I just finished reading “Dead Man Walking,” by Sister Helen Prejean, tracing how she became involved in the quest to abolish the death penalty. I began it intending to read as quickly as possible, but shortly realized I needed to slow down, to take time to process and sit with it. One of the most powerful things about the book is how well she weaves together her incredibly poignant personal story with the evidence that beat her over the head along the way, forming her in motion.
No doubt many realities she lays out–with exceptional precision and lots and lots of footnotes to primary source material, i.e. court cases (as well as analysis/opinion pieces)–have changed since the book was published in 1993. One that I know has changed is the public perception toward the death penalty. Less than half of Americans now support the death penalty.
And yet many of the realities she points to are still going strong. Public defenders are overworked and for that reason, the poor are those who go to death row. It costs far, far more to litigate, appeal, and re-appeal than it would simply to put a convicted killer in prison for life. And on and on.
I read this book in a time when I continue to struggle with the apparent unchangeability of all that is wrong in the world, and with those who refuse even to acknowledge the problem, let alone sacrifice to do something about it.
At the same time, I am encountering the word “detachment” again and again, wrestling with what that means, and how it reconciles with the call to discipleship, which presupposes trying to make the world that better reflection of God’s will that we rattle off in prayer six times in every rosary and once during every Mass and countless other times in ritual and personal piety.
I wish I had more answers and fewer questions. Maybe then this Intentional Catholic ministry would have a bit more impact. But then again, intentional has to be authentic above all, and if nothing else, these posts are authentic.
I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.
We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.
The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.
I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.
I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.
The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.
So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.
But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.
Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.
Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.
The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!
Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?
I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.
What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.
If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.
The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.
It was a glorious and humbling moment this summer when I first encountered “Lift Every Heart And Sing,” known as the Black National Anthem. Glorious, because as a pastoral musician, it moved me for its universality and the challenge contained within. Humbling, because how did I make it to the age of forty-six as a pastoral musician and never hear it?
So I want to share this video today in honor of today’s commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is a very simple version and they give you the background of the hymn before they sing it. I’ll paste the text below.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing, ‘Til earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the list’ning skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening rod, Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet Come to the place for which our fathers sighed? We have come over a way that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered, Out from the gloomy past, ‘Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray. Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee, Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee; Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land.
Returning to Fratelli Tutti today. This comes from a section subtitled “An Absence of Human Dignity on the Borders,” calls out conflicts around immigration as a violation of Christian brotherhood. “They,” in this case, refers to migrants.
This quote struck me with particular force because it encapsulates what I’ve been struggling with in arguments over race and immigration. In the abstract, we all agree that racism is bad and immigrants have human dignity, but whenever discussions of particulars arise, an almighty outcry rises in protest, saying such and such a thing is not racist, that of course they have human dignity BUT (fill in the blank). Here, Pope Francis calls that out.
One thing I found particularly interesting: the assertion that communities whose people flee are losing “their most vigorous and enterprising elements” (#38). I’d never thought about that. His point is that in addition to the right to immigrate, there’s also the right to be able to stay where you are. People flee when that right is violated. So in addition to justice for immigrants seeking new homes, responsibility also rests on those who create the dire situations that force people to flee.
As tempting as it is to read this section in light of U.S. immigration battles, we have to remember we aren’t the only ones dealing with conflicts over migration. #40 actually names Europe as particularly at risk of prioritizing its own citizens so high, it sets aside the rights of migrants.
This section ends with a heartfelt acknowledgment of the fears that cause people’s reaction to immigration, and begs us to face those fears and move beyond them, because they cause us to act in ways that are “intolerant, closed and perhaps even–without realizing it–racist.” The closing statement is just beautiful: “Fear deprives us of the desire and the ability to encounter the other.”
This week, a group one of my kids is involved in pretty much gave up on pandemic-mitigating strategies. Because now the weather is cold and it’s, y’know, hard, because you can’t be outside anymore.
