Monday, April 30, 2012

Who are you to tell my daughter how to dress?

Last week, the elegant Roostertail - where U of D Jesuit hosts its prom - made the news when it released its 2012 Prom Dress Code. A first for this institution, the owner of the establishment decided that it was time for someone to help students distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate attire.
Roostertail 2012 Prom Dress Code:
1. A young lady’s hemline should be no shorter than 6” above the knees.
2. Dresses may be backless, as long as they are not cut below the waist line.
3. No midriff-bearing cutouts.
4. Slits cannot go further than 6” above the knee.
5. No plunging neck lines, modest cleavage is OK.
6. Ladies, if you plan to remove your shoes, bring flats.
7. Gentlemen are not to remove, unbutton, or untuck their shirt.
8. Gentlemen must keep their shoes on.
A parent or guardian is only allowed to come to the Roostertail in case of emergency. Parents and guardians must also abide by the Dress Code. Example: no jeans, shorts, flip-flops, cut offs, halter tops, etc.  At no time will families or friends be allowed on the Roostertail property. 
As the person in charge of prom for the University of Detroit Jesuit High School, I applaud this effort. I admire Mr. Schoenith for having the courage to do something that certainly will bring the ire of certain parents. Can't you hear it already? I sure can: "Who are you to tell my daughter what she can wear?"

In his 1979 encyclical Redemptor Hominis, Blessed John Paul II wrote:
 ...Christ the Redeemer "fully reveals man to himself". If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. In the mystery of the Redemption man becomes newly "expressed" and, in a way, is newly created. He is newly created! (10.1)
A rite of passage, Prom helps to mark the transition from adolescence into adulthood. It is an exciting event, certainly made somewhat nerve-wracking for many young women who fret about finding the perfect dress. How ironic that, for many, they will pay more money to purchase less material! Some of the dresses are simply outrageous, leaving absolutely nothing to the imagination...much to the chagrin of the chaperones and to the delight of some of the young men!

As a Catholic, I believe in the inherent dignity of the human person. Furthermore, I take seriously Gareth Moore's insight that, "Christian life is a preparation for the restoration of all things when Christ comes as king." We are called to live our lives here and now as we will live them in God's Kingdom. To my mind, this starts with recognizing our mutual human dignity, treating one another as persons rather than as objects.

I think the Prom can be a wonderful event for students and families, a special night to celebrate one's high school experiences and to look to the unknown future. Asking the young women and men to adhere to a dress code and to comport themselves as ladies and gentlemen serves as a great lesson that a fun and memorable evening can be had while respecting one another. Dresses and styles may come into and out of fashion, but a constant regard for human dignity and forming our students to recognize this in one another will never go out of style.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Good Shepherd

Teaching high school boys, particularly sophomores, is seldom easy. Frequently restive and fidgety, one must move relatively quickly to hold their attention when covering what they might regard as less-than-interesting material. I have always tried my best to "spice up" the class, making connections between theology and philosophy/sociology/psychology/etc., but it can be a struggle.

During my first semester of teaching, when discussing today's Gospel Reading where we find the lovely, if not often kitschy, image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. As you can see from the attached picture, Jesus is often depicted as a cross between Little Bo Peep and Charlton Heston. He is white, carries his little staff, and the sheep are clean and obedient.

What I wanted to impress upon the students was the notion that "Good Shepherd" in Jesus' day would have been an oxymoron. Shepherds were akin to brigands, were regarded with suspicion, and the nature of their job made them frequently unclean. Indeed, we may do better to consider the image of the "Good Shepherd" as being closer to Rooster Cogburn or Han Solo than to Little Bo Peep: grizzled, ever ready for a fight, not necessarily interested in what they are doing so long as they are being remunerated for it.

Anyway, back to sophomore theology class. As I attempted to impress upon the sophomores how this title would have struck listeners as scandalous - for how could one be a good shepherd? - it quickly dawned on me that they weren't quite grasping the concept. Frequently unable to control my filter, I blurted out, "Guys, calling Jesus the Good Shepherd is like calling someone the Good Pimp."

Well, as you can imagine, this was met with great enthusiasm. As it turned out, this little gem was shared at the very end of class. By 8th period, the other sophomore class flooded into my room and the first question asked: "So, Abba Duns, I heard you tell us how Jesus had hookers." Simultaneously amazed and horrified, I moved our discussion of the "Good Shepherd" image to the beginning of class, explained it most carefully, and resolved to re-teach this portion of the lesson the next day to those students who thought I had suggested that Jesus had been involved in sex trafficking.

