Wednesday, October 24, 2012

I Can't Believe...

Several weeks ago, I was out to dinner with a group of friends, many of whom are involved either in Irish music or dancing. A few bottles of wine into the evening, as it so often happens, one of the group announced from across the table brought up the topic of religion. Actually, he didn't so much 'bring up' the topic as he did launch into a monologue about how he used to go to Church but now, because the bishops dared to tell him how to vote, he would never go back into the Church again. "I simply can't believe in the Catholic Church any longer," he said, staring at me.

Now, here's the thing. If "Believing in the Church" is translated into "Believing in the Bishops," then I stand with my friend. I wholly believe in the episcopacy and I acknowledge the importance of apostolic succession. I even think it appropriate to the Bishop qua Shepherd and qua Teacher that the faithful be instructed in all topics pertinent to adequate conscience formation. My problem tends not to be the with office of the bishop so much as it is with individuals who occupy that office.  The Church, much to my constant relief, is far bigger than any one bishop or any particular ordained ministry.

At the risk of being gauche, I challenged him on the above point and then pushed it a bit further. I think there's a real difference between saying, "I'm struggling to integrate this or that teaching of the Church into my life," and, say, proclaiming, "I disagree with the Church so I'm not going any longer." On the one hand, there is an effort to try to remain unified with the wider Church while still recognizing personal limitations, possible areas for mutual growth, and owning one's struggles. On the other hand, we see something more akin to a toddler's foot-stamping and snatching away his toys. In other words, one is the confession of a sincere seeker, the other is the claim made by a person who'd like to see the Church built around him.

Part of being in the Church is the realization that we are, all of us, de-centered from the institution. The Church is a motley crew, to be sure, yet it is our belief that we're all gathered together around the same host: Jesus. Were it up to me, I'd be only too glad to trim the guest list to make it a group more in line with my enlightened views and outlook on life. I reckon we could all say the same thing, that "If I were in charge..." things would be so much better. I cannot help but to think, however, that a Church built around me might be great from my vantage point but a living hell for everyone else.

Part of "believing in" the Church is "believing with" the members of the Church, believing with everyone else who is struggling to make sense of human life. Our act of "believing in" is made possible by believing with, by joining others in prayer and worship. This certainly isn't limited to those who sit next to us in the pew each week: when we gather, we join with Peter and Paul, Theresa and Ignatius, John of the Cross and Therese Lisieux. We gather with countless women and men - saints and scoundrels - who have tried to make sense of life by working out all of life's issues together, fed at the same table, nourished from the same bread and cup.

To my friend, ultimately, all I can say is this: the claim of quitting because one feels unable to "believe in" means either frustrated surrender or an excuse to not bother. I'm entirely sympathetic to people who struggle with the Church in regard to things like, say, the Divinity of Christ or the Trinity. Heck, I can understand people who struggle on topics such as women's ordination, divorce, and gay marriage - regardless of whether I agree with them on any particular topic, I can grasp the difficulty of integrating a challenging teaching into one's life...or, being unable to integrate it, to have to walk away.

What I don't get, and can't condone, is someone who blithely or cavalierly says "I don't agree with" or "I can't believe in the Church's teaching on x" therefore I am simply leaving. No struggle, no effort to remain in communion, nothing. I take 'communion' and togetherness as fundamental to the experience of being a believer and I should think it would take a great deal of struggle over a matter, rather than a mere exercise of fancy, to dislodge me from the place I call my spiritual home.

Friday, October 19, 2012

33rd Birthday and The Feast of the North American Martyrs

I'm very fortunate to celebrate on the same day the United States observes the "Feast of the North American Martyrs." On this day, we celebrate the witness of Saint John De Brebeuf, Saint Isaac Jogues, and their companions. For these men, death did not bring about their martyrdom. It was the consequence of their lives lived as witnesses to the Gospel. 

