Light in the Darkness

 

 

This morning I had the opportunity to preach at our house mass. Here is a rough recollection of what I had to say, expanded a bit for the sake of the blog. The readings that this was based on can be found here.

Don't underestimate the power of even a candle in a dark place!

Don’t underestimate the power of even a candle in a dark place!

In light of the recent (and weak) allegations against the New England Patriots over the past week, I began thinking about some of the famous scandals I have witnessed in my life.

Mark Sanford “hiking in the Appalachian mountains”;

Lance Armstrong admitting doing steroids;

Enron going bankrupt and shredding all of its files.

In a way, stories like these are all the same: someone with a lot of power tries to abuse that power thinking that they will never get caught…until they get caught. It happens almost everyday in politics, sports, and entertainment. Clearly there are many in the world that have never heard our Gospel passage for today: “There is nothing hidden except to be made visible; nothing is secret except to come to light.” Sooner or later, it seems, justice is served. Someone is going to talk; evidence is going to leak; words are going to slip. One way or another, the secret gets out and the rest of us are left wondering, “Did he really think he was going to get away with that?” “What was she thinking?” In a way, there is a sense of comfort in reading this passage, in knowing that those who lie and cheat will always get caught; that in the end, you can’t hide from justice. Everyone gets what they deserve.

But our experience seems to show the opposite as well, doesn’t it? Crimes aren’t always solved and injustice continues. Sometimes the bad guy gets away and the truth is left hidden. I have two such examples from my life:

The first is high school Spanish class. I would sit there during daily quizzes and think, “How can I really be expected to memorize so many words each night?” It was just ridiculous for my little brain. So what did I do? Well, a little peak here… a little peak there… Maybe I’d be lucky enough to get an answer or two. One time, a student was caught cheating during a quiz, had his paper ripped in half, and was chastised for the rest of the class. Thank God it wasn’t me, I thought. But it could have been, maybe should have been. Maybe it was because I didn’t do it very often or because I wasn’t all that blatant about it, but the fact is, what he did was brought to light while what I did was kept secret.  He was labeled a cheater, and I was simply an average student. And unless you go tell my Spanish teacher, that will never change.

I faced a similar situation on my baseball team in high school. Playing for a man insistent on conditioning, we would regularly end practice by running a lap around the campus, stopping on the far side to run up and down the hill ten times. My first practice as a sophomore, I found that I was the only player that took this seriously. “What are you doing? Coach isn’t going to know. Just relax for 5 minutes and we’ll run back.” I couldn’t do it. Even if the other guys, including the senior captains, didn’t care about conditioning and working hard, I was going to do them anyway. Why? Because I wanted to get better; my success was in no way tied to what they, or coach, thought about me. Ultimately, nothing came of it. I never received an award, never gained the admiration of my teammates, and I’m sure to this day my coach still talks about how hard of a worker one of those seniors was (we heard about him for two more years after he graduated.)

And so, there are two things that I want to highlight today.

The first is that we are men called to integrity. There will come a day when, after spending our whole lives “longing to see his face,” we will stand before our God in hopes that He longs to see our face as well. No one else’s opinion matters at that point. But when we think about it, isn’t that always the case? As Francis writes in his Admonitions: “Blessed is the servant who does not consider himself any better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and looked down upon, for what a person is before God, that he is and no more.” In this way, we are called to clear out the clutter from our lives, the distractions and facades we put before us, in order to know very clearly who we are before our God. It is in that moment that we are able to enter fully into the Eucharist, to receive the light and life of Christ to make all things known between us.

But it doesn’t stop there. For fear of over-spiritualizing the matter, thinking only of the life to come, it’s important to remember that our Eucharistic celebration demands that we take what Christ has given us and share it with the world. While all will eventually be revealed by God on our day of judgment, some things need to be revealed now. As God’s hands and feet, we are called to bring the light of Christ to the darkness, to challenge injustice, to stand up against the evil and corruption that dehumanizes our human family. As baptized Christians, we are all given many skills and charisms to be shared with the world: “Is a lamp brought to be placed under a bushel basket or under a bed?” Absolutely not. Our gifts need to be used for the sake of the world, to bring the light of Christ to the places of darkness

Today, may we be able to see clearly, in our lives and in our world, what the light of Christ has revealed to us.

