Monday, January 27, 2020

Book Review: Stronger than Death
I am grateful to the editors at Plough Publishing for keeping me in mind when the publish a title with "Catholic" interest; last year I received the very moving biography of Jean Vanier, which went to press just as the great man was dying. Vanier, of course, devoted his life to the marginalized, first of Europe and then of the world.  Stronger than Death could almost be a companion volume.

Written by Rachel Pieh Jones, an American with a long experience of expatriate life in Somalia, this is the biography of an Italian woman who, like Vanier, also made a choice to consecrate her life to the marginalized, but the marginalized people of a part of the world that many would consider itself marginalized, even godforsaken: Somalia.

Among the poor of Somalia, among the victims of its political instability, its wars and its clan violence, TB patients were the poorest of the poor. People with TB were so marginalized that they and their kin would do anything to deny the condition. TB being what it is, the delay, denial, or interruption of treatment gave the disease more time to spread. Desert culture and nomadic lifestyle only added to the challenges of treating the contagion.

Stronger than Death is a vocation story, though not in the usual pious Catholic sense. Annalena Tonelli fits no prior categories. She was celibate and poor, but without vows. She was immersed in community, but lived as a hermit. She was as contemplative as Mary at the Lord's feet, but outdid Martha in the "many things" she accomplished. She was, perhaps, raised up by God to show the modern world, so tempted to trust in money and strategies and organization charts, what one person motivated by love can do.

In reading and praying, I came to realize that Annalena was conformed to the heart of God the Father in a special way. She made God's love present concretely to the people of Somalia and Somaliland. That's all she was about. And that concrete, effective love was sustained by a life as austere as anything we read of the ancient desert contemplatives. Actually, they would probably salute her as far surpassing any of their ascetical feats, for she spent her days in the care of the material needs of her children and patients, while continually living the Gospel command to have no anxiety about food or clothing or life itself.

The Lord allowed Tonelli to live a bit off-center from the Church's norm, as he did for Simone Weil. And yet the bishop not only provided her with the Eucharist, he practically foisted the Blessed Sacrament upon her: "You will know what to do." Sharing her bare dwelling with the Lord helped keep her anchored in Risen One while the Master continued to conform her to himself through her daily praying of the Bible. But the main thing is that she lived a unique union with God's heart, conforming the rest of her life and relationships to the demands of that love. And she did this with such simplicity and self-forgetfuness that she couldn't fathom why others were unable to do what she was doing and with the same intense devotion.

Of course, they had not been enraptured with the ideals of radical poverty as teenagers by reading Gandhi, as she had. They had not begun to train themselves early on to function on four hours of sleep, on a thin mat; to take two simple meals (if you could call them that) as her nourishment; to put the other first, always...

Her life among Muslims, supporting them in their faith without ever making an attempt to convert them might scandalize some Christians. She refused to live as a Muslim (only wearing a loose veil in one district where it was otherwise impossible to engage with the people), but like Blessed Charles de Foucauld and the Blessed Martyrs of Algeria, she lived as a neighbor among them. She did not mouth the Muslim prayers in order to satisfy external expectations of compliance, but withdrew to her hermitage for her own prayers. After her assassination by the embryonic Al-Shabab terrorist group, when her body was transported to Nairobi, an unknown Muslim placed a cross on the casket. Everyone knew who, and whose, she was.

Stronger than Death is a book that challenged me on every page. It challenged me through Annalena's uncompromising gift of self; her casual disregard for certain tenants of Catholic life and practice that I cherish; her incredible capacity for sacrifice. It challenged and educated me on international affairs and the complex relationships between NGOs (nongovernmental organizations, for example, the International Red Cross) and the needs and values of local populations; it challenged any naive confidence I had in governmental integrity, and so invited me to question just what it is that I am protecting when I am tempted to dissemble, even in the slightest. Above all, meeting Annalena Tonelli through the testimony of those who lived and worked with her so closely through the years (thanks to the author's dogged research and interviews), I was brought to my knees more than once to thank the Lord for his outpouring of grace upon this unusual woman, a Dorothy Day of the desert, and to ask him to open my heart to receive at least a trickle of the love and mercy that had suffused her soul.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. In addition, I received a review copy of the book mentioned above for free perhaps also in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. I am committed to giving as honest a review as possible, as part of my community's mission of putting media at the service of the truth. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Friday, January 03, 2020

Jesus: What's in a (Holy) Name?

My Dad was a fervent member of the Holy Name Society––not just a card-carrying, pin-wearing, Communion-breakfast organizing member, but a zealous promotor of the medieval mission of the Society. When Dad heard the Holy Name of Jesus misused on the street or in conversation, he would turn the blasphemy into a prayer, "Blessed be Thy Holy Name." By the time I was a novice, Dad was president of the National Association of Holy Name Societies.

So today's feast of the Holy Name of Jesus means something to me personally. 

Granted, this is the "Name above all names" at which "every knee shall bow," if Paul is to be believed (see Phil 2:10-11), since the feast day was only relatively recently returned to the calendar (as an optional memorial) you may find it unfamiliar, and perhaps even a little strange: a feast day for a name? 

But this is not "any other name":

There exists no concept of Jesus. A concept is the expression of an intelligible reality. A concept is what human thinking attains went it has managed to become master of an object by abstracting it from the conditions in which it exists in the world. It is the general symbol under which the particular is subsumed. Of Christ there can be no such concept.
Of him we have only an name – the name which God himself gave him. The words "Jesus Christ" do not connote any general idea but express one single, particular occurrence. They are the name of him once came among us and suffered a death which was our redemption. He alone can reveal what He is.

Romano Guardini

Guardini passage taken from The Humanity of Christ: Contributions to a Psychology of Jesus. There seems to be only one copy available through Amazon, if you have $272 to spare for it! Maybe a seminary library has it on the shelves; (Pantheon, NY, 1964), page 121.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Just saying "Merry Christmas" (and Thanks!)

Mascoutah, IL. Population: 8,600. Concert crowd: 800.
The novices are busy decorating the chapel. The choir sang its final notes of the 2019 concert tour on Friday night in Mascoutah, IL ("Everything I thought it would be," said Sr Carly dreamily as we drove past acres of corn stubble)--to our biggest crowd outside of New York, it should be noted. We got back, most of us, to our respective communities on Saturday night, so we're still kind of recuperating from three very intense but rewarding weeks. 

Thank you to those who contributed gifts through our motherhouse's Christmas wishlist: you provided everything we needed, from ergonomically designed snowshovels to new mops and buckets (and Pine-Sol!). Every day delivery trucks unloaded box after box, some of them quite large. Sister Lily is still opening packages! (A photo of the community with a sampling of the gifts will be forthcoming.)

We enjoyed some good media coverage during
Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti
our tour, too: some of it related to the concerts, but not all. Things got started a bit earlier than usual when an opportunity arose to sing a "mini-concert" in Boston's shopping district of Downtown Crossing. Because of Sister Mary Domenica's funeral and Thanksgiving, we had only had three days of disjointed practice, but we decided to make this an evangelizing opportunity. Standing on the small stage right outside of Macy's (and facing a two-story inflated Rudolph), we sang mostly lively songs with a very clear Christ-mas message (one, with a strong R&B sound, even proclaimed, "Jesus is the Reason for this Time of the Year!"). At the center was O Holy Night, which echoed from building to building. A crowd of about a hundred or so stood "in the frosty air" and danced, clapped or waved their arms in prayer according to the mood of the song. One man shouted, "This is what it means! This is Christmas!" (He was so engaged, some people thought he was our director!) Afterwards, as we prepared to leave, one of the city street sweepers came to tell us that he had heard "No kidding, heavenly music coming through the streets. I couldn't tell from where. You're not just singing about God: you're communicating God himself." The next morning's Boston Herald gave us a full page, and their Twitter feed included video from the scene (you will probably have to click through to Twitter to see the video):
Staten Island Advance/Carol Ann Benanti
The Staten Island Advance gave generous coverage of the 25th annual Daughters of St Paul Christmas Concert, the "unofficial start of the Christmas season" on the Island. The staff photographer captured some phenomenal images, too. The Global Sisters Report looked at the concerts as an expression of our media mission. The writer was present at our smallest event, in the Freed Auditorium at Christ Cathedral in Orange County. Though this was our smallest event, the audience (about 300) completely filled the venue. (This was our first concert ever in Orange County, so we were thrilled with the turnout, though it does mean that we will have to shop for a different location if we are to return next year.)

And then there was the TODAY show (again, you might have to click through to Twitter to actually watch the video segment).

The four-minute feature was exceptionally well done. Naturally, the media people understand our media ministry, and the new "Faith" segment of the show treats religious practice with refreshing respect. They also did their homework, looking up our history and historical footage. Feel free to share the segment widely through your social media channels and to thank NBC for this positive coverage! of media, we released a concert album this year, too: "He Is Born." Many of the songs have been featured on earlier albums, so you may prefer to just download the new ones. I want to draw your attention to the fabulous Polynesian beat in our new arrangement of Deck the Halls (hence the leis in the photo above), and the Soul Sisters Medley which was something of a skit, but which we think people will have a lot of nostalgic fun with.

You can also listen to the new Christmas album (part of Sister Margaret Timothy's Ultimate Christmas Playlist) on Spotify and other streaming sites. Either way supports the mission of the Daughters of St Paul!

And now it's Christmas Eve.

So I have time to wish you a Blessed and Merry Christmas; a Christmas of holy abundance; a Christmas of hope, even if life has thrown its worst at you this year (or is saving it up for 2020). No matter what, Jesus came to save us by taking everything that is ours upon himself. That is the message I gave in all the concerts, using the words ancient pagan playright Terrence as if they were coming from God himself (which, since the Incarnation, they are): I am a man; nothing human is alien to me. The one who was born in a stable will not be repulsed by anything we throw at him; will not be reluctant to come to wherever we or our loved ones are. In fact, he is already there.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Because you asked...

At Christmas, people wonder what little item might be useful for a Sister they know--aside from the gifts that we will always tell you are the best for religious communities: PRAYER (especially for vocations) and shareables, like gift cards for coffee shops or dining establishments (e.g. Chick-fil-A, IHOP, Panera...) where a community can enjoy a meal together without a lot of time or expense on anyone's part. (Actually, this year my community has a very specific need of snow shovels: something both sturdy and lightweight, if that exists. And now our superior has posted a specific wishlist for our extremely large and complex community.)

But sometimes people want to add a little something small and personalized. Now, since an opportunity has come up for just that sort of thing I am (with a bit of reluctance) creating this small, specific list that has a few items that would be helpful to me (and maybe also to you), PLUS I am recommending a couple of items that you might consider for your own family and friends because I have found them so engaging. I am using affiliate links, which means that orders from the links generate a tiny commission.

Zebra F pen
I was visiting my family in June, which meant that I was home for Father's Day and witnessed the unique Father's Day gifts my geeky brother-in-law received. Lo and behold: he and I are aficionados of the exact same pen, the Zebra F. I have two (but I would love to have spares in case of loss!) and always need a supply of refills on hand. Robert (the brother-in-law) maintains a steady supply of the pens themselves--and Father's Day really helped out there. At any rate, I (along with Robert) highly recommend this slim, smooth-writing pen.

Post-It Flags by the Hundreds!
My reading companion. A lot of the reading I do has a twofold scope: personal and community enrichment. Especially when I'm going through the volumes of our Founder's sermons, there's no way a book will support the number of holy cards it will take for me to mark important sections. Hence, I never read those texts without making sure I have a nearby dispenser of Post-It flags (usually in red or blue, whichever color is cheaper at the time) to mark the very lines or paragraphs with significant passages to translate for future use. Some pages end up with three on the side, and one on the top (that means the section requires especially quick turnover).

Please don't laugh. I'm doing a new project for our MY SISTERS community and it involves ... reading. Sigrid Undset. And it just happens that our community library does NOT have a copy of her biography of St Catherine of Siena. So if I happened to a copy of that around Christmas time, it would eventually find its way into our card catalogue (or whatever system we choose when we update the library; it's a massive undertaking). (Of course I have a perennial wishlist!).

Now, things for you to consider.
I got this digital microscope last year and have really enjoyed using it. It connects to my Android phone (not to iPhones) and can be used with computers (including Macs) as well. I have used it to examine snowflakes and bugs and also the tiny scratches on a silver chain which turned out to be, yes, 925 (sterling silver).  (Another digital microscope says it works with iOS, but since I can't verify that for you, I am just giving you the link to check out on your own.) Great for kids with a scientific or naturalist bent. Or geeky grownups, like me.

Original Slinky: I have one of these nostalgia toys in my office and people can't keep their hands off of it. People my age reminisce about sending them down staircases; younger people marvel at the therapeutic value of shifting the weight of the spring from hand to hand. For therapy, you can't beat the price.

Barry's Tea: The real-deal Irish breakfast tea. If you have never had it before, Barry's will let you know right away what you've been missing all this time. You'll wonder just what it is you've been calling "tea."

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

On the Passing of Three Paulines...

This year's Feast of Blessed James Alberione (today!) is particularly poignant for the Pauline Family in the United States. In Canfield, OH, our Society of St Paul brothers are gathered with other Paulines (especially the many local members of the Holy Family Institute) and family for a double funeral. Father Jeffrey Mickler and Brother Paschal Duesman died within hours of each other last week; Father Jeffrey in a sudden fall that resulted in a death-dealing blow to the head, and Brother Paschal
of a cancer that was only discovered this year. And this afternoon in Boston we will begin the vigil for our Sister Domenica Sabia, who died Saturday night after complications set in from a hip fracture (she, too, suffered a fall just two weeks earlier, but her death at 87 was less of a shock than the sturdy Father Jeffrey's at 72).

Our morning prayer offered a perfect thought from the Founder for a day like this, taken from a sermon he gave in 1938 to the then newly-founded Sisters of Jesus the Good Shepherd (nicknamed "Pastorelle" Sisters): "Our offering must be total: not a fiber of our being, not a beat of our heart, if not for the Lord. Thus shall we consume our energies only for his love up to the point of possessing him in eternal life, in paradise, with all the saints."

Daily we pray for new Pauline vocations, and in our "Pauline Offertory" we ask for an increase in the number of Catholics dedicated to media evangelization and the efficacy of their works. This past week saw not a numerical increase of earthly media evangelizers, but a net decrease (at least among Paulines), so please join us in praying for a threefold (or more!) increase in Pauline vocations as the Lord's "recompense" for calling these three from us (in the words of a prayer by Blessed Alberione from 1946; hence the dated language):

Mary, Queen of Apostles,
Grant your motherly protection to all those who dedicate themselves to this urgent apostolate of the press.
Make their words, their sacrifices and their footsteps bear fruit.
Obtain for their efforts the sweet reward of seeing a wider diffusion of those writings that unhesitatingly promote Jesus Christ.
O Mary,
Obtain for us at the end of our life the crown promised to those who have fought the good fight and kept the faith intact.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis #5

Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), on understanding the Church's first Latin American Pope and his ministry, I present you with key #5:

5. Pope Francis is the Pope.

Every five years or so, the heads of the dioceses go to Rome to report on the situation of their local Church with visits to the various dicasteries in the Vatican (for example, the Dicastery for Communications, for Human Development; the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors) and to meet personally with the Holy Father. Right now the US Bishops are making their “Ad limina” visits to the Holy Father (the Bishops of New England went first!).

In the Philippines (photo by Michael Makri, SDB)
It takes about seven years for the Pope to meet all the diocesan “Ordinaries” of the world. He gives them a chance to talk about their biggest concerns for their people, and he take the opportunity to share his own chief concerns with them. Now that Pope Francis has been on the Chair of Peter for six and a half years, and made personal visits as Pope to (so far) 48 nations, Francis knows the Church and the world like nobody else. This puts him in a unique position.

When he speaks, it can be hard to know whom he is addressing, because he has so many people and situations before his eyes. It could be any of the world's 1.2 billion Catholics, most of whom are poor, and a huge percentage of whom are in life-threatening situations from corrupt political systems or lack of education, environmental degradation or dangerous working conditions (so many times, all three go together). Or he may be addressing other Christians (another 1.1 billion), who are open to his leadership because he is clearly not seeking his own advancement. Sometimes we see him reach out to people of other faiths, as when he and key Orthodox Christian leaders met at the Vatican this past October 28 with Jewish and Muslim leaders to reaffirm shared values in end-of-life care, and restate their opposition to euthanasia and “physician-assisted suicide.”

He has his hand on the pulse of the whole world, and our corner of it may be very, very small. Indeed, we may well be lacking the tools to even interpret what the Pope is saying (or doing) because our own experience of Catholicism itself, or of the Catholic world, is too limited. (I have certainly had that experience as a member of an international religious congregation!)

How many times is the Pope acting “in persona Christi”—but not in the classic sense that lifetime Catholics may expect? He may be taking us back to the Upper Room where the Master offered a deliberately provocative act of charity to break through his disciples' conventional thinking and tell them, “I have given you an example” (Jn 13:15).

This is not to say that no one can disagree with the Pope's practical judgments, any more than Paul hesitated to differ with Peter's personal decision to resume a kosher diet while in Antioch (see Gal 2:11-13). But in a media age, where criticism has an exponential capacity (and a peculiar credibility), it is unwise to draw increased attention to what one may find disagreeable. It was always Bl. James Alberione's publishing policy (and he lived during Italy's difficult Fascist period) in the case of Church leaders, to respond to actions that seemed out of place, badly timed, or outright disedifying by affirming in a positive way the principles that one found compromised.

This would be sound advice for Catholics in social media today, too. It  keeps honest disagreement from devolving into personal disparagement or an animosity bordering on contempt. (There are some posts I have seen on social media which are so vile that I am afraid that the Catholics posting them avoid mortal sin only because of their ignorance of the gravity of what they are doing.)

There are thousands of voices pleading for attention (Nunblogger is one of them!); thousands who believe they have something of value to offer. Only one teacher on this planet was given an assurance of divine support. Only one man was given the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven.

He, and no one else, is the visible sign of unity for the Church. We really have nothing to fear if we stick by him.

I think I'll cover some media issues related to Pope Francis in a future post. In the meantime, here are all the 5 (More) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope)

Thursday, November 07, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #4 (updated)

Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), on understanding the Church's first Latin American Pope and his ministry, I present you with key #4: 

4. Pope Francis is Catholic.

I remember that back in the late 70's and through the 80's there were certain pious Catholics who, it seemed, could never refer to the Pope without using a string of titles: "Our Most Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, His Holiness, Pope (name)." Since this was invariably done in Catholic settings, it really was overkill. It drove me nuts. (Today I suppose we would call this "virtue signaling.") Granted, there were plenty of people in the Church who were doing crazy thing in the name of "the Spirit of Vatican II," it really wasn't necessary to affirm the status of the Bishop of Rome at every mention. Especially for daily Mass in a convent.

Not only as the Vicar of Christ on Earth, Successor of Peter, Servant of the Servants of God, and Bishop of Rome, but simply as a fellow member of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has a right to presume that what he says (even informally) about faith and right living will be interpreted in continuity with the whole trajectory of Church Teaching. In other words, it is not necessary to restate each and every time what definitions are to be used for ordinary theological terms and concepts, any more than it was necessary for those pious Catholics in the 80's to clarify exactly what the Pope's job description was every time they mentioned his name. This is not only a precept of charity, as St Ignatius reminded us over 400 years ago in the very trying years of the Protestant Reformation (while the Inquisition was actively involved in investigating any theological discrepancies that came its way); it is also an obligation of prudence, which does not leave everything open to question, debate, or challenge.

People can and may disagree with the practical conclusions or priorities they find in Papal documents; they may believe that other vital concerns are being neglected or sidelined; they may not like where things appear to be going. But it is unwise,  unfaithful and ultimately anti-Catholic to run Pope Francis' official teachings through any kind of "orthodoxy filter." It is especially unjust to interpret the Pope's words and official teachings through a lens of unbiblical, anti-christian or political philosophies, or theories that are plainly opposed to Catholic Tradition (that Tradition itself being understood in the broad sense, and not judged by one's own experience or by an appeal to limited cultural expressions). In other words, the only legitimate interpretive key for understanding Church documents (or papal remarks) is...Church teaching.