In 1979, I had four great-grandparents and four grandparents. Today, only my Grandma Hagan is alive. I'm blessed that my godparents - Jack Duns and Kelly King - are still alive, as is my Confirmation Jack Barret. Nevertheless, it's hard not to think back and miss those people who have passed from my life as I celebrate it's start. Likewise is it hard not to think upon the wonderful people who have entered my life, who have played a role in it, who have helped to make me who I am today. 

I am a fortunate man. I have a family I love very much - although my sister Hagan apparently is afraid of me! (and this for the one who taught her to eat sushi) - and I am uncle to the two best kids (Emma and Quinn) in the world. I have taught music to countless women and men thanks to the internet, I have played for Irish dancers across the world, and although I will forever be a Wildcat of Saint Ignatius, I must claim that my happiest experience of high school came from my privilege of serving at the finest Jesuit high school imaginable: The University of Detroit Jesuit High School and Academy.

 If I were to mention by name each person to whom I owed a debt of gratitude, I'd write for days. My life is blessed. 

I have never made a secret that I am a man sorely tempted by doubt. Yet, with Karl Rahner, I will aver: I believe because I pray. I believe in the goodness and mercy of God because I look at my life and I cannot help but to feel it is more than any one person could ever deserve. I am son, brother, and uncle. To some I am a tin whistle teacher, to others a nameless feis musician. To a good number of high school students I am Abba Duns. To the worldwide Society of Jesus, I am a brother Jesuit, a co-laborer in the Lord's Vineyard.

Overall, I should like to think that I might be known simply as a friend. 

Let me be crude for a moment: sometimes, it really sucks to be a Catholic. It can feel even worse to be clergy. It has been my grace, however, that I've never regretted getting out of bed in the morning and I've never gone to bed with a heavy heart. Life is not always easy, but it is joyful. I don't know how many of my peers can say this...

When I set off for college, I thought I'd be a doctor. "Ryan Duns, MD" looked pretty good to me. To this day, however, I get a thrill of astonishment when I sign the 30th letter of college recommendation "Ryan Duns, SJ". It's not where my earliest daydreams led me, to be sure, but never in my wildest dreams could I have have anticipated such joy in a life.

In 1998, a line from today's Gospel was harder to imagine:
"Even the hairs of your head have all been counted." 
15 years later, the Lord has a much job.

It is true that I am balder now and that it's harder to keep off the pounds. Still, I am happier today than I could ever have imagined and I'm far happier than I should ever deserve.

I wrote this two months ago, but it stands true and rings in the depths of my heart. It has become a daily prayer and on my 33rd birthday, I should only hope to have another 33 years of life lived in the same way:

For all that has been, I say: Thank You.
For all that is yet to come, I say: Yes. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On Politics

For quite some time, I have had mixed feelings about weighing in or writing on the topic of  politics. "Your realm," a friend once told me, "is to be priestly, not political." I reckon I've bought into this, preferring to pray quietly and to remain silent on many of the issues that have arisen during this election season.

It is not as though my silence is without good reason. For were I to say that I intended to vote for Mitt Romney, there would be cries that I hate the poor; to suggest a vote for Obama would raise cries that I hated the unborn. In particular, I have been dismayed and horrified by the caustic and hateful comments directed toward Catholic bloggers who voice, in any way, support for Obama. Civil discourse seems, yet again, to have been thrown out the window. Hell, the two candidates can't even engage in a civil debate! Is it a wonder why a Jesuit scholastic would prefer to remain silent?

But can I, in conscience, stay silent? Am I so wholly removed from the world of politics that I am permitted only to direct silent prayers for the coming of the Kingdom, but I am not to speak of how I envision this coming about? As a Jesuit and a son of Ignatius, it is my life's labor to be a contemplative-in-action, one who brings himself to prayer in order to discern better how it is that God is calling him back into the world. My ears grow attuned to the cry of the oppressed, they strain to listen to the countless silent voices squelched by sinful and oppressive structures. I open my ears and let their words and stories penetrate my heart. I lift these voices up in prayer. And yet am I to remain in silence about the political structures that both abet and promise to alleviate the oppression that is a scourge to so many?

So let me say something about my politics. It seems to me that most of our problems are human-made. Lack of food, the general disregard for the value of human life (from the womb to healthcare to education to care for our elderly and infirm), war, an unconcern for the environment, an economic crisis precipitated by greed and lust for money, and pernicious forms of prejudice and discrimination...all of these can be traced back to human artistry. We need look no further than to one another to see who the real architects of our malaise is: it is us. 

As a Christian, I cannot help but to look at the suffering and strife of so many and ask, "Lord, where are you in this?" Again and again, I am drawn in prayer and reflection to the realization that Christ is now where he always has been: with the poor, the helpless, the downtrodden, and the oppressed. As a Companion of Jesus, these are the men, women, and children that I have pledged my life and heart to serve as their brother and, God willing, their priest. As much as I'd like to say, "Let me give you spiritual counsel, but let's leave politics to the politicians" I would be remiss in doing so. 

You see, my question at the end of the day is, "With my vote, how am I contributing to the furthering of God's Kingdom?" Is there a place for abortion? Is there a place for war? Is there a place for children to be deprived of an education? Of healthcare? When I enter the voting booth, I am certainly going to follow my conscience in asking, "Which of these is building up God's Kingdom better?"

  • I will vote for the candidate whose social policy will contribute to the declining rates of abortion in this country while also addressing the sweeping social policies that are necessary to make abortion an un-exercised option.
  • I will vote for the candidate who manifests a deep sense of the dignity of human life - whether that human life stand at the moment of conception, the cusp of death, wealthy or poor, male or female, documented or undocumented, heterosexual or homosexual, Catholic or Jew or Muslim or Atheist or Questioning
  • I will vote for the candidate who will assess fairly and accurately our military presence in foreign countries and make an informed decision about out the role of the United States in the future of the international community
  • I will vote for the candidate who demonstrates a sense of the scope and depth of the current economic crisis. This candidate will realize the breadth of its impact and will promote ways to address this is a healthy, balanced manner.
I admit that there is no ideal, or perfect candidate. But it is our burden, and our privilege, as citizens to be able to vote for the man who will lead our country for the next four years. In my mind, I am trying to vote in and for the narrative of God's Kingdom, a Kingdom that Jesus Christ embodied in his ministry on earth. I can no sooner be a one-issue voter than I can, in conscience, refrain wholly from voting. So it is with a discerning eye and an open heart that I will approach the booth this year and, in casting my ballot, I will do so with a prayer-filled confidence that the person whom I envision leading our country will embody more fully the values of the Kingdom.

Friday, October 12, 2012

A Fitting Tribute

The Boston Irish community remains in mourning at the passing of a local legend, Mr. Larry Reynolds. I did not know Mr. Reynolds personally but I wish I had. By all accounts, he was a true character. Maybe it is only in Boston that a funeral for an Irish fiddle player could make the cover of the paper's Metro section. Nevertheless, I encourage you to read the fitting tribute to his life. If ever one wanted to see my image of heaven, it's the picture of all the musicians gathered in the Church...each one raising his or her instrument to play a song from the heart in joyful praise for another's life well life.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

So What?

If there has been a gift in having been a high school teacher, it is a sensitivity to the “So What?” dimension of every lesson. One can prepare the greatest of lessons but unless he is ready to account for the “So What?” factor, the meaning is lost. For good or for ill, students expect you as a teacher to give a hint as to how the material you are teaching relates to real life.

It is with the “So What?” glasses on that I read the letter Archbishop Nienstedt wrote to a mother in response to question about accepting her gay son. The mother, was responding to the Archbishop’s letter appearing on April 28, 2010, in The Star Tribune. This week, a fellow blogger posted a copy of the Archbishop's response to the mother

Now, let me ask: how this helpful to a mother who has taken the time to write a letter to her bishop asking for guidance? If one reads the letter and asks, “So What?” can it be claimed that any new ground has been covered, that any new insight has been gained? How has this helped a mother to be more loving toward her son? 