Lesson Learned: Sophomores do not readily understand metaphors.

I share this anecdote simply because there is always a temptation to romanticize, or domesticate, Jesus Christ. We find some comfort in this image of the gentle shepherd who will risk his life to rescue us from harm. Yet we should not lose sight that the image is invested with great meaning, that the idea of the "Good Shepherd" would have been somewhat unthinkable to 1st century listeners, and that John the Evangelist gives us yet another way in which Jesus subverts common understanding and prejudice.

Today, it may help us to recall the 'wild' and 'untamed' side of Jesus. Resist domesticating him, making him into some sort of toothless teddy bear and, instead, allow the mystery of the one who stands at the frontier of society to pierce us in our hearts. Do we have the courage to follow this figure, the audacity to put ourselves under the tutelage of the One who subverts our expectations and whose tutelage leads us back to the Father's fold?

Monday, April 23, 2012

Mother/Son Communion Breakfast 2012

Some of the mothers encouraged me to post my talk to my blog. I know that it is long, so I'm going to post it in such a way that you have to click the "read more" to get to it. This was given on April 22nd, 2012, at the Detroit Golf Club for the Moms of Seniors graduating from U of D Jesuit. We had a great attendance at the event and I want to congratulate Dr. Deb Wolfe on a lovely day. I also wish to thank her for extending the invitation to speak on such a wonderful occasion as we celebrate what Father Kiser calls the "Long Goodbye" preparing to send our graduating seniors off to college.

Recovery Period

I'm ashamed that, after a good spate of frequent updates, I've fallen silent for nearly a week. Last Monday, we returned from Spring Break and we kicked off the final week of the Student Senate Election. It was a crazy four days of preparing for the election and then, after the event on Friday, I had to run and chaperone a dance...with quite possibly the craziest mother I have ever met showing up at the end of the event.

I managed to have dinner with some friends on Saturday, but only after preparing two different talks I had to deliver on Sunday. So yesterday I gave two talks and graded a bunch of papers. By 11:00 last night, when I shut off the light, it amazed me that I had just had a weekend - it flew by!

So right now, I'm recovering from the craziness of the last ten days. I need to catch up on some sleep and get back on track with teaching. Please be patient - I'll be recharged in a few days!

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Credimus! (In 140-characters or less)

A reader - a brilliant and incisive one at that - who articulates her struggles with the Church reached out to me with, what I consider, a really brilliant idea.

She asks: "People live in 120 character tweets - what can the Church 'tweet' about our core beliefs?" This would be a means, she continues, "to make inroads to Catholics and people who might want to be Catholics."

If you approached an average person on the street, what would she say about Catholicism today? "The Catholic Church is against birth control, prohibits abortion, is against gay marriage, won't ordain women, and covered up the sexual abuse of minors." This may be overly cynical but, I fear, it's probably not far from the truth. The Catholic Church certainly seems more identifiable by what it is against than what it is for.

I don't know how many might be interested in this, but I'm willing to give it a shot. What if we were to complete the following phrases in 140-characters or less?

  1. We believe Catholics break bread in community because...
  2. We believe Catholics work for social justice because...
  3. We believe Catholic traditions appeal to the senses because...
  4. We believe Catholics trust in the life and work of Jesus Christ because...
  5. We believe Catholics find God in all things because...
  6. We believe Catholics understand that God...
  7. We believe within the Catholic Church because...
In the Latin, "We Believe" is Credimus. So I might be crazy and this might not go anywhere at all, but what if we were to "Tweet" these (either in the comment box or on Twitter) and start each one with #Credimus. For instance
#Credimus: we recognize the dignity of every human life 
That accomplishes the task in 56 characters! Short, sweet, and to the point. There's even 84 characters left over to work with.

If this caught on, it would be sort of cool to have some "Affirmative Catholicism" stating what we believe in and what we stand for. Think of this as the early stages of setting down a "Twitter Catechism" that may make the tenets of the Catholic faith accessible, and appealing, to a younger generation. This isn't to say that it can be reduced to Tweets but, if we're clever, it might hook them and invite them to dig deeper into the riches of the tradition.

Note: I know the Nicene Creed is no professed "Credo - I believe" but if you look at #Credo on Twitter, pornography comes up. Hence the communal "Credimus" or "We believe."

