Being Catholic in a Messy World

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!

(Thanks to GIA Publications, my music publisher, for making this available.)

“Brotherhood”

Background image: Wiki Commons

I have begun reading Pope Francis’ new encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” and thought it might be worth simply sharing as I read, since it’s new to all of us.

The topic seems like a timely reminder, given the state of the world right now. I can’t quote it all, but Pope Francis sets the tone in the introduction by pointing to St. Francis of Assisi’s trip to visit the Sultan Malik-el-Kamil. He went during the Crusades–a time when the goal of Christianity was to conquer and convert the Muslims–and instead modeled peaceful conversation with no agenda at all.

Two things strike me here: one is that with this trip, St. Francis, quietly and without making a production of it, issued a sharp rebuke to the entire goal of the Crusades. A rebuke that, with the benefit of hindsight, was well deserved.

The other is that Pope Francis is setting the stage to remind us that our worldwide politics of division (because it’s not just an American thing) is directly counter to holy living.

And I suppose there’s a third thing, which is that there’s more than one way to interpret “far away” and “near.” In St. Francis’ case, it was both physical and philosophical difference. My guess is that Pope Francis is gearing up to admonish us to be “brothers” in both those spheres in modern life, as well.

We shall see if I am correct.

What Can I Do?

It’s always dangerous to read too deeply into the day’s Scriptures an overt connection to the modern world, but yesterday it was hard not to do so. I hoped for good judgment from my people, and look! What I got was violence. I hoped for just behavior, but listen to the outcry against people who are supposed to be a beacon of hope!

I’ve been quiet recently, because it’s busy, and because sometimes I feel like a wagging finger, and there’s only so much finger-wagging a person can do before people tune you out.

So I struggle with what to write. I’m overdue for a #seethegood, but that feels like a cop-out when what is on my heart is something quite different.

My bishop sent an election letter, which I shared on Facebook. (For those who might read only here, here it is.) It was a good letter, nuanced in a time when most discourse consists of bilateral apocalyptic predictions. But what really stood out to me was this:

“What I see happening in our nation, unfortunately, is a strident, rancorous discord that tears not only at the fabric of our society but also at the communion of the Church.  And this disharmony endangers the salvation of souls.”

Bishop Shawn McKnight

Within my own circle, there are a growing number of people who have left the Church or struggle to remain in it because of how we act, because of the singleminded focus to the exclusion of things Jesus told us explicitly were our call.

I lie awake at night praying about this. Pray as if it all depends on God; act as if it all depends on you, the truism says. I’m praying. But action? What can I do, besides write finger-wagging posts on social media? I feel helpless.

Revisiting Race

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.

Being Intentionally Catholic on Social Media

I’ve been at this Intentional Catholic business officially for 18 months right now, but in reality for much longer. One does not come to such a pithy, focused phrase “just like that.” It develops over time.

One thing I’ve learned is that living the faith intentionally always, ALWAYS involves a lot wrestling. In fact, I would argue that a faith that is complacent, that thinks it has simple answers, is not intentional at all. The world is too messy for complacency. We are too small for the problems we face. When we think the answer is simple and obvious, it’s a good sign that we’re missing a LOT of context.

I’ve been wrestling hard with what being “intentionally Catholic” means when people are saying horrible things online. Self-righteous memes so badly stripped of context, they cross into falsehood; distortions; statements by Christians that do not reflect Christ.

Today I’d like to reflect on a handful of influences I’ve been wrestling lately, surrounding this conundrum.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

#1: my husband saying, “You may need to stay off Facebook this fall.” I recognize the wisdom of this advice, but I struggle because my ministry is precisely to address the messiness of the issues where real life intersects with faith–issues we address via the political process. And also, Facebook is my professional networking avenue.

But as my husband constantly points out, no one ever changes their mind. So when is it worth wading in? When I do, how do I respond in a way that respects the human dignity of the person on the other end of the e-connection, when such egregious errors are on display?

#2: A friend of mine shared Bishop Barron’s podcast for yesterday’s readings with me, in which he tied together the call from Ezekiel–yes, in fact we ARE supposed to correct our fellow Christians–and the “how do we do that?” outlined in the Gospel. Bishop Barron focused narrowly on how to respond when one has been personally wounded. Truthfully, it felt insufficient. It’s not personal offenses that I feel so compelled to respond to on social media. It’s public statements by religious people who do not see the inherent conflict between their statements and the faith that is so precious to them. Jesus’ guidance, applied in this situation, seems… insufficient. Sure, I could message a person privately, but if that person is making public statements, he or she is leading others into error. Speaking to them privately seems–well, not to be repetitive, but “insufficient.”

Photo by Skitterphoto on Pexels.com

I’ve spent a lot of time praying: “Should I ignore this, Lord? Or speak?” I responded in passion a couple times and felt that I, too, wasn’t representing my faith authentically. Another time, I walked away and found a calm, sincere response bubbling up. I thought I recognized the voice of the Spirit in that, so I went back to share, only to be publicly (and passive-aggressively, i.e. in detail but not by name) excoriated. I came away feeling that I really have no idea what the heck God is asking me to do about all this.

