Friday, January 26, 2007

My reflections this week come from the confluence of three sources: I have been reading Henri Nouwen's book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish to Freedom, we read and discussed Elie Wiesel's book, Night, in our book club, and I prepared a talk on C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia. Nouwen's work is a collection of reflections he wrote as he was recovering from a spiritual/emotional breakdown. Wiesel's book is the account of his time in the Nazi concentration camps. Most of us are probably familiar with Lewis' series, at least from seeing commercials for the movie, if not having read the books themselves.

Nouwen reflects a lot on God's unconditional love for us, and the way in which we need to find that place within ourselves where we connect to that love in order to not look for that fulfillment from other human beings. He recognizes that when other people touch us in that place which is most vulnerable, it can awaken a tremendous need within us, but that if we do not see that need as the need for God, if we try to have that person who touched us so deeply fulfill that need within us, we will inevitably be hurt. He also reflects that once we do find our security in that experience of trusting the most vulnerable part of ourselves to God, we are free to love others without expecting to receive love from them in return. He does maintain that we have a need for human love as well as for God's love and that God intends to bring people into our lives to fulfill that need, but those people may not be the same people to whom we give our love. The only problem I have with Nouwen's reflections is that sometimes it seems that when we trust that most vulnerable piece of ourselves to God, we experience being hurt or let down by God. Regardless if that is not really the case in the grand scheme of things, that is our experience. We don't understand why things turn out the way that they do.

Reading Wiesel's account of the concentration camps, one cannot help but ask with him, "Where was God?" How could God have let such a thing happen? Granted there was tremendous evil at work, and humans were ultimately culpable both for directly perpetrating the evil that took place as well as for being complacent with its occurrence even when they were not directly involved. I also do believe that God was working in those who risked their lives to save others during that time, but that still doesn't answer why God did not intervene in some direct way to stop what was occurring. It raises many theological questions for us about whether and how God intervenes, to which there are very few satisfactory answers.

That brings me to Narnia. In Narnia the children ask if Aslan (the Lion who is the God/Christ figure in the story) is safe. Mr. Beaver responds, "Of course he isn't safe. But he is good." One of the articles I was reading related this statement to Lewis' own experience of God. Lewis' mother died when he was a child. His father was unable to overcome his own grief enough to be any source of comfort and love to his grieving children. The children were sent to boarding schools where the experience was abusive to the extent that Lewis calls that chapter in his autobiography, "Concentration Camp." The author of the article I read reflected that Lewis' own experience of God led him to the conclusion that God is not safe. God does not protect us from bad things happening to us. God is also not tame for Lewis. As the children cannot control Aslan, we cannot control God. We can pray for help; we do pray for help, but we cannot make God do what we want. In the movie Shadowlands, which is about C.S. Lewis losing his wife to cancer, Lewis' character states, "I do not pray because it changes God; I pray because it changes me. I pray because the need flows out of me constantly."

This is the paradox of our faith. Bad things do happen to us. We do not understand. We do not know why God does not intervene to stop these things from happening. We may even feel betrayed and hurt by God, finding it hard to trust God again. But ultimately we also experience God as the only one we can turn to at such times, the one who is there with us, crucified on the cross of suffering. The one who is with us in our cry, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" And in that experience we pray that we can come again to the place where we feel God's unconditional love for us, the place where God, who "is not safe" paradoxically becomes our place of safety, our home.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

I wanted to post these pictures from northern Wisconsin along with my “Merry Christmas” wishes on December 25th, but due to my impatience and dial-up internet service, I was not able to get them posted. Being in northern Wisconsin always makes me mindful of the presence of God because of the awesome beauty of God’s creation. We believe that God is creator, and as such, all that God created is good. This is the message of the story in Genesis, in which God creates and then God proclaims that what has been created is good. Theologically, the Catholic Church teaches that creation proclaims the presence of God. Even without revelation, one would be able to come to a natural knowledge of God as creator through contemplating the beauty and the wonder of the created world. St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan friar who lived in the 13th century, wrote The Soul’s Journey Into God in which he reflected that creation is a book that has been written by God. The first movement of the soul toward God is the ladder of creation. For Bonaventure, in nature we see the footprints of God. To say that the world is sacramental is to say that it is a visible way in which God is present to us – if we know how to look at it.

When God creates the humans, he gives them dominion over creation. Dominion, when used in this way is not understood as domination, but rather as stewardship. God has given us the gift of creation, but has also entrusted it to our care. We are the stewards of the earth and its resources. Part of our job as stewards is to protect the earth and to make sure the resources are sustained. Part of our job as stewards is to make sure those resources are used justly and responsibly. To lose parts of the natural world through extinction or destruction is to lose part of God’s revelation to us.

In the creation account in Genesis, we also learn that God made human beings in the image and likeness of God. The fact that all human beings are created in God’s image means that all human life is sacred. All human life has dignity, not because of anything a human being does, but simply by the fact that he or she is created by God as an image of God, regardless of race, religion, gender or any of the other ways we categorize human beings. Such dignity is called inherent dignity in moral theology, because it is given to us as part of who we are, as opposed to ascribed dignity, which we grant to people on the basis of things they do or how they act. The inherent dignity and sacredness of human life means that as Christians we must protect all lives and make sure people live in conditions that are worthy of their dignity as images of God. We use the language of the seamless garment to talk about issues of life, which means that all of the issues around protecting and sustaining life are connected in such an integral way that you cannot stand for one and not the other. Many Catholics are familiar with the concept of pro-life in terms of being anti-abortion, but in Catholic teaching pro-life also means that one should stand against capital punishment, against war unless there is absolutely no other way to defend oneself, against assisted suicide. It also means that we must stand for life-giving and sustaining issues – making sure that people have proper food, clothing, and shelter, making sure children are being nourished and nurtured, making sure neighborhoods are places of safety instead of violence. As Christians, we must be scandalized that people still starve to death every day in our world. As stewards, especially stewards that live in the wealthiest nation in the world, we must work to see that the resources we have, resources that have been given to us by God, are distributed in a just manner.

It is especially important these days to remember that as Christians we also called to be peace-makers. We strive for peace both because war violates the sacredness of human life and because we have been given the peace of Christ and are compelled to share it with others. We believe that the reign of God is both already here, having broken through in Christ, and not yet fully here. Thus we work with God to give hope to the world that peace is possible, to keep alive the vision of Micah and Isaiah who looked to the day when the nations will “beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks;” a vision of a world in which “one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again (Is. 2:3-4, Micah 4:3).”

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'

Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'

And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'

Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.'

Then they will answer and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?'

He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life."

Matthew 25:31-46

As I mentioned last week, January is Poverty in America Awareness Month. (All information in the blog is taken from the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops website. They take most of their information from the U.S. Census Bureau.) 37 million Americans, or 1 in 8 are living below the poverty line; 34.9% of those are children. Of the 37 million, 16.2 million are non-Hispanic white Americans, 9.4 million are Hispanic Americans, 9.2 million are African Americans, and 1.4 are Asian Americans. The city of Milwaukee is number nine in the ten cities with the highest poverty rate in the United States and number four in the ten cities with the highest child poverty rate. These are "top ten" lists those of us who live in the Milwaukee metro area should be ashamed to find ourselves on.

The poverty line refers to the minimum amount of money set by the U.S. government as to what is required to meet the basic needs of a family. It is $19,971 for a family of four and $15,577 for a family of three. What is it like for a family to live on that amount of money? Using the average costs a family of four entails, once they pay for housing, utilities, transportation, food, health care, and child care, including all government benefit and assistance programs, that family would be $1601 short at the end of the year (see the breakdown or text-only). And yet a single parent with two children earning minimum wage only makes $10,712 before taxes working full-time. How are these families supposed to make ends meet? If you were trying to raise your children on $11,000 a year, what would you have to cut out in order to make sure they had food, shelter, clothing, etc.?

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well," but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead. Indeed someone might say, "You have faith and I have works." Demonstrate your faith to me without works, and I will demonstrate my faith to you from my works.

James 2:14-18

So how can those of us who are more fortunate get involved? First of all, we need to educate ourselves on the issues. The Bishops' website is a good place to start. Another way to get involved is to advocate for systemic change by talking to our elected officials. Organizations like Catholic Charities USA or Network: A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby can help you do so. Local food pantries, meal programs, etc. also offer opportunities to make a difference. In the Milwaukee area, we have St. Vincent de Paul and St. Ben's, two phenomenal programs that are always looking for volunteers and donations. There are numerous other organizations to get involved with that are doing incredibly good things in our communities. If you are looking for ways to get involved, ask at your parish or arch/diocesan offices. The archdiocese of Milwaukee includes volunteer opportunities in the job listing section of their website. For other ideas, click here! We should also pray: for wisdom for those who set policy, for resources for those who care for the poor in our midst, and above all, for those who suffer in poverty, for theirs is the Kingdom of God.

This concludes our Catholic guilt/soapbox portion of the program (for now)! Thank you for all that you are already doing to make the world a little bit better each day!