And for this reason, we’re going to have to say no to at least one major event this child really wanted to attend.
I had a conversation with the leadership, asking if the group would consider voluntarily taking on masking. I explained the medical history that makes our caution necessary: a child with naturally floppy airways who nearly died of RSV as a newborn, had open heart surgery at 7 months, and was intubated again at age 2 for pneumonia.
I got about the response I expected. The burden is on us to just abstain.
I expected it, but it made me angry. In fact, my reaction bordered on rage.
I totally get being tired of COVID limits. Me too, people. Me too. But masking is such a small sacrifice to make for the good of others. We want America to be a Christian nation, but when the rubber meets the road, what does that mean?
Well, Jesus was clear that the most vulnerable among us are supposed to be our priority.
To say, “Hey, if you think you’re at risk, just stay home” places the entire burden on those who already bear the heaviest burden–and to those who love them. (Like my kid.) It forces them into isolation that erodes their mental health, all so the strongest people don’t have to be bothered with small sacrifices like wearing a mask that would reduce spread and make the world safer for more vulnerable people.
Where is Jesus in that world view?
But what was most significant last night was what I learned from that hard spark of outrage: helpless, choking, impotent rage. I felt powerless against an inexorable machine that was perpetrating an injustice that stands in direct opposition to Christian values–but which the perpetrators do not recognize as such.
And for the first time, I really “got”—even if only the barest, palest shade of an echo–what it must feel like to be a person of color in the United States.
I understood why the Black community is angry. I understood at some speck of a level what it might feel like from the inside of a system that thinks itself righteous while imposing unjust burdens on entire communities. And which, when challenged, blames the victims.
The offense against me (really, my child) is ludicrously small. It barely registers on the scale. But it really clarified for me how a lifetime of micro-aggressions would cause exactly the kinds of reactions we’ve seen across the country this year in response to police violence against unarmed black men. I can’t even imagine living every day with the kind of righteous anger I was feeling last night. Let alone multiplying it exponentially.
I can’t walk a mile in the shoes of a person of color, but last night, for the first time, I felt like I kind of understood.
This entire document is full of parental tough love!
I think we would all agree with the sentiments. The question is how we put them into practice. That’s where division lies. But to me, this document is a reminder that problems that affect us all–at a society level (whether that’s local, national, or global) can’t be left to individuals. We have to act as a society.
I’ve been involved in liturgical music since junior high, when my 7th grade teacher invited me to join the parish “folk group.” I also played flute with my parents, who were song leaders, and with the parish choir on holidays.
That involvement deepened as I studied music in college and grad school, and of course, now I write and publish music for the Church.
So this past spring’s news about David Haas was particularly horrifying to me. I had idolized David for years and I knew (know?) him, though not as well as some in my community of liturgical composers.
We spent time this fall coming together for webinars, trying to form our understanding and see how we, as composers for the Church, can make a difference.
The presentation that stayed with me most was given by Dr. Hilary Scarsella, who works with Into Account and the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She talked about approaching discussions of abuse with an attitude of “survivor-centered response.” Too often, the response to allegations of assault, harassment and abuse is to alienate the accuser and make her experience secondary to preserving the man’s reputation.
What if she’s making it up? Innocent until proven guilty!
How dare we ruin this man’s life?
What about forgiveness? Second chances? We’re Christians!
Lots of guys through history have done bad things, and we still listen to their music. Why can’t we separate the man from his music?
All of these arguments, highlighted in the presentation, are reactions I’ve heard within my own communities. In fact, let’s be honest. They’re all things I thought or expressed myself in earlier accusations of abuse and assault that didn’t hit quite so close to home.
When you recognize yourself in something you now recognize as morally problematic, it also makes you recognize your responsibility to speak up.
The thing is, what do all those arguments tell survivors of abuse? When we say, “What if it isn’t true?” we call them liars. And THAT is how we’ve managed to have generations of dysfunction around this subject. Why would women come forward if they know they’re only going to be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced?
And then, if they’ve remained silent for years *because* they know they’ll be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced, but then they finally decide to do so because, say, someone is about to be put into a position of great influence? Well, then they’re shamed, disbelieved, and silenced *again*, because if they really had this experience, why didn’t they come forward years ago?
Women always bear the burden. The culture and the system are rigged in favor of the abusers.
But as for truth versus lies: in the case of David Haas, more than forty women have come forward at this point. To cling to the “what if it’s not true?” argument is to defy our God-given reason.
All of the argument listed above tell the victims, “My comfort is more important than your trauma.” Because that, after all, is why we don’t want to confront the hard questions. If we have to give up singing David Haas’ music, it will be uncomfortable. We’ll be sad.
But if we DO keep singing them, what does that do to the victims? It means their own churches and liturgies are minefields of trauma, week in, week out. The community that should support them, the liturgy that should help heal and sustain them, is instead re-traumatizing them. EVERY. WEEK.
Is our comfort really more important than that?
As for forgiveness–sure, forgiveness is critical to Christian living. But what does that mean? Does that mean the perpetrator gets a pass and the victims–once again–have to bear the burden? There’s no way that’s what God means by “forgiveness.” It’s got to be our understanding of forgiveness that has to grow. Maybe it’s time we do the hard work of figuring THAT out.
Finally: yes, there is a loss of a beloved repertoire. But who’s to blame for that? Not the victims. We need to put the responsibility where it belongs–on the perpetrator–and stop asking the victims to bear it instead.
These are the questions Dr. Scarsella posed (and which now are filtered through my own experiences). I share them now because there’s no doubt in my mind that some of those who read this are wrestling with some of the same questions and the same resistance.
It’s really hard to overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning, but we as a Church have lost so much moral credibility since the sex abuse scandal came to light. The Haas situation is yet another black eye in the same area. We, as Church, have GOT to learn to confront these hard, uncomfortable issues so that we can fix them. First, because victims of abuse are God’s beloved, and they deserve to be treated as such. And second, because our dysfunction is getting in the way of our credibility to spread the Gospel.
This past summer, I was honored to be invited to speak at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians national convention. Among the presentations I gave was this one, “Being Catholic in a Messy World.” I was asked to give a fifteen-minute reflection on what I mean by “Intentional Catholic.”
I have so many thoughts, I never imagined it would be a difficult talk to write, but it was–because the topic is so huge. The through-line that eventually emerged was how I wrestled with being “pro-life” in the wake of giving birth to a child with Down syndrome. I’ve often said that my daughter’s birth was the earthquake that changed everything for me, though I didn’t know it at the time. This is that story. It encapsulates many of the difficult issues we’re wrestling as a nation (badly). I hope you’ll set aside a quarter hour to listen!
In light of the discussions taking place online these days, it seems like a good time to revisit what the US Bishops have to say about racism, and in particular institutional racism, in our country, and what that reality means for us as faithful Catholics. There’s a lot of anger going around these days on both sides of every issue, and we ramp each other up. Extremism on one side begets extremism on the other. Neither of which are justified, but people only want to point the finger at the other side rather than acknowledge extremism on their own.
Too many Christians seem eager to write off the entire question of civil rights and institutional racism because of violence in some protests. Of course, horrific things like people shouting “let them die” outside a hospital where police are fighting for their lives are equally indefensible.
It’s so tempting to take the extremes, because the extremes are easier. It’s really messy in the middle, where we have to call out both “let them die” and the institutional racism that has sparked the protests which, in some cases, have turned violent. It’s easier to blame one or the other and act like the problem is ONLY one thing.
The reality is, whenever we paint things in absolutes–whenever we write off one point of view because of the faults of some among them–we are part of the problem. That messy place in the middle is exactly where we must be as Christians.
Our bishops are telling us in the clearest possible way that race matters, that racism is real, that we are part of it whether we mean to be or not, and that we thus have a responsibility to act for change.
I cannot say it strongly enough: read this letter in its entirety.