Saturday, January 17, 2015

A Thought on the Francis Effect

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese recently published an insightful piece entitled "The church is more than just the pope" where he underscores something many of us fail to forget: we cannot put the weight of Catholicism's future on the pope's shoulders. If there is anything akin to an authentic "Francis effect," it will not be a singularly herculean feat of bearing the weight of an institution. The effect will be for all of us to "go and do likewise" and serve as we see him serve.

Last semester, I was privileged to take a course with Lisa Sowle Cahill, a renowned ethicist and moral theologian here at Boston College. One student set before himself the task of combing through the Pope's allocutions and writings to try to piece together some sense of the Holy Father's "Theology of the Cross." In an almost casual aside, Lisa drew attention to the Pope's pectoral cross.

One of the first things people notice is that it's not made of gold or studded with precious gems. Contrary to popular belief, it is made of silver and not steel, but what is most intriguing is not its metallic composition. Instead, as Lisa noted, it is what is depicted upon the cross that is most telling.

If you look carefully, you'll see that Francis wears a cross not as a fashion statement but as further testimony to the sort of Christian each of us is to become. If today many of us wear religious jewelry - or, sadly, religious clothing! - and are satisfied that this external ornament attests to our commitment, Pope Francis should be heard as exhorting us to become what we dare to wear.

Thus his cross depicts the Good Shepherd, the one who loves all of his sheep but will carry the lost one home to safety. The Good Shepherd does not rebuke the wayward lamb, does not threaten or harangue, but lifts it up and bears it back to the fold. This is not a depiction of the Pope supporting every member of the flock, absolving the rest of the Church from having to do anything for themselves. Instead, it shows Jesus at the forefront and head of the Church, leading by example: Jesus has gone to collect the lost and expects those who follow to go and do likewise.

Father Reese, in his post, shares a story of a woman who recently sought sacramental reconciliation and was yelled at. Around this time last year, a young woman I was helping to prepare for Confirmation had a similar experience. Rather than rejoicing at her return, the priest seized the opportunity to lecture her about the entirety of her sinful past, as though she wasn't already quite aware of it! To be sure, a word of counsel may be appropriate, but I simply can't imagine that it's ever necessary to yell at someone (I can't even bring myself to yell at a barista when my "plain black coffee" is somehow screwed up).

It boggles my mind that people expect the Pope to get people back into the pews. He may go a long way in restoring credibility in the institution, but if seekers enter our churches and find frigid and self-righteous congregations or obnoxious pastors, his example will be for naught. The Francis Effect, for it to be authentic, must transform our corporate Affect, helping us to become more welcoming and hospitable.

The Good Shepherd isn't good because he knows how to build secure fences to contain his flock. He is good because even when they stray, he goes out to them. There is none outside the Shepherd's reach and, each day, we are all called to be the hands and feet of the Good Shepherd who seeks out the lost of this world.

If you've not received sacramental reconciliation in some time, it might be helpful to hear the formula of absolution. After one has found the courage to confess where one has strayed and expressed contrition, the priest utters these beautiful words:

God, the Father of Mercies, through the life, death, and resurrection of his Son, has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church, may God grant you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

There is no condemnation in these words but only a sense of joy at the return of the lost and wayward. What a difference it would be to the Church were those of us who know something of God's mercy were to show mercy to others, were in Father James Keenan's words, "to enter into the chaos of another" not to take away their suffering but to be a companion in their time of need. If we have received mercy and forgiveness, we must become the mercy and forgiveness we have received. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

"You are my beloved"

If you're looking for a counter-cultural message, look no further than today's Gospel reading. In four short verses, the Evangelist Mark presses on two particularly sensitive areas. First, John the Baptist acknowledges something difficult for most, if not all of us, to say: it's not all about me. Second, God affirms something of Jesus that many of us long to hear said of ourselves: You are my beloved...with you I am well pleased.

