Monday, July 15, 2019

And Who is My Neighbor?

This Sunday’s Gospel reading was the parable of the Good Samaritan. A story we’ve all heard multiple times before, a Sunday School classic, if you will. But this Sunday was also the day of targeted ICE raids, striking terror into immigrant communities who feared that the targeting might be a little too broad. As we watch people pile up in the detention camps near the border and hear the stories of families separated by deportation, it’s a good time to ask, “And who is my neighbor?”

The scholar who asks Jesus this question knows God. He knows what he must do to inherit eternal life: love God and love neighbor. But he wants specifics. He doesn’t want to be actually obligated to love those he hates. He wants assurance that being good to his preferred people counts.

“I’m a good person,” we reassure ourselves as we love those who are easy to love. But Jesus calls us to show mercy, to go out of our way, out of our comfort zones, to aid those most in need of help, to see that they recover, to love our neighbors—and everyone is our neighbor.

Whether one believes those who have entered the country illegally should be deported or given a path to citizenship or some other solution is not the issue at stake right now. The issue is how do we treat those in our care? Do we see people who have walked thousands of miles for their children to live in a safe land? Do we see people fleeing all they know for just the chance of a better life? Do we see neighbors? Do we see people?

Our neighbors deserve water, for drinking and bathing. Our neighbors deserve food and medical attention. Our neighbors deserve a place to rest their head at night. Our neighbors deserve to be treated like people, looked in the eye, and acknowledged.

The Good Samaritan is remembered for going out of his way for loving a man in need. He was not socially obligated to help, but morally he was compelled to. He chose mercy.

“Go, and do likewise.”

Thursday, July 4, 2019

St. Bertha of Artois

St. Bertha of Artois was born into a wealthy Frankish family around 644. Her mother was the daughter of the King of Kent. She married Siegfried, a relative of King Clovis II of Burgundy. They had a happy and devoted marriage. They had five daughters, two of whom died in infancy. After around 20 years of marriage, Siegfried died, and Bertha sought a religious life.

Around 682, she founded a convent at Blangy, Artois. Legend says the first two buildings she had built collapsed; an angel in a vision guided her to a third spot where the abbey was finally built. Her two eldest daughters, Gertrude and Deotila (who also became saints) joined her there. A young lord, Roger, wished to marriage Gertrude after she had taken religious vows, but Bertha refused and protected her daughter. Roger tried to slander Bertha, saying she was involved in an English conspiracy to taken over the region. The king called her to testimony and believed her, ending the persecution.

After establishing her community and leaving it in the care of her daughter Deotila, Bertha retired to live as a recluse, devoted to prayer. St. Bertha died of natural causes on July 4, 725. She is a patron of widows. Her feast day is July 4.

Monday, July 1, 2019


It’s summer, and so it’s spirit season—the time of year full of Vacation Bible School, retreats, church camps, revivals, and mission trips. People have time to really devote to their faith, and that’s great. I always liked extra church time in the summer as a kid, but I also always encountered uncomfortable moments, moments when the music slowed, people shared testimonies, and those around me had an emotional response I couldn’t relate to. Why were they being so emotional? Why did I never, never feel those things?

I made myself feel better through justifications. The atmosphere is emotionally manipulative. Some are just faking to fit in. They’ll go right back to business as usual once the week is over. It’s ok not to feel anything. Right?

A part of me wanted that emotion, that connection, that overwhelming feeling that seemed to spill out in tears and hands in the air and bright smiles. Why wasn’t I feeling anything? Was I missing something? Was I not as faithful as them? Would everyone think I didn’t love God unless my devotion outwardly expressed itself in emotional demonstration? I never asked God for an emotional experience. It looked messy and vulnerable and unsustainable. My subdued, internal devotion is steady, glowing embers rather than fireworks. So I enjoyed the crafts, the lessons, the songs, the submersion into summer church things, but I never got a retreat high.

Retreat highs happen when people have strong emotional experiences or spiritual revelations during a retreat or mission. When we step out of our daily routines and devote a day or a week or more to living for God and reflecting on faith, it’s easy to see our faith make great strides. Oh, this is why we’re here, this is how God loves me, this is how I want to live for Him. We make great plans for how we’ll take the lessons of the retreat back home. But oftentimes, the familiarity of home knocks us back into our old routines. We fondly remember the retreat, but it’s not life-altering.

For those who felt those retreat highs, they miss the high more than they miss the retreat. They seek out other ways to get the emotional feeling—more retreats, more music, more emotional expressions in their worship. Others feel that losing the high is the same as losing faith. God felt so close then, but now the feeling’s gone; is God gone too? Feeling becomes a confirmation of faith.

In The Spark of Faith, Vatican household theologian Fr. Wojciech Giertych, OP, says, “Since faith is located in the intellect and partly, in the will, belief as such is not a matter of feelings….Emotional experiences and imaginations therefore play a role in religiosity, which expresses faith and maintains it in the personal and social realm, but the force of their expression is not a sign of the depth of faith. Some people react to everything emotionally, and so they also experience their religiosity in this way, and others are more reserved in their reactions. This does not mean that those who are cooler have no faith….It is not essential to have religious experiences, nor that they necessarily be multiplied. What is much more important is that concern that faith will grow, that it will be more deeply rooted in the intellectual and moral life, thereby opening it to the fecundity of grace.”

It reassuring to know that my faith does not depend on my ability to have deep emotional experiences or public displays of such. Though it is also good for me to be reminded that others experience God and the world in such ways, and they aren’t all being manipulated or fake. God speaks to us differently. And while I don’t risk retreat high withdrawal, I am learning the benefit in letting go and just living in the experience. I’ve now had emotional spiritual experiences. They’re powerful. But we can’t stay on the mountain. We have to come back down into the world. Our faith must be rooted in rationality so that it doesn’t bend to the winds of whimsy. The summer ends. The retreat high dissipates. Life steadily moves on. Can I handle that?

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Freedom and Light in a Dark Box

The California Senate recently passed a bill that would require Catholic priests to break the sacramental seal of confession regarding information of sexual abuse of minors. While I’m not one to cry religious oppression in the U.S., this bill is a violation of the freedom of religion, dictating that spiritual matters come under the control of the state authorities. It also absolutely will not work. Not one person will be safer from this bill. But many souls could be hurt by it. But the bill isn’t really about helping victims. It’s about flexing authority over the Church and punishing it for its collective sin.

Priests are already mandated reporters of abuse. Unless it’s from confession, priests are required, like many other professions, to report known or suspected cases of abuse. The bill would do away with the confession exception. But how would that work?

Priests cannot violate the seal of confession. He would be automatically excommunicated. If faced with breaking the seal or going to prison, they are taught to go to prison. They have to put the sacrament above their own comfort or lives. Good shepherds suffer for their sheep. Confession can be anonymous, behind screens, without names. The priest would not necessarily know who is confessing to report it even if he could. The sacrament is for spiritual grace, not information gathering. A priest might instruct someone to come talk to him outside the confession, where as a mandated reporter he could do more, but in the box, he is only there to act in persona Christi and absolve sin.

But what if people worry that the seal of confession isn’t absolute? What if they fear going to confession or giving a full confession? Would someone genuinely confess child abuse only in confession knowing the priest will go to the police? State interference in religion violates the First Amendment. Dictating how a sacrament works and dissuading believers from practicing their religion is abuse of state power. In Communist Poland (and probably other places), the state would try to bug confessionals to gain intel on priests and parishioners. Spies infiltrated church communities. Will sting operations be set up, with someone confessing something then arresting the priest when he doesn’t report it? Sacred space means nothing to secularists. Sacramental grace means nothing to those seeking power and control.

Surely, this is only a first step. Why should priests have report child sex abuse but not child neglect, adult rape, murder, domestic abuse, suicide, self-harm, etc.? Once it is established that the confessional is not sacred, then the state can intrude further and further into people’s sins/crimes.

In further proof that this law isn’t really about saving victims but intruding on the sacrament, the state lessened the scope of the bill. Priests only have to report from the confessional if it’s a coworker or other priest. That greatly reduces the people affected. It might make some feel safer, but that’s the point—they might not fight it as much. It greatly reduces the odds of the state actually catching a criminal this way. And of course, as mentioned before, confession can be done anonymously; how should a priest know if it’s a person he should report or who that person is? Though that doesn’t matter; he’s not going to break the sacred seal no matter who it is.

I’m not too worried. I hope that the bill doesn’t pass the House in the fall. There are lots of people in California fighting it. I trust that no one will violate the seal even if it does pass. I think most faithful will still seek out the sacrament, even if the bill burdens them with worry that their private confession to God isn’t so private.

Proponents of the bill say that the Church is surrounded in secrets and cover-ups and that this is a way of exposing the truth. Yet it is the opposite. Confession is where people openly bare their souls, articulating their sins, thus exposing them to the light. We are not burdened to carry our sin and shame alone, in the dark recesses of our minds. We confess, we lay bare, with no fear of repercussion of any kind. Our faults seem so less powerful when exposed to the light of God’s mercy.  Our free will means we sin, but we can also freely choose to return to God, contritely asking for forgiveness that He readily waits to give. State interference with the confessional threatens our freedom.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Gifts of the Ghost

I've started pondering the Holy Spirit more. As a former "frozen chosen" it's difficult to relate to the person of the Trinity associated with movement and tongues and flames and emotion. But I'm starting to appreciate the movement of the Spirit in my life more and more and trying to make a conscious effort to be better acquainted. The most obvious place to start is the sacraments where I know we've met. The Holy Spirit gives gifts at baptism and confirmation; it would be rude not to open them.

The gifts of the Holy Spirit are first found in Isaiah 11: 2-3 describing the Root of Jesse: “The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, and Spirit of knowledge and godliness—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord.”  We receive the gifts of the Holy Spirit at our baptism, and they are strengthened through confirmation. We are given these gifts in order to spread and defend the faith. They are our tools, so like the disciples at Pentecost, we can be send out to share the Good News.

According to St. Thomas Aquinas, the gifts of wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and counsel direct the intellect, while fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord direct the will. The gifts help us exercise virtue and combat sin.

Wisdom, the first and highest gift, helps us to understand God and direct our actions toward Him. It is more than knowledge; it is an extension of belief into understanding that belief. Wisdom allows us to see the world in its true light. By knowing the proper ordering of the world, we can better bear its burdens and respond in ways that glorify God.

Understanding helps us see the core truth of beliefs and revelations. Through understanding, we see how all the pieces fit together. Understanding rises above natural reason and helps us draw out philosophical, theological, and moral conclusions. By seeing the big picture, we can make practical decisions that affect the world and our lives, guiding them toward God.

Counsel helps us judge how to best take action in situations. It builds upon what we discern through wisdom and understanding and brings that into practical application. It assures us and encourages us to do the right thing. Counsel gives us the guidance to defend the truth.

Fortitude helps us overcome fear and stand up for the truth. It is reasoned courage that emboldens us when our faith is tested, ridiculed, or persecuted. It was the martyrs’ fortitude that gave them the strength to die for the faith. But often we do not have to face that; instead we need fortitude against temptations, modern secular culture, and evil spirits.

Knowledge helps us judge according to truth. Whereas wisdom and understanding provide the will and intellect to discern truth, knowledge is the faculty by which it is known. Knowledge helps us see the circumstances and consequences that must be factored into right judgment. It helps us know God’s purpose for us. It also helps us distinguish the voice of God from the temptations of the devil and choose our response accordingly.

Piety helps us grow in desire to worship and serve God. It helps us go beyond practicing religion out of obligation and practice it out of love for God. Piety is sometimes called “the perfection of the virtue of religion.” It calls us to prayer, to Mass, to respect others, to acts of charity, to do all things for God.

Fear of the Lord helps us to maintain a healthy relationship with God. It is not the type of fear that comes from being scared or threatened. Fear of the Lord is the desire to not offend God but to show Him proper honor and respect. It is the foundation of our relationship with God, similarly to how in childhood our desire to not disappoint our parents first teaches us what actions are right or wrong. It is rooted in love.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

St. Joanna

Joanna is one of the women who traveled with Jesus and the apostles. She was the wife of Chuza, who managed the household of Herod. The Gospel of Luke notes that she was healed of evil spirits and infirmities by Jesus. She then began following him. As the wife of a court official, she would have had the means to travel and contribute to Jesus and the disciples. She also could have provided Luke with witness accounts of the court. Several of the women who traveled with Jesus were women of wealth. They provided material support to his ministry as well as adding a domestic, feminine dimension to his band of disciples. 

Joanna was one of the women who witnessed the Resurrection and was likely present for the Pentecost. In the Eastern Church, she is known as a myrrhbearer, as one who went to Jesus’ tomb with myrrh and spices on Easter Day and found the tomb empty. She, with other women, remained loyal to Jesus through his suffering and death. They were the first to know the Good News.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Does Anybody Really Care?

Lately the vitriol of the abortion debate has been amplified. Liberal states are passing laws loosening abortion restrictions. Conservative states are passing laws with more restrictions. Liberals complain that conservatives don’t care about women. Conservatives complain that liberals don’t care about preborn children. Both are right.

Some of the restrictions are being made into law solely for the purpose of working up the court systems in attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade. So many people have bought into the idea of “making abortion illegal at all cost.” It’s why so many Christians vote for Republicans who claim to be prolife. It’s why they overlook the moral, intellectual, and political failings of a president who promises to appoint prolife judges. It’s why they support questionable judicial appointments and decisions as the courts situate themselves to take on an abortion case in the near future. Abortion is the worst crime, they believe. The ends justify the means.

As someone who considers herself prolife, this attitude is sickening. It’s not a prolife attitude, which should be keeping the dignity of human life at the forefront of actions. It’s political posturing, manipulating a large base of people for votes to pass dubious measures on other issues, like ruining the environment and funneling money to the wealthy.

This focus on stopping the legality of abortion rarely focuses on actually stopping abortions. Where is the concern for women in such crises that they believe abortion is a solution? Pregnancy is difficult—emotionally, financially, and physically. We have to address those needs. We have to acknowledge the burden of growing a human inside of you takes and support those women. With counseling, financial support, and medical care. We have to hold fathers accountable to their children. We have to have a strong, compassionate foster system and make adoptions cheaper. We have to raise the children of our village, ensuring no mother thinks her child would be “better off” if he’d never been born.

Without addressing the mothers, laws protecting the preborn aren’t prolife. They are manipulative, sexist laws that offer no reform or hope. I’ve seen lawmakers and prominent prolife speakers refer to mothers as the “space” where the preborn are, the “vessels”, or “carriers.” The womb becomes a room detached from a human body. A womb is part of a woman’s body. The baby inside the womb is his own little person. There are two bodies, two people, involved. The mother is fully human, not a space. The child is fully human, not a parasite or clump of cells. Avoiding one person to stand up for the other is not compassionate, from either side.

It is inconvenient in our society that women carry the burden of childbirth. Hell, it’s always been inconvenient. Pregnancy is dangerous. Women have always been the ones to bear that burden. It doesn’t fit nicely into our ideas of what a fully egalitarian, efficient society looks like. We want to children to pop up into being, into homes that want them and can afford them, without any problems—physical, mental, emotional, financial. We want the child to not put strain on the mother’s body, to not disrupt her career, to not jeopardize her relationship or her financial situation or her plans. But is that realistic? Do we want it to be?

Do we really want a world where a child’s presence makes no difference, no impact? Where parenthood requires no responsibility, no patience, no sacrifice? Where a growing family doesn’t make us grow as people? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t work to make parenthood easier, especially unplanned pregnancies. But I am saying there is good that comes from children who are unwanted. And it is good if a society values each person, even if that requires some sacrifices. Since a mother, because of biology, must bear the child, then her community should acknowledge that sacrifice, ease any pains as much as possible, and embrace mother and child regardless of circumstance.

Instead of only having children who are wanted, what if we learned to want every children there is? It takes more time and money than an abortion, and the failure rate is higher, but it’s the humane approach. Humane approaches are missing from both sides of the debate. There are people on the ground doing that work, at pregnancy centers, with parenting classes, by adopting children, etc. But that’s not reflected in the discourse and the laws. And so we pettily yell back and forth at each other, convincing no one that the other side actually cares about people.

I’m against abortion. I wish it didn’t exist. I wish women had options that suited their struggles and situations while also preserving their child’s life. I wish no woman ever felt so hopeless that abortion seemed like a solution. I’m disheartened by the rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge that a child’s life is ended in abortion, that fails to see life in its most fragile form. But I’m also disheartened by the rhetoric that refuses to acknowledge the burden of mothers or show compassion toward women in crisis, that would rather punish women instead of help them.

These laws and legal maneuverings will not end abortion. They will not change the minds of people who think the prolife side doesn’t care. They will not convince people that life begins at conception. Women will still seek out violent ends to pregnancy. Punishments don’t solve crises. Laws don’t change hearts.

Friday, May 3, 2019

Cancel Culture, Canceled

Every day there is a new outrage. Some quite justified; the world is full of terrible things. But often I read online comments and don’t see justifiable anger at injustice, but instead mockery, pride, and hate.

Lately I’ve grown really tired of cancel culture. A public figure does something bad. Or a public figure did something bad decades ago and it’s just now brought to the public. Or a private citizen does something bad and becomes a public figure because of those actions.
Immediate indignation. Immediate judgement. Immediately #canceled.

There is no appeal in the court of public opinion. There isn’t even a trail. The case is read and judgement made. This person did X, so they are unredeemable. They are excommunicated. Don’t befriend them. Don’t work with them. Don’t ever let them forget what they’ve done. It seems alright to bully someone if they once bullied, to threaten if they once threatened, to hurt if they once hurt.

Now, often X truly is a terrible thing. But it’s rarely a “ruin their life, get them fired, get them expelled, harass their family, threaten their life” level of terrible. It’s easy to lay out a few, quick facts, make a judgment, and share your verdict online. These aren’t real people; they are online characters, tokens of a cultural battle, representations of our political allies or enemies. Besides, they deserve it, right? The law won’t punish them, so society will.

There is some good in such actions. Societies should call out deplorable behavior and reinforce moral standards. It is our job as members of a community to hold each other accountable. There should be accountability for spreading evil ideas and consequences for committing evil actions.

But cancel culture leaves no room for mercy. There is no forgiveness. If the person in the hot seat repents, few will accept it as contrite. Even if an apology is deemed contrite, it is not good enough, too late, and doesn’t change the verdict. The sentence is persona non grata, forever haunted by their past. No one is ever really redeemed.

The mob says it’s ok to hurt someone if they hurt someone else first. It’s ok to fight as long as you’re fighting back. It’s ok to dehumanize and be ruthless to someone as long as they deserve it.

How fortunate we are that God does not work like that. God wants to forgive, to love, to reconcile. No matter our sins, God will forgive a contrite heart. You confess, resolve to sin no more, and are redeemed before Him. You are not shunned or haunted, you are welcome and purified. Mercy does not give us what we deserve; it gives us what God wants for us.

Our sins hurt us and others and should be brought to light. But not so we can be mocked and shamed, but so we can cast off those chains and heal. How much better would we be if we held one another accountable while also loving each other? What if instead of passing along the pride and pain, we just stopped it?