Friday, April 13, 2012

What the numbers do not tell us

There is a piece in today's Wall Street Journal written by Anne Hendershott and Christopher White entitled "Traditional Catholicism is Winning." Almost eight years into religious life, I think their final paragraph captures well the reasons I decided not to pursue medical school, or law school, and entered into the service of the Church in 2004, a mere two years after the disastrous revelations of sexual abuse that made national headlines in 2002. The young women and men offering themselves as candidates to religious life and the priesthood:
...are attracted to the philosophy, the art, the literature and the theology that make Catholicism countercultural. They are drawn to the beauty of the liturgy and the church's commitment to the dignity of the individual. They want to be contributors to that commitment—alongside faithful and courageous bishops who ask them to make sacrifices. It is time for Catholics to celebrate their arrival.
 I think this is generally spot-on. Speaking from my own experience, I know that it is important to me that my superiors know that I am not afraid to be asked to do things. I have likes and preferences, to be sure, but I want to be sent "to the frontiers of the Church" to spread the Gospel. When asked to sacrifice "for God's greater glory" I will always respond as generously as possible.

This concluding paragraph notwithstanding, however, there is something about this piece that leaves me feeling cold.

That 467 men were ordained last year to the priesthood is an encouraging number. Certainly, it is better than the 442 ordained in 2001, although I suspect no one would deny that +5.66% change over ten years is sufficient either to replace those who die/retire/leave or to augment the standing number of overworked clergy. I mention only to say that while an uptick in the number of priests is a good trend, we have an awful long way to go before we can say that a certain blend of Catholicism is winning. Indeed, I find it singularly unhelpful to encourage polarization between "liberal/conservative" Catholics. Such labels simply make it easier to dismiss one another and does nothing to bring persons of differing viewpoints to communion.

This leads me to another point. We can have rectories bursting with newly-minted clergy, but will this bring people back to the pews? Will this re-invigorate a Church that alternately appears totally out of touch with culture or narrowly obsessed with a certain issue, generally something to do with sex or sexuality? Will those candidates for the priesthood who are drawn to dioceses which are "unambiguous and allow for a minimum of dissent about the male, celibate priesthood" necessarily translate into men whose preaching  ministry will comfort the afflicted and enkindle greater love and passion in the pews? They may be ordained, they may have all of the right answers, but does that mean they can serve?

Let me be clear. I do not consider myself radically progressive. I regard many of the misinterpretations of Vatican II with dismay and I generally conceive of 1970's liturgical and ecclesial culture and its ongoing residue as a many-headed hydra whose heads need to be severed, the stumps cauterized, and a sword plunged deep into its heart. I enjoy reading and studying doctrinal statements and I am ardently pro-life, from conception to natural death. I am unswerving in my belief in the dignity of every human life and I think that the most under-utilized resource in the Church is our rich heritage of social teaching.

I say this because I find myself very much out of step with this generation's newly ordained. I find them knowledgeable of the liturgy, publicly pious but not especially prayerful, glad to quote from encyclicals but relatively out of touch with contemporary cultural trends.

Here's an experience I had of this difference. I was asked to give a talk in a diocese on "Belief in God Today." I introduced myself to the new associate pastor, 27 years of age, with a handshake and "Hi, I'm Ryan Duns." I was in my collar and a suit. "Hi Ryan, Father Aloysius. Nice to meet you." Now, I was in religious formation when he was still doing keg stands in college. So I called him "Aloysius" and was quickly corrected with a, "Father Aloysius." I smiled, corrected myself, and told him that henceforth he could call me "Mr. Duns" if we were keeping to formalities.

I wish I could say this was an isolated instance but, unfortunately, in the three dioceses I've lived in and where I've gotten to know seminarians, clericalism is on the ise.

What the numbers do not tell us is whether underneath the incense, the liturgical correctness, the fastidious adherence to orthodox teaching, and the appropriate vestments, there beats a pastoral heart. Are these newly ordained willing to listen to the troubles of regular women and men who struggle each day to find God in their lives, who live amidst ambiguities and concerns and doubts that the clergy seldom concern themselves with? These newly ordained may be  attracted to, and wish to preach, a "forthright defense of the faith and doctrine" yet will they remember that that the questions burning in human hearts seldom find an answer in a quote from the Catechism?

Personally, I look at faith and life in the Church through a modified quote taken from Auntie Mame: "The Church is a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!" There is much to feast on in our tradition. The joy and excitement of being part of a living faith should be a reason for exuberance and outreach, rather than entrenchment and divisiveness. The faithful remaining in the pews must welcome the newly ordained and they must encourage them in their vocations. They must be willing to be challenged to grow in their own faith and to consider that the new generation may have good things to share. So, too, must the newly ordained be willing to learn from previous generations, be willing to understand where others come from, and listen to the voices of those who have left the Church and find new and creative ways to invite them home.

