Thursday, January 31, 2013

2012 Student Senate

Due to an oversight, the 2011-2012 U of D Jesuit Student Senate Officers (and humble moderator) did not get a feature in the annual yearbook. One of our enterprising mothers, Denise, remedied this for us and produced the following.

Full Disclosure: The picture with the kids holding wine bottles was taken at a dinner they served (and I cooked) for parents. There was no underage consumption of alcohol - it was a picture staged for and taken by some of the parents!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Catholicism's Curse

I have a little bit of time this morning, so I'd like to make a few comments about Frank Bruni's New York Times Op-Ed piece entitled "Catholicism's Curse." Bruni begins with the bromide, "I admire a lot of priests, but I can't stand the institution." You know, tip your hat to the select "men of genuine compassion and remarkable altruism" and then go on to excoriate the institution to which they belong.

Drawing on the soon-to-be released book by Garry Wills (Why Priests? A Failed Tradition) Bruni draws his reader's attention to recently released documents showing Cardinal Mahony's role in failing to address adequately, if not concealing, the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Bruni excoriates the Church for its arrogance, for its being out of step with the "rest of the world" and those who dissent from "the all male priesthood...[or] the commitment to celibacy that priests are required to make." Not to sound cynical, but these latter are very first-world problems: in the Congo, or in Syria, I doubt Catholics are much concerned about clerical celibacy. They're more concerned about whether they are going to be killed.

In short, in many parts of the world, dissent is an unimaginable luxury. Issues like gay marriage, married clergy, male priesthood, these are issues that are almost impossible to discuss when your family is starving, when you're walking from refugee camp to refugee camp, or your burying a loved one who has been killed in another senseless attack in a war you neither supported nor understand.

There is no question: The Catholic Church has messed up. A lot. It has been arrogant - just as the Boy Scouts, School Districts, and Corporate America - has been arrogant. The Church failed to play by the rules of the God's Kingdom and chose, instead, to put the institution and its security over honesty and transparency. For failing to live its mission to be the sacrament of God's Kingdom on earth, it suffers today.

I can only speak for myself, but I am frequently appalled by the "ornamental and somewhat irrelevant distractions" of life within the Church. Sometimes, I roll my eyes and think that it's a strange place that has such strong feelings about human sexuality yet garbs its priests in spectacularly colored and elaborate robes. Indeed, I don't quite get all of the lace and incense, titles and clericalism that seem to enthrall others. I just learned last night, for instance, that there were multiple degrees of monsignor. I barely understand what a monsignor is, let alone that they come in different flavors.

All that said, the problem with Bruni's piece is that it says a lot of nothing new with quite a few words. "It can't admit to error, the church hierarchy" he quotes Wills. We live in a country where to say "I'm sorry" is an admission of guilt and opens you up to law suits. Our litigious culture does not permit authentic expressions of the USA, "I'm Sorry = Please Sue Me." Again, I'm ashamed to say it, but in this the Church plays by the same rules many of us play by.

And there's the rub: we are the Church. In every generation, as we receive the Gospel that has been handed down and try to live that together, we do so as we are. Becoming a priest doesn't make you perfect or pure, just as getting married doesn't prevent you from thinking other people are really attractive. We are, all of us, struggling to live out what we feel is a call to be together and live together and walk together as God's people. If the Church errs, it should come as no surprise: we screw up all the time, too.

When we look at the corruption of the Church, we too easily miss the enormous good that it does and how much an instrument of grace it has been, is, and can be into the future. Nevertheless, I think we need to look at the failings and realize that as we peer into the muck and mire of institutional corruption...we see, all too often, a reflection of ourselves.

Mr. Bruni, as most of us who sometimes feel alienated from or angry at the Church, would do well to reflect on the following words from Louis-Marie Chauvet:
The true scandal is ultimately this, the path to our relation with God passes through our relation with human beings and most especially through our relation with those whom the judgment of the mighty has reduced to "less than nothing."
Many of us remain with the Church not because we have no place else to go, but because we have found within the Church, that is her people, the living presence of Jesus Christ who calls us, and continues to call us, because we recognize our sinfulness and know that none of us has the strength to respond to this call all on our own. Church scandals have left many in the Church reduced to "less than nothing" but now, more than ever, must we realize that this reduction may be the opening through which many may experience the bounty of God's grace re-creating us into the people we have the potential of being.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Praying the Day, Morning Edition

A friend of mine emailed the other day and asked for advice on prayer. I'd like this post to be the first of several that says a little something both about why we pray and how to pray.

