Awaiting the Incarnation

Almost everyone loves babies. And when the baby is the incarnate Lord, making himself completely vulnerable as a helpless infant, we are that much more moved at his coming, his advent, his nativity.

If the author of the Gospel of John knew of these stories, however, he seems to have been relatively unimpressed. And so we look forward to hearing Matthew and Luke’s nativity narrative, repeatedly, and perhaps glance over brief inclusions of passages from John.

And yet it is the Gospel of John that gives us the broadest perspective, and to me the most meaningful context of the incarnation. Matthew looks especially to the import of the incarnation in the context of God’s relationship to his people as revealed in Jewish history, indicated by the beginning of the Gospel, the genealogy of Jesus reaching back to Abraham. While Matthew includes signs of the Roman imperial context, it remains to Luke to place the incarnation squarely in that world, with his elegant and scholarly dedication and his direct signal to “the time of Caesar Augustus.” Both contexts are necessary to explore, and I doubt that the author of the Fourth Gospel would counter either one.

But his interests are broader. The prologue (1:1-18) of the Gospel of John continues a centuries-long discussion in Judaism regarding how it is possible to speak of a God who is both transcendent and immanent, Wholly Other Creator of the universe and yet intimately involved in every creature and to whom every creature gestures. The words used interchangeably for talking about God as present here, God-for-us, varied by the first century BCE; they included Wisdom, Son, Spirit, and yes, Word (logos).

Drawing deeply in his prologue from biblical passages such as Genesis 1, Sirach 24:1-25, Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-30, and Proverbs 8:22-36, this author makes it clear that Jesus Christ is no less than the incarnation of what the Jewish tradition has called God’s Wisdom, God when God is completely for us, especially as Creator of the universe. God’s Wisdom has been revealed before in Torah, in the Temple, in creation, but never so permanently and perfectly as now, in a particular human being. John’s is a Cosmic Advent.

With apologies to my spiritual father Francis of Assisi and his initiation of the living manger scene, John’s is a magnificent image to which I am personally far more attached than to the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. But John’s vision does present a problem: how does one live a cosmic advent every day? How is it manageable or even helpful? How do we put flesh on that imposing vision that this author has given us?

Some practical activities can help draw our attention to the wonder of the Cosmic Advent. We could look at the stars, really take time to look at the stars, and here I must recognize the contribution of my rescue pup Sasha, for whose needs I stand outside at 11pm every night! We could note the phase of the moon each night and marvel prayerfully in the wondrous structure and processes of the universe that result in what we can see at that moment, and we can marvel prayerfully that the savior whose advent we now celebrate is so much more than that.  

But we don’t have to be unceasingly celestial in our gaze to remind ourselves of the glorious interconnectedness and redemption of the universe that Christ reveals (Col 1:15-20). We can at so many moments of the day and night bring our awareness to the “thisness,” as John Duns Scotus and other medieval scholastics would call it (haecceity), of each created being God brings across our paths every day. We can “go small” and practice hospitality to our companions on this planet as best we can. When we do that, we celebrate an unending Advent, as Mary Oliver expresses in her poem “Making the House Ready for the Lord,” which I first encountered in America magazine (Sept. 25, 2006).

Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
Still nothing is as shining as it should be
For you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice – it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances– but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
While the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
As I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.

Pamela Hedrick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Prayer: Experiences of Inner Room and Upper Room

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on October 26, 2014.

“The fire of the Holy Spirit was sent down upon the Apostles at Pentecost in answer to their fervent prayer; ardent prayer in the Spirit must always be the soul of new evangelization and the heart of our lives as Christians.”

– Pope Francis (General Audience, May 22, 2013)

elgreco descent of the hsPrayer. Sometimes we make it so difficult. I am not sure why. Maybe we think it needs to be very formal or formulaic? I know that I thought that for a very long time. There is certainly a place for formal prayer, be it communal, such as during the Mass or the Liturgy of the Hours or even private, such when use a formal written prayer. In fact, we Catholics have a love affair with our prayer cards, books, and other sacramentals, including candles, statutes, and icons. This is an excellent thing because “they prepare us to receive grace and dispose us to cooperate with it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1670). They are, though, simply means, not ends in themselves. Means to a conversation with God or maybe more precisely, a dialogue. We might not consider it a dialogue. Fervent prayer, ardent prayer, in the way that Pope Francis is calling for is an on-going dialogue with God throughout our day, an awareness of the action and activity of the Holy Spirit permeating our lives. It is a seeking for God and finding God in all things, in every moment and in every place. St. Teresa of Avilaencourages us to be seekers of God and St. Ignatius of Loyola calls us to “find God in all things.” St. Vincent Pallotti puts the two aspects together, as was often his way, and challenges us to:

Seek God and you will find God.
Seek God in all things and you will find God in all things.
Seek God always and you will always find God.”