My Choice to March

The "Pro Life March" is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church

The “March for Life” is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church

Each year on the anniversary of the Supreme Court ruling of Roe v. Wade, Catholics gather on the National Mall to rally and march in protest of the decision that made abortion legal in the United States, uniting around a simple message: “All life is sacred.” But this is no ordinary march on Washington. While estimating crowds has become a controversial and somewhat unreliable task in recent years, it is clear that the number of protestors should be counted in the hundreds of thousands rather than tens of thousands. In this way, the March for Life is by far the most actively attended and supported advocacy initiative for the American Catholic Church.

And yet, it remains a highly contentious, dividing issue even within that same Church. For many theologians and writers within the Church, there is as much written about why one does/should not attend the March as there is material promoting it.Take the article by fellow Franciscan Fr. Dan Horan, ofm, “Why I Do Not Support the (so-called) March For Life.” Confessing wholeheartedly that his issue is with the March itself, not Catholic moral teaching about abortion, he writes:

Among the various reasons one might choose to omit him or herself from participation, I wish to highlight three: (a) the event’s moniker is incomplete at best and disingenuous at worst; (b) the mode of protest has proven ineffective; and, following the second point, (c) the ‘march’ and its related events are a self-serving exercise in self-righteousness, self-congratulatory grandstanding.

Admittedly, there is a lot of truth in this statement (and the article as a whole), and when I read it three years ago, it was very influential in my own opinion toward marching. The fact is, the name of the March is misleading; protestors do not gather each year to express anger towards war, gun violence, human trafficking, homelessness, ecological degradation, or any other “Life” issue as defined by the Church, they gather to repeal the legal status of abortion. The fact is, protests of this kind aren’t as effective as they once were; besides the fact that it is primarily a “wedge-issue” with little hope of ever changing legislation in either direction, protests that meet regularly become commonplace and lose their political effectiveness over the years (as seen with the “School of the Americas” march at Fort Benning, GA). The fact is, some do march for the wrong reasons; there are always opportunists, in both politics and Church, that use particular issues to solidify their own influence and to encourage their own agenda without having to do much in the process. It is because of these points that I found myself with many Catholics “protesting the protest” for many years.

10931365_10204928458843997_2601931720192534161_nAnd yet, yesterday I marched. Along with hundreds of thousands of Catholics from around the country, I stood on the National Mall and listened to political and ecclesial leaders rally people to the cause. I carried a Franciscan banner and walked down the crowded street for more than an hour. I engaged strangers with my faith and vocation, prayed in public, and even sang a song or two. Despite my strong reservations, I was there marching for life.

The thing is, my opinions have not drastically changed in regards to Fr. Dan’s article; the March, for me, is still a bit odd and I think it gives a disproportionate amount of energy to only one issue (albeit a good one.) What has changed is the recognition that this is where our Church is, this is where the flock is gathering, and as a minister in the Church, there is a lot of positive energy that needs to be supported and guided. Sure, I would personally wish that this much energy was directed towards the environment or ending wars, but how can I deny that hundreds of thousands of faithful Catholics were compelled to enter the streets and voice an aspect of their faith? This movement is big but it is more than just numbers: the movement has done something well enough to inspire enormous amounts of young people to become active despite dropping Church attendance among that generation (I met students that came all the way from Notre Dame, Auburn, and St. Bonaventure, NY, and there were thousands more.) Anyone who has ever tried to organize something and failed knows how difficult it can be to get a movement going, let along amass this much support. Something is going on here, and clearly the Spirit is working.