When I was in the 4th grade, our religion class was taught once each week by Sister Victoria. To my 10-year old mind, she was an ancient and towering figure: dressed in a nondescript skirt suit with sensible shoes, Sister towered over the classroom and easily held a group of unruly students in rapt attention as she recounted the life of the various lives of the saints. It was her special ability to make the holy men and women of the Church vibrant and interesting.

At some point, she gave us this simple advice about prayer:

Every morning when you wake up, don't jump out of bed. Don't complain to your mom or dad that you are sick or that you don't want to go to school. Instead, have a good stretch and say, "Good morning, Lord. How are you today?" Then, go through your day with Jesus and ask him to be with you throughout the day. If you have a test, ask him for help. If you are nervous about something, tell him about it. If you are excited, ask him to make whatever you are excited about even more special.

"Good morning, Lord. How are you today?" 22 years later, I still start every morning off this way. I stretch and I extend my greeting. Each evening, I set my alarm five minutes earlier than I need to get up so that I have time to "Pray the Day" before my feet hit the floor. At 5:00 am, it's hardly anything sophisticated but the following is not an untypical example of this:

Well, Good morning, Lord. How're things? Thank you for a restful night of sleep. Today's going to be a really hectic day. I have two classes and a lot of reading to do, a short paper to write, and I'd like to have time to exercise today. Please be with me this morning during class so that I stay alert and avoid the temptation to surf the net when my mind wanders. Speaking of class, please be with the professor who continues to fight against his cancer. If you wouldn't mind, remind me to be careful about what I eat today: I'm noticing that it's getting a bit too easy to eat too much, or to have that extra glass of wine with dinner, and I really need to be mindful of my diet. Finally, please help me to make sure that I carve out some time to spend with so-and-so. It seems like he's a bit down lately and I want to check-in with him to see how he's doing. Oh, I'm also excited to watch Downton Abbey tonight - I missed it on Sunday when I was traveling and I'm really looking forward to watching it this evening. 

St. John of the Cross I am not, but I find this a very helpful way of beginning my day. That is, I look ahead and pray the day with the Lord, looking together with him at the day ahead, anticipating both the joys and struggles of the upcoming day.

Why pray in this way? Well, it's easy. My first thought each day is that I do not undertake my day all alone, nor am I living the day simply for myself. Even a day spent writing papers or doing research is done in the company of the One who is innermost to my heart and life. My morning prayer, as simple as what I wrote above, reminds me of this and starts my day off on the right foot...even before I've swung my feet out of bed and onto the carpet!


I recognize that the following may not always be possible, particularly if one has a spouse who would be a bit chuffed over your alarm going off earlier than necessary or who, upon realizing that you're not moving yet, becomes anxious that you've fallen back asleep. This prayer could just as easily be said in the shower. The shower seems like a great place pray the day, considering that most of our bathing routines are rote, freeing our minds to do other things. Instead of turning on the radio, perhaps allow the shower to provide the white noise that frees your mind to turn inward and ask for the grace to face the day.

My next post will look at the prayer I do before going to bed each night, the several minutes I take to review the day. Made famous by Saint Ignatius Loyola, the Examen is a chance to take an additional 5 minutes to review the day's "film" to see how well, or poorly, or mindfully you lived your day with, and for, God's greater glory.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Problem of God

The American Jesuit John Courtney Murray (1904-1967) gave 1962's St. Thomas More lectures at Yale University. The talks were published as a slender volume entitled The Problem of God. I began reading these lectures on the train from Boston to New York and found them utterly fascinating. 
In the introduction to the text, Murray makes the following incisive observation:
If God is not, no one is permitted to say or even think that he is, for this would be a monstrous deception of oneself and of others. It would be to cherish and propagate a pernicious illusion whose result would necessarily be the destruction of man. On the other hand, if God is, again one thing is not permitted. It is not permitted that any man should be ignorant of him, for this ignorance, too, would be the destruction of man. On both counts, therefore, no man may say that the problem of God is not his problem. 
I find these words brilliantly refreshing. CNN's recent story about the "Godless Mom" who has decided to raise her children makes reference to what, I believe, is the core problem facing public discourse about religion. Deborah Mitchell writes:
I understand why people need God. I understand why people need heaven. It is terrifying to think that we are all alone in this universe, that one day we - along with the children we love so much - will cease to exist. The idea of God and an afterlife gives many of us structure, community and hope.
I do not want religion to go away. I only want religion to be kept at home or in church where it belongs. It's a personal effect, like a toothbrush or a pair of shoes. It's not something to be used or worn by strangers. I want my children to be free not to believe and to know that our schools and our government will make decisions based on what is logical, just and fair - not on what they believe an imaginary God wants. 
All me to be politically incorrect: this is nonsense. Mitchell exemplifies the incoherent stance of "I have my beliefs, you have your beliefs, and we're both okay so long as we don't talk about those beliefs." Yet the beliefs of the theist and the atheist are so different, they express something so fundamentally different, that one is right and the other wrong.

As one of my teachers used to say, "It's my job to tell you when you're wrong. If every answer is right, no one is."

Now, surely someone will say, "Ryan, aren't you being a bit harsh? Don't we have Freedom of Speech guaranteed in the Constitution?" My answer is a qualified yes. The framers of the Constitution did not, as Murray points out, believe that a person "has a right to say what he thinks merely because he thinks it." The goal was to reject political censorship, to enable men and women to enter into the public discourse and offer opinion and thought in a way that contributed to the whole. Freedom of speech, on this reckoning, means being free to enter into public discourse.

Returning to Murray's opening quote, I sincerely believe we are faced with a significant either/or that must be engaged in a critical manner. I think we need sincere thinkers, not sensationalizers, to think critically and carefully in dialogue with one another to answer the deepest and ultimately most vital question: Is there a God?

If there is no God, then I shall repent of my life and apologize to those students I have taught, to those readers who have ever read my writing. I will apologize for having perpetrated a fraud. I shall harbor bitter resentment against my parents for raising me in a benighted world. I shall rejoice in being disenchanted from a lie and seek out other avenues, new pursuits, where it is "I" and not the "Most High" who is served.

One of us - the theist and the atheist - lives in ignorance. Saying, "Get rid of God, keep religion" is a bandage on a flesh wound. I sincerely believe we owe it to ourselves and our children to confront this question in a rigorous and critical way, entering into discourse with a spirit of generosity and curiosity, and allow our lives to be formed accordingly. For the answer to the question has the ultimate purchase on the meaning and purpose of our lives, has the power to draw a person from a life of ministry to the poor to the halls of power, simply by answering whether there is, or is not, a God at all. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pay Your Way?

Having recently completed three years as a high school teacher, I'm well acquainted with the trials and travails afflicting families in their search (1) for college and (2) ways to pay for it. I've known some families where the student's "dream school" was simply too expensive and the student had to select another, less expensive school. Then again, I've known parents who seem to think nothing of writing the proverbial blank check and sending the child off to college with no worries about loans or part-time jobs.

Perhaps it's not as good an idea as it sounds.

The New York Times is carrying a story, "Parents' Financial Support May Not Help College Grades" which quotes a recent sociological study linking "greater parental contributions" with "lower grades across all kinds of four-year institutions."

The article is clear at the beginning: financially privileged students are more likely to go to and graduate from college. Nevertheless, in light of her study, the investigator suggests:

...students who get a blank check from their parents may not take their education as seriously as others. She became intrigued with this possibility years ago, after spending a year living in a college dormitory and observing the students, then following them through graduation and, eventually, interviewing their parents.
“Oddly, a lot of the parents who contributed the most money didn’t get the best returns on their investment,” she said. “Their students were more likely to stay and graduate, but their G.P.A.’s were mediocre at best, and some I didn’t see study even once. I wondered if that was nationally true, which led me to this quantitative study, which found that it is.”
Intuitively, this makes great sense to me. While I have met many serious 18-year olds who seize the opportunities of university life, I know as many, if not more, who have taken college to be little more than an unchaperoned binge. They have the money, they have the time, and they have all of the opportunity to engage in indulgent behavior: keg stands are, after all, far more entertaining than calculus.

I simply offer this as food for thought. I'm not suggesting that we cut students off but that they should feel some sense of ownership of their education beyond the television and mini-fridge they lug into their dorm room. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What Would It Look Like...

This evening, over a glass of wine, one of my Jesuit brothers told me of a program being run at the parish where he assists on the weekend. The gist of it is this: religious formation, so often thought of as only for those being prepared for one of the sacraments, is offered to the whole family. That is, it's not the case of mom or dad dropping the kid off and then collecting him/her a few hours later. Indeed, it's a full-family investment into the progress of learning about the family's Catholic faith.

The mantra, playing over and again in my mind, has been "We'll get what we are." This insight, taken from Christian Smith's book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (p. 57), recalls to my mind that so many of our values are not simply learned but, rather, imitated. Just as the rituals of watching Monday Night Football or a Sunday game are something children are brought up into so, too, might we raise our children to share the family's commitment to learning about their faith.

Hence my question: What would it look like if Catholic parishes began to require that the whole family participate in religious education? I find learning about my religion endlessly interesting and suspect that, if adults were exposed to some of the riches of the Catholic tradition, that they would too. I simply cannot accept the idea that after one's confirmation in the 8th grade that the whole of the Catholic tradition has been mastered....hell, I'm 33 and totally invested in this and I'm still an apprentice! If our parishes, however, started to make it an expectation that the whole family take part in the preparation for the sacraments...what would that look like?

Listen, I'm an Irish pessimist: I've gone over the 100+ reasons already why this wouldn't work. Nevertheless, as an idea person, I think there'd be enormous value in providing a venue where the whole family could learn, both together and in age-appropriate groups, about what Catholicism has to offer. G. K. Chesterton wrote that "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult and left untried." I suspect that providing a framework wherein parents could model to their children the value of learning about their religious faith - providing a good role model while simultaneously enriching their own spiritual lives - would help our youth take religious faith and its nurturing more seriously.

I write this and acknowledge some of my own hypocrisy: every day at the Eucharist, I remember my niece and nephew in a special way (along with my whole family) in the intentions. But am I doing my best to make sure that they are learning about their faith, that their parents and the rest of my family are continuing to be nourished? Alas, I am derelict in this but I do resolve to make this a priority because, as I am increasingly convinced, the credibility of the Catholic faith will not be found in our bishops or hierarchy but, rather, in the quality of lives lived out courageously by moms and dads.

Ultimately, I'm not sure of how tenable this all is. I look back on my experience teaching CCD and realize that it is, for all intents and purposes, a glorified system of babysitting where little content is ever passed along. Yet if it were taken more seriously and real resources were put into the training of teachers and the construction of worthwhile programs for children and adults, I think asking Catholic families to commit a bit of time each week to learning about their faith and their Church would help them to come to know the Lord more intimately and enkindle within them a greater fire and joy for their faith. 

Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Few Videos from Christmas Time - Tin Whistle Stuff

Brian and I playing three jigs.

For Denise:

This is the video of "Christmas Eve" I told you and Mark about when we were at dinner. My sister makes this....disastrous.

The Three Sea Captains - a very common set dance. Two bigger fools you'll not find in a day's walk.

Tin Whistle: Home Ruler Hornpipe and Noel Hill's Reel

If you've ever wanted to see what I go home to during the holidays, watch this video. The tunes Brian and I play are nice, to be sure, but it's my sister Torrey's antics in the background that make the beginning of the video rather noteworthy.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Teenage Suicide

Almost exactly two months ago, I was walking into a hotel room in Chicago when I received a phone call from Detroit informing me that one of my former students had just taken his own life. I didn't sleep that night, staring for hours at the ceiling and wondering, "Could something have been done?" For many days following, I felt great sadness at the thought of how much pain this young man must have endured that led him to think that ending his life was the only way to relieve his agony.

Yesterday's New York Times carried a story entitled "Study Questions Effectiveness of Therapy for Suicidal Teenagers." I'm fascinated by the reported statistic that "55 percent of suicidal teenagers had received some therapy before they thought about suicide, planned it or tried to kill themselves...". The story goes on to point out something many of us intuit: teenage suicide is not necessarily a one-off occurrence with a simple origin but, rather, part of a complex interplay between various forces. Indeed, the study links suicidal behavior to mood, attention deficit, and eating disorders, and substance abuse.

The article resonates with my recent reading of Kenneth Gergen's Relational Being: Beyond Self and Community. Part of his project is to reflect upon what it means to be a human in a way different from the way we normally do. That is, generally we think of ourselves as individual units, free-floating "I's" when, according to Gergen, "I" am the result of the relationships who have called and formed me into the person I am and who I continue to become:
In all that we say and do, we manifest conditions of relationship. In whatever we think, remember, create, and feel—in all that is meaningful to us—we participate in relationship. The word “I” does not index an origin of action, but a relational achievement.
For Gergen, there's no self-contained "I" in the world: who "I" am has come to be over the course of many years and has to take into account not only social relationships but also environmental factors. I'm not a little monad floating through space - I am who others have helped me to become. I contributed to the life and being of my former student and I, just as all others who knew him, will live the rest of our lives with a ragged hole left where he once stood.

Gergen's research helps us to look at something we often look past: the importance of relationships not only in sustaining us but, and more essentially, as making us who we are. Likewise must we focus on how complicated the issue of teenage suicide is, the various factors that feed into it, and come to a greater awareness that this is an issue far more complex than we might otherwise consider. We must resist categorizing suicide as simply a selfish and violent act and begin to realize that the act of taking one's life comes at the end of a very long and very complex process of events.

The lives of those who loved Morgan will be forever a little bit poorer because of his loss. They say that parents should never outlive their children; I'd add that teachers should not outlive their students. These last few months have I grown much more sensitive to the intricacies and issues of teenage suicide and I can say only that I hope we, as a society, continue to train a watchful eye on this issue and do all that we can to help to make the choice to take one's own life totally unthinkable.

Friday, January 04, 2013

The Steubenville Question

Last night, I watched a segment on the alleged rape of a young girl in Ohio and listened to the pundits ask the questions that confound many: How could onlookers stand by with camera phones in hand as the girl was violated? Why did no one do anything?

As expressed by the pundits, a common theme emerged, arguing that teenagers are immersed in a culture of alcohol, drugs, violence, and pornography and they've become desensitized. Parents, they continued, need to do a better job policing their children, monitoring what they watch and put into their bodies. With this I agree completely: I do think it remarkable that parents who give a kid a smart phone and a computer with internet access wonder why the child stays upstairs and refuses to interact with the family. I suspect it's hard to parent a child via text or twitter, that it's hard to be a mom or a dad to a child you seldom see.

Nevertheless, I have to wonder: how much are we to blame for the toxic cultural atmosphere we want our kids to avoid? Near as I can tell, teenagers do not own the liquor and beer companies that make slick ads showing the glamorousness of alcohol consumption; teens don't own the adult film companies that churn out an endless stream of porn; teens aren't in charge of drug cartels; teens don't make video games where the amount of carnage and destruction equate with a better score.

In short, we adults have created and and glamorized the very culture we decry our kids for wanting to join. Our commercials try to sell a lifestyle, try to convince us that if we spend the money on the product that we, too, will live a wonderful and glamorous life. Is it any wonder that teens who long to establish themselves would be so willing to buy into the "adult" culture?

To my mind, we've built an adult playground and have the audacity to become indignant when our teenagers want to play in it. We built it. They have come. They are not leaving.

So, when I think of the alleged rape in Steubenville, I'm not shocked: these kids have become what our culture promised them. They are living the high life of limitless consumption, a lifestyle marked by binge drinking and reckless behavior. Why not use my cell phone to take a picture of her? Why not Tweet pictures or post clips to YouTube? Why not make tonight an image, even if but a poor reflection, of what or media tells us we should be: young, sexual, irresponsible, free. YOLO - you only live once, right?

We are damn fools if we are content to ask, "Why did they do this?" Instead, we need to muster the courage to inquire, "Why have we created a culture where this is permissible?" These teenagers didn't create this mess: they inherited it. We created the culture and had, at least, the benefit of knowing its pitfalls and some alternatives to it. Today's teenagers have been raised differently, where their imaginations have been formed by the very culture we now decry them for lauding. Steubenville has not revealed a new monster but, rather, shown us that the monster we most fear is us. 

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Courting Controversy

There are certain ways of asking questions - "Have you stopped embezzling money from your company?" "Have you admitted you were an alcoholic yet?" - that deceptively invite a simple yes or no answer while concealing the fact that, however answered, either response incriminates a person in doing something wrong. That is, to answer yes admits past wrongdoing; to answer no means that you've not yet quit whatever you were doing. 

It is simply the case that, within the Catholic Church today, it is nearly impossible to engage in a public discourse in a way that doesn't risk tremendous collateral damage. There are numerous topics - women's ordination, the role of homosexuals, abortion, relationship of Church and state, matters of voting, etc. - that are politically charged and divisive. While much conversation is needed on these topics, and there are many views to be represented and discussed, the sad fact of the matter is that it's very difficult to do so. 

So, when a reader requests that the topic of abortion, or homosexuality, or married priests be addressed, it must be remembered that the author stands in a precarious position. In my case, I know that I stand as a representative of the Church and whatever I say is imputed to it. Regardless my stance, the nature of my life and vocation places me within the Church and I am accountable for and to her in my writing. This does not mean that I sit silently or idly by, mind you, but it does entail that if I take up challenging issues I must do so in careful and nuanced way so as not to give rise to scandal or misunderstanding. In short, I have to be responsible.

So, returning to my first point above, it must be kept in mind that asking me to blog about my thoughts on a controversial topic carries with it some type of incrimination: it's going to alienate, rather than integrate, various groups. We need to move beyond divisive "yes/no" "right/wrong" dichotomies and begin to dig deeper into the divisive issues in an attempt to find common ground and greater mutual understanding. To that extent - finding common ground - would I be willing to court controversy. 

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame