Friday, December 7, 2018

Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Immaculate Conception

by Laura Flanagan

I have a college acquaintance who is now a fairly successful Catholic artist. This week, she unveiled a series of canvases with detailed images of Our Lady of Guadalupe’s vestments, and noted she went down a rabbit hole discovering the image’s symbolism.1 After reading her statement, I chose to fall down the same rabbit hole.

On the tilma of Guadalupe, we see Mary with her eyes bowed, and her hands in a prayer of supplication. This contrasts with the Indian goddesses, whose depictions showed their power by looking directly at the viewer with their (often large) eyes. Our Lady at Guadalupe reveals by her posture that there is a greater God above her, while wearing the symbols often attributed to those indigenous goddesses, showing that her Lord is greater than they.

There are many more beautiful symbols to this image, but one stood out to me the most. Mary’s black sash and a bump in her gown indicate pregnancy. This style signals that she is appearing as the Immaculate Conception. Not coincidentally, this is the same name she gave upon being pressed by Bernadette at Lourdes. I imagine Mary likes this title because, like her posture in the image of Guadalupe, it’s meant to point directly to Jesus. Saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception” means, “I am not myself important, except to magnify the greatness of the Lord and the extraordinary preview of grace He has given to me.”

The solemnity in celebration of this gift occurs on December 8, normally a holy day of obligation. However, if you check your calendar, you’ll find that this year it falls on a Saturday, which under most American circumstances would mean a waived obligation for the holy day.

However, apparently I was incorrect last year in stating that the combination of the 4th Sunday of Advent and Christmas was the only time we maintain the consecutive-days obligation. We maintain it again this year for this December 8 feast, but only in the United States. The reason? Our Lady, under her title of the Immaculate Conception, is the patroness of the U.S.A. Like Christmas last year, we are asked to participate in Mass for both the special feast and our usual Sunday oblation.2 Both feasts are so important for us.

Mary’s veneration as the Immaculate Conception, both here in the United States and within her groundbreaking appearance as a mestiza girl in Mexico,3 points to the deep connectedness between the entirety of the Americas. The bishops seem to have come to this conclusion before me, as Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patroness of all the Americas in addition to the country of Mexico in particular.

Mary appeared in Mexico to the indigenous person with the symbolism of the Immaculate Conception. She sent an image to the Spanish in Mexico with that same symbolism. Our Lady of Guadalupe, the Immaculate Conception, gives her patronage to indigenous peoples, Mexicans, and persons of all races and countries. She loves and intercedes for all Americans, and desires us to love one another and serve the Lord.

St. Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, to whom she chose to appear at Guadalupe, was considered a macehualli - essentially a native without a social category other than “poor.” The Lord is found with the poorest, and to them his Mother also gives her special favor. If our Lady were to appear today at the border between two of her beloved countries, she would likely be weeping from the tear gas with her Son’s beloved poor on the Mexican side.

1 See this Instagram post for the original image.

2 Should you need a guide to this request from the Church:
In order to fulfill both obligations, you must attend TWO Masses - no double-dipping!
1) A Mass to fulfill the Immaculate Conception obligation is ANY Mass (regardless of the readings and prayers used) that is celebrated between ~4 PM on Friday, December 7th and the end of the day on Saturday, December 8th.
2) A Mass to fulfill the Sunday obligation is ANY Mass (regardless of the readings and prayers used) that is celebrated between ~4 PM on Saturday, December 8th and the end of the day on Sunday, December 9th.

3 Mestiza is a Latin American term for a woman of mixed race, especially one having indigenous and Spanish descent.

Monday, December 3, 2018

The Words to Pray

by Dan Masterton

As long as I can remember, I’ve known and regularly recited the Hail Mary and the Our Father. I cannot remember when or how exactly I learned them. I remember saying these prayers in elementary school classrooms with my classmates. I remember joining hands during Mass as a child to say the Our Father. I remember learning the rosary and raining Hail Mary’s down over the rolling beads as we prepared for May Crowning. In a time when rote memorization is giving way to the short-term recall named Google that lives in our pockets, the ingrained words of these prayers endure deep in the unforgettable memories of my brain. As a punk teenager, I remember feeling critical toward the especially frequent use of these all too often robotic prayers. If we say them so often that we barely pay attention to their meaning, what’s the point?

At times as an adult and professional minister, I’ve seen our go-to prayers utilized with particular laziness and/or misguided intention. My all-time favorite (or least favorite) has to be a dean of students with whom I formerly worked. He possessed a particularly booming, monotone voice, which he utilized regularly to call for attention, scold kids, and in some cases, (mis)use prayer to quiet a crowd. He’d step up to a microphone at an assembly or before an all-school Mass and belt, “Quiet, please. Let’s begin with a prayer. OUR FATHER. WHO ART IN HEAVEN…” The droll, flat recitation the kids offered back was indicative of the fatigue often felt about these prayers.

Another time I see this trend rear its head is when young people are asked to pray before a group. While they possess varying degrees of comfort with speaking extemporaneously, they have no shame about leaning on their memorized prayers. In this case, it is often far from welcome piety. You’ll regularly hear something like this: “Uh, dear God, thank you for everything you’ve given us. We appreciate it. And, um, let’s just pray an Our Father…” Good hustle, kid.

This brings me to the retreats I direct. We pray frequently on retreat, from small-group blessings to before-meal grace to student-led prayer. The latter unfolds primarily as a precursor to witness talks, when the leadership team steps out of the room and offers a private blessing over the speaker with hands extended. Over the years, I have struggled to get young people to approach this as a prayer of blessing; instead, they often use it as a time to tell stories, offer the person compliments, or crack jokes to loosen the mood. These things can be helpful in relaxing the speaker, but they fall short of inviting God’s grace intentionally to the person being blessed, and often seem like a way to garner cheap laughs or even steal the spotlight from that person. As much as I try to give narrower parameters that focus our blessings toward God, grace, and the person being blessed, detours and tangents arise. So I’ve more or less resigned myself to laying out my hopes for that blessing once, loud and clear at the start, and hoping we stay on that track.