If the clerical culture wins out, though, I fear that we could have overflowing altars and empty pews. One can prepare the incense, prime the choir, and ready the altar...but if the faithful are not invited and their dignity as authentic seekers is not recognized, the famine of faith will only continue to grow. Are the heirs to Peter willing to feed Jesus Christ's sheep or will they focus more on being celibate than being joyful, more on doctrine than on dining at the Feast of the Lamb?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

In the breaking of the bread

Today's Gospel's scene, so beautifully depicted by Rembrandt, recalls two disciples' journey on the road to Emmaus. In the wake of Jesus' horrific execution, the disciples quickly disbanded. Cleopas and his companion are walking, dejected, when they are approached by a stranger who seems oblivious to the events that had taken place. Incredulous at first, they recount the days' events to the stranger who, certainly to their amazement, managed to explain what had actually taken place. Having heard his re-framing of the story, the disciples become aware of the dusk and invite the stranger stranger to join them for table fellowship. When the stranger breaks the bread, their eyes are opened and they finally recognize the one with whom they have been chatting: it is the Risen Christ.

One way of looking at this passage is as the confrontation between two types of stories. The disciples' version of the story is told against a horizon of death and and defeat and confusion. Their minds and hearts had been pressed to their natural limits. Something wasn't quite right: the empty tomb, the message of the women, these just didn't add up. Left to their own devices, the disciples could not sort this all out.

Hence the brilliance of the passage. Jesus doesn't give them a demonstration of who he is, a series of logical steps. Rather, he re-tells and re-frames the story, expanding the boundaries so that what they had seen could finally be understood. Jesus didn't add touches of spiritual paint to their portrait of events, adding a touch here, a correction there. Instead, Jesus subverts the whole portrait by tearing it from their limited frame and putting it into the context of God's ongoing plan of Creation. Jesus' story doesn't add something to history. It shows the true nature of history itself, the story of God reaching out to humanity time and time again, despite humanity's chronic rejection of this friend request.

Each of us might take a few moments to consider how our normal picture of things might be subverted by the Stranger who enters unexpectedly into our midst. The Stranger may break in upon us at any moment: a chance encounter on the train, idle moments in a shopping line, the quiet of prayer. In such encounters, we risk having our frames widened and expanded and having our lives challenged, or even subverted. May it be that each of us come to know the grace of the stranger, that a chance encounter may leave us with 'our hearts burning within us'.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Non Nisi Te

It is said that, while praying before a crucifix, Saint Thomas Aquinas was addressed by God. "You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward will you have?" The response Thomas offers is stunning in its simplicity: non nisi te, Domini...None other than You, Lord.

I wrote last night of an image taken from my childhood prayer. I would like, tonight, to share an experience to which I have returned in my memory many times over the years. I'm somewhat reluctant because it might raise for readers the sense that I am deceitful, attention-seeking, or insane. Yet, I feel able to share this with readers with the hope that it is helpful to them.

So here we go.

Like many Catholic kids, I used to like to play Church. I distinctly remember being around seven years of age and playing Church in the backyard of our house, using a white-topped, green-legged Little Tykes table as an altar and Ritz crackers for hosts. At some point, I went into the the house and back to bathroom. It was a small room, painted an ugly yellow/beige color as I remember it. The bathroom and kitchen were connected by a very tiny room - we may have kept coats there - that also had a refrigerator in it.

Above the bathroom sink there hung a mirror. For some reason, I was possessed of the desire, after I had washed my hands, to continue playing Church. I went over to the refrigerator and removed from its door a beer mug. It had something of a textured, glass-rivulet, outer surface, a handle, and a base connected to the mug by a stout stem. I did a quick Google Image search, but I couldn't find anything quite like it so I must leave it to your imagination.

So I returned to the bathroom and filled it with tap water. I placed it upon the sink and then I did what I believed I had seen the priest doing at Mass. What I actually said, or gestured, has long been concealed by the sands of time. Yet I remember elevating the mug and taking a drink from it.

I say this will all of the honesty that I can muster: what I tasted with that sip did not taste at all like water. I didn't know what I had ingested, but I knew it was not regular tap water.

Scared, I quickly put down the mug. I felt as though I had done something bad or that I had gotten myself poisoned. So, after a few moments, I did what any normal seven-year old would do: I took another sip.

It tasted fine. It tasted like water.

Having had enough adventure for one day, I poured the remaining contents of the mug out into the sink, returned it to the refrigerator, and went outside to play.