I’ve heard it said that real-life shepherds do not “lead” the sheep as much as they follow the flock and protect it from harm. As a Franciscan training for public ministry, I think that this is a great model for leadership: remain among the sheep, follow where the flock is going, and do my best to keep it from harm, whether that be self-inflicted or external. In the case of the “Pro-life” movement, there is little argument about the narrowness of its focus and that it would be better with a fuller understanding of the rich Catholic Tradition. But there is energy that needs to be followed and encouraged; to scoff at it or discourage involvement for the sake of other movements, for which there is little passion outside of its leader, would be inappropriate and ineffective. As a ministers, it is not our job to animate someone’s soul or to tell someone what to be passionate about. This is the job of the Spirt, and clearly the Spirit is working. As ministers, it is our duty to make sure that the faithful understand the stirring of the Spirit in them through the message of the Gospel and within the context of a Church of believers. Is there room for guidance and correction in this process? Absolutely. But as I have found through this experience, the guidance and correction go both ways: the sheep must be willing to expand or change their course at the direction of the shepherd, but the shepherd must also be willing to march with the sheep when they have their sights set on something that is good and true. This is why I chose to march yesterday, and I am glad that I did.

The View From the Periphery

Pope Francis' words reflect a life of go to where the people are, humbly taking on their experiences.

Pope Francis’ words reflect a life of go to where the people are, humbly taking on their experiences.

History is one of my favorite subjects. Learning about those who have gone before us, their innovations and mistakes, is one of the most valuable things we can study; realizing that we have the ability to affect history demands that we learn from it. What I love about it is that it is much more that just memorizing facts: history is a profoundly subjective, pluralistic discipline. Like everyday situations, there are any number of distinct and valid perspectives to take into account when understanding the past. Unfortunately, history is often written by the victors, while the dissenting and minority perspectives are forgotten or left unheard. (For example, the predominant view of the 19th century United States is that it was a time of great expansion and adventure on the new frontier, forgetting the genocide and war the Native Americans experienced and the forced Chinese labor that allowed it happen.)

In our own day, as we continue to make history, we are susceptible to the same sort of tunnel vision and selective remembering. We use terms like “Americans” or “most people” to describe something central to the culture as we see it, but is that all that’s there? Often times, I would think, these statements reflect a white, middle-class perspective. This is by no means to devalue that perspective, as it is obviously mine; it is simply to identify it as one perspective, and to ask if there might be any other (even conflicting) perspectives worth hearing. What is the experience of the immigrant? The racial minority? The gay man or woman? The materially impoverished?

I ask these questions and present this post because a man I greatly respect has insisted that we take them seriously. Who, you ask? Our very own Pope Francis. Speaking to the Union of Superiors General of men (heads of religious orders throughout the world), Pope Francis had this to say:

“Truly to understand reality we need to move away from the central position of calmness and peacefulness and direct ourselves to the peripheral areas. Being at the periphery helps to see and to understand better, to analyze reality more correctly, to shun centralism and ideological approaches.
 
It is not a good strategy to be at the center of a sphere. To understand we ought to move around, to see reality from various viewpoints… Some time of real contact with the poor is necessary… [we] need to become acquainted with reality by experience, to spend time walking on the periphery in order to really become acquainted with the reality and life-experiences of people. If this does not happen we then run the risk of being abstract ideologists or fundamentalists, which is not healthy.” (For full text, click here.)

When I originally read this passage last summer, I knew that it was speaking to me: While I have had a passion for helping the poor and marginalized for many years and believe that I am fairly socially conscious of the world’s issues, I realized that most of my knowledge of these issues was theoretical, not based on actual experiences with people at the margins. (This reflection influenced much of what I wrote shortly thereafter in Not So Minor, the post in which I talked about being a “friar minor” despite being privileged in every way: “I am a young, white, college-educated, middle-class, heterosexual male…”)

Something needed to change. I needed to stretch myself in some way, even if it seemed insignificant to those around me, to feel that I was at least moving towards the periphery. I wanted to see what others see, feel what others felt, even if for just a brief period of time. Two opportunities have presented themselves so far, and I look to add to them next term.

Rain or snow, people have to get where they're going.

Rain or snow, people have to get where they’re going.