This brings me to the last retreat I directed. Initially, it followed the same trends I mentioned, but the first student who prayed kept his spontaneous reflections brief and efficiently transitioned into a request for everyone to pray the Our Father together. And we did. And I liked it. Sure enough, as teenagers are wont to do, the next person’s blessing followed the same shape – a short but sweet ramble and an invitation to that old familiar prayer. And so the next and the next until our pattern incidentally became focusing and aggregating our prayer behind the words that Jesus taught us. It was really nice and shifted the focus toward where I always hope it will be – a solemn, communal blessing for the speaker.

Back in those often doubt-filled teenage years, I remember being set straight when we learned about prayer in junior theology class. As we reviewed these rote prayers, our teacher called them “familiar prayers,” a nicer title that doesn’t connote such roboticism. By her estimation, these prayers were an essential ingredient to our prayer tradition. She explained that the familiarity of these prayers was a blessing in that they give us the words to pray when we may otherwise struggle to find them.

In the case of my young people serving as leaders, the familiar words of the Our Father were not so much an escape hatch from thoughtfulness but an inviting, warm place to go where the blessing they desired for their teammates could be conveyed with love. As they continue to grow and mature in their faith, they met God halfway, opening with some of their own words and then Christ’s words carry them the rest of the way. It’s a fine line between familiar prayer as a crutch and familiar prayer as an asset, but these kids embraced the words they knew by heart. They used familiar prayer as a way to orient their earnest desires for blessing toward the person for whom they prayed.

Five years ago, as my dad, brothers, and close family members encircled my dying mother, we were overcome with the emotions of saying goodbye to our most loved one. As she passed and we confronted the magnitude of grief in that moment, the only thing we knew for sure is that we wanted to pray. And as we babbled our way to a family blessing over our dear mother, my older brother found his way toward the Our Father and managed to get us praying together, “Our Father…”

There will always be moments when those familiar words come to mind out of convenience, lack of creativity, or even, God forbid, crowd control. But there are also times when the familiar words we know before thinking, or when we cannot even think, will draw us into prayer when we otherwise may not know how to get there. The Our Father comes to us as Jesus’ answer to his friends’ question about how we ought to pray. And this blessing from Jesus endures as a way for us to pray, especially when our own search for words may fall short and the words of Christ come when we may most need them.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

The Restless Hearts Are Taking A Rest

by Dan Masterton

Dear readers,

It's pretty crazy that, right now, I'm writing the 416th post for a blog that reaches back almost ten years. I still remember the authentic, not-kidding-you-should-do-it nudge of my old friend, Michele, during a college faith-sharing group that pushed me to actually kick this thing off with a first post back in October 2009.

Over the years, things have evolved. I started as a curious and growing undergrad, looking for a place to share fresh, raw ideas about theology and spiritual life, and then friends and companions have helped carry the blog forward to fun and exciting places.

For a good while, guest reflectors shared about how they live their vocation in whatever place they are at in their life, and twenty-one authors animated the explorations of the72.

Later, as the wildness of the 2016 election geared up, I sought to emphasize the centrality of Catholic Social Teaching in the discernment and conscience of the Catholic citizen. Through speech analyses, candidate evaluations, and honest reflections, #MoreThanRedAndBlue kept CST at the heart of our election fever.

And, finally, The Restless Heart became plural, as three intrepid and faithful writers jumped into the pool with me, and Jenny, Rob, and Dave dove in to our communal work. Later, we added three more to our fold, and with Laura, Erin, and Tim, The Restless Hearts became what it is today -- a vibrant, varying crockpot of reflection on theology, spirituality, social teaching and social justice, ministry, education, and the realities of faith lived richly.

I always tried to keep the seven of us grounded in the realities of what I hoped our blog would be: for readers, a place to receive hearty input and engage their hearts of faith; for us as writers and peer editors, a place for authentic reflection, constructive accompaniment, and, most of all, vocationally rich fun.

Over the last few years, we've missed a few Mondays and Thursdays or taken a week off now and then. But, recently, life has caught up with most of us a little more than it used to do. Marriages, childbirths, personal tragedies and challenges, job and school transitions, and the ebb and flow of family and professional life have impacted the calculus of how we each spend our time.

To help each of us get a firmer handle on stuff as well as to best discern the shape of our blog going forward, I've asked the crew to take a sabbatical -- an earnest, thoughtful rest. I may still post a new piece once in a while, but there won't be regular action. We'll be back in a little while and offer an update on our gameplan to continue this online ministry with all of you.

In the meantime, I'd love to hear from you:
  • Thoughts on the types of posts?
  • Thoughts on the frequency and timing of posting?
  • Thoughts on new directions we could go?
  • Interested in contributing?
  • Just want to share that you read and enjoy it?
  • Care to offer a prayer or blessing?
Send me an email or leave a comment on our Facebook Page or my Twitter account. I'll respond to everyone who chimes in and bring your thoughts into our reflection.

In the meantime, thanks for reading and following. May your hearts remain restless until they rest in God!


Monday, November 5, 2018

No Accounting for Taste

by Jenny Lippert

Recently, my husband and I were hit by a wave of nostalgia for oldies Christian music. I don’t remember exactly how it came up, but we soon found ourselves amazed at how many Michael W. Smith, Amy Grant, and DC Talk songs we still remembered all the words to.1 Most significantly, through this jaunt back in time, we rediscovered the earthy, honest music of Rich Mullins, which came back to me like an old childhood friend. Roll your eyes as much as you want at the lyrics of “Awesome God”, you still get the sense that it’s at least a more honest attempt at worship than a calculated marketing piece to a bland Christian demographic. And this quality of honest attempt and failure I have found these past couple of months to be a Rich Mullins theme. Through a bit of youtube rabbitholing, I found myself not only remembering how much I had enjoyed his music (and still do), but also found myself developing a deeper affection for the man himself.

Referred to as the “uneasy conscience” of Christian music, he retreated from the evangelical Christian music scene to move to a Navajo Reservation in New Mexico. When asked about why he chose to move, he responded, “I think I just got tired of a White, Evangelical, middle class perspective on God, and I thought I would have more luck finding Christ among the Pagan Navajos.”2 Woah.

I dislike sentimentality. Fluffy talk and feely-goodiness activates my gag reflex and makes me want to punch something. It isn’t real, it isn’t genuine, and it isn’t nourishing. This aversion to empty niceties or sweet nothings also extends to art and music. If it savors of something secondary--something which depends on pre-conditioned responses to saccharine symbology, count me out. This is why the music of Rich Mullins so appeals to me, I think.

In between songs at one of his 1997 concerts,3 he brought up the idea of taste. Quoting Picasso, he said he believed that “good taste is the enemy of great art.” He explained, “Good taste has all to do with being cultured and being refined and if art has to do with anything it has to do with being human. And one of the reasons I love the Bible is because the humans in the Bible are not very refined. They’re pretty goofy if you want to know the whole truth about it.” He goes on to say that he doesn’t believe God has any taste.

Initially, I found this statement jarring. If you were to say about another person that they had no taste, it would be pretty insulting. So, why is it so hopeful when asserted about God?

I started thinking about what “taste” is, and why we seem to value it so much. One type of taste, that is preferences for things, is pretty innocuous. You like vanilla ice cream and I like chocolate. Okay.

The type of taste that Rich Mullins is talking about, though, is an ideal or standard that we set up for ourselves--a way for us to separate ourselves into “in” groups and “out” groups.

I started to reflect on all of the ways that I brand myself, what circles I desire to be a part of, and what circles I would refuse to associate with. Even as someone who considers herself rather contrarian and wannabe-edgy, I still cling to certain identities--certain tastes--because they are comfortable. I have my “in” group, and though I may be willing to step out of it for a moment in the name of “charity,” goodness knows I will return to it. My self-identifcation with a clean and easy cliche--a life that I’ve imagined for myself--allows me to ignore those broken, sinful, and weak parts of myself.

But this isn’t reality. And if Scripture is any indication, it seems that God really doesn’t have any taste in terms of his “in” and “out” groups. He chooses the goofballs and the screw-ups and the uncultured. He chooses elderly immigrants to father his people. He works through jealous brothers to save His people from starvation. He uses sinful kings to build up His kingdom. He makes a pagan prostitute a heroine who harbors His spies. He uses his eccentric cousin, clothed in a hair garment, to proclaim his coming. He chooses a peasant girl to be His home on earth.

In short, he chooses humanity. And any attempt I make to insulate myself in anything less than human insulates me from Him. The taste of human standards is not God’s taste. And the more I align myself to human cliques and ideas, the more opaque my life becomes, the less I can be used by God. I make myself into the Hallmark cliche that I so despise.

God glories in our weakness far more than in our “perfect” lives. As Rich said, “[Be]cause God takes the junk of our lives, and he makes the greatest art in the world out of it. And if he was cultured, if he was as civilized as most Christian people wish he was, He would be useless to Christianity. But God is a wild man.”

1 This may or may not have led to listening to “Secret Ambition” on repeat for the next few days...What a throwback.

2 This whole interview, despite the poor recording quality, is well worth watching.

3 Again, the whole bit is worth watching.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Invisible Fingerprints of Formation

by Erin Conway

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the forces and ideas that form us. These are the values that reside deep in our hearts that seemingly lack origin, the ideas that we didn’t realize were shaping us. Combined, these ideas and values cover us in invisible fingerprints, fingerprints that can only be seen when particular circumstances cast a new light on them.

I’ve had several instances in my life where I’ve uncovered these invisible fingerprints.

When I started teaching at a Jesuit school in 2009, for instance, I remember learning about Jesuit spirituality and thinking to myself wow, my whole life has been Jesuit, we just never called it that. Sure, my parents attended a Jesuit parish and grade school, and my dad, grandfather, and brother went to a Jesuit high school, but I never “spoke Ignatian” until I arrived in Baltimore. I never had a name for the values that I saw lived out around me. Instead, the drive to be a woman for others, the desire to center the voices of the marginalized, the practice of growth through reflection, felt “right” to me because I saw them lived out in simple, non-attention-seeking ways. The actions and attitudes of my parents (perhaps also unknowingly shaped) left me covered in Jesuit fingerprints. These things had become ingrained in me without my understanding of what or why or how.

Then, in 2015, Father Ted Hesburgh passed away. As a student at Notre Dame, Father Hesburgh’s name was certainly one I knew and his office of the 13th floor of the library bearing his name was the stuff of legend, but I couldn’t have told you much about who he was or what he’d done for the university.1 Shortly after Hesburgh’s death I read an article from America Magazine about his life and history and was surprised to find so much of who I am and what I believe woven into his language, in the way he spoke about Our Lady’s University and his desires for her students. I realized that, because of age, maturity, or the distractions of life, I hadn’t understood Notre Dame as a Catholic University when I was there. I didn’t understand the kind of people she was trying to produce. Again, I was stunned to find myself covered in invisible fingerprints, my image reflected back to me.

Most recently, however, I noticed the invisible fingerprints of formation connected to my teaching. This year I’ve been given the privilege of piloting a service learning program in our Sophomore Theology class. It’s the perfect combination of everything I love about Catholic, Jesuit education: an opportunity to get to know students in the classroom; a chance to volunteer side by side with students, modeling faith in action; and a way to implement continual and (hopefully) meaningful reflection. With all these benefits, it’s not hard to believe that I started the year flying high.

But two weeks ago we hit a rough patch. I had a group of students who demonstrated a disappointing lack of maturity at a service site, I watched other groups of students struggle and even seemingly refuse to engage at other sites, and when I created a space for open feedback at the end of the first quarter, close to 1/5 of my students asked some form of the question “why are we doing this?” or “what does this have to do with Theology?”

I was crushed. I had tried so hard to create a space where students could find God in their work with the world and it seemed I had missed the mark.

