Tag Archives: hope

On Advent & Exasperated Elephants

MLewisMadeline Lewis ’17

Theology and English

Undergraduate Fellow, Center for Liturgy


My secret spot for necessary moments of reprieve from the hustle and bustle of college life is the children’s book section of the Notre Dame bookstore. The children’s book section features wonders aplenty: the sight of tiny humans sitting at tiny tables reading tiny books, the occasional grandparent or parent reading lovingly to a little one in their lap, and bright-colored book covers that look infinitely more enjoyable than most of the things I am forced to read for class. Usually, I browse the storybooks until I have sufficiently escaped into a world where the biggest challenges are counting the number of baby animals on the farm or helping the lost princess find her way back to the castle.

But this didn’t happen last time. What happened was that my casual browsing was interrupted by my beholding of a far-too-accurate cartoon depiction of my impatient soul: the exasperated Elephant of Mo Willem’s book, Waiting Is Not Easy.UntitledAllow me to give you a brief summary of Elephant’s simple story. Things start out grandly for our protagonist: he learns that his dearest friend, Piggie, has a surprise for him. A surprise which, as he learns to his dismay, must be awaited. He receives only a simple promise: “It will be worth it.” But of course, this does not pacify our protagonist. For Elephant, this process of waiting is filled with impatience, anger, and doubt.

“I do not think your surprise is worth all this waiting!”

“I will not wait anymore!”

“We have waited too long!”

“It is getting dark! It is getting darker! Soon we will not be able to see anything!”

“We have wasted the whole day.”

Now, as I reached the page containing Elephant’s massive groan, my soul did a massive groan of its own. When I read Elephant’s words of impatience, anger, and doubt, I knew I was reading reactions so very familiar to my own heart. Waiting is hard. And it is something that I don’t know how to do very well at all: not in my relationships, in my spiritual life, or in the unfolding of my vocation.

In his book Waiting for God, Henri Nouwen writes of the holy and waiting people of Luke’s Gospel. As he points out, all of the figures who appear in the first pages are waiting: Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, Anna. Like Elephant, they learn the surprising news of a great gift, which is immediately followed by the news that this gift must be awaited. And they are promised that this will be good.

“The whole opening of the Good News is filled with waiting people. And right at the beginning all those people in someway or another hear the words, “Do not be afraid. I have something good to say to you. Waiting, as we see it in the people on the first pages of the Gospel, is waiting with a sense of promise. People who wait have received a promise that allows them to wait.”

Waiting is not easy. During Advent, we ponder in our hearts what it would mean for us to practice holy and joyful waiting, the very waiting that is the space where the Good News breaks open. As we wait for Christ, we learn to wait in a way that dwells in the promise of His love for us: waiting that dwells in love and hope instead of fear and doubt. As the days get shorter and shorter, we are reminded of how it is often precisely when we feel that it has been getting darker and darker (“Soon we will not be able to see anything!”) that the light of Christ shines clearest and most brightly. It is the patient heart that is able to encounter the infant Jesus hidden under a starry sky in a lowly manger.

May this Advent teach our hearts the worthiness of waiting.

Follow Madeline on Twitter @madlew4

Musical Mystagogy: All Souls Day

Carolyn Pirtle

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Today the Church observes the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, better known as All Souls Day. Indeed, the entire month of November has come to be associated with the remembrance of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, and the music of the Church in no small way helps us to remember and to grieve, but ultimately, to find hope in the promise of the Resurrection.

Today’s piece is one that finds a balance between acknowledging the human struggle in the face of death and upholding faith in God as the only answer to that struggle. Welsh-born composer Geraint Lewis (b.1958) began composing his All Souls Day anthem The Souls of the Righteous in December 1991, and finished the piece in 1992, in the wake of losing his close friend and colleague—fellow composer William Mathias—to cancer. The piece testifies not only to his grief, but also to his faith in God as a source of solace and comfort even in the midst of that grief.

The text for this piece is taken from chapter three of the Book of Wisdom, which is one of the optional Old Testament readings for All Souls Day (Wis 3:1–9). It is also one of the optional Old Testament readings listed in the Rite of Christian Burial. Rather than set the entirety of the passage, Lewis distills the Wisdom text down and focuses on the texts that convey its two most essential truths: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them,” and “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.”

Musically, Lewis conveys these two truths by constructing the entire piece around two central motifs. The first of these motifs unfolds in the extended organ introduction; the second is sung by the choir at its first entrance. The first motif consists of two brief phrases followed by an extended phrase—each phrase feeds into the next, and the effect here is evocative perhaps of the shortened inhalations and exhalations of a person in the final hours of life, culminating in the breathing forth of one’s spirit in the soaring extended phrase.

The second motif, in contrast, is constructed of long, even, sustained notes as the choir sings the text, “The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.” The simple yet noble choral melody seems to suspend the text in mid-air as an object held up for our contemplation. Here is the consolation offered by a loving God—the truth that never wavers, that sustains both those who face their final trial and those who mourn them after they have passed from this life into the next.

The organ and the choir engage in a dialogue, each repeating and developing its own motif as though the music is trying to help the listener come to terms with these truths which are ultimately beautiful and hope-filled, yet still challenging in the midst of grief. This dialogue continues until the piece reaches a turning point and, after an extended organ interlude, everything fades away save one low sustained note. It is in this moment, suspended between time and eternity, that the choir takes over the first motif with the text, “To the eyes of the foolish, they seemed to perish, but they are at peace.” This is what the organ has been trying to tell us all along. The souls of those whom we love and mourn are at peace, and we, we are the foolish, the slow to understand, the ones who struggle against their passing in our limited human ability to perceive the truth—that the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and the pain of death shall not touch them.

Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day
Aladár Körösfói-Kriesch, All Souls Day

Even though we might assent to this profound truth intellectually and spiritually, the process of grieving is still a profound human and emotional struggle, because the experience of death remains shrouded in mystery. To gloss over this struggle or seek refuge in worn-out, shallow platitudes is to reduce the gravity of death. Yet, every moment of heart-rending grief can become a moment in which we who mourn can make an act of faith by acknowledging our devastation and, from the depths of our grief, placing our trust in God and the souls of our loved ones in his hands.

Lewis reflects this continuous struggle to seek and find consolation in God through his gentle use of dissonance in the organ accompaniment. Every so often, a chord grates against our ears as a reminder that there will always be moments in which we rail against the harsh realities of death; nevertheless, by turning to God in faith, even these moments of struggle will become moments in which we are drawn ever closer to the One who holds our beloved dead in his care.