The first came as a further commitment to what I tried last year: take public transit to school. There was something about driving to school in my comfortable car, on my schedule, always warm and dry, that made me feel “fake” when I passed people standing at the bus stop in the rain. What was it like to depend completely on someone else to get somewhere? Was it reliable? Was it comfortableI decided to commit myself to the experience. Every morning. No matter the weather or how late I was. I stood in the rain. I stood in the snow. I stood in the frigid wind. Why was this important to me? Because that’s what many people do every day. Even when the bus was late, slow or inconvenient, even when the weather was disgusting and uncomfortable, even when there was only room for people to stand, populated by smelly, loud and sometimes crazy people, the bus was always full. Convenience is not a factor when there is only one option.

In the few months so far, it has been a valuable learning experience for me. As I said in Growing in Solidarity, my relationship with the people around me changed from sympathy to empathy as I not only knew their struggles, I began to associate them as my own. What I found was that it is much more than the discomfort of waiting in the cold or being cramped next to smelly people: it’s the stress. When relying on public transit, you are at the mercy of the system, completely inflexible and out of control. Each morning I have to be conscious of the weather and make sure that I am not even one minute late, which means rushing at times. There are many times though, even if I run out of time and run out the door without my lunch, that I’ll show up to the bus stop and have to wait 15 minutes for the late bus. Other times I’ve been on time and had to run a block to make it. This little bit of stress, something I had never thought about before, can have a tremendous impact on the day, effecting my mood the whole hour before and after the trip. This is what many people go through each and every day without question or alternative.

So much of what we take for granted is stifling for immigrants.

So much of what we take for granted is stifling for immigrants.

My other attempt at moving to the periphery came in my choice of ministry sites this year. Two nights a week, I teach English to non-English speakers at school next door. Being that I have never done this before, I was gifted with the introductory students, those who are just starting to learn a foreign language. This is both a great joy and a great difficulty. On the one hand, there are people in my class that came to this country 5 months ago having little to no knowledge of a single English word. To be their first introduction to a language, and in a sense, the country, is an honor. What they will learn in my class will hopefully be the foundation for the rest of their lives here. And yet, for those who have tried to learn a foreign language, this is an incredibly difficult task to start from scratch, especially when the teacher can string together a few Spanish words and knows absolutely no French. Even asking a question like, “Do you understand?” is an impossible task.

Teaching English has been a profoundly touching, exhausting experience for me. To see students learn and grow right before my eyes is such a wonder; for most of them, their English vocabulary has literally doubled or tripled. But that’s to be expected, I suppose. The formative part for me has really been witnessing the perseverance and courage that most immigrants have. I look out at my class, struggling to communicate with them, and realize how traumatizing this must be for them, every moment of the day. While most live in communities that speak their native language, I don’t think there is anything more infantilizing than not understanding and being forced to speak like a three-year old: “I like banana.” How easy it would be to remain in that tight-knit immigrant community, never learning English, and yet, these men and women show great courage every week to stretch themselves, despite being afraid that I will call on them to speak. What an inspiration.

And really, what a different point of view. It is the view from the periphery, the view forgotten or left unheard. What would history be like if it were written from this perspective? What would our national and international policies be like if we saw the world from this position? It is the great challenge we face as Americans and as Church; it is the challenge that I face as a “friar minor”. To view history only from the center is to forget the thousands, even millions, who do not have such luxury or privilege. It is a call to all of us to see and understand the experiences of those different from us, and dare I say, give a preferential option to the minority voice. That’s what the Church has stressed for decades in regards to the poor (preferential option for the poor) and what Pope Francis is asking us to do for all people. My hope is that this friar life will continue to lead me away from the center so that I may give a voice to the voiceless, and change they way we write history. Want to join? Who knows. You might even like the world a little better from a different perspective.

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Francis: The Patron of More Than Just Birds

This evening, the friars in my house celebrated the 35th anniversary of St. Francis being named the Patron of Ecology. As head of the JPIC committee in the house, I had the privilege of preaching at mass based on Gen 2:4-25, Ps. 104:27-30, and Jn 1:1-5. For more information or other reflections, you can go the the Franciscan’s website, francis35.org.

Thirty five years (and six days) ago, John Paul II proclaimed Francis of Assisi the patron saint of Ecology with these words:

Among the holy and admirable men who have revered nature as a wonderful gift of God to the human race, St Francis of Assisi deserves special consideration.  For he, in a special way, deeply sensed the universal works of the Creator and, filled with a certain divine spirit, sang that very beautiful “Canticle of the Creatures”.

It is a great honor that we as Franciscans are able to celebrate today such an example, to be inspired by his life and to imitate his joy and reverence towards God’s creation.

It is also a time for clarity, for us and for the world, as to what Francis actually said and did. As we know, Francis is often found with a bird on his shoulder, sometimes even talking to many animals. But is this the Francis that we see as our inspiration, the one the world needs to see? I believe that there is confusion, even in John Paul’s proclamation, as to what Francis can offer the world. There’s something more to Francis than a lover of animals; something more than someone who saw nature as simply God’s gift to humanity.

Francis was a man who saw the world differently than those around him. Everything in creation pointed him to God.

Francis was a man who saw the world differently than those around him. Everything in creation pointed him to God.

As with everything for Francis, his worldview begins from a position of littleness and humility before his Creator. As humans, we are God’s creatures, beings that owe everything that we are to the “most high, glorious God.” Francis would always want us to remember where we came from: God formed us from the dust of the earth. When the Church talks about social teaching, it puts human dignity as the foremost principle, from which all others flow; creation in this sense is as John Paul put it, a gift for humanity. For Francis, it is the other way around: we were created out of the earth, as a part of creation, called to be stewards and caretakers of something much bigger than us. Creation is not subject to us, free to be used and exploited however it best fits us. No, the whole created order is our brothers and sisters, made by the same loving Father, oriented to pleasing him each in its own way. It is out of this great humility that Francis asked with his life, “What does my brother and sister need?” and remained subject to all so as to allow what God had created to act in the way God had intended.

How did God create the world? I think it’s easy to fall into a Deistic, Watchmaker understanding of the world: there was a time at which God made everything, it happened in the past, and now God is off somewhere looking down on everything he set in motion. This, I tell you, is not very Catholic, and it’s certainly not Franciscan. Instead, let us look at the Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be. What came to be through him was life.” God the Father created through the Son, in the Holy Spirit; the Father is the one who speaks, the Word is the one sent to the world, and the Holy Spirit is one hearing and responding. This is not something that happened, something that only took place at one point in time; it is the very nature of who God is: eternal self-disusing, creative love. God created, God creates now, and God will continue to renew the face of the earth.

And lastly, no discussion of Francis would be complete without mentioning the pinnacle of God’s creation and love, the Incarnation. As Franciscans and Christians, how can we not be amazed at what God has done: the Creator allowed himself to become the created. In the person of Jesus, we are able to experience God in our concrete, physical reality. It is a reminder to us that all that God has created, the entire material cosmos, is good and worthy of revealing himself. When Francis looked into the world, he saw the means for us to experience the living God. The Sun. The moon. Wind. Fire. Water. Earth. All of creation. These were not inanimate objects to use at his disposal, they were imprints of the one who created them, and vessels for us to experience him. How amazing it is that we can harvest the earth, bake it into bread, and encounter our God in a physical way? This is the perspective that Francis has to offer the world. This is the awe and reverence that inspires us, the humility and littleness that guides us, to see God working in and through all of existence.

For this reason, we are called to care for God’s creation, not for its usefulness to humanity or for the well-being of future generations, but for its own sake. What God has created is good, it is holy, and it requires our attention. Like Adam in our first reading called on to name the animals and take care of the garden, God has privileged us with being co-creators with him.

We can glory in the wonder of God’s creation or to manipulate it for our own gain;

We can choose to bring life or to destroy it.

We can work with God, who continues to renew the face of the earth each and every day, or we can work against him, polluting and over consuming what is not rightfully ours.

On this anniversary, I pray that Francis may be an inspiration to all of us, that we may be more humble servants in this world, caring for all that may lead us to the one who gives us life. May God grant you his peace.