My Sins are Running Out Behind Me

In The Wisdom of the Desert, a text edited by Thomas Merton, the following saying from the 4th century Desert Fathers appears:

A brother in Scete happened to commit a fault, and the elders assembled, and sent for Abbot Moses to join them. He, however, did not want to come. The priest sent the Abbot a message, saying, ‘Come, the community is waiting for you.’ So he arose and started off. And taking with him a very old basket full of holes, he filled it with sand and carried it behind him. The elders came out to meet the Abbot and said: ‘What is this, Father?’ The Abbot replied: ‘My sins are running out behind me, and I do not see them, and today I come to judge the sins of another! They, hearing, this, said nothing to the brother but pardoned him. (p. 40)

This story illustrates the theme of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sins.

In his Letter to the Philippians, Paul, a convert to the way of Jesus, describes himself as a
runner who strains forward to embrace what lies ahead. In his former life, Paul (called
Saul and a prominent Jewish rabbi) adamantly persecuted Christians. Having experienced
new life/new creation through Jesus’ forgiveness, Paul now counts all as loss, if only he can
share in Christ’s suffering and know the power of his resurrection. During his extensive Christian missionary endeavors, Paul suffered floggings, imprisonments, and, finally, was beheaded. In this way, he who had become possessed by Christ responded to God’s merciful forgiveness and love by laying down his life for the sake of the gospel.

In the Gospel of John in the New Testament, the author includes a narrative that concerns
an adulteress woman. In this story, the assembled Jewish leaders are about to fulfill the Mosaic Law that requires that this sinful woman be stoned to death. As the drama unfolds, Jesus declares that whoever is without sin should cast the first stone. One by one, without uttering a word, the scribes and Pharisees depart, for who among the living is without sin? Left alone with the woman, Jesus proceeds to offer her new life/new creation through forgiveness of her sin. The woman, who moments ago believed her life was quickly drawing to an end, is now being given the opportunity for metanoia. Jesus’ words to her, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” require that she let go of lust of the flesh and embrace life according to the law of authentic love.

In 2006, the world witnessed another example of new life/new creation through forgiveness of sin. The pain and anguish of the Amish community in Lancaster County, Pa., was extreme when five young girls in the community were murdered; in the face of this tragedy, the Amish chose to not balance hurt with hate. Hours after this horrific event took place in the one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, the Amish reached out in compassion to comfort the family of the gunman. Later, dozens of Amish attended the gunman’s funeral in support of his grieving widow and three children.

The Amish went about the somber task of burying their dead in the simple way that characterizes their lives. Each slain girl was attired in a white handmade dress and buried in a pine coffin. When asked what message they wanted to convey to the world, an Amish community spokesperson replied: “We have the richest treasure in the world and that is fraternal love.” Throughout the ordeal, the Amish bore profound witness to the incalculable
value of forgiveness and love.

The story just recounted calls each of us to follow the example of the Amish by offering others new life/new creation through forgiveness. Additionally, in the Desert Fathers’ vignette quoted at the beginning of this reflection, the Abbot’s pronouncement: “My sins are running out behind me” is a poignant reminder that we are all frail humans in need of forgiveness. As we go about our daily lives, let us remember this truth as we strive to be ambassadors of forgiveness to others in a world in need of God’s merciful compassion.

Dr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, is Professor of Theology and Chair of the on-campus Theology Dept. at Saint Joseph’s College of Maine.

Do You Now Believe? by Pamela Hedrick – Book Review

Pamela E. Hedrick takes me back into the classroom, with her debut book, Do You Now Believe? In this short, yet jam-packed gem, Hedrick schools us on the balance required between faith and reason.

Faith enables reason. But an uncritical faith – a credulity or an unthinking belief that clings to certitude at the expense of understanding – can undermine faith itself and at least slow down the response to the grace of ongoing conversion (p. 77).

What I garnered from reading this book is that many of us have preconceived notions about God and faith, that inhibit us from fully understanding what God wants us to know about Him. It is when we can search beyond our limitations that we position ourselves to understanding God better. It is through this growth of understanding that we experience a transcendence; a conversion. We move from the intellectual to the experiential. We grow in love for God.

Mark and John Help Us Answer the Question: Do You Now Believe?

Hedrick takes us through the Gospels of Mark and John, using scriptural passages, to prove her points. I found this book to be intellectually stimulating; very thought provoking. I began to look at the questions that Jesus asks in these Gospels, from a different perspective. Hedrick has opened my eyes to Scripture, in a way I have not looked at it before. In my opinion, that makes for one treasured professor of Theology, as well as an excellent writer too.

I highly recommend this book for anyone looking to better understand Scripture, from a theological understanding. If you would like to get your copy of Do You Now Believe? then click here.

This review was originally posted at www.virginialieto.com and is reprinted here with permission.

Virginia Lieto teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. She is the author of children’s book Finding Patience and blogs at www.virginialieto.com.

Superstitions

Every once in a while, I worry that I might be wearing out my Al Martino records, and so I temporarily switch to a different singer. Recently I listened to the great Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” a song whose melody I really like but whose lyrics have always annoyed me.

 

When you believe in things that you don’t understand

Then you suffer

Superstition …

I would not want to suggest that there is no such thing as superstition, nor that superstition is harmless. The behavior of investors in the Stock Market frequently reveal how silly and superstitious we can be. But the idea that the essence of superstition, as Stevie puts it, is believing “in things that you don’t understand,” well, that is also quite silly.

