Tag Archives: Justice

Our Brothers and Sisters in Iraq

BrianPierceOPBrian Pierce OP 

Province of St Martin de Porres, United States. Former Promoter of the Nuns.


TimothyRadcliffeOPTimothy Radcliffe OP

Province of England. Former Master of the Order of Preacher

Editorial Note: The following piece was received from Fr. Brian and Fr. Timothy last week, seeking to raise awareness about the plight of Christians in Iraq. Please spread this piece far and wide, noting that Fr. Brian Pierce and Fr. Timothy Radcliffe are authors of this piece. 

At the invitation of Fr. Amir Jaje OP, the Vicar of the Arabic Vicariate of the Province of France, we made a visit to Iraq, from January 8th to 16th. We are very aware of how superficial our understanding of this complex and beautiful country and its suffering, but even so we would like to share what we have heard and seen, the hope that our brethren and sisters keep alive, and what we can do to support them. Please forgive any inaccuracies.

Our brothers and sisters belong to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, dating almost from the time of Christ. They are our elders and so we must be with them in this terrible time. Also the suffering of Iraq is symptomatic of the crisis of our whole world. ISIS, or Da’esh as it is more usually called in Iraq, is a child of our times. Its violence derives, at least in part from the violence of Western culture, with its love of guns. The jihadists love to watch our films with all their endless killing. We are complicit with what is happening here. Our invasions triggered the crisis that the Iraqi people now endure.

We started in Baghdad. A travel website advised us not to go at all, but if we did, to remain within the fortified Green Zone, where nearly all foreigners are sheltered. If one travels outside that fortress, the advised means of transport are either helicopter or armoured car. Neither the brethren nor the sisters had either of these! As we drove around Baghdad with our brother, Amir, at no time did we experience any tension or feel any threat. Everywhere we were welcomed with a generosity which is astonishing, given how our countries have played a part in the explosion that is ripping apart this country.

Of course it is not entirely safe: there were suicide bombers and kidnappings even while we were there. But the most potent weapon of terrorism is terror. If we let terror prevent us from visiting this city, or if it keeps us imprisoned behind the high walls of an impregnable fortress, the terrorists have won. Iraqis feel forgotten and betrayed, but if one visits our brothers and sisters in Iraq, the welcome is beyond words. After Baghdad, we flew to Erbil where we joined a delegation of three Dominican sisters, Dusty Farnan, Marcelline Koch, and Arlene Flaherty, who were visiting the refugee camps in Kurdistan. We enjoyed the unforgettable hospitality of Sister Maria Hanna, Prioress General, and her community of marvelous and beautiful sisters.

What We Saw

MosulChurchesThe numbers and statistics are numbing.  500,000 Christians and Yazidis, together with a number of Muslims, fled the ancient city of Mosul as Da’esh (ISIS) swept through the Nineveh Plain in early August 2014.  A few days later the predominantly Christian villages of Qaraqosh and Bartola were emptied of Christians in a matter of hours, as the ISIS forces marched towards these two predominantly Christian communities.  With no time to prepare for their tragic exodus, the local people left taking with them only what they could gather in their arms, as they fled in cars or by foot towards the Kurdish region of Iraq.

We met a couple in one of the refugee camps whose baby daughter was snatched from the mother’s arms by an ISIS militant as they were leaving Qaraqosh on a bus.  There is no word of the baby’s whereabouts.  A Catholic pastor, who now directs one of the refugee camps in Ankawa (the ‘camp’ being nothing but the dark, damp concrete shell of an unfinished shopping mall) told us that of the four churches that he served in Mosul, one has been turned into a weapons’ warehouse, while the other three are being used as prisons and places of torture.

We heard heart-breaking stories of betrayal by long time Muslim neighbours and friends as ISIS swept through these predominantly Christian towns and neighbourhoods.  Some of the Muslim neighbours have even phoned their former Christian neighbours, taunting them, saying, “We have your homes now and are selling the merchandise that you left behind in your shops.”  Though we met many people who still hold onto the hope of returning, others have said that the betrayal by former friends and neighbours has created a wound that can never be healed.