Thursday, January 04, 2007

January 7-13 is the 26th annual observance of National Migration Week for the US Catholic Church which culminates with the 93rd World Day of Migrants and Refugees in the Catholic Church. In his address for the occassion, Pope Benedict XVI reminds us of the plight of the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt, and notes that

in this misfortune experienced by the Family of Nazareth, obliged to take refuge in Egypt, we can catch a glimpse of the painful condition in which all migrants live, especially, refugees, exiles, evacuees, internally displaced persons, those who are persecuted. We can take a quick look at the difficulties that every migrant family lives through, the hardships and humiliations, the deprivation and fragility of millions and millions of migrants, refugees and internally displaced people. The Family of Nazareth reflects the image of God safeguarded in the heart of every human family, even if disfigured and weakened by emigration.
The theme for National Migration Week in the US Church is "Welcoming Christ in the Migrant." Bishop Gerald Barnes, the chairperson of the USCCB Committee on Migration, writes:

The theme for 2007 is Welcoming Christ in the Migrant, which is at once an invitation and a challenge to provide welcome for the migrants, immigrants, refugees, human trafficking victims, and other people on the move who come to our land seeking justice and peace. Our theme reminds us of Jesus' scriptural admonition to us: 'Lord, when did we see you a stranger ... and not minister to your needs?' He will answer them, 'Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.' (Mt. 25: 44-45) This reminder is particularly timely as our citizens and leaders grapple with the complexities and many dimensions of the migration experience. Our nation's legitimate security concerns have been distorted by some who would foment anxiety, fear, and a distrust of migrants. The present immigration reform debate has lost much of its reason and is often being fueled by raw emotions. Scriptures and Catholic Social Teaching call upon all of us to examine the issues and respond to the strangers among us as we would to Jesus Himself. The Holy Family found safety and new lives in Egypt during their time of great need. Many migrants today follow similar paths as they embark on their journey of hope. . . . Additionally, we encourage you to become informed and active in the Justice for Immigrants: A Journey of Hope campaign. More information about this Catholic immigration reform initiative can be found at

When we reach out to aid and comfort the newcomers to our land we are indeed offering ourselves and our gifts in service to the Lord. This is not only our Christian duty but a privilege, knowing that we too have been adopted into God's family. May you be richly blessed by your faithful acts of hospitality in Christ's name.

The Pontifical Council for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People explains that the Church recognizes people's right to migrate but does not encourage the practice due to the fact that the migrant often suffers in this process. At the same time, the Council notes that the suffering involved in migration is often the lesser evil for many people in desparate situations, and when people do migrate, the receiving country should recognize and welcome these "strangers" as the children of God that they are. The Council goes on to explain that

Migration today is practically an expression of the violation of the primary human right to live in one's own country. The origin of such a violation is found in wars, internal conflicts, the system of government, unequal distribution of economic resources, incoherent agricultural policy, irrational industrialization, widespread corruption. These situations are to be corrected through the promotion of balanced economic development, progrssively overcoming social inequalities, scrupulous respect for the human person and the proper functioning of democratic structures.It is necessary to carry out urgent corrective measures to the present economic and financial system, dominated and manipulated by the industrialized countries. These very same countries are presently threatening to annul even the right to emigrate, which has always been considered an alternative to the impossibility of living in one's own country.
The Council addresses the fact that we cannot deny people the right to immigrate without addressing the reasons they are leaving their own countries, stating that

the most evident consequence of such logic is an increase in the rate of illegal migration. This causes anxiety in destination countries, jeopardizing the context for integration. It is a dangerous involution, before which it is not improper to challenge the policy of the exclusion of immigrants, right at a time when the living conditions in developing countries are becoming more and more dramatic. Closing the doors to immigration without a commitment to remove its causes is a double injustice. Besides it is not ethically acceptable to reject the migrant worker as well as the product on which he invests his labor in his country of origin through exorbitant tariffs.Poverty, which is the generator of migration, requires an urgent solution. Progress is such only when it is transformed into development for all persons. This means sharing of goods and a more sober lifestyle on the part of rich countries.
As we attempt to deal with immigration issues in our own country, we must look to solutions that deal not simply with protecting our borders but rather address the root causes of why people are leaving their own countries in the first place. For more information on the positions and actions taken by the US Catholic Church on immigration issues, go to the USCCB website. For those who live in the Milwaukee area, there will be a "Justice for Immigrants Educational Forum" held at Gesu Parish on Tuesday, Feb. 6th. For more information on this forum, click here.

On a related note, January is also Poverty in America Awareness Month, but so as not to wear out your good nature, I will talk more about that next week!