Belief is pervasive in human life, and we often do not understand what we believe. A quick inventory of one’s knowledge reveals, in the words of Bernard Lonergan, that one’s understanding rests largely

on the experience of others, and its development owes little indeed to his personal originality, much to his repeating to himself the acts of understanding first made by others, and most of all to presuppositions that he has taken for granted because they commonly are assumed and, in any case, he has neither the time nor the inclination nor, perhaps, the ability to investigate for himself (Method in Theology, 41-42).

The issue is part of the traditional question of how faith and reason are related. Believing things we don’t understand is not superstition. There are too many things in life that we need to believe but cannot discover for ourselves.

Still, there is a desire to understand, and that desire is not put on hold in religious experience. A recent study by one of our own professors has shown that the gospels of Mark and John reveal the importance of faith, but a faith that is quite reasonable within the contexts and concerns that the characters who encounter Jesus find themselves. Dr. Pamela Hedrick concludes that:

[i]t is easy to get the relationship between faith and reason wrong. There is a tendency to unbalance the relationship by either reducing faith to a conclusion of reason or of giving no place to reason within the act of faith. The reality is subtler and more important. A fresh reading of the gospels, with attention given to the questions and answers that emerge in the interactions among the characters, and especially their encounters with Jesus, reveals that an accurate account of the relationship between thinking and believing presents faith as an act of reason while reason is understood as needing faith in order to be liberated from narrow horizons. When faith operates within the context of faith, self-transcendence is possible. (Do You Now Believe? Reasonable Faith in Mark and John (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, an imprint of Wipf and Stock, 2017, 76).

The rationalist temptation is to reduce human self-transcendence to reason without faith, while the pious but mistaken reaction might tend to dismiss the desire to understand. As Dr. Hedrick puts it, “an uncritical faith —a credulity or an unthinking belief that clings to certitude at the expense of understanding—can undermine faith itself and at least slow down the response to the grace of ongoing conversion” (77). And to that I say “Amen.”

Now, back to Al Martino …

David Hammond teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program.

Dorothy, Peter, and the Man at the Back of the Church

Growing up in the “Coal Regions” of Northeastern Pennsylvania was a special experience – especially for a Catholic family. My small town had so many Catholic churches, it seemed like there was one on every corner. Growing up Eastern Catholic was easy, too, because all of my friends knew “who we were,” and could visit one of the three Byzantine Catholic Churches in town. I appreciate that aspect of my hometown more now, living in the heavily German/PA Dutch region of Central Pennsylvania. There are Catholics here, and the local diocese is thriving. But it’s still so different from the coal town of my childhood. That’s why I’m so fortunate to have a Catholic Church (with an Adoration Chapel) close to my home. A quick visit with Jesus, or partaking in daily Mass are blessings easily taken for granted. Any opportunity to be in the Lord’s House, and experience His real, Eucharistic presence, should inspire both gratitude and humility. Note the emphasis on humility, as it’ll be important in a moment.

I’m really good at judging books by their covers. No, I’m not talking about an ability to size up a Barnes and Noble display and produce reviews worthy of the New York Times. That would be a noteworthy talent! What I mean is that I am quick to judge others, based on impressions formed without having a conversation, let alone getting to know them. It’s not that I do this all the time – but more often than I’d care to acknowledge. With some honest self-reflection perhaps others might also admit of this “talent” for reaching quick conclusions based on appearance alone. Business gurus tell us the first impression means everything. The Gospel tells us our personal impressions don’t tell the whole story, since angels – and God Himself – sometimes come in strange disguises (cf. Hebrews 13:2, Matthew 25:35-45). I was challenged by this lesson at Mass one Fall morning.

In the chapel of the church where I often go for daily Mass, a group of “regulars” fill the pews. Though it isn’t my parish church, I’ve been incorporated into this group of retirees, stay at home moms, and others whose schedules are as flexible as mine. There is a man who often sits in the last pew of the small chapel. In appearance, he’s kind of scruffy and unkempt. He mostly keeps to himself, sharing in the Sign of Peace, but otherwise sitting silently through the Mass. He looks – for lack of a more polite term – like “a bum.” I notice that people generally avoid sitting near him, if they can help it. One or two women seem to look out for him, smiling warmly, exchanging a few words, and even chauffeuring him to the store. But for the most part, people keep their distance, unsure of sitting near someone who is so…unlike the rest of us.

Recently I saw this man at the grocery store, wearing the same clothes I see him in every time he comes to Mass. He pushed his cart along, catching wondering looks from the few shoppers attentive to those around them. My grocery list fulfilled, I made for the checkout line and paid for my items. As I placed the last package in my cart and started for the door, I heard someone shout “Hey!” just behind me. It was him. The man said, “Don’t you go to the parish?” “I’m not a parishioner,” I replied, “but I try to get to daily Mass.” His face wore the smile of someone who’d run across a friend for the first time in awhile as he said, “I thought I recognized you. I see you at Mass. Will you be there Friday?” I said I hoped so, and he said, “Good. I like to see you there.” Smiling back at him, I said good bye and God bless, and went on my way.

