. As Jesus makes clear in this story, when it comes to eternal life, what matters isn’t what one knows or believes, but what one does or fails to do.
  • Love God by loving your neighbor: The lawyer answers his own question: the way to eternal life is loving God and our neighbors (Luke 10:27). Or, another way of saying this is: we love God by loving our neighbors. Dorothy Day puts a finer point on this: “You love God as much as the one you love the least.” Jesus responds to the lawyer, “Do this and you will live” (Lk 10:28). It’s not enough to know this; you have to do it.
  • Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question: The lawyer pushes further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that we might take for granted. But this is a limit-seeking question. It aims to identify the non-neighbor, the one beyond my moral obligation. In other words, the lawyer wants to know: who are the ones I’m not expected to love like I love God? Jesus takes this question and turns it on its head. He does this in two ways: first, by using a Samaritan in the story (see #6) and second, by changing the question around: “Who was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” (Lk 10:36). The lawyer views neighbor as an object, the recipient of duty. Jesus views neighbor as a proactively loving subject. Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask: What kind of neighbor am I? or To whom am I a neighbor?
  • Move from judgment to compassion: Jesus tells the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, the only parable with a specific geographic location. Why? Because the road to Jericho was notoriously unsafe. It descended from the heights of Jerusalem via switchback curves, ideal for ambush. In other words, Jesus’ audience had no sympathy for the man who was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead. He was a fool to travel the road alone; he got what was coming to him. Jesus tells the story banking on his audience’s contempt for the robbers’ victim, seeking to replace that judgment with compassion.
  • Confront the sin of indifference: Jesus says a priest and Levite see the robbers’ victim but “pass by on the opposite side” of the road. In other words, they create more distance between themselves and the man left for dead. These religious leaders were charged with loving their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18, which the lawyer cites in Luke 10:27) but fail. Maybe they were running late, thinking about their to-do list, or more concerned about remaining pure for their ritual tasks. Whatever the case, nothing should come before showing concern for someone left for dead. Pope Francis cites the priest and Levite as examples of the “globalization of indifference.” Whenever we think “that’s not my problem” or “they don’t belong to me,” we’re acting more like the priest and Levite than the Samaritan.
  • “Good Samaritan” makes no sense: We know this story so well that once we hear the word “Samaritan,” we know the hero arrives on the scene. But for Jesus’ audience, a Samaritan was the most despised outcast they could imagine. It’s hard to come up with a contemporary analogy, but a modern-day Samaritan would have to be the kind of person who would make your stomach turn and your skin crawl. This is the last person on earth you would imagine Jesus to endorse.
  • These kinds of actions matter: The Samaritan’s actions receive more detailed description than anyone else in the gospels, aside from Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is describing what it means to be a neighbor: to act with courage (going into the ditch, where the Samaritan could’ve been ambushed), compassion (this is what moves the Samaritan to offer assistance – a visceral reaction to another who is suffering), generosity (the oil and wine to heal his wounds and the payment for his recovery at the inn), and boundary-breaking solidarity (enlisting others in his care, showing that we’re in this together, even though the Samaritan would’ve been received with suspicion if not hostility at the inn).
  • Do what you can, where you are: The Samaritan wasn’t out looking for people to help. And he doesn’t quit his job or abandon his family in order to make the road to Jericho safe for other travelers. He saw someone in need, went out of his way and into the ditch to ease his suffering, and went on his way. This isn’t a story about a superhero; it’s a story about doing what you can – no more and no less. Everyone can and should be like the Samaritan.
  • Mercy is who God is and what God wants: When Jesus turns the question around, asking the lawyer, “Who was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” the lawyer is so embarrassed that he can’t bring himself to say “Samaritan.” So instead, the lawyer responds, “The one who treated him with mercy” (Luke 10:37). This reflects a central theme in Scripture: mercy is who God is (Exodus 34:6) and what God wants (Luke 6:36). Put differently: our piety or holiness is measured by our mercifulness.
  • Do likewise: Jesus ends the story by saying, “Go and do likewise.” He doesn’t say, “Go and do exactly the same thing” or “go and do this once in a while.” Too many people think that being a “Good Samaritan” means volunteering, doing random acts of kindness, or helping strangers in an emergency. This is not why Jesus tells this story (especially not a story framed by inheriting eternal life). Rather, Jesus teaches his followers to apply the Samaritan’s courage, compassion, generosity, and boundary-breaking solidarity in their everyday life. What would the world be like if we thought the state of our soul were determined by our consistent emulation of the Samaritan?

With this story, Jesus issues a radical challenge to his followers: there are no non-neighbors. There is no one you can write off as “other” or “outsider” or “outcast.” We have to shatter the illusion that keeps us from seeing that we belong to each other. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ reminds us, “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – only ‘us.’”

This is a tall order. Especially in a time of hyperpartisanship where winning is seen as more important than a shared commitment to the common good. Political polarization reinforces an “us versus them” tribalism that has nine in ten Americans saying the nation is more divided now than at any point in their lifetime. In a 2018 poll, roughly half of Democrats described Republicans as ignorant (54%) and spiteful (44%) while a similar proportion of Republicans described Democrats as ignorant (49%) and spiteful (54%). 61% of Democrats labeled Republicans racist, sexist, or bigoted while 31% of Republicans applied these terms to Democrats. Perhaps most concerning of all, more than twenty percent of Republicans (23%) and Democrats (21%) called members of the other party “evil.” Only four percent of both parties think the other side is fair and even fewer describe them as thoughtful or kind. We have normalized the demonization of people on the other side of the party aisle, making it harder to recognize that we belong to each other, rely on each other, and will ultimately be judged by how we treat each other.

Social fragmentation and fragility continues: by sex, gender, and sexual orientation; by class and creed; by ethnicity and race; by nationality and legal status; by age and ability, etc. A few examples: Christians are more than twice as likely as non-Christians to blame the poor for their financial struggles, a judgment that creates distance from them. Half of Catholics say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to welcome refugees (despite Pope Francis’ global “Share the Journey” campaign). Only 31% of Republicans say that migrants from Central America should be able to seek asylum in the U.S. (which is a legal right) and 62% of Republicans approve the way that migrants are being treated at the border, even though conditions are so gruesome that 24 people have died in the custody of immigration officials. Manufactured fear ascribes disease, crime, and violence to migrants without basis in fact. It is used to justify cruelty in separating families, indefinitely detaining children in cages, and threatening deportation raids that inflict terror and trauma on countless people seeking the same things we want: peace and security.

Dehumanizing rhetoric and shrinking understandings of what we owe each other contribute to what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” We disregard those we see as different, as other, as not belonging to us. But the example of the Samaritan resists throwaway culture; instead of discarding others in need, he draws near them. The Samaritan replaces judgment with compassion, fear with courage, self-interest with generosity, and separation with solidarity.

