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Blessed and Happy Feast of St. Francis

October 4, 2015

On this the feast of our Seraphic Father, St. Francis, I want to wish each of our readers all the blessings, all the graces, all the joys that the Lord, in his infinite goodness, will dispense and indeed does dispense freely on those who turn to him.

The following is from the Admonitions of St. Francis, and it seems to be a useful reminder for both bloggers and commentators (translation courtesy of Franciscan Missionaries of the Eternal Word):

The Apostle says: The letter kills, but the spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). 2. Those are killed by the letter who merely wish to know the words alone, so that they may be esteemed as wiser than others and be able to acquire great riches to give to [their] relatives and friends. 3. In a similar way, those religious are killed by the letter who do not wish to follow the spirit of Sacred Scripture, but who wish to know [what] the words [are] and [how to] interpret them to others. 4. And those are given life by the spirit of Sacred Scripture who do not refer to themselves any text which they know or seek to know, but, by word and example, return everything to the most high Lord God to Whom every good belongs. (Admonitions VII)

Book Review: Catholic Women Break Their Silence

October 1, 2015

Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table
Catholic Women Speak Network
New York: Paulist Press, 2015

At this moment Church leaders are gathering in Rome for the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, which will take place from October 4-25, 2015. Building on the themes of last year’s meeting, this synod will discuss the issues of family life within the Catholic Church. Meanwhile, there is currently another group gathering in Rome – one that will not be participating in the synod. Coming together from around the world, these people raise an important question: how can the all-male Church leadership fairly discuss family issues without listening to the voices of half of the global population?

Today the Catholic Women Speak Network – an online global forum of nearly 900 Catholic women – is launching a book of forty essays on issues that it hopes to see addressed during the synod. Discussing such topics as marriage and divorce, contraception, same-sex love, celibacy, maternal mortality, and women’s ministry in the church, these concise yet thought-provoking essays speak boldly, honestly, and with an admirable suspension of judgment. Much like photographs, they offer a brief, incomplete glimpse into the life and perspective of another person – a glimpse that inevitably leaves the reader wanting to learn more. Bringing together prominent Catholic writers like Elizabeth Johnson, Ursula King and Eve Tushnet with voices less frequently heard, this book speaks to the lived experience of Catholic women today.

The first part of the book, “Traditions and Transformations,” contains eight essays on women and theology. Critiquing Pope Francis’ comment that the Church needs a “profound theology of womanhood,” the writers in this section look at the ways theology is being done by women – not just about them. As the Australian Dominican sister Trish Madigan writes in an essay on Catholic and Muslim women in dialogue,

As women, we find that our religious traditions have been defining us for centuries, but it has been men defining women. Certain groups of men have defined what women’s role is in society, what their nature is, and what their contribution is – usually as mothers. There has been a failure to recognize that women’s lives are multidimensional and that women have enormously varied ways of contributing to society[…] The challenges all women face in our respective religions is to be included as part of the mainstream. We want to have our gifts recognized; we want to be able to contribute to the whole of the religion, not just the one small section that is pigeon-holed as ‘women’s role.’ We are people with a whole range of skills, and we want to be able to develop fully as human beings and to contribute all our skills. That’s what women are striving for (38).

One interesting – and fortunately unresolved- question raised in these essays is whether sexual difference is actually relevant to theology. Does “Adam” represent all human beings, men and women alike? As Cambridge theologian Janet Martin Soskice observes, “[The] picture of man (the male) as able to do everything but reproduce has informed theological anthropology down o the modern period […] Women bring nothing to the table but their reproductive capacity, and ‘man’ (here meaning ‘male’) is the default position for humanity” (16). This “sexual monoculture” is justifiable in that it affirms women’s equal status as fully in the image of God – a point discussed later in the book by British writer Sara Maitland, who argues that the differentiation of “women’s nature” and “men’s nature” leads to a highly problematic paradigm where only men can share Christ’s nature and thus receive his salvation (68). However, Soskice finds the “sexual monoculture” equally problematic in that it ignores the very real social and experiential consequences of sexual difference.