The final phrase captures this mysterious juxtaposition beautifully: the choir sings “but they are at peace” one last time in a return to the sustained notes of their original motif, and the final chord of the organ lingers in its dissonance as a musical symbol of the fact that we who are left behind will continue to struggle with the mystery of death, a struggle that can only be ultimately resolved for us when we ourselves pass from this life, for it is only when our own souls are in the hands of God that we will truly be at peace. Nevertheless, in the meantime, we are comforted and sustained by the truths that invite us to put our faith and place our trust in God, even—and especially—when we are confronted by the mysteries of death.

Follow Carolyn on twitter: @carolyn_pirtle

Christian Hope and the Holy Souls

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

“Ego sum lux mundi,” read the ancient words of Christ engraved in the weathered, grey stone above the high altar of St. Colman’s church in the quiet country parish of Ballindaggin, County Wexford, Ireland. “I am the light of the world.”

St. Colman's Church, BallindagginI was there to pay my respects for a deceased relative of a nun with whom I had become quite close over the last year. Following traditional Irish funeral observances, it seemed like the inhabitants of the entire village had packed the church for the customary removal service. These traditional Catholic prayers recited at the church in the evenings before funerals are about as ingrained in the Irish consciousness as their love for piping hot tea, spuds, the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), and commiserating about the weather. We were there to pray fervently for the commendation of this dearly departed soul to heaven, that she would in turn pray unceasingly for us from there with the eternal communion of saints, in the company of Christ and our Blessed Mother.Removal Pic 2

No instructions were given at any point in the ceremony about when to sit, kneel, or stand; the people around me just knew.

The parish priest sprinkled holy water over the casket, and the moment the prayers were finished, everyone leapt from their seats in a rush to shake the hands of the grieving family members, while the many conversations among the mourners elevated the noise level in the church to a dull roar. Our religious duties accomplished, we spilled out of the mid-19th century church–the men headed straight to the village pub, the women congregated outside for the latest gossip, and I strolled pensively around the small cemetery nestled against the church walls, waiting for my companions to emerge so we could make the hour’s journey home.

As we remember the souls of the faithful departed in this month of November, I find myself increasingly struck by the visceral manner in which the Irish honor, mourn, and think about the dead. Carlingford ChurchFamilies and local communities band together immediately following the death of a loved one: they fill normally-empty church pews to the brim in order to somberly commemorate “anniversary Masses,” and to pray en masse for the deceased at removal services, wakes, and funerals. Conversations about death in Ireland are quite open–almost bruisingly candid–and happen over a cup of tea, in the street, or out at the pub. The famed Irish wakes still happen–albeit less often now, due to the rising popularity of funeral homes–and are completely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The open casket lies in state in the family’s living room, mourners sit in chairs around the body and take turns swapping humorous or emotional stories about the deceased, and a seemingly endless supply of scalding hot tea and coffee, and freshly-baked cakes and scones in the adjoining rooms provides much-needed spiritual and bodily nourishment, and still more cathartic conversation.irish_wake_paintingThere is a freshness in the Irish perspective towards death and dying, however unsettling it may be to a young American in her mid-twenties, who, before moving to Ireland, had attended only a couple funerals–all with closed caskets, all conducted as swiftly and discreetly as possible, the reality of death too uncomfortable for the American psyche. In Ireland, though, I see the true embodiment of Christian hope lived out each day; even in the throes of sorrow and grief, death here is no frightening spectre, but an almost-friend–a constant, quiet companion on life’s journey.

Here, mourning is a public act, and the healing process truly is communal. Churches see their numbers swell dramatically in the month of November in Ireland, as the annual remembrance of the dead draws people from all walks of life–the old, the young, the rich and poor, Travellers and settled, the faithful, and, surprisingly, those who have drifted away from the Church. They are all connected in their grief, and their desire to remember the ones they have lost. The liturgies of this month in particular somehow seem to tap into the deepest recesses of the heart, compelling all of us to congregate, remember, and pray for our loved ones, that they might, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.vigil at maynoothPope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, tenderly refers to death as a sister: “Praised be You, my Lord, through our Sister Bodily Death, from whose embrace no one living can escape.” There is an inexplicable comfort in this Month of the Holy Souls here in Ireland, for alongside the heartache of loss accompanies a lingering sense of peace, and hope.  

I Am Catholic (And So Can You!)

Samuel Bellafiore
Dunwoodie Seminary
’19 M.Div./S.T.B. Candidate
Seminarian, Diocese of Albany, NY


Stephen Colbert may be the most famous Catholic in America. It’s not just that he’s famous; he’s famous as a Catholic. And his Catholicism is famous too. On Tuesday night Colbert premiered as host of CBS’ The Late Show, formerly hosted by David Letterman. Five minutes in, Colbert made the sign of the Cross on camera.

Yes, Colbert’s Catholicism is famous. There’s the famous “Catholic Bender,” his overindulgence after he “gave up Catholicism for Lent.” It was so bad he “genuflected all over the back of a cab.” And there’s his crazy dance to King of Glory in the classroom where he teaches CCD. No, Colbert’s Catholicism is not exactly from the book.

But there’s something deeper: The time his description of evil flummoxed a Stanford psychologist bent on showing God created evil (beware the bleeping). The time he cornered Bart Ehrman about Christ’s divinity. Colbert’s blowhard character on The Colbert Report was just a character. But Colbert sometimes used him to point out contradictions or lazy thinking on all matters, especially religion.

Catholic Colbert was on display last month when GQ ran a cover story about Colbert’s pre-TV life and move to The Late Show. He talks about a peace march after July’s South Carolina shootings and says, “Tragedy is sacred.” “People’s suffering is sacred.” He describes his own suffering when at 10 he lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash. Throughout the story he describes his stress, lack of self-confidence, and his foray from theatre to comedy. He talks about grappling with the horrible mystery of his family members’ death, his heroic mother’s post-tragedy witness, how her example drove him forward, his eventual reconciliation with reality:

I love the thing that I most wish had not happened.

The reporter asks for clarification. Colbert responds, partially quoting one of J.R.R. Tolkein’s letters:

“‘What punishments of God are not gifts?’” [Colbert] said again. His eyes were filled with tears. “So it would be ungrateful not to take everything with gratitude. It doesn’t mean you want it. I can hold both of those ideas in my head.”

Colbert describes aseptember-cover-gq-colbert-03n overwhelming gratitude that envelops his life. That gratitude, he says, “wants an object. That object I call God.” He cites his Catholic upbringing and the Baltimore Catechism: “That’s my context for my existence, is that I am here to know God, love God, serve God, that we might be happy with each other in this world and with Him in the next.”

He references a quote from Bernard of Clairvaux. His computer has sometimes featured a note with Teilhard de Chardin’s words, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”

Stephen Colbert is openly Catholic. More than I’m ever brave enough to be. Who is this guy? How does someone like that start hosting a late night show that 6.5 million people watched on Tuesday?

At points in the 20th century the Catholic Church exerted a huge influence in America. A generation I don’t quite understand speaks 528de4039e9fd.imageecstatically about the Camelot Kennedy years, when “we had a Catholic in the White House!” The Hesburgh era. The time when McDonald’s created the Filet-O-Fish because their profits plummeted each Friday in Lent.

We’re not in Kansas anymore. Half the presidential candidates self-identify as Catholic. Six of nine Supreme Court justices do too. But in the public sphere the “institutional” Church sometimes can’t pull much weight on many socio-political issues. Nor is it easy to find public, influential Catholics who say their Church’s worship and teachings deeply influence their lives. Though Catholics often dominate our political life, Catholicism taken as a whole does not. Camelot is long gone. If or when it’ll return, unpredictable.

Into this world saunters Stephen Colbert, quoting Teilhard, citing the Catechism and making the sign of the Cross in front of 6.5 million viewers. He’s a Catholic who loves Catholicism. (He says that’s why he gave it up for Lent.) And he keeps saying his personal faith and institutional membership are both crucial to his life.

If Americans are willing to listen to anyone, it’s Stephen Colbert. Amid fragmentation, maybe it’s his earnest impatience with the political bulls***ting about which Jessica Keating has written here. Maybe it’s his honestyowoguxwjoskz2t9ektzu about crazy campaign coverage — or the fact that Tuesday night he made this point while making a larger one about Oreos and our own human weakness. Maybe it’s that amid all the zinging, Colbert gets on the pages of GQ and The New York Times and says something substantial.

In his own way Stephen Colbert is doing just what Vatican II’s Constitution on the Church in the Modern World envisioned. Gaudium et Spes doesn’t see the Church as a bulwark battering down the world’s doors or battening down its own. The divine and human cannot stay segregated.

Don’t think “man’s own talent and energy are in opposition to God’s power.” People aren’t some “kind of rival to the Creator” (GS, §34). Jesus founded the Church in the context of the world. He sent her into the world. The Church by nature is in the world, not as a rival but as a healing presence.

Thus for everyone who’s part of the Church, we and the Church are not separate entities with different missions. All Christians belong to the Church’s mission of being a healing presence. If we don’t participate in the mission, there won’t be that healing presence. At the same time we’re not Church agents infiltrating the world from outside. “Laymen are not only bound to penetrate the world with a Christian spirit, but are also called to be witnesses to Christ in all things in the midst of human society” (GS, §43). In all things. In the midst. Not as a separate entity, but an integral part.

Who is Stephen Colbert? Maybe he’s an anomaly. Maybe not everyone likes everything he has to say.  Maybe it’s just that viewers these days are so tolerant they can stomach even some ritual Catholicism.

But maybe Stephen Colbert is a reminder — a picture or even a witness — of what the Church is. God’s People are a healing presence in the midst of the world. Colbert is a bit of hope. Joy, after all, is the infallible sign of the presence of God.

And the Nominees Are. . . The Grand Budapest Hotel

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author


Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Saving Whimsy: Wes Anderson and The Grand Budapest Hotel

Though, it is trite to say, Wes Anderson movies have a look, I suppose those capable of analyzing film would say the same thing about movies directed by Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, or Michael Bay. But to novice eyes (I tend to see one movie a year), I cannot recognize such visual clues with ease. In the case of Wes Anderson, it is different. We know we have encountered a Wes Anderson movie when we find ourselves immersed in a consistent (often bright) palette of colors. An almost storybook feel to a narrative where the idiosyncratic is normative. Even when dealing with serious subject matter (delayed adolescence and the loss of meaning and any theme taken up by Bill Murray), we might best describe his work as whimsical, a kind of escape from the mundaneness of our own lives. An Anderson work invites us into another reality, a grammar very distinct from our own.

Indeed, not all are so laudatory of this style. In a piece in GQ (Why Do We Hate to Love Wes Anderson?), Jeremy Gordon writes:

When the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel was released…there was a wry, winking reception to the news. Most websites were adulatory—Slate called it “delightful”—but plenty telegraphed their reaction to the announcement. This was Wes Anderson “at his most precious,” wrote the Verge; the trailer was “so deeply Wes Anderson,” wrote PolicyMicPaste chronicled “the most Wes Anderson-iest moments” from the trailer. AdWeek was a little blunter, writing that the trailer “captures what’s great and what’s grating about Wes Anderson.”

The subtext was clear: Yet another Wes Anderson movie, and any moviegoer with a half a brain could intuit what that entailed: droll one-liners that always land somewhere between sarcasm and sadness, final scenes shot in slow motion, liberally used ’60s songs, immaculate fonts, beautifully designed sets, daddy issues, white people, thematic resolutions that essentially boil down to “and then he stopped being a dick about it.”

Other critics have been more direct. A Wes Anderson film is one without point, a meaningless exercise in the art of signification. That a Wes Anderson film is nominated for an Oscar is, in this regard, remarkable. Best Picture nominees are rarely described as whimsical but are very often visually sparse, emotionally draining, and icons of social commentary. You may walk out moved, changed, or transformed. But do you enjoy them? Does it provoke a smile?

Of course, those of who have seen The Grand Budapest Hotel know that this whimsicality is brought into direct tension with less pleasant themes. The world that Wes Anderson creates is interrupted by the reality of violence, of death, and the limitations of time. At the conclusion of the film when death intervenes through the fictional fascist regime, the plague of illness and war alike, Anderson rips us out of the comfortable universe that he has created. The darkness that has been just below the surface the entire film, the sense that the protagonists might escape unharmed, is undone in a minute and a half.

And the film (already a kind of a story within a story) zooms out at the very end to reveal that though guided by a narrator listening to a story at the now run-down hotel, we are actually immersed in the reading of a novel. As Salon noted, reviewing the film:

We only arrive at the Grand Budapest of Monsieur Gustave, after passing through multiple layers of time and subjectivity, narrators and mediums — a teenage girl in the present day reading a novel, the novel’s author talking into a camera about the process of writing his book in the 1980s, a younger version of said author meeting an aged Zero in the decrepit, Soviet-era Grand Budapest. Thus the bright world of our farcical adventure has not been lost to time, but rather, created by lost time, through a chain of nostalgic yearning and imagination.