What keeps us from going out of our way and into the ditch, to care for those who have been beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? What keeps us from speaking up for the poor and marginalized, being their advocate and ally? What keeps us from drawing near those we consider “other” or outside our network of belonging?

If we call ourselves Christians, then we have to evaluate the depth of our commitment to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Not just once in a while or in an emergency, but wherever we are, however we can – no more and no less. Because how we treat others (including those we might dislike or even despise) is how we treat God.


Migrants Are Fighting for Survival

In 2005 and 2006, my wife and I led a group of high school and college students to Guatemala for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. We learned about Mayan culture and what refugees endured during a 36-year civil war, and we saw firsthand the widespread poverty, unemployment, and other social problems (substance abuse, domestic violence, gang activity, lack of access to health care, etc.) that made people desperate enough to leave their homes and flee northward—knowing all the dangers they’d likely encounter along the way (extortion, kidnapping, torture, sexual assault are all more likely than not). In recent days, we learned that a seven-year-old girl, Jakelin, died in the custody of Customs and Border Protection, and she was from Raxruhá, a town we visited on those trips.

I remember asking one parent how he persisted in the face of so much suffering, and so many reasons to despair. He looked me in the eyes and said plainly, “Hay que luchar.”

“You have to fight.”

Who among us wouldn’t do everything in our power for our children? That’s what these families are doing in the migrant caravan: they’re fighting for survival. The President and his accomplices are manufacturing fear (of violence, disease, crime, etc.) so that Americans turn their backs on the humanitarian crisis at the border. Christians cannot succumb to fear or indifference. We are commanded over and over again to love others as we have been loved—without stipulations, such as those that rely on legal technicalities—and in fact, love is the measure by which we shall be judged (Mt 25:31-46).

That is why I wrote this recent reflection on the subject. If you haven’t read it, I’d ask that you give it a few minutes of your time, and if you have and you agree with its conclusions, perhaps you could share it with someone you think would benefit from thinking about how we can more courageously and compassionately respond to this modern-day Exodus event.


Learning and Living Magis

I am the product of 14 years of Jesuit education. I see the world through the lenses of Cura Personalis and “Women and Men for and with Others.” I am who I am because of Jesuits – and many lay partners in mission – aspiring to be ever more attentive and responsive to God’s activity in the world.

The Jesuits didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think. We read challenging texts, learned how to account for our biases and presuppositions, considered arguments from a number of perspectives, and engaged in lively debates about issues that matter for human dignity, loving and just communities, and the common good. We learned to see faith and reason as complementary rather than competing, much like religion and science. My eyes were opened to the grandeur of creation and my responsibility to help take care of it. I was fortunate to have teachers and mentors who saw great potential in me, challenged and encouraged me, and motivated me to use my interests and abilities AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam), for the Greater Glory of God.

We learned about the Jesuit ideal magis, which I understood as “striving for the more.” For a long time, my favorite quote – attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola – was: “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.” (Later, a Jesuit would kindly mention to me that this line likely inverts what Ignatius intended to communicate.) Magis inspired me to maximize every opportunity and experience. Never be complacent. Never settle. Always aim for more.

But magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It can’t be reduced (as it often is) to banal or bourgeois terms like generosity or excellence. Magis actually gets distorted when we conflate it with doing more. Magis is more about being than doing, and more interested in becoming than achieving.

* * *

One of the most formative experiences of my life happened in a garbage dump in the Dominican Republic. I was 17 years old and part of a team of 10 students who raised funds to build a school for a rural community. To prepare for our time in the campo, we learned about Dominican culture in the capital city, Santo Domingo. We visited a lighthouse built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing on the island, and right after that, we took a trip to the city dump. I didn’t understand why we were driving through these piles of garbage, until I began to see that people were living there. In the garbage. Our Jesuit teacher, Fr. Brennan, explained that these people used to live where the lighthouse stood, but their housing was demolished to build the tourist attraction, and the local government provided them no assistance to relocate, so many families were forced to make their homes among other people’s refuse.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so distant from other people as I did in that moment: me, a white, middle-class boy from the suburbs of Milwaukee, driving in an air-conditioned van while other people look through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell. Then Fr. Brennan stopped the van and told us to get out.  We opened the van doors and were hit with a wave of heat, smoke, and stench. The dump was called “Cien Fuegos” because it was perpetually on fire, in order to make room for more garbage. The heat and stench were sickening. But we weren’t able to dwell on it for long because in seconds, we were tackled by children who lived there: kids wearing rags who hugged us like we were old friends.  We were human jungle gyms for the next few hours, holding kids by their hands and swinging them in circles, playing tag, and acting like we were family.

Eventually, a man approached Fr. Brennan and asked him if he would bless his home. So we walked through the garbage, greeting people as they hunted for anything of value amid the smoldering trash. When we reached the man’s home, we saw it was a small cave in a hill of garbage. He invited us into his tiny shelter, just room enough for some towels, linens, and clothes – where he and his family slept – and there was a table, a chair, and a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The same image that was hanging on the wall of my home parish.

I’m ashamed to admit this, but it took that image of Jesus for me to recognize God’s presence in the garbage dump, in the people that we had met. I have long thought about that icon and what it’s like for Jesus to look through that image at us, a world marred by divisions and unjust inequalities, as well as what Pope Francis calls “the globalization of indifference” at the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters. The man who invited us into his home grabbed our hands and said, “Hermanos, rezemos.” (Brothers, let us pray.) Magis is the power to shatter the illusion that we are separate from each other, even when it looks like we’re living worlds apart.

* * *

The meaning of magis is complex. In a thorough study of magis in the Jesuit heritage, Rev. Barton Geger, SJ suggests the best translation of magis is “the more universal good.” This definition can be traced all the way back to Saint Ignatius, who advised the early members of the Jesuits to discern how their choices could be guided toward what is most conducive to the “greater service of God and the universal good.” Magis is inseparable from the unofficial motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (often abbreviated as AMDG), which means “for the Greater Glory of God.” Geger explains that the “glory of God” refers to “God’s truth, beauty, wisdom, and power becoming evident to human beings.” Truth, beauty, and wisdom not only bring us closer to God, they also make us more fully human. For this reason, it might also help to recall Saint Irenaeus of Lyon’s claim that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive.” In this way, AMDG or magis implies a call to work for the fullness of life for all, the conditions that allow individual persons and communities to flourish. Magis is a religious and moral responsibility to defend human dignity, deliver on human rights and responsibilities, and dedicate ourselves to the common good of all.

Standing in that garbage dump, I more fully grasped how magis is tied to solidarity and justice. If we take seriously the claim that God is our Source and our Destiny, this makes us siblings with every other person on the planet (past, present, and future). Moreover, this means that we are all equals in the eyes of God; those children searching through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell have the same share of dignity as I do. Magis reminds us there is no “us” and “them” – only us. The “greater good” is the good that includes everyone, leaving out no one. This isn’t a utilitarian position that calculates the trade-offs between what is good for the many at the expense of the few. That risks trampling over the equal dignity, rights, and hopes of those who may not have as much privilege, power, or opportunity. It usually pits the weak against the strong and does little to dissolve the categories of “us” and “them.”

As Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ suggests in his most recent book, Barking to the Choir, magis “refers to an affection for God,” a “devotion” that takes the shape of a “pervasive familiarity and union with God, a desire to want what God wants.” God’s heart must break to see precious little ones with no choice but to live in that garbage dump in Santo Domingo, surrounded by squalor, deprived of not only dignity, but freedom. The same is true for anyone denied dignity and freedom, those who are discriminated against or excluded because of their race or ethnicity, social status or economic class, sex, gender or sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability, mental health, religion, or age.

It’s not enough to lament the state of our unjust world; we have to discover the root causes – the sinful choices and systems that exclude and oppress – so that we can prevent and solve these problems. This is what it means to desire what God wants, and this is the purpose of Jesuit education. Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ attests, “To believe in God is not just to love life, but to work so there is life.” God wants life in fullness (John 10:10) for each and every person. Jesuit education cannot be reduced to acquiring knowledge or preparing for a profession; it is training to become more aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it.

Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the former Superior General of the Jesuits, described his vision of student formation in this way:

You are called by the Society of Jesus to be men and women who reflect upon the reality of this world around you with all its ambiguities, opportunities, and challenges, to discern what is really happening in your life and in the lives of others, to find God there and to discover where God is calling you, to employ criteria for significant choices that reflect godly values rather than narrow, exclusive self-interest, to make decisions in the light of what is truly for the greater glory of God and the service of those in need, and then to act accordingly.

This view of Jesuit education provides a fundamental horizon of meaning (to be in relationship with God), calls each of us to be partners in mission (for inclusive human flourishing in justice), and empowers us to think, speak, and act with moral responsibility For the Greater Glory of God. Magis reminds us that who we are is God’s gift to us, and our gift back to God is what we do with who we are, especially when we work for justice for those deprived dignity, rights, and freedom. Pope Francis discusses magis as “the fire, the fervor of action, that rouses us from slumber.” It is what drives us “to leave an imprint or mark in history, especially in the lives of the smallest.”

This is not an easy mentality to maintain. We’re bombarded with images and messages that convince us that self-interest is best, that we should view others as competitors for scarce resources and fear vulnerability. This makes it easier to close ourselves off to others or create distance, reinforcing categories of “us” and “them,” those who we can care about and trust and those we can disregard or distrust. Worse, we’re told that the poor deserve their fate because they’re lazy or just want to cheat the system – which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s far easier to judge other people than try to understand them. But judgment won’t bring change. As Fr. Boyle writes, “We are at our healthiest when we are most situated in awe, and at our least healthy when we engage in judgment. Judgment creates the distance that moves us away from each other. Judgment keeps us in the competitive game and is always self-aggrandizing. Standing at the margins with the broken reminds us not of our own superiority but of our own brokenness. Awe is the great leveler. The embrace of our own suffering helps us to land on a spiritual intimacy with ourselves and others. For if we don’t welcome our own wounds, we will be tempted to despise the wounded.”

Magis implies humility, the grace to know the truth about ourselves, the whole truth that includes our strengths and weaknesses. It means being authentic instead of trying to impress. It requires that we accept ourselves and others, that we practice patience and trust, courage and compassion. Instead of fearing vulnerability, it demands it, because without vulnerability, it’s impossible to accept ourselves and others, be open to learning and growing, and cultivate relationships of mutual respect and responsibility. Magis invites us to build communities that are ever more inclusive and equitable. In the face of so much division, distrust, and despair, magis means asking ourselves if we can really imagine belonging to each other, even across real differences.

Many of us might be at a loss for how we can reach those on the other side, but Fr. Boyle suggests that we first ask ourselves if we’re willing to be reached by them.  He explains:

We always seem to be faced with this choice: to save the world or savor it. I want to propose that savoring is better, and that when we seek to ‘save’ and ‘contribute’ and ‘give back’ and ‘rescue’ folks and EVEN ‘make a difference,’ then it is all about you … and the world stays stuck … The good news, of course, is that when we choose to ‘savor’ the world, it gets saved. Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing … stop trying to reach them. Can YOU be reached by THEM?  Folks on the margins only ask us to receive them.

What would it take to make ourselves available to others we have trouble understanding?  Take, for example, rising racial tensions in our country. Surveys show that white people don’t fully understand what people of color experience in this country, how the pervasive and pernicious effects of racism extend from personal bias to systematic segregation and injustice. It’s worth considering that a study found that three-quarters of white Americans didn’t have a single black friend and that two-thirds of African Americans didn’t have a single white friend. How can we build empathy and understanding across the color line (or the class line or party line) if we don’t know what it’s like to be something other than me? Magis moves us out of our comfort zone, not just so we encounter others who are different from us, but so that we realize our good is bound up with the good of others. In the work for justice, we don’t choose to have skin in the game; we have skin in the game because we belong to each other. Our humanity is diminished when we become numb to the suffering of others, when we accept injustice as inevitable, and excuse ourselves from showing up, speaking out, or stepping in. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

* * *

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He shared about his experiences fighting apartheid in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation so that we could be leaders in this kind of work in the world. He stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Tutu continued, “If an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, your neutrality does nothing to help the mouse.” Justice is not a fight for any one individual on his or her own; instead, we should think of justice like an orchestra: it takes many hands and each one of us has an instrument to play. I remember being a little disheartened by the metaphor because I have no musical talent and the rhythm of a tree stump. But Tutu exhorted each one of us to figure out what role we have to play in the orchestra of justice. He told us to find our passion and make that our instrument – even if it’s the triangle. Then play the hell out of the triangle for justice, he told us.

What makes an orchestra great is not just what each musician is doing on his or her own, but the effect produced by each member playing together. If someone were left out, the orchestra would be impoverished. The image of the orchestra reminds us that not only do we need each other to do what we can’t on our own, but life is more beautiful when it is shared through the gifts each person has to bring.

Magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It’s not an exhortation to give more generously, raise our standards for excellence, or add more items to our to-do list. Magis is less about doing for others – especially when it is inspired by the white savior complex – than it is about being with others. This is how we come to better understand who people are, what they most deeply desire, and how we can partner with them to work toward that end. Not to be the voice of the voiceless (which may be well-intended but can nonetheless be paternalistic), but to be advocates, allies, and accomplices in the work for justice and peace.

