Thursday, March 24, 2005

A Tale of Two Holy Weeks

During Holy Week 2004, I joined some friends for Mass at a Catholic charismatic house of prayer. After the Mass, one of the leaders of the group got up to speak, saying confidently, “Aren’t we lucky to be Catholic and know the truth about the Passion.” I have to say I was a bit puzzled. Clearly, someone had neglected to deliver to me the memo whereby we had discovered all there was to know about the Passion. But, seriously, I thought, have we gotten to the point that we need to assure ourselves that we KNOW the truth about some of the richest and most elusive mysteries of our faith? When I was growing up, the mysteries of the Catholic faith were what captured my imagination and attention. It was these less definable, supernatural, ungraspable realities that caused me to fall in love with my Catholic inheritance. To paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, if suddenly as Catholics we know the “truth” and everything (especially our understanding of rich mysteries like the Passion) is certain, then the hell with it! What is this drive to be so certain that we know everything and to lord it over others? Isn’t that what Jesus so bristled at in the Pharisees?
So, I was much happier with the message at the Palm Sunday liturgy that I attended this year. The priest did not opt out of giving a homily after the long reading of the Passion. Instead, he spoke of how important it is for us to hear this story over and over again because no matter how many times we hear it, we just don’t seem to get it! How refreshing that someone would affirm the mystery of it all! Indeed, he likened Holy Week to God letting us play with matches in hopes that we might set off a spark that would blow up everything we thought we knew. Yes! Isn’t that what the mystery of Holy Week is all about? We are reminded of the story of Christ’s passion and death, endured for US, a story that defies easy rationality and challenges us to remember, as Jesus reminded Peter when he tried to deter him from his fate, that we only see as far as human beings can see, not as God sees! Peter was right that someone as innocent as Jesus should not suffer such a fate, but Jesus tells him that God, inexplicably, but for the sake of all humankind, has deemed otherwise. Only God can know the truth about the Passion; we can only approach that truth with our limited faculties.
As I pray through this Holy Week, I’m asking God for the grace to be content with uncertainty and to appreciate mystery. I’m asking God to help me to remember that no matter how right I think I am in my theories, opinions, and even in my faith, that I remember that, like Peter, I only see as humans see, not as God sees. And I’m asking for patience and charity, while I struggle with these my own demons, with those who don’t seem to get it, who cannot be content with mystery, and too often feel the need to bludgeon others over the head with their version of the “truth.” May we instead find the charity, modeled by Jesus, who rather than condemn his tormentors, instead asked, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

A Blessed and Happy Easter to all!

Monday, March 21, 2005

Making Room for the Holy Spirit

I’ve just finished another discussion of how to maintain the Jesuit and Catholic identity of our university. I always enjoy these discussions because I believe this to be an important and even essential topic for our future. Yet, like in many such discussions, I am frustrated because everyone seems to have a different answer, and a firm idea of what we are talking about often seems elusive. However, this time what struck me is the extent to which the conversation was focused on what we and others could do about it. Absent from this conversation was any discussion of what God might do. It got me thinking that in this, and in the many other important conversations we are having in the Church these days (if the “church of the convinced” allows conversation), we need to make room for the Holy Spirit.
In my earliest searchings for a young adult faith life just after high school, one of the pit stops in my faith journey was several years spent as a member of the Catholic charismatic movement. It was a time of great excitement and wonder, a time when the borders between this world and the supernatural world were broken down in ways previously unknown to me. In this new spirit-filled world, with God, anything was possible. The surprising and unexpected workings of God’s Holy Spirit lurked around every corner of the Church. What faded were not only barriers to the supernatural world, but barriers within this world as well. This new and strange enthusiasm for my faith put me into contact with people and possibilities which I had not previously allowed. Liberals, conservatives, simpletons and intellectuals, we gathered together to praise, worship and give witness to the things that God and his Holy Spirit were accomplishing in our lives. There were no limits on God and the unexpected and unorthodox ways he might act in our lives. Our prayers could result in healing, and God could be a part of everything we did, no matter how “secular.”
Such enthusiasm and openness to God’s spirit can rarely be maintained long before the cares and complexities of this world start to intrude and instill doubt. After a few years, I longed for a perhaps less exciting but firmer foundation in a more contemplative approach to my relationship with God.
These days, however, when I find myself in the middle of fights over what makes a university truly Catholic or, worse yet, what makes a person truly Catholic, I can’t help but remember fondly these more innocent days. I fear that all too often when we speak of the “Catholic University” or the “Faithful Catholic,” the focus is far too much on what we do or don’t do, or what we can or can’t do, rather than how we might cooperate with the grace of God freely, mysteriously and surprisingly given to us. It seems to me that our discussions will not and cannot be so predictable, trite, vapid and/ or just plain nasty if we take the time to look beyond ourselves, stop worrying for a moment (or two! or three!) about what we or what others are doing and start paying more attention to what God is doing. Many of the barriers that exist between us, and many of the limitations we place on what God can do, would start to fade away if we just made more room for the Holy Spirit.

Got Nuance?

William Raspberry has a point that--if you'll excuse the lack of nuance--we ALL could afford to take to heart:

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Feet Washing on Holy Thursday

Those who seem to have decided that washing men's feet only on Holy Thursday should be elevated to the status of near-magisterial teaching should take note:

Archbishop Sean O'Malley, after consultation with the Vatican, will wash women's feet this Holy Week:

Thursday, March 17, 2005

It's All God's (and Jeremy Irons') Fault

Sharon asks, “Of all the religious orders you could have joined, what drew you to the Jesuits?”

As I’m guessing the answer “God,” though probably perhaps the most accurate answer, won’t be enough here, let me try to answer more personally.

My road to the Jesuits is somewhat inexplicable (often a sure sign that God’s involved), as I had never actually met a Jesuit prior to contacting the Jesuit vocation director. However, by that point (April 1996), I had somehow arrived at the conviction that if I ever did decide to become a priest (I had thought of the possibility off and on for a few years, but never pursued it seriously), I would be a Jesuit. I’m a bit of a movie fanatic, so I suspect this had something to do with my love for the movie, “The Mission.” It also had something to do with my interest in higher education. The Jesuits, I knew, had a long and noble tradition of being educators and scholars. Add to that the fact that in August 1995, I traveled to New Orleans to train as a facilitator for the Loyola (NO) University Institute for Ministry’s extension program. While there, I imbued some of the Jesuit spirit inherent in the program, and also stealthily made my way to Loyola’s campus to anonymously pick up a couple of pamphlets on the Jesuits from the campus ministry pamphlet rack. When I arrived home, I read them and then quickly relegated them to a file drawer, where they sat for about eight months.

A reference to Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises had somehow imprinted itself on my mind. As part of my work as youth ministry coordinator in a parish, I attended a Youth 2000 retreat in April 1996. Little did Father Bob Lombardo, CFR, know when he gave a witness talk about his priesthood that day, that God was working through him to add to the numbers of the Jesuits! As I listened to Father Bob speak, I heard a voice in my mind asking, “How come you’re not doing that?” It kind of freaked me out. So, at my first opportunity, I left the retreat. My first thought was, I need to get a copy of The Spiritual Exercises. I searched a few bookstores, but came up empty. However, that night I pulled that pamphlet on the Jesuits out of the file drawer, and called the number. A couple of days later, I found myself in contact with the vocation director. A few days after that, a box of books and information about the Jesuits and discerning a vocation arrived in the mail. As I devoured the information, I felt as if I’d arrived home. My intuition was validated. The life of St. Ignatius, Jesuit spirituality, and Jesuit life with its talk of being “contemplatives in action,” seemed a perfect fit. And as I read about the heroic lives of Jesuits of the past, I felt a kinship. I made a pretense of looking into other orders (I knew I wasn’t called to the diocesan priesthood), but I’d already found the one. If I was going to be a priest, this was how I was going to do it!

As I began to seriously pursue discernment of my vocation some other more practical considerations also helped affirm my choice. The Jesuits, while decreasing in number, were clearly in no danger of becoming extinct. And, as I began visiting Jesuits and attending Jesuit events, I saw that this was a group of men who truly cared about each other, their ministry, and were sincerely happy with the life choice they’d made, something I hadn’t seen in a lot of the diocesan priests I knew.

I am now in my eighth year as a Jesuit, and it has become so much a part of my identity, that I can’t imagine being anything else!

But, still, it’s all God’s fault!

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Good news!--Taking it to the next level!

In keeping with my desire to find more good news in the Catholic blogworld (and with thanks to Sharon for her comment), I wanted to share of mine with you.

Recently, I was approved to move on to my final studies prior to ordination. Part of gaining that approval was to write a letter reflecting on my experience of my vocation and my desires with regard to the priesthood. I share some excerpts from these reflections below:

. . . I have come to know in my heart that I can only be my truest and most complete self by constantly seeking God’s will. That will has been made manifest to me in varying, surprising and unexpected ways in these past seven and a half years of living a Jesuit life.
Perhaps my earliest and most immediate lesson came in realizing the possibility of a calling to become a Jesuit. The call came at a time in my life when I was very happy and content. I had a job I loved and some of the truest and dearest friends I’d ever had. I thought perhaps I’d even make a life in this place and this work. But it was in the midst of this happiness that I felt God calling me to something more. Soon, I would leave that all behind to pursue an uncertain vocation. Life in the novitiate wasn’t easy. It brought out my insecurities, it challenged me in various ways, and I was soon faced with the reality that this life, while not unpleasant, was not as “happy” as the one I’d left behind. God was teaching me the lesson that doing his will did not include a guarantee of happiness. Indeed, as I discovered in my particularly difficult second year, I could even be quite miserable and find God reassuring me that this too was part of what he desired for me. I learned that I could be unhappy and still find Jesus reassuring me in my prayer, “I want you to be with me.”
That one expression of Jesus’ desire was enough to convince me to vow myself to Jesuit life. It has also been a constant reassurance to me in the ups and downs of living that life. As I look back, I see that my first couple of years of vowed life, caught up as they were with the demands of Philosophy study, were more “slow and steady” than remarkable in any way. Beyond studies, there were some important learning moments like a lesson in collegiality realized by a hostile reaction to my honest and frank assessment of another Jesuit’s student retreat program, the deep impression left by an experience of mission with ten students in India and successes and failures experienced in several different apostolic ministry experiences. Otherwise, my experience often was of what our rector called “the asceticism of studies.” However, there was also a turning point in my third year of studies which God used to begin to map a direction for my future ministry. I am still amazed how mere proximity to a disaster of the magnitude of the September 11 attacks on New York could have had such an effect on me. In the depression and confusion I felt in the wake of this event, I felt God’s challenge to not just have convictions about peace and justice, but to act more fully upon them. And, as I saw the response to the attacks move not in the direction of reconciliation and compassion, but in the direction of further violence and aggression, I felt a growing disquiet which I could not be silent about. As I prayed about, reflected on and acted upon those feelings, God seemed to be leading me in a difficult and unexpected direction. God, it seemed, was asking me, the man who prior to joining the Jesuits had actively avoided conflict, to pursue a course that would be sure to put me in the very midst of conflict—ethics. My interest and work in this area in the intervening years have only seemed to affirm this intuition . . .

. . . pastoral and “priestly” demands are as apparent to me in the classroom as they are in a retreat setting. I find myself being called to be more than just an ordinary professor. The fact that I’m a Jesuit does have a bearing on what I teach, how I teach it, and especially how I care for my students both in class and outside of class. I want to challenge my students not just to be better students, but also to be better people, and in doing so I have to be better, caring not only for their minds, but also their souls. I ask my students to make me aware of their needs both academic and otherwise and I offer them my prayers and whatever other support I can give them. I have already been a listening ear for a number of my students who were experiencing death, personal illness, mental distress or various other difficulties. They don’t come in droves, but those that do come, come, I believe, because they see that my concern for them goes beyond their performance on exams and papers . . .

. . . My lay colleagues on the faculty and the university ministry staff show me daily what they need in a priest and how I might be priest for them and with them. I also have had the benefit at Loyola of a community of exemplary Jesuit priests, who in their many diverse ways serve as models for me of what I might hope to be when I myself join them in priestly ministry. Witnessing the struggles and successes of these brothers and friends in the first years of priesthood, still in awe and unsure, those already tested by many years and in their prime, and those in their twilight making the most of the time and energy they have left, I am humbled by their examples of devotion and dedication to God’s will and God’s people, and by the fact that God might call me to join their company. It is my constant prayer that Jesus would help me to stand as worthily as they in his company.
It is also my prayer that I might be worthy of the hopes that I have found others, especially in recent years, placing in my vocation. Recently, I have seen a shift in the way that I am being called. My vocation becomes less and less a matter of just me and God, as I find it being called out of me by the people whom I serve and with whom I work. When my students pray that I be a good priest, I want so badly not to disappoint them. When my colleagues tell me how needed I am as a priest because of what they see in me, I hope that I can be true to them. When I have to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that, I’m not a priest yet,” I feel that desire to be able to offer that blessing, that reconciliation or that sacrament to them all the more. I am thankful that God has allowed me to grow in such a way that they might see this potential in me, and I pray that I will always grow more worthy of the many facets of the vocation which God has given me so that I may offer it to the world for God’s greater glory.

I welcome your prayers that in the coming years I may grow more worthy of the vocation that God has given me.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Is the Catholic Blog World Joyless?

As I surf various Catholic Blogs, I notice that many of them are dedicated to demonstrating all that is wrong with the world (or at least what they perceive to be wrong with the world). Oh, if only it were so simple as Fr. Sibley so blithely instructed some fourth graders, according to a recent blog entry: L-I-B-E-R-A-L-S. But it's not. Indeed, both L-I-B-E-R-A-L-S and C-O-N-S-E-R-V-A-T-I-V-E-S, and whatever we choose to label those who don't fit these all too facile categories, all have important things to contribute to our C-A-T-H-O-L-I-C community. We ought to take some time celebrating those things instead of arrogantly tearing apart people we know nothing of and trying to show how much more authentic our Catholicism is compared to their less perfect attempts at it. I admit that I am not immune to this, but I do try to offer criticism, when I do, in charity and humility. For I am all too aware that I am still struggling to work out my salvation, in fear and trembling. The Church, the people of God, is whether we like it or not a Church of liberals, conservatives, extroverts, introverts, "plastics," and nerds. And, there is one thing we all share in common--we're all sinners. That should at least give us pause before we decide that we are right and that other people of good faith are most definitely wrong.

Jesus came to bring the "good news." Help me! Where are the blogs with good news for all of us Catholic sinners?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Evangelism vs. Borgism

It seems to me that what often passes for evangelism these days is what I would, instead, like to call "Borgism." Now if you are a sci-fi geek like me, you're probably already getting the picture. But for the uninitiated, let me explain. In Star Trek, the Borg are a race that exist as a collective, and so while there are individual borgs, they all share the same mind. You might say, they all think the same thing. There modus operandi as a race is to give other races they encounter a choice of either being assimilated into the collective "hive mind" or be destroyed. So, too, with some segments of Catholicism these days. Groups of Catholics adopt identical sets of beliefs which represent only a portion of the Catholic tradition and become convinced that this is the only way to be Catholic, i.e. they become something of a collective. That in itself isn't so bad. What disturbs me is when they set about "evangelizing" not like the Body of Christ, but like the Borg. Other Catholics who don't share their mind are considered alien, and if they cannot be assimilated, then they are written off as casualties of war, not true Catholics like the holy Borg remnant. And the frightening thing is that it seems to me that the would rather be merely that communion of the assimilated, floating alone through space, rather than face the messy diversity of minds and levels of spiritual maturity that is the Body of Christ--this is the messiness that true evangelists see as integral to the Body of Christ, a body of sinners struggling to follow God's will for them in the Church in myriad ways. Christ shared his table with Humans, Borgs, Klingons, Vulcans and Romulans alike (I'm speaking metaphorically, as Christ never made an appearance on Star Trek)--shouldn't we?

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