This can be a challenge in the case of a pastor like Francis who is willing to speak directly to the person he is with, off script and without regard for the way an expression can be taken out of context (even from good will or an excess of enthusiasm) and take on a life of its own. Most of us know how to "hear" what our friends or our trusted advisors mean even when they misspeak. A relationship wouldn't last long if one party was continually scrutinizing the other's every move with a prosecutorial ear,  presenting him or her with a tabulated list of faults or near-misses at the end of each encounter. And yet there are Catholics who presume to do this with the Most Holy Father, the Vicar of Christ on Earth, and Visible Head of the Church, especially if they have found a Cardinal or two whose manner or clarity of style they find more congenial.

The gates of hell ultimately will not prevail over the Church, but in the meantime, our battle is not against flesh and blood, and certainly not against our fellow believers (much less the man entrusted with shepherding the Lord's flock!). No, "our struggle is against principalities and powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness" (Eph 6:12) who will do anything to scatter the sheep or separate them from the one whom Jesus established precisely to be the visible center of unity for his followers.

Let us pray:
Cover with your protection
our Holy Father,  Pope Francis.
Be his light,  his strength,  his consolation.

Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #3

Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), on understanding the Church's first Argentinian Pope six years in, here comes key #3: 

3. Pope Francis trusts in the Holy Spirit.

Here I can speak from personal experience, not of Pope Francis, but of the Holy Spirit as the real "ruler" in a Church institution. After all, I live in a canonically established religious institute. My life is regulated by Canon Law and my canonically recognized congregation's Constitutions. I have made perpetual vows according to those Constitutions and in line with Canon Law. I have staked my life on God's faithfulness not just to me personally, but to my congregation.

Most people assume that the vow of chastity is the toughest of the three. (It certainly is the aspect of our life that speaks the most clearly to society today!) But for me (and, I think, for many women religious) the really tough vow is obedience. We commit ourselves to obey women whose directives we promise to receive as the will of God for us. That doesn't mean that we vow to be brainless doormats (we can respond with information that the superior may not have had when making a decision, for example), but the bottom line is still that the superior in a certain sense represents in a community the place or role of the Divine Master among the disciples, and her decisions are not to be shaken off.

A number of years ago a decision was made by a major superior (someone my Mom referred to as "Big Momma"). This decision affected over a hundred sisters. It was supported by a powerful member of the hierarchy. There was no form of appeal. It was simply one of those rare cases in religious life where a very large group of sisters was obliged to receive an unexpected decision in a spirit of obedience.

I have been a religious sister for over 40 years, and that was the most difficult time I have ever faced in keeping my vows.

That day's Gospel was the story of the multiplication of bread and fish in John 6. John lets us know, "Jesus knew what he was going to do; he said this to test Philip's response." Those words seemed to speak directly to our situation.

And then the next day's Gospel was the continuation of John 6, with Jesus walking on the water. The disciples cried out, but Jesus said to them, "It is I!"

I cannot describe to you what it was like to hear that Gospel proclaimed under those circumstances. The words, "It is I!" reached into my body and shook me as if the Lord wanted me to really know that it was, in fact, he who was behind all that was going on. It looked so terribly unfair, and on the human level it is quite possible that not everything that had led to the "Big Momma's" decision was entirely above-board; that it was too hurried; that all-too-human motives had entered in, without information being pursued. None of that mattered as much as the fact that in and through all of this, Jesus would still be the Master, would still be in charge, would "order all things mightily and sweetly" and in such a way that they would turn out better than if the humans in charge had done their due diligence in the most proper manner possible.

I learned over the next few days that I was not the only sister who had heard those words of the Gospel in the same striking manner.

Time has shown that what looked like a fatal and dismaying abuse of authority in the end had no dismal repercussions on our community. If anything, it strengthened our faith; I know it strengthened mine to such an extent that every time I am tested I go back to that assurance, "It is I!" to remind myself of how faithful God is. (When I write those words in my journal they are underscored three times and followed by three exclamation points. Always.)

And so I offer you this experience of mine to suggest how Pope Francis may trust in the Holy Spirit. Certainly he trusts in the Holy Spirit more than in human processes and promises!

Likewise, we as a Church are also invited to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in merely human actions, rationales, projects and plans. We are invited to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in our own fears. We are invited to trust more in the Holy Spirit than in the human qualities of the Pope. We are invited to trust that it is only the Holy Spirit who keeps the Barque of Peter afloat on the stormy waters of our times, and that as long as we stay in the boat, we have nothing, really nothing, to fear because of the one with Peter who says to him and to us, "It is I!"

Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #2

Continuing the theme from my 2014 e-book (now out of...print?), and following up on the first of these five efforts at understanding the Church's first Argentinian Pope six years in, here comes key #2:

2. Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos.

"No kidding," I hear you say.

Think of the first Christian Pentecost. The sound of a driving wind (where was it coming from?), the unmoored flames popping up seemingly everywhere, voices raised in languages that no one had ever heard, much less spoken, before. It must have seemed like...chaos.

I think Pope Francis would rather provide an open forum for conflicting opinions to be discussed with broad input than allow them to keep being cultivated by special interest groups that cloak their agendas in acceptable language and symbols, all the while working feverishly to divide and conquer.

In other words, he is not afraid of chaos, but he is very suspicious of secret machinations.

What may look like chaos is often part of a process of development; it's a stage in the working out of things. Ideas are proposed, perhaps with fanfare and to general applause. Then, from a quiet corner of the room, an observation is made. A gentle ripple begins to spread. Another fanfare. This time, a trumpet blast from an opposing group. More applause. From a different corner, an upraised eyebrow signals the start of a subtle chain reaction...

No one can really predict where the process will lead. Maybe in the short term it will be a dead-end. Maybe it will lead to something less than optimal being established, but in the long term, no matter how much chaos is raised, we know that when it comes to the Church of Jesus Christ, "the gates of hell will not prevail."

As an older person, Francis has seen this sort of thing many times. No wonder he's not too concerned.

Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope

Monday, October 28, 2019

5 (more) Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, #1

Six years ago, just about this time of year, I was working on what turned into a small e-book, 5 Keys to Understanding Pope Francis, who was a very new Pope at the time  (the book was recently retired, or I'd link to it). Especially after the events of the past three weeks with social media headlines from extreme left and right, I thought it was time to offer five MORE keys to understanding Pope Francis.

These keys come in part from my own reflection, in part from seeing the misinterpretations that have gained way too much traction in social media, and in part from the genuine questions that have come my way from Catholics in the kind of churchly circles I tend to swim in: liturgically sedate, doctrinally unadventurous, conventionally pious. (Let me state from the outset, for the benefit of any who are tired of finding themselves on the receiving end of veiled criticism, that  I do not intend these words in any negative sense whatever: I am trying to be dispassionately accurate about things I am actually passionate about!)

1: Pope Francis is Latin American.
This means he is deeply familiar with expressions of faith integrated into a Catholic culture that is, some might say, "colorful" (in more ways than one). We "hear" that culture in the chords of Mexican mañanitas; we see it in the way the Sign of the Cross is made (with the thumb and forefinger forming a cross that is kissed at the "Amen"); we touch it in the textiles with woven patterns that often go back centuries; we feel it in the heat of a thousand candles burning not only in shrines before fully-clothed statues, but in home shrines (fire hazard be damned). In the most middle-of-the-road parish in Brazil on the most ordinary Sunday in Ordinary Time, the proclamation of the Gospel is preceded by a festive procession with loud and joyful acclamations, song, full-bodied movement through which every member of the assembly welcomes the Word of the Lord and declares his or her readiness to hear and obey that divine message.

For the Latino Catholic, the liturgical assembly is a community in a real sense of the word: the family does not go to Church simply to fulfill an obligation to go to Mass. Going to Mass is gathering as a family to hear the Word of God and respond together; to receive Jesus and to spend time, even a lot of time, with his people. The children run freely and play together after Mass (often during the Mass they are left free to walk the aisles and look at the statues, or visit another family in their pew); the adults are glad to share traditional food and drinks afterwards, catch up on news and ask or receive needed assistance. There is no rush to return home.

Heading to a Día de los Muertos
parade in Albuquerque. 
These are aspects of "popular" religious culture in the sense that it is imbued with the native spirit of the various indigenous societies that first encountered the Gospel in the 16th century: it bears the mark of the ordinary "people" (populus) and their history, purified of elements that were found directly contrary to the Good News. (Where things were ambiguous, that ambiguity was taken in the most positive sense and steered toward the much as possible, as with the Día de Muertos.)

North American Catholics who live in areas like San Antonio, Southern California, Miami, Chicago, parts of New York City are familiar with these living cultural traditions. Outside of these areas, they may seem like artificial add-ons, especially when they touch the liturgy. But for Pope Francis and other Latin Americans, these are normal and authentic ways of celebrating the liturgy and living parish life, not forced efforts at local color or "inclusivity."

But there may be a bit more, because...
Pope Francis is Argentinian.

This summer I learned a little something from an Argentinian sister about her co-nationals. "Generally, Latino people are demonstrative," she said, "but we Argentinians tend to be more reserved. As a culture, we are not emotionally expressive." I suppose I would say that this makes the Argentinians seem more sophisticated. And Argentina's 20th century history was ... interesting, to say the least.

At any rate, Pope Francis' Argentinian culture might be important for another reason than people thinking he might be aloof when he is really just in "neutral." But Pope Francis's words have been unusually harsh when it comes to one group. He will "encounter" anyone and everyone, and is willing to "dialogue" with all types. Yet he seems completely unwilling to engage with priests and seminarians who promote what many North American Catholics think of as "solemn" liturgies, especially the Latin Mass according to the 1962 missal. (There is official dialogue with the breakaway traditionalist group started by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.)

What gives?

As archbishop, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio had a strong track record of being with, for, and among the poor. It was his responsibility to provide for basic instruction in the faith, offer the sacraments, console the sorrowing, support the weak in a major city in which millions barely survive in a completely broken social order, and he was known for having time for the city's poorest.
This is just speculation on my part, but what if in Latin America the population that tends to favor solemn high Latin liturgies has also tended to be comfortable enough to have liturgical preferences in the first place, whereas the majority of people are barely getting by? I can see that Pope Francis would not be particularly interested in what might seem to be arcane in-house matters when as a bishop he had to deal with the moral and pastoral implications of overcrowded slums, drug (and human) trafficking, and the desperate lives of the hopelessly poor in a country with rampant political corruption--all things that he can now see on a much vaster scale now from Peter's chair.

There is also the unfortunate reality that hypocrites like the disgraced founder Marcial Maciel (and other moneyed [politically-aligned?] parties sponsoring "pious" organizations) with large numbers of followers in Latin America seem to have cultivated qualities that we can see make Francis bristle with irritation: "rigidity" in manners, impeccably high taste, scrupulous observance in liturgy and traditional piety. It could be that Francis is personally impatient with preoccupations that seem to him, from his experience of specific cases, not matched by authenticity and a serious commitment to social justice and which may be tainted (even if third-hand) by the grossest betrayals possible*.

I am not saying that concern for justice is not there, just suggesting that the Pope's personal experiences in the Latin American context may have something to do with his apparent disinterest in church traditions (small "t") and the concerns of people who are passionate about them.

So what I am getting at is, if you are one of those high-liturgy-loving Catholics (I am!), or a Saturno-wearing priest (not me!), don't take it personally that the Pope doesn't have time for your special interests. Don't wince at the brusque remarks about rigid seminarians or clericalism. This is not about you or us (he doesn't know you, right?). If he doesn't engage in dialogue with this one sector of the Church, it is perhaps because he feels he has already experienced enough of it for a lifetime. Jorge Bergoglio may have been as burned by his experience 30 years ago as some of us were by the liturgical opposite. (Hey, we're in the Northern Hemisphere, so things get reversed!)

Tune in later this week for another key to understanding Pope Francis!

Here are all the "5 (More) Keys" posts:
Key #1 (Pope Francis is Latin American)
Key #2 (Pope Francis is not afraid of chaos)
Key #3 (Pope Francis Trusts in the Holy Spirit)
Key #4 (Pope Francis is Catholic)
Key #5 (Pope Francis is the Pope

*Several less famous but popular religious communities and movements founded over the last several decades in Argentina, Peru and Brazil have recently been suppressed or are currently under investigation for all manner of sexual abuse and malfeasance, including money laundering for drug lords. Some of these groups were (are?) noteworthy for their outward asceticism.

Friday, October 11, 2019

We're b-a-ck!

Well, sort of. Still a bit jet lagged, to tell the truth. The plane got in Tuesday night, with six Daughters of St Paul on board: we picked up an extra sister while in Rome. Sister Andrea, from the Czech Republic, will be in the US for a good part of the year working on her English skills and taking part in the Media Literacy course (put on by our Pauline Center for Media Studies). But one of the six will be returning to Rome sooner than anticipated.

Our provincial superior, Sister Donna Giaimo (third from left in photo), was elected to our congregation's general government
as a councilor to the new Superior General, Sister Anna Caiazza. So Sr Donna (a former member of the Daughters of St Paul Choir) will be moving to Rome at the end of November to serve a six year term, along with two re-elected councilors and three other newly elected councilors (from Korea, Italy and Kenya--the first African sister in our general government). For us (and, I'm sure, for our sisters in Korea, Italy and Kenya) this is case in which the greater good of the worldwide congregation is asking us to sacrifice an "Isaac" whose capable service we have really appreciated and hoped to benefit from a bit more ... directly. It is a real test of faith!

Our new Superior General, Sr Anna Caiazza, introducing me to the Holy Father.
In order to strengthen our faith in the face of that sacrifice in accord with the mandate given to the successor of Peter to "strengthen the brethren," we were given a special private meeting with Pope Francis the day before our General Chapter ended. I had been doubtful that non-delegates would be able to participate in this audience, but we were included, and even our sisters who work in a nearby Vatican office were allowed to sit in for the Papal address and one-on-one handshake with the Holy Father. His talk was practically a confirmation of everything that had been discussed during the long Chapter, and when he reached the point of saying "We don't have time to lose," he looked up, raised his hand in that characteristic teaching gesture of his, pointing to the sky and repeated: "There's no time to lose." You can read his whole talk here; in fact, I recommend it!
Outdoor art in Albano. The bucket says, "Laudato Si"; the tag is #exemplumomnibus
Speaking of Pope Francis, in late September he visited the nearby town of Albano (location of our hospital), where the local bishop commissioned an outdoor art piece (unveiled the day of the papal visit). The following Monday I had an errand to run in town: a perfect excuse to see the painting for myself! It is located right across from the Cathedral entrance, on the outside wall of a building. There was a big truck in the parking lot when I got there, so I took a few pictures and then went to visit the Cathedral. When I came out, the driver had pulled the truck several feet forward, giving me an unobstructed view of the painting, which really is charming. I got a very strong sense of how intensely Europeans feel the environmental issue; by addressing it, Pope Francis is establishing a sense of common ground with people who may not share our appreciation of creation as coming from a loving and provident Creator. I came to understand that this gives him the kind of credibility that grounds his proposal for a "human ecology": If people do not feel that Catholics respect the environment, our calls to respect human life seem hypocritical to them.

Back to the Chapter and elections: right before the elections were to begin, the translators had been sent away from the retreat house to leave the electors as free as possible. That gave us extra and unexpected freedom, too: free time in Rome! (Granted, I got called back the very next morning for one more day's service, but I still had two free days in Rome I hadn't been counting on at all.) This was my chance to see things I had never seen before, and to have new experiences in the Eternal City. For the first time ever (it took a bit of work to find it, too!), I visited the ancient church of St Lawrence in Lucina (that is, on the grounds of Lady Lucina's property), where the gridiron on which the famous deacon was martyred is preserved in a glass urn under an altar. The relics of Pope St Alexander are in a glass urn under another altar, and there is a fabulously carved 13th century Easter candle holder in the sanctuary. One thing we did not see was the papal throne from the 12th century; except for a few days each year it is kept in a hidden chamber behind the altar.

The standing figure on the far left in San Marco's half-dome
is Pope Gregory IV, Pope from 827-844. The square halo
he was alive when this mosaic was made.
I made it back to the Gesù to light a candle at the tomb of St Ignatius (whose altar was being covered in scaffolding as we arrived). After that, since we were near Piazza Venezia, we went around the corner to see if perhaps the ancient Basilica of San Marco was still open. This was question, because by then it was noon, and I remembered from my earlier visits to Rome that most of the churches were locked between noon and 4 p.m. daily, leaving only tourist sites and the major Basilicas open for visits. Surprisingly, the "paradise" (the gated vestibule) of San Marco was unlocked, so in we went, going down several steps to the marble-floored area where catechumens were once relegated. Then we went down several more steps (with each step going down a few centuries further back in time) until we entered the Basilica itself. As we opened the doors, the sound system began playing Bruckner's incredible "Locus Iste" (listen below). We had all the time in the world to wander up the darkened aisle and put a euro in the box to light up mosaics that date to the early 800's.

Another church that has learned the pastoral value of staying open all day is the ancient church of St Marcello, one of Rome's original parishes--and so exceptional that it even had a baptistry: one which Sr Julia and I were privileged to see in a private visit below the streets of modern Rome. Our guide explained that the baptistry predated not only the church, but Christ: it was originally an ordinary Roman bath, connected to the famous water system that fed the Trevi fountain and other Roman water sources with exceptionally pure water from 15 miles away. We climbed back up, and more than halfway to street level we saw the marble facade of the ancient church.

We also made it to the grandiose "Chiesa Nuova" (New Church) built by St Philip Neri. (I prayed at his tomb--see left--for my great niece and nephew who attend St Philip Neri school.) Of course we also got gelato at every opportunity! The Church of St Ignatius (near the Pantheon) was also newly accessible during lunch hours. We visited twice. I lit a candle there for my brother-in-law Robert and nephew, Chase Robert, at the tomb of their patron saint, Robert Bellarmine (the saint's body, in his cardinal's robe's, is in a glass urn; photo on the right). Nearby, I discovered the hitherto unknown-to-me chapel of St Francis Xavier, now used only on Sundays for Mass in English. And just up the street (alley?) is a restaurant (Il Falchetto) where, on Sunday, eight of us met for a solemn high pranzo worthy to be remembered. (Sister Margaret Joseph brings all her visitors here and says she has never seen anyone disappointed.)

Following that pranzo, Sister Margaret took us on a private tour of the excavations below the Church of Santa Maria in Via Lata, where an ancient tradition says St Luke once lived (and with him, of course, St Paul during his Roman imprisonment). That it was the site of Roman shops and dwellings is clear from the archaeological evidence. It was also the site of at least two different Byzantine monastic communities in two different eras. Most of the frescoed icons had to be removed to a museum for restoration and safe-keeping, since once the area was excavated they began to deteriorate rapidly. (In fact, there is a well at that deep level from which you can still draw water). Still, there are remnants of icons, presumably past the point of restoration, which gazed upon us from the damp walls. (The picture here was enhanced so you could see a bit more of the facial detail than is immediately evident.)

That left us one more day--a rainy day, as it turned out. I made plans with one of the American delegates to spend the afternoon visiting the Basilica of St Paul-outside-the-walls. Providentially for the Daughters of St Paul, a relatively new bus line that goes all the way St Paul's burial site now has its "capolinea" (end station) right by our Generalate. We managed to time things perfectly so that we arrived just as the bus was ready to depart. I even practiced live-streaming via Twitter as we lit up the Basilica's apse mosaics, and then signed off to pray at the Apostle's tomb, leaving a small donation so that "Nunblogger's" readers could be remembered in a Mass by the Benedictine monks whose abbot (Ildefonse Schuster, now Blessed) had welcomed Blessed Timothy Giaccardo and the first Pauline community in 1926. On the way home, we got off the bus a few stops early so we could get a last, "Arrividerci, Roma" gelato at the local gelateria.

And then it was time to pack, adding in as many of the little gifts we had received from the chapter
I'm ready for my Golden Jubilee
(or my funeral, or both).
delegates as possible. (I especially appreciated the tote bags, pens, and the 1 TB drive with all the talks, slide programs and photos that had been shared during the month!) With the weight limits on international flights down to 23 kg, that meant I had to leave behind not only some of the gifts I had received, but also the jar of chestnut spread I had bought on my first day in Rome as a treat to bring back...small as it was, it was heavy enough to make a difference. (I didn't even think about it until later, but the real culprit was my holy card supply: I had stocked up on my favorite icon of Jesus!)

And so here we are: overcoming jet lag one day at a time. Ready to return to "ordinary time" in the service of the Lord and his Word.