In case readers don’t have the entirety of the Catechism committed to memory, here are the three citations from the Catechism:

2357 Homosexuality refers to relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex. It has taken a great variety of forms through the centuries and in different cultures. Its psychological genesis remains largely unexplained. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture, which presents homosexual acts as acts of grave depravity, tradition has always declared that "homosexual acts are intrinsically disordered." They are contrary to the natural law. They close the sexual act to the gift of life. They do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity. Under no circumstances can they be approved.
 2358 The number of men and women who have deep-seated homosexual tendencies is not negligible. This inclination, which is objectively disordered, constitutes for most of them a trial. They must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God's will in their lives and, if they are Christians, to unite to the sacrifice of the Lord's Cross the difficulties they may encounter from their condition.
 2359 Homosexual persons are called to chastity. By the virtues of self-mastery that teach them inner freedom, at times by the support of disinterested friendship, by prayer and sacramental grace, they can and should gradually and resolutely approach Christian perfection.
Quoting the Catechism in response to a person’s question is like saying “Because I said so” to a child. It does little, if anything, to satisfy the inquirer.  Invoking "eternal salvation" yet failing to give some encouragement, or pastoral counsel, seems to me both a grave pastoral oversight. 

Very few of us today can claim not to have homosexual friends or relatives. Admittedly, the Church sets a high bar and it is a part of Christian journey to strive toward this goal. Nevertheless, each of us should feel comfortable in asking our pastors for help; each has the canonical right "to receive assistance from the sacred pastors out of the spiritual goods of the Church, especially the word of God and the sacraments. (canon 213). Citing the Catechism and basically saying, “Well, these are the rules. Like it or lump it.” is hardly helpful. To my mind, this letter is very sad: regardless of its intent, it now serves only to reinforce the belief that the Catholic Church is a homophobic institution more concerned with obedience than human flourishing. 

Latin is important. So is Scripture and Theology. Yet, I can't help but to think that perhaps the Church needs to insist that seminarians, as part of their preparation for ordination, teach high school for a few years. Then they’ll know what it is to justify each statement, reaching for with clarity and credibility, when responding to the “So What?” question that cannot, even for a second, be taken for granted in a classroom. 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

Multiplying Words

One thing I had forgotten about being in graduate studies: after many hours spent reading and writing for class, it's maddeningly difficult to sit down and write a blog post! So much of my day is spent responding to the thoughts of other thinkers that it is frequently difficult to sort out my own voice to share with others. So much of what I read, and think about, is wholly irrelevant to the daily life of the one who struggles with faith - either at the threshold of relinquishing or embracing it.

There are times when I find myself invigorated by my studies. Then again, there are times when it seems totally divorced from the needs of the Church at large. "Does anyone care," a little voice whispers in the back of my mind as I excitedly turn another page, "about the difference between univocal, equivocal, dialectical, and metataxological speech?" How does the distinction between "agapeic astonishment" and "erotic perplexity" help people?

In short, sometimes it feels like I spend my days multiplying words. I write many words, read even more, in my effort to come to know, love, and serve the one Word better. Selfishly, I love my studies because they interest. Nevertheless, I try very hard to remember that I'm studying theology not to enhance my transcript but, rather, to be formed into a good priest, one able to take seriously the questions that face the world today.

If there is a consolation in all of this, the long hours of solitude needed for studies have helped my prayer life enormously. I find myself forgoing my iPod when I go out for walks, preferring a sense of quiet to music. I notice myself arriving a bit early to Mass in order to have time to rest and pray in the quiet. After three years of nearly ceaseless activity, I feel very much stable and at peace with where I am.

I'm hoping that tomorrow will provide me with some time to write about a prayer taken from Karl Rahner. Many know that much of my theological thinking finds its roots in Rahner and that I regard him very much as the "father of my prayer" for it is through his Encounters with Silence and The Need and Blessing of Prayer that I learned to really pray. Speaking across the abyss of time, one of Rahner's prayers raises a singular question for me: Has the Twitter Generation a Prayer? 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame