Thursday, June 25, 2015

A possible response from US Bishops on Gay Marriage

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to make history most likely tomorrow (Friday) or Monday on the issue of  gay marriage in the United States. Most of the speculation seems to favor that the action of the Supremes will in effect make same sex marriage legal across the United States.

This, just a month after the once lock-step Catholic bastion of Ireland became the first nation to approve gay marriage by referendum. After the approval of that referendum on the Emerald Isle, though, I was very impressed with the open and pastoral tone that was struck by Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin. Following the vote, he said, "We [the Church] have to stop and have a reality check, not move into denial of the realities. We won't begin again with a sense of renewal, with a sense of denial. I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live. I think it is a social revolution."

The Archbishop also spoke about the Church's need to reach out in a new way to young people and to rethink the way our doctrine and theology are presented.

His response has me pondering, naturally, how will our bishops here in the United States respond in the days to come? Once again, this anticipated outcome of the Supremes will be an opportunity for the U.S. Church and I see basically two options.  Option one is to once again hunker down in battle mentality. The bishops can make proclamations about conspiracies and "gay agendas" and media manipulation and the triumph of the secular over the sacred.

But, I think the evidence is in on this approach and the conclusion is that it doesn't work. It doesn't lead anyone to Christ, to the Church, to a deepened relationship with the Lord. In fact, data would suggest that it has the exact opposite effect. A recent Pew study showed that the largest religious group increasing in the United States are those who are "not affiliated" to any Church or denomination. The group where most of these "nones" are leaving from is the Catholic Church. And among the chief reasons for the departure is the perceived "judgmental" attitude of the clergy/church officials. One of the key things that Pope Francis has showed us, I think, is that very often the problem is not the teaching of the Church, but the way that teaching is presented and the attitude of the presenters.

What Archbishop Martin did was to acknowledge something - he acknowledged his gay and lesbian brothers and sisters in Ireland who were experiencing a significant moment in their lives and the life of their nation. He was acknowledging that they had experienced years of oppression and discrimination and so it was very natural for them to experience the referendum as a great moment of liberation. He acknowledged the reality as it was experienced right before him. That seems like an obvious statement, but it is one that needs to be stated because the problem is that too often, we don't see what is right before us and instead recast it into a narrative that better suits the story we want to shape. But, dialogue begins with acknowledging the reality of the other. It all starts there.

So, let's imagine Option Two. Here is another way that our U.S. Bishops could respond tomorrow or Monday if the Supreme Court makes same-sex marriage the law of the land.
A possible response of the U.S. Bishops: "Today, in a truly landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision, the result of which makes it legal for people of the same-sex to contract a legal marriage in the United States. To the extent that this decision represents the end of discrimination and oppression of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters as a group of people, we rejoice with them. The Catholic Church has long opposed discrimination under the law in all of its forms and we rejoice whenever such legal discrimination is cast aside in favor of progress toward the recognition of the equality of all people. We rejoice with those who welcome this movement of liberation. We understand that civil law is different than church law or theology, and our tradition as well as current and long-held theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage continues to be that sacramental marriage is a union between a man and a woman. But, we also understand the desire of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters to find long term, lasting, loving and committed relationships. The Church in recent years has struggled in its attempts to reconcile all of these positions in a coherent way that leads all her children to Christ without making some feel as though they are not welcome within our walls and our communities, or that we desire anything less than a full, happy and fulfilled life for them. What we ask of our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters today is this: please, keep struggling with us; let's continue to dialogue together. We need you and hopefully, you need us too. Please continue to be active members of our parishes and communities and help us understand one another better and figure out how we all walk to Jesus together."
The Archbishop was right, "We have to stop and do a reality check." Our reality check would quickly show that the strategy of condemnation, finger-pointing and name-calling has done nothing more than close off the conversation, drive people away from the Church, and relegate our voice increasingly to the margin. Perhaps another strategy - the one that Jesus employed - might be called for: the strategy of respectful, open dialogue. It's time for option two. It's time to find common ground, recognize the good in others, begin by accepting them where they are, be open to a conversation, be able to state like Archbishop Martin that we at the very least understand why people might welcome this ruling, even if it isn't in line with our teaching. We are called to the attitude of Christ, "neither do I condemn you" and instead to be oases of compassion, love, joy, healing and mercy. It is then that we begin to be not just a community, but a family. It is then that we move forward together in Christ, towards Christ.