The encounter in the grocery store really made an impression on me, and made me examine my tendency to not only make snap judgments about people, but to let those judgments take pride of place over love; to believe I know it all rather than taking the time to know a person. It also reminded me of a story I remembered reading about Peter Maurin, co-founder (with Dorothy Day) of the Catholic Worker Movement. You can read about Maurin here, and I recommend learning more about this saintly man. Peter Maurin was an… “eccentric.” He cared little for possessions or position, happily identifying with “the man on the street,” while endeavoring to emulate the saints. When he met Dorothy Day in 1932, she couldn’t have realized a movement would be born of their friendship; a movement inspired by the Gospel to regain a sense of community among people, in which the race “to have and to do” would be replaced by the desire “to give and to be with.” One can only imagine the shock and disappointment Maurin (and Day) would experience if they saw the shape 21st century consumerism has taken – not to mention the sight of so many people walking down the street, meeting for dinner, or riding the bus with heads down and fingers typing, tapping and swiping. Having seen the brutal assaults on humanity wrought during the Second World War, they may have been overwhelmed by the sophistication with which we now perpetrate crimes against human dignity: from terrorism and torture, and attacks on human life at its beginning and ending; to the more “subtle” discarding of those we find undesirable by “swiping left” – or avoiding them at Mass because they “look different.”

Peter Maurin was an authentic radical; not what we think of today as a violent extremist, or a political rabble-rouser. He believed that societal/cultural change for the good was only possible with a radical (at the root) shift in our thought and behavior. Only by getting back to the roots of the Gospel and Jesus’ example can we see God in each other, and thus be inspired to follow Jesus’ mandate to love each other with His own merciful love (cf. John 13:34-35, Matthew 5:43-48). Maurin believed that if there is to be a “revolution” that changes the world, it will be accomplished in the radical return to love of God and neighbor (community), performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy (action), and sharing Christ in and through the ordinary aspects of daily life. Maurin worked toward and prayed for such a revolution by developing relationships in which the love of Christ could be shared over a meal, in a “round table” discussion, or as he worked side-by-side with other men and women in manual labor. He shared Christ with anyone who would listen, and offered both spiritual and material comfort and aid for those whom others would not so kindly describe as “eccentric.”

Dorothy Day relates many stories about Peter and his radical plan for changing the world, but the one I remembered when I met the disheveled man from daily Mass at the grocery store continues to move and to challenge me. Peter was to give a talk for a women’s group and Dorothy herself saw to it that he made it on the train. When hours passed and he hadn’t arrived at his destination, one of the women called Dorothy, distressed that there was no sign of him at the station. Everyone who’d arrived on that train was gone, save for one man, “a bum” asleep on a bench. Immediately, Dorothy knew that was Peter. Peter Maurin, the Catholic thinker with the radical idea that we should live the Gospel boldly and faithfully, who was sought after for his intellect and ability to teach, and advocated for a return to the Christian ideals of community and hospitality. Peter Maurin was overlooked as “a bum,” insignificant, undesirable, and ignored because his appearance didn’t meet expectations. He might just as well have been the unkempt, quiet man sitting in the last row of the chapel in a small town in Pennsylvania.

Books have covers, but they don’t reveal the story inside. For that, we must take them in hand and open them to discover the story for ourselves. People are a lot like books in that way. We may think we have all we need to know about a person by looking at “the cover.” It’s only in humbly approaching another person with wonder, and with the patience to discover what’s inside, that our expectations are shattered, freeing us to share in their story. And that can have radical consequences for both of us.

“I want a change, and a radical change. I want a change from an acquisitive society to a functional society, from a society of go-getters to a society of go-givers.”

~Peter Maurin

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

Why Attending Mass is the Most Important Thing You Can Ever Do

Dr. Scott Hahn is a well-known Catholic speaker and author, and he’s a professor of Biblical Theology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.  But Scott Hahn was very anti-Catholic in school and in his seminary days.  He even gave out anti-Catholic literature, ripped apart a rosary and tore up a Catholic prayer book.  After his seminary training, he became the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia.  He also became a part-time instructor at a local Presbyterian seminary.

The first course that Scott was assigned to teach was the Gospel According to John.  While he was preparing his class for chapter six, something happened to him.  He began to question what he had been taught – and was now teaching others – about the Eucharist: that it was only a symbol of Christ’s body and not the real Body of Christ.  This questioning was the start of a journey that led him into the Catholic Church.

The first big step on that journey came when he persuaded his wife to go with him to study at Marquette University in the 1980s.  He wanted to learn firsthand about the Catholic Theology of the Eucharist.  The more he learned, the more he became convinced that Christ is really present in the Eucharist – body, blood, soul and divinity.  Then, one weekday, Scott decided to something that he never dreamed he would do.  He decided to attend a Mass in the weekday chapel on the campus.

He got there early and sat in the back pew as an observer.  He didn’t want anyone to notice him, and he made sure that there was an easily accessible escape route in case of an emergency.  As he observed, he was amazed at the number of people arriving and with their sincere devotion.  Then the Mass began….and, as he listened to the readings, he was struck by how they took on a special meaning in the context of what was about to take place: the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Scott wrote in his book, called Rome Sweet Home, that all of a sudden he realized that this was the setting in which the bible was meant to be read.  …….Then came the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  Scott said that when the priest held up the Host, after the words of consecration, all his doubt about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist vanished completely and forever.  Later he wrote, “With all my heart, I whispered, ‘My Lord and my God.’”  He concluded by saying, “I left the chapel not telling a soul where I had been and what I had done.  But the next day I was back, and the next, and the next…I don’t know how to say it, but I had fallen in love with Our Lord in the Eucharist.

