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Entries from January 2021

The Goodness of Poetry in Desolate Times

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”— John 10:10

Four years ago, not long after Donald Trump’s inauguration, I was invited to a conference at Heythrop College in London to celebrate the life and work of the Irish Jesuit Michael Paul Gallagher who had died the year before. The conference was titled after one of Gallagher’s books, Dive Deeper, in which he wrote that our neglect of “our human adventure,” of the poetry of life, had led to “a cultural unfreedom, a shared cultural desolation.” Recent years in the UK and the U.S., both of which had been my homes, had certainly been full of what could be called “cultural desolation,” what with Brexit, Trump and the rise of the extreme right on both sides of the Atlantic. I wondered what Gallagher, and more broadly the spiritual traditions of the Jesuits and their founder, Ignatius of Loyola, could offer our desolate world.

At Heythrop I spoke to what was already feared for the Trump reign those first early weeks: there was talk about registering Muslims, of imprisoning and deporting hundreds of thousands or even millions of immigrants, of making lists of “liberal college professors.” The American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Shaun King of Black Lives Matter and The New York Daily News had already tracked thousands of hate crimes around the country: swastikas on playgrounds, in the subways, on synagogues; African Americans, Muslims, women, the disabled targeted by mail, by phone, in person. A colleague at the Catholic university where I taught sent out an email the day after the election offering safe space for students and faculty who might have reason to fear. A Muslim student came into his office, he told me, and sat down and wept. She was afraid to leave her house. What should she do? The colleague’s wife, who taught elsewhere, said two of her women students were walking from town to campus when men in a pickup truck flying a confederate flag on election night yelled ‘We will grab your pussies! Trump Nation!’ One of my students told me his parents were “illegal,” though they had lived and worked in the U.S. for decades. He was terrified they would be deported.

In his dark inaugural address, Trump announced the end of “American carnage,” though in truth it was just beginning. Now, after four years of the thief who came to destroy, America is shattered: more than 25 million infected and 400,000 dead by the coronavirus; millions of jobs and any associated medical coverage lost; thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents at the border; hundreds of thousands hungry and homeless; five dead, more than a hundred police injured and countless traumatized by the white supremacist mob that attacked the Capitol only three weeks ago.

Four years ago, I asked whether Gallagher had something to offer as amelioration. What might he offer us now? In Dive Deeper, Gallagher turned to the “haunting line at the end of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland: ‘these fragments I have shored against my ruins.’ ” “We are all aware of the ruins around us,” he wrote. And yet Gallagher claimed that whatever the circumstance, his life had taught him “to believe both in humanity and in God.” Such a disposition is perhaps the best of what he, and Ignatian tradition, can give us. To gain it, Gallagher urged that we explore our inner depths and seek to see anew. He was convinced that “imaginative writers, like biblical prophets” can help us do that by deepening “our angle of seeing.”

This is why Gallagher and the Heythrop gathering have been much on my mind after the inauguration of President Biden, which was such a contrast to the previous one that had left me and so many other Americans bereft and fearful for the future. As fellow blog contributor Michael Sean Winters noted recently in the National Catholic Reporter, “Wednesday, Jan. 20, was a very Catholic day.” Biden began inauguration day with Mass. The night before he hosted a moving Covid Memorial Service, the first national remembrance for the victims of the pandemic, for all of us “united in sorrow as a single people,” as Cardinal Wilton Gregory put it in his opening prayer. Four hundred lanterns lined the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, each representing a thousand Americans lost to the virus. Washington had never looked so beautiful or seemed so sorrowful. We were all aware of the ruins around us.

The inauguration took place at the Capitol, protected by 25,000 National Guard brought to the city to defend it from another possible attack. The day was glorious, with a clear sky and brilliant sun. It was indeed a very Catholic day, and in ways that made me feel joy in being Catholic that I hadn’t felt in many years. There were obvious Catholic elements: Jesuit Leo Donovan gave the invocation. Joe Biden’s inaugural address was filled with the values of Catholic social teaching: the dignity of the human person, the importance of the common good and solidarity. “My whole soul is in this,” said the new president, and it was hard to believe otherwise.

As the young Black inaugural poet Amanda Gorman spoke in her wondrous performance of her poem “The Hill We Climb,” we are meant “to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions” of humanity, “to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.” What a graced and joyous day, a new angle of seeing.

Jennifer Reek is a writer, teacher and chaplain.

Let Us Love in Deed and Truth

Yesterday, Joe Biden was inaugurated as the 46th president of the United States—two weeks after a mob, stoked by Donald Trump, stormed the Capitol with the aim of blocking Congress from certifying the election and, among some of the rioters, of doing real harm to legislators.