We certainly need to take time to be in communal prayer like those in the Cenacle or Upper Room at Pentecost. We also need to be in private prayer, setting aside time to go to our “inner room, close the door, and pray to [our] Father in secret” (Matthew 6:6). The Holy Spirit, though, is active and alive everywhere, if we but open our eyes to see and our ears to hear.

Fr. Frank Donio, S.A.C., is Director of the Catholic Apostolate Center and teaches for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Pray to God – then dance with your feet

Think about how many times you’ve worried and fretted over a particular problem or situation in your life. Think about the hours spent in prayer asking God for your desired resolution. Think about those times when your prayers were answered and things seemed to fall right into place. Now, think of the times when your prayers went unanswered, where you felt as if God was quiet, distant, and unmoved by your supplication. Dreams fulfilled and hopes dashed: this is the drama of our human experience, and the test of the Christian life. But the Christian life is not only about how we respond to the obstacles and real suffering in life, but how we handle God’s response to us.

For the better part of their marriage Anna and Joachim suffered through the terrible mystery of unanswered prayers. Longing to be parents and desperate to fulfill their duty to God’s Covenant, the couple prayed fervently and faithfully. Month after month, then year after year, God was silent. With the passage of time Anna must have felt her chances of conceiving grow slimmer. Still she and Joachim prayest_joakhim_st_annad, and cried, and undoubtedly wondered just what God was up to, and what He might be asking of them. The apocryphal Protoevangelium of James tells of the unexpected moment in which God broke His silence through the message of an angel: “Anna, Anna, the Lord has heard your prayer….” Anna conceives a daughter, whom she is told will be “spoken of in all the world.” In their shared joy, the couple promise God that the child will be dedicated to Him. They are overwhelmed with gratitude and the realization that this child is not a possession to which they can greedily cling, but a gift to be offered in return to the generous Giver. The child is born and called Mary, and she is loved and cherished. When she is three years old, Anna and Joachim make good on their promise and take little Mary to the Temple. Having waited so long for her, this decision cannot have been an easy one for the couple. Nor was it one mandated by God; He did not make their return of the child to Him a condition of His blessing. So great was their love for Him, and so well did they trust Him, that Anna and Joachim repaid His faithfulness with their own.

Once the child had been weaned, at the age of three, Anna and Joachim brought her to the Temple to be raised by the priests, schooled in faith, and to grow into a daughter of God. The Proto-gospel observes that when Mary is given away by her parents the Priest “set her down upon the third step of the altar, and the Lord God sent grace upon her; and she danced with her feet, and all the house of Israel loved her.” This is a peculiar statement, and one we may be tempted to dismiss as a shade of the esoteric in a “gospel” not even included in the biblical canon (though the Protoevangelium does enjoy a special place in the Tradition.) But it’s a mistake to simply discount this strange idiom because it offers us some insight into that mystery of prayer, and God’s attention to our distress, with which we began. The little child Mary, unaware of prayers and prophecies Present Maryand angel visitation (only of her parents’ love and their devotion to God), entrusts herself to the Priest and is content where he places her. The third step may or may not have theological meaning, but perhaps it can serve as a symbol for us of God’s providence. In our expectation, our moments of fear and anguish, and in our fervent supplication, God hears – He knows – and He sets us down right where we’re meant to be. Maybe it’s not always where we want to be, but it’s the place where He can love us and remind us that we are His children. Whatever the “third step” is for each of us, it can become a place of gratitude, a moment to surrender our pride and our fear, and to just “dance with our feet.” This little Mary, innocent of what this moment on the third step would mean for her life going forward, simply delighted in being where God placed her, and she danced. Perhaps the lesson from Mary’s response – the one her parents learned in praying to receive her and then letting her go – is that whatever our journey, wherever we land, God is always with us. He is quietly by our side – though too often we don’t recognize His presence, probably because we’re too busy making our own noise to hear His voice.  But God does hear us. He knows our fears and our desires and our longing. God knows what is good for us, and how to make even the most difficult circumstances into opportunities for grace. More than anything God wants to see us dance with our feet. Are we willing to stand on the step where we’ve been set down and be His partner?

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Human Family

We are social beings.  Granted, we require varying amounts of solitude and privacy, but we are “wired” to experience (and need) our bonds with others.  Our kinship with family and our relations with friends extend our arms to embrace the world beyond our immediate environment.  Our instinct to be and create community is so much a part of what it means to be part of the human family.  With the rest of the world, I was horrified by the terrorist’s attacks in Paris. I was, however, edified by the love and humanity that was expressed by people of good will around the world.  “Je suis Paris” seemed to appear everywhere.  What a beautiful expression of global community!

comm_of_saints1We are a human family, a community.  For me, as a Catholic Christian, it is a natural association to consider how my Faith lifts me and guides me.  I love the Liturgical Year and its rhythmic interfacing with the natural seasons.  The month of November, which is dedicated to the Holy Souls, invites us to remember our place in the entire human community…the Communion of Saints.  In my youth, I was introduced to the Church as all the living and the dead: The Church Triumphant, those with God in Heaven; The Church Suffering, those being purified and readied for entry into Heaven; The Church Militant, those on earth still struggling to embrace their holiness in life.

Maybe it’s the connection of the rhythm of the seasons to the embedded metaphors of Robert Frost.  Maybe it is woven into my training as an academic and a catechist.  Whatever the context, I know that it is the beauty of late fall that draws my heart to themes of redemptive suffering and the ebb and flow of dying and rising.   As I walk along the dirt road near my house or through the woods adjacent to the road, I am celebrating and remembering all holy men and women and the lives and souls of the just. These special days of remembrance, All Saints and All Souls and the entire month of November, are an invitation from the Church’s liturgical calendar to enter into that spirit and celebrate Community.

In my role as instructor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s, I am frequently honored and humbled by the personal sharing of my students.  So many of them have suffered almost unbearable wounds.  Some carry lingering questions about the purpose and meaning of their suffering.  While meditating on the Crucifixion, or the entire Stations of the Cross, one can be touched by the ineffable truth and value of suffering.  God’s good grace with our tenacious will can wrestle meaning and purpose from anything.  I’ve recommended Victor Frankel’s “Man Search For Meaning” and Rabbi Harold S. Kushner’s “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  I have often sought comfort in a prayerful, meditative reading of the Twenty Third Psalm.  The month of November offers a beautiful opportunity to enter into the heart of the Church and rejoice in the graces that the trials of life offer us.

As members of the Communion of Saints, let us offer our prayers for those who have died…

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.

May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed

through the mercy of God rest in peace.


Susan O’Hara teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College.

Home, Home Within Range

During his recent visit to St. Patrick Catholic Parish in Washington, D.C. Pope Francis spoke to a group of homeless men and women. “We can find no social or moral justification, no justification whatsoever, for lack of housing.” If the Pope is right that there is no justification for homelessness—or to put the same thing differently, if the homeless have a right to a home—then there must be an obligation to provide them with homes.

The promotion of social justice requires creativity as well as healing. Our efforts to heal are often ad hoc and temporary—what we often call “charity”—not because of ill will but because we don’t know what else to do. But that’s where creativity must enter. I have noticed that Pope Francis has referred several times to the need for creativity in solving problems: at least 17 times in the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium and 22 times in Laudato Si, the encyclical on the environment and poverty. Here’s one example: “Human creativity cannot be suppressed. If an artist cannot be stopped from using his or her creativity, neither should those who possess particular gifts for the advancement of science and technology be prevented from using their God-given talents for the service of others” (Laudato Si # 131). Everyone is able in some degree to participate in social and economic life, but without a home, the capacity for that participation is severely reduced.

Thanks to a creative social scientist from New York University, there is a method for reducing homelessness that has already proven itself a practical success. As with many solutions, it is startlingly simple: give the homeless homes first—and then offer them free health care, counseling and an income.

The social scientist at NYU is the psychologist Sam Tsemberis. He introduced a new model for helping homeless people. The old model was essentially to prepare homeless people for housing. That meant getting them healthcare and needed treatment as well as leading them through the maze of red tape required to receive services in order to be home-ready. But many of the homeless have problems that make that preparatory phase for getting a home very difficult and so many do not get thorough the process. Tsemberis’ simple but creative idea was to reverse the sequence of events: give them a home first, then work on providing for their other needs. “Why not just give them a place to live and offer them free counseling and therapy, health care, and let them decide if they want to participate? Why not treat chronically homeless people as human beings and members of our community who have a basic right to housing and health care?” Tsemberis recognized that “[g]oing from homelessness into a home changes a person’s psychological identity from outcast to member of the community….You actually need housing to achieve sobriety and stability, not the other way around.”

It worked. Tsemberis tested his hypothesis with 242 individuals and after five years, 88% were still in their homes. In fact, it worked so well that several cities adopted this “Housing First” approach and found significant success. With the help of the Mormons, the state of Utah adopted the model and in the process provided relief for strained social service resources. All of the communities across the nation that have adopted this model have saved money on publically financed social services by providing homeless people homes.

Creative projects such as “Housing First” are not one-way streets, the advantaged helping the disadvantaged. To be itself, to continually constitute itself anew in history, the Church must seek out and embrace intelligent solutions wherever they are to be found, while encouraging the larger society of which it is a part to do the same. Pope Francis again: “Any Church community, if it thinks it can comfortably go its own way without creative concern and effective cooperation in helping the poor to live with dignity and reaching out to everyone, will also risk breaking down, however much it may talk about social issues or criticize governments. It will easily drift into a spiritual worldliness camouflaged by religious practices, unproductive meetings and empty talk” (Evangelii Gaudium 207). All communities risk breakdown if they do not bring their best research and thinking to bear on the needs of their fellow citizens.

Moral decision-making and action require more than good will; we all know how the surface on the road to hell is paved. Promotion of the common good requires intelligent and creative solutions. Wherever intelligent solutions are to be found, well-intentioned Christians should seek them out and cooperate with those who are already implementing them.

David Hammond teaches theology and church history for Saint Joseph’s College.

Faith and Reason

Worth Revisiting Wednesday! This post originally appeared on May 4, 2014.

The belief that faith and reason are complementary ways of coming to know the truth, rather than antagonistic rivals or competitors for one’s allegiance, has its foundation in the NT itself and, ultimately, in a person rather than a text.

Photo by Leland Francisco

Photo by Leland Francisco

When the earliest of Christian writers were searching for ways in which to articulate the meaning of what we might call the “Jesus Event,” i.e., the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, one of the first associations they made was between Jesus and the ‘wisdom’ [σοφία] or ‘reason’ [λόγος] of God. Drawing from the book of Wisdom, St. Paul refers to Christ as “the wisdom [σοφίαν] of God” (1 Cor 1:24). “All things were created through him and for him,” the Apostle states elsewhere, “He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col 1:16-17).

These latter remarks about Jesus, the identification of him with God’s divine wisdom, NT scholars agree pre-date St. Paul himself. They were, most likely, part of a hymn to Christ which the early Christian community used in their liturgical services. Thus, from the very beginning of Christianity, before the composition of the NT, Christians understood Jesus as the incarnation, the en-fleshment, of God’s divine wisdom; the wisdom by which God created, governs and sustains the natural world. The living embodiment of the ‘plan’ (ratio) according to which the cosmos was designed and functions.

A bit later in Christian history, around the year 90, this belief was given its classic expression in the prologue to St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word [λόγος], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be” (Jn 1:1-3).

The Greek term for ‘Word’ [λόγος] in this translation can have many meanings: word, speech, language, an account or narrative, or an explanation. It can also mean, most importantly, ‘reason’ or ‘thought.’ So if we exchange translations, we can read the same passage as: “In the beginning was Reason and Reason was with God, and Reason was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came to be through him, and without him nothing came to be.” With his obvious linguistic allusion to Genesis 1:1 [i.e., “In the beginning…”], the author of the prologue is affirming the divine nature of God’s reason and wisdom. A few verses later, of course, the author takes the further step of associating this Reason with the person of Jesus: “And the Word [Reason] became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (Jn 1:14).

For the Catholic, then, as true now as was for these early Christian authors, it is in God, and especially through the person of His Son Jesus Christ, that Wisdom, Reason and Truth have their being. As Jesus said: “I am the way the truth and the life” (Jn 14:6) and “for this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice” (Jn 18:37).

Understanding that the world was created according to divine reason, and that the seeds of reason are to be found in the entire created order, the Catholic tradition has long affirmed the human capacity, and supported the human effort, to discover truth in the natural world by the light of human reason. It is true that the early Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked the question: “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” (De praescr. haeret. 7). But on that matter, and quite a few others, Tertullian was departing from the established Christian thought of his time. The Catholic tradition, on the other hand, acknowledges that since truth cannot be opposed to itself, the truths of the faith cannot contradict those of science or reason (cf. Aquinas SCG 1.7). Faith and reason are not competitors, but the two complementary ways in which humankind might come to know the truth.

This point has been articulated throughout the Catholic intellectual tradition and, more recently, the Second Vatican Council stated that “methodical research, in all realms of knowledge, if it respects […] moral norms, will never be genuinely opposed to faith: the reality of the world and of faith have their origin in the same God” (GS § 36). Likewise, Pope St. John Paul II stated that faith and reason are two complimentary ways of coming to the truth because “the unity of truth is a fundamental premise of human reasoning, as the principle of non-contradiction makes clear” (FR § 34).

The mutual necessity of both faith and reason is nowhere more evident than in the discipline of theology. In examining the application of reason to matters of faith, St. Augustine once wrote: intellege ut credas, crede ut intellegas (‘to understand so that you might believe, to believe so that you might understand’) (s. 43.9). More than half a millennium later, the Benedictine archbishop of Canterbury, St. Anselm, meditating on St. Augustine’s thought, would famously define theology as fides quaerens intellectum  (‘faith seeking understanding’) (Cf. Pros. 1-2).

In attempting to sum up this intellectual inheritance, this particularly Catholic way of viewing, inter alia, the relationship between faith and reason, many writers have taken to calling this hermeneutic

the Catholic “both/and.” As opposed to looking at the world and seeing a multitude of choices which demand an “either/or” decision, the Catholic “both/and,” being sensitive to false dichotomies, sees the value – and in many instances the necessity – of each choice: nature and grace, action and contemplation, freewill and providence, invisible grace and material signs, and, of course, faith and reason. From the Catholic perspective, therefore, the relationship between faith and reason has never been an antagonistic one. Rather, the Catholic sees the proper use of one’s intellect as an activity which draws us nearer to God by seeking His Wisdom.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Birmingham, Alabama – Summer, 1965

I have rarely spoken about it, even to my wife or my sons, but I had a minor intersection with a turning point in American history in Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1965.

Birmingham was then known as “Bombingham” and was the epicenter of civil rights demonstrations that began in 1963. Some of us can recall the vivid television images of Sheriff Bull Connor’s police dogs facing down thousands of protestors of high school age, Bloody_Sunday-officers_await_demonstratorsthree thousand of whom were arrested in 1963; the arrest of Martin Luther King and his writing the Letter from Birmingham Jail; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963. Partly as a result, the first important civil rights act of the twentieth century under President Lyndon Johnson was passed on July 2, 1964. It was much debated in my senior year in high school. These events led to the march from Selma to Montgomery from March 7 to March 25, 1965, especially the “Bloody Sunday” at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which was commemorated this year.

Eight weeks after the march, I spent twelve weeks working in Birmingham: June, July, and August of 1965. That was fifty years ago. I was nineteen. I came from Brooklyn, New York. I had attended a Catholic high school seminary for the Passionist religious community in upstate New York, in Dunkirk, right on the shores of Lake Eire. I graduated in May, 1964. For college seminary, I went to Holy Family Seminary in West Hartford, Connecticut. As a freshman on the debate team in October, 1964, I argued for the election of Lyndon Johnson as President—Viet Nam was barely on the horizon.

In March, 1965, at the time of the Selma to Montgomery march, I was tutoring a classmate, Larry Ryder, in Latin. He was a proto-hippy, before there were hippies. He had no family and had toured the country on a motorcycle. He felt free to do what he wanted when he wanted. He lasted only one year in the seminary. He mentioned to me that he was going to Birmingham when school let out at the end of May—he had answered an ad in the National Catholic Reporter for seminarians to help out for twelve weeks for the North Alabama Missions—-street preaching and voter registration. I thought it sounded like fun and would be interesting to do before getting much further along in the seminary. I too answered the ad and was welcomed to come.

In 1961, my family had moved from New York to Houston, Texas. I had not made the move to Texas because I was going to a boarding high school. I got back and forth from New York and Connecticut to visit Houston by Greyhound bus—planes and trains were too expensive. It took forty-nine hours from NYC to Philadelphia to D.C. to Richmond to Atlanta to Birmingham to Jackson to New Orleans to Houston. I had been in Birmingham six times, but only at the bus station in a seedy section of town.