Let's see which option the bishops choose.

- FT

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The healing power of forgiveness in Charleston

The day before the brutal, hate-filled, racist killing of nine innocent people attending a Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston,  the Scriptures of the Catholic Mass gave us this Gospel passage from Matthew, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  Little did we know that just the next day, our faith in that passage would be put to the test.

Newtown, Aurora, Fort Hood, Columbine, Virginia Tech, and more. While these tragic events are different each in their own way, I don't know about you, but I'm beginning to feel something like fatigue at what seems to be a repeating pattern every six months or a year or so of yet another horrific moment when evil raises its head yet again and strikes out at innocents followed by the cycle of recrimination and justification; mourning and weeping.

I pray that it will end. I pray that we will be renewed. I pray that we will find our way to a better reality - one where love conquers hate, light overtakes the darkness, goodness triumphs over evil, and we all find a way closer to each other as brothers and sisters.

But, then, in the face of such tragedy, people of faith can do amazing things that restore faith and hope and love. I think of the amazing power of reconciliation that we saw in 2006 among the Amish people in Nickle Mines, Pennsylvania. If you recall, in October of that year, a 32-year-old man held 10 school girls captive and horrifically killed them before turning the gun on himself. A moment that shocked the world and completely devastated these people.

But their reaction - born of their deep and abiding faith - was to forgive. They forgave the killer of their children and not only in word, but also in deed. Family members of the deceased, just days after burying their own children, attended the funeral of the man who took the lives of their own.

The mother of the shooter, spoke about that moment and said, "For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us...Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?" She was so moved by this act of forgiveness that she continues to this day to go once a week to care for the most seriously wounded survivor of that day.

This extraordinary, beautiful and powerful forgiveness brought about a transcendence that lead that community to a true sense of healing so that life might go on, that they might move forward. It doesn't make the pain go away; it doesn't solve the problems that lead to the tragedy, but it does allow people to see one another precisely as people who are worthy of salvation, worthy of dignity, worthy of a new future - all because of the power of forgiveness.

Amazingly, we saw something of that again this week in Charleston. Just days after yet another senseless tragedy that took, this time, nine innocent lives of good and holy people studying God's Word in His house, we were humbled to hear these words from the loved one of a victim. The daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance who died at Mother Emanuel said, "I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you and have mercy on your soul. It hurts me, it hurts a lot of people, but God forgive you and I forgive you."

Another family member, the sister of Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, 49, said, "We have no room for hate. We have to forgive. I pray God on your soul."

When tragedy strikes, anger is the easy response and the quick response. Solutions - whether legal, political or societal - are also a fast way to direct our strong feelings into something constructive. These are all necessary responses and part of the process. 

But, a reconciliation born of faith takes time, it takes patience, it takes a willingness to be vulnerable in the face of evil and danger. It is also the only path that can bring about lasting change and true healing. Let us be reminded of that example from the Amish almost 10 years ago. Let us be inspired by these good, holy and brave survivors in Charleston who have the miraculous courage to proclaim forgiveness in this dark and painful moment. 

"Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."  If you've ever wondered what that looks like in practice, look no further than the Amish, look no further Charleston this week. 

Forgiveness transforms, it heals, it calls us higher, it makes us whole, it shows us and the world who God has truly called us to be. 

Let us all strive to do the same. It just might change the world. "...where there is injury, Lord, let me bring pardon."

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Kingdom of God is like a dandelion...and that's no joke


A young man considering a vocation with the Franciscans was invited to dinner at the local friary one evening. As dinner went on, from time-to-time, one of the friars would stand up and say a number and the rest of the friars would laugh hysterically. One stood up and said, “72,” and everyone laughed. Later, another stood and said, “149,” and again everyone laughed. Another stood and said, “14,” and again, everyone laughed. Confused, the young man asked the friar beside him what was going on. He answered, “Well, you see, we’ve all lived together for a long time. By now, we know each other jokes by heart, so we numbered them all to save time. Someone says a number and we remember the joke and laugh,” then he said, “Why don’t you give it a try. We have 300 jokes, just stand and say any number you like.” The young man stood tentatively and said, “107,” but this time there was nothing but silence. The man sat down sheepishly and asked the friar what went wrong. He said, “What can I tell you? Some people just can’t tell a joke.”

I was thinking of this today because I think there’s something like this going on in our Gospel. I think Jesus is telling us a bit of a joke, but I didn’t notice anyone laughing as I read it today. It was a classic case of the flop.

So, what’s the joke? Well, as we heard in the Gospel, Jesus asks the familiar question “To what shall we compare the Kingdom of God?” Now if you think about how you might answer that question, most of us would probably choose something amazing to compare the Kingdom of God to. We might choose, for example, the image we heard in our First Reading from Ezekial – the great and mighty cedar tree. This is an image that is used over and over again in the Old Testament and these were mighty trees. They were large and strong, they would soar into the sky as high as 200 feet. Standing at their base it might feel you could climb them all the way to Heaven. Certainly a worthy comparison to the Kingdom of God.

But, instead of something so majestic, Jesus said, “It is like a mustard seed that, when it is sown in the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on the earth.” And, I think this is his joke. Instead of a mighty cedar, Jesus is essentially comparing God’s kingdom to something like a weed; that’s what the mustard bush was after all. We might understand better if it were told like this: the Kingdom of God is like dandelion seed, which, when sown into your lawn....” As always, though, Jesus is telling His little joke to make a much bigger point. The point is that we may want the Kingdom of God to be like the beautiful, majestic cedar tree shooting all the way to Heaven itself, but the reality is that God’s Kingdom needs to be a little closer to earth; a little closer to our reality. And, the Kingdom of God needs to be persistent – ever try to get rid of those dandelions? The Kingdom of God will not simply arrive and remain forever. It will pop up over here, and then over there, and again over there. And, we need to be the ones continually planting those tiny little seeds of the Kingdom so it becomes present in our world.

We are the sowers of the seeds of the Kingdom of God. We help to bring forth that Kingdom when we commit ourselves to Kingdom values – peacemaking instead of discord, forgiveness instead of vengeance, reconciliation instead of revenge, justice instead of crookedness, generosity instead of greed. We are called to be sowers of that little seed; to make our own personal contribution to the presence and the growth of God’s Kingdom; and our personal contribution is incredibly important.

Kingdoms don’t grow by themselves. The seeds we sow in God’s name have enormous potential. They are the principles we hold dear, the loving witness that we give, the faithful promises we make and keep, the needy people we help to raise out of poverty, injustice or despair. They are the prayers we say, the children we welcome into relationship with Christ, the Holy Masses we celebrate, the hurts we forgive, the kindness we show, the family members, neighbors and even enemies we love and forgive. The seed can be all sorts of things – a listening ear, an encouraging word, a happy memory shared.

My friends, the seeds we plant will take root and grow and the presence of the Kingdom of God will be realized more and more each day in our midst if we remain persistent in spreading them. We are builders of the Kingdom of God and honored to partake in this great and wonderful and majestic work of Christ. And, that’s no joke. Bring forth the Kingdom of God!

May the Lord give you peace.

Friday, June 5, 2015

How Christians should REALLY respond to Caitlyn Jenner

Have I got your attention? I have been really struggling with wanting to say something about all of the coverage surrounding the recent transitioning of Bruce Jenner to Caitlyn Jenner.

Now, perhaps, like you, there is a lot here that I really don't understand. If I'm going to be completely honest, the experience of having a biological gender but experiencing that you are actually another gender, is so very far outside of my realm of experience, it really leaves me quite speechless.

But, what has troubled me at an even deeper level over especially this past week has been the response of far too many so-called Christians, and even those who are called forth to be leaders in the Christian community to this public announcement.

Over the course of the last week, I have come across blog posts or articles that have had titles like, "How Christians should respond to Caitlyn/Bruce Jenner" and some of them have even begun with some hope, but they have quickly descended into something that makes me question how anyone could ever think that these are Christian responses to anything.

Let me give you a sampling:

"You may want to write in your social media, 'This disgusts me.'" or "Bruce Jenner is not a woman. He is a sick and delusional man." These are the tamer ones because I won't give space here to the truly objectionable quotes.

Worse for me was an article I read about a high ranking U.S. Church official speaking at a conference this week on the sacred liturgy. He was speaking to a room full of devoted Catholics, devoted to the Church, devoted to the liturgy. Speaking to the crowd, he said that someone told him of a university that offered housing “for a grand total of 14 different gender identities. I’m sure even more will be invented as time goes on.” The crowd of Christians, it is reported, laughed. They laughed.

Speaking of the Jenner situation, he said that when culture no longer respects the natural law in regards to gender the natural conclusion is that this will lead us to the  "paganism of old" with "the practice of child sacrifice, the worship of feminine deities, or the cult of priestesses."

Putting aside the, at best, challenging logic of that claim, how is any of this the way that a Christian should respond? Condemnations, accusations, and laughter. What, Sweet Jesus, would You do?

I watched the Diane Sawyer interview a few weeks ago, and again, I state that I am really confused about the whole issue of what's really going on when someone is experiencing what they call transgender disorder. What I was not confused about at all was this - the experience of Bruce Jenner's life up until now, the last 65 years, has been an experience of pain, difficulty, confusion and often depression.  It has harmed his ability to form and maintain good, open, fully honest relationships.

What all of this has engendered in me has been compassion. I feel so sad for anyone who goes through their life feeling this terrible disconnect between who they are on outside and who they feel they are on the inside - no matter the reason, no matter the cause. I cannot imagine what pain that must be to endure.

It also made me feel some sense of relief for Caitlyn that she can finally feel as though she can begin to address the situation of her life openly and honestly. There must be a tremendous liberation in that experience for her. (And for those of you who might be wondering why I'm using "she" and "Caitlyn" it is because no matter what my own personal feelings or struggles with the issue might be - I see the person first, and respect their own inherent, God-given dignity. It is a respect every person deserves.)

Please show me the passage in Scripture where Jesus says, "No, I don't think so. I don't accept you. Try again. I reject you." I'll give you a few moments to go look that one up....

Are you back? Good. I'm sure what you found was that Jesus always meets people where they are at - with love, with compassion, with joy. Jesus sees the person before Him. He loves that person - not some idealized or future perfect version - the person before Him as is. And, so should we.

Why is it that in the world of social media, those who don't claim to know Jesus have been the ones responding with love, support, care and compassion; and so many of those who do claim to know Jesus have been responding with judgment, contempt, condemnation, or worse? And we wonder why people find a disconnect between the Gospel and what they experience from the followers of Jesus?

The response that Christians REALLY should have is this:

Be people of prayer - pray for Caitlyn and people like her who find themselves in what has to be a very difficult situation. Pray that they experience God's presence in their struggle.

Be people of compassion - this is a very good general rule for us followers of Christ, by the way. The world needs our presence to be one of kind compassion. Let's not be quick to judge. Imagine if we were as quick to offer compassion as we are to offer condemnation.

Be people who listen - imagine what we can learn by listening to the experiences of other people; these experiences that are so very different, perhaps, than our own. Listening helps us to learn, it helps us to become more compassionate, it helps us to see the other as a person.

Be open and welcoming - imagine the difference we could make in people's lives if they felt closer to God, closer to Christ, closer to the Church by feeling as though they were welcome in our midst, welcome to be part of our life of prayer and community. Pope Francis said just yesterday, "The Eucharist is not the prize for the strong." Imagine the benefits of a full sacramental life for people in struggle.

Be who we are called to be - that's the heart of it. They will know we are Christians by our love. Unfortunately, especially in the public sphere, that doesn't seem to be what we show. I know how loving our Christian communities are. I was formed by them. I live in them and I thrive in them. I want the rest of the world, especially those who need us, to know this too. Let's show them how we love.

I'll give you one blog post that did have a good answer, "Jesus wasn't the one to turn away from those the world had labeled broken. He was the one who would walk towards them with open arms."

Let's respond as Jesus would respond - with mercy and compassion; with love and joy - with arms open wide.

May the Lord give you peace.

- Fr. Tom

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