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?

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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.


The Irishman in the Silence and Still of the Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rodrigues: Lord, I fought against your silence.

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

Rodrigues: I know.

[pause]

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

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

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

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

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

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


Teaching in the Midst of Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Unfinished Work of Saint Óscar Romero

Two unfinished Masses are linked to the legacy of Saint Óscar Romero, pointing to his unfinished work to see Christ in and be Christ for the poor, marginalized, and excluded.

Forty years ago, Óscar Romero was murdered while he celebrated Mass in the Divine Providence cancer hospital chapel. The Gospel was from John 12:23-26: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal. Whoever wants to serve me must follow me, so that my servant may be with me where I am.”

In his homily, Romero quoted from Gaudium et spes, asserting that building a “better ordering of human society” is “of vital concern to the kingdom of God … a kingdom of truth and life, of holiness and grace, of justice, love, and peace” (no. 39). He continued:

Dear brothers and sisters, let us all view these matters at this historic moment with hope, that spirit of giving and of sacrifice. Let us all do what we can. We can all do something, at least have a sense of understanding and sympathy … This holy mass, now, this Eucharist, is just such an act of faith. To Christian faith at this moment the voice of diatribe appears changed for the body of the Lord, who offered himself for the redemption of the world, and in this chalice the wine is transformed into the blood that was the price of salvation. May this body immolated and this blood sacrificed for humans nourish us also, so that we may give our body and our blood to suffering and to pain—like Christ, not for self, but to bring about justice and peace for our people.

The archbishop proclaimed these words while a car idled outside the chapel and an assassin trained his aim on Romero’s heart. Romero stared at his killer and uttered his last words: “Let us join together, then, intimately in faith and hope at this moment of prayer for Doña Sarita [it was her memorial Mass] and ourselves.”

At that moment—at 6:15pm—an assassin, a graduate of the notorious School of the Americas at Fort Benning, GA, fired a single bullet that ripped through Romero’s aorta and by 6:26pm he was declared dead.

A first Mass never finished.

The following Sunday, more than 250,000 Salvadorans gathered in the square outside the cathedral in the capital. It was Palm Sunday, and they were laying to rest their beloved “Monseñor Romero,” whom they recognized as a saint.

After a peaceful procession through the streets and prayerful start to the liturgy, soldiers began shooting into the crowd. Bombs interrupted the homily and people began to flee. It’s unclear how many people were killed, but eye witnesses report that more than 80 Salvadorans lost their lives.

A second Mass never finished.

Last week I was in El Salvador and got to spend time with Lolo Guardado, who was baptized by Romero and who was still a boy when Romero was murdered. In Spanish, Lolo told us that even though he is shy and still trying to heal from the wounds of El Salvador’s civil war, he tries to live up to the legacy of Romero’s courage. Lolo recounted stories of Romero as a “friend and good shepherd.”

Lolo, who survived a massacre that killed hundreds of women and children and wiped out more than sixty percent of his family, told us how Romero inspires him to discover his voice, tell his story, and speak the truth of the brutal effects of so many years of fear, hatred, and violence in El Salvador. In moments of uncertainty, Lolo told us, he can hear Romero urging him onward: “Adelante!” Lolo acknowledged, “If I do not speak up, it is not as though the rocks will speak for me. I must speak for myself.”

Lolo insists that Romero is alive in his commitment to sentir con la iglesia (to feel with the church), especially the unfinished work to draw near the poor, the vulnerable, the nonpersons. The ones made to feel invisible, the ones without security, voice, or agency.

Lolo described Romero’s bravery and cool-headedness during a late-night standoff in May 1979 at the Church of the Rosary. He brokered a peaceful exit that soldiers betrayed, firing bullets through the glass and metal doors (the bullet holes remain visible today), killing dozens who are buried in a mass grave in the floor of the church. My students and I were moved by the bullet-pierced tabernacle, which still hangs on the back wall of the church.

Thomas Merton referred to the church as a “body of broken bones” but in El Salvador, bullet holes and embodied wounds direct our gaze to the “crucified people” past and present. A Salvadoran woman named Anita shared her work to honor the legacy of Romero and so many other Salvadoran martyrs. She assured us, “Where there is a wound, there is God.” Romero is so beloved because he was so attentive and responsive to the wounds of his people.

As we remember Romero on the 40th anniversary of his martyrdom, there may be a temptation to domesticate his legacy. It’s important to honor his words and actions, verifying the record of what inspired and sustained him.

Romero’s unfinished work is a call to grow ever deeper in faith, hope, and love by sharing our life with those who suffer, people who question if they count, matter, or belong. In 1977, Romero insisted, “A church that is fulfilling its duty cannot live without being persecuted.” We cannot run from difference or discomfort; we cannot be afraid to disagree or convince ourselves that the kind thing to do is remain silent, to avoid rocking the boat. Less than a year before he was killed, Romero claimed, “The Gospel that the Church preaches will always provoke conflicts.” Jesus promised as much (Matthew 10:16-36). This is not a challenge to a select few; it is part of our shared call as disciples, a responsibility on all our shoulders. It comes with being church together, a reason for us to support each other and hold one another lovingly accountable to a Gospel that requires we never become complacent with an unjust status quo.

Romero’s unfinished work is to live out a faith filled with courage, compassion, and solidarity. To become a church that is genuinely of and for the poor. To have our hearts moved by those whose humanity is questioned, whose dignity is undermined, whose freedoms are constrained. And to work for a world that rights wrongs, heals wounds, and creates the conditions for each and all to freely and fully flourish in right-relationships.

In a digital age, it’s easy to give our attention to a person or cause and then swipe or scroll on to something completely different. Screens can become portals for distraction, escape, and entertainment, tempting us to ignore, deny, or even erase suffering – whether our own or others’.

Romero’s legacy is a challenge to be present to those pushed to the peripheries, to listen and learn from them. To help them discover their voice and develop it so they can speak their own truth and be heard. To build relationships rooted in mutual respect and responsibility such that the lines that distinguish “us” from “them” are erased by the bonds of cariño (tender affection), confianza (sacred trust), and conjunto (togetherness).

40 years removed from his last breath, it will grow easier to put Romero up on a pedestal, to light a candle in his honor, and to remember him for saintly piety and the selfless sacrifice of his life as a witness to his love for Jesus Christ and the people of El Salvador. But we cannot dilute or whitewash Romero as if he were predestined to sainthood, wholly set apart from the rest of us. He experienced struggle, doubt, and fear. He could have chosen to be silent or to sidestep his prophetic words to denounce injustice and violence. But he didn’t. Telling the truth came with a price. To continue the unfinished work of Saint Óscar Romero is to follow his example by telling the truth of reality, analyzing the root causes of injustice, mining sources of moral wisdom from Scripture, tradition, logic, and human experience, and working for justice on the personal, social, and structural levels.

Jon Sobrino, SJ, insists that while the Church honors Romero by recognizing him as a saint, “It is not the Church that graces Monseñor, but Monseñor who graces the Church and elevates it.” Romero calls us to an ever deeper love of God and neighbor, a love of God expressed by loving our neighbor, especially the one in greatest need. As the words of his prophetic homilies continue to echo from the past to the present, he urges us onward: “Adelante!”

Romero’s legacy—including but not limited to the two unfinished Masses in March 1980—reminds us: “Each one of you has to be a microphone for God” knowing that “no one can kill the voice of justice.”


Millennial of the Year 2019: Joshua Wong

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For his commitment to freedom, democracy, and human rights in Hong Kong in the face of ongoing persecution and mistreatment, our 2019 Millennial of the Year is Joshua Wong.

The Chinese regime has turned to increasingly totalitarian methods to maintain its grip on power—from its anti-Muslim concentration camps to its brutal crackdowns on protesters and persecution of human rights activists and their family members to the expansion of its Black Mirror-like “social credit” system. Taking a stand against the regime, which is looking to consolidate its power within China and extend it abroad, requires great courage—the type consistently displayed by Joshua Wong, who has been imprisoned on multiple occasions for his efforts.

Wong first drew headlines as a teenager as a leader of the Umbrella Movement during the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. And in 2019, as over a million people in Hong Kong took to the streets to protest an extradition bill that would further erode Hong Kong’s autonomy, Wong has used his platform to fight against Chinese attempts to discredit the protesters and make Hong Kong more closely resemble authoritarian China. The current movement may be leaderless, but Wong is playing a vital role in this struggle.

It is a perilous time for democracy around the world. Authoritarianism seems resurgent. Millennials must fight back against these troubling trends and take a stand for free democracy. Joshua Wong is already doing that.


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.