Let me say something about Alabama. It has four regions. (1) The coastal plain around Mobile on the Gulf of Mexico. Its main industries were ship-building and farming, somewhat of an extension of Florida. There were very few Catholics, but most of those in the state were in this region, and a lot of blacks. The fictional town described in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird was there. (2) The black belt was around the state capital of Montgomery, so-called because of the black soil, but also because of the large number of blacks that lived there. This had been cotton plantation country. (3) The north Alabama hill country, with very few blacks, was really an extension of Appalachia and of eastern Tennessee. Culturally, it was similar to West Virginia, not as obsessed with race like the rest of Alabama. It had almost no Catholics except for a few in Huntsville, home of rocketry research. One county in the hill country where I worked had even seceded from Alabama at the beginning of the Civil War! (4) Birmingham was Alabama’s largest city at the edge of the hill country, a steel and iron town. It had large ghetto neighborhoods. Churches were everywhere. Birmingham claimed to be the most Protestant city in the United States. Catholics were less than 1%, with separate churches for whites and blacks.

The mission of the North Alabama Missions was three-fold: (1) to serve in little chapels, small groups of white Catholics scattered forty to fifty miles apart in the north hill country; (2) to serve the black Catholics of Birmingham; and (3) to make converts to Catholicism, especially among blacks. There was also, for 1965, a summer project to increase the number of registered black voters in Birmingham. Fr. Foster, a priest from Brooklyn, was in charge, along with three priests from Ireland and one deacon who was working on the early history of the Church in Alabama. For the summer project, there were eight seminarians—me and Larry Ryder from Holy Family Seminary, three major seminarians from the LaSalette Seminary in Fall River, Massachusetts, and three college seminarians from Queens, New York. We divided the day in three—in the mornings we moved from house to house helping blacks to register to vote—in the afternoons we were renovating an old country store about twenty-five miles north of Birmingham into a small chapel; serendipitously it was called the Mount Zion Delicatessen; so we called the chapel, Our Lady of Mount Zion Chapel—in the evenings we did street preaching in the black neighborhoods of Birmingham.

For our morning walkabouts, we wore black pants, white shirt, and black tie, going separately from house to house in the black neighborhoods. We were taken to be Mormon missionaries, or Jehovah Witnesses, or even insurance salesmen. The police took no notice of us and left us alone. There was always someone in each house, mothers and lots of kids, but no men. The television always seemed to be tuned into The Lucy Show or The Price Is Right. Each morning, we would find some who wanted to register, often eighteen-year-olds. Many were very reluctant to register to vote. The voting act of 1964 allowed mail-in registration to prevent the intimidation of blacks by white election officials. Those reluctant did not want their names on our list. It was always very hot and there was no air conditioning. At night, we lived in a renovated chicken coop. Once a week, on a rotating basis, two of us would stay home to clean and make lunches, usually BLTs. In the afternoons, we spent most of the summer ripping apart the old country store. I was good at that.

There were very few Catholics in the area, but some had begun to move in from up north. These tended to be wealthy upscale professionals, doctors and lawyers, with white nannies from Europe. They were also Republicans when Republicans were very rare. I met a Catholic Republican woman who had been elected justice of the peace in the Barry Goldwater sweep in November, 1964. Few knew then that they were the wave of the future for Alabama. Democrats were native white Alabamians, very segregationist, very racist, and very anti-Catholic as well. Blacks who were not yet voting in significant numbers had no role in either party. The small number of native-born Catholics kept a low profile. However, religious sisters were visible in their habits teaching in grammar and high schools [not yet desegregated] and serving at the Catholic hospital. The Catholic hospital was perhaps the most integrated place in all of Alabama with the exception of the army bases. White and black doctors and nurses worked there side by side.

One day, we had lunch with the legendary Bishop Toolan who had come to Alabama in 1927, a time when it was not a pleasant thing to be Catholic in Alabama. In the 1960’s he had gotten a lot of negative publicity from Catholics around the country because he had disapproved of the use of black children in demonstrations in 1963 and 1964, and again in 1965 because he did not want Alabama Catholic priests and sisters to participate in the Selma to Montgomery march. He commented that the out of state Catholic priests and sisters who had marched were all from up north and all had gone home when the march was over. His people had to stay and live there in difficult circumstances. He also had just invited Mother Angelica’s community to his diocese. I remember a joke he told. “Do you know why Governor Wallace has banned the sale of Maytag washing machines in Alabama? Because inside of each washing machine is a black agitator!” Bishop Toolan had also supported, but did not sign, “A Call for Unity,” a statement from eight Birmingham white clergymen asking for black patience and for the cessation of civil disobedience. Martin Luther King, of course, answered this with his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail.

At the end of August, Larry Ryder and I took the bus from Birmingham to New Orleans. We spent a day there because Larry wanted to speak with strippers and find out what made them do what they did. Bourbon Street in 1965 was a very raunchy place, even in the mornings. There were plenty of strippers. Innocent as I was, I was very shocked. At the end of the day we got a bus to Houston. At home, I slept for almost fifteen hours. When Larry told my father what we had been doing, my father was disturbed because I had told him that we would do nothing in Birmingham that had anything to do with politics, or that was dangerous. Larry then shocked my mother a day later when he left. He went out to Interstate 10 and started to hitch to San Francisco. My mother offered him bus fare, which he declined. She did load him up with sandwiches, though. A year later, I heard that he was in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco, which was the center of the newly emerging flower power movement. I saw him once more in 1967, and have never heard from him again.

Takeaways: what did I accomplish and what did I learn.

  1. I signed up about forty to fifty new voters.
  2. I never personally saw anything that was threatening or dangerous.
  3. I practiced street preaching about six times. I was not very good and was very dull. The black kids wanted to touch my hair, so I asked to touch theirs.
  4. I helped make one convert to the Catholic Church. We used a book from the Knights of Columbus called Father Smith Instructs Jackson.
  5. I met Bishop Toolan, a historically important Churchman in the South from 1927 to 1969. His secretary was Fr. Oscar Lipscomb who later became the archbishop of Mobile. Fr. Foster retired back to Brooklyn in 1989. I don’t know what happened to any of the seminarians.
  6. From 1982 to 1998, my wife MaryAnn and I lived in New Orleans, and had a very different experience of the American South.
  7. In 1998, we moved to Maine, the state in the United States with the highest percentage of whites. The College has a higher percentage of African Americans than Maine does. Many of the blacks here at the College come from New York and Brooklyn, my hometown.
  8. Finally, I would recommend that we all should know how our own history fits into the bigger histories of our time.

Daniel Sheridan is Professor of Theology at Saint Joseph’s College and former Director of the Online Theology Program.



“What in the World is a Catechist?”

Today is the memorial for St. Charles Borromeo, a patron saint of catechists. St. Charles charles borromeowas a bishop during a period of confusion in the history of the Church. He was the archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584 while the Protestant Reformation was still young. But St. Charles sought to teach the truth. He was instrumental in the creation of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, what would later be called the C.C.D. In order to teach the Faith effectively St. Charles believed that it was incumbent on Catholic Christians to live the Faith that they were preaching. During a famine in Milan he is said to have fed about 3000 people daily for three months (Lives of the Saints 364). On the memorial of this great saint let’s reflect on what Pope Francis can teach us about being a catechist.

In a Mass to celebrate catechists, Pope Francis described the vocation of a catechist as someone who keeps the memory of God alive. The catechist invites others to reflect on God’s presence in their lives. The pope stated,

“A catechist is a Christian who puts this remembrance at the service of proclamation, not to be important, not to talk about himself or herself, but to talk about God, about his love and his fidelity – to speak and to transmit all that God has revealed, i.e. the teaching of Christ and His Church in its totality, neither adding nor subtracting anything” (Pope Francis, Mass to Celebrate Catechists 2).

The catechist speaks about God. You might be thinking: “No, really? Thanks for the tip!” But how often do we invite others to encounter the living God? “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you,” is the simple kerygmatic message that Pope Francis proposes (Evangelii Gaudium 164).

This brings us to the second point of what Pope Francis said. A catechist does not add or subtract anything from the teachings of Christ and His Church. A catechist will often have to teach on sensitive issues; the issues cannot be ignored. The pope has spoken out publically on many hot button issues. While speaking in the Philippines the pope warned about “ideological colonization.” He went on to warn: “The family is also threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life” (Pope Francis, Speech for Meeting with Families, January 16, 2015).

The pope was calling to mind that marriage is between a man and a woman, a point he raised again in his homily at the opening Mass to this year’s Synod of Bishops. The pope also has described the importance for husband and wife to be open to life. “Openness to life is the condition of the Sacrament of Matrimony. A man cannot give the sacrament to the woman, and the woman give it to him, if they are not in agreement on this point, to be open to life,” he said in an in-flight press conference. But Pope Francis also quipped that Catholics do not have to “be” (insert: breed) like rabbits to be “good” Catholics. Rather they should exercise “responsible parenthood” (cf. Humanae Vitae 16; CCC 2368).

After his visit to the US, on his flight back to Italy the pope reaffirmed “…a sacramental marriage is indissoluble. This is not something the Church can change. It is doctrine; as a sacrament, marriage is indissoluble.” Finally, in the pope’s 2015 encyclical, he stated: “Since everything is interrelated, concern for the protection of nature is also incompatible with the justification of abortion” (Laudato Si 120). We are not being consistent if we express a desire to care for the environment but do not respect human life from conception until natural death.

Pope Francis has taught these Church teachings as we would expect any pope to. He has also surprised many people by his desire to speak and live the truth in love (cf. Ephesians 4:15), something St. Charles did well. From these two men we learn to have compassion for the people we catechize.  This means that we will “suffer with” them (Latin compassio) and accompany them on their journey:

“I remember when Saint John Paul II said: ‘Error and evil must always be condemned and opposed; but the man who falls or who errs must be understood and loved… we must love our time and help the man of our time’ (John Paul II, Address to the Members of Italian Catholic Action, 30 December 1978). The Church must search out these persons, welcome and accompany them, for a Church with closed doors betrays herself and her mission, and, instead of being a bridge, becomes a roadblock: ‘For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren’ (Heb 2:11)” (Pope Francis, Homily at Mass to Open Synod).

The catechists and the rest of the Church’s faithful (CCC 3) must serve as that bridge to an encounter with Jesus Christ. It’s essential to “meet people where they’re at.” But we don’t leave them there. We accompany them on the journey as we respond to the universal call to holiness together.

St. Charles Borromeo, pray for us.

Edward Trendowski teaches marriage and family ministry courses at Saint Joseph’s College Online.

All Saints

As we mark the Feast of All Saints’ Day we may tend to think about the “big name” saints like St. Joseph, St. Teresa [of whom we just noted the 500th anniversary of her birth!], St. Ignatius, St. Catherine McAuley, and so many others with the history and recognition as Saints. I love that this feast is an invitation to honor ALL saints – those known and those unknown! We can read the lives of known saints, whether they have the title or not, and recall our own experiences with the unknown saints in our midst, those who call us to holiness by their mere presence or a single encounter.

I think that it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that sanctity is the same as divinity. Nothing could be further from the truth! I have been created as a human being; my call is to live as fully human as I can be – to be reconciled with my humanity in all of its limitations and frailties, joys and experiences. I am not called to be divine, perfect, or striving for either of those states of being (see Phil 2:6). So when I read the lives of the known Saints and encounter unknown saints, I am encountering real people, fully human, with the same graces and challenges that I have. These people are not superhuman, but rather, they have embraced their humanity and the grace that comes with living so truthfully.

All SaintsThe known Saints were not perfect (although some of the stories may lead us to think that they were, or at least pretty close!) and lately we’ve seen some controversy over certain people being presented for sainthood or actually being canonized because they were not perfect and might even be labeled as sinners! And yet, that is precisely why they can be raised up as models for all of us – they are us! There is nothing that prevents me from being a Saint! I am the only one preventing me from welcoming God’s action in my simple, human, life. “I am not holy (read: perfect, sin-less) enough for God to use; when I get my act together, then I’ll see what we can do.” God has made me; God knows all my beauty and my wounds – all of which can bring me and others closer to God.

Who are the unknown saints that I have met – those that witness God’s love to me, those that invite me to strive to be a better person and human, and those that bring out the best in me and challenge me to be that for others? Who are the Saints that model the action of God in fragile humanity for me? We are all called to be Saints – numbered among the known and unknown Saints of today’s feast – not tomorrow, not when I’m holy enough, not when I get my act together – today! Every day is a chance to allow the Spirit of God to work in my life, in my messy human life.

So let’s do this! Let’s be Saints and reveal God’s love in our world, in, for, and by being fully who we are called to be: human! Happy Feast Day to YOU!

Sr. Kelly Connors, pm, teaches Canon Law for Saint Joseph’s College.