Justin the Martyr is one of the very early Church Fathers.  He lived at a time when the Roman Senate was very suspicious of the Christians.  At that time, the Romans saw the Christians as a sect that grew out of Judaism, and the Jews had revolted against Rome in the year 70A.D.  The Roman Emperor wanted to make sure that the Christians were not conspiring against the Roman government.  He asked Saint Justin to submit a list step-by-step of exactly what Christians did when they meet on Sunday mornings.  Here’s the list:

  • Christians gather on Sunday
  • Writings of the Apostles and prophets are read.
  • The presider challenges the hearers to imitate these things.
  • All then offer prayers of intercession.
  • They exchange the kiss of peace.
  • What is gathered is given to the presider to assist those in need.
  • The gifts of bread and wine (mixed with water) are brought forth.
  • The presider prays for a considerable time as he gives thanks. (Eucharist)
  • At the end all say “Amen”.
  • The deacons give the “Eucharistized”  bread, wine and water to all present and take some to those absent.

Sounds like the Mass, doesn’t it?  But the year was 145 A.D.!!!

But there’s more……. The Roman Senate was satisfied that the Christians were not conspiring against the government.  But they wrote back to Justin and said, “We don’t understand how you are using this word Eucharistia.”  This Greek word normally meant to give thanks, but he was using it in another way.  Here’s what he wrote:

“We call this food Eucharist.  And no one is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing which is for the remission of sins and for regeneration, and is thereby living as Christ has enjoined.”

This one paragraph could sum up our Eucharist today.  And the year is 145 A.D.!!!  The Church has believed that the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity from the very beginning, from the lips of the apostles themselves!  And don’t ever let anybody tell you anything different!

Scott Hahn calls Holy Communion Covenant Union.  It is union because in it we are intimately united to Christ and to one another.  It is a covenant because Jesus declared that what we are doing at Mass is the “New Covenant in his blood.”  

This is the covenant that all of the previous covenants of salvation history were leading up to, beginning with Adam, Noah and Abraham, continuing through Moses and King David, and finally fulfilled in Christ.  It’s the ultimate covenant; it’s an intimate and sacred family bond between God and us, and each of us with one another.  “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him.”

So when someone holds the Sacred Host out in front of you and declares that “this is the Body of Christ” and you say “Amen,” don’t take it lightly, because it is at that very moment that you are renewing your part of the covenant.  You are pledging your commitment  to live in loving union with God and with your neighbors.

When we receive Holy Communion and renew our commitment  to Covenant Union with Christ and with one another, when we hear what he says and do what he does, when we walk out of Mass as a sacrament, as a visible sign of God’s invisible grace, when we are what we are called to be as Catholic Christians, that is when we are what we are called to be.  If every Catholic knew what you know now, we could change the world.

Deacon Greg Ollick teaches Sacred Scripture for Saint Joseph’s College Online. He is a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta and runs The Epiphany Initiative website.

Betting There’ll Be a Big Safety Net

Almost fifty years ago, movie cop “Dirty Harry” Callahan asked “Well, punk, do you feel lucky today?”  Sometimes Harry’s crooks chose wisely not to resist arrest, but others tried their luck and lost.  A lesson lurks there about avoiding mindless violence.  Harry possesses superior (fire)power—why fight back? Make a better decision because the only alternative is swift, violent retribution.  This line, shorn of the violent scenes, came to me reflecting on today’s readings.  The Second Sunday of Easter features readings from Acts, Psalm 118, I Peter, and the striking post-Resurrection scene with “doubting Thomas” in John 20.  Every Scripture offers a rich banquet, but this day particularly so. Even before we reach the Gospel we encounter “the stone the builders have rejected” which becomes the cornerstone and an account of the Church featuring the works of mercy.  It is this passage in Acts 2 from which Cardinal Ratzinger/Benedict XVI launches his discussion of communion ecclesiology in Pilgrim Fellowship of Faith (2005). The Church’s communitarianism—spiritual and material—constitutes, Benedict states, the true freedom found only in the Trinity (p. 58).

Thus “Do you feel lucky today?”—because God’s mercy comes only through the Church, why gamble on it being any wider?  Every reading today instructs us to make wise choices. I Peter makes this particularly clear: through mercy, God in Christ bequeaths us “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by the power of God are safeguarded through faith, to a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the final time”. Thus the communion of the Church is far more than mere material assistance, but a foretaste of the Trinity’s communion.  Don’t bet on finding this anywhere else (and, for any Schleiermacherian readers out there, this applies especially to our idiosyncratic experiences).  There’s no need to gamble on God’s mercy—we know where to find it. Better than Dirty Harry’s offer, too, because why issue a threat when God’s offer far surpasses anything we know?

Perhaps that rosy vision might seem too Pelagian.  “Come on, all you need to do is stay within the Church and presto! Mercy!”  No, the Gospel promises that God helps those who cannot help themselves.  This, of course, includes all of us. It becomes all the more important to remember that today is also Divine Mercy Sunday, a fitting celebration of God’s mercy following the Triduum.  While the novelty has not yet worn off, Divine Mercy Sunday likewise has gained a popular following in parishes and online.  Beyond the devotional practices—venerating the image, praying the Chaplet—the Divine Mercy tradition contributes an astonishing reminder.  St. Faustina records Jesus stating His mercy extends to all, especially those souls apparently furthest from Him.  “Let the greatest sinners place their trust in My mercy. They have the right before others to trust in the abyss of My Mercy” (Divine Mercy in My Soul, #1146). And “the greater the misery of a soul, the greater its right to My mercy” (#1182).  At one level this is not new—the Gospel like today’s reading teaches us the very same point about salvation in Christ through faith.  It is, though, a refreshing jolt to have this universal message conveyed through such a particular channel like St. Faustina. Her experiences are not merely spiritualized escapism. Like the early Church in today’s readings, actual corporal works of mercy must accompany prayer (#742).  Obviously we are a far distance away from “Do you feel lucky today?”, but also obviously the breadth of Christ’s mercy extends more widely than we know or admit.

An indication of my inner Augustianism is my stubborn refusal to recognize that I, the trained theologian, might have construed God’s mercy much more narrowly than St. Faustina, “merely” a nun in interwar Poland.  On the surface, the Divine Mercy seems like yet another expression of Catholic devotionalism.  One more image, one more set of prayers, etc.  Our elitism, though, should not blind us to Divine Mercy’s lesson:  that through the very particular, God conveys the very gift of His all-encompassing mercy.  Again, the Gospel already proclaims this.  Jesus does not merely offer salvation in some general fashion; He accomplishes it by being a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth who dies in a particular (and particularly awful) way and then rises on the third day. Thus “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”

Next month the Church will recognize the centenary anniversary of another devotional expression of this same lesson.  The Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to three young children shepherding near Fatima, Portugal, in May, 1917.  Pope Francis will canonize them next month as part of the one hundredth anniversary celebration.  The Fatima apparition, appearing during the First World War and requesting spiritual resistance to Bolshevik aggression, resembles the Divine Mercy in its devotional popularity and scholarly skepticism.  On the other hand, St. John Paul II, clearly a scholar, expressed firm devotion to both!  The “Fatima Prayer”, requested by the blessed Mother to be added to the end of each Rosary decade, expresses the same sort of radical inclusivism we find in Divine Mercy.  “Oh my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of Hell, lead all souls to Heaven, especially those in most need of Thy mercy.”  This is one of those instances where the literal interpretation is also the scariest:  that could mean anybody.  It is our fallen nature that pulls back, that hesitates.  We all know people—public figures as well as personal friends and acquaintances—who fit the bill “those in most need of Thy mercy”.  When we are honest with ourselves, we realize this include us, too.  This also dismisses utterly any lingering “Do you feel lucky today?” resentments.  We remain called through today’s readings into the Church and thus God’s great, unmerited Gift. Fatima and Divine Mercy remind us of another Scriptural reminder:  that God’s mercy through Christ extends far beyond our comprehension to those who appear much farther astray.  Yet we should not presume, betting on God’s mercy (Romans 6:1).

Guest blogger Jeffrey Marlett blogs at Spiritual Diabetes.

A Second Chance

We continue our series on the Mystery of Death reflecting on the physical and spiritual care of persons as they near the end of life.

 

Thanks, God, for letting me do it right…this time.

In August, 1973, my family returned from Puerto Rico to my home in Wisconsin.  My parents took high school students there during that summer to learn about the culture and language.  I was thirteen then; my sister was almost sixteen.  My parents and sister were linguists and absorbed themselves in the culture and Spanish.  All I wanted to do, though, was play basketball…

Life in Wisconsin returned to normal with school fast approaching, except for one anomaly—my father’s skin and eyes turned yellow.  He was diagnosed with hepatitis. Later, his health care providers correctly diagnosed him with pancreatic cancer and he underwent chemotherapy in the fall.  He lost his hair and quite a bit of weight. He would get bruised and cut from falling, and lose control of his bowels.  As an eighth grader concerned—to a fault—with image among my peers, I resented my father’s appearance and frailty.  I treated him unkindly during his time of greatest need.  Instead of being compassionate after he got “cut up” following a fall, I was mean-spirited.

My father was in and out of the hospital.  Even though I was a scrawny little runt in eighth grade, I still played football.  Once, visiting my father in the hospital, he asked me if he could see my next game.  I said, “sure!”  He asked me where to go and where exactly to sit.  I told him where the game was being held and exactly where to sit—far away from where anyone would identify him as my dad!

I do not think my image problem could be reduced simply to diminished or nullified culpability because of the early adolescent “stage” through which I was developing along with its accompanying insecurities.  Sure, maybe that was a part of it, but my pride and unkindness were tangibly real.

The last time my father was in the hospital, he was seemingly unconscious.  In tears, I apologized to him for my shameful, despicable behavior.  Did he hear me?  Sometimes hearing is the last sense to go.  I will never know, at least in this life.  Shortly after, he died.  I failed.

Fast forward: in August of 2008, I moved my mother, residing in Beaver Dam, WI, into an assisted living center in the same city because of her immobility and rapidly declining health.  As a widow, she lived in the same home in which she and my father reared me starting when I was a five-year-old.  My mother was a professional pianist and instructor whose social and professional connections extended well beyond Wisconsin.  Though my wife, children, and I resided in La Crosse, Wisconsin—almost a three-hour drive from my mother—Beaver Dam was her home.

The moving transition was strange, difficult, and necessary.  Her little assisted living apartment—with piano—was actually quite elegant.  My mother’s time there was limited, though.  Her heart was weak, and she suffered from circulatory problems.  She was, in general, weaker than she should have been. (My wife and I think this could have been due in part to an undiagnosed chronic Vitamin D deficiency.)

Then, in late October, she was taken to emergency care to treat pneumonia.  She stayed in the hospital, and was taken to a nursing home to recover.  She had a series of setbacks, and never returned to assisted living.  Her circulatory and respiratory systems further deteriorated, though she remained lucid.  Her health care team asked her if she wanted to be designated “full code”—to resuscitate her if she had a respiratory or cardiac arrest—or “DNR,” meaning “do not resuscitate.”  She could not decide, and left it to me. (My only sibling, Julianne, died in 2002.)  I became her power of attorney.

To discern correctly, I consulted the Church’s teaching on the matter and prayed…and prayed.  I knew that a full code procedure in my mother’s case would be very invasive, painful, and even crushing, literally, i.e., chest compressions could break her ribs.  In consequence of a full code, she would be sedated, unconscious, and dysfunctional with no prospect of improving a seriously declining condition.  Conversely, my mother would soon die in consequence of an arrest accompanied by a DNR designation.  Among other sources, I consulted the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of ‘over-zealous’ treatment.  Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted” (2278).

I discerned that the DNR designation was the correct (though very difficult) choice.  With double pneumonia and accelerating weakness with difficulty breathing, she was taken out of the hospital two more times during Christmas week and placed in a nursing home where my family could visit her more easily. Then, a few days into the new year, she slipped into a dying phase.  The staff noninvasively applied an oxygen mask to support my mother’s breathing.  Their action throughout impressed me and corresponded to Church teaching, e.g., the Catechism, 2279, states “Even if death is thought imminent, the ordinary care owed to a sick person cannot be legitimately interrupted.”

Because of my wife’s support and care for our children, I was able to spend significant time with my mother during the last month of her life.  This included the last few days and nights on a cot at her side, watching and helping my mother die with courage and grace.  These were among the most profound and memorable moments of my life.  I also am grateful my family could play music at her funeral, and I could give the eulogy.  I thank God for this amazing, grace-filled, moving opportunity to show my gratitude and love as a son…and for giving me a second chance.  “I thank you, Lord, with all my heart…Your love endures forever!” (Psalm 138:1, 8)

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology. Programs.

How to Study Theology (and not quit your day job)

When considering the possibility of taking some theology classes, or even pursuing a degree, it’s often the objections that hold sway rather than the movement of the Spirit. What can you do with that? Do you have a back-up plan?  Isn’t that a waste of money?

The pressure to do something practical that will lead to employment is immense.  And yet, our hearts are restless…The desire is there, but the justification is sometimes hard to come by.

Those who take the plunge give a wide variety of reasons for doing so – some quite specific, others barely communicable. Here are three reasons you might be considering the formal study of theology.

You work for the Church in some capacity and want professional development.

Whether you are a catechist in a parish, a permanent deacon, or a vice-chancellor of an archdiocese, continuing formation in the faith is crucial.  No ministry is minor. Though advanced study may or may not mean an increase in salary, it will bring an increase in confidence and a deeper relationship with Christ.

The beauty of theology is that its subject matter is infinite.

You’ve recently come to a greater appreciation of your Catholic faith and feel the need to know more.

Conversion is a powerful thing. When your faith is awakened, you crave a deeper relationship with the Lord and a greater knowledge of His revelation. Your desire to live your faith in your home and professional life is strong, but the know-how is lacking. Even twelve years of Catholic school is not enough!

The personal encounter with Jesus sparks a desire to learn everything possible about Him.

You feel God calling you to something, but you don’t know what it is.

When asked why they decided to study theology, so many students say that they really don’t know-they just felt that God wanted them to do it. Theology students range from traditional-age college students searching for their vocation to retirees looking to grow in the faith and serve in their parishes. The diversity among students is as great as within the Church herself.

So, you are feeling the call to study theology, but you can’t leave your employment. Or move to a new city. Or go into large debt. It is just too impractical. But wait – there’s more! It is, in fact, possible to study theology and not quit your day job! Here’s how.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology program makes it convenient and affordable to earn a theology degree, or just take some classes. The program is completely online offered in a self-paced environment with monthly start dates and offers the lowest tuition of any online Catholic theology program.

The college offers an array of programming, including a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts degrees in Pastoral Theology, Sacred Theology, and Advanced Diaconal Studies, a Bachelor of Arts in Theological Studies, and a variety of certificates in Catholic theology at the undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate levels. For the neophyte, a non-credit course on The Catechism for Catechists is a perfect beginning.

New certificate programs in Black Catholic and Latino Catholic communities prepare pastoral ministers serving those populations, both of which are changing as they grow. Once predominantly African-American, the Black Catholic population now includes many refugees from Africa, making the population very diverse. Likewise, the Latino community is representative of a number of Spanish-speaking countries, each with a unique culture.

Mindful of both the ecumenical and ecological mission of the Church, Saint Joseph’s College has recently partnered with Gratz College of Philadelphia, to offer a joint Graduate Certificate in Jewish-Christian Studies starting March 1, and with the Laudato Si Institute in Granada, Spain, to provide an International Certificate in Christianity and an Integral Ecology starting April 1.

The Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Program is rooted in, and professes fidelity to, the teachings of Jesus Christ and the doctrines and heritage of the Roman Catholic Church, seeking to combine faith with reason in the pursuit of academic excellence. Its faculty exemplifies its philosophy that effective ministry requires a solid theological foundation, grounded in solid Catholic doctrine, with a deep spiritual and pastoral orientation.

Every faculty member has received the mandatum from the bishop of the local Diocese of Portland.

So here is the fourth reason to study theology-because you can!

The Gospel tells us to “be not afraid” to “go by another way!” Studying theology may be the road less traveled, but it is one that is spiritually enriching and has practical applications for our work, both in the Church and in the temporal world. Saint Joseph’s College is a guide on that road, and we’d like to invite you to walk with us.

The choice to study theology may not get the enthusiastic nod from family and friends. It will require humility, and even a small martyrdom. It is “another way,” and an often unexpected one. But it is a path you do not walk alone-the SJC community accompanies you.

Carmina Chapp and Ann Koshute teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online Theology Programs.
(Note: This article first appeared as sponsored content on Crux.

On the Catholic Wisdom of “Both/ And…”

photo from Archdiocese of Washington Collection

Sometimes it is not one or the other but rather both/ and. I have been thinking and praying about this a lot over the last two weeks. I live on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and have witnessed some of the largest marches and demonstrations that I have seen in the last twenty years. I’ve also been reading a lot of signs that the marchers and protesters carried.  If you looked only at the signs, you would think we live in a world defined by competing principles and all of us are being called to take sides and battle it out until one side goes down in defeat.  This serves no one well.

Some of our most volatile issues of the day are not a battle of competing goods, but rather a battle that accepts no middle ground. We often lack the humility to recognize we might actually be talking about complementary principles and goods. For example, take the question of immigration. Most people would agree that a country has a right to secure its borders and most people agree that we have an enormous problem at present where many people’s homelands have become unlivable.  Most people would agree that people have a right to seek justice and peace, in a safe community. It seems the discussion we should be having is how we manage to control our borders and respond to the need for safe passage to safer communities for millions of refugees who are displaced from their homelands. Who is having that conversation? Well, the Catholic Church, for one!

Our faith is grounded in balancing in a life-giving creative way the tension of both/and. After all, we talk about how belief is rooted in faith and reason. We believe that justice should be wrapped in mercy.  We know that with sin, there is always the possibility of grace.  This ability to see the complementary goods has never been on bigger display than this past week.

The week began with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issuing a strongly worded statement opposing President Trump’s executive order on Immigration. They write “We strongly disagree with the Executive Order’s halting refugee admissions. We believe that now more than ever, welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope.”

Here the Church draws on its principles of Catholic Social Teaching which holds both the right of people to migrate to “sustain their lives” and the right of  a country to “regulate its borders and control immigration” (Catholic Social Teaching on Immigration and the Movement of Peoples).

In the same week, many bishops and Catholic Pro-Life marchers welcomed the presence of Vice-President Pence who supports the work of the Pro-Life Movement. The Church both preaches against the sin of abortion and the right of every woman to have all the support she needs from the government and community to bring her child into the world. The Church will continue to advocate against abortion and, through ministries like Project Rachel, offer healing and hope to women and men touched by the experience of abortion.

These two issues in the span of a week, highlight what many people find so confounding about the advocacy of the Catholic Church on behalf of social issues. We seem to some to be “always changing sides.” And that is just it, we don’t take sides. We stand in the truth of the Gospel of Life. Rather than getting tied up in political platforms and ideologies, the Church looks to the Gospel and in the harmony of truth and reason seeks always and everywhere to protect the dignity of the human person through the exercise of mercy and justice.

Now, more than ever, our country needs the wisdom of a church that can navigate toward the common good by exercising both/and.  We need to identify the common good within the issues on which we are so quick to take sides– and work together toward a shared good.

What does a country look like that has a secure border and the ability to welcome people seeking peace, a job, a place for their children to thrive. What do support networks look like that would say we are a community who know women deserve better than having to choose an abortion and can provide for their care.  What does a country look like that can promote the dignity of the human person and the common good of the community? These are questions that the Church has thought about for centuries and has some wisdom to share.

Pope Francis believes that sharing that wisdom is part of our mission to the world today.  He writes in The Joy of the Gospel, “Despite the tide of secularism which has swept our societies, in many countries – even those where Christians are a minority – the Catholic Church is considered a credible institution by public opinion, and trusted for her solidarity and concern for those in greatest need. Again and again, the Church has acted as a mediator in finding solutions to problems affecting peace, social harmony, the land, the defense of life, human and civil rights, and so forth. And how much good has been done by Catholic schools and universities around the world! This is a good thing! (65).

Today, we all have an opportunity to bring this good thing to bear in our conversations and in our advocacy. Let’s be one of those schools!

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Hispanics: A Blessing and a Challenge!

September 15 began a month-long celebration of Hispanic Heritage. 1024px-US_Army_53334_Hispanic_heritage_danceAccording to the U.S. Bureau of Census, there are 55.4 million Hispanics living in the United States. In other words, Hispanics comprise 17% of the total U.S. population. These numbers represent a blessing and a challenge, pastorally speaking. The following paragraphs attempt to demonstrate this dual reality–the Hispanic presence in the U.S. as a blessing and a challenge.

History informs us that U.S. Hispanics are descendants of those Indians and mestizos who suffered the “discovery of the New World”, along with conquest and colonization. Hispanics are the descendants of those who did not cross a border, but against whom a border was created. Recently, this fact has been brought to the fore through a song popularized by Los Tigres del Norte, “Somos mas Americanos!” At the Latin Grammy Awards last year, they were accompanied by another popular Spanish pop music group, Mana. Both music groups are the descendants of those immigrants who came to this nation looking for a better life and more opportunities. Our country was called “a nation of immigrants” by Mitt Romney, in his speech accepting the GOP presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention four years ago.

U.S. Hispanics who still suffer the struggles of deprivation and discrimination have not lost their strength and identity. Their aguante (unyielding endurance) is grounded in their popular expressions of Catholicism. In their lived faith, the figures of Jesus and Mary are most important. The U.S. Hispanic Jesus is the crucified Jesus, as described by Roberto Goizueta, Hispanic theologian and professor at Boston College. This is the “Jesus made of flesh-and-blood like us. The blood on his face, side, hands, and feet are the signs of his humanity; not the abstract ‘humanity’ of the philosophers and theologians, but the flesh-and-blood humanity of those who dare to kiss his wounds.” Regarding Mary, it is important to note first that in almost each Latin American country, there is at least one image of Mary that is revered. However, there is one which shines forth brightly in its significance. She is Our Lady of Guadalupe. The reasons for the particular devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe are explained by Orlando Espín, professor of theology and director of the Center for Study of Latino/a Catholicism at the University of San Diego: “For historical  reasons, however, there is one Mary who stands out as unique among Hispanics’ Marys, and that is la Morenita, Our Lady of Guadalupe. No other popular religious devotion is as closely linked to a people’s self-identity, or socio-historical context, as is the Mexican devotion to our Lady of Guadalupe; none other is more deeply ‘ours.’”

However, it is not only the Hispanic’s “aguante” that is a significant characteristic, it is also their sense of “fiesta”- a unique theological category. According to Guizeta, “Fiesta” for U.S. Hispanics is not the same as a party. “Fiesta” expresses a deep commitment to social justice and a pledge to resist all forms of instrumentalization and objectification. It is an authentic communal celebration of the U.S. Hispanic’s identity, where “nosotros” does not just have the simple meaning of the English pronoun “we,” but rather, “we others”. These new “we others” are conscious of the historical, cultural and anthropological reality of mestizaje. This latter word is defined by Virgilio Elizondo, the father of U.S Hispanic Latin/a theology and former professor of theology at Notre Dame, as “the process through which two totally different peoples mix biologically and culturally so that a new people begins to emerge.”

Thus, U.S. Hispanics, whose ancestors suffered the “discovery,” conquest, and colonization, have risen to celebrate their original culture. Their aguante is grounded in their popular Catholicism which is rooted in the love of the crucified Jesus and Our Lady of Guadalupe. These central devotions are celebrated through fiesta, which, in turn, are a blessing for the Catholic Church and society in general.

Through “aguante” and “fiesta” Hispanics are a public, religious presence. However, demographics involving Hispanics are a challenge, pastorally speaking. Dr. Hosffman Ospino, Hispanic theologian and professor at Boston College, says: “61 percent of Hispanics are U.S.-born. 37.3 percent of Hispanics 30 and older are in this category. Yet more striking is the fact that 93 percent of all Hispanics under the age of 18 are U.S.-born. Any form of pastoral planning and strategy for evangelization in the church today is to consider these figures, mindful that most of these young Hispanics are likely to be growing up in Catholic households.”

This data reflects the challenge Hispanics and, in particular, young Hispanics pose for Catholic ministry in the U.S. It is important to note that in his research Ospino discovered that young Hispanics are one of the ten signs of vitality in parishes with Hispanic ministry.

This sign of vitality that Ospino speaks of can be seen in the Religious Education programs, schools and parishes in the U.S. where Hispanics attend and celebrate Mass. Ospino found that “two-thirds of the children enrolled in faith formation programs are Hispanics. The large participation of Hispanic children in programs of faith formation suggests the active presence of young families.”

These same young families are the key population to reach out to in order to keep Hispanics participating in and serving within the Catholic Church. Their children need bilingual and multicultural programs to create in them a sense of appreciation for their uniqueness within diversity. They must grow to appreciate their gifts as created in the image and likeness of God.

A bilingual and multicultural religious education program can eventually lead to the flourishing of a new society in which every single person is valued equally. This understanding can help to overcome the marginalization that Hispanics have been suffering in the history of the U.S.

The pastoral challenge presented by the demographics of the Hispanic population in this country requires a bilingual and multicultural religious education which will recognize the unique image of God that this group represents within our Church.

Thus, U.S. Hispanics are a blessing for the society of the United States, but equally a particular pastoral challenge for the Church of the United States

Do you think society in general sees the increasing numbers of Hispanics as a blessing?

What is your parish community offering to the Hispanics living within it?

Nelson Araque teaches History of Latino Catholics in the Church for Saint Joseph’s College Online’s Pastoral Ministry to Latino Catholics Program.