One of the bishops in Kurdistan told us that due to the violence and the absence of any substantial help from the Iraqi government, approximately 1800 Christians are leaving Iraq each month.  Some are resettling, at least temporarily, in surrounding countries (Lebanon and Jordan principally), while the others go to Europe, Australia or North America.  It is often the more educated who flee.  For many, this is the beginning of a life in exile, resigned to the possibility that they may never see their homeland again.  Some Christians say that they must leave for the sake of their children.  Those who stay are the poorest, although some Christians and Muslims who have the means to leave have chosen to remain, committed to the difficult task of helping to build a new Iraq.  Our Dominican sisters’ and brothers’ courage in staying to build the future with their people is a powerful witness of their faith in God’s steadfast love and mercy.

We were told that the local Kurdish authorities have now begun to close the borders to new waves of refugees, leaving them with no place to seek asylum and safety.  There are approximately 120,000 refugees in Ankawa (a Christian suburb of Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan) who are now living in one-room cubicles (called caravans) about the size of a camper-trailer.  In many shelters two caravans are joined by a common bathroom, while in other shelters there are only public bathrooms and showers.  Many people are sick with colds and other ailments, due to the unusually cold winter this year and the precarious living situations.  Some family trailers house 8-12 family members, and in one we were told that 26 people from a single extended family are living in a single caravan, an almost unbearable situation.

The largest camp – the Ankawa Mall – is home to 400 families, AnkawaMallapproximately 1700 persons.  Creatively they have set aside a space that serves as a kind of coffee house where people can rest and enjoy a game of dominoes. Both of us were soundly beaten! The Dominican sisters of St. Catherine are working with two priests and a brother of another congregation in a new neighbourhood on the outskirts of Erbil where 200 newly built houses are being rented to accommodate refugee families.

Unfortunately they are not completely free from the danger of violence in their new environment.  A suicide bomber, a fundamentalist Kurdish Muslim, blew himself up inside Erbil some weeks ago, stoking the fear that even within the boundaries of their ‘new home’ as refugees, they cannot be totally safe.  It is estimated that about 18% of Kurdish Muslims are members of a fundamentalist sect.

The psychological and mental toll on these refugees is worrisome, given that the future is so uncertain.  In one camp we watched as thirty to forty desperate refugees protested before one of the priests working in the camps, begging for answers and relief.  The priest stood before them patiently, gently listening to their desperate cries for help, with few answers to give to their anguished demands.  The harshest pain is the stripping of their human dignity.   Their needs are simply overwhelming.  The heroism of aid workers, volunteer doctors, nurses and pharmacists, priests and sisters, many of whom are refugees themselves, is incredibly moving in such circumstances.

The Yazidi refugees, many of whom are being cared for by Church aid agencies, suffer an added burden, of being considered by many of their neighbours as devil-worshippers.  The Church has called on Muslim leaders to be more forthright in denouncing the use of religion as a pretext for violence.  While some claim that Islam is a religion of peace, others say that it is a religion born in violence and that it will not stop until all ‘unbelievers’ are converted or destroyed.  Moderate Muslims, however, have bravely stood alongside their Christian and Yazidi neighbours, sharing in their struggles and offering aid to the refugees.

Few Iraqis trust the Western nations, demanding that they must assume their responsibility for this crisis, even as the war games for control of the region’s vast oil reserves continue.  Muslim fundamentalism, backed by money from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, uses the greed and economic voraciousness of the West as a pretext for their own self-serving and violent aims.

We happened to be in Iraq at the time of the brutal massacre at the Charlie Hebdo studio in Paris.  The “I am Charlie” campaign has reverberated throughout Iraq and surrounding countries. This will only lead to more violence.  One Iraqi Dominican sister commented to us: ‘As they march in Paris for freedom of expression, we are the ones being killed in retaliation for the cartoons.’  The Dominican friars in Ankawa held a two hour prayer vigil in solidarity with the victims of the Paris massacre, while echoing Pope Francis’ plea for prudent restraint.  Freedom of expression is not a ‘right’ disconnected from social justice, non-violence and ethical responsibility.  Meeting offense with more offense will lead to more violence.  We Christians must show that non-violence has the power to change the world and issue in a new era of peace.

Many talked of Westerners who are joining ISIS and other international jihadist groups. Though we cannot always stop the radicalised young from setting off to the Middle East, it does not seem constructive to punish or arrest those who return to the West, disillusioned by the violent and extremist expressions of Islam. We must welcome the young home and help them to be healed of the wounds of war. Only education and the pursuit of justice will defeat fundamentalism.  In the end, those who return home disillusioned by the violence of ISIS may be the best preachers to other young who are tempted to join these violent groups.

IraqiUniversitiesAccess to schools and universities is seen as one of the important and urgent steps needed in order to stem the rise of violent fundamentalism.  One bishop in Iraqi Kurdistan said that thirty to forty universities and a number of hospitals are desperately needed if they are to stem the flight of all persecuted Iraqis to other countries.

What Hope?

The question that constantly haunted us during this visit was: How can our brothers and sisters in Iraq keep hope alive? We were often told that in Arabic there are two words for hope. ‘Amal’ is the everyday optimism that things will go well. ‘Raja’ is a deeper hope, based on our trust in someone, above all God. Most of these Christians have lost all ‘amal.’ They see no future at all except sad exile in foreign lands. A bishop told us that even the babies in the womb were longing to go.

But there are signs of that deeper hope, ‘raja’, even if it is not clear how it may come to fruition. Staying in Iraq is already a sign of hope. A chemistry teacher said to one of our sisters: ‘Why are you still here? France will accept you.’ When many of the disciples fled, Jesus said to Peter: ‘Will you also go?’ (John 6.67). Peter remained. Jesus abides with us, and remaining is a powerful sign of hope when so many are leaving. Who knows what we would do in this situation? If we had children, would we dare to stay and risk their future? It was not for us to urge members of this most ancient Christian community to stay and keep alive their unique tradition. But we hoped that some would. Our brother Atisha is a wonderful example of this witness.

It is a source of hope that some Muslims say that if the Christians go, the Iraq which they love will be finished. The relationship between believers of different faiths has been the core of Iraqi identity. In a Muslim restaurant in Baghdad, offering ‘impregnating chicken’, ‘sheep full of rice’ and ‘upside down chicken’, there was an image of the Last Supper of Christ with his disciples, and a light burnt before an icon of the Virgin and her child. We gave a public lecture to almost three hundred people in Baghdad, seventy percent of whom were Muslim. They begged the Christians to stay. One young man said: ‘‘Why do we debate whether the Christians should stay or go? They were here before we Muslims arrived.’

It is hopeful that Christianity is sometimes recognised by Muslims as a religion of peace. When soldiers came searching for weapons in Baghdad they entered a Christian home, but when they saw the Christmas crèche they said: ‘You are Jesus. There are no weapons here’ and left immediately. It seems to be above all the Christians who welcomed and collaborated with the Yazidis. Christians have something essential to offer if Iraqi society is to find a new unity.


We were told that this year many Muslims bought Christmas trees. Of course this may in part be due to the dominance of the Western world in the media and its image of Christmas. But for many Muslims, especially the Shia, this was an expression of shared devotion: Muslims and Christians standing together before the tree to make a wish, honouring the prophet Jesus.

This hope peeps through in the simple determination to get up each morning and do what must done today. One of our brethren, Nouiran, said: ‘Hope means that I live now, whatever may happen tomorrow.’

This hope shines through in the Christian commitment to go on caring for others even when our own future is so uncertain. In a clinic in a squalid camp we met a woman who had owned three pharmacies until the dreadful night when ISIS came. Now she works as a volunteer, dispensing what few medicines they have. She said: ‘I have lost everything, but I have learnt gratitude for the little that remains. This is why I come.’