My time in the garbage dump in Santo Domingo stays with me. It shaped my trajectory for what I studied in college and the clubs I joined. It inspired me to pursue graduate school and study ethics, especially in the tradition of Catholic social teaching that highlights inherent human dignity and responsibilities to the common good. It is part of my vocation: how I understand my purpose in life, what I most deeply desire, and what I’m willing to endure. It’s a major reason I’m passionate about teaching theology at Xavier University and it also extends beyond my job; it shapes the kind of husband, father, friend, and family member I want to be. I don’t just feel like I belong to the people I met in the Dominican Republic. I feel accountable to them. If we were to trade places, I often wonder, what would they do with my education and opportunities? How much good could they do with my salary or social media networks? What are the kinds of things they would hope that I think, feel, say, and do?

* * *

Magis is about being the kind of person who contemplates who God is and what God wants and who acts to be ever more attentive and responsive to participating with God in making this reality here and now. (Ignatius would approve this integration of contemplation and action and surely magis is a worthy goal for our ongoing formation as “contemplatives in action.”) If we belong to each other, then the “greater good” is a matter of interdependence and solidarity, not a cost-benefit-analysis based on self-interest or the greatest good for the greatest number. Magis requires careful discernment in order to pursue what will promote greater dignity, freedom, and responsibility for ourselves and others – or what will alleviate the suffering of others. It is allergic to the popular phrase, “I do me, you do you” which makes tolerance and nonjudgmentalism the greatest goods. Justice will not be accomplished by merely tolerating the existence of others; “live and let live” just as easily becomes “live and let die” or “live and let suffer.” Instead, magis guides our careful work to identify, analyze, and apply the beliefs and values, practices and relationships, systems and structures that ensure everyone has adequate access to the rights and duties necessary to flourish. This is, after all, what God wants.

Magis is learning and living in order to become more fully aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it. This is how we help realize what Jesus called the “reign of God,” or God’s dream for creation: the fullness of life for all. This is the gift and task of the Jesuit tradition we have inherited and must now pass on to others. AMDG


Manufactured Fear vs. the Christian Call to Solidarity: Failing to Bother to Love

One of my professors in graduate school defined sin as a “failure to bother to love.” In this description of sin, Rev. James Keenan, SJ, invites us to consider sin less in terms of breaking rules and more in terms of what we fail to see, think, feel, say, and do.

Looking at our southern border, it is clear that far too many of us are failing to bother to love.

The migrant caravan is not a national security crisis but a peaceful march of people – more than half of whom are women and children – uprooted from their homes by gang violence, economic deprivation, and political instability. These are people fleeing crisis, not trying to attack our border or organizing an assault on our country, as the President has falsely claimed.

The President’s dehumanizing rhetoric – describing migrants with denigrating terms, whether rapists and murderers, criminals or animals, or gangs and mobs – is not only inaccurate, but it is anti-Christian, as Cardinal Dolan pointed out more than three years ago. It is also dangerous for all immigrants, regardless of their nation of origin.

No doubt, this vilifying language is part of a political strategy to defend the escalation at the border, sending troops before the midterm elections at the tune of $200 million. It helps justify the Administration’s efforts to make it harder to seek asylum at our southern border, which is at odds with international law. ICE enjoys a budget of $7.6 billion, even while it abuses thousands of migrants physically and sexually with complete impunity (even destroying records that document abuse).

Christians cannot abide this kind of discourse, and certainly not the kinds of policies that separate children from parents (some of whom may have been ripped apart permanently), detain families indefinitely, or use tear-gas, which is a weapon of war (even though it is not unprecedented in its use at the border). It is immoral that companies are making huge profits in what is now a billion dollar industry of detaining migrant families along our southern border. It is unconscionable to profit from the misery of such vulnerable people, but this is what happens when people of faith remain silent.

This isn’t just about the migrant caravan or the separation of families. This is about a deep-rooted fear of the other, a xenophobia that has haunted America for years. It is linked to white supremacy, a fundamental distrust of black and brown bodies, a presumption of guilt against them, and legitimizing violence against them. The president has no problem calling himself a nationalist, even while it so often connotes such virulent racism and anti-black violence, which seems to be emboldening hate groups, generating more anti-Semitism and hate crimes.

Embracing fear is easier than understanding the root causes of why people are being forced to flee – especially when so many of those root causes point to US involvement in Central and South America. US demand for illegal drugs gives power to the cartels that inflict violence and practice routine extortion in many villages. US trade policies make it cheaper to buy US products than those made in Latin America, driving unemployment in places like Guatemala. US political involvement has destabilized countries like Honduras. The list goes on.

The populist nationalist understanding of American exceptionalism thrives on amnesia of our past abuses, sins of commission and omission. #AmericaFirst – ignoring our obligations to other peoples and nations – repeats a shameful history of turning our backs on people fleeing persecution and violence. “America First” is idolatry. It too easily becomes isolation, which does not result in peace and security. Not for us, not for others. Moreover, it is a failure of solidarity, the logical extension of the great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. (There are no non-neighbors as Luke 10:25-37 illustrates; Christians are commanded to love even enemies – see Luke 6:35 – so no exceptions apply.) American Christians are called to a kinship that reaches across borders.

Most American Christians might acknowledge this in theory: that we are all equal in the eyes of God, all brothers and sisters in God’s family. The Mexican and US Catholic Bishops reinforced this message with their 2003 Pastoral Letter, “Strangers No Longer.” Pope Francis illustrated this call to unity in a profound way by celebrating Mass at the US-Mexico border in 2016. In his homily, he reflected on the need to reinforce the bonds of belonging to “one single family and one same Christian community.” If we are to end our failure to bother to love, we must embrace solidarity and join Pope Francis in demanding, “No more death! No more exploitation!” What a powerful image, to see the Body of Christ – united in a spiritual sense – divided not just by the border, but by fear and distrust of those who do not share citizenship with us. Our citizenship is in heaven, Saint Paul reminds us (Phil. 3:20). Our allegiance is first to Christ and the reign of God, not America.

This is not to suggest all American Christians are xenophobic, anti-immigrant, or failing to bother to love. (In fact, one Gallup Poll found that 75% of Americans say immigration is a good thing, but you don’t see that being reported much these days.) However, we need to confront the problems associated with some of those who profess to love the poor and support the Church’s social ministries, including in Latin America. Each year 2 million American Christians go on short term mission trips to countries like Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador, raising and spending $2 billion. It’s laudable that so many Americans go – or support others who go – to places of great need. But these service trips risk becoming an ego trip for social media, a resume-builder, or a guise of the white savior complex, if they are not motivated by a sense of solidarity and respect for the dignity of all. Too often, they are more focused on broadening the horizons of those who go than offering meaningful assistance to those being served. Not only does that paternalistically make the poor pawns in the learning experience of American youth, but it creates a vicious cycle of dependence, a toxic form of charity.

