Second Line Remembering: Toward a Theology of Zoom Liturgies

Our Predicament

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primary Tensions

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Digital Triduum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witnessing Memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Second Line Parades and Second Eucharists

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

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

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

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

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

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

[i] Augustine, Sermon on 1 John, §1.2

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

[iii] Ibid.


Career Crises in Quarantine: Facing the Millennial Drama with Christ

Being quarantined in one’s home during an international pandemic is not necessarily the best time and place to be making decisions about one’s career path. And yet I, along with several friends my age, have been plagued by the question of what we are going to be doing with the rest of our lives (excuse the dark pun). Our sob-ridden conversations have revealed a drama that seems to be characteristic of the “millennial experience.”

Among these friends are two who just left their jobs: one at a faith-based non-profit, the other as a public defender. Another friend is contemplating leaving his job as a teacher for another school. Then there’s me: a high school teacher facing rejection from grad programs, trying to figure out his next steps. So what is it that is driving us to voluntarily put our careers into crisis? It all seemed to boil down to feeling frustrated with our perceived inability to bring about some kind of recognizable result or positive change within our respective fields.

The desire to “make a difference” in the world and to be of service to others often clashes (and is intertwined) with the desire to prove our worth as human beings. The uncomfortable reality of our human fragility—which tends to manifest itself through our insecurities, idiosyncrasies, and past wounds that never seem to totally disappear, along with our inability to produce a difference great enough to meet our lofty expectations—always seems to eat away at our sense of worth and erect obstacles to our professional aspirations.

What can one do when facing this fragility in the mirror? How can one move forward in their career while feeling uncertain about the worth of the contribution they are making to society? The experience of being quarantined has forced me to look into that mirror more closely. Without the respite of the distractions afforded by the routine of life as usual, I’m confronted with my inability to cover over those fears that have been part of my life since my youth and which only become more salient as time goes on.

Pope Francis’ words at the extraordinary Urbi et Orbi blessing helped me to begin to articulate what’s at the crux of this drama: “The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities…The tempest lays bare all our prepackaged ideas and forgetfulness of what nourishes our people’s souls; all those attempts that anesthetize us with ways of thinking and acting that supposedly ‘save’ us…”

So much of my altruistic ambitiousness is fueled by the anxiety of having to prove my own greatness as an individual. As I gaze, uncomfortably, into that mirror, I see how much my attitude toward work is tangled up with the fear that maybe I’m not so awesome as I think I am. Maybe I’m not as “special” as my parents told me I was, and that I’m actually quite ordinary, quite like “the rest.” Maybe I’m not actually capable of fixing the world’s problems. These realizations hurt. And as the Pope continued, I started to see how much that pain was, more than anything, the result of a blow to my ego:

“In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived…We have gone ahead at breakneck speed, feeling powerful and able to do anything. Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste.”

Like so many of my fellow millennials, I want to make a difference, and I want to see the results now! Feeling frustrated by the inadequacy of our results can easily drive us to become more ambitious, more competitive, and more cut-throat, doing whatever it takes to succeed. A drive that once seemed oh-so-altruistic and humanitarian can easily turn into a dehumanizing race to assert ourselves as the best, the most effective, and most competent. But as soon as we start to “succeed,” we realize how there’s still so much more to be accomplished. We are confronted again with our fragility and limitations, and we see how cold-hearted and calculating we can become in our attempts to cover over those weaknesses.

I found myself dumbstruck by the Pope’s next course of actions after his homily. As Francis stood in front of that 16th century “plague crucifix” in the middle of a deserted St. Peter’s Square and begged, implored our wounded Savior to show him the way, gazing upon his bleeding body with a sense of exasperation and even desperation, and kissing his feet with tender affection, the self-pity that had hardened me began to crack as the tears poured out.

Who am I? What is the point of my life…and what am I to make of it? For the first time, not knowing the answers didn’t scare me. I didn’t feel the impulse to cover over this “lack” by reassuring myself of my accomplishments and achievements. Instead, I felt free to identify myself with that man, with the successor of that apostle who fell so bitterly, only to be chosen as the leader of God’s people.

This act of identification helped me to take a step back from my self-critiques and insecurities. It gave some much needed perspective to my career crisis. Perhaps the purpose of my work and my accomplishments is not to use them to cover over my woundedness as a human being, but to enter more deeply into relationship with the One who shares my woundedness with me. I felt this moment to be an invitation to look at work as a call not to “save the world,” but to offer myself to He who is the true savior.

The Pope’s reflection a few weeks later on Divine Mercy Sunday helped me to face this question of the relationship between my work and my woundedness more deeply. He spoke of Saint Faustina Kowalska, who “told Jesus that she had offered him all of her life and all that she had. But Jesus’ answer stunned her: ‘You have not offered me the thing is truly yours’. What had that holy nun kept for herself? Jesus said to her with kindness: ‘My daughter, give me your failings’. We too can ask ourselves: ‘Have I given my failings to the Lord? Have I let him see me fall so that he can raise me up?’ Or is there something I still keep inside me?…The Lord waits for us to offer him our failings so that he can help us experience his mercy.”

I was instantly brought back to the image of Francis facing the plague crucifix with that tender gaze. When I go to work every day, am I going with the intention to prove how awesome I am and to cover over my weaknesses? Or do I go with full awareness of my weaknesses, looking to offer them to Christ and responding to His call in the little details of my work? Is work a matter of achievement for its own sake or of faithfulness to the tasks I’m faced with each day?

As the quarantine continues to hold up a mirror to all of my shortcomings, fears, and uncertainties, I look to approach the question of my career not in isolation, but with Christ by my side. Francis continues, “In the time of trial that we are presently undergoing, we…with our fears and our doubts have experienced our frailty. We need the Lord, who sees beyond that frailty an irrepressible beauty. With him we rediscover how precious we are even in our vulnerability. We discover that we are like beautiful crystals, fragile and at the same time precious.”

Rather than trying to measure my “greatness”—my success and accomplishments (or lack thereof)—from a worldly lens, I pray to see my own vulnerability, as well as that of others, through His eyes. And I pray to be able respond to the irrepressible beauty within His gaze by saying “yes”—to the way He made me, to the work He gives me, and to solidarity with this fragile world. Whatever decisions my friends and I make for our careers, I pray that we will do so with the awareness of what truly gives our life value, freed from the anxiety of having to hide what He sees to be “beautiful crystals.”

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


The Wounded Healer in a Time of Pandemic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


In a Pandemic, Our Whole Lives Are Sacramental and Liturgical

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


You’re Loved Just the Way You Are

Ignatian spirituality teaches that everything begins and ends with the love of God. To put it simply: we were created to love and be loved. As I watched the movie A Beautiful Day in the NeighborhoodI was reminded how Fred Rogers’ lived and believed this simple truth. As a person who experienced his own insecurities as a child, his whole vocation became one large empathetic hug not just for children, but for all of humanity. It was his ministry to share God’s love with every person by reminding them of their inherent dignity and belovedness.

Universal Belovedness
As a parent—and a human being—I tend to focus on the future hope of humanity rather than the present moment. We can look at our children with consoling dreams and images of what they may become, and we sometimes miss them in the here and now. “To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right now,” Rogers said. “I don’t think anyone can grow unless he’s loved exactly as he is now, appreciated for what he is rather than what he will be.” Ignatius taught that love shows itself more in deeds than in words. Our love of the other has the most force in its action, in its acceptance of the other, in the embrace of the other’s worth, in a loving gaze.

This message of universal belovedness—the fact that you are loved and worthy of love—is a message all of us need to hear. At some point in our lives we question this truth and, to some degree, become insecure self-haters. Often it takes another loving person to pull us out of that and remind us that we are loved just the way we are.

True Self
Part of what Fred Rogers saw in every person is the True Self, the person God made them to be. At least he knew the true self was there even if it was buried under layers of masks and baggage. He understood the need that when discerning choices, we should make decisions from a deep sense of who we are at our core.

But being human is difficult. Having emotions that change with daily or moment-to-moment circumstances is hard. This is why he encouraged an attentiveness to our feelings, our interior. While Fred Rogers may have not known about Ignatian spirituality, he was a promoter of it each time he told us to talk about our feelings or to use our imagination. These are vehicles of God’s communication and can draw us closer to that true self we have deep inside. And Rogers knew that sometimes we let the false self take over, that good people can sometimes be bad.

Ignatius might talk about the false self as the evil spirit’s grasp on us. It’s those times when riches, honour, and pride seem like the most important characteristics of success. Jesus’ way to success, on the other hand—the way to the true self—is expressed as the opposite: poverty, lowliness, and humility. Mr Rogers adds a fourth path. “There are three ways to ultimate success,” he says. “The first way is to be kind. The second way is to be kind. The third way is to be kind.” Kindness is not only a path to humility but opens your heart up to another person, to be generous and open to whatever they have to offer. It’s synonymous with a definition of love I heard the other day. Love is allowing the space to see and understand the other. Rogers said that loving is the most important part of being alive.

He said, “As human beings, our job in life is to help people realize how rare and valuable each one of us really is, that each of us has something that no one else has—or ever will have—something inside that is unique to all time. It’s our job to encourage each other to discover that uniqueness and to provide ways of developing its expression.”

Forgiveness
This work Mr Rogers undertook for decades was the work of Jesus: bringing people together, breaking down walls, celebrating differences, reminding us of our common humanity and belovednessA Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens with Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, talking about forgiveness. Forgiveness is an expression of love. It’s an act that uncovers the true self, that free us from the unhealthy attachments we’ve been clinging to. Forgiveness is a tool to bring people together. It’s the call of the Christian, one that Rogers took very seriously.

“Forgiveness is a strange thing,” said Rogers. “It can sometimes be easier to forgive our enemies than our friends. It can be hardest of all to forgive people we love. Like all of life’s important coping skills, the ability to forgive and the capacity to let go of resentments most likely take root very early in our lives.” No wonder parents seem to value the importance of their children saying “I’m sorry” to someone they’ve hurt. But how much do us grown-ups value apologising and forgiveness? Sometimes we can get more caught up in the false-self-pride than in a vulnerable true self, admitting wrong, and asking for forgiveness – or extending it. This is why Mr Rogers’ message is perhaps more important for adults to hear. Children let go of resentments much more quickly than adults. Adults can hold on to resentments so long that they take them to the grave.

Silence and Listening
Other than our inherent belovedness, perhaps the other primary message that underlies all of Fred Rogers’ teachings is the importance of listening. This is also primary to Ignatian spirituality. When we don’t listen, we are deaf to God’s call. When we allow attachments and addictions to be the primary speakers in our life we do not hear the call to a deeper and freer self. When we dismiss feelings and emotions rather than listening to their wisdom, we can respond to them in unhealthy ways and make bad choices. This is why silence takes an important place in the spiritual life. It becomes a path to listening.

“Our society is much more interested in information than wonder, in noise rather than silence,” Rogers said in an interview with Charlie Rose. “And I feel that we need a lot more wonder and a lot more silence in our lives.”

Mister Rogers Neighborhood was slow. It took some time for my three-year-old daughter to get used to watching it with me. It’s certainly not her go-to TV show. Fred Rogers speaks slowly, he feeds his fish and pauses; he converses slowly with others and leaves silence after they speak to let the heart listen. His gentle and quiet way sharply contrasted with Mr McFeely, a fast-talking, always-in-a-rush mail carrier for the “Speedy Delivery” service. Whenever Mr McFeely stopped by Mr Rogers’ house in a frenzy, his encounter with Fred slowed him down. And when they watched fast conveyor belts and whirling machines in a factory video on Picture-Picture, the video even seemed to take a breath once in a while, the camera dwelling on one machine process for a while before moving on.

In the Tom Hanks movie there was a scene where Mr Rogers is in a restaurant with Lloyd Vogel, the cynical journalist with his own false-self baggage the movie centres around. Fred suggests they take a minute of silence for Lloyd to think about all the people who have loved him into being. And so the whole restaurant falls quiet. We see Fred and Lloyd at the table, sitting in silence – and we sit there in silence with them. About halfway through Fred Rogers looks at you. This was the most moving scene in the film for me. When Mr Rogers looked at me during that silence it was as if he was looking at the true me, my true self. It was as if he was loving me and seeing me with my inherent dignity and belovedness, and liking me just for being me. At the end of the minute I had tears in my eyes. It was a rare moment where all of us in the theatre shared a moment of being loved as we were.

“How many times have you noticed that it’s the little quiet moments in the midst of life that seem to give the rest extra-special meaning?” Rogers once said.

More and more Fred Rogers is ministering to me through his kindness and words. He reminds us what is most wonderful about humanity – that beneath the surface we are all loved.

Andy Otto is the creator and editor of God In All Things.


Drawing Near to Others: An Interview with Marcus Mescher on the “Ethics of Encounter”

At a recent national conference for ministry professionals, the emcee invited attendees to walk through a maze of advertising booths during an upcoming break in the schedule, telling them, “This morning, you heard about a theology of encounter. Now head over to the booths and encounter your publishing companies!”

The comment is revealing for two reasons. First, it suggests that Pope Francis’s steady invocation of “encounter” throughout his papacy is beginning to lodge the word in the vocabulary of U.S. Catholics. Second, it shows how easily “encounter” can be emptied of its prophetic force, especially in the United States’ culture of consumption.

In a new book, The Ethics of Encounter: Christian Neighbor Love as a Practice of Solidarity, Marcus Mescher, assistant professor of Christian ethics at Xavier University, lays out a hopeful vision for constructing cultures of encounter capable of healing a broken, polarized Church and world. What follows are excerpts from my conversation with Mescher about both the transformative power and inherent fragility of encounter.

Early in your book, you point out that the root of the word encounter is actually “meet as an adversary,” which I found surprising. Can you unpack that?

In any encounter, there is an otherness that we cannot master, that we cannot fully comprehend, that we cannot always make reconcilable to our own worldview or reducible to another me. The book starts with a note of humility, acknowledging the reality that when it comes to encounter, we’re meeting the Other in a capital “O” sense: an Other we cannot fully understand. We have to be gentle with ourselves and with each other, because encounter is hard work. God is inexhaustible mystery, and because we’re made in the image and likeness of that inexhaustible mystery, there’s endless mystery in us, too. That’s what makes encounter such a rich concept—and practice—in my view.

Encounter, you argue, is more about “drawing near” to others than it is “making room” for them. Why is this distinction important?

I wanted to distinguish this ethic of encounter from the virtue of hospitality, which scholars like Jessica Wrobleski and Christine Pohl have done good work on already. When a host makes room for a guest, there’s often an inequality there: the host provides, the guest receives. The asymmetry between host and guest can beget a kind of dependence or resentment. While perfect equality or mutuality is idyllic, to draw near others to share life with them is a crucial first step to encounter and the vision of solidarity that I build in the book. We have to honor the biblical mandates to be a people of hospitality, but another problem with making room for the other is that it can be too much like tolerance: I make space for you, but there’s not necessarily a reciprocity or anything more asked of me. To draw near the other is to adopt an others-centeredness that reflects agapic love that Paul argues is central to Christian discipleship (Philippians 2:3). To take up the vantage point of the other helps me grasp a fuller view of reality than I had before. We have a lot to learn from each other, but without drawing near to others across difference, we can get stuck in our own perspectives and priorities.

You present your “ethics of encounter” as an antidote to the “amoral familism” that’s been poisoning our social imagination in the United States for some time now. Can you explain what this means?

“Amoral familism” diagnoses a symptom of American life, especially over the last seventy years or so, rather accurately. The basic idea is that families look after their own and assume that other families are doing the same thing. This withdrawal into the nuclear family prioritizes the success and security of one’s family members at the expense of the common good.

In an American context, many of us have a lot of things that we assume are needs when in fact they’re luxuries. Alternatively, there’s a rising number of families who are struggling to survive but we don’t recognize any obligation to them because they’re not kin. Put another way, I worry that some families are fighting more for the superfluous goods of their own children than being outraged at the deprivation of basic goods for other people’s children.

A goal of this book is to incorporate a preferential option for the poor and a more robust ethic of social and ecological duty into our preexisting relationships and responsibilities. I present the ethics of encounter to recognize harsh distinctions between kin and others are part of the us-versus-them tribalism that we have to overcome if we’re going to live up to the command to love your neighbor as yourself that we receive in the Gospels.

I think most people would agree that personal encounters can be transformative (for better or for worse), but you’re arguing that we need more than just sporadic personal encounters, we need robust cultures of encounter. At the same time, there’s no one-size-fits-all way to do this. Can you say a bit about this?

Pope Francis has been calling us to build a “culture of encounter” for several years. In Evangelii Guadium he states that “the Gospel 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 please, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction.” This leads, as he sees it, to being part of a “revolution of tenderness,” the work of mercy and solidarity that he has been stressing throughout his pontificate (no. 88). That strikes me as inspiring, but it raises the question of how do we realize this vision on the personal, relational, and institutional levels of our Church and society?

When we talk about virtues, or practicing the corporal works of mercy, or being part of the “culture of encounter” that Pope Francis has been describing, there’s a temptation to see this as a box to check. I did my good deed for the day. I helped this person or gave that person the benefit of the doubt. I decided to listen rather than tune out. This is a good start, but it’s just a first step in a lifelong journey of becoming the kind of person or church or community we most deeply desire.

We have to integrate this kind of doing into our very way of being. To do this, the virtue of prudence helps us discern what is most fitting for our own abilities, needs, and opportunities. Our conscience can help us know and choose what is good, but it’s worth noting that “conscience” means “to know together.” This is not a private project. It’s a shared task. No person is formed in a vacuum; we are formed in our relationships and the rituals we share, so the ethics of encounter has to be incorporated into families and friend groups, schools and churches, neighborhoods and places of business, healthcare facilitates and government offices.

Encounter is not just two individuals meeting as a dyad; our encounters overlap with others and impact people long after the encounter is over. Encounter is just the beginning to the kind of accompaniment, exchange, and inclusive belonging that can break through ignorance, apathy, and injustice. In my view, Greg Boyle and the members of the Homeboy Industries community model this beautifully, which is why I feature them as a case study for the kind of encounters that produce personal and communal transformation. Their efforts to encounter and empower former gang members can stretch our imagination so we can be more open to others, practice greater compassion and resilience, and witness the kinds of relationships that promote freedom to flourish individually and collectively.

After your manuscript had already been finalized, revelations about Jean Vanier sent shockwaves around the world. Your book contains lines from Vanier about vulnerability, interdependence, and love that read very differently now than when you wrote them. What do you think this teaches us about encounter?

It has been very painful to reread those passages and think about what he did to people who trusted him. And to think about all the people who looked the other way or otherwise enabled his abuse and discouraged survivors from coming forward to give voice to their experience. His story points to the prevalence of sin and how encounter can be manipulated. We have to be a people who are constantly vigilant about listening to the voices of the marginalized and excluded. We have to draw near and listen to survivors of abuse. And we can’t be tempted to move on like “business as usual.” There is still so much lamentation and atonement to be done.

That said, the potential for encounter to be manipulated should not be a reason for people to refuse encounter altogether. Vulnerability is an important part of the ethics of encounter because it’s how we grow into our humanity. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me or think that we should get hurt or to accept that others get hurt. But, I think it’s a myth to think that we can wholly protect ourselves from harm. Part of what it means to love is to trust, and sometimes people take advantage and betray our trust. Trust is an ongoing process, a collective task to build conditions for mutual respect and responsibility that encourages both authenticity and accountability. There are a lot of wounds that need healing in our Church and world. In my view, the ethics of encounter is how we begin the work of mending what’s been broken between us.

Finally, you argue that constructing cultures of encounter within your ethical framework is a practice of hope?

One of the most compelling lines I’ve read is from Jon Sobrino – he’s quoting his slain Jesuit brother Ignacio Ellacuría – who says that we should live already as risen beings. Sobrino explains that the resurrection is not merely a historical event, it’s a cosmic event that changes creation. This reflects, I think, what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:17-20: that we should live as a “new creation” in Christ. The resurrection makes new life and new community possible, thanks to Jesus conquering sin and death. The encounter with the Risen Christ emboldened the first disciples to continue Jesus’ mission by cultivating communities of inclusion and co-responsibility. They crossed boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and religion. They saw a world saddled with unjust inequality and chose to struggle for new possibilities.

In a time of so much despair, distrust, and division, we need that same commitment today. Dan Berrigan used to say, “the best way to be hopeful is to do hopeful things.” Encounters can be anxiety-producing and difficult but if people can summon the courage to risk some encounters that they wouldn’t normally try to initiate, they’ll see the fruit for themselves in having their horizons widened, their self-knowledge deepened, and their understanding of others broadened.