Perhaps it was just about a year later - in March of 1988 - I made my First Holy Communion. My grandmother bought me a suit to wear and, on Saturday, I went for the first Confession. On Sunday, with Father Murray presiding, I received the Consecrated Host and the Precious Blood.

When I took the cup, and drank of it, I realized that I knew the taste. It was the same I had had a year before. A little bit confused, I told my Aunt Mary - Sister Margaret Ann, OSU - about what had happened. I don't remember her saying very much directly to the experience, but I do remember her grabbing my shoulder and telling me to be a Disciple of Christ. Years later, she is one of the people who encouraged me to be a Jesuit.

Why am I sharing this? In part, I'm inspired by my viewing of Father Robert Barron's Catholicism project, in particular the episode on the saints. Father Barron makes the point that we should all want to be saints, that the saints are those people who "allowed Jesus to get into their boats." As I watched, I felt a deep sense of how the Lord has gotten in, been forced out, and then snuck in again to the boat of my life. I am a man who has struggled mightily with doubt and unbelief but, deep down, I have always felt God's loving presence. Deep down, I truly believe that I have touched, and seen, and tasted, and heard, and smelled the graciousness of God.

I do not believe that what I experienced was a miraculous calling, or the setting of a divine seal upon my heart. For years, I have wracked myself with wonder in trying to conceive of other explanations, other reasons, for what I so distinctly remember. That singular event has become, in the course of my life, a significant touchstone and a site of great wrestling. Perhaps now, twenty-five years later, I'm just tired of wrestling and am growing in acceptance.

As I prepare to leave regency and transition to the study of theology at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, I feel great sorrow at having to leave a school and a community I love. I will be heartbroken to move to Boston because I feel as though I found a great deal of myself, and have been recreated, in and through the experience of teaching these wonderful students. Yet I feel called to serve God and the Church as a priest and I will move on to my next mission. I hope my prayer, in the months to come, can remain one with that of Saint Thomas: non nisi te, Domine, nothing but You, Lord. I want to live out the grace that I have so often been given, to live it out courageously and joyfully, that others too may come to Taste and See the Goodness of God.

Monday, April 09, 2012


There is something about today's Gospel that I love.  In the first section, we hear that Mary & Mary meet Jesus on the road and he charges them with a task: tell the other disciples to go to Galilee where they will see him. The second section of the passage paints a strikingly different picture: some of the guards report back about the strange events that had happened and, in return for their agreeing to tell another version of the story, they are paid a sum of money.

The hinge of the story, so to speak, is the very axis around which the Christian life rotates: the Resurrection. Both the chief priests and the two women recognize the story and each must respond somehow. Neither can afford a stance of indifference. The women bear the the message to the disciples whereas the guards sell out the truth they have witnessed for a sum of money. In today's Gospel, we witness the dilemma of discipleship: will we tell the story of the Risen Christ or will we let our silence be purchased by those who would rather quash the message of hope it brings?

Reaching deep into my memory, I cannot ever remember a time when I was not thinking about God. Don't misunderstand me: I thought about plenty of other things and my own track record of sinfulness puts me out of the running for canonization! Yet, I always had a deep and abiding sense that there was, that there is, a God and that this God is loving.

Perhaps it is because I was blest to have experienced great love as a child, but I never had a notion of a wrathful or punitive God. I still remember the way, as a six-year old, how I'd fall asleep at night on the top level of the bunk bed I shared with my brother: clutching the blanket my Grandma Duns gave me, I would imagine myself as being held in the ridge of God's fingerprint. I knew myself to be very small (literally and figuratively - I had not a need for Weight Watchers at this point) and I felt that I could commend myself to some space in the whorl or loop of God's fingertip.

Over a quarter-century later, my own struggles with faith have often forced the question my childhood sanity: was I, or am I, totally insane?

It's embarrassing to share this story, really, because my temptation is to be a mature adult and not many adults disclose their childhood bedtime prayer habits! Yet this is part of my narrative and I would be a sell-out it I hid it, concealed it, in order to buy some respect or status. From my earliest days, I have known a kind and loving God. It has not always been easy to reconcile my experience with the atrocities committed in God's name and the horrors so-called believers have committed, and have allowed to happen.

Many struggle with the question of belief. I wish I could offer some bloodless, dispassionate proof for God's existence. Alas, I cannot. What I can do is tell my story and to share with you how my own heart has been touched and enflamed. I am sure the disciples, in the wake of Jesus' death, were incredulous at the Marys' words. Yet having come to know them, and to trust them, perhaps they slowly allowed the women's words to penetrate their hearts as they began to believe. Surely, these breathless women must have done whatever they could - gestures, intonations, shouting and pulling - to communicate the message of the Resurrection. I doubt they used syllogisms or mathematical logic.

For the Marys, the events of that early morning shook up their lives and the course of history. The same road could have been traveled by the guards, although they preferred the paid-off comfort of a familiar story. How many of us want the comfort of the Gospel without the life-changing path it pushes us upon! How many of us would rather not testify through our whole selves to the Resurrection, lest it make us look foolish? How many of us would feel the Truth we long for if only we would live it out?

As the Easter grass gets cut out of the vacuum and the black jelly beans accumulate at the bottom of the baskets, it may be wise to reflect for a moment on today's Gospel: are we to be seized by the Risen Christ and impelled on the road, or will we retire to the comfort of old haunts, a little wealthier, but living a bought silence that keeps us comfortable but that neither feeds nor nourishes our souls?

Sunday, April 08, 2012

A Disney Easter

As I settled into bed last night, consoled and joyful at the beauty of the Vigil Mass, it occurred to me that what I most value in a homily is the preacher's understanding of a question that rests upon my heart. The most meaningful homily, in my experience, is the one that elevates a question that has been burning within me and addresses it in a clear and moving manner.

This got me to thinking about how I would explain Easter to someone who asked about it. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I began to wonder how I'd explain it to my niece Emma who will turn five in August. Emma knows a lot of things: she knows about Dora, how to count in English and Spanish, her colors, her shapes, and she is starting to read. On any given day she is a princess and an explorer, a dancer and a cook. She loves Disney movies and believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and she knows nothing of the United States Tax Code. Her life is, indeed, charmed.

So how do you explain the Resurrection of Jesus Christ in language that a child might understand?

How about this:

Dear Emma,

Do you remember when we watched Snow White? You laughed at the funny dwarves (don't get used to this - in the real world, it is very politically incorrect) and you sang and danced along with Snow White. You were scared when the Evil Queen appeared and you understood that she was up to no good. It was obvious to you that the Evil Queen wanted to hurt the Good Snow White. You even thought that when she ate the apple that the Queen had won, because it looked like Snow White was dead. The animals, the dwarves, and both of us were very sad when we saw Snow White in the glass coffin. But do you remember how the prince woke her up with a kiss? Do you remember how happy we were when we saw Snow White again?

Do you remember the other movies we like to watch: The Lion King, Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast, and The Little Mermaid? Sometimes it seems like the bad guy wins, doesn't it? But in each movie, we are happy at the end because Simba, Aladin, Belle, and Ariel actually win. Good beats evil.

Emma, a lot of adults think that this is all make-believe. The "real world" is a world where you have to do anything you can to win. If you are bigger than someone else, you can take her Yoo-Hoo. If you are bigger, you can do whatever you want. Some adults think it is okay to cheat at Candyland...if you don't get caught. These adults call themselves "realists" and think that what we love in our movies is silly nonsense. They believe only what they can see.

Today is Easter. Today, we think about how a good man named Jesus made a lot of people very happy. Wherever Jesus went, people seemed to come to life - just like how Belle brought life back to the castle. But you know, people get jealous. A lot of people were jealous of Jesus because he told them that the way they were living was not good, that God wanted them to live with a lot of joy and excitement. Jesus wanted to invite everyone to play in God's playground, but the bigger and stronger people did not like this. They wanted to play by their own rules. So they did what bullies always do: they threatened Jesus and, when he would not back down, they killed him.

Isn't that sad? They did not have to kill him. But he made them nervous and scared. So they did what Bad Guys do: they get rid of things that scare them.

But, do you know what? We believe that there is a happy ending. Even though the Bad Guys, the Bullies, put Jesus in a tomb and locked it up, we believe that the power of Good is stronger than all of their Bad. We are called Christians because we believe that the story of Jesus did not stop when he died. No, not at all. We believe that on Easter something wonderful happened: Jesus, who had been killed, was given new life. We believe that his Father said, "No! This is my son and he is telling everyone the truth about who I Am. I am the God of life, not death, and I return my Son to you to tell you that that he is who I Am."

Snow White, Aladdin, Belle, and Ariel all live "happily ever after." We believe that Jesus wants us to live happily ever after, too. He wants us to be just like him and invite people to play in God's playground. He wants us to play by the rules, to be honest and to share our Yoo-Hoo's with others. He wants us to love and not to be afraid. The Evil Queen is still out there, and Wicked Uncle Scar is still on the prowl, but we do not have to be afraid of them. They will try to hurt us, but we know that Good is stronger than any evil, that Life is going to conquer death every time.