Building on this idea of difference as a positive gift, Fordham-based theologian Elizabeth Johnson seeks to revisit Jesus’ relationships with women: “Women scholars are discovering that there are many scenes in the New Testament that show Jesus’ love for women, his concern for their well-being, and his freeing effect on their lives” (20). However, she adds that “Over the centuries the power of these stories has often been ignored because the men who preach and teach usually do not appreciate the suffering that women bear”(20). This concern is echoed later in Part IV of the book by Christine Schenk, co-founder of Futurechurch, when she discusses the absence of women’s stories in the readings we typically hear at any given Sunday liturgy. While we hear much about Peter and Paul in the Easter season, we hear little about Lydia, Tabitha, Prisca, and the other women who ministered to the early Church alongside them.

The other essays in this section focus on the long-established image of women as mothers. In “Who is Christ for African Women?” Anne Arabome, a Sister of Social Service from Nigeria, asserts the need to focus on the personhood of women before seeking to theologize about womanhood: “African women have been socialized into thinking of themselves as worthless if they cannot bear children, yet all African women should see themselves as mothers of life – as intelligent educators and mentors, appreciating and affirming the beauty and gift of African womanhood”(25).

Examining the cult of the Virgin Mary in Latin America, Chilean theologian Carolina del Río Mena views marianismo as the other side of the coin of machismo by presenting Mary as an idealized mother figure whose image most women either cannot live up to. “We women who do theology are mobilizing ourselves to recover a more whole image of Mary as poor believing woman of Nazareth” (29). Meanwhile, Filipina-Australian theologian Cristina Lledo Gomez suggests that the Virgin Mary and “Mother Church” are an image not just for women, but for all Christians. According to Lledo Gomez, we are all “called to be spiritual mothers – to give birth to Christ in [our] hearts and to participate in the apostolic mission of the Church motivated by a maternal love of humankind” (34).

The second part of the collection, entitled “Marriage, Families and Relationships,” is by far the most extensive, perhaps in keeping with the theme of the occasion that has led this book to come into being. As the editorial team writes in the introduction to these twenty-two essays,

In every culture women remain the primary caregivers for the young, the elderly, and the vulnerable. Young girls are conditioned to accept these roles and to subsume their desires for personal development and self-fulfillment to dedicate themselves to serving others. While such service is fundamental to the Christian understanding of neighborly love, women today are realizing that love of others does not require the negation of self. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves (43).

With many stories that are extremely personal, these essays reveal women’s struggles with the Church’s rules on sexuality, marriage, LGBTQ identity, divorce, interfaith relationships and procreation. Some of this section’s writers strictly follow the Church’s rules on these matters; others do not. University of Glasgow professor Julie Clague opens the section by arguing that there is a significant disconnect between Church doctrine and the actual practice of many Catholics. Expressing a similar point, London-based theologian Clare Watkins states,

In my own context as a Catholic in England, I can think of not one Catholic family, in all the churches I have known and worked with, which has not included some such moments of crossing a line. This fact is important. It means that each time a bishop sends a pastoral letter on same-sex marriage, or divorce and remarriage, into parishes, and each time a priest repeats rules about eucharistic discipline in these areas, tender places in the hearts of every Catholic are touched, often painfully (64).

In this section we hear from some of these people who have crossed lines: a cohabiting lesbian couple who, remaining under the radar in their Catholic parish community, meet with compassion from some and condemnation from others; a married mother of three who, after learning that natural family planning failed for her own parents, has relied on chemical birth control in order to limit her family size; a woman who, having married an abusive spouse at a young age and divorced him soon afterwards, has found peace, joy and indeed sanctity in her second, non-sacramental marriage.

Meanwhile, we also hear from women who have followed the rules: a practitioner of Natural Family Planning who speaks openly about the difficulties of enduring  long periods of sexual abstinence in her marriage due to her irregular menstrual cycle; a lesbian convert to Catholicism who finds that celibacy has offered her new and incredibly fruitful ways to live a loving, fulfilling life; a heterosexual single woman who, despite having once hoped for marriage and children, rejoices in the single life as her vocation.

What strikes me as so positive about this section is the writers’ openness and the editors’ lack of judgement. The transgressions that some of these women describe are neither validated nor condemned; instead, these women are simply invited to the table to share their stories and be heard. Moreover, the writers are not afraid to ask tough questions; for example, in an essay entitled “Being Good and Doing Bad?” Villanova University professor Katie Grimes draws on Thomistic virtue theory – which sees action and character as inextricably linked – to critique the logic of Magisterium’s official position that homosexual acts are “intrinsically evil” while homosexual people are not: “Perhaps lesbian and gay Catholics struggle to find a home within ordinary Catholic parishes because there is no place for them in the pages of magisterial teaching. The magisterium tells homosexual persons they can be but they must not do. But, if one should not do, then neither should one be” (122).

The third section, “Poverty, Exclusion and Marginalization” contains four essays focusing on the realities of women in the Global South. We are given a window into an impoverished Buenos Aires neighbourhood where three women who have experienced poverty and domestic violence transform their suffering into a struggle to help others; we are then transported to India, where a Catholic woman speaks of the struggles of interfaith families in a country where Catholics comprise only 1.6% of the population and many “stand on the margins of their faith communities with their nonbaptized families and invalid marriages, the ones who are made to feel uncomfortable by bishops, priests and people”(142). Nontando Hadebe questions the Church’s position on procreation in light of its relative silence on the problem of maternal mortality among the world’s poorest, and Agnes Brazal concludes the section with a fascinating discussion of Filipina migrant women who work abroad and become the primary breadwinners of their families. Brazal argues that these women and their children – who often suffer greatly from years of seeing their mothers through a webcam – need more support from the Church and the general culture they inhabit in enlisting men as equal partners in child rearing and household management. “Pope Francis invites Christians to have a conversation on the role of women in the church and society. Implicitly, this also involves reimagining the role of men as husbands and fathers”(153).

The final section, “Institutions and Structures,” contains six essays that speak most directly to the absence of women’s voices in the 2014 and 2015 synods on the family. Critiquing the ubiquitous discussions of “the role of women in the Church,” Sister of Mercy Mary Aquin O’Neill discusses the need to speak not of one role, but of many – just as there are multiple roles for men (162). Citing the moment in Matthew’s gospel when the Canaanite woman begs Jesus for “the scraps that fall from the master’s table” and makes him realize that his ministry is destined to reach beyond Israel’s borders, Dominican sister Madeleine Fredell assert that today’s Church needs a similar change in mentality. “Listening to women’s voices is about getting as broad a picture as possible of how God is acting in and with our reality. Therefore,we cannot settle for listening only to priests’ homilies; we need women in the pulpit as well” (173).

Bringing a millennial’s voice to the table, 35-year-old lay minister Rhonda Miska describes the blessings of her calling and the rampant problem of sexism, such as when a priest told her that her ministry was a nice temporary activity for her to do before starting her “true” vocation of motherhood. The entire book ends boldly with Canadian theologian Catherine Cavanagh’s discussion of “The Great Unspoken.” Analyzing the possible consequences of an all-male priesthood for the family, she dares to suggest that this institution gives children a clear message that men are more important than women, that their voices matter more, and that they are the ultimate decision-makers. Knowing that she is discussing a taboo topic, Cavanagh asserts, “Let us not ask what is impossible, but what is possible. Let us wrestle with the reality. Let us wrestle like Jacob with his God of all that is always here, that lives in angels, messengers, and prophets – men and women. Let us trust the other to wrestle” (182).

For me, this book is a breath of fresh air. A thick wall of silence has been broken; masks have been removed. It is refreshing to see these forty-four women speak in such a courageous, vulnerable and self-revealing way. I did take issue with some structural features of the book. Given that the second section on family and relationships is longer than the other three sections combined, this book could almost be divided into two volumes – one focused generally on issues of concern  in the Church, another focused exclusively on family-related topics. While the brevity of the essays makes the volume very accessible and easy to read,  some of the writers could have benefited from more space to flesh out their arguments.

In terms of representation, I would have liked to hear the perspectives of more traditionalist Catholics as well as more voices from the Global South – particularly East Asia, Central America, the Caribbean and the Middle East. Given the heavy Western European and North American representation of the authorship, it would have been good to hear more minority voices within those contexts – US Latina and African-American writers, for example. That said, this book is a must-read for all who seek a better understanding of the real, lived experience of women in the Catholic Church today. While these essays certainly contain much critique and questioning of the institution, the predominant sentiment expressed is one of great love for Christ and his Church. This love is what resonates most clearly with me as a Catholic woman who relates to many of the challenges described in these essays. Like them, I embrace this flawed Church which I believe is still the best witness to God’s presence in our broken world. As the editorial team declares at the end of the book,

We stay because we love the Church, and we belong within the sacramental body of Christ. We trust in the infinite compassion and love of the Christ who reached out to his women disciples in healing, welcome, and friendship. We draw inspiration from the many women named in the Bible, from the women saints, martyrs, and mystics who have kept the candle of women’s wisdom aglow, and from the anonymous women of every age and culture who have enriched our world through quiet daily acts of love and faithfulness (184).

Beyond Methodological Nationalism

September 27, 2015

Our world is facing a refugee crisis of a magnitude not seen since the Second World War. This presents us with great challenges and many hard decisions. On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).

 – Pope Francis, from his Address to the Joint Session of the US Congress, September 24, 2015

It was a late-autumn afternoon in 2001. I sat in the passenger seat and stared at the highway as Annie, my fellow college freshman, drove. We were on our way to teach a volunteer ESL class at the Hispanic Coalition, a local resource centre for recent Latin American immigrants to the county. Our classes would be informal and one-on-one, which was about as much as inexperienced, 18-year-old me could handle. I felt the knots tightening in my stomach as I slouched into the room. It was full of men – tall and short, old and young, all of them talking loudly. I can’t remember just what these recent arrivals to the US – all of whom worked as day labourers – were doing that evening. Were they huddled around a television watching soccer? Were they shooting pool? I just know they were everywhere, speaking loudly in a language I claimed to understand but didn’t. No one seemed to be in charge.

“Here,” Annie said, pointing toward a back room where more men were sitting at long tables. We sat down, and I timidly introduced myself. A guy in a windbreaker and baseball cap faced me. I couldn’t have guessed his age – 27? 42? I was 18; anyone past college age basically looked the same to me.

“So, what do you want to talk about? What do you want to learn?” I asked in Spanish.

“I want to learn English,” he responded, and I sighed, wondering how I was going to teach him anything useful in these weekly one-hour visits. We started with the basics – “Hello,” “Good morning,” “What’s your name?” Before I knew it our time was up; we shook hands and said goodbye. However, these visits soon became our weekly routine.

“How do you think we’re doing?” I asked Annie – who was one year older than me and infinitely more sophisticated, having lived in Spain with her CEO father – on a ride home after about a month of fumbling through these improvised ESL classes.

“We’re not doing anything,” she said. I glanced at her in surprise.

“What do you mean?”

“We’re not actually helping these people. We’re not organizing or empowering them in any way. We’re not even teaching them English all that effectively.” It was then that the reality of the situation – and our ineffectiveness in it –  started to click.

At 18 I knew nothing of immigrants, their needs, and the challenges they faced. But, as my college career went on, I returned to that centre several times; I also taught in an ESL program my university had started for its food service workers. As a student I was timid, afraid to ask them the many questions that were running through my mind. Why had they left home? What were the main challenges they faced in their adopted country? How did they feel about the jobs they did?

As I write this essay today, 8,000 refugees – mostly from Syrian and Iraq – are entering Europe; according to the BBC news, this is the current average number per day. Europe has been plagued with discord as leaders argue about how to deal with the influx of asylum seekers, who naturally present a logistical nightmare. In the US immigration is a major talking point for the upcoming presidential election, with some candidates promising amnesty for all and others asserting that we need a bigger wall. As Pope Francis has said on multiple occasions, the crisis of asylum seekers who don’t make it to safety is a global moral disgrace that needs our response. No matter where we stand on these issues, I am convinced that the first step lies in changing the way we think of these asylum seekers crossing borders – as well as the nations they are so eager to leave and enter.

For the past hundred years at least, scholars in the humanities and social sciences have worked within a rigid paradigm. Methodological nationalism – the assumption that the nation/state/society is the natural social and political form of the modern world – dominates our thinking. On the news, we hear of American issues first. In international diplomacy it is seen as natural that a nation would pursue its own self-interests first. We measure the world economy by looking at the status of each country. We think of cultures as fitting neatly within political borders.

But, of course, they don’t. While empires have been with us since the invention of agriculture at least, the modern nation state is only a few hundred years old. It is an artificial social construct which, as social theorist Benedict Anderson has observed, is constantly reinforced by maps, museums, media and capitalism. Seeing the world as divided into clear national boundaries, assuming a one-to-one correspondence between nation, state and culture, we forget many things. What about those who inhabit the border? What about differences within a nation? What about the consequences of colonialism and postcolonialism? What about migration and diaspora?

During my graduate studies at University of Toronto I had the opportunity to work for an academic program in diaspora and transnational studies – an interdisciplinary area of study that looks at the world from the perspective of those who have moved, whether voluntarily or not. Instead of seeing the world as a rigid map with clear national borders, we learned to think of it as a flight map whose contours were fluid and uncertain. Instead of viewing culture as rigidly contained within a set of politically determined confines (often constructed under colonialism),  we came to see it as fluid and transnational.

Changing our perspective in this way will not provide the much-needed political solutions to the current migration crisis, but it may help us to relate in a more empathetic way to the millions of people who are on the move throughout the world, particularly when we encounter them in our own communities, to view their cultures with curiosity rather than fear, to let them know they are welcome in this fragile world we share. As Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire writes in her poem “Home,”

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

Abortion as Political Profit: the Unspoken Consensus

September 17, 2015

There is a timely yet potentially endangered bill making its way from the House to the Senate, intended, as its name suggests, to protect the pain-capable unborn past 20 weeks.  (It is not my purpose here to analyze the bill at length, but as an aside it is interesting to note that the rape and incest exceptions still require an attempt to allow the survival of the child.)

While protection of the vulnerable is always timely, this is particularly so in light of the recent attention put on Planned Parenthood’s role in the procurement of fetal organs (for anyone needing an overview, Sam Sawyer has been providing excellent in-depth coverage in America), which has become something of a teachable moment in terms of the inescapable humanity of fetal lives, whether exploited for profit or ideology or simply to anesthetize the conscience.  Which motive provides the best explanation is a question of secondary importance at most.  It was already known to supporters and opponents alike that abortion, like many other forms of violence, is a lucrative business.  Just how lucrative, or even how legal, the practices of such a business are is less significant than the commodification of human lives – and deaths – in the first place.

Pro-life legislation is of course endangered due to politics-as-usual, and not only in the more immediately obvious ways, since violence such as abortion is profitable not only financially but also politically.  Read more…

The Conversion of Muslim Refugees

September 6, 2015

This is something of a companion piece to my post this morning about Pope Francis and welcoming refugees.  An article appeared a couple days ago on Crux about Muslim refugees converting to Christianity.   I post this since I first saw it on a Facebook feed from one of my friends.  The people commenting on the article seemed initially horrified by it.  (I went back to check the discussion and check on what was said, but could not find it:  curse you, the ephemeral nature of social media!)

I think the situation is complicated and worth discussing.  However, I lack the time and energy to write a coherent post about it as I am working on something else.  So let me give a few quotes and ask:  what are your thoughts?  Good?  Bad? Or more complicated than a simply binary? (Julia, that goes out to you, destroyer of all false or facile dichotomies!)

I will just throw out a teaser, a thought that came to me that I would like to explore. It seems to me that ultimately, conversion is a deeply personal act, an “I-Thou” exchange between the convert and God.  But we cannot ignore that this occurs in a social context:  to convert is to join a community and become one with it.  So is a conversion that seeks membership in a community a bad thing, or simply a first step in a longer process?

Some quotes:

Zonoobi, a carpenter from the Iranian city of Shiraz, arrived in Germany with his wife and two children five months ago. He is one of hundreds of mostly Iranian and Afghan asylum seekers who have converted to Christianity at the evangelical Trinity Church in a leafy Berlin neighborhood.  [Here “evangelical”  refers to the “Evangelische Kirche,” the Lutheran Church of Germany, and not to an “evangelical church” as commonly understood here in the US. This is confirmed by a photo in another version of this article.]…

Like Zonoobi, most [converts] say true belief prompted their embrace of Christianity. But there’s no overlooking the fact that the decision will also greatly boost their chances of winning asylum by allowing them to claim they would face persecution if sent home….

Other Christian communities across Germany, among them Lutheran churches in Hannover and the Rhineland, have also reported growing numbers of Iranians converting to Christendom. There are no exact numbers on how many Muslims have converted in Germany in recent years — and they are a tiny minority compared to the country’s overall 4 million Muslims. But at least for Berlin, [Trinity pastor] Martens describes the number of conversions as nothing short of a “miracle.”


Pope Francis, Abortion and Empathy

September 3, 2015

It has only been two days since the international news media broke the story that, during the upcoming Jubilee Year, Pope Francis will grant Catholic priests permission to forgive women who have had abortions and physicians who have carried them out. This news is already making many waves throughout the Church and beyond. Pro-choice Catholics and the liberal secular media are rejoicing at this news while arguing that it does not go far enough to change the Church’s stance on women. Meanwhile, some pro-life Catholics are already expressing the concern that this decision, while making no change whatsoever to Church doctrine, is a dangerous concession to secular values.

However, a closer look at Francis’s words reveal that as usual, his message is likely to be misconstrued by liberals and conservatives alike. Pro-life Catholics need not fear, as Francis is making no changes whatsoever to the Church’s official stance. However, he is giving us with a serious challenge in reminding us to live out our Christian summons to be a sign of Jesus’ love in the world. We are called to act with mercy rather than judgment, compassion rather than harshness, empathy rather than self-righteousness. As Francis states in “Misericordiae Vultus: Bull of Indiction of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy,”

10. Mercy is the very foundation of the Church’s life. All of her pastoral activity should be caught up in the tenderness she makes present to believers; nothing in her preaching and in her witness to the world can be lacking in mercy. The Church’s very credibility is seen in how she shows merciful and compassionate love. The Church “has an endless desire to show mercy”. Perhaps we have long since forgotten how to show and live the way of mercy. The temptation, on the one hand, to focus exclusively on justice made us forget that this is only the first, albeit necessary and indispensable step. But the Church needs to go beyond and strive for a higher and more important goal. On the other hand, sad to say, we must admit that the practice of mercy is waning in the wider culture. In some cases the word seems to have dropped out of use. However, without a witness to mercy, life becomes fruitless and sterile, as if sequestered in a barren desert. The time has come for the Church to take up the joyful call to mercy once more. It is time to return to the basics and to bear the weaknesses and struggles of our brothers and sisters. Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instils in us the courage to look to the future with hope.

The practice of mercy is not easy. At the personal level, we struggle to forgive one another for both real and perceived wrongs. Siblings hold grudges that last for years; friendships and relationships are severed over conflicting values; many of us struggle to let go of old resentments. At the societal level, shame and blame are rampant; any public figure discovered to have cheated on a spouse or embezzled money is vilified and scorned. (The infamous Monica Lewinsky recently gave a very thoughtful lecture on this topic). Our political beliefs – no matter which way they lean – give us plenty of opportunities to indulge in self-righteous moral indignation toward a perceived other whom we imbue with all of the characteristics we despise in ourselves. All in all, mercy is a much harder .task than judgment.

For me, it is an interesting coincidence that this message from Pope Francis came right during my first week of school. I am very interested in the topic of empathy and have decided to make it the theme of the introductory literature classes I’m teaching this semester. For today’s class my students read the title essay of nonfiction writer Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams, in which the author narrates her experience as a medical actor:

My job title is Medical Actor, which means I play sick. I get paid by the hour. Medical students guess my maladies. I’m called a Standardized Patient, which means I act toward the norms of my disorders. I’m standardized-lingo SP for short. I’m fluent in the symptoms of preeclampsia and asthma and appendicitis. I play a mom whose baby has blue lips.

Medical acting works like this: you get a script and a paper gown. You get $13.50 an hour. Our scripts are ten to twelve pages long. They outline what’s wrong with us—not just what hurts but how to express it. They tell us how much to give away, and when. We are supposed to unfurl the answers according to specific protocols. The scripts dig deep into our fictive lives: the ages of our children and the diseases of our parents, the names of our husbands’ real-estate and graphic-design firms, the amount of weight we’ve lost in the past year, the amount of alcohol we drink each week.

As the essay progresses, Jamison alternates between discussing her work as a medical actor and her own experience as a medical patient. Presenting her own case as that of one of her fictitious patients, she narrates a time when, at age 25, she had an abortion and a heart surgery one month apart. With striking honesty, poignancy and traces of humour, Jamison narrates the complex array of emotions she experienced undergoing both of these medical procedures: confidence in her decision to go through with the abortion, guilt over her lack of attachment to her unborn child, resentment toward her partner for his limited empathy, frustration at the cold demeanour of her cardiologist when she seeks to discuss the recent abortion, and, above all else, a desire to be understood and validated. She expresses a deep desire for mercy.

As the daughter of a staunch pro-life activist, I can understand why some Catholics will be alarmed by our pope’s call for mercy for the perpetrators of abortion. For me, abortion is nothing less than the taking of an innocent life. When I read Jamison’s piece (and I recommend you do so as well – it is wonderfully well-written), my first reaction was one of judgment rather than mercy. I was struck with the temptation to dismiss the young Jamison, who wilfully chose to have an abortion, as irresponsible at best… and callous at worst.

However, as I read the story a second time, I suddenly remembered a moment from my freshman year of high school, when I stepped into my high school cafeteria with a pro-life button pinned to my dress. “Oh come on, Jeannine,” said a classmate who would eventually come to be one of my closest friends, though I could never have predicted it as she rolled her eyes sardonically at me. “If you got pregnant, what would YOU do?”

My spine recoiled at the very suggestion that I was capable of becoming pregnant. At fourteen, I saw sex and pregnancy the same way I saw death – as too far in my future to be true. Raised in a loving, protective family, I knew nothing of abusive stepfathers or adolescent prostitutes; I naively believed rape to be a rare phenomenon rather than a routine occurrence. The idea of my becoming pregnant in any context other than a stable, sacramental marriage far in my future seemed an absolute impossibility. My friend’s jarring question stopped me dead in my tracks: what would I do if I became pregnant at fourteen? The sheer possibility of an unwanted pregnancy terrified me…and now, half a lifetime later, it still does. Because, while I hope that I would do the right thing, I cannot be completely sure that I would, no matter what, in all circumstances. And, no matter what decision I made, I would hope to be treated with mercy – even if both I and the people around me knew that what I’d done was wrong.

This is the message that Pope Francis is seeking to convey in “Misericordiae Vultus.” It is possible to show mercy toward others without compromising one’s stance on right and wrong. It is possible to recognize that we are all fragile, vulnerable sinners, falling again and again into wrongdoing, constantly needing to turn to God for forgiveness. At some point in our lives, each and every one of us is doomed to fall short of our own moral values, to cause serious harm to ourselves and others, to look in the mirror and see our worst self. But, as Pope Francis reminds us, the healing grace of Christ is always present to call us home. And just as we are shown mercy, we must show mercy to others. As Francis says,

2. We need constantly to contemplate the mystery of mercy. It is a wellspring of joy, serenity, and peace. Our salvation depends on it. Mercy: the word reveals the very mystery of the Most Holy Trinity. Mercy: the ultimate and supreme act by which God comes to meet us. Mercy: the fundamental law that dwells in the heart of every person who looks sincerely into the eyes of his brothers and sisters on the path of life.


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