Of course, the Salon reviewer is correct. The conclusion of the film elicits in the viewer a kind of sadness, a longing for a world that has passed. But perhaps, it is incorrect to call it “nostalgic yearning.” Perhaps what Anderson is really doing in all his films, is showing us a reality that is far more enchanted than we realize. There is a glorious mystery to ordinary existence, a beauty that gives itself to us around every corner. Yet what is almost salvific about The Grand Budapest Hotel is that Anderson does not let us pass too quickly over the darkness. It is not a Pollyannaish whimsy. The darkness of history intervenes but even it cannot entirely stifle this vision. Stories continue to be told, inviting us to re-imagine our world once again, to see colors even where there is only gray.

Wes Anderson, of course, is not a theologian. But he does capture something real about the inadequacy of a gray, modern existence. The critics who mock his love of color, of joviality, of eccentricity have become deaf to the mystery of the ordinary. They want to live in the world of gray, where only really serious things are addressed. The Grand Budapest Hotel functions as a rejoinder to those critics of Anderson who fault him for what they see as a capricious style.

Yet, there is something more to Anderson’s “nostalgia.” The Grand Budapest Hotel is an homage to the power of memory to interrupt and transfigure even the grayest of spaces. It testifies to the fact that the march of history cannot destroy quirkiness, playfulness, festivity itself. Reflecting on a similar theme in a meditation on New Year’s Eve, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger writes:

Chronos is a cruel god, now as in the past. Just think of all the things that those who worship the modern as the good have had to adore and then, a short time later, cast into the fire! Only the oblivion that Chronos bestows on his worshippers prevents them from seeing through his cruel game with all its contradictions. How cruel a game it really is becomes clear to anyone who turns the pages of twentieth century history and sees all that men [and women] have done to themselves in the name of modernity. When time becomes master of man, man becomes a slave, even if Chronos makes his appearance under the alias of Progress or the Future.

In this regard, though God is seemingly absent from The Grand Budapest Hotel, the festive memory of time past is not. A time that penetrates the present, revealing to us that not all must be gray. That the seriousness of history does not demand a lachrymose posture, avoiding whimsy out of a false sense of sophistication. In telling the kind of stories that Anderson does, he demonstrates to us that Chronos, in the end, will not win the day. That the grayness of modern life can be defeated not only through the appearance of Bill Murray (an effective weapon against the reductions of the modern world) but the interrupting joy of the festive, of that which pleases. To remember this is not mere nostalgia. It is hope.

Popular Culture and its Thirst for Epiphany

Denise Azores-GococoDenise Azores-Gococo
Heartland Farm, KS
University of Notre Dame ’14

Christmastime is as good a time as any to realize the strange way our secularized society interacts with its Christian roots. Sometimes it rebels against them; the White House this year called its brightly decorated evergreen tree a “holiday tree.” Sometimes it recognizes them, but is careful not to offend those who despise it (next to the Christmas tree and menorah present at Chicago’s Christkindlmarket loomed a giant “A” for all the atheists who still choose to celebrate a fun winter holiday). And sometimes it can’t help but love the tradition, however archaic, irrelevant, or hurtful it’s often portrayed. I think of this every time I hear the radio waves tenderly carrying the same hymns we sing at Mass during the Christmas season.

I have laughably old woman tendencies for my age (some of which even predated my moving in with four Dominican Sisters, aged between 65 and 85, on an isolated homestead in rural Kansas), and my nostalgia for a time before my own is one of them. I would have loved to live in a time and place where Catholicism was valued by popular society as more than a patriarchal, constricting establishment, when religion wasn’t shrugged off as a delusion or a coping mechanism or an effect of cultural brainwashing. I had a recent conversation with an old friend who painted religion as an impediment to free discourse and inclusivity, ultimately getting in the way of an ideal world in which we erase cultural boundaries for the sake of equality. His stance is a popular one. It is one that is careful to include all and offend none except for, of course, the One who both created us and died on the Cross for our sins. It is one that often makes no use of faith.

This past Sunday’s celebration of the feast of the Epiphany reminded me of a topic broached by a lecture I recently attended in Memphis, TN, presented by Fr. Ben Bradshaw. He suggested that the people of today’s proclaimedly post-religious world are on the tipping point of authentic religious faith, like the pagan magi who followed a star to laud the king of a religion not their own. Perhaps the magi opened their hearts to see something else in a star whose appearance could not otherwise be accounted. They swallowed their pride and took a leap, taking practical advice from the prophecy recorded in ancient scriptures. They traveled with faith as their greatest asset, and they found the Christ-child.

On a Christmas two-thousand-and-fourteen years later, the Wall Street Journal publishes an opinion piece by Eric Metaxas: “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.” The article chronicles the beginning—and proposes a possible end—of an age where belief in God is obsolete. The beginning is marked by the 1966 issue of Time Magazine entitled “Is God Dead?” The time leading up to and following the publication of the issue were marked by exponential scientific progress that seemed to suffocate God out of the list of rational possibilities. The end of this age, Mr. Metaxas believes, is not far off. The same scientific progress that led a culture out of belief in God could be leading it back. As it turns out, we cannot account for all the things we once thought we could. As it turns out, our existence is greater than science. It is the miracle of miracles.

Articles in popular media such as the one just mentioned , movies like Interstellar, the recent interest of secular media sources in our Pope (however far-fetched the news might be), and numerous celebrities shocking the world with their long-concealed or newfound Christian sensibilities are signs that our culture, as Fr. Bradshaw suggested, is aching to believe in Truth. Bits of stubborn hope graciously persist in a post-Enlightenment world, pushing popular thought closer to giving faith a chance. If we incarnate Christ’s Word in everyday speech, behavior, and prayer, perhaps the magi of today will be inclined to swallow their pride, take up faith, and  seek Him themselves.


Peace Be With You

Tim KenneyTimothy J. Kenney ’14 MTS Candidate, 

Boston College School of Theology and Ministry

Catholics do a lot of weird things at Mass. We sit, we stand, we sit again, we stand again, we sit again, we stand again, we kneel, we stand again, we shake hands with people, we kneel again, we walk up to the front, we walk back to our seats, we sit again, we stand again, and we leave. Seems like a lot of work. But, maybe we’re just over-achievers, because we always insist upon making an already demanding task that much harder by throwing in added challenges. Where are we going to sit? Front? Don’t want to seem too eager. Back? Don’t want to be stuck with the crying babies. We settle into a pew and then squeeze as much conversation out of the next 5 minutes as we possibly can, assuming we’re not late as usual. We sit and silently criticize the music, the readers, the altar servers. The homily is either too long or too bland or too preachy. We all add in a multitude of additional challenges throughout the Mass—everyone’s got their own specialties.

Once we get to the start of the Eucharistic Prayer, a cold sweat spreads throughout the congregation like a plague. Slowly, one by one, everyone realizes we’re getting close to the big one, the one you spend days beforehand worrying over and weeks afterward reliving (at least some of us do). The sign of peace is nearly upon us. While everything leading up to that moment is centered upon the celebration of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist, almost inevitably, even if it’s just for a moment, sometime between the Sanctus and the Great Amen, the thought crosses your mind of who is around you and where you’ll go first for the sign of peace.

At first glace it seems completely disconnected from the other Mass parts surrounding it. We’re praying, singing, praying the Our Father (sometimes holding hands), then suddenly shaking hands and hugging, and back to singing. I want to look experientially at how we do the sign of peace as a way of showing how we often miss the beautiful liturgical significance iSignofPeacen this moment. I’ll start with the basic structure of events for anyone unfamiliar with the Catholic liturgy and then highlight two major variations that are the most revelatory.

The Standard Model for the sign of peace: shake hands with/hug family and those in the rest of your pew, and if there’s time the pews in front and behind. Crushing handshakes are reserved for siblings. Moving more than a step from your spot is excessive, unless Grandma is there. Always move down the pew to hug Grandma.

Variation #1, a favorite of the older crowds (see any daily Mass): quickly turn, nod to everyone around you, maybe wave or throw up a couple peace signs. If it takes more than 30 seconds you’re doing it wrong. In general, speed tends to be the name of the game for daily Mass, which isn’t terrible. Those who attend daily Mass are often people on a tight schedule or lunch break. However, the sign of peace is not something than can be reduced to near non-existence without somehow changing our participation in the Eucharist. Contrary to what I said above about the sign of peace as a random event in the Mass, we don’t change gears in the sign of peace, but rather are literally enacting our prayer. We’re proclaiming our love of God through love of neighbor, extending to them the same blessing and hope for peace the newly risen Christ offered the 11 gathered in the locked, upper room. Even more directly, we just asked God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are asking God to forgive us using the same standard by which we forgive others. Personally, I hope God is far more forgiving than I have been with those who have injured me. Still, upon making this prayer to God, we then immediately get a chance to put our prayer into action by extending peace to our JesusPeaceparents, siblings, friends, and all of those around us who have almost certainly trespassed against us. Peace. Not just forgiveness, not just a clean slate, but peace in our community. If we don’t actively extend this before receiving the Eucharist, how can we make it manifest in our world as the Body of Christ when we leave the church?

Variation #2 tends to be a favorite of young crowds (college dorm Masses are special offenders): empty the pews, form an inner and outer circle rotating in opposite directions, and proceed to bro hug everyone in the congregation. The reality of this situation is that, while it is an impressive display of love and community, we have to ask why this is really happening. In offering us peace, the priest is standing in the place of Christ in His sacrifice and extending love to us. By encouraging us to offer one another the sign of Christ’s peace, we’re sharing the love we have received from Him with one another. It is an expression of an immense filial love that shows we’re coming as a community to the feast. The problem arises when this love, brotherly love, is celebrated for its own sake and takes away our focus from the Eucharist, which is sitting consecrated on the altar waiting for the hugs and inevitable conversation to stop.

It’s as if an astronaut, after devoting so much energy and focus to training and preparation, climbed out of the cockpit with 30 seconds left on the countdown and said, “Wow, that was really something!” We’d say, but with all the effort you’ve put in, you’re supposed to go to the moon! Meanwhile, we have been prepared by the entire liturgy for so much more than the sign of peace! We have been called to the feast, to receive Christ in the Eucharist, and yet suddenly we decide we’re satisfied with just being part of the community. Yes, the sign of peace is an expression of love, but it’s not perfect or complete. It has to remain a means to the end that is communion in Christ. This in no way diminishes filial love, but rather elevates it. The best part of all this is that, by expressing our desire for peace and then participating in God’s agapic love, we’re equipped with the filial love we need to actually make this peace manifest in the world. We don’t merely leave the sign of peace behind because the Eucharist is better, the Eucharist completes the sign of peace by so uniting us with Christ and filling us with love that we are now able to live peace.

We’re talking about real peace, peace that is intimately tied to love. SwordsPlowsharesIt isn’t peace for its own sake, it’s peace as the by-product of divine love. This is the peace we’re called to offer one another at Mass and receive in the Eucharist. It’s a strong and firm peace, not something wishy-washy. It’s beating your swords into plowshares not because we have collectively agreed to stop fighting, but rather because we love one another so completely that we no longer even recognize their previous purpose. It is easy to simply say the Eucharist is important and that we should more fully incorporate love and peace into our relationships. The thing that is hard and that is so absolutely fundamental is that we celebrate the liturgy and receive the Eucharist, not for a functional end, but out of love for God and a desire for relationship with Him and with each other in this unity. A life of love and a life of peace, a complete embodiment of the liturgy in our daily life, is the shared vocation of all humanity. Call it altruistic, call it unrealistic, call it whatever you like, because that’s exactly what God’s calling you to.

Concentration Camps and the Cross: Death Is Not the End

Hope ’15

Theology Undergraduate

Fellow, Center for Liturgy

“So much death. . . . What can men do against such reckless hate?” The fictional king Theoden, a character from The Lord of the Rings, posed this question in the midst of a battle full of carnage and the deep human suffering of his countrymen.

As I stood and stared at barracks, wrestling with the sickening horrors of the concentration camp at Majdanek, Poland (and later in the week, at Auschwitz-Birkenau) this line came to mind.

I stared at spaces designed as stables to hold 52 horses, but which the Nazis “re-purposed” as a design for barracks to hold between 500 and 800 suffering human beings—without heat, in areas where the winters get frigidly cold and where I shivered on grey October days. I stood in my jacket, my jeans, my boots, and with my hood pulled up, with the knowledge that I was much better protected than anyone brought to this camp had ever been. My stomach lurched as I saw and stepped into the gas chambers where tens (at Majdanek) and hundreds (at Auschwitz) of thousands had gone to die.blogger-image--1792654982

By quoting a fictional king’s shock and horror in his attempts to save his nation, I am in no way daring to trivialize such a horrific reality. Quite the contrary. I have found that over the years, works that I have studied and loved have become a part of me. Sometimes, in situations like this, they give me words when I quite literally have no others.

Like at a concentration camp.

I walked through the aisles of one building, speechless as I stared at and touched some of the 50,000 pairs of shoes, stacked up nearly to the ceiling. Shoes of infants. Of young children. There were some shoes that were so, so tiny that my eyes welled up with tears. Of course I was horrified by all of the shoes, and the revelation of all of the suffering, but for some reason when you see a baby’s possessions and you deal with the reality that their tiny, innocent lives were just as quickly snuffed out as the adults’ lives, it makes you pause in a particular way.

The character Ivan Karamazov puts it this way, in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov:

“Let us talk simbrotherskply of children. . . . Young children may be loved even when they are close to, even when they are dirty, even when they have ugly faces (though I think that young children never have ugly faces)… I refrain from talking about grown-ups because, in addition to the fact that they are loathsome and do not deserve love, they also have requital for that: they have eaten of the apple and have grown aware of good and evil and become ‘gods.’ They continue to eat it even to this day. But young children have not eaten of it at all and are as yet guilty of nothing! . . . ‘Look, if everyone must suffer in order with their suffering to purchase eternal harmony, what do young children have to do with it, tell me, please?’” (319, 320)

The suffering of innocents is, I think, one of the hardest questions of life—if not the hardest to answer in faith.

In The Brothers Karamazov, Alyosha Karamazov’s answer after listening to his brother Ivan quietly suggests the Innocent One who was slain for all of us as an answer to the question of the suffering of innocents. Alyosha’s answer is to turn back to the Cross, to the example of the suffering of Him who knew no sin. His answer does not explain everything away, but it points back to the example of Christ, whose story we know did not end in death.

But to be honest, I only thought about The Brothers Karamazov later. So we will come back to Alyosha’s answer—to the foot of the Cross— in another minute.

At the time, I was thinking about the people in these camps. I thought about all those who had come to these camps on cattle cars. I guarantee that when they were children, none of those who died here had originally thought their earthly lives would be ended in a place designed to systematically destroy human dignity and to snuff out human life.

I kept walking, and I pondered more.

IMG_0426When evil gets thrown into our guts so hard that it knocks the wind out of us, we might pose some different questions. We might, like Ivan Karamazov, ask about the innocent children. But we might ask—or demand—the answers to some other questions along with it.

“Where is the goodness?” “How could the humanity of so many people be so despised, so deliberately cast aside?” “How could human beings commit such unspeakable horrors on fellow humans?”

“What kind of lies had to be told? What kind of twisting of human nature had to take place?”

I don’t know what my thoughts were for a while; I remember we didn’t have too much time in each building, but I kept thinking along the way. Suddenly, a passage from Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place popped into my mind—a description of the horrors of ‘medical inspections’ at the concentration camps (she and her entire family were arrested for helping to provide ration cards for Jews and other underground activities that helped save many lives). At the time she and her sister were sent to Ravensbrück, Corrie was 52.

Corrie ten Boom, at one of her speaking engagements

the hiding place









Nor could I see the necessity for the complete undressing: when we finally reached the examining room a doctor looked down each throat, another—a dentist presumably—at our teeth, a third in between each finger. And that was all. We trooped again down the long, cold corridor and picked up our X-marked dresses at the door.

But it was one of these mornings while we were waiting, shivering in the corridor, that yet another page in the Bible leapt into life for me.

“He hung naked on the cross.”

. . .The paintings, the carved crucifixes showed at least a scrap of cloth. But this, I suddenly knew, was the respect and reverence of the artist. But oh—at the time itself, on that other Friday morning—there had been no reverence. No more than I saw in the faces around us now. . . .

“Betsie, they took His clothes too.”

Ahead of me I heard a little gasp. “Oh, Corrie. And I never thanked Him. . .” (The Hiding Place, chapter 8)

In the midst of  horrific suffering, we can turn to the Cross for our answer. The Cross of Jesus is the only possible, plausible answer. It is the only sane answer. Alyosha Karamazov was right; there is a reason that his brother Ivan (an atheist) goes insane trying to wrestle with the problems of evil, the depravity of sin, and his disordered conscience.  Corrie ten Boom rightly remembered her Savior in this moment, too. The reality of the ugliness and the horrors that sin can wreak in humanity existed in a particular, systematic way in the concentration camps of the Holocaust.

I think, though, that sin in its darkest, most twisted form occurred on Calvary on a Friday, two millennia ago. Augustine tells us that sin is a “privation”—a lack of good. It probably seemed, on that Friday, in gruesome, terrible, there-are-no-words-strong-enough kinds of ways, that good was totally absent. Maybe in staring at the suffering of the Jesus whom they loved, it seemed to Mary and to the Apostles that the world that day lacked everything that is good, right, or just.


And yet, we call that day “Good Friday” because of what came later. We know that the death on the Cross is never the end of the story. In one response during the Eucharistic Prayer, we say, “Save us, Savior of the world, for by Your cross and resurrection, You have set us free.” The totality of the Paschal Mystery and knowing that death—even horrible, gruesome, unjust death—is followed by resurrection and new life is what can redeem the death and the suffering. It is what saves us and sets us free.

But what about for all the victims of the Holocaust? When it comes to the case of peoples suffering genocide and other unspeakable horrors, what can the Cross do? We say Jesus knows the fullness of suffering and what it means to be dehumanized, but what does that mean?

I think it means that Jesus identifies with the cries of mothers as they were torn away from their children. It means that Jesus feels the pain of losing everything and everyone that you know. Jesus identifies with being stripped naked in front of a crowd. He knows what it means to be betrayed by His friends. He knows what it is to be led away to death, while an entire society looks on and does nothing. Jesus knows what it means to have people stand by and watch unjust death unfold.

So, our hope because of the Cross means two things: a) it means that we know death is not the end, but b) the Cross also means that we are never, ever, ever, EVER alone, no matter what we suffer in this life. For Corrie in The Hiding Place, as she stood naked in front of leering Nazi guards, this knowledge that her Savior had experienced the vulnerability of the nakedness and shame she experienced strengthened her. But Corrie’s gratitude does not stop there (as you’ll see if you continue reading The Hiding Place). The realization of what His Cross and Resurrection accomplished ultimately changes the narrative of Corrie’s life and experience. It does the same for all those who suffer. This narrative does not end with the death of the innocents.

Chapter 3 of the book of Wisdom puts it this way (appropriately, we often read this passage at funeral Masses, and it was the first reading for the feast of All Souls):

The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
And no torment shall touch them.
They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead;
And their passing away was thought an affliction
And their going forth from us, utter destruction.
But they are in peace.
For if to others, indeed, they seem punished,
Yet is their hope full of immortality;
Chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed,
Because God tried themthe-resurrection
And found them worthy of Himself.
As gold in the furnace, he proved them,
And as sacrificial offerings he took them to himself.
In the time of their judgment they shall shine
And dart about as sparks through stubble;
They shall judge nations and rule over peoples,
And the LORD shall be their King forever.
Those who trust in him shall understand truth,
And the faithful shall abide with him in love:
Because grace and mercy are with his holy ones,
And his care is with the elect. (Wis 3:1–9)

It isn’t that God wants or wanted masses of suffering to happen. It is not the case, because some big miracle didn’t occur to shut down the concentration camps, that God was complicit with the evil or somehow okay with it. Human freedom is a huge gift—it is what enables us to choose to love God, rather than be His slaves, but the realities of what happens when we choose sin instead of love can be utterly horrific. Regardless of what humans do in sin, though, the story never ends with death. God can always redeem that suffering, even if it isn’t in this life. This is because our eternal, beautiful, unique souls have the chance for eternal life. “The faithful shall abide with Him in love.”

God’s mercies and God’s plans will not be thwarted, not even by human sins. And we all have that chance for eternal life precisely because of the Cross.

Still, I will not pretend that since Jesus died and suffered, or since He knew the worst of the possibilities of human experience and that He resurrected, that the suffering of masses of innocents should not bother us: completely, 100% on the contrary. But turning to the Cross is actually the only coherent answer, especially when we think of the suffering of innocents on such a massive scale as during the Holocaust, or during the Rwandan genocide, or in the realities we know exist in the modern slavery of human trafficking, or in absolutely rampant rates of child and spousal abuse worldwide.

Remember the verse from the beginning of the Gospel of John? “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (Jn 1:5). The reason that darkness has not overcome the light is precisely because of the Cross. It is because He who Himself is the light of the world entered into the darkest and ugliest parts of what sin can do. And He overcame it. As St. Paul exclaims: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:55).

A guard tower at Majdanek concentration camp. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”

The same professor to whom I am forever indebted for including The Brothers Karamazov on our class syllabus closed his last lecture on the book by talking about what joy really is and how joy can be present in suffering. He defined joy saying, “Joy is a shout of affirmation that no matter how much suffering there is in this world, it is good that we are here.”

Corrie ten Boom found ways to be grateful and thankful that she and her sister found themselves in a concentration camp. We know many stories of the saints and heroes who did so in their own ways. Even today, millions of our brothers and sisters all over the world find ways to persevere in the midst of horrors. We try to persevere in the midst of our own sufferings. Surely, we can pray for the grace to thank God for allowing us to be here, and, in a spirit of joy, to believe that it is good that we are here, no matter what happens.

As Jesus looks to the later instruments of His death, Mary holds Him tightly.

So we continue begging in intercessory prayer for the comfort and safety and salvation of our brothers and sisters who have suffered and who continue suffering in our world. We never stop pleading for them, and for mercy on those who sin against the human dignity of others. But when faced with the depravity of sin and the knowledge that we cannot heal or save humanity ourselves—not even the innocent little ones who we wish we could snatch up and carry to safety—we also bow our heads and we pray the motto of the Congregation of the Holy Cross, “Ave Crux, Spes Unica.” “Hail the Cross, our only hope.”

Congregational Seal

Hope in Action: Devotional Prayer and the Marathon

Laura TaylorLaura Taylor 

House of Brigid

Wexford, Ireland

As my feet pounded against the pavement and wound through Dublin’s narrow streets earlier this week, my thoughts wandered amidst the surrounding cacophony of the marathon—the rumble of footsteps fromMarathon Pic 1 the tens of thousands of runners around me, the exuberant cheers from spectators along the race route, the shouted words of encouragement and motivation passed from one runner to the next; the deep, controlled breaths of the seasoned runners, and the short, shallow gasps of the neophytes. My interior self was thrown into turmoil, too, with thoughts of proper pacing, constant checks for the slightest indicators of injury, perhaps too-regular calculations of the remaining distance—not to mention all the everyday doubts, fears, uncertainties, and expectations fighting for their place in the mix as well.

The monotony of running 26.2 miles became particularly apparent at mile 14. As the prospect of running another 12 miles sank in, the first twinges of exhaustion coursed through my body. At mile 16, I noticed some of the faster runners begin to walk. At mile 19, increasingly more competitors appeared to have suddenly stepped into a mire of molasses; the 20-mile marker poster seemed to mock us, stretching farther and farther away. My muscles protested at the continued exertion, the heat of the sun blazed down, the road began to incline, and the discomfort of it all became nearly unbearable. Insidious thoughts of ending the pain altogether and quitting the race clashed against my halting determination, and threatened to become too convincing to fight for much longer. As a first-time marathoner, I naïvely expected my months of training would be enough to get me to the finish line—but they weren’t. Something far deeper, though, would.

My thoughts turned back towards my graduate school courses on liturgical asceticism and the ancient desert monastics of Egypt and Palestine. If those courageous—though somewhat disconcerting—men and women could endure the scorching desert heat, meals of stone-hard bread and locusts, sleepless night vigils, coarse animal-hair shirts, and wage spiritual battles against the anthropomorphized passions and emerge victorious, then surely I could endure the self-inflicted pain of running a marathon—High5 EnergyGels© notwithstanding (I wouldn’t wish those on any enemy!).

Inexplicably, the words of the Ave Maria slowly, languorously laced their way through the mêlée to reach the core of my innermost self. What I most needed in this moment was hope—the kind that comes not from within, but from above. How in the world did I think I could ever accomplish this Herculean effort on my own? In that interminable 19th mile, I decided to draw strength from the tradition of the Church during my own hour of need—the very prayers that sustained saints and martyrs in their times of distress. In the words of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, I would be “guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints” (Spe Salvi, §34). Too delirious to formulate a proper theological interpretation of this internal struggle, praying the Rosary on my fingers while running became a vehicle of active hope.

Rosary Pic 1Despite my ragged breathing, the ancient words flowed freely with each step. In those last few miles, I journeyed with Christ and the Blessed Virgin by reflecting on the five Glorious Mysteries, the splendor of the Gospel message made real and present in my very human search for strength. In the most unlikely of times and places, I somehow felt more a part of the Church than ever before. I meditated on the hope and endurance of the great saints and martyrs who came before me and experienced all manner of suffering and persecution:

“In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown ‘thing’ is the true ‘hope’ which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity” (Spe salvi, §12).

Pope Benedict XVI says the Rosary duringWhile I was only praying for the strength to finish the marathon, Benedict XVI’s words resonate on a deeper level. My self-inflicted suffering could be considered a stand-in for the very real and heartbreaking suffering that occurs every day in this world. Fortunately for all of us, “the star of hope has risen—the anchor of the heart reaches the very throne of God. Instead of evil being unleashed within man, the light shines victorious: suffering—without ceasing to be suffering—becomes, despite everything, a hymn of praise” (Spe salvi, §37).

Through praying the Rosary, my pain and exhaustion were thus transformed into a hymn of praise and thanksgiving. I completed the marathon running strong, the opening words of the Salve Regina echoing at the edges of consciousness:

“Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy, our life, our sweetness, and our hope.”

Marathon Pic 2

Between Pain and Hope

Jessica KeatingJessica Keating
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

This past summer I found myself in a small chapel in Kigali, Rwanda. On the wall behind the altar, in wrought iron lettering was the phrase, Dieu est Amour. Jess-Rwanda 1Sitting with my back against the adjacent wall, tracing with my eyes the strong black letters that proclaimed the central mystery of faith, I listened as the Pallottine priest from Poland recounted the story of chapel. Though it no longer bears the scars of the genocide, this was the place where the Pallottines successfully hid a dozen children for nearly two weeks in the spring of 1994 before they were murdered by the Interhamwe, their tiny bodies burned alive under the words Dieu est Amour.

I was on pilgrimage. In company with 22 other men and women from Uganda, Rwanda, America, and South Africa, I journeyed from Uganda to Rwanda and back again, tracing immense beauty and crushing suffering, the contrasts, the ambiguities, and contradictions. We were on a Pilgrimage of Pain and Hope.

The practice of pilgrimage has a deep and rich history in the Church. In the practice of personal pilgrimage we participate in the eschatological (or final end) orientation of the Church, and are reminded that “we are but travelers on a journey without as yet a fixed abode; we are on our way, not yet in our native land; we are in a state of longing” (St. Augustine, Sermo 103, 1-2, 6: PL 38, 613, 615). The discipline of this pilgrimage, like all religious pilgrimage, is forged in the desire for a particular form of encounter with the other—with our fellow pilgrims, with the men and women we met along the way, with Africa, and with the God who is Love. This encounter with God and neighbor is necessarily dialogical—involving a deep listening, a listening which elicits response—a yes to the dignity inscribed in the very flesh and bones of the other, a yes to the mystery of God.

Between Pain and Hope. genocide must be counted among some of the gravest assaults against human dignity and life in our day. In the final pages of his award-winning book on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with Our Families, journalist Philip Gourevitch comments, “Hope is a force more easy to name and declare one’s allegiance to than to enact” (352). Hope is not merely an idea; it is a practice, a discipline, and it is expressed in the very flesh of our bodies.

We can configure the relationship between pain and hope in many ways, and this pilgrimage required a deep attentiveness to this relationship. Much depends on how we understand that small, but vitally important conjunction: “and.” Does this indicate an unbridgeable distance, such that there is pain, and—full-stop—hope, and never the two meet? Or does it become a term of conflation, whereby pain becomes somehow necessary for hope?

Jess-Rwanda 4On our journey we were invited to imagine a third function for this “and,” wherein pain and hope intersect, and yet remain distinct; where in this nexus, a new possibility opens, one which allows us to see the way hope might permeate pain. I want to suggest that this new possibility, this new vision, which itself appears to be another juxtaposition, an apparent paradox, is indeed cruciform. I found myself throughout the pilgrimage considering just how deeply the Cross was impressed into our journey, in our listening, our seeing, our touching and eating, our traveling and laughing, our conversations, our rest, our worship.

On our final day in Rwanda we visited a church in the village of Nyange in the western province. Like nearly every village, town, and city in Rwanda, Tutsis and moderate Hutus in Nyange fell victim to the ravages of the genocide. Jess-Rwanda 2It was here that the parish priest gathered upwards of 3,000 terrified Tutsis into the church, promising them refuge and protection. Then he ordered the church to be razed upon its people. Here, amid the ruins of the church, are the skulls of men, women, and children, lined up and stacked with conscious care on wooden shelving; here, a hair brush of one of the victims, rosary beads, twisted and dented chalices, saints’ faces obscured by the red clay earth, lying on the cement floor of a makeshift memorial. Here, we listened to the story of utter abandonment and betrayal.

A short distance away stood a girls’ school, École Secondaire Nyange. Tucked up in the mountains of Rwanda, École Secondaire Nyange’s isolation made it vulnerable to the residual sporadic massacres still being carried out by the Interhamwe in 1997. Jess-Rwanda 3After strangling the school guard, Interhamwe forces enter a senior-level classroom and demanded that the young women separate into Hutu and Tutsi. Mujawamahoro Marie Chantal, stood up and declared, “We are not Hutu and Tutsi; we are Rwandan.” This young woman, whose name means “Maiden of Peace,” was shot in the head, along with the five other young women who refused to separate.

In this remote area, this backwater of Rwanda, the narrative of ethnic identity, distorted and fossilized during colonization, crumbled. Identities of Hutu and Tutsi were decisively interrupted. In the enactment of a solidarity that went all the way down to death, we glimpse a sign of new vision, of the new creation amidst the horror of sin.

A word about sin. As our group of pilgrims struggled to make sense of the genocide, to understand the complex historical, social, political, economic, religious, and cultural web capable producing such methodical killing, I found myself reflecting again and again on Book II of St. Augustine’s Confessions—the theft of pears. The entire structure of the Book II is such that it demonstrates the utter meaninglessness of sin, its chaos, its irrationality. Indeed, Augustine finds that his efforts to explain sin are doomed to failure precisely because of its incoherence. What could Augustine’s little story of thieving have to do with Rwanda? Jess-Rwanda 6Nearly a million bodies piled along the roadside and dumped in the river is a far cry from a small cache of pears. Yet I was struck and continue to be struck by logic, or rather I should say, the illogic of the genocide. All our efforts to explain it were only partial, and ultimately each one of us fell back into the irreducible muteness of incomprehension. This is not to say that there aren’t historical, social, political, economic, religious, and cultural factors that produced the genocide; it is only to say that these became caught up in the chaos of sin.

And, yet in the young women at Nyange, we see something of logic of the Cross; indeed, the hope of the Cross which never makes evil good. Evil remains evil and our silence in the face of it remains just as deafening. Rather, from the Cross, we are offered a hope that interrupts and defeats evil.

Jess-Rwanda 7Our pilgrimage was full of interruptions, and we encountered these in many ways. Some were more obvious, like solidarity witnessed to at Nyange School or Our Lady’s appearance at Kibeho and the pilgrims who had walked four days over the mountains of Rwanda to fill the jerrycans with water from the spring. Some were more hidden: academics reduced to silence, the quiet work of formation at seminaries, of education, of prayer. But each of them bespeaks of a new horizon, of a decisive orientation that is born from our mysterious participation in the Cross which is our only hope.