This Sunday (Mothers’ Day, coincidentally or not), a shocking juxtaposition appeared in my facebook feed, of the kind that somehow compels some response, even as I wonder how I can have the audacity to say anything at all. I suppose it’s because violence always deeply disturbs me, despite, or maybe because of, being so often at a loss.
Almost the first thing I saw was this petition from Amnesty International demanding an abortion for a 10-year-old rape survivor in Paraguay (a more complete story is here). My heart immediately broke for this girl – for the violence that has been done to her, and for the additional violence being suggested as the answer to the first.
Immediately beneath that was a story written for Feminists for Life by an adoptive mother whose daughter was born to a 13-year-old girl who had also conceived in rape. For this birthmother, too, abortion was presented as the self-evident solution, but in the end it was the attempted abortion that was painful and traumatizing and the birth of her daughter that brought “unplanned joy.” And not long after that, a similar story crossed my path in which another survivor writes powerfully about mothering as a means of reclaiming the violence done to her, without glossing over the difficulties.
The more hopeful stories like these demonstrate concretely both that there is indeed a better way than adding violence to violence, and that this message rings much truer when the difficulties that remain are acknowledged honestly.
In June 2012, the blogosphere was rattled when Leah Libresco, a prominent atheist blogger known for her insatiable curiosity and staunch commitment to truth, announced that she had converted to Catholicism. A professional statistician and ardent lover of mathematics, Libresco arrived at faith through the use of reason. Beginning with the premise that morality is inherent in the natural order and discovered (rather than invented) by humans, she struggled to understand our faculty of conscience. How do we gain access to this moral truth? Ultimately, Libresco decided that this morality that reveals itself to us through our conscience is not just an impersonal Truth, but a present, loving Person: God.
In the three years that have passed since the “Aha!” moment of Libresco’s conversion, a lot has happened in her life: her graduation from university, her launch of a promising career in journalism, the continued success of her blog Unequally Yoked, and her acclimation to a new life as a Catholic. She also devoted some time to writing her first book, Arriving at Amen, which was just released today by Ave Maria Press:
When I learned at the beginning of this year that the book was forthcoming, I immediately wrote to the publisher requesting a sneak-preview copy with the promise to review it on Vox Nova. I expected a detailed narrative of Libresco’s conversion, complete with the zany twists and turns that characterize her writing: discussions of math, ballroom dancing, and of course the ubiquitous references to Broadway musicals.
Upon receiving the book, I opened it to find that while it did contain that eclectic panoply of topics, it was much more than a conversion story. Subtitled “Seven Catholic Prayers That Even I Can Offer,” the book delves into a discussion of petitions, the Daily Examen, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Rosary, Divine Office, Lectio Divina and finally the Mass. In each chapter, Libresco discusses the origins of this particular form of prayer, narrates her experience of learning to pray it, and meditates on its significance for coming to grow in our knowledge and love of God. Her fresh perspective on these rituals invites her Catholic audience to come to pray those prayers we may be less familiar with (such as the Divine Office) and to come back to our most central ones (like the Mass) with a renewed spirit It also provides a solid introduction to the Catholic faith for anyone who might be curious about it.
After reading this excellent book, I asked the author if she’d be willing to indulge me in a Skype conversation. She graciously obliged, and now I’d like to share some of her words with you.
Q: You grew up as an atheist. One thing that surprises me about your pre-conversion life is that you were a moral realist, which is not a position I see much among the atheists I know. Why were you a moral realist?
A: Actually, a lot of atheists are moral realists, though they might not describe themselves that way. In some branches of philosophy there is an intense scepticism that if you can’t describe or map something, you shouldn’t claim its existence. People might say this about conscience – if we don’t know how it works, then we can’t assume that morality is real. But to me, that seems like saying that if we don’t know how the eye works (as at one time we did not), we can’t assume the existence of sight.
In addition to relying our knowledge of how things work, we can also trust our lived experience. Some atheists come to expect that even if we don’t know the truth about morality just yet, an answer will become available. And even atheists who don’t identify as moral realists, there’s a lot of moral language used. Most of the atheists I know wouldn’t bite the bullet and say that the actions of a terrorist group like IS would be morally acceptable if the majority of people believed they were.
Q: Based on your description of the conversion experience, it appears that you came to a belief in God through logic rather than emotion. Since converting, have you come to feel and experience God in a personal way?
A: My conversion was a change of reasoning, but the solution to the part I was stuck came in a flash of inspiration. It’s like when I’m writing computer code and know the shape of what I need to do but can’t quite pin it down yet. When I reached God, I had a new feeling that I couldn’t articulate. But I had no practice in thinking of God as a person or inviting this God into my life. It required effort, kind of like when you start dating someone and gradually start making more and more space in your life for them.