Which brings me to Influence #3: a story told by Steve Angrisano in a breakout session on chant that I listened to this weekend. (While pulling crabgrass in my back yard, if you want to know.) He talked about a priest who had two best friends stand at opposite ends of the room. He surrounded one of them with other girls of similar age, and had them all call out a number between 1 and 100. No one in the room could pick out the number from the original girl–except her best friend, who had spent so much time listening to her friend, she knew the voice and could pick it out of the cacophony.

I am trying to spend enough time with God to do that, but I feel no confidence in my ability to pick out God’s voice right now.

Actually, that’s not true. I feel great confidence that I can see God’s will in the issues themselves. But in how and when to speak, I have no earthly idea.

I have no answers today. Only thoughts. Wrestling. Because that’s what it means to be intentionally Catholic.

Educating for Peace

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about how public schools are indoctrinating in socialism. For that reason, this quote really struck me this morning. It comes in a section of Gaudium et Spes that is focused on peace and war. Paul VI says that those who are in charge of military will have to “give a somber reckoning of their deeds of war.” He talks about how “extravagant sums” are spent on military and on developing new weapons while the miseries that cause war remain unaddressed. He talks about how peace requires working for justice. And he calls for an international public authority with actual, universal authority to settle disputes.

That’s the context of this quote. We are called by our Church–by a saint of our Church, in a document approved by an ecumenical council of the Church–to form our children in these sentiments.

There’s a disheartened, jaded part of me that suspects many in our Church would call this “socialism,” despite the fact that it’s the teaching of our Church. And it’s interesting to me that this exhortation comes from the papacy of St. Paul VI, known and revered for Humanae Vitae. It illustrates that the Catholic faith stands independent of political ideals.

The Difficulty of Discernment

Background image by George Desipris, via Pexels

I’ve been wrestling a lot lately with the “prophetic” part of the baptismal call: priest, PROPHET, king. Like many people, until I was well into adulthood I had a wrong understanding of what it means to be a prophet. Prophecy was never about predicting the future. It was about speaking for God. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah et al called out leaders, cultural institutions, and members of the culture for behaviors and attitudes that stood in opposition to the covenant they’d sworn to uphold.

Of course, no one likes being called out, so prophets often ended up exiled or stoned to death or beheaded (like John the Baptist). But it didn’t change the fact that they were speaking truth to power, whether anybody ever changed or not.

It’s hard to discern this call in modern life. The world is so noisy, and people speak what they believe to be “truth” with great volume and varying justification. I’ve been in far too many debates lately, and the people other side of these debates are absolutely convinced that they are the ones speaking truth and I am misguided, while I believe to the depths of my bones that it’s exactly the opposite.

Both of us can’t be right.

It’s difficult to discern when to speak and when to let someone else have the last word. My husband says, “They’re never going to change their minds. Quit arguing. Just scroll by.” But I say, “These are things that doesn’t even stand up under the weight of critical thinking and reason, let alone the faith. If we don’t speak the truth, we cede the battlefield to the devil.”

These days I bring everything back to its essence: “This post/argument/belief is inconsistent with the Gospel.” We’ve been blurring the lines between faith and politics so long, we often don’t even recognize that some of the most passionately-held opinions in Religious World have nothing whatsoever to do with the Gospel, and are, in some cases, contrary to it. I understand it, because I lived it until I was more than thirty years old. It was a hard thing, requiring a lot of humility and prayer, to allow myself to change. It only happened because the reality of parenting a child with a developmental disability put me nose to nose with inconvenient truths I had, until then, been able to ignore.

It’s very uncomfortable to envision oneself in a prophetic role. Who am I to do this? How can I be sure I’m actually speaking what God wants said? What if I’m wrong?

Except… the sea change in my world view has been so tightly woven into my spiritual growth, I don’t see how it could be wrong. I’ve been praying too long, too fervently, and too consistently for discernment, for wisdom, for clarity, for God’s will, and for God to keep me on the path of that will, whatever it is. There’s no way God would have allowed me to continue on a totally erroneous path. If I were wrong, God would have put me face to face with other inconvenient truths I couldn’t avoid, to make it clear I needed to detour. Instead, the epiphanies of the last decade or two keep being confirmed.

I’m afraid of breaking relationships. I’m afraid of going too far and abandoning God’s path in the opposite direction. I’m afraid of speaking the right thing in the wrong way and doing more harm than good. I’m afraid of failing altogether when the stakes are so high. Most of all, I’m worn out by the battle. I know in the end, God will sort it out, that “success is not the prize” as Rory Cooney wrote. But it’s hard to stand in the maelstrom and wonder if I’m being egotistical for thinking I’m meant to be in it at all.

#seethegood… in opponents

Photo by Lisa Fotios on Pexels.com

I have been struggling the last couple weeks with #seethegood posts. It’s not that I’m lacking in goodness to see around me–it’s just that too much of it is too specific to my own situation, involving things and people that aren’t appropriate to share publicly.

But this morning, it occurs to me that I can share this pearl of wisdom from my husband. For several years, he’s wanted to use his birthday as an opportunity to serve rather than be celebrated. It doesn’t always work out, but this year he did.

He asked people on Facebook to give him a gift: to only be nice to each other–to focus on family and fun, and if they had to go political–well, you can read his words below. I share them today because of something we all know, but often forget: that whatever we look for, whatever we cultivate in the garden of our hearts, is what we get more of. If we look for things to be angry about, we’ll find things to be angry about everywhere, in everything. If we look for reasons to judge, the reasons will not only present themselves, they will multiply exponentially, until we are incapable of accepting–we have trained ourselves to judgment.

I figured this #seethegood moment could be a really beautiful leaven for the coming fall of pandemic and politics.

Enough from me. Here’s my husband:

OK folks — my birthday is TUESDAY, as in ELECTION DAY (for several states). Kate always asks what I want on my birthday, and this year, I landed on something — I’m fatigued as I’m sure we all are. So this year, if you so desire — for my birthday — I’m asking that you do one of two things (or both):

1.) Not post anything that rings of politics or seeks to judge others for a problem. Instead, focus on the kids, pets, sunsets, soft rain, flowers, awesome food, etc. in your life and give us a post about that. OR……..

2.) Look at a post that would normally evoke a visceral reaction from you and find ONE GOOD THING in the argument. You don’t have to agree with the point, but you have to acknowledge that it is a GOOD POINT. And I don’t mean some dumbass platitude. Honestly look for something that forces you to go beyond your comfort zone or your political leaning and see that someone, somewhere who thinks completely differently from you has a good point in an argument.And then, tell me about in a post. Tell me what you posted instead of a political meme or rant or judgement OR tell me about what you found in someone’s post that you initially disagreed with.And THAT, THAT folks is what I would like on my birthday.😃

Justice = Kindness

Background Image by Thomas Ulrich from Pixabay

It has not been pretty in my house, these last 125 days. Have you intuited that from my posts? It seems all I do these days is fret, gnash my teeth, and talk about the lack of peace in my house–the strain of kinda-sorta-not-exactly-quarantine, the lack of structure, the endless snipping and sometimes screaming, the teenage hormones and the childhood overreactions.

The other day I had my youngest two children working on dishes. In their resentment at being forced to work (not that they had anything else to do; they were totally bored), they instantly fell to squabbling. “You can’t use the spray hose that way,” “you’re taking too much space at the sink.” That kind of nonsense.

I turned to them and said, “That’s enough! I don’t want you two to say anything to each other you wouldn’t say to ME if you were working with ME.” Because they are kind to me, if not to each other.

It was a stroke of brilliance–the Holy Spirit’s, not mine, just to be totally clear.
They are accustomed to being horrible to each other. To be told to treat each other as they treat the person they trust the most required a hard reset. They didn’t like it, but for one of them, the tone of voice changed instantly. In the other it happened after I said, “Would you use that tone of voice talking to me?”

Yesterday’s readings struck a chord so deep, it resonated in my whole being. Our new associate’s homily tied together the various parables brilliantly. It can be much harder than we realize to judge between good and evil, he said. Which is why it’s not our job to rip out the “weeds,” but instead to be leaven–to live the faith in a way that causes the whole culture to “rise.”

But the words that stay with me the most were those from the book of Wisdom. “You taught your people, by these deeds, that those who are just must be kind.”

In these heavy, momentous days of pandemic and communal examination of conscience, there are many of us concerned with justice. There’s a lot of righteous indignation, a lot of holy anger at the way huge sections of the Catholic faith have been lopped off, cafeteria-Catholic style, to force them into a political box.

People are speaking up for justice, but too often there’s no kindness involved. I fear that the pursuit of justice will fail, because of the way the campaign is pursued. Without kindness, calls for justice often come across as bullying. Nobody’s heart is being changed when they feel they’re being bullied.

None of which changes the fact that the world is crying out for God’s justice. I want to be clear on that, lest anyone read this post as a justification for dismissing calls for justice. Or for resisting guidelines put in place to protect the life and health of all God’s children. The right has plenty to answer for. Blistering the “mainstream media” for liberal bias makes no sense when one eagerly and uncritically gobbles up sources whose violations of journalistic integrity are far more heinous, if in the opposite direction.

For right and left alike, what we choose to do now–whether we are willing to examine our hearts and work to overcome our biases–this is truly a question of following God versus making an idol of self. Calls for justice, specific to this time and place, are necessary. In fact, they’re an imperative of discipleship. These things need to be said.

But the way we say them matters.

Maybe, in the days and weeks to come, “justice = kindness” can be our guiding principle, the standard by which we measure our online presence. We want justice. But are we actually modeling Godly justice–by our kindness?

What if we all vowed to say nothing we wouldn’t say to the person we respect and honor most in the world? How much more calm, measured, and productive might our national discourse be?