I'll be the first to admit that there's an ever-present temptation to try to make all things center upon me. When community obligations prove inconvenient, I groan and say, "I have better things to do." When others are given praise, or acquire honors, I might smile outwardly but, inwardly, I sneer or downplay the person's accomplishment.

My spiritual lifeline, however, has proved to be my accordion. Not that the accordion is a talisman able to ward off self-centeredness and resentment, of course. But the many hours I have spent, and continue to spend, playing for Irish dancing competitions reinforces, in my life, that this is not all about me. The music I play provides the context for the dancers to dance, but my task is to prepare their way, to play music enabling them to dance. When a dancer executes a particular dance in spectacular form, it brings me great delight to hear people laud the performance: even though they aren't talking about me, or may not even have noticed me, I am joyful that I've had even a small - even if invisible - part in creating something others love.

John the Baptist isn't looking to take a selfie, or to gather a whole group of people around him. He doesn't come up with a catchy #Baptizer or #I_Baptized_Him or #Dunked_Him Twitter claim. He proclaims a truth surely hard to share: you might think I'm good, but you haven't seen anything yet. The Baptizer must have faced terrible temptations: his words and deeds so touched his listeners' hearts, they came to see and hear him, and he must have been tempted to think that he was the star of the show. Yet he knew at the core of his being a lesson most of us have to learn, and re-learn, throughout our lives.

Second, and probably more difficult for most of us, would be the possibility of hearing God say to us: You are my beloved. You (insert your name here) are my beloved and with you I am well pleased. 

"The Baptism of the Christ" by artist Daniel Bonnell
Again, speaking only for myself, I find it hard to take a compliment. If you say, "Ry, that was a great dinner you prepared," I'll probably discount it: "It was nothing" or "Thanks, but I thought the meat was too overdone." I don't think it's modesty so much as, deep down, a little fear-scar refuses to be healed and I'm always self-conscious about whether the person really means what is said. Better to downplay a compliment, to hedge it with some negativity, than risk being disappointed later.

I think a rather glittering seduction is to invert God's words to Jesus. We try to make it something like, You have pleased me by what you have done, therefore you are my beloved. Our sinful hearts want to believe that God loves us because of something we've earned or merited but, even then, do we believe this much? If I can't take a compliment from my friends and family, do I think I'd be able to receive it from the Almighty?

Fortunately, the God we praise short-circuits our many neuroses. Our being loved isn't tied to an accomplishment, or an achievement, or something we've done or might do. We are loved simply because we are. In the celestial Facebook, God gave us a "Like" long before we ever thought to post a selfie.

You're not loved because you're good, or because your worthwhile. You're worthwhile, valuable, and you can be good only because God loves you. Stop trying to be loved. Love, instead, the great adventure of trying to be a disciple, of growing ever closer to the God who loves and sustains us.

Today it may prove helpful to meditate on Bonnell's powerful depiction of Jesus' baptism. Notice the play of light and shape surrounding Jesus who is cruciform: the Jesus who heard God's affirmation is the same Jesus we, sinful humans who are allergic to the message of God's love, crucified. Nevertheless, our hateful rejection of God's love doesn't silence the message directed to us. Perhaps we could take a few moments today and, in quiet prayer, imagine hearing God address us:

You are my beloved. Yes, you. 
Of course I know who you are. I know you are a sinner.
I know what you've done.
I know how you have failed.
I know of what it is you are ashamed, of what you work
so hard to keep concealed. 
I know the doubt in your heart; I know you struggle to believe
that anyone could love you.
"If they really knew me," you think, "they couldn't love me."
I know you because I am creating you, 
and I love what I create. 
You can say no to my friendship, no to my love, only because
I offered it to you first. 
It is never too late and my words to you never change:
You are my beloved. 
Allow yourself to be who you are. 
You cannot force this. 
You are free. 
You are beloved.
Let yourself be.
Be loved. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Crawling Out of the Cave

When I arrive at my professor's house this evening for our end-of-term dinner, my first semester of doctoral studies will be over. I'll cross the threshold with a 31-page paper, a nice bottle of Chardonnay, and a great sense of gratitude for the opportunities I've had this semester to grow as a thinker.

Now, I'll admit: when I look at the shelf that holds all of this last semester's books and articles, I'm astonished at how much I've had to read. An enormous stack of substantive articles - around 40 of them - were the basis for one course. Another course required ten texts, another one required eight, and the third necessitated another ten. Lots of reading, lots of thoughts, and a lot of stuff I've forgotten along the way!

I had hoped that I'd have the energy to blog regularly, but this has clearly not been the case. I spend so much of my time reading, or writing, that the idea of sitting down to write more is downright daunting. Doctoral studies, I've discovered, necessitate a certain type of ascetic practice, almost a monasticism. Many of my waking hours are spent in the library where my body sits quietly as my mind climbs mountains of words and swims vast oceans of ideas. Then, for about four weeks at the end of the semester, I'm invited to write something of a travelogue of those journeys - these are often ominously called "final papers" - to share with the instructor some of the fruits of my labors. These travelogues this semester exceeded 100-pages of writing, which does not count the many weekly writing assignments that were turned in all semester.

So, right now, I'm just crawling out of the scholar's cave. It's been an amazing semester and it's hard to believe it's over. I'm filled with relief, confidence, a desire for a massage to get rid writing tension, and a sense of tremendous gratitude.

If you've been checking these pages, I thank you for your patience. I hate leaving the blog dormant for long stretches, although I suspect readers understand if this gets less attention than before. I'll do my best to post over the next few weeks, not so much to make up for lost time, but to get back in the habit so that I don't fall away too drastically next semester. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Audacity of Prayer

The 17th century artist Peter Paul Rubens captures, as well as I've ever scene, the chaotic scene surrounding Jesus' crucifixion. If you reflect on Luke's Passion narrative and gaze upon the the painting, Jesus' interaction with the thieves is especially poignant. 

The exchange is familiar: 

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal. Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." 

Karl Rahner, meditating on Jesus' Passion, prays, "You are now in the agony of death, Your heart is filled to the brim with anguish, and yet You still have a place in that heart for the sufferings of another." Even as death closes in, as the ravages of human sin threaten to steal his last breath, Jesus' mercy and charity are not extinguished. How easy and often, when we suffer, for us to turn inward and set up barriers to the world. How remarkable, then, are Jesus' actions who is so unlike us: as his head begins to sink beneath the chaotic waters of death, he continues to offer the lifeline of hope to those justly convicted. 

We should be scandalized by the audacity of this thief: he has squandered his life, he has made his choices, and now on the cross he is paying his due to society. In our understanding of justice, we'd say, "He's getting his due," or stated otherwise, "He's made his bed, so let him sleep in it." 

Moments before his death, an punishment meted out by his society for crimes he has committed, the thief risks the most audacious of prayers: he turns to the one dying next to him and asks nothing more than to be remembered. His impossible request is met by an even more impossible response: I will not only remember you in paradise, but I will bring you home with me. 

Catholics believe that, through the words of consecration, ordinary bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ. Some of my friends struggle with this belief. Yet is this not itself a Eucharistic scene, as a condemned criminal offers the substance of his life - his ignominious past, a history of failing - to Jesus and has it transformed into glory. The thief asks for the impossible and is granted nothing less than Paradise in return. 

For myself, I seldom have the strength or courage to pray like the criminal. I pray in a calculative manner, I pray for things that are likely to come to pass, things I can imagine as fitting into my (admittedly narrow) view of the world. How much then I have to learn from the thief dangling at Jesus' side: powerless to bring about any change other than to turn my heart to the One who saves and ask the impossible. I can pray only that my life, like the bread and wine offered at the Mass, be an unsuitable and unworthy offering...and that Christ's words of mercy will carry my life, as the bread and wine are transformed, into the life of the Kingdom.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

25 Years On

On Sunday, we will observe a tragic anniversary: it's now 25 years since a group of Salvadoran soldiers entered the University of Central America and murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Dragged from their beds, they were forced to lie down in their community's garden and, one by one, a bullet was put into the back of their heads.