Encounter is how we become more fully human, and as the Incarnation shows us, humanization and divinization are directly proportionate, so the more fully human we become, the more we become like God. That’s the hope: that we see an ethics of encounter as a pathway to both wholeness and holiness, a way to reclaim the truth that we belong to each other.

Nick Mayrand is a PhD candidate in Theology at the University of Dayton.


Will the Coronavirus Deepen Our Extreme Individualism or Foster Solidarity?

Embed from Getty Images
At a time when many Americans remain in their homes, only venturing out for essential needs, other Americans were going to packed bars to drink the night away. As some are separated from their loved ones who are desperately sick, perhaps on the brink of death, other Americans have been flying to Florida to party at the beach.

The response of the Trump administration to the coronavirus pandemic has been similarly reckless. Early action to prepare for the crisis, get testing capacity ready, ensure an adequate supply of needed medical goods, and encourage the social distancing necessary to contain the spread of the virus was absent. Instead, US President Donald Trump downplayed the threat and dismissed concerns about it as a “hoax” designed to undermine his presidency.

As the gravity of the crisis became more apparent to all and the potential for economic catastrophe loomed, Trump finally shifted away from such rhetoric, but it not clear that the administration has the desire or ability to respond swiftly and adequately to the crisis.

The crisis has revealed the emptiness of ‘America First’ isolationism. Populist nationalism offers no solution to many of the most critical global challenges we face, from climate change to global pandemics. And the costs of this head-in-the-sand approach are now plain for all to see—at least, all of those who are following the facts rather than dismissing factual reality as fake news.

The moral bankruptcy and recklessness of American libertarianism is also clear. The United States still lacks a system of universal healthcare—something that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, but is acutely problematic at a time like this. As businesses are forced to shut their doors, American workers are wondering how they will survive without an adequate social safety net. While some with libertarian inclinations have said that now is the time for robust government action, others continue to grasp tightly to a destructive ideology that is far too popular in the US.

These mentalities contribute to what Pope Francis has described as a ‘throwaway culture’. Everything is judged by its immediate utility. Human beings are treated as objects to be discarded when they are no longer of use to those pursuing their naked self-interest. Autonomy and choice trump human dignity and social justice.

Hyperindividualism has taken root in the United States. It drives this throwaway culture. And it is present on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. In a country that has long prized individual initiative, it has reached new heights, threatening not only the vulnerable, but also the very foundations of our republican institutions—and that was before the present crisis.

This extreme individualism and the throwaway culture it generates offer the allure of freedom, but have instead delivered misery for countless Americans. There is a loneliness epidemic in the United States with a growing number of people experiencing chronic loneliness, lacking meaningful connections, and having fewer intimate friendships. Deaths of despair—from suicide to drug and alcohol poisoning and abuse—have exploded in the last two decades. As civil society has receded, isolation and despair have advanced.

One might think that the coronavirus crisis will only make things worse. But maybe not.

Perhaps forced isolation will allow Americans to see that we need meaningful connections in our lives—even those that bind us in some way.

Perhaps more Americans will come to realize that no person is an island. Everything we accomplish in life is dependent on others. And our actions—for better or worse—inevitably affect others. As we sacrifice our freedom of action to ‘flatten the curve’, we might come to see that sacrifices we make for the common good can save lives and protect human dignity. We might recognize that real freedom requires responsibility—that it is more than license.

The threat of coronavirus may open American eyes to the fragility of life and universal vulnerability of human existence. Illusions of control and absolute autonomy are being shattered. It is clear that our flourishing depends on the behavior of others. The comfortable individual existence many have focused intently on constructing is being exposed as a house of cards.

A firmer foundation for human flourishing is solidarity. It has the potential to foster the community that we crave as social beings. Instead of grasping for comfort in imagined invincibility, it can offer real support in shared sacrifices and vulnerability.

If solidarity grows stronger, it can help us respond not only to the crisis at hand, but the economic insecurity, senseless violence, bigotry, and environmental degradation that preceded it. It can inspire us to turn from plutocracy, isolationism, and xenophobia toward a greater commitment to social justice, the protection of human life and dignity, and ending the throwaway culture. And it can help to restore and revitalize democratic institutions and norms.

Perhaps by living apart, Americans will learn how to live together.