I was interested to see how parish priests addressed the insurrection at Masses the following Sunday. To be sure, most Catholics don’t want their church experience to become overly politicized. Fair enough: church is about nurturing a relationship to the One who transcends this and every age, and people come to church in part to get away from depressing public affairs. But such a troubling event cannot be ignored at the very places meant to help us live faithfully in the world and to ease our worried minds.

Over the past year, I have been studying three Catholic parishes—all suburban and largely white in racial makeup—conducting interviews with parishioners and attending services, meetings and events. My research aims to understand how these parishes build community within their walls and how they contribute to the wider community.

So, I watched the online Masses at these churches to see how their pastors addressed the insurrection in their homilies. Since I will be selective in quoting the homilies, let me say first that all of them mainly addressed the Scriptures and focused on themes appropriate to the feast day, which was the Baptism of the Lord.

At St. Malachi (all names are pseudonyms), a New England parish, nothing was said in the homily. Neither did the prayers of the faithful seem to address what had happened five days before. One could have attended Mass at St. Malachi and thought nothing unusual was going on in the country. However, there was a petition “for the sanctity of all life from conception to natural death,” and in the announcements, the pastor invited parishioners to participate in a novena for pro-life and in Eucharistic adoration on January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade.

St. Augustine is a very large parish in the Midwest, where the pastor has not shied away from commenting on social issues. The pastor addressed the riot at the Capitol during both the Thursday daily Mass and the Sunday Mass. His main theme in both homilies was that “the nature of the challenges in our society are ultimately not political. They are spiritual.” In the daily Mass, he asked the questions that were no doubt on everyone’s mind: “What is going on? And how do we respond?” His diagnosis was, “I would say very simply, we’re seeing what happens when we lose God. We have taken God for granted in our society. We like the things that God offers us. But we don’t want to worship. We’re too busy. We have other priorities.” He ended this homily on this note: “Is it a coincidence that faith was mocked this week in a prayer in our capital? A few days later, our capital was overrun. You may have heard one of the representatives very shamefully ended his prayer, to who knows who, with the phrase “amen and a-woman.” He was trying to—I don’t know what—make a statement about gender. Very ignorant. We mock God in our capital. A few days later, it’s overrun.”

For this priest, the deepest cause of the insurrection was that people are not worshipping God, and the main solution seems to be going to church. Now, it’s undeniable that there are spiritual roots to our present crisis, and that nurturing the love of God will, all things being equal, help Christians become more loving neighbors, who understand that they are called to love, as the priest said, “even the neighbor that disagrees with us, even the neighbor that hates us.” But his interpretation of Jesus’ call seems largely individualistic and oriented to personal character. And that’s reflected in the parish culture: I have not seen attempts at St. Augustine to respond to the events of 2020 with concrete actions to reflect on racial justice and to do justice (vs. charitable) work in the local community.

At Our Lady of Charity, another New England parish, the pastor focused his homily on how we should come to know Jesus better, using this theme to encourage parishioners to join a series of online small-group faith discussions. He closed with “these images that we have of Jesus [in the Scriptures] are so different than the ones we viewed coming from our nation’s capital this past Wednesday. The sadness and the horror of that tragedy, deadly tragedy, calls us to a renewed commitment to our faith in Jesus Christ, the faith in which we have been baptized. As baptized Christians, and as faith-filled Catholics, let us be people of hope and peace. Let us speak with the words of God, our Father, of love and acceptance. Let us act with the deeds of Jesus, in his goodness, in the power of God’s own spirit of peace. Let this be the image that we have of Jesus and that we present to the world through the lives that we live.”

I hope that on January 10, most Catholic parishioners in the U.S. heard messages like the one at Our Lady of Charity, rather than like the ones at St. Malachi or St. Augustine. But I bet that St. Malachi was the most common model and that the operative cultures in most parishes are like those at St. Malachi and St. Augustine, both of them attempting to be less “political” and more “spiritual,” but promoting political stances nonetheless.

I asked a St. Malachi’s parishioner why she thought nothing was said at her parish. “I think priests are afraid” to touch such topics, she said. But if so, pastors miss the chance to honor the fears and anxieties of their parishioners and the opportunity to encourage them not just to pray, but to act—to love not just in truth, but in deed (1 John 3:18).

Brian Stiltner is an ethicist and a professor of theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

The Year of (Joseph) the Worker: A Call to Conscience

The images are as poignant as they are sobering, and they lay bare difficult truths about the United States. The images are photographs of Capitol workers, mostly Black and Brown men and women, in the hallways and along the offices and by the side chambers of the US Capitol, cleaning up just a day after angry gangs of violent insurrectionists set upon the building in uncontained anarchy and criminal mayhem. In the photographs, the men and women are masked and wearing hazmat suits for protection from potential infection amid the debris and unknown moistness that are evident everywhere. Gently, carefully, but with sad dignity, the custodians tend to the desecrated building: sweeping up broken glass and scattered papers, pulling down torn curtains, washing away human waste, covering damaged statuary with protective wrap and discarding piles of garbage and detritus. Their work might seem routine, even anticipated, but the significance of that labor should not be underestimated. If the workers had not performed the requisite cleansing after the terrorist assault on the Capitol and the building had been left in its horribly damaged condition, it is very likely that the persistent presence of such wreckage would have disquieted even more an already traumatized American psyche. The unpretentious dignity of the Capitol workers also offered a restorative—howsoever fleeting—counterpoise to the disgraceful vulgarity of the assailants.

On December 8, 2020, Pope Francis issued the Apostolic Letter “Patris corde” (“With a Father’s Heart”) in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of St. Joseph as patron of the Universal Church. The letter explores the meaning of fatherhood as a relational construct and Joseph as a model for accountability and authenticity. It is a laudable effort. The letter is also the instrument with which Pope Francis officially declared 2021 as “the year of Joseph,” a period of time during which the Church is called to remember and men, especially, are encouraged to emulate the “virtues and zeal” of the husband of Mary. Again, a commendable and relevant appeal. 

However, at this perilous juncture in national—perhaps global—history, it seems more appropriate to pause and recollect another, certainly familiar, image of Joseph—that of Joseph the worker. As it happens, the promulgation of the Apostolic Letter in December coincided with the 65th anniversary of the institution of the Feast of Saint Joseph the Worker by Pius XII, and so it seems incumbent upon the universal Church, and notably upon congregations of the lay faithful, to recognize that representation of Joseph as a call to conscience, as a mandate to honor the fundamental worth of all work and to promote the inherent dignity of every worker. As Pope Francis explained in the letter, the Catholic Social Justice tenets of the dignity of work and the integrity of the worker have particular urgency now because … “employment has once more become a burning social issue, and unemployment at times reaches record levels even in nations that for decades have enjoyed a certain degree of prosperity … and therefore there is a renewed need to appreciate the importance of dignified work, of which Saint Joseph is an exemplary patron.”  What is of especial interest is that Pope Francis identified as “dignified” the work of Joseph the laborer, the skilled craftsman and humble carpenter, although modern capitalist cultures might not agree: in such cultures, those workers are useful, even necessary, but not admirable or respectable.  Contemporary college students, including those in Catholic institutions, are rarely encouraged to consider manual labor as commendable work, especially in comparison to the business of the private sector or professional careers. There may be a tacit agreement that all work is good work, but the majority of students in higher education seek to become the managers or supervisors of those manual laborers, not workers themselves.

Yet the current pandemic might offer an occasion for a resetting of such dispositions. It could be argued that before the national lockdown last March, most people walked into grocery stores or drove into gas stations or sat at tables in a restaurant with little regard for the person stocking the shelves or managing the gas pump or working the cash register: such workers were invisible, unseen, assumed and presumed, much like the custodial crew of the US Capitol. However, when the pandemic swept through the US (like a savage mob?) in the spring, leaving chaos and fear in its initial wake, those workers who had been ignored became identified as “essential workers” whose occupations were understood to be vital for the sustenance of the regional and national economies and for the social stability of the local communities. The women and men who had always been at work as nursing aides, cashiers, waitresses, mail carriers, delivery workers or bus drivers were suddenly not only visible but also commendable; not only helpful, but also heroic.

The Columbian poet, Ramon Cote Baraibar, elevates the goodness of labor and the excellence of the worker to a spiritual condition, participatory in the work of God. In his prose-poem “Coal Deliveryman,” he is mindful of work as a holy practice and the worker as a celebrant of its salvific ritual:

Like finding a bar of aluminum wedged in a bull’s jaw. Like discovering in a sea chest a short obsidian head. Like looking through a padlock and seeing an undeserved dawn. As impossible as all these, as melancholy and lonely, was it to see the green truck that with the punctuality of a sacrament delivered the coal each month. On the slope its strained heart would announce itself vociferously, at the brink of death, and it would stop in front of the house as if to deliver the agonizing news of the fall of Troy. And then a man, wrapped in sacking, would pitch his cargo, resonant and angular, into an orange-painted crate.

Like opening a Bible and finding three leaves of laurel. Like lifting a stone and remembering someone’s name. Like finding the same snail again a hundred miles away. As impossible as all these, as melancholy and lonely, would it be to find, fifteen years later, the same coal deliveryman carrying on his trade, bent from the strain, determined to show the heavens that a man might do that job his entire life, that he scraped in the mines, that he stole thread from his wife to sew his sacking, that he dreamed of infinite excavations, of tunnels, and that they might forgive him for not having done more than that.”

June-Ann Greeley is a medievalist and professor of Catholic studies, theology and religious studies at Sacred Heart University.

The Long March through the Institutions

In Ireland, January 6 is called Nollaig na mBan – Gaelic for Women’s Christmas. The idea was that women would be thanked and celebrated after all the work they had put in over the Christmas season. They could put their feet up, party with other women and hand over domestic chores to men. While this was a custom honored more often in the breach than the observance, the genial instinct behind this version of our celebration of the feast of the Epiphany sparks curiosity about what this New (post Trump and, hopefully, post COVID) Year will bring us in terms of Catholic Church reform, not least through the lens of the place of women in the Church.

Pope Francis, with his notion of a ‘synodal church,’ has been leading reform within the Church. In his recent book, cowritten with Austen Ivereigh, (Let Us Dream, 2020) Francis notes that new questions have arisen since he began this process of synodal reform within the Church (83). Among them is the issue of doctrinal development: Francis is keen to stress that tradition is not static, and, in the spirit of Newman, admits of change – but, the question arises, can this change involve not just ‘linear’ continuity but also be a corrective of previous positions? Further, why limit the work of synods to the Church’s norms and practices, and not also to doctrine and tradition? (56-7; 84-5). And then, with particular reference to the issue of women, how can we continue to laud their contribution and qualities, as Francis does in terms of female economists and political leaders in the COVID crisis, and still insist that when it comes to the church these qualities can best serve to change its institutional culture ‘in an organic process which calls for integrating, without clericalizing, the viewpoints of women’? (66). Of course, many feminists and others share the Pope’s critique of clericalism, but this does not stop the Church from continuing to ordain men, and is it not somewhat disingenuous to limit access to orders in this way, unless there are some compelling scriptural and theological arguments to that effect?

Francis is concerned that issues like this can become polarizing in a partisan way that leads to rifts between ‘progressives and traditionalists,’ a mentality of ‘winners and losers,’ to the reality of ‘isolated consciences’ when individuals or groups pin everything onto one issue and effectively separate themselves from the body of the church. This can be the work of the ‘bad spirit,’ can be ideology, is a parliamentary rather than synodal process in which true discernment is lacking, is conflict (which is divisive) rather than crisis (which is a biblical term and is an invitation to conversion). However, as Francis admitted to Spadaro apropos the Amazon Synod, even if on the contentious issues of married priests and female deacons the discussion was parliamentary rather than discerning, still it was a ‘rich and necessary discussion’ – in other words, a step along the way. And is not the apparent non-reception by the ‘sense of the faithful’ of the Church’s position on the ordination of women (and many other issues around sexuality and gender) calling out for synodal discernment?

In his recent Encyclical Fratelli Tutti (criticized for its lack of references to women authors and for its exclusive title) Francis notes that ‘…the organization of societies worldwide is still far from reflecting clearly that women possess the same dignity and identical rights as men. We say one thing with words, but our decisions and reality tell another story’ (n 23). Is there no one close to the Pope who could give him a gentle nudge and say: ‘This is exactly what critics accuse the Church of doing!’? Somewhat ironically Francis’ own religious order, the Jesuits, understood this when in 1995 at their 34th General Congregation, they adopted Decree 14 (Jesuits and the Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society). There we spoke of ‘the systematic discrimination against women … embedded within the economic, social political, religious and linguistic structures of society’ (n 3 – my emphasis). We accepted that we as Jesuits ‘… have often contributed to a form of clericalism that has reinforced male domination with an ostensibly divine sanction’ (n 9) and committed ourselves to addressing this situation, not least by ‘the use of appropriately inclusive language in speech and official documents’ (13.7). And, not long after John-Paul II had reiterated the Church’s ban on female ordination, we noted that ‘… some other questions about the role of women in civil and ecclesial society will undoubtedly mature over time … (and) will inevitably have implications for Church teaching and practice’ (14).

It is very hopeful that Francis himself is keeping faith with the synodal process and has chosen synodality itself as the topic of the 2022 Synod of Bishops precisely to tackle some of the new questions that have arisen. There will be widespread consultation before that Synod and it is the responsibility of local churches at all levels to have their say. In that respect it is interesting to note the recent comment of historian John O’Malley: ‘... the emergence of synodality … in recent documents from the Holy See … in essence promotes modifications of the current processes of church government and polity. Unfortunately, theologians and the Catholic media in the United States have paid scant attention to this development. In that regard, we lag behind other parts of the church’ (America, October 16, 2020). Perhaps the prospect of a ‘dull but decent’ Joe Biden presidency in the United States, after a term of high-voltage chaos, will provide a more propitious context for that ‘long march through the institutions’ that enduring church reform requires?

Gerry O’Hanlon is an Irish Jesuit theologian and author.