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Catholic Life (Or, How to Steer A Sail Boat)

On Sunday I headed to Mass with my parents where the new pastor of their diocesan parish introduced himself to the eager congregation. He skillfully utilized a story about growing up with “boat people” here in the Seattle area to offer a little background on his upbringing and simultaneously make a point about the day’s scripture readings.  His mother is a life-long sailor, and met his father, a football player, when he came to her for sailing lessons at the university recreation center. When they married they bought a “fixer-uper” on the lake so sailing could continue as a regular part of their lives together.  Consequently, this pastor grew up on the water, “rowing before he could walk.”

He recalled that the first thing his father taught him about sailing concerned steering.  “Figure out where you want to go and pick a spot in that direction on the horizon,” his father instructed.  “Steer the boat in that direction.”  Trouble arises, he explained, when things distract the sailor from that far-off guide-point.  When this occurs one’s steering shifts, thinkingly or unthinkingly, and the boat will quickly veer off course.  “We must, as Christians, keep our eyes on that right spot in the horizon to ensure that we’re steering our lives in the proper direction,” the pastor exhorted.

As I continued to ponder his illustration after the liturgy, it began to reframe an issue I have been grappling with for a couple weeks now.  At the end of July my friend Dan over at datinggod.org and America reported that Pope Francis had formed a “ground-breaking lay committee.” The committee “will have broad, unprecedented powers at the church’s highest levels” he explained. Dan’s commentary illuminated the significance of this reform within the Vatican: “This move marks a significant change in the way that the Vatican power structure had been previously organized”—a change that empowers lay people, satisfying (at least in part) an enduring hope among many who rally for anti-clerical church reform.

Yet, amidst my excitement about the symbolic capital of this committee, I found myself distracted by a number of nagging doubts. “I wonder if there will be any women on this committee….” This was one of the first thoughts I had upon the news of the committee.  I would learn that there is one female committee member. “Just one?” As I read the comments on Dan’s posts, another disappointment arose. Someone observed that there is only one committee member from outside Europe. “Just one?” I found myself asking again.

Even as the virtual comments about this committee echoed doubts I had already named or disappoints that quickly resonated when I read them, they bothered me. They bothered me, and have subsequently led me to reevaluate my own response to this good news from the Vatican: Why is it that disappointment is one of my first responses to this good news of reform?  Why is it that negative observations about this committee ring much louder in my mind than points of appreciation? Why am I so vulnerable to being distracted by the shortcomings of Vatican happenings, even when I am confronted with such positive signs of reforms?  Why do I so quickly render this reform a failure of some sort?

These comments bothered me because the shortcomings of the lay committee seemed to garner more attention (from me, and from many others) than its apparent gains.  I thought about this after the homily this weekend. The pastor’s sailing image poignantly presents Christian life in terms of orientation.  It invites us to consider whether we are headed in the right direction, generally—whether we are on our way toward the proper destination, a destination that is always ultimately out of reach.  It invites us to consider whether or not we respond to the happenings of the world in a way that keeps us oriented toward God.

We can consider this as individuals and as a church community: As an individual, I suspect that my doubt and disappointment can distract me at times from hope in the world and my church.  Pessimism about the Vatican distracted me from encountering good news with hope—the kind of hope that is so central to a Christian orientation in life. It distracted me from recognizing that the Church may be changing, moving—oriented in the right direction.  And in fact, my pessimism may distract me from participating in the movement of the Church.

That is not to say, of course, that one is misguided in recognizing and responding to the shortcomings of the church.  We are a pilgrim church, a reforming forming church, and we must work toward a more Christian life together.  However, it is tempting as a Catholic to be distracted by the endless shortcomings of the institution and the people who make up our church.  (Likewise, it is easy to be caught up in one’s own personal and perpetual failings as a Christian).  This orients us toward our failings rather than the orienting point in the horizon—a point we will never reach but nevertheless steers us in toward better life together.

Attending to the shortcomings of our community is imperative to staying the course of Christian life. My struggle as a Catholic (and I suspect I’m not alone) is learning to tend to our personal and communal  failings without being so consumed by them that I shift my gaze and the direction of my life toward them alone.  In order to move in the right direction, we must fix our eyes on the guiding point that will lead us toward God and a more holy life together.

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Believing Thomas: First Reactions to Pope Francis

I find myself among many others who have been pleasantly surprised by the first few days of Francis’s papal ministry.  From the first moments of his balcony introduction, when he donned relatively humble attire, to his commentary on the selection of his name, Francis—after Francis of Assisi, a saint known for his humble commitment to the most vulnerable of God’s creation, I’ve been experiencing feelings I have so rarely held with regard to a pope: Excitement. Gratitude. Affection. Hope.

Could it be that we find ourselves with a pope who demonstrates, in such a seemingly accessible way, the virtues of Christianity to which many of us have clung for so long?  Isn’t this the type of papal leadership that for which we’ve hope for so, so long?  With only a few days gone by, I am constantly surprised as I respond to questions like these with affirmation: Why maybe, yes, this is what we are witnessing…for now, yes, this might actually be happening…. Even as Pope Francis simply reflects the values that I have long believed to stand at the heart of Christianity—radical commitments to the weak and to a life of humility and mercy—I am still so surprised to see it in a public figurehead of the Church.

Accompanying all these good feelings and surprising affirmations has been a sense of hesitation, however. It is a lingering pause. A reluctance. These past few days have confronted me with the fact that I live as a Catholic so often expecting disappointment from the high-ranking officials of the Church.  This is a protection mechanism. It is how I protect myself from the constant scandal and failure of fellow Christians in these positions of power. Were I to give myself, wholeheartedly and without hesitation, to belief in the Spirit’s transformative power in the ministry of these leaders, to the hope that they might really participate in the actualization of the goodness and mercy that we proclaim, then I might live always with a broken heart. I might live plagued by the failings of Church leaders.

Instead, I live with a very qualified Christian hope in our leadership. “I believe that the Spirit is moving in our world, in our Church, in its leaders,” I say, “but—” Always butBut the temptation of wealth and power. But the corruption of sin. But millennia of shortcomings. “Sure,” I think, “in principle the Holy Spirit is working through the ministry of these leaders, but de facto I no longer expect to see much evidence of it among these higher ups.” If I don’t expect radical mercy and visionary witness from them, then I don’t have to live with so much disappointment, right?

My reflections about this tension—this tension of hope and hesitation—has got me thinking a lot about Thomas, the disciple beloved among doubters like me. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” he told his friend upon the news that Jesus had risen and appeared to them. Despite dedicating his life to following Jesus, Thomas could not, in that moment, believe that Jesus was the kind of Messiah that had actually overcome death. And I don’t blame him. I imagine we can all relate to Thomas in some way: He was grieving the loss of his friend, and hope in Jesus’s return would be a profound risk of heart—a heart that was already hurting with such sadness and disappointment.

In many ways, Thomas’s doubt was quite reasonable. And, to be sure, there are many good reasons to qualify one’s hope in church officials such as the pope. For one, far too many people invest all their hope for the Church in these men, equating the Church with its hierarchy and overlooking the loving, awe-inspiring work of Catholics living out all sorts of vocations throughout the world. Furthermore, these guys are not God, but sinful creatures like the rest of us.  Sin is a reality that does impede our ability to actualize the Christian life to the fullest and freest degree imaginable.  We shouldn’t place an unqualified hope in anyone.

Still, Christian life is about courageous hope and love, not enduring cynicism.  I am saddened that my response to the witness of charity and humility that I see in Pope Francis is so deeply tainted by cynicism.  For, is not the goodness of creation at the heart of the Christian message? Have I not let my fear of disappointment from church leadership prevent me from anticipating the goodness of this man, and so many other Church leaders for that matter?  It seems that my doubt in the enduring work of the Holy Spirit has inhibited my ability to believe what I see right before my eyes—moments when the Christian message really comes to life.

While most of us recognize the disciple Thomas as “Doubting Thomas,” I read recently that there is also a tradition of referring to him as “Believing Thomas.”  It wasn’t until this week that I marveled so much at the belief he proclaimed after placing his hands in Jesus’s wounds. Thomas doubted—yes, for good reason—but when he recognized Jesus before him he surrendered his doubt—and so humbly.  I pray that when we are confronted with the image of Christ before us—be in a pope or stranger or a beloved friend—we too will surrender our doubt, our cynicism, our guards in order to believe in the goodness of the other.  “We have to put our hearts out,” commented Catholic blogger Fran Rossi Szpylczyn in her recent reflection on the Pope and her own hesitation to hope for this new papacy. “We have to take the risk. That is what faith and belief demand from us.”  That is what faith and belief demand from us—that we all may be a bit more like Believing Thomas.

Misrecognizing Resignation: Thoughts on Paul Elie’s NYTimes Op-ed

“Resignation: that’s what American Catholics are feeling about our faith. We are resigned to the fact that so much in the Roman Catholic Church is broken and won’t be fixed anytime soon.  So if the pope can resign, we can, too. We should give up Catholicism en masse, if only for a time.”

A few days ago writer Paul Elie joined the chorus of voices offering commentary on the Catholic Church surrounding the resignation of the now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.  As the above quote indicates, Elie’s op-ed, “Give Up Your Pew for Lent,” plays with the double-meaning of the term “resignation” to make a case for a temporary, protest exodus from the Catholic Church.  While Benedict resigned—that is, gave up his office—Elie notes that many American Catholics experience another form of resignation—that is, an acceptance of the inevitable unpleasant reality of their church.  From this, he exhorts Catholics to vacate parishes in an effort express to church leaders the resignation they feel, and to spend time reconsidering their resignation. Perhaps some time away and the experience of other faith communities can even dispel their resignation.

There is much to say in response to Elie’s piece. My friend Dan over at datinggod.org has already articulated well how Elie’s proposal betrays our theological conceptions of church and Eucharist, and misplaces the power of ecclesial change in the hands of those who leave the Church rather than those who articulate their criticisms with the tradition. To this, I would add my concern for Elie’s general characterization of American Catholics—Are we really all so “resigned”?

In my mind, “resignation” connotes passivity, a disposition of disinterest, acquiescence.  To characterize the temperament of American Catholics—particularly those troubled by Catholicism’s interfaith relations or leaders’ handling of the clergy abuse crisis, to cite some issues listed by Elie—is to depict a gross misrepresentation of American Catholics that overlooks some of the most engaged and faithful practitioners in the Church today.  Surely, many dissatisfied Catholics might be characterized appropriately as “resigned,” but to say that this represents the “what American Catholics are feeling,” is an overstatement that overlooks the complex reality of lived Catholicism today.

Furthermore, many of the Catholics I know who are most committed to the types of ecclesial changes underwriting Elie’s op-ed are—undoubtedly—the most engaged and least “resigned” Catholics I know. They have not resigned to bitterness and complaint about the Catholicism; they are deeply hopeful and actively engaged in actualizing a Church grounded in the Gospel.

They are Catholic like those who wrote for the recent publication, Hungering and Thirsting For Justice, co-edited by Lacey Louwagie and my friend Kate Ward, or the colleagues and friends alongside whom I wrote in the collection, From the Pews in the Back: Young Women and Catholicism.  These and so many other Catholics are anything but “resigned,” and most would adamantly disagree with Elie’s charge that resigning—that is, giving up on one’s place in the pew—is a good way to engage Catholicism.

What’s more, many of the Catholics I know who have resigned—who have left Catholicism—rarely if ever do so in a state of emotional resignation.  They wrestle with the Church and the Catholic tradition, and often experience an incredible amount of conflict about their decision to seek God in another faith community. The kind of easy departure that Elie presents in his op-ed betrays the genuine strife that many Catholics experience as they struggle to understand their place inside—or outside—the Church. The idea of “giving up one’s pew for Lent” seems rather trite in view of the genuine struggles of these faithful friends.

That many American Catholics–on any side of the aisle–are unhappy about the realities of Catholicism is true. That we all feel so resigned is an overgeneralization, I think. It is a misrepresentation of American Catholicism’s complex realities. And, that we ought to resign from our pews, wherever we sit, is no solution for the resignation that some folks do actually feel.

Faith Healing

A couple years ago Roger Haight S.J., one of Catholicism’s leading theologians, visited the Paulist Catholic Center here in Boston to offer a three-day lecture series.  At the beginning of one Q&A session, an audience member stood in a huff and proceeded to deliver a lengthy, rather aggressive monologue directed at Haight.  Those familiar with the controversies surrounding his work might assume that this man took the public lecture as an occasion to echo the harsh words of Haight’s magisterial critics. Quite the opposite, in fact. The audience member argued that the disciplinary measures against Haight were another example of the reactionary shift in church leadership since Vatican II.  The Second Vatican Council, he explained, had offered a vision of hope for Catholics that has only been mired by the Church hierarchy ever since.

This is a message I heard repeatedly during the last three and a half years as a staff member at the Paulist Center. One of the major hubs in Boston for Catholics seeking a community of vibrant worship and lefty social justice commitments, the Paulist Center is hospitable to many folks who wish the Church at large looked a little (or a lot) different than it does today.  Despite my familiarity with this audience member’s perspective, my shared dissatisfaction with the treatment of Roger Haight and his work, and my own related concerns about the current status of Catholicism, I found myself cringing as I sat in the pew just a few feet away from this man.

When the event concluded I headed to dinner with a group of young adults where I facilitated a discussion about Haight’s talk.  As always, I was struck by the earnestness, intelligence, and eloquence of my peers as they reflected on spirituality and our lives as Catholics. These young adults echoed, in content, what that vocal audience member had proclaimed earlier: They, too, where saddened and frustrated to know that our brilliant and kind lecturer had endured so much strife from church leaders.  They, too, worry about what our church does and does not look like today.

What was absent from their reflections that night—and most nights—was the aggressiveness and bitterness that made me cringe when I heard very similar concerns from the older audience member earlier that evening.  I rarely experience the same bitterness among younger “progressive” Catholics that I witness so often among older members of the community.  And I’ve been trying to figure out why for a long time. Have we young adults simply not lived with the church long enough to accrue the degree of anger that we witness in older Catholics?  Is it just a matter of time until we also find ourselves taking the mic for a few safe moments to diffuse some of that frustration we’ve been harboring inside?  Maybe.  Maybe that’s one reason why that man made me so uncomfortable: I recognized much of my own anger in him, and faced with this mirror, I found myself wondering: Has my Catholic faith fated me to a life of bitterness and resentment? Is this what my disappointment and frustration is bound to become? This kind of anger, however sincere and justified, is not what I want for this man, my community, or my life.

I believe these are some of the pressing spiritual questions among many Catholics today.  My years in Catholic young adult ministry have shown me that I am not alone in seeking a hospitable space where I can process my frustrations about the Church with a supportive community.  This blog is one such space, to be sure.  At the same time, there are these moments when there is a temptation to indulge this disappointment and anger in unhealthy ways. We attend to our wounds in ways that cause them to fester rather than heal.  With the best of intentions, we proclaim our anger so loudly and so often that we come to associate only words of resentment with Catholicism.  When we listen to ourselves we only hear how miserable it is to be a Catholic today.

How do we respond to the pain in a way that brings healing and life? Because Christian work ought to be healing work, I am convinced that all Christians—especially ministers—need to deal seriously and carefully with church-related pain, whether it belongs to others or to oneself.  Yet I do not think simply offering a microphone is always the best response; it is rarely a good response if it is the sole response. I suggest this because I experienced a temptation in communities full of genuinely hurt Catholics to join the chorus of anger when it doesn’t quite reflect the complexity of one’s situation of own faith—of one’s own pain.  In the safety of like-minded folks such as that audience member, I have found myself spouting dismissive comments about the Church only to realize minutes later that my own words don’t reflect the reality of my life as a Catholic—as a Catholic who is sad and frustrated, but also enlivened and hopeful. Again, admittedly, there are times when I have rather snide things to say about the Church that need to be named in order to be processed healthily.  But, when faced with such words, I think I too rarely ask myself and others: Is that all you need to say? Can I help you process this more?

As I have expressed elsewhere on the blog, I do not think the necessary result of this healing process will be a long, carefree life within the traditional boundaries of the Catholic Church.  Whatever the concrete results of processing the pain of Catholic life, I believe that healing, life-giving work is the work to which we must faithfully give ourselves.  As much as the concrete results of healing are often unknown and always particular to an individual’s own struggles, I am quite sure that a life bounded by bitterness and resentment is likely not what God wants for us.

Over the years, the frank and hopeful insights of the young adults at the Paulist Center have taught me this.  These peers afforded me opportunities for honest speech in the context of a larger community of healing, for which I was immensely grateful as I concluded my time on staff there last week.  And the healing continues…

The Curse of Catholicism

Yesterday afternoon I broke from my homework to read the latest NYTimes op-ed on Catholicism, “The Curse of Catholicism” by Frank Bruni.  Prompted by Gary Wills’ forthcoming book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, Bruni argues that institutional Catholicism has done a disservice to its priests and practitioners by “tuck[ing] priests into a cosseted caste above the flock, wrapp[ing] them in mysticism and prioritize[ing] their protection and reputations over the needs and sometimes even the anguish of the people in the pews.”  The column, relatively lengthy for an op-ed, goes on to connect explicitly the structural privilege of priests and the power abuses exercised in the global clergy sexual abuse crisis and its cover-up.  I have been reading studies on this connection for years and continue to find it deeply concerning.

I do have some contentions with the article—namely, Bruni’s emphasis at one point on Wills’ claim that Christianity was “opposed to the priesthood” from the start, an argument that strikes me as anti-Jewish and rather untenable in view of the tradition of understanding Jesus as the High Priest, as showcased in the Letter to the Hebrews that the church prayed with just this past week!  Still, despite this and despite the fact that I have been brooding over the connection of church structures and power abuses for nearly a decade now, something about this article affected me anew.  Skimming my computer screen, my heart felt so heavy I thought I might have to hunch over to lean my elbows on the table, just to manage of the weight of it.

Perhaps it is because the details of the article reminded me that I am simply so close, so entangled in the ongoing terrible tragedy that Bruni narrates.  A good deal of the piece rehearses new reports about the extensive cover-up of clergy sexual abuse carried out by Cardinal Roger Mahoney, former Archbishop of Los Angeles.  He signed my paychecks in 2009 when I served as a minister in the Archdiocesan Office of Religious Education.  Every day I worked just a few floors below him.  I ministered at liturgies where he presided. I probably shook his hand once or twice.  Or maybe I was struck by my closeness to all this because I read that article from a seminary library—a library I occupy nearly every day—that was sold to Boston College by the Archdiocese of Boston in its scramble to attain excess cash for clergy sexual abuse lawsuits.  The window I sat beside looks out over Cardinal Law’s former residence, which also sits on the property.  The mere mention of his name still infuriates the people of Boston.

In moments like this when I am reminded that I am frighteningly proximate to this scandal, it is also easy to be overwhelmed by a sense of complicity.  This Church—led officially by many people who have abused power, and defined by structures that enable them—I am a part of it.  I choose to be a part of it.  My religious life, my professional life, and so many of my friendships are entirely entangled in this Church.  If the structures of this community enabled some leaders to commit appalling abuses, and I am a part of this community, am I not somehow indirectly complicit?

This question is terribly uncomfortable, but whenever it confronts me I have the conviction that it is not to be easily dismissed. So yesterday afternoon, after closing my computer screen, I let that question haunt me. I sat with it before bed and I woke up with it. And then I read that famous passage about the Body of Christ from the First Letter to the Corinthians, which appears in today’s liturgical readings. Despite decades of familiarity with it, something about this passage affected me anew when I read it this morning. It was two brief sentences that struck me, actually: “Now the body is not a single part, but many….Now you are Christ’s body, and individually parts of it.” The first sentence reminds us that we cannot reduce the body—the church—to a single part, to oneself.  Or to anyone else for that matter—a pope, a priest, a parent.  The second sentence, however, emphasizes the opposite: we are distinct individual parts within this larger body.  We do not lose our particularities in our belonging to this larger body, as if conflated or erased. This is a tension of being Church: We are many and we are one. We belong to each other but we do not lose ourselves as individuals.  We are responsible for one another, but we are also responsible for our own actions and inactions.

So, again, this question: Am I complicit? In view of the vision of church we find in today’s reading, I think we ought not set aside the question of communal responsibility, of structural sin. At the same time, we must keep in mind the obvious fact that people must take responsibility for their own individual actions and inactions when it comes to this terrible scandal. The Church as a whole cannot be conflated with any of its figureheads; in turn, any priests’ sin is not every Catholic’s sin. We must learn to live in this tension as church, and we must learn to live with it in a way that doesn’t leave us so heavy hearted that we are paralyzed. We cannot let the difficulty of church keep us from being the best of church–

More on that last line in the next blog post.

For these Eyes

When the headlines appear, the questions come in. I’m used to this. And in fact, I’m absolutely flattered by it. It means a lot to me that people take the time to ask for my thoughts about whatever Catholic controversy fills the news on any given day. Sometimes, friends ask me to sort out the esoteric religious jargon for them.  I’m capable of this only sometimes, but I am always honored that folks trust my assessment of the tradition.  Other times, these blessed friends are simply concerned about how I’m dealing with it all. “How are you feeling about this, Jessica. How are you doing?”

In recent weeks when the news spread that the Vatican is making significant strides to revise its handling of clergy sexual abuse cases–all while allegedly linking the severity of these sins to the ordination of women–the questions came in, and I started to ask myself, “How are you feeling about this, Jessica?  How are you doing?

I couldn’t stop thinking about the story my friend Katie told me the other day. During a recent weekend, she volunteered at a middle school camp for inner city youth run by the Catholic parochial school where she taught for a few years after college. On that Sunday morning, she went to Mass with the students and their teachers in the camp’s quaint wooden chapel. The presider was gracious with the kids, and a good homilist, too. “But the tabernacle there–” she told me.  That’s what got her. “The tabernacle looks just like the boy’s Catholic school down the street. Like the shape of their building.”  I began to smile as she went on.  I delighted in the fact that this friend anticipated the wonder I would share with her as she recounted this experience for me.  “This is what Catholicism is about, isn’t it? Recognizing Jesus inside an inner city school like that? Like that?  Believing that Jesus dwells with the underprivileged so much that you make a symbol of it with the most important part of your sanctuary?”

I nodded as we savored this moment that captured the best of our Church.  In that small moment, we didn’t have to convince ourselves that we are so blessed to belong to this Church.  We are blessed to have  church that views inner city schools as tabernacles, and tabernacles as inner city schools.  And blessed to be raised in a church that has given us the eyes to see the world in this way, too. “I wish I had moments like that more often,” Katie said. I think she was referring to the tabernacle at the camp, but I was thinking the same thing about the moment we had just shared–that moment of unwavering pride for our faith.

I’ve been telling a lot of people that, for many reasons, I feel sad and disappointed about the recent Vatican stirrings.  And, really, I’m feeling tired of feeling sad and disappointed. But I am also trying to tell a lot of people about my hope. I’m trying to talk about that, too. I’m trying to tell them about the eyes this tradition has afforded me–Katie and me.  Eyes that recognize miraculous transformations in places and people that much of society overlooks. Eyes that see Jesus in the sometimes harsh and unglamorous realities of our cities.  Eyes set on recognizing God’s redemption of our world in any and every place.  Even in our Church.

Can the Eucharist Unite Us?

Check out my latest post on Patheos.com, entitled “Can the Eucharist Unite Us?