Emma, please do not forget the best lesson of your favorite Disney movies: Good will always conquer evil. The Gospel is not like a fairy tale. Fairy tales are like the Gospel, which tells us that that the true Author of Creation will not be stopped by the actions of sinful people. The Gospels tell us that God is still writing the story, that Jesus is the main character, and that we are all called to be a part of this story. When we let ourselves become characters in this story, we are not playing pretend. We are disciples, who live out our roles in a world that needs to hear the Good News. Emma, the Gospel will not give you a magic wand. It will give you, though, a magic heart filled with grace that will spread love and joy. I wish I could give you the magic words like 'bippity boppity boo' that could change everything. Alas, I can only share with you these words: "In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." These words will change you and, as you grow in love, you will set the world on fire. Go, then, little princess on a mission to enchant the world with the Good News.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Summoned by Joy

I am very proud that at tonight's Easter Vigil I will sponsor one of my students as he is received into the Roman Catholic Church. Brother Boynton will be sponsoring another student from U of D Jesuit at the same celebration. It has been a great joy and a privilege to have accompanied both of these young men during their spiritual journeys, both as a teacher and as their RCIA mentor, and I hope my readers will join their prayers with mine for their ongoing process of coming to know, to love, and to serve Jesus Christ and His Church.

The anomaly of two normal, bright, young men entering the Church is not lost on me. Many of us are born into the Church and these guys are choosing to enter into it. They are fully aware that, as Herbert McCabe once put it,
The Church is quite plainly corrupt: a cardinal selects Christmas as the occasion for supporting the murder of Vietnamese civilians; the Pope alleges that the church's teaching is not in doubt about birth control; the Congregation of Rights has just asserted that a family communion celebrated in a private home and followed by a meal is a practice 'alien to the Catholic religion', while nearer home and more comically, a Bishop has expressed the fear that Catholics who sing carols in Anglican churches are endangering their faith and morals.
Yet, with Herbert, they feel that:
It is because we believe that the hierarchical institutions of the Roman Catholic Church, with all their decadence, their corruption, and their silliness, do in fact link us to areas of Christian truth beyond our own particular experience and ultimately to truths beyond any experience, that we remain, and see our Christian lives in terms of remaining, members of this Church. 
Deep within their hearts, Ian and Justin have felt a stirring and their response has led them to tonight's Easter Vigil. They know the Church and its members are far from perfect. In the rubble of sex abuse and a veritable crisis of authority, they still want to join our ranks. Why?

When I asked one of them, ultimately, why he wanted to join the Church his response was simple: "I want to be happy and you guys (the Jesuits he knows) are happy. I want what you have and if you find joy in the Church, then I want that, too."

No stranger to partisan politics, sometimes it appears that 'Good Catholics' bloodlessly follow the rules and 'Bad Catholics' pick-and-choose as though in a cafeteria line. Such labels, however, obscure what I think truly attracts women and men to a life of faith: joy. Indeed, as I look back upon my own life, I can't help but recall the joy of Father Steve, my boyhood associate pastor, the joy of the Jesuits at Saint Ignatius High School, Canisius College, and John Carroll University, the joy of the countless women and men I have met over these years who stay with the Church not out of obligation but because they find joy and in that joy have hope that we can rise to being the "Body of Christ."

Pray with me, please, that Ian and Justin come to know joy. They know already that joy must never be confused for ephemeral pleasures or fleeting sensations. True joy abides deep within us, summons us, encourages us, sustains us, and drives us. The joy of the Christian life comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, who gives us his very own self in the Eucharist.

Saint Augustine wrote, "Be what you see, and receive what you are." Ian, Justin, and all the elect being received into the Church tonight:  receive tonight Joy incarnate and be a reminder to all the world - and in a special way, your Catholic sisters and brothers - that this is the Joy for which we all hunger.

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Holy Thursday: 2012

Have you ever wondered what Jesus did when he prayed? Until today, I guess, I'd never given much thought to this. I mean, what would the Son of the Living God have to say to his Abba? The Eternal Word made Flesh, one might suppose, had said everything that ever needed to be said long before the Incarnation. 

Yet we know from the Scriptures that Jesus prayed...even to the point of sweating blood, if Luke's Gospel portrait is to believed. What did Jesus say when he prayed? 