Death is the consequence of authentically bearing witness to the Gospel in a sinful world. I am wary, then, of trying to use beautiful language to speak of my brother Jesuits and their friends who died, lest I run the risk of enveloping them in rhetoric and allowing their message to slip away. Their witness speaks, not through my words, but through the silence that their assassination calls out in us.

The Jesuits of El Salvador were executed for attempting to give a voice to the voiceless, for trying to empower the poor to speak against dehumanizing oppression. There is a tragic fittingness that their deaths bear mute witness to the ongoing struggle of so many in our world.

As Christians, if we are disturbed by the horrific silencing of these voices, it is incumbent to ask one further question: why are we not equally disturbed by the silence of myriad voice, voices never heard? The scandal of the martyrs is not that their voices were cut short but that the those for whom they spoke, and tried to empower speech within, continue to remain unheard.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Diaconate Ordination

I wanted to post a few photos from this weekend's diaconate ordination. On Sunday, I was given the great privilege of preaching at the 11:15 Mass at Saint Cecilia. Drawing on the banquet imagery found in the Gospel, I concluded with the following:

My friends, again I welcome you to the Eucharistic banquet. My name is Ryan and I will be your servant, your deacon. To many eyes, what we have on the menu is unimpressive: simple bread and wine. But to those who bring to the altar a hunger for Living Bread and a thirst for Salvation, it is all the food needed. If you enjoy your meal today, we don’t need a Yelp review. Be what you have received, the Body of Christ, and go out into a hungry world to invite anyone with hunger to join us because, at this table, there’s always room for one more and always more than enough to eat.
My understanding of what it means to be a minister in the Church comes directly from the Jesus I have come to know in prayer and whose credibility has been affirmed in and through the lives of many others. This is the Lord who comes to serve, not to be served. I'm not worthy to this task and I've done nothing to merit the privilege of this service. Nevertheless, I believe it is through God's grace and mercy that I have been invited and have the strength to accept this task. 

Monday, October 06, 2014

Practice what you teach

what you read

what you believe

what you teach

Very often, when friends ask me when I'm going to be ordained, a comment about the great length of Jesuit formation is made. "Almost eleven years? Why does it take so long?" 

Although the formal "training" process to prepare a man for ordination to the priesthood takes a Jesuit nearly ten years, the truth is that it is a process with roots in my childhood. From an early age, I knew very little other than I wanted to be happy in my life. I have been graced with many great opportunities and am quite assured that, were I not a Jesuit, financial concerns would be the least of my worries. I could have been a doctor or a lawyer, although as much as these would appeal to my ambitious side, I could well imagine that I might have become a special education teacher. Yet my draw toward happiness found models in the Jesuits I knew at Saint Ignatius High School, Canisius College, and John Carroll University. These were the kind of men I wanted to be like, the sort of men who seemed to be happy. 

When I entered the Society of Jesus in 2004, ordination seemed a very long way away. Novitiate, First Studies, Regency, then many stages, so many years. Instead of focusing solely on the end result, as some "light at the end of the tunnel," I have tried to stay focused on each stage of formation, trying each day to come to know Jesus better and to serve him in God's people. 

I mention this because, this Saturday, I'll be ordained to the transitional diaconate. Priestly ordination will take place next June 13th in Chicago. Truth be told, between starting my PhD and recently losing my grandmother, this ordination has been too much to think about, so I've put it into the Lord's hands each day. "Jesus, I know this is coming up, but I've got a lot going on these days. You do your work on your end, and I'll keep up on my end, and let's hope it'll all be okay." 

I'd ask your prayers for all of the ordinands this weekend and next. My prayer is that we are being formed to be the priests the Church deserves and needs. 

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Safe Home

Last Wednesday, my Grandma Hagan's 86-year sojourn on earth came to an end. Surrounded by her children and loved ones, she died in her own home. Indeed, in keeping with her wishes, she left her house "feet first" and as she was wheeled down the driveway, her family applauded her for a Job Well Done.

Needless to say, the days following were chaotic. As my family made plans, I scrambled to get a plane ticket. Compounding the frenzy was my own "good planning." Earlier this semester, I signed up to give two class presentations, one on a Thursday and the second on the following Tuesday. Well, funeral arrangements and a great deal of travel certainly put an enormous amount of pressure on me to write quickly and, hopefully, clearly!

Thankfully, all that needed to be done was accomplished. The funeral was a beautiful tribute to a woman who taught all who met her how to love. Grandma had something like 28 grandchildren, 13 great-grandchildren, and a smattering of great-great-grandchildren. Yet as one watched the line at the funeral home, or at the church, or at the graveside one thing could not be avoided: a lot of people had one Grandma Hagan.

Please pray for my family as they continue to experience an enormous void in their lives. It would be an understatement to say that a void has not be left in all of our lives and hearts. Big things, like Christmas, will bear her absence most notably. But so will the small family events - school recitals, sporting events, etc. - where Grandma would be sure to be in attendance, always an avid supporter of whatever her family was doing.

Some people die and leave vast estates behind. There was no vast estate but, perhaps, something far greater: a landscape of people, countless over the years, touched by a very special woman who knew how to extend a gracious welcome and offer authentic friendship to all she met. Our lives are far richer for having known, and been loved, by Mary Kay than any six-figure inheritance or trust could ensure.

We'll miss you, Grandma. Our shared faith consoles us that this week's Goodbye is not eternal but is, rather, a "we'll see you again." See you soon, Grandma. Please pray for those you've left behind for now, that our lives may give witness to the women and men you loved us into being.

First Vows, 2006
Praying with those gathered at the graveside.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Student Depression

Last weekend, a former student contacted me to share his experience of a recent loss. A close friend of his, after having struggled for years with crippling depression, took her own life. This young man, in the wake of her suicide, has been left not only with the pain that attends her loss but, also, with a burning question: what, if anything, can be done to help others who experience such crippling darkness that death seems the only way to stop the pain? 

Drawing on his own harrowing experiences of depression, Jesuit William Lynch described the feeling of hopelessness as containing, in varying degrees, elements of the following: 
  • Sense of the impossible - no matter what one must do, it seems too daunting. Whether it be to get out of bed, or go to school or work, or look through the day toward the evening, it seems too much. 
  • Sense of too-muchness - the whole of life seems too much, too big, too burdensome. The smallest task is overwhelming, things others might take for granted become herculean endeavors.
  • Sense of futility - in the heart's depths, where once there burned a flame that provided a steely resolve, there is nothing. One experiences a lack of feeling, a total numbness.
For the person for whom hope has been extinguished, it would seem that all of one's interior resources have been vanquished. Where once a still, small voice encouraged, "Come on! You can do it!" there is no silence, a deafening absence of sound, which is experienced as a constant reminder "There is no use."

"Hopeless" by dobytek
I would observe that, if these observations ring true, they would be experienced particularly acutely by young people today. We frequently read about the pressure students are put under: be involved, be studious, be extraordinary. These days, there's a competition to get into kindergarten! High school students are under constant pressure to get good grades and high test scores. College students feel pressure to declare majors early and have a life-plan by the end of their first year. 
Our expectation is that young people "Dream Big" and "Aim High." A person for whom hope has been extinguished can hardly "make a wish" on a birthday candle or on a distant star. 

Adding to Lynch's metaphor: if on a journey through the desert we come upon a collapsed traveler, his immediate desire will not be to construct a water park or aqueduct. Instead, if we ask what he wants, he will simply say: water. It is not the big dream or career blueprint that is the sign of life. The sign of life, and the sign of hope's endurance, is the ability to make even the smallest wish.  

I mention this because I think all of us need to be increasingly mindful of the pressures and expectations we place upon ourselves and others. If we see a fellow traveler stooped under her burden, our assumption should not be that she's lazy or unwilling to walk further. If our students, or young friends, seem somewhat ground down by daily life, we should not ignore it or attribute it to "a phase." Hopelessness is not a phase. It is an affliction, a soul-tearing ordeal. We cannot dispel the darkness for another, but we can help to fan the dimming flame of the heart. 

As I think back on my own former students, I wonder what would have happened had I been more attentive to certain things. The student who packs a bag slowly, with labored breath, and sort of shuffles out the door. The student who stares off into the distance, his skin pallid, somehow there but not there. The forced-smile that tries to distract from the ocean of tears behind the eyes; the assurance that "everything's great" when you can tell, somehow, that it's not. If I could do it over, I'd not ask them big questions, questions I know now to be overwhelming. Perhaps I'd ask, instead, "what do you want to have for lunch?" or "if you could make a wish today, what would it be for?" If it sparked conversation: great. If the student couldn't articulate even the simplest wish, then it might be a good sign that intervention was called for. 

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

You Can't Go It Alone

It was hard not to notice this summer, as I spent many, many, many hours in various airport, just how many "self-help" books populate the shelves of various retailers. Some celebrate the power of positive thinking, others promise a program of seven-day personal transformation, others assure personal and professional success if you just follow the ____ number of steps contained in the book.

As a genre, these books tap into a common core: you can rely on yourself, and draw upon your own resources, to bring about the change in your life that you need.

So long as you buy the book!

It's often hard to admit that we need assistance in our lives. There is such pressure to maintain a certain image, to keep up a certain appearance, that we fear having people discover we're not as good, or smart, or competent as we think they think we are. Thus we try to fix ourselves on our own, try to pull ourselves out of the quicksand traps we've fallen into. We say things like, "I'm going to take up running after I lose another ten pounds" and "I'm going to go take some cooking classes after I watch the Food Network for a few more weeks to learn what I'm supposed to do." (I heard that last one at the airport)

Our spiritual lives aren't immune to this. One friend of mine shared that he'd been having a hard time praying this summer but he was looking forward to next year's Lenten season to get back to it.

Last night, before I fell asleep, I was praying with Psalm 49. Here's the passage on which I lingered:
No man can ransom even a brother, (this is a maxim, not a statement of fact)                     or pay to God his own ransom.
When a prisoner is taken hostage and ransom demanded, the prisoner depends on outside assistance for help. The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18 plays on the powerlessness of captives: if you're in prison, there's no way to work to earn the money to cover your debt. When one is ransomed, captured, or ensnared it no longer within that person's power to enact a self-rescue. We, all of us, need an outside rescue.

I cannot help but wonder how big a hit the Self-Help industry would suffer if those who bought the books hawked to them dared to risk an inward glance to name the places in their lives where they were being held prisoner. Rather than looking to a book to give them the advice so that they might free themselves - as if we had the talent and skill of a spiritual MacGyver! - perhaps it would save them money, and help to save themselves, by asking another for help. 

To open ourselves in vulnerability to another, to admit our shortcomings and our inabilities, to allow someone else to see us for who we truly and really are...not only is this the first step on the road to healing but it is also the first step on the road to authentic friendship. So, too, is it the first movement of prayer and of faith's journey. For in professing our faith, we admit that we cannot go this path alone, that we cannot pay our own ransom, but that in the Holy One of God we have found the merciful one who will enter our chaos, who will pay our debts and save us, and who will walk with us as our brother and friend.