Q: Why did you convert to Catholicism (as opposed to another form of Christianity?)
A: Catholicism resembled a coherent religion more than other sects. Unlike many Protestant churches, it doesn’t see schism as a valid option. It had much more of an attitude that the Church is a family where you can be a terrible sibling, but you can’t just not be not part of this group anymore. I’d say that any religion that truly has a claim on all of us should be making a claim on all of us, and Catholicism does that.
Also, Catholicism places an added emphasis on the incarnational nature of the faith. How do I as a finite person have knowledge of transcendent, infinite goodness? The Incarnation of Jesus bridges this gap, and the Eucharist goes even further with this connection.
Q: How do formalized prayers help you (as opposed to just spontaneous prayers in your own words?) Is one better than the other?
A: Formal prayer has helped me a lot. It’s easy for trivial inconveniences to keep me from praying; I have to plan aggressively to make sure I follow through on my desire to do so. I used to teach in a rationality boot camp designed to help people achieve their goals, and one thing we always stressed is the need for preparation and planning. (If you want to go to the gym, you should have your clothes out the day before; if you want to write, you should have your writing materials out and ready in advance). Starting is usually the hardest part of doing something, so you should try to make it easier for yourself. The prayers given by the Church help me in that I don’t have to worry about how to start or what to say. I also like the universality of these prayers; whenever I say them, I’m connected to other people all around the world who are also praying to God. It’s nice to think of the lateral community I’m part of as well as the immediate upward one.
Q: In the first chapter of your book (“Petition”) you talk about the power of remembering the people we don’t get along with or who’ve hurt us and praying for their intentions; you express the belief that this type of prayer allows us to love our enemies. Do you really believe that it is possible to become one with our enemies through the help of God’s grace?
A. Yes, I do. The two things that help me most are trusting that if I know this person is a human, they are also made in the image of Christ; there is something about us that unites us. Also, I try to pay a lot of attention to what the person loves or is trying to protect (even from me). It means there is something valorous or loving about them. I may disagree with what they think needs to be protected, but I still love that sense of love, and I don’t want that passion of what they’re defending extinguished – I see it as an expression of their caring for me. Instead, I want it redirected – perhaps toward me, definitely toward God.
Q: On page 11 of the chapter on petition, you make an interesting hypothesis that religious people are more likely to share their problems with one another than nonreligious people because, even if Christians can’t always solve one another’s problems, we can always say, “I’ll pray for you.” Secular people don’t have this outlet. What do you think we could do to give more support to people who don’t pray?
A: Christianity makes it easier to ask for help, and prayer gives us a way to communicate care and respond to someone’s need without solving their problem that instant. In the secular world, when we expect things to be met by immediate solutions, we don’t want to bring up problems the other person can’t solve. I believe that on the whole we could benefit from more structured ways to ask one another for help. For example, I’m part of a community that does a once-a-month job posting to help people find work. Society needs more of that kind of thing.
Q: You place a lot of value on being emotionally honest and not making a false petition. Why is it so important to avoid false petitions, and what happens to us if we make them?
A: A false petition would be like an automated message, no genuine communication. I’m relaying something untrue that has nothing to do with me.” It’s also contemptuous of me in a way that God is not – it’s really weird theology, thinking God would want me to be someone else!
Q: I was really intrigued by your thoughts on confession and impressed that you go every three weeks. Many Catholics nowadays receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation rarely or not at all, and in your chapter you give some good reasons why – loss aversion, avoiding the pain of facing wrongdoings, shame. There is the attitude of “God already knows what I’ve done wrong – why must I confess?” What would you say to people who avoid confession for that reason?
A: A sacrament is an outward sign of inward grace. Confession is there for YOU so that you know you are forgiven. We feel better if we get the reassurance that we are forgiven; making that assurance physical and tangible helps us to understand it better.
Q: In the secular world have we lost a sense of sin?
A: We certainly have trouble talking about the bad things we do without losing our compassion and respect for one another. We this on online outrage storms, where someone does something controversial that is then deemed either totally fine or totally bad. In Catholicism, however, expect people to do really harmful things from time to time. Those actions have consequences, but they do not take away the worth of the person who has done them. We accept that none of us are ever going to only do good things.
Q: Some people might say they don’t see the point of confession when we can keep on committing the same sins over again. Do you believe in growth and human perfectibility? Are we doomed to make the same mistakes again and again, or is there a genuine ability to improve with the help of God’s grace?
A: I see confession as an act of rejection/resistance against sin. It shows you are actively resisting sin, regretting the wrong thing you are doing. In terms of sinning again and again, I’m reminded of the “what the hell” effect with dieting, where people stick to a diet for a while, fall off the wagon once and then give up. We can get into this tendency of thinking that as soon as we fall back into sin, we’ve already lost the game and there’s no sense in continuing to try. I don’t think we can expect to stop sinning, but I also believe that each choice we make matters in the moment we make it. The fact that I may sin again does not stop this sin, this time from mattering.
Q: I really appreciated your chapter on the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) as I have only said this prayer once in my life, while staying at a convent in high school for a service project. But after reading your book I want to learn it! You speak beautifully about the way this prayer brackets your day with an awareness of God, connects you to other people who are praying it around the world, and also leads you to have more empathy for others if. Empathy is something you mention a lot in the book, and I am wondering if you could say more about it. Recent psychological research shows that empathy does not make us more moral or compassionate people. Why do you find it so important?
A: I don’t think empathy needs to be a means to a kind of behaviour. For me, empathy is the natural end of who we are and who we are meant to be as people. If we are to share in the beatific vision together, we will delight in all that God delights in – that includes all his creation. We can’t erase all divisions between ourselves and others, but we can try to weaken the barriers that we ourselves put up. I see that as an eschatological end in itself.
Q: In your chapter on Lectio Divina and Scripture, you talk about the via negativa – coming to know God by understanding what is not God. How does this approach help you?
A: People latched onto the via negativa because they found it hard to talk about God’s attributes (infinite goodness and love). This is hard for us to understand because we don’t have a visceral experience of the infinite. Understanding our finitude, however, might just give us a sense of it. If I am angry at someone and don’t want to be reconciled to them, I don’t know what perfect forgiveness looks like, but I know it’s NOT what I am feeling. I learn a little of what God is by looking at contrasts between that and what I do. I want to understand God so that I can become more like God.
Q: In your chapter on the Mass, you talk about the way the liturgical year helped you to mark out time once you finished university and started working full-time. Can the liturgical year help us to feel more grounded and perhaps stop us from treating time as a commodity?
A: The liturgy is valuable in terms of making me realize that time is not fungible. The annual cycle of the liturgical year made me more aware of the linear passage of time and the changes that take place. This in turn gives me reason to aggressively make time for things that are more important to me – I have a stronger sense of life’s changes.
Q: On a more general note, what do you think that Catholics can learn from atheists? In turn, what can atheists learn from us, and how can we present that knowledge in a way that will be met with receptivity?
Catholics can learn the tradition of critical thinking and useful scepticism that is so highly valued in atheist communities. Answering someone else’s questions can be constructive in showing you your own faith; it helps us to know our own framework better, and to question yourself.
We can also learn to respond constructively to the anger of atheists. For example, there’s a lot of anger about how religion shows up in science classrooms in the US. We need to acknowledge that the anger is legitimate; even when it’s not our fault, when speaking to someone, they have no reason to differentiate us from others who are doing harm.
One area where atheists are eager to learn from religion is on ritual and community-building; we see this in the growing Sunday assembly tradition and secular solstice celebrations. People see a real need that church meets and try to meet it in their own way. I think it’s a good impulse; there is a dearth of communities for people to connect to in a positive way. It’s good that more atheists are seeing this ritual as an actual human need; it should eventually lessen the tendency some atheists have to see Christianity as only being a social organization and to look beyond the warm/fuzzy benefits it gives its members.
Q: Statistics (and my own experience) show that young people are leaving the Church. What could be done to bring millennials back?
A: Parishes need to recognize that millennials are not a homogeneous group and should not all be treated the same (by offering them generic social events, etc.) Some will want to move into non-age-specific groups based on interests. For example, in my parish (which is right on Capitol Hill in DC) we have an adult Sunday school program after Mass; it’s rich in content and really draws people in. DC also has monthly meet-ups where we listen to a speaker discuss an interesting topic. Organizing activities like these will appeal to young people and give them a chance to learn more about the faith.
Q: How did you get the idea for your book, Arriving at Amen?
A: Initially I was going to write a shorter book just on the rosary, but when I pitched that idea to the publisher, I was told that there were already a lot of books on this topic. So, after some more thought, I came up with the idea to discuss all of these prayers that I was coming to the learn through the lens of my other interests and my conversion experience. I pitched the second idea to them, and I am so happy that they accepted it.
I am very grateful to Leah Libresco for sharing her story with me, and I believe that she is an example for all of us who are seeking to grow in the depth of our spirituality and faith. If you are interested in reading her excellent book, more information is available here.
Here is a lovely quote from the folks at Daily Gospel Online, taken from the sermons of St. Anthony of Padua. It was included as the meditation on the healing of a leper by Jesus (Luke 5:12-16). I have highlighted the last paragraph, as this spoke quite strongly to me and resonates with the emphasis Pope Francis has put on Divine mercy.
Oh! How I marvel at that hand! That “hand of my Beloved, of gold adorned with chrysolites” (Wsd 5,14). That hand whose touch loosened the tongue of the dumb man, raised the daughter of Jairus (Mk 7,33; 5,41) and cleansed lepers. That hand of which the prophet Isaiah said: “My hand made all these things!” (Is 66,2).
To stretch out one’s hand is to present a gift. O Lord, stretch out your hand – that hand which the executioner stretched out on the cross. Touch the leprous man and grant him your favor. Everything your hand touches will be cleansed and healed. “He touched Malchus’ ear” Saint Luke says, “and healed him” (22,51). He stretched out his hand to grant the gift of healing to the leper. He said: “I do will it. Be made clean” and the leprosy left him immediately. “Whatever he wills, he does” (Ps 115[113B),3). In him nothing divides the will from the deed.
Now, God works this kind of instantaneous healing daily in the sinner’s soul through the ministry of the priest. Priests have a threefold office: to extend the hand, that is to say to pray for the sinner and have mercy on him; to touch him, comfort him, assure him of forgiveness; to will this forgiveness and grant it by absolution. This was the threefold pastoral ministry the Lord entrusted to Peter when he said to him three times: “Feed my lambs” (Jn 21,15f.).
My heart pounded as I stepped off the plane and boarded the shuttle that would take me to the terminal. I could hardly believe that I was about to enter the country that once stood at the centre of humanity’s closest brush with nuclear war. This was a nation that, as an American growing up in Buffalo, NY, I’d always heard was bad, bad, bad; watching the six o’clock news as a kid in the 1990’s, I took the rafts I saw struggling to reach Miami as a sign of its badness. But then, once I hit adulthood and started hanging around leftists, I learned that maybe this country wasn’t so terrible after all; its people had bravely staged a revolution against a corrupt government; for all these fifty years they’ve been seeking to reject dominant paradigms and find a new way of being in the world. This was the country about to enter a new epoch with the resuming of diplomatic relations with its former arch-enemy. And, it was the birthplace and homeland of some of the world’s greatest writers and musicians: José Martí and Alejo Carpentier, Celia Cruz and the Buena Vista Social Club. Having consumed a strange soup of ideas and assumptions over the years, I did not know what to expect when I stepped into the Varadero airport arrivals and joined the immigration queue.
I did know one thing for certain: my view of Cuba was going to be limited. While the purpose of my trip was cultural – I was travelling with my Toronto-based choir in order to engage in workshops with Cuban musicians – the truth was that I could not expect to be anything more than a tourist. As scholar John Urry has argued, tourism is a complex phenomenon (particularly when there is a large wealth disparity between hosts and guests) in which visitors pay to see a spectacle they may easily mistake for its reality:
Isolated from the host environment and the local people, the mass tourist travels in guided groups and finds pleasure in inauthentic, contrived attractions, gullibly enjoying “pseudo- events” and disregarding the “real” world outside. As a result tourist entrepreneurs and the indigenous populations are induced to produce ever more extravagant displays for the gullible observer who is thereby further removed from the local people. Over time, via advertising and the media, the images generated of different tourist gazes come to constitute a closed self- perpetuating system of illusions which provide the tourist with the basis for selecting and evaluating potential places to visit (7).*
I was well aware that the experience of tourists in Cuba was radically different from that of the Cubans themselves. Most Cubans would never be able to afford the bars and restaurants that tourists frequent; only recently have Cubans been allowed access to their own country’s resorts. As much as we desired an artistic and cultural exchange with the Cubans we met, we held in our possession something that they did not: the financial resources needed for international travel and a ticket back to a wealthy country. Therefore, I knew that we would not be meeting the Cuban musicians on equal terms.
Nevertheless, as the week went by, I found myself indulging in the “tourist gaze,” growing more and more enchanted with the sights and sounds of this island. We met a community choir much like our own, a professional women’s choir (who taught us a lovely rendition of “Guantanamera”), a vocal jazz ensemble, brilliant students at a prestigious music school, and a phenomenal professional Afro-Cuban dance troupe who performed a private concert based on the myths and rituals of Afro-Cuban religions. I bought some lovely books in Havana’s old section and took a meditative stroll alongside its iconic malecón, the great sea wall built to protect the city from flooding. Our group also travelled to Western Cuba, where we visited a nature reserve, an orchid garden, and a tobacco farm where cigars – exported and sold to tourists, but rarely accessible to most Cubans – are made. But amid the beauty and enchantment of this island, snippets of a complex reality poked through. “Most people here are not in agreement with the system, but we have to pretend that we are,” one taxi driver informed me as he drove a small group of us to the old city for a guitar concert. “You can’t say what you really think – not even in your own house.”
Another cab driver, however, gave me a different perspective. “I love this country more than anything,” he told me. “I’ve had opportunities to leave, and I choose to stay. This is my home.”
“How did you put up with having to work on Christmas for so many years?” I asked Mery, a member of the jazz choir over lunch. (Christmas was not a public holiday in post-revolutionary Cuba until Pope John Paul II’s visit in 1998). “We have put up with a lot of things,” she said. She then began to discuss her country’s main problem: the economic disorder that has been in place since the Special Period of the 1990’s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union deprived Cuba of its economic lifeline. However, she did not think that Canada and Europe – places she had visited while touring with her professional ensemble – were better on all fronts. The commercialism, the ubiquity of advertising, the high degree of individualism – all of these things were somewhat unfathomable to her. When I mentioned my country of citizenship, she added more to her list of appalling things: a society where even small children kill one another with guns, a nation where racism remains deeply entrenched.
In that moment I wished I’d brought some Spanish-language copies of Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz’s 1951 essay A Captive Mind to share with the people I was meeting. Analyzing the complex reality of the Polish people under communism, this text is still urgently relevant for anyone who desires to gain insight into the life of a truth-seeking intellectual living under a dictatorship. Milosz reveals that, as much as they resented their lack of political and intellectual freedom, most Polish intellectuals did not look positively toward the Western side of the iron curtain. According to Milosz, one central concern of intellectuals in the Soviet satellite countries was the capitalist West’s marginalization of intellectuals and artists, who generally are unable to make a living from their work:
Fear of the indifference with which the economic system of the West treats its artists and scholars is widespread among Eastern intellectuals. They say it is better to deal with an intelligent devil than with a good-natured idiot. An intelligent devil understands their mutual interests and lets them live by a pen, a chisel, or a brush, caring for his clients and making his demands. A good-hearted idiot does not understand these interests, gives nothing and asks nothing – which in practice amounts to polite cruelty (39).**
This was a concern expressed by many Cuban artists we met. In Cuba artists who show promise in childhood are given a thorough education in their discipline and offered the opportunity to make a living at it. While this is true of some artists in the capitalist world, we cannot deny that for us the arts occupy a more marginalized position.
Indeed, the most striking feature of the Cuba I got to see was the wealth of its culture.Cuba’s political and economic situation has always been harsh. It was the last Spanish colony in the New World to fight for independence; however, it gained its freedom in 1898 only to fall under the immediate control of the US, which maintained influence through a series of puppet governments culminating in the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Unfortunately, the 1959 revolution ousted that dictatorship only to institute another. However, no regime has ever been able to deprive this diverse nation of is tremendously rich culture. Religion is no longer restricted. Santería – a syncretism of West African polytheism and the Catholic cult of the saints – is widely practiced; Protestant Christian churches are ubiquitous; people are eagerly awaiting Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to their country in September of this year. More broadly, it is clear that music, dance, the visual arts and literature are highly valued. Amazing murals cover Havana’s walls; at night crowds of people gather at the malecón to socialize and sing (in addition to hearing plenty of guitar players, I was thrilled to hear a trombonist). As far as I can see, the arts stand at the centre of Cuban society, not the periphery. And this is something that we all can learn from.
There is much to admire in the Cuba I was so privileged to see. Through their resourcefulness and ingenuity the Cuban people have survived the economic isolation of the Special Period – a challenge that we will all face as natural resources become more and more scarce. Compared to many countries with a legacy of slavery, Cubans have largely overcome racism. They do not suffer the extreme disparities of wealth and poverty seen in so many other countries. A basic social safety net is available to all, and Cuban physicians serve needy communities around the world. Nevertheless, listening to the few Cubans I managed to talk with about these issues, I detected in their voices the same yearning that permeate’s Milosz’s essay: a deep desire for freedom to express themselves honestly, the right to speak without fear.
*Urry, John. The Tourist Gaze. London: Sage Publications, 2002, p. 7.
** Milosz, Czeslaw. The Captive Mind. Trans. Jane Zielonko. New York: Vintage International, 1981.
Note: If you are interested in learning more about Cuba and its complex reality, there are two excellent films that I would recommend: Memories of Underdevelopment by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea (1968) and Suite Habana by Fernando Pérez (2003).
The People Wish to See Jesus: Reflections for those Who Teach
By Pope Francis
Translated by Michael O’Hearn
The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2014
One of my favourite moments of the year is early autumn, when chestnuts are ripe, the summer heat is beginning to relent, and I enter a classroom filled with students eager to begin a new academic year. While inevitably nervous, I am always excited to meet the people whose paths will briefly intersect with mine; I also feel honoured that they are trusting me as our guide in their own search for knowledge, and I always pray that I will not let them down as the weeks and months progress.
Though he does not say it explicitly, I have a strong sense that Pope Francis, who worked as a high school teacher in the early years of his priesthood, has fond memories of beginning of the academic year. However, in his native Argentina school starts not in September but March; thus, it is hardly surprising that The People Wish to See Jesus, a compact yet bounteous collection of reflections on catechesis and teaching, begins with a meditation on Lent:
“’Repent, and believe in the Gospel.’ This is what the priest said to us last Wednesday during the imposition of the ashes. We begin Lent with this mandate: Break our heart, open it so that it believes in the Gospel of truth, not in the erudite Gospel or the light Gospel or the watered-down Gospel, but in the Gospel of truth. Today, this Gospel is asking you in a special way, as catechists, ‘to repent and believe in the Gospel. But this also gives you a mission in the Church: to act in such a way that others will believe in the Gospel. Watching you, seeing what you do, how you behave, what you say, how you feel, how you love – this will lead them to the Gospel’” (3).
For Francis, the fundamental character of the teacher is that of a missionary who, leading by example, responds to the needs of a troubled people. “Today, more than ever, you can see in so many of our people’s demands a search for the Absolute, which, at times, takes on the form of an outraged humanity’s painful cry: ‘We wish to see Jesus’ (John 12:21)” (10). According to Francis, the people who come forward with this plea are well known to us. “They are the faces of children, of young people, of adults. Some look like the ‘beloved disciple,’ others like the prodigal son. There is no lack of faces marked by pain and despair” (10).
It is to these faces that we are called to respond – just as the women of Jerusalem did upon witnessing the resurrection – with a testament of faith. “Our people are tired of words; they don’t need teachers so much as they need witnesses,” he says (10). For this reason, it is hardly surprising that a book that begins with a meditation on Lent concludes with a focus on Easter. For Francis, Easter provides us with an opportune moment to reflect on education as a shared commitment that is intimately bound up with the mystery of Christ’s resurrection:
“’Do not be afraid.’ Your task as Christian educators, no matter where it is carried out, participates in the newness and power of Christ’s resurrection. Its paschal character takes nothing away from your task’s autonomy as service to humanity and to the national and local community, but it provides it with a transcendent meaning and motivation, and a power that does not come from any pragmatic consideration but from the divine source of the call and the mission that we have decided to take on” (111)
Like his previous book Open Mind Faithful Heart (which I discuss in a previous post), The People Wish to See Jesus is a compilation of essays and talks written and delivered at different times and for different audiences. Like his earlier work, however, these separate writings are edited so as to flow together coherently if not seamlessly. Also like his earlier work, they are directed toward a specific group of people – educators, particularly catechists. However, Francis speaks with a fairly high level of abstraction that makes it possible for a wide range of readers to relate to them.
In the first part of the book, Francis cautions educators to “Love, Look, Cherish, Then Teach.” It is an easy temptation to jump to the last item on this list without first pausing to examine our own commitment to the Gospel message: “One of the Church’s most serious problems, and one that often endangers its evangelizing efforts, lies in those pastoral agents – those of us who are most interested in the ‘things of God’ and most integrated into the ecclesiastical world – who frequently forget to be good Christians” (31). It is so easy to get wrapped up in the more technical and theoretical aspects of knowledge as well as the day-to-day practical challenges of teaching that we lose focus on Christ, who is at the centre of what we do.
As an antidote to this problem, Francis urges educators to draw strength from the Eucharist, a banquet in which we are called “to make efficacious the miracle of ‘neighbor empathy,’ which enables us, in this globalized world, to provide a place for our brothers and sisters and to ensure that the poor feel at home in every community. Catechists are called to make the doctrine the message, and the message, life” (13).
Francis also reminds us that in order to follow Jesus’ example and speak with authority (a word whose etymological meaning has nothing to do with power or eloquence but instead denotes “that which nurtures and augments”), we must embrace silence and listen before we speak. “[As] men and women of the Word, [catechists] should also be men and women of silence – contemplative silence that allows them to rise above the word inflation that reduces and impoverishes their ministry to hollow wordiness, like so much of what contemporary society offers us,” he states (33).
A few pages later, he reminds us of the importance of dialogue: “Learning to listen will permit us to take the first steps so that the warm welcome that is so desired will become a reality in our communities […] Listening fosters dialogue and makes possible the miracle of empathy that overcomes distance and resentments” (42). Contemporary ideas of student-centred teaching often suggest that a good teacher avoids being a “sage on the stage” and instead acts as a “guide on the side.” For Francis, however, a good teacher is a guide in the centre, deeply engaged in listening and allowing kerygma – divine revelation – to be made present for students.
In the second half of the book, Francis turns his attention from the formation of the teacher to the spiritual and social significance of education as a whole. For Francis, the idea of being a “people” is highly important and means much more than being a sum of individuals; he even calls it a “mystical category” (87). A people is dynamic, but also grounded in space and history, encompassing many generations. “We often ask ourselves with some concern, What world are leaving to our children?” Francis remarks. “Perhaps it would be better to ask: What children are we giving the world?”(75).
Francis asserts that teaching is an act of empathy that goes beyond the personal level. Just as Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan taught that we must look beyond those most similar to us and see our neighbour in the foreigner and stranger, Francis sees teaching as a way of recognizing our common humanity in each student and, likewise, seeing each student as embodied in a wider humanity. “To be ‘a teacher’ is thus, above all, a way to ‘exercise humanity.’ A teacher is one who loves and teaches the difficult task of loving every day, by personal example of course but also by helping to create devices, strategies, and practices that help to make this basic truth a possible and effective reality,” he says (97). This type of love that he discusses is not a feeling, but the experience of ‘becoming a neighbor'; it is social in nature. “There is a true paradox in the mission of teachers: the more attentive they are to detail, to the small things, to the singularity of each student and the contingency of each day, the more their actions are linked to the common, to the great, to what makes the people and the nation” (101).
Though mostly written in abstract language meant to be relevant to a broad base of people, Francis’ collection does have moments where he expresses a groundedness in the specific historical reality of Argentine, where in the 1970’s thousands of people were illegally imprisoned, tortured and disappeared by the dictatorial government. Confronting the memory of a historical moment in which practically all social institutions were stripped of their credibility, Francis states,
We need to recreate our institutions and to trust again in the mechanisms that, as a people, we have produced to move toward collective happiness. And this is everyone’s task: ruler and ruled, strong and weak, those who have and are able and those who have little and are less able […] Everyone: daring to create conditions, possibilities, and concrete strategies to bring us together again and be a people. We have experienced such a horrible history that ‘not being involved in anything’ passes as being synonymous with integrity and virtue. Perhaps the moment has arrived (and none too soon) to leave this mentality behind to recover the desire to be committed actors with values and truly noble causes” (106).
The People Wish to See Jesus brims with insight and passion; while reading it, I found myself underlining so many powerful passages that I cannot hope to share them all here. I urge you to read the book for yourselves and promise you that Francis’s challenging yet compassionate words will make you want to go “into the streets” as our pope exhorts us to and become the best teacher – that is, the best witness – you can be.
Vox Nova is pleased to welcome the following guest post by reader Mike McG.
Fifty American Catholics gathered in South Bend earlier this week to discuss Polarization in the U.S. Catholic Church: Naming the Wounds, Beginning to Heal. In an April 23rd post, this topic was introduced to Vox Nova readers and on April 27th, Vox Nova served as a portal for discussion of the opening addresses. Each of these posts generated comments well worth reading. The opening addresses are available for view at https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=rC1PxAdbFUc.
This final post recaps the exchanges among participants following the opening addresses and doesn’t begin to do justice to the depth of these conversations. These structured exchanges were closed to public so that participants would feel safe in speaking candidly. Full disclosure: The comments below reflect my distillation of others’ views and are thus subject to confirmation bias, our pervasive tendency to search for and evaluate information in ways that favor our initial beliefs.
I learned that while many parishes are rent by culture war-like discord, many more are not. Yes, we are sorting ourselves ideologically, with the geographical parish in decline and lifestyle enclave parishes on the upswing. This trend is both divisive in that it increases polarization and empowering in that it creates ownership and identity for groups otherwise excluded. Case in point: LGBT Catholics. How can we welcome them, deeply listen to their stories, acknowledge their pain, and facilitate healing? Similar questions were asked regarding racial and ethnic minorities, women, poor, abuse victims, the divorced…and, yes, traditional Catholics who can and do often feel equivalently excluded. Open question: Is it possible to have both unity and fragmentation at once? The jury is out. A great deal rests on the answer.
I learned about the rich variety of ways to communicate the gospel as mediated by our tradition. Engaging the intellect isn’t the only way and often not even the best way. We may also seek to foster ‘aesthetic solidarity,’ exploring what moves the human heart. Stories, music and art can help us to move beyond ourselves and enter into the experiences of the other. The Focolare approach to the Christian life was also discussed and seems to offer real promise. There was deep appreciation for the vision and energy Pope Francis brings to evangelization. There is broad, but of course not unanimous, admiration for him across the ideological spectrum.
I learned that avoidance of conflict cannot be our standard for discourse. We cannot silence others by dismissing any challenging discourse as ‘polarizing’ nor can we imagine that creating ‘kumbaya’ moments is our goal. Being ‘non-judgmental’ isn’t a cardinal virtue; sometimes truth has to be spoken to power. Tough question: What are the non-negotiables of our faith?
I learned that too many voices are muted. Who speaks and who doesn’t? Which voices are missing from the table? Too many. I picked up a very strong vibe that the Latino community, comprising a majority of Catholics in some dioceses and well on the way to becoming the majority in many more, does not have voice even remotely comparable to its size. Asian and African communities, although smaller, are increasing in size but not in comparable influence. We must beware of the ideological segregation which privileges the concerns of better educated, upscale Anglo Catholics, especially men like me.
I have barely scratched the surface. Perhaps the best way to conclude is to offer my own answers to the questions I put to Vox Nova readers in the April 23rd post:
…What is your read on the challenge polarization represents to American Catholicism? Given a range of 10 (high/severe threat) to 1 (low/no big thing), how would you rate this as a challenge to the tradition?
After South Bend, I’m going to say 8, one notch lower than the 9 I would have assigned before the conference. It was heartening for me to see how much we have in common despite the neuralgic and contentious issues that divide us. Yet 8 is still ‘high threat’!
…Have you felt wounded by interactions with other Catholics who seemed to disparage your deepest and most cherished beliefs and convictions?
I have. Here’s what I shared at the conference: “I am a casualty of two Catholic culture war skirmishes, one in the ‘60s, the other in the ‘80s, and I have the scars to prove it. These scars have dogged me over the years. I have never shed the resentments I formed when my deepest beliefs and convictions were disparaged. And until this moment I have rarely felt safe enough to reengage publicly on contested issues.”
…Do you ever find yourself wounding other Catholics by disparaging their deepest and most cherished beliefs and convictions, particularly those which are most remote from your own?
Yes I do…but, sadly, I am much more in touch with the wounds I have borne than those I have inflicted. This came up several times during the conference. Bishop Flores, in this pastoral wisdom, counseled us to regularly examine our consciences in this regard. (It is so much more comforting to examine the consciences of others, isn’t it?)
…How can we begin to heal the wounds and change the tone?
Besides prayer and regular examination of conscience, I endorse becoming deeply familiar with the social psychology of polarization (reading Haidt’s Righteous Mind is a superb first step), displacing condemnation with curiosity when confronted with views most discordant from our own, and developing friendships with those who inhabit very different moral matrices than we do.
…Quite apart from agreeing or disagreeing among ourselves, do Catholics of various cultural, theological and ideological persuasions fundamentally understand one another?
I really don’t think we do…and not just Catholics. I have come to believe that we humans aren’t wired well for tolerance of divergent worldviews. I think our ‘go to’ frame of reference is basically tribal.
…Is there a ‘center’ in American Catholicism? If so, can it hold?
As to the first question, I am more sanguine post South Bend. The sociologists among us estimated that only about 20% of American Catholics inhabit the far ends of the ideological spectrum. Conference participants were drawn from the 80% and were, in addition, uniquely open to contrasting views. It felt good to be among them.
However I am not at all sure that the center can hold. The 20%, while less numerous, have a firm grip on the megaphones. Their intransigence on controversial issues and their loathing of those of the opposite tribe empower them to dominate the conversation. Yes, the 80% are more numerous but many are at the margins and want to stay there. The nuance and greater tolerance of ambiguity of the 80% may equip them to be bridge builders but they often disengage when the conversation gets contentious. Look at what has happened to our Episcopal/Anglican sisters and brothers both in the U.S. and around the world.
Please weigh in below with your comments and questions.
In an article a couple of weeks ago entitled “This I Believe: Created in God’s Image,” a Jesuit brother of mine, Damian Torres-Botello, affirmed the dignity of all LGBTQ men and women. He also expressed his solidarity with them as a gay man, a man who fully accepts that he is gay and has been created in the image and likeness of God. He accepts that he is more than his skin color, his sexual orientation, or any of these other deeply important characteristics, and that the most important facet of his being is that he is a human being made in the image and likeness of God.
I am on record saying that I think it is a good thing for priests to be able, in appropriate circumstances, to “come out” to their parishioners and other people they serve. It can be a deeply consoling thing for a person who experiences same-sex attraction to hear that a priest has experienced the same thing, and yet, as Damian says, refuses to restrict himself to that facet of his experience.
The concern that I have with Damian’s article – and I write this entirely in the spirit of fraternal dialogue (believe me, we discuss this topic a lot!) – is that articles such as this and “Fine By Me” in The Jesuit Post can come off as sounding as if they accept a commonly understood LGBTQ lifestyle, a lifestyle that includes homogenital expression. For example, in “Fine By Me,” the author speaks approvingly of songs such as Macklemore’s “Same Love,” a song whose message runs contrary to Church teaching on married love. Another article about the coming out of NBA basketball player Jason Collins also speaks approvingly of “Same Love.” Macklemore’s message, to be clear, is that “underneath it’s all the same love.” But if this were true, then the Church should accept the right to gay marriage. Read more…