Perhaps, at some point, he said something like this:
I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook, so far that is to say as conscience allows, merging into the crowd and disappearing among them, so that they show themselves as they are, putting off all disguises with me. It is because I long to know them so as to love them just as they are. For if I do not love them as they are, it will not be they whom I love, and my love will be unreal. 
I wish I could claim to have composed these words, but I borrow them from the 20th century figure Simone Weil (Waiting for God, 7).

I imagine that words like these could have been prayed by Jesus many times, as he returned time and again to his Abba and sought the strength and clarity it took to continue in his mission of announcing God's Kingdom or, as I like to say, the Culture of God. His motivation finds its grounding in nothing other than love, a love that dwells with others, a love that sets captive hearts free.

Valentin de Boulogne, Last Supper (1625-1626)
 Tonight, the Church celebrates the Institution of the Eucharist. We remember that on this night, in celebration of the Passover meal, Jesus shared with his disciples nothing less than himself. For many months, Jesus' followers experienced the Culture of God breaking into their world in various places - the blind were made to see, the lame were given the power to walk, the dead were raised, those possessed of demons were freed. Having seen these events and heard his parables, that had been given a preview of what God's Culture, in full bloom, would look like: a place where women and men could be fully alive, freed from hatred and exclusion, prejudice and fear.

Tonight, Jesus' prayers to the Father find an ongoing answer: in the form of humble bread and simple wine, Jesus comes to us, enters in to us, to be with us as the Love that creates us, sustains us, and leads us to flourish. Where Jesus' deeds had exposed facets of the Kingdom, the Eucharist uncaps the well and gives each one of us access to the lifeblood of the Kingdom. Through the Eucharist, Jesus Christ takes our flesh and uses us - when we allow it - to continue the promotion of God's Culture.

Tonight, the desire of Simone Weil's heart shines forth in the self-giving of Jesus Christ. The very One who cured, and preached, and loved comes to us again and again, becomes a part of us, and gives us the strength to carry on in the promotion of the Kingdom. Perhaps it is fitting that we be given but a morsel of the consecrated Host and a sip of the Precious Blood, because we must remember always to return to the source of our nutrition. Let this liturgy be the beginning of our own feast on the Heavenly Bread that calls each of us - daily, weekly - into Communion with one another, a communion that will be fulfilled eternally in the New Jerusalem when we feast sumptuously together illuminated by the everlasting Light of the Lamb.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The Lighting of the Beacons

One of my favorite scenes from the Lord of the Rings trilogy takes place when the members of the Fellowship conspire to ignite the Beacons of Gondor. When hope seems to have flickered out, Gandalf orders Pippin to climb and light the beacon closet to Minas Tirith. To light one beacon gives a sign to those who spend their days searching the horizon, awaiting a sign that they, too, should ignite their beacon. The beacons' light stretches from mountain to mountain and, with each ignition, summons forces from across the land to aide the Fellowship in their battle against evil.

Today's Psalm from Isaiah concludes
I will make you a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. 
As I reflect on this reading, at the beginning of this Holy Week, I cannot help but feel moved by the above video clip and, in a way, more desirous of being a light to others.

Perhaps it is easy to succumb to the temptation that we live in a hopeless, cynical age. Countries are torn apart by political scandals, intrigue, and partisan politics. Sports heroes get caught up in doping scandals and acts of violence. Hardly a day goes by without an accusation against some prominent business figure. The authority of the Catholic Church has been squandered by mishandling of sex abuse cases and an inconsistent application of its prophetic stance to stand up for the dignity of every human life.

There is a temptation to despair, to dark resignation, to hopelessness.

Yet, as one can see in the above clip, it takes but a spark to draw the world together again. As the first fire is enkindled, note how Gandalf peers into the distance. Will someone see it? Is anyone watching? In the darkness of these days, is it possible that those who were stationed at the next beacon have bagged it and gone home?

No, the watchers do see the beacon. They have spent days, months, maybe years scanning the horizon for the day when the fire would be lit and a cry for help would be raised. A small spark to set wood on fire soon brings the forces of good together to make a stand against the forces of darkness.

This week, each of us should stop to consider: am I a beacon to others, giving others the courage to set fire to their own beacons, or am I an agent of despair, who fights against hope? Do I fan the flames of hope or do I douse them with my own cynicism?

The turn of the tide against the forces of darkness will not come by military power or a bomb. It will come because women and men of good will have seen in the distance the spark that calls them to respond, to put flame to their beacon, and to call the world into communion. Let us keep our eyes on the Lord this week, let us watch and pray with him, and may the spark of the divine light ignite something deep within each of us so that we, too, may become beacons calling out for the Return of the King.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame