Saturday, May 30, 2015

First Mass

For anyone in the Chicago area on June 14th, I'll be celebrating the Eucharist for the first time at Old St. Patrick's Church at the 11:15 Mass. The parish's music director recently sent me the music selection for the day and it looks really nice. They are also going to try to bring in some Irish musicians which to add a Celtic touch to the liturgy.

These final weeks of preparation have been far busier than I could have imagined: so many little details. It would be totally overwhelming were it not for an abiding sense of trust in God's grace and providence. It is a hard-fought trust, one that's grown and deepened over these years of Jesuit formation. But it is a trust that says, "Well, Lord, I don't know what the day will bring but, if you are with me, I say Yes to whatever comes."

If you're in Cleveland on the 27th, I'll also be celebrating Mass at my home parish - Saint Brendan's in North Olmsted - at the 5:00 Mass.

Friday, May 22, 2015

A Name Change

I blog this morning from a Peet's Coffee shop in Chicago. I arrived two days ago to be a part of a project launched by Loyola Productions entitled "The Jesuit Rec Room." The gist of the series is simple: to recreate the sorts of conversations that often take place when Jesuits and friends gather in social settings.

My suggestion was to call the series "...and another thing!" because Jesuits are often loath to give the last word to anyone. My suggestion did not gain traction. Nevertheless, I truly enjoyed being a part of the project.

Our panel yesterday consisted of four members: Father Radmar Jao, SJ, Sister Nancy Sylvester, IHM, author and speaker Caroline Myss, and me. As our microphones were adjusted and we sat chatting, I shared with the group a funny incident that took place a few years ago. Standing in the Denver airport with my accordion on my back, a man grabbed me from behind and inquired excitedly, "Are you the Tin Whistle priest?" Although not ordained, I understood his question and affirmed my identity. He seized his mortified girlfriend and said to me, "Oh my God! We listen to you in our bedroom."

I went from tin whistle teacher to the bedroom soundtrack. A high point in my life.

The name, "Tin Whistle Priest," struck Caroline in particular as an appropriate name for my blog. And, I must say, I quite agree with her. Last night, after I prayed, I toyed with the name "The Whistling Priest" or the "The Whistling Jesuit" or even "The Musical Priest." But, at the end of the day, I feel as though "The Tin Whistle Priest" is a pretty good name for who I am.

In Saint Paul's Letter to the Corinthians, he proclaims: "If I preach the Gospel, this is no reason for me to boast, for an obligation has been imposed on me, and woe to me if I do not preach it." If I preach the Gospel, it is because I have received it as a gratuitous gift that impels me to share it with others any way I can. If Irish music can help to introduce people to the Good News of Jesus, then woe to me if I do not use any and every means at my disposal to do so.

So, although it's 22-days premature, I'm changing the name of my blog. Within the scope of nearly eleven years of blogging, three weeks doesn't seem too much of a stretch.

As I shared with a person for whom I pray daily, I try hard to be a faithful disciple. I'm not very good at it, but I try. I daily experience the impact of the Jesuit vow formula which acknowledge "how unworthy I am in your divine sight. Yet I am strengthened by your infinite compassion and mercy, and I am moved by the desire to serve you." Over the years, this desire to serve has only grown. It's not always been a smooth path, or without obstacles, but I continue to feel called and, somehow, I have been given the strength to respond.

While "The Tin Whistle Priest" is not a name I'd have chosen, it is the name I have been given by others. Maybe this, too, describes how much of my own priestly formation has been: I did not form myself for priesthood but was formed by the communities I've had the privilege to serve. From hospital patients as a CPE student to high school students in Detroit, they have so shaped me that it will forever be our priesthood. Ordination is not something of which I can boast but is the obligation to recognize what others have seen and affirmed in me.

Anyway, it's a beautiful Friday morning and I have a city to see. If you should like to remember me in your prayers, I ask that you pray that God grant me the gift of courage. Since I read it on a retreat before joining the Society, one prayer I recite daily comes from my theological hero Karl Rahner who wrote movingly:

Oh God, give me the courage and the strength to be worthy of being 
called a Christian. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

I'm Not Surprised

Oh, religion certainly was one of the hot topics yesterday. The Pew Research Center released results of its latest study, showing a significant decline in those who consider themselves Christians. For Catholics, one particularly sober statistic is that for every one adult received into the Church at Easter, another six leave.

I'm not surprised by these statistics. In fact, I'm actually shocked they're not worse.

A few summers back, I used to walk past a yoga studio at 6:00 am each morning. Looking in the window, I saw a packed room filled with young adults. Mat-to-mat, they would bend and grunt and sweat next to each other for more than an hour. One morning, as the return leg of my journey at around 6:45, I actually saw them balancing one sweaty leg on the sweaty back of another person. My first thought was, "Oh my God, that's gross." My second thought was, "Wow, I know Catholics who go crazy when they have to extend the sign of peace and touch another person's hand, let alone a sweaty leg."

Why is a yoga studio packed at 6:00 am on a Wednesday, or a Sunday, and our churches continue to empty?

I can think of two reasons: dynamic community and common purpose.

If you've tried to lose weight, or get fit, or grow in the spiritual life you know that it is difficult, if not impossible, to do it alone. We need the support of others who seek similar goals. Thus we join up with dynamic communities. By 'dynamic' I mean, simply, communities that are in some way vibrant and engaging. It means something to join the group. Thus we have rituals: ways of entering into the group and marking our growth within it. Weight-loss programs record benchmark losses, karate has its belts, and the Catholic Church has Sacraments. The community draws its members into its life and provides its members ways to record progress.

A dynamic community makes demands upon its members. But it can make demands only because it has a purpose. One invests personal capital - time, energy, money, life - only to the extent that there is a purpose in doing so. If the purpose of a yoga studio is to (1) increase physical fitness, (2) cultivate renewed mindfulness, and (3) build a community, then to the extent it is able to actualize its mission will it be able to require its members to sweat together.

People seek to join communities not because they want to be coddled or pandered to, but because they glimpse in a dynamic community a mission they desire to claim as their own. This, then, raises for me the question: What is the mission of the Church?

I raise this question only to flag its importance and our too-frequent neglect of it. The churches will continue to lose membership so long as they fail to discern and enact their mission. It's not that people don't want community. It's that they don't want our Church community. If we have tasted salvation and forgiveness in the Church, we need to re-think how we live out this forgiveness and salvation in our world. How are we to be dynamic and purposeful agents of grace and mercy?

I'm not surprised we're losing numbers. And, not to be overly pessimistic, no strategic plan, or new evangelization, or marketing campaign will reverse this. The Church is not attractive because it is relevant but because it is real: in the Church, we catch sight of who we might be through friendship with Jesus Christ. We need, as in every era, to re-discover the mission of the Church and only by embodying this mission in a joyful way can we even hope that the hearts of others will be stirred to wonder how their life might be changed, and enriched, by entering a community based on a shared friendship with Christ.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Ending Zombie Justice

Two years after the Boston Marathon bombings, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted and now faces sentencing. Many voices have weighed in on how Tsarnaev should be punished: some have called for him to be sentenced to life imprisonment while others call for his execution.

I respect the effort to articulate "The Traditional Case for Capital Punishment." By citing the textual authority of Augustine, Aquinas, Charles Borromeo, Saint Paul, and Pius XII, it is true a case can be marshaled in favor of allowing the state to execute criminals. I do not believe, however, this argument to be compelling. For while it is true that Aquinas wrote that it is "praiseworthy and advantageous that [a criminal] be killed in order to safeguard the common good," this was in recognition that certain persons could prove "dangerous and infectious to the community, on account of some sin." (ST, IIa-IIae 64.2) The question redounds to contagion: can a criminal be sufficiently contained so as to preserve the health of the community?

The answer, at least in the United States, is yes. We do have sufficient means to sequester criminals. We can, that is, quarantine Tsarnaev from society in a prison where he will remain out of sight for the rest of his natural life. If one wishes to retain the death penalty as a means to minimize a threat to the common good, such a threat is seemingly made null by our ability to contain prisoners in a supermax prison. (Called by some a "clean version of hell," debate about the nature and purpose of our prison system should also be raised.)

My argument for the abolition of the death penalty takes a different tack.

What is most frightening about zombies is that their insatiable hunger. They feed upon living flesh for no other reason than to feed. Zombies do not, as we do, eat in order to live. Indeed, there is no why at all. Instead they shamble across the land, devouring the living and creating, by their bite, another agent of death's army. Zombies are Death-Dealers: death begetting death begetting death.

Unlike other figures in horror - Freddy Kruger, Jason, even Dracula - there is no sense to why they kill. Freddy and Jason seek revenge, Dracula needs to drink the blood of the living. Zombies have no such purpose.

On one level, then, to execute a criminal is simply to add another body to the graveyard of history. Killing Tsarnaev will not restore any victim to life, nor will it lead to the regrowth of any severed limb. It will bury a tragically flawed young man next to those whose lives he helped to destroy. Depriving someone of life isn't a punishment, really, because there is no one left to punish: once a person is dead, it's over (at least in this lifetime). Victims are still victims and while it is true that "ultimate justice" has been exacted, I find it incomprehensible that his death is going to make putting on a prosthetic leg any easier.

In this above article, Father McCloskey writes, "St. Thomas finds frivolous the argument that murderers should be allowed to live in hopes of their repentance, questioning how many innocent people should have to suffer death while waiting for the guilty to repent." Now, it would be helpful if he would have given a citation for this - it's always interesting to find places where the otherwise dispassionate Aquinas deems things things "frivolous." Elsewhere, Aquinas (IIa-IIa 108 a. 3, ad.2) does say "But penalties in this present life have more of a healing character. Consequently, the death penalty is only given as regards those transgressions which present enormous perniciousness to others."

Again, this raises the issue of containment: to the extent that the state can sufficiently contain the contagion of a criminal, there is no reason to execute said criminal. The medicinal nature of punishment should be born in mind: it is medicinal and aimed at correcting what is wrong.

As a Catholic, I find the death penalty offensive because it only perpetuates a cycle of violence, because it is unnecessary as we have the means to prevent a spread of criminal contagion, and because executing a person is an abandonment of hope.

For Aquinas, hope is the virtue looks toward a "future good, difficult but possible to obtain" either through one's own efforts (I hope to run a marathon by training) or through God's grace (I hope to be the priest God's people deserve but know I can't do it without grace). In this latter case, of a hope empowered by God's grace, we can consider the possibility of a future repentance by Tsarnaev.

As a man of faith, I believe that the Eternal Word became flesh in Jesus Christ, that Christ conquered death, that simple and tasteless bread and wine can become the Body and Blood of Christ, and that sins can be forgiven. Even the hardest of hearts, given time and sufficient grace, can be softened and turned by the One who called all of Creation into existence. If Tsarnaev can be contained safely, then it is a crime against Hope itself and a failure of trust in God's power to call for his death.

Such hope is not at all frivolous. It is faith.

A world organized according to the logic of Zombie Justice is a world where death rules supreme. Death perpetuates death as the wheel of violence, or justice, turns again and again. Inasmuch as we are able to contain a criminal, we must stay the executioner's hand: we can prevent further violence. For those who profess faith in the Christ who conquers death, we are given a glimpse of a pathway beyond retributive violence. This, I believe, the youngest of Tsarnaev's victims understood. Little Martin Richard. We do not need to hurt people, to inflict further damage. We can break the cycle of violence not with more violence but with what the Risen One offers: Peace.

Flute playing priest finds YouTube fame