Disheartened, I went back to the beginning, to the mission statement I’d shared with students at the start of the year.
In the sophomore Theology course at Saint Martin students will explore their call to the creation of a more just world through the formation of loving relationships. As part of his/her Theology class, each sophomore will participate in a continual process of action and reflection that combines volunteering in the community with theological content learned in the classroom. This form of community-based learning promotes kinship and solidarity between students and the communities and sites where they spend time. This experience in the community is aimed at helping each sophomore grow as both a student and a person of faith and is meant to instill an awareness of his/her responsibility to work for justice and transform urban Cleveland.
We hope that this cycle of action and reflection becomes a way of life for our students as they become men and women for others.2
Mission statement in hand, driven to show students that I wasn’t as crazy as they thought, I went back to the drawing board, taking time to gather documents, readings, and resources that could defend our work those who didn’t yet understand why it mattered. I wanted to explain to students (and perhaps myself) why we opted to forgo daily classroom instruction and catechesis to spend time working with marginalized individuals in our community.

Although a better Theology teacher might have gone first to the Bible, starting with Jesus to explain to students why serving the “least of our brothers and sisters” was, in fact, deeply theological, I accessed these ideas (I realize now) in the way that I learned them, in Jesuit texts. I pulled four partial texts for my students: the Saint Martin de Porres High School Founding Curriculum, “What Makes A Jesuit School Jesuit?”, Pedro Arrupe’s Speech “Men and Women for Others” and an article by Dean Brackley, SJ called “The Challenge of the UCA.”

I can’t explain what inspired me to start with these particular texts other than, well, God, but what I found there were the words from my mission statement, words and ideas that had been ingrained into my person, my soul, and my being without my awareness. Once again, I found myself reflected back at me and I recognized the invisible fingerprints of formation.

What I learned, however, was how incredibly satisfying, and even powerful, to put a language to myself, to the person I am. And on top of all that, discovering these fingerprints brought me to a deep awareness of and gratitude for the institutions that have shaped me, the people who have loved me and for the God who has guided me, leaving her prints on my being.

1 It seems important to mention here that I was not a life-long ND aficionado. I knew little of the University before I set foot on Campus in 2005. In fact, during Freshman Orientation, I found myself a definite outside when we sang the fight song for the first time - I had never heard the song before in my life.

2 A quick caveat: The fingerprints on this piece of my curriculum are not so invisible. The Mission Statement was *just slightly* adapted from the language used by my last school (Xavier College Prep) in connection to their Junior Praxis Project. Thanks Xavier for making me look good!

Monday, October 22, 2018

An Education

by Laura Flanagan

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron made waves with his comment on the need for contraception in Africa, saying, “Present me the woman who decided, being perfectly educated, to have seven, eight, or nine children.” Predictably, a very indignant response came from the mothers of large families with degrees from top-tier universities, posting pictures of their families and letters with the hashtag, #postcardsformacron.

A meme has been circulating with 7th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Amy Coney Barrett (within whom the dogma of Catholicism lives loudly, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein) juxtaposed against Macron's image and quote. Judge Barrett has seven children.

I'm not really eligible to send a “postcard.” I only have two children, and I can't even post a picture of them together. However, it got me thinking about the meaning of a “perfectly educated” woman.

What exactly is “an education”? The 2009 Carey Mulligan/Peter Sarsgaard movie of that name, about a sixteen year old’s relationship with a con man in his 30s, implies, well, that her “education” was not found in her school.

The Nickel Creek song “When in Rome” struck a chord with me recently, and not via Chris Thiles’ rugged power mandolin picking. Addressing a “teacher,” the lyrics go:
Hey those books you gave us look good on the shelves at home
And they'll burn warm in the fireplace teacher
I have quite a lot of books on the shelves at home. I don't remember much of their contents, and I'm not entirely sure how deeply I comprehended them to begin with.

One of the single most embarrassing experiences of my life was the oral portion of my comprehensive exams for my master’s degree. I still cringe when I recall it, and I used to cry. My writing portion was strong, but for whatever reason I simply could not answer several of the questions put to me in that exam, meant to dig deeper into my understanding of the texts. I’m not sure why that was, but I (and certainly my examiners) suspect that I didn’t have a real depth of understanding. I could pull out salient points, but was I conversant with the theology? I couldn’t converse well that day, that’s for sure.

I necessarily absorbed much of my education, and I’m grateful that even if I eventually decide to absent myself from the workforce, Clare will benefit from much of my stellar education. But my motivation for many years was to learn merely as much as was needed for the grade, rather than for the sake of the subject matter. Even as that prioritization changed through my love of theology, the ramifications of the grade’s prior primacy still echo through my life now. I love poetry, beauty, music; but I still struggle to understand them, and sometimes don't bother to try because of the difficulty. The external motivation is gone, and the internal motivation often isn’t strong enough.

What is the goal of an education? What is the goal for ourselves and for our children? Through meetings, talks, and resources, the goal I am trying to place in front of my parishioners this year is simply sanctity. (Again, this prioritization is something I’ve learned but clearly haven’t internalized, hence my many failings.) One of my college professors used a character in his books called “Mrs. Murphy” to illustrate a true liturgical theologian. The premise is that Mrs. Murphy knows nothing of theological works, or even church documents. She knows only the sacraments, the communal prayer of liturgy, the communion of saints, and makes use of them because she recognizes their power. The liturgical theologian here is the one who really does the work of the liturgy together with Christ. By this measure, Mrs. Murphy is a theologian par excellence - or, in other words, a saint in the making.

You don't have to be top-tier university-educated to be a saint. Bernadette Soubirous, who is one of my daughter’s name saints, was considered stupid, but she was well wise enough to say things like “I shall spend every moment loving.” AndrĂ© Bessette was recognized as a saint by the bishop referring him to the Congregation of Holy Cross. This was well before he had thousands of visitors at his gate, and then, all the Holy Cross superiors could see were an undesirable lack of schooling and poor health. Benedict Joseph Labre may have been mentally ill, living as a homeless beggar perpetually on pilgrimage; however,but the people of Loreto, Italy could plainly see the witness of his devotion to Eucharistic adoration.

You also don't have to be the mother of many or any children to be a saint, but you can be. And if you need to burn your books “warm in the fireplace” to keep your many children comfortable, the children were always the better choice.

I am trying to figure out what it means for me if it happens that I am only able to raise one child, just as others are trying to determine what their path to holiness is while awaiting their fourth or ninth child, planned or unplanned. Some feel the despair known by Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, or even Rachel. All of us wonder just how on Earth we are going to manage it.

For various real, serious reasons, a woman (and ideally a couple, together) might choose not to have seven children. To many women, that opportunity and choice is not given. But a woman with multiple degrees and a knowledge of Christ knows that children are more precious than the books on the shelf; they are more precious than rubies, or travel opportunities, or whatever you might name. This woman could actively desire seven children or more. (And as the “postcards” show, she often does.)

The wisest Mrs. Murphys know that God alone bears us up, however many children are given us. Little more education is necessary, and if it is needed, he will provide it.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Opting for Clarity

by Dan Masterton

Over my years of ministry and teaching theology, as well as pursuing my own personal spiritual life, I’ve noticed that the cohesion and coherence of Catholic teaching is a major frustration to both Catholics and skeptics/critics alike. A two-thousand year Tradition that draws on the Scriptures and is animated by centuries of ardently lived faith calls us to a lot. As society evolves and social issues emerge, Catholic Social Teaching has a clear voice that tries to show us just how the Spirit calls us to respond.

One of the clarion calls of CST is the Preferential Option. Through this teaching, Christ calls us to intentionally and specifically consider the situation of people on the margins in all decisions we make personally, communally, and socially. This is not convenient. This is not comfortable.

Image result for big houseI remember doing a very basic primer on some CST to pre-Confirmation 8th grade students. I used the imperfect analogy of a very large house to try to introduce the idea of just possession. I told them that if you choose to have a ten-bedroom house but only need four bedrooms for your family that the other six bedrooms should be readily available and open to others in need. One student, presumably exposed to significant wealth at home, bristled, asking, “But what if you’ve worked hard to earn your money and buy your big house or your nice car?” I told her that hard work is valuable but that it doesn’t change the nature of possessions and common good. She was personally insulted by this challenge.

Preferential option is a teaching whose call will fundamentally agitate most of us, especially those us of well steeped in American ideals that drive us to maximize our compensation, secure status well beyond stability, and accumulate wealth and possessions as we want. It’s something I come to understand more and more deeply as I move further into parenthood, marriage, and family life; it’s especially clear as I continue to manage the finances for our little family, which we hope will grow over time. As I think about the big budget items and financing we’ll eventually need, I don’t want much beyond a stable home with some value, a second car to ease our logistics, and the ability to travel to see friends. I hope we can make steady contributions to retirement investments and education funds for our children, but beyond that I don’t have much of a wish list.

I don’t know how common of a sentiment this would be among you, dear readers, but I think, in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather be a smidge poor, or at least getting by just enough, than rich. Maybe that’s a DUH! sort of statement. But for me, until a few years ago, I wanted the highest salary I could get (and sort of still do) and the most robust financial situation I could get. The more I live adult and family life, the more I realize that my focus is increasingly shifting to presence and freedom in the day-to-day of life. I know a lot of that freedom to choose such focuses only comes with the stability of economic security, but the bit that I’ve gained so far is just about all I actively desire.

As I see peers and contemporaries buying sizeable or high-valued homes, living crowded lives, and navigating demanding though handsomely compensated careers, I don’t feel jealous. I like having just enough to pay the bills, save a bit for ourselves and our kids, and live the rest month by month with a handful of dollars kicked toward savings. I know the having pressures of unemployment and heavier debts would change my mindset, but for now, I am grateful to have reached this initial point of basic, minimal stability.

This past Sunday, the Gospel reading invited us to the confrontation between Jesus and the “Rich Young Man”:
As Jesus was setting out on a journey,
a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him,

"Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus answered him, "Why do you call me good?

No one is good but God alone.

You know the commandments: 

You shall not kill;

you shall not commit adultery;

you shall not steal;

you shall not bear false witness;

you shall not defraud;

honor your father and your mother."

He replied and said to him,

"Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth."

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him,"

You are lacking in one thing.

Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor

and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

At that statement his face fell,

and he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Image result for camel through the eye of a needle Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,"How hard it is for those who have wealthto enter the kingdom of God!"The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,

"Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!

t is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle

than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,

"Then who can be saved?"

Jesus looked at them and said,

"For human beings it is impossible, but not for God.

All things are possible for God."
I frequently think of this story as I recall the students who have met the challenges of CST with disdain. I think some of my students would find resonance with the young man in the Gospel, who felt he lived his faith correctly but remained deeply tied to his possessions. As our delightful Franciscan priest preached on this Gospel at my parish, I was hoping he’d incorporate the witness of the great Saint Oscar Romero, drawing on Romero’s advocacy for the working class campesinos who were oppressed and executed by the rich, powerful military-government alliance. While father did not explicitly cite Romero, the message resonated with Saint Oscar’s life witness.

Saint Oscar may have been a bit hesitant to ramp up his advocacy completely, nervous for the friction he’d create or the ire he’d invite, but ultimately, he sacrificed his own stability and prestige and decided to act with the marginalized of society at the fore of his mind. I think his thought process exemplifies the core of the Preferential Option. Before we can entertain our selfish desires for luxury, comfort, or more, we must first consider those who our society has pushed aside. Whenever I invoke the lives of the saints to myself or others, I always point out that even if we aren’t called to the degree of witness some saints were (like martyrdom) we are called to the same ideals we see in their exemplary lives of faith.

For me, this has come in a changed mindset about my own life’s arc. I’m not aiming for the biggest house, the nicest car, or the highest salary. I’m seeking enough stability for my family to be steady and reliably fed and housed and set up to thrive with education, health care, and opportunities for growth. Right now, that means sacrificing half my earning power and being a part-time stay-at-home dad; while we’d come out a bit further ahead if I worked full-time and we paid daycare, we prefer the reduced income and the increased familial stability and well-being. I don’t know that this equation is universally applicable to all people and all families, but it’s a window into our thought process. My decisions in this way won’t impact a national civil war or unfurl complex social structures; instead, they’re smaller ways I try to keep my heart anchored in the right harbor and try to ground my decisions and actions in just ideals.

From there, I think my improved presence to my family and my faith primes me to be more intentional about opting for those on the margins. We set aside a monthly budget line to support an organization that does something for and with marginalized people. My daughter and I are starting to find small ways to be more hands-on in service and accompaniment, like our parish’s upcoming scarf tie activity. And I can form young people, both at work and in my family, in the Catholic Social Tradition and accompany them in learning more and accompanying those on the margins. I’ve found that life keeps delivering opportunities for me to more intentionally engage with the Preferential Option, and I hope I can keep responding earnestly.

* * *

Here’s an archive of some of my reflections on Preferential Option:

Jan. 2016: This Option Isn’t Optional, Dude

Jul. 2016: Opting for Black Lives

Apr. 2017: How to Persevere through the Quagmire

Sept. 2017: Like When One of Your Kids Is Sick

Nov. 2017: Encounter

Jun. 2018: More Isn’t Better

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Sacred & Profane

by Rob Goodale

I recently moved to a new apartment. The word “recently” is in this case, as it is in all cases, relative -- I have been living in this apartment for four and a half months. However, my fervor for settling into this new home sputtered after the clothes made their way into the closet and the dresser, and so a small colony of boxes took up residence in various corners of my bedroom, to be revisited at a later date.

Image result for moving boxesUnpacking boxes of miscellany is, of course, a venture far more autumnal than estival. Also there is a towering, shadowy mountain of papers that need to be graded, and everyone knows there is nothing so good as a looming deadline to suddenly catch the spirit to do something utterly unrelated to said deadline. And so this past weekend I found myself in a fit of redirected productivity.

The box in question had hibernated for the summer beneath my desk, gathering a thin layer of dust which ossified the memories that lay within. When I finally dislodge the box from its resting place and place it upon my desk, a ritual of self-discovery begins. As I pick through the box, I unearth my collection of coozies, a few whiskey glasses, my baseball glove, and a couple of ziplock bags of pipe tobacco, all in the same box as icons, crucifixes, incense, and a statue of the Blessed Mother. This seems a sufficient summation of my personhood: sacred and profane, intermingled together and each pleased with the mixture.

This also seems sufficient to describe the way that Our Lord views creation: a brilliant interplay between the profane and the sacred, between that which is secular and that which is holy, between man and God, human and divine, creature and creator, until the eternal rubs off on the temporal and infuses it with divine life. This, after all, is how God creates: He assembles Adam from crude mud and clay, forming a great clump of hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and carbon. Then the Breath of God, the advocate which inspires the Earth, intertwines with the elemental until the two become one.

Image result for god creating adam

Creation obviously benefits from being imbued with the Divine Breath; life itself springs forth, and the Love outpoured elevates nature to unimaginable dignity. The Creator, apparently, benefits because He enjoys being with His creation. As if to double down on this reckless delight, the Love that holds the entire universe in being takes a human nature to himself, taking the form of a slave, born in human likeness and being found in human form. The great emptying of the Logos into humanity, a colossal mystery concealing The Colossal Mystery, clearly establishes the message: God likes things to be together, even (and perhaps especially) if it gets a bit messy.

Teilhard de Chardin said, “by virtue of creation, and still more the incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see.” I often find it tempting to sort the various items I find in boxes under my desk into rigid categories: virtues here, vices there, and so on. But to haphazardly toss any worldly pleasure into the “vices” bin is an oversimplification; it is my privilege and my responsibility to discover how to unpack the latent grace within baseball, whiskey, and tobacco.

There is no created thing that cannot be used to glorify God. Pick through the box of forgotten humanity, unearthing all that is sacred and profane. Should we encounter something so broken as to seem beyond value, it is our duty to thwart the work of the Great Separator, and return it to its proper place: next to the eternal.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Getting Acclimated

by Dan Masterton

At 29, I’ve already worked four jobs. I left my first job to join my then-girlfriend to discern marriage in the same city as well as to accept a full-tuition scholarship for grad school. I left my second job to eliminate a huge commute before I got married so that we could start married life with more time together. I left my third job because our school was condensing and restructuring, and my role was disappearing. And now I’m starting my fourth job.

Some folks at this stage have only worked at one place. I say this not to bemoan my various stops, which have each shaped me in constructive ways. Rather, I find myself struggling to acclimate this time.

After my daughter, Lucy, was born, I was able to take twelve glorious weeks of paternity leave, which were an even greater blessing than I could have ever imagined. My wife, Katherine, and I decided we’d prefer to avoid day care. Working around Katherine’s three 12-hour nursing shifts, I was able to negotiate my job down to a part-time role at two, sometimes three, days a week. In that equation, we needed no regular child care, and Lucy was with one or both of us all the time.

Professionally, returning to the same school at a scaled-down role was pretty doable. I had all the institutional knowledge and internal relationships to sustain what I was doing, and I managed, with a lot of help from colleagues, to remain fairly present and effective. However, as I start a new part-time job at a new school on a part-time basis, I find myself frustrated. I have experience, expertise, and education but none of the institutional knowledge and internal relationships. And that latter part is taking me twice as long (if not longer) to develop than if I were full-time.

As I look back over my brief career so far, I can remember moments at each stop that helped me feel like I really belonged, moments that uniquely welcomed me into the community. And these moments give me consolation and reground me in humility and patience as I strive to get up to speed this time around.

Making the Playlist

My first job was as a half-load theology teacher and assistant campus minister at a Jesuit high school. It was my first chance to be with high school students on campus on a daily basis, and before faculty meetings or school days began, I was invited on a summer service-learning immersion. Along with our Director of Campus Ministry and a Spanish teacher, I co-chaperoned a group of about twenty students on a four-day immersion in East Los Angeles. While the site visits, learning opportunities, and direct service encounters were memorable, it was the drive home that sticks uniquely in my memory.

Driving a ratty old Chevy Tahoe that stuck out like a sore thumb from our fleet of white, logo-wrapped Ford vans, I brought some tired souls back home after an exhausting trip. As we plodded along I-10, one brave soul was awake. She offered some suggestions for radio stations to listen to and as we neared our exit for home, we both gave each other one song to listen to later for homework. After the school year started, this student tracked me down1 to follow up and suggest another song, a ritual that continued into the year.

As the year unfolded, this student had my counterpart as her teacher for Gospels in Action rather than me. That teacher was a studious theologian, well steeped in the best of Dominican and Thomistic theology. My approach was slightly less academic and leaned more on discussion and engagement. This student took the best of my colleague’s teaching and came to me with her extra questions that didn’t get answered in class; over time, we built a little lunch group with other curious students where we aired out these questions together and tried to engage with the tough stuff of our faith.

Later in the year, I learned she had been baptized Presbyterian but never continued in that tradition and now she was interested in becoming Catholic. I worked with a local parish to get her involved in a Confirmation program that would also prepare her for First Communion. She joined, and though she had the all too usual mediocre experience of parish formation, she remained engaged on campus in class, on retreats, in service, and in conversation. And she honored me with the invitation to be her Confirmation sponsor, even though I had moved away by that point. I flew back to be with her for her big day, and I got to present her to the bishop for Confirmation and come forward behind her for her First Communion. She went on to realize her dream of being a Eucharistic Minister at her baccalaureate Mass. Melissa was the first student to really welcome me to that school, and her impact on me as a person and a minister endures.

Pulling up a Chair

Next, I became the first full-time Campus Minister at a medium-sized diocesan high school. Following a chain of part-time ministers who also taught while ministering on the side, I had the chance to try to consolidate what was going on and build it up and out into something more robust and substantial. One of my early goals was to try to create a space that was different from classrooms, which was hard since my space was an old classroom. I remembered so vividly the couches in my high school’s campus ministry. I was dead set on creating that family room feel, despite having the same tile, chalkboards, and fluorescent lighting that all the other archaic classrooms had.

So, I looted a storage area around the corner and dragged a couch and an easy chair into my classroom as well as a few old chairs I could place by my ostentatious desk.2 I slid my desk up close to the door with the chairs right in front, hoping it’d become a place for students to come check-in about activities and retreats or just stop to relax and say hi.

Over the first days and weeks, I was trying to get myself out there, but the room wasn’t quickly becoming a new home for students. Luckily, I had one more incetive -- my room had air conditioning. Maybe the allure of a cool respite from the steamy hallways would entice visitors...3

It was after our first Kairos meetings began that my first regular visitor started to come by. She was one of our student leaders who would lead our first ever Kairos, and she remembered my name and face from the first meeting. One day, after school, she knocked on the door (shut to keep the air in, but with an inviting sign on the window) to come in, sit down, and say hi. I don’t remember what we talked about, but she kicked back a bit and relaxed. She knew this wasn’t a classroom.4

She would come by most days, even if just to say hi. She never shared anything inappropriate or especially personal; she didn’t come to me for pseudo-therapy. She just was friendly and pleasant, and this became part of her school-day routine. Caitlynn was my first real welcome from my new students and a trailblazer in her own right.5

As I think fondly of our 50-person Service & Ministry Team kick-off meeting the following year, or of the 25-student planning team each year for our El Camino Retreats, I remember Caitlynn. She was the first to take a chance and embrace a new frontier of student activities, and I’m delighted by the tradition of hospitality, community, and collaboration that she helped begin.

A snapshot of the earlier days, when the action was just ramping up...

Sign Me Up

Starting my third job, I was back to a half-load of teaching while remaining a one-man show for ministry. Amid a lot of success during my previous job in mobilizing and empowering students, I struggled to mobilize and empower my colleagues. Some blame went to the siloed mentality of the faculty and staff, but more blame went to my social chops -- I was too deferent and sheepish. I needed to learn to build better relationships with more colleagues and find proper ways to be a little demanding towards what our ministries needed from them. I set out to be better about this going forward, and this faculty I joined was a great to place to learn that.

We were a small but mighty faculty that leaned heavily on one another. As a new hire, I was glad to be immersed in such collegiality. There was still some of the usual tensions and relationship conflicts, but people earnestly pitched in to make most things a strong team effort. From my first day, I, like all new hires, had a mentor to meet with one-on-one and a mentorship community to join for larger discussions. My mentor and the program coordinator also happened to be my two teammates for coordinating Kairos. The sometimes timid introvert in me, always nervous about how others perceive me, worried people won’t like and befriend me, wondered how we’d mesh.

My mentor, Maggie, was not as Type-A as me (though she accurately says that she would be if all her friends and her older sister weren’t so proactive), but she had exhaustive institutional knowledge, all the time in the world for my incessant questions, and an exemplary keen eye for student wellness. Our mentor coordinator, Megan, was fastidiously organized with amazing attention to detail, and whatever feeling out process we needed was mostly about comparing and learning each other’s organization styles. Professionally, I gained great partners and teammates. What about the social aspect though?

A few weeks into the year, we were all instructed to sign up for shifts as pseudo-bartenders at our school’s annual parent social. Megan and Maggie reached out to me, and we all tried to get on for the same shift. Once we had signed up, they then included me in the pre-game/post-game plans that many on the staff would enjoy as bookends around this contractually obligated event. All of a sudden, I upgraded from having quality co-workers to also potentially having gained new friends.

Megan and Maggie became the best friends I had ever made at work -- friends who would reach out before I had to reach out to them, who would make plans and include me, who looked out for me without me seeking their help or attention. While the acclimation to my new students and ministry programming was proceeding with successes as well as struggles, I felt like I had quickly made great strides in connecting with colleagues. And all of this on the school side doesn’t even celebrate the amazingly resonant connection I gained with my partner-in-crime and parish Director of Youth Ministry, Kim, whose partnership was so positive and painless that I’m not even sure of the story I’d tell to describe its genesis. Connecting so well and so quickly with amazing colleagues gave me a new sort of welcome and belonging I hadn’t found the same way in my previous stops.

Stay Tuned

Coming up on two months at my newest job, it’s hard to know what I’ll look back on as a potential watershed moment of welcome here. I’ve been most delighted so far by the Freshmen Retreat leader who brought me a coffee early on that Saturday morning of our retreat. I think the important thing for me now as I feel out yet another new place is to remain humble and patient. I’ve definitely been frustrated when my initiative goes unused due to my ignorance of a new place. I’ve definitely been stifled when I don’t know enough students and names to be a better presence. I’ve definitely been disappointed when I make mistakes or overlook things as I learn new programs. But if I focus less on image and perception and more on earnest effort and presence, then I feel like the moments of welcome -- like those from Melissa, Caitlynn, Megan and Maggie -- will come more naturally because I’ll be aware and open to receiving them. In the meantime, honesty to my emotions and groundedness in those ideals have to point the way. And the rest will come.

1 This was uniquely easy since I had no classroom or desk or office. I would usually tote my orange backpack around school and frequently set up shop in the student commons with the study hall kids or the swirling throngs before and after school.

2 The previous principal, who had created my position and hired me, had not returned for my first year. She was apparently pretty progressive and tried to bring unwanted changes, which caused division and especially upset the old guard teachers. She moved on to another opportunity, and her temporary second floor office (far from the front desk and other admin offices) became my room. I later learned that, before her, my office had been the dean’s office, too. So I had lots of demons to exorcise as I went.

3 I also made my room something your eye couldn’t ignore. In addition to flyers outside the door and a little dry erase board of announcements, I also put up a whole mess of memes that people had to at least acknowledge as they otherwise ignored the room. Check them out here.

4 Just to be clear, healthy boundaries always still applied; we just didn't have tests, grades, and homework. Students had to watch their language, dress appropriately (even if after school or on weekends), treat each other and adults respectfully, etc. I just never wanted them to act like they were in class. We had no assignments, no directions on the board, no bell-ringer to complete, no papers to turn in. This was like your family room. This was not like your desk in 3rd period.

5 Over time, I accumulated more furniture and reconfigured my office a few times. Eventually, I had relocated myself to a small table in the middle of the room. I had a couches corner in front by the door, where I frequently relocated when students came in to check-in for various ministries; I had three clusters of tables for group work on retreat planning; I had a growing wall of large-group retreat photos; I had a chalkboard with a Bible verse and a litany of prayer intentions from students. And that big ole desk? Relegated to the back corner, where it stored files and served as a collection point.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Limits of "Teaching Tolerance"

by Dave Gregory

Back in the 70s and 80s, legal scholars pioneered the field of Critical Race Theory (henceforward “CRT”), which recognized and attempted to address the systematic injustices writ into the very fabric of American history, politics, and identity. The constitutional framework, after all, emerged from an inherently sexist and racist perspective: enfranchisement, property rights, and basic freedoms were only guaranteed to property owners, a category of folks restricted to free white men. Two and a half centuries later, we are quite obviously dealing with the repercussions of constitutional marginalization on a variety of levels.1

Equity in education is all the rage these days, and for good reason. It’s impossible to be an educator in an urban setting and not encounter professional development opportunities and in-services that address the varied injustices that plague student experience. One of my graduate school textbooks this fall is a reader of essays about CRT and education, and in August I attended a workshop with several colleagues on social justice education presented by Teaching Tolerance, a program founded by the Southern Poverty Law Center in 1991. From their website, Teaching Tolerance’s “mission is to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy”.

Attempts at teaching the actual virtue of tolerance run the gamut, from cheap and microaggressive2 to those that provoke genuine encounter. The latter requires some crucial elements: space that is compassionate and brutally honest, where people can speak their minds and hearts without fear of punishment; space that invites the resonance of all voices, allowing the marginalized and invisibilized ones to speak a bit more, so as to counteract those subtle, silencing forces; space that is not about solving any problems initially, lest it become preoccupied with the problem rather than with authentic and transformative human dialogue.

Tolerance, however, can only take us so far, and herein lies the problem, as summarized by Teaching Tolerance’s quoting of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on its website, where it states that he “used the Greek term ‘agape’ to describe a universal love that ‘discovers the neighbor in every man it meets.’”

In short, here we see a blatant secularization of a devout Jesus-freak, one that erases the cruciality of King’s religious imagination to his overarching mission. It was love for Christ that motivated King to persevere through a house-bombing, love for Christ that drove him to embrace active non-violent resistance as the means to pioneer real change in the civil rights movement. To silence the man’s Christianity -- and to silence the Christian worldview that gave rise to the events of a half-century ago -- is another act of invisibilization. In a world whose media tends to highlight the brutal weaponization of religion, we don’t necessarily like to acknowledge its liberating potential.

Agape is more than tolerance, greater and deeper and richer than mere respect. Respect permits human beings to coexist in the same space, but it can also be reduced to a shallowness that permits me to hold my neighbor at arm’s length; I can respect someone without engaging them. Tolerance, if made the preeminent virtue we strive for, can maintain boundaries for the sake of diverse folks peaceably co-occupying the same space. Oppression can fill a community or a country, even though tolerance be espoused.

Civil law, without the introduction of personal belief systems into the pluralistic foray, is limited by the fact that it cannot truly inculcate authentic virtue within its citizenry. On its own, secular law can do little more than prevent us from doing harm to one another. It cannot make us better, only less worse. And so, I have to wonder if the entire project of Teaching Tolerance might be forfeit in the sense that without returning to the religious roots of the civil rights movement, its inspiration, it will never be able to accomplish what the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues hoped for.

In this, Catholic schools have a definite advantage, because we have the tradition of Catholic Social Teaching, a stunningly beautiful corpus of thought that holds agape as made known through Jesus at its center. Though we might fail to live it out in application, and though we’re still figuring out how to use it within the American legal system, the beatific vision of the heavenly banquet at which all are welcome presents a dream far more vibrant and colorful than that of potentially lukewarm tolerance. May we know the God of all mercy and of all liberation in this work.

1 See the Netflix documentary “13th” for a mind-blowing take on the perpetuation of slavery into the 21st century.

2 For those uninitiated into conversations surrounding race, Merriam-Webster defines “microagression” thusly: “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”. Examples of this would include assuming that a person of color loves a particular sort of food or speaks a certain language based on physical appearance, or asking to touch an “exotic” person of color’s hair, or telling a person of color they’re attractive “for a [insert ethnicity here] person”.