If we really loved the poor, we wouldn’t love them on our terms, for the brief duration of a service trip, or from the safe distance of our homes, schools, and churches. Love requires freedom, which means creating the conditions for the poor to be agents of their own future. That means that we do more than hop on a plane, help out for a while, and then come home. People have a right to migrate and to seek asylum. They are entitled to seek peace, security, and freedom for themselves and their families, to flee persecution, coercion, and other conditions that cause premature death. Would any one of us silently succumb to the poverty that results from unemployment or the fear and violence perpetrated by gangs and cartels? Is there any limit to what we would do for our children to provide them safety and a better future? How can we fault these parents for doing everything in their power to do what we ourselves would also do if we were in their situation?

Even though migration is legally protected (and ardently defended by Pope Francis), Christians still object. They say migrants should follow laws, that immigrants will bring more crime, take away jobs, demand handouts, and change our culture. But we should also consider that not every law is moral. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. raised this concern in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, reminding those who objected to his peaceful protests, boycotts, and other nonviolent public demonstrations that everything Hitler did was perfectly legal. King enjoyed very little support during the Civil Rights movement (including just 13% of black churches), which he often attributed to those who preferred order to justice. But, “justice delayed is justice denied,” he countered. We have a broken immigration system, and while partisan differences persist, Americans overwhelmingly support immigration reform. But Congress has failed to make progress in this area. One thing every one of us can do is to hold our elected officials accountable to a more humane immigration system. Not open borders, but a system that works for those who want to come here to work (many of whom want only to stay a short period of time and return home), to be reunited with family, or to create a new future by contributing to American society. Every church and school should be on board with this effort, in defense of human dignity and the principle of solidarity. Boosting foreign aidnot cutting it, as Trump has promised – could also help improve conditions in Latin America, which would make people less likely to leave for the US border.

It should be pointed out that most immigrants do enter the country legally, per federal data. At the same time, the complex, overloaded process, for legal immigration includes numerous obstacles. Unauthorized immigration should be seen as an act of desperation more than deception. El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have some of the highest murder rates in the world. Imagine the agony a parent experiences at the prospect of either staying to endure violence or risking it on the journey. When journalists interview those who come to our border, they routinely say, “We will be killed if we stay.” Leaving home is their last resort for survival. If the Catechism (no. 2408) teaches that theft is not a sin in a situation of necessity, then we should not be so quick to judge those who believe the only way to survive is to brave a most perilous journey northward.

While it might be easy to condemn parents for not following the rule of law (“But they’re illegal!”) or be indifferent to the crisis at the border (“It’s so far away! What can I do?”), consider also the reasons why they leave their homes and the horrors they endure along the way for the peace, security, and freedom they seek: they risk injury and death, extortion, dehydration, extreme weather conditions, getting separated from their family and sold to traffickers, and for as many as 70% of women and almost as many children, sexual assault. For some, there is no legal path. In light of these realities, perhaps it would be more accurate to treat these families as refugees than migrants.

Anti-immigrant myths lead folks to believe that immigrants steal jobs and commit crimes. They do not. Immigrants pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits. They are much less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. And while they sometimes compete with low-skill workers, they mostly take jobs most Americans don’t want and make many positive contributions to the economy.

But we shouldn’t welcome immigrants because it benefits us. We should welcome them because it is what Christ commands. Matthew 25:31-46 depicts the Final Judgment not based in piety or prayer, but love. The sheep (those who are saved) are just as surprised as the goats (those who are condemned) that they are welcomed into the kingdom of heaven because they fed the hungry, clothed the naked, and welcomed the stranger. And if that was the standard even before Jesus offered this instruction to his disciples, then so much so will it be for us who have been warned. This scene represents a fitting test or examination of conscience for whether we are failing to bother to love God, self, and neighbor as Jesus commands.

In our American context, we too often restrict our moral duties to our immediate family members and friends. This stands in stark contrast to Jesus’ teaching in the gospels. While Jesus affirmed the respect owed parents and elders (Matthew 15:4), he also minimized the importance of blood ties by saying, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother, sister, and mother” (Mark 3:35, Matthew 12:50, and Luke 8:21). Going even further, Jesus reminds us that the demands of discipleship supersede family obligations (Mark 10:29-30, Matthew 10:34-37 and 19:29, and Luke 12:51-53 and 18:29-30). He warns, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:25-26). While this can sound rather harsh to modern ears, it is a prophetic admonition intended to keep family bonds from becoming idolatrous, preventing us from being attentive and responsive to the needs of those we fail to recognize as kin. Jesus expands his followers’ conception of family so that it is no longer defined by blood, but love—a  love that “has no alibi” when it comes to others in need. That doesn’t mean that we love migrant children the same as our own, but it does mean that we are called to make room to love the children whose need is far greater than that of our own.

We need to be honest with ourselves about our failure to bother to love. And we need to get to the bottom of why it’s so hard for us to love people who are so different from us. Maybe it’s because we don’t understand what it’s like for them to be who they are, to face these struggles, and to make choices that might differ from the ones we’d make. But the command to love our neighbor as our self – the Greatest Commandment, as Jesus taught – means that we don’t impose qualifications or differentiate between who is worthy or unworthy. As Thomas Merton wrote, “Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business, and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”

When we fail to bother to love like this, we sin. It’s not enough to acknowledge that; we have to repent and make amends. We should financially support direct service to those in need along the border and participate in the campaign for hospitality to #sharejourney with migrants and refugees, to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate them into our communities, as Pope Francis has urged. We extend God’s welcome to all because, as Scripture reminds us, we were strangers once. We belong to each other, as members of one single community, God’s family. Each one of us will have to answer for how we used our freedom and the limits of our love, just like the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46. Just as God never fails to bother to love us, so we must keep striving to bother to love as much as we can.


The Mercy Pope: Five Takeaways from His First Five Years

Do you remember where you were five years ago, when the white smoke signaled that the College of Cardinals had selected the successor to Pope Benedict XVI? I do. I was standing in the campus ministry office at Boston College, dumbfounded at hearing that the conclave has chosen a pope from Latin America … a Jesuit … and that he had chosen the name “Francis.”  (Remember the confusion over whether he would be “Pope Francis I” or “Pope Francis”?)

Five years into his papacy, it might be easy forget that Francis has been a pope of surprises. Sure, he’s the first non-European pope in well over a thousand years and the first Jesuit, which is shocking enough. And yes, his chosen name is unprecedented, prompted by advice from his friend, Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, who hugged him and exhorted, “Don’t forget the poor.” At the moment of his introduction at St. Peter’s Square, he broke with tradition by asking the 150,000 people gathered to pray for him before offering his first blessing as pope. The surprises continued: he refused to use a platform to elevate himself over the cardinals when he was introduced as Pope Francis, eschewed a private car and rode the bus with his brother cardinals instead, and elected to live in a small suite in the Vatican guesthouse rather than the Apostolic Palace, unlike his predecessors. His simple lifestyle has elicited widespread praise, as well as his work to make the Vatican more hospitable to those experiencing homelessness in Rome. Francis’ pontificate orbits around consistent words and actions marked by humility, tenderness, and inclusion. Perhaps the best word to describe Pope Francis’ example is mercy. If Pope John Paul II’s legacy is tied to his travels to evangelize (104 international trips to 129 countries, drawing immense crowds), he may be considered “The Missionary Pope” while Pope Benedict XVI’s emphasis on ecological stewardship earned him the nickname “The Green Pope,” and so it appears that Pope Francis may be remembered as “The Mercy Pope.”

The world has never seen a pope like Francis. As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of his pontificate, five key traits highlight his character, intentions, and impact: his radical vision for the Church, the way he mediates mercy, his attention to the power of place, his commitment to listening, and his support for synodality.

1. Francis has a radical vision for the church:

When Francis met with 5,000 journalists to introduce himself as pope, he described his vision for the Church as one that “is poor and for the poor.” This hearkens back to the words of Pope John XXIII, who, in a radio address a month before Vatican II, proclaimed his desire for a “Church of all and in particular the Church of the poor.” This is a radical vision for the Church because radical refers to “going to the origin” or the “roots.” This reflects the core values of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (e.g., Matthew 25:31-46), as well as the witness of the first members the Church (e.g., Acts 4:32-35).

Francis’ vision for the Church cannot be reduced to a service agency, however. In Evangelii Gaudium (“Joy of the Gospel”), Francis articulates his vision for the Church as reclaiming our relationship with God and one another. The Church is to be a living encounter with Christ, which means that Christians are to recognize Christ in the other as much as they are called to be Christ for the other. This is not some weighty, pious burden but an invitation to deep and lasting consolation resulting from experiencing the love of God in and through loving others. Francis’ vision for the Church is rooted in communion and a mission of renewed enthusiasm marked by joy and hope. Francis doesn’t just insist that joy is the best barometer of the Christian faith; he radiates joy in every encounter.

At the same time, Francis’ radical vision for the Church is to be like a “field hospital after battle.” The Church goes to the margins to tend to the needs of those suffering the effects of personal and social sin. Drawing near others involves savoring and sharing the “Joy of the Gospel,” which “tells us tells us constantly to run the risk of a face-to-face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness” (Evangelii Gaudium, no. 88).

Francis has not changed any doctrine, but he seems to be shifting emphasis from defining or developing doctrine to the process of personal and communal discernment. Not only does this stem from his Jesuit formation (in the tradition of St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises”), but it highlights the freedom and obedience of one’s conscience as articulated in the Catechism (no. 1776). This is crucial for Francis’ vision of the Church as constituted by an informed and empowered laity whose full, conscious, and active participation is guided by spiritual discernment. This helps us look to the future where we all have a role to play in being available to the presence and power of the Holy Spirit in our midst, cooperating in the Church’s communion and mission. Any discussion of “The Francis Effect” on the Church has to account for the way Francis is energizing the laity to embrace their baptismal vocation to partner in the priesthood of Christ (CCC no. 1268).

Ultimately, Francis’ vision for the Church is a movement toward reform. Francis calls the Church – from personal beliefs and actions to institutional practices and structures – to turn away from sin, repent for the ways we have failed to love, and rededicate ourselves to Jesus. Each day is an opportunity to be rekindled by the “fire of Easter.”

2. Francis mediates the mercy of God:

When, as a new pope, he answered the question, “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” Francis’ reply was simple: “I am a sinner.  This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” Francis reveals a person deeply in touch with the experience of God’s mercy. (This, too, points to Francis’ Jesuit formation, including the first week of the “Spiritual Exercises.”) In his book, The Name of God is Mercy, Francis writes:

“The centrality of mercy, which for me is Jesus’ most important message, has slowly evolved over the years in my work as a priest, as a consequence of my experience as a confessor, and thanks to the many positive and beautiful stories that I have known … [mercy] means opening one’s heart to wretchedness. And immediately we go to the Lord: mercy is the divine attitude which embraces, it is God’s giving himself to us, accepting us, and bowing to forgive … we can say that mercy is God’s identity card.”

Francis explains that he sees God’s character and purpose through the lens of the gerund (and neologism), “mercifying:” the act of showing mercy. We typically translate mercy as loving-kindness, but as I have written previously, this betrays the rich and varied meaning of the word in light of its biblical heritage. Mercy involves strength and steadfastness, graciousness and gratuitousness, faithfulness and tenderness, forgiveness and responsibility, solidarity and accountability. Mercy is “the measure by which we shall be judged” (to borrow a phrase from St. John of the Cross).

Mercy is the crux of Francis’ theological vision, the true north of his moral compass, the heart of his imagination for what is possible. Mercy inspires Francis’ pastoral approach, which he urges his brother priests and bishops to share in becoming more like shepherds “who smell like sheep” because of their close accompaniment with the people of God. This resonates throughout Amoris Laetitia, where Francis highlights mercy as a test of the Church’s welcome, especially to those who are vulnerable, marginalized, and in “irregular situations.” He insists, “The way of the Church is not to condemn anyone for ever; it is to pour out the balm of God’s mercy on all those who ask for it” (no. 296). Not only is mercy the work of God in our midst, but it is the “criterion for knowing who his true children are” (no. 310).

Francis is quick to point out that mercy is not without a backbone; it is essentially tied to truth and justice. However, Francis’ emphasis on mercy – and the way he mediates mercy in his words and actions – underscores his belief that mercy should lead the way forward. In Amoris Laetitia, he affirms that mercy should inspire our personal and communal “pastoral discernment” to be “filled with love, which is ever ready to understand, forgive, accompany, hope, and above all integrate” (no. 312). Mercy motivates Francis’ commitment to inclusion (a theme that can be traced from his early days as pope, to his 2017 TED Talk, “The Only Future Worth Building Includes Everyone,” to the current campaign to #ShareJourney with migrants and refugees through the four-step process to welcome, protect, promote, and integrate our brothers and sisters on the move, those who – just like us – are seeking peace in their families, homes, and neighborhoods). In those moments when Francis embraces a child, a man covered with tumors, or rushes to the side of a police officer who fell off her horse, he incarnates God-Who-Is-Mercy in the world and encourages us to do the same.

3. Francis knows place matters:

Francis recently shared in an interview that he doesn’t like to travel and he didn’t intend to travel much as pope. But as the migrant crisis – especially those fleeing chaos in the Middle East and Africa – continued to bring hundreds of desperate people to the shores of Italy, Francis said their suffering was like a “thorn in the heart.” Francis celebrated Mass on the tiny island of Lampedusa to denounce the “globalization of indifference” that turns a blind eye, deaf ear, cold heart, and closed hand to the thousands of people fleeing violence, economic deprivation, famine, drought, and flooding. In his homily, Francis reflected:

“Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters. We have fallen into the hypocrisy of the priest and the Levite whom Jesus described in the parable of the Good Samaritan: we see our brother half dead on the side of the road, and perhaps we say to ourselves: “poor soul…!” and then go on our way. It’s not our responsibility, and with that we feel reassured, assuaged. The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!”

Francis’ critique of the “globalization of indifference” goes beyond condemning moral apathy; he also points to the solution, which is accomplished by following the example of the Samaritan. This means interrupting our schedule, putting our agenda on hold, going out of our way and into the ditch to draw near to others in need. Proximity with the poor, marginalized, and oppressed will burst the “soap bubbles” of our self-concern (as anyone who has engaged in direct service knows). We learn about solidarity through contact with other people. This firsthand encounter serves as the catalyst for the kind of compassion, courage, generosity, and hope required to be the kind of people who routinely “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

In a globalized, digital world, one’s physical place might seem to be less significant. But Francis understands that we are formed by our social location. This is why he took up residence in the Vatican guesthouse, why he opts for a Fiat instead of a limo, why he can be found ministering to and with those in need, day and night.  When Pope Francis was asked about moments of particular consolation during his papacy, he discussed his visit to Tacloban in 2015.  He went to show his support after the island was devastated by a hurricane but he was the one gifted by all the smiles – the irrepressible joy – of all those who came to see him and celebrate the Eucharist together. Even in the midst of a tropical storm, Francis’ physical presence was a consolation to the faithful, just as they have been to him.

This is why Francis doesn’t just insist that we should be building bridges, not walls; he goes to the US-Mexico border to celebrate the Eucharist with people separated by the border wall. Standing at the border near Juárez (where more than 1500 women and girls have been murdered since 1993), Francis brings attention to the place where more than 6,000 migrants have died since 2000, a “mass disaster” that goes unnoticed by too many. When Francis celebrates the Eucharist at the border, he shines a light on the Body of Christ as a “body of broken bones,” disfigured by drug smuggling, human trafficking, and unchecked violence. In his homily, Francis speaks from this place to conscientize Christians and all people of good will, pleading, “Let us together ask our God for the gift of conversion, the gift of tears, let us ask him to give us open hearts … No more death!  No more exploitation!  There is always time to change, always a way out and always an opportunity, there is always the time to implore the mercy of God.”

By word and deed, Francis exhorts us to move our feet to draw near our brothers and sisters rather than stand in judgment at them from a distance. This is what it means to be a church that is like a “field hospital after battle,” going to the frontiers that are from the center of status, privilege, and power. When we take up the vantage point of the vulnerable, we better understand the circumstances they face, the personal and structural obstacles to their dignity and freedom, and the ways that this restriction of choice becomes a deprivation of life.

And Francis recognizes that when we cannot take up a particular location ourselves, we can still be formed by having a place brought to us. This is why he celebrated Mass with crosses and a chalice made from the wood of capsized boats that carried migrants. (Theologian Fr. Dan Groody travels with a chalice made from this same wood, giving emphasis to the connection between Christ’s suffering and those of these “crucified peoples.”) Every time we attend Mass, we are invited to think, feel, and pray in union with the whole Church, a church that Francis calls to be “without frontiers and a mother to all.” Francis’ travels bring to light forgotten people and places, making the Church more “catholic” (i.e., “pertaining to the whole” or universal) in seeking to affirm unity in its diversity.

4. Francis listens:

When Francis goes to the margins, he doesn’t only go to evangelize; he also goes to be evangelized. He takes seriously Jesus’ claim that he can be found in the least, the last, and the lowly (Matthew 25:40). He seeks to learn about the lived experiences of others and to draw on this wisdom to enrich the whole Church. This is why he made sure Laudato Si’ was informed by bishops, scientists, and people living in the Global South so that his call to care for all creation would be theologically sound, empirically-grounded, and prophetically inspired by the experiences of those who are already facing the effects of climate change (the poor are being hit first and worst). As a result of this listening, Pope Francis clarified how and why the great command to love of God and neighbor is essentially linked to care for our shared home, our ecological common good.  He asserts the need for ecological conversion and integral development: “We are not faced with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather one complex crisis which is both social and environmental. Strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the underprivileged, and at the same time protecting nature” (no. 139). Francis beckons for each of us to pause from the busyness of our daily routine to “hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” (no. 49).

Francis’ habit of listening is surely what gave rise to his famous “Who am I to judge?” line in response to a question about homosexuality. It is the reason why, earlier this year, he married the flight attendants on a plane in Chile – and reminded critics that “sacraments are for people” (which sounds a lot like Jesus responding to his doubters in Mark 2:27). Francis has been formed by this practice of listening, and this is beginning to shape the Church, as well. His stress on listening was the impetus for the Lineamenta that informed the pastoral priorities in Amoris Laetitia. During his visit to the United States, he highlighted the need for dialogue, including his willingness to be a part of that process himself. In the midst of controversy surrounding the church’s mishandling of priests’ abuse of children, Francis continues to listen to victims of abuse – almost weekly. (“They are left annihilated. Annihilated!” he reports.) Francis’s listening will continue to shape the Church in the future, as he seeks counsel on questions related to married priests, women deacons, and even as he considers what his adversaries and critics have to say about him.

Francis’ commitment to listening shows his spiritual maturity. He seeks to be attentive and responsive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, not just in his own life, but among the whole people of God. His careful listening also points back to his Jesuit formation, in the tradition of St. Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises.” Those of us who have been Jesuit-educated can easily detect the ways that Francis “seeks God in all things” (through the “spiritual senses” to grow in dedication to and affection for what God loves), how he is a man “for and with others” (avoiding that “which might separate us from others”), how he demonstrates “care for the whole person” (making us responsible to promote human dignity), and his dedication to a “faith that does justice” (to pursue the fullness of life for all). Francis’ discernment of the will of God is rooted in the vision of Vatican II: listening to the joys and hopes, griefs and sorrows of the Church. He does more than “read the signs of the times;” he hears what they mean to God’s people. Like other beloved South American bishops (e.g., Câmara and Romero), Francis feels with the Church. His pastoral approach is profoundly Latin American, marked by a theology of accompaniment en conjunto (together). It is about sharing – not wielding – power as a discipleship of equals.

5. Francis embraces synodality:

Of course, listening matters little if it does not lead to action. Aside from the emphasis on mercy, the hallmark of Francis’ pontificate has been his support for synodality. For most, the word “synod” might denote a gathering of bishops. But the Greek roots of the word mean “journeying together.” This implies more than listening and shared discernment (e.g., the “evangelical discernment” he outlines in Evangelii Gaudium, no. 51). Synodality requires that we build partnerships. Synods – most notably on matters related to the family in 2014 and 2015 and the upcoming synod on young people that will begin in Rome next week – foster mutual respect, support, and accountability. They promote listening that becomes the pathway for collaboration as “coworkers in the vineyard.”

Synodality offers a more inclusive and egalitarian model for being church. It necessarily involves dismantling barriers to full and equal participation, especially those created by the sins of racism, sexism, and homophobia. In the spirit of subsidiarity, it assigns responsibility at the lowest effective level. Synodality helps the Church to become more freely and fully one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Francis’ endorsement of synodality is not an abdication of his authority, but a delegation of authority to those who are in the best position to offer fitting pastoral care. Bishop McElroy in San Diego offers an excellent case study of how synodality can expand our imagination of what is possible in response to Amoris Laetitia.

Ultimately, that’s the point of sharing the journey in synodality: to expand our imagination of what is possible as followers of Christ. Imagination is not about fantasy or illusion. Imagination – in a truly Ignatian way – is ultimately a function of our deepest desires. Imagination makes it possible to wake up from the delusion that we are separate from each other or that some lives matter more than others. Imagination calls each of us to be visionaries, seeking the reign of God in our midst so that we can continue to reach for it to become ever more fully realized in our time and place.

Francis’ encouragement of synodality reminds me of the line by the Jesuit priest and poet Dan Berrigan: if you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things. Synodality is a sign of great hope; Francis trusts in the assembly, the people of God, the church. He is confident that the Holy Spirit is leading the way through the sensus fidelium, even if the way forward will not be in clear black-and-white terms. Francis rejects the allure of black-and-white thinking because such a facile approach does not cohere with the rich diversity of human experience. Through synodality, Francis is making room for the Holy Spirit – and for an empowered laity, too.

Indeed, these last five years with Francis give us many reasons to be filled with gratitude, just as they give us reasons to be filled with hope for what the future holds. There is more work to be done and Francis’ fifth anniversary is a time for us to be renewed in sharing this work. What would it look like for you to adopt Francis’ radical vision for the Church, his manner of mediating mercy, drawing near people and places of great need, listening to learn from others, and sharing the journey through collaboration? In what ways can we more fully embrace our baptismal vocation and make more room for the Holy Spirit to lead us where God needs us? What can we imagine possible for ourselves, our Church, and our world?

We do not know what is in store for us next. But Pope Francis offers some sage advice for the journey ahead:

“In the meantime, we come together to take charge of this home that has been entrusted to us, knowing that all the good that exists here will be taken up into the heavenly feast. In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God, for ‘if the world has a beginning and if it has been created, we must enquire who gave it this beginning, and who was its Creator.’ Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope” (Laudato Si’ no. 244).

Pope Francis gives us many reasons – past, present, and future – to bask in the joy of our hope. The Mercy Pope is a living witness of God’s inexhaustible and unconditional tenderness, just as we are called to be, too.


Love Has No Alibi: Pope Francis Announces First World Day of the Poor Message

Earlier today, Pope Francis released a message for the Church in preparation for the First World Day of the Poor, to be celebrated on November 19th.  This particular Sunday—two weeks before the beginning of Advent and the Sunday before the Feast of Christ the King, which concludes the liturgical year—is given focus by the gospel reading for the day.  The passage, Matthew 25:14-30, is called the “parable of the talents.” It is a sobering reminder that much is expected from those to whom much is given (to paraphrase Luke 12:48), and sets the stage for the following passage (Matthew 25:31-46, the gospel for the Feast of Christ the King), when Jesus surprises his disciples by saying that final judgment is not a matter of belief or belonging, but results from how a person uses his or her freedom.  Specifically, Jesus identifies himself with the least, the last, and the lowly, telling his followers: “what you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me” (Matthew 25:40).

These passages are part of the biblical foundation for the preferential option for the poor in Catholic social teaching. This teaching calls Christians to love God by loving their neighbor, giving special priority to the neighbor in greatest need. It is crucial to remember that when we use the word “poor,” we’re not just talking about scores of people barely making ends meet.  Poor and low-income people make up 71% of the global population.

In Hebrew, the word for “poor” is anawim, although the word conveys much more than material deprivation.  Anawim is just as much about being vulnerable and marginalized, a social outcast, cloaked in shame.  When we talk about “the poor,” we should remember we are talking about people: children, married couples and single adults, the elderly, folks who experience mental or physical illness or injury—people who are socially excluded or isolated.  In Scripture, to be poor is to be denied dignity, rights, freedom, opportunities, and access.  Similarly, in the world today, to be poor is to have little or no power.  As Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutiérrez has claimed, to be poor is to be rendered socially insignificant, a nonperson, someone fated to premature death.

A significant part of Pope Francis’ Message for the First World Day of the Poor involves going beyond exhorting Christians to show special care, concern, and steadfast commitment to those in greatest need.  “Love has no alibi,” Pope Francis asserts, and it ought to lead to a “true encounter with the poor and a sharing that becomes a way of life.”  Here Francis connects this inaugural “World Day of the Poor” to one of the central themes of his papacy, the need to build a “culture of encounter,” to bring people together across differences with tenderness and solidarity.

Moreover, Pope Francis uses this message to remind Christians that we all experience poverty of some kind; we are all deprived in one way or another.  This is not a call to self-pity, but humility.  Aquinas defines humility as the truth: the ability to recognize our goodness as well as our finitude and moral failure.  Our poverty—material, spiritual, and marked by other social and political conditions—can be a starting point, rooted in humility to connect with others in vulnerability and openness.  As Brené Brown has highlighted, there is great power in vulnerability, a power that can bring about a change in the way we relate to ourselves and one another.

Instead of focusing on what we can give to others (especially in a spirit of pity or unilateral charity that can sometimes do more harm than good), this is a call to friendship, to right-relationship with God and all creation.  It is a call to be who God is in the world: a communion of love.

When we embrace our own poverty and refuse to ignore the poverty of others, we can make ourselves more available to the presence and power of God in our midst, who, as Jesus proclaimed, desires that we share life in abundance (John 10:10).  This First World Day of the Poor is a day to commit ourselves to be artisans of peace and builders of a “culture of life.”

You can read Pope Francis’ full Message for the First World Day of the Poor here.