In Baghdad we were bowled over by our visits to two homes. Mother Theresa’s sisters run a home for children of all faiths who have been abandoned because of their disabilities. Who could forget the intelligent, gentle face of Nora, born without arms or legs, who feeds the younger children with a spoon held between her teeth? Two consecrated virgins welcome 60 older women of all faiths who have no home, with whom we laughed and prayed. The joy in these places is sacramental of a hope for a new world.

We visited two centres for refugees built by the brethren, called ‘the Vine’ and ‘Hope.’ Our brothers Najeeb and Sarmad explained that it is important that every family have a home with a window and a door. One needs to look out but also human dignity requires a space for privacy. Here the refugees themselves are involved in building emergency caravans and homes, an employment which gives them some income but, even more important, dignity.

Memory shores up hope. One can hardly imagine the hope given to the people staying in one of these camps when the phone rang on Christmas Eve, and Pope Francis was there to tell them that they were not forgotten. Let us remember them too and be a sign of our God who never forgets anyone: ‘Can a woman forget our suckling child, that she should not have compassion of the child of her womb? Yes, these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have graven you upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are always before me.’ (Isaiah 49.15f)

When we visited these and other centres, we were impressed by how our brothers and sisters remembered the names and stories of so many of the refugees. There is a hunger for recognition. So many NGOs treat people as just numbers, units with material needs rather than the dignified children of the People of God, each of whose name is known to God.

Memory of the past can be a sign of hope in the future. Things need not necessarily be as they are today. Our brother, Najeeb, just managed to snatch the Vicariate’s centuries’ old archives form under the noses of ISIS and carry them into exile, keeping alive the memory of the past. These help us to remember that we have survived crises in the past.

The most intriguing sign of hope was the commitment to education. If ISIS is just defeated militarily, then it will be reborn in another form. The true enemy is the blind fundamentalism that fuels its violence. In 2012, the Dominican Father Yousif Tomas Mirkis, now the Archbishop of Kirkuk, founded the Baghdad Academy of Human Sciences. It has 500 students, mainly Muslim. They study philosophy, sociology, anthropology, as well as English and French. They earn certificates granted by DOMUNI, our Internet University. Is it crazy to attend lectures on Wittgenstein when ISIS is decapitating people? But in this violent storm, the Church must cling to its belief in reason. The logo of the Academy is the Dominican shield, with a pencil in the centre, supporting a big question mark. Archbishop LogoMirkis told us: ‘We need places where people can breathe the oxygen of debate.’ Here they discuss whether it is true that ‘Je suis Charlie’ rather than just chant a slogan. The Church keeps alive a belief in reason when many others look only to force. Intelligence can break through the walls of prejudice and stupidity.

Our magazine ‘Christian Thought’, edited by Fr. Philippe, is widely bought by Muslims who wish to think and dialogue with us. It is not for spreading Christian ideas, but so that the Christian tradition of reflection can open a space for dialogue. 800 hundred years ago, in ancient Baghdad, Christian, Muslim and Jewish scholars studied together. Fr. Amir’s commitment to dialogue with the Shia scholars in the south of Iraq, in Najef, is a witness to hope. One of us attended a summit of Christian and Muslim leaders in Rome in December, where many Shia spoke with affection and respect for his work.

In Ankawa in the north, we visited Babel College, where many of our sisters and brothers teach. Two of our sisters have doctorates in scripture, from Oxford and Notre Dame. What a wonderful and long-sighted expression of hope to form scholars in such terrible circumstances. Three of the professors in this Christian college are Muslim. There are 120 lay people in the lay programme.

Beauty too makes hope visible in the face of the ugliness of violence. We had a very moving afternoon in Baghdad when we visited the Church of Our Lady of Deliverance, where on October 31, 2010 forty-seven lay people and two priests were massacred, along with the five suicide bombers who blew themselves up after entering the church during the celebration of the Eucharist. During our visit to the church we met a woman who was shot during the attack, losing the baby in her womb.  The new church, beautifully reconstructed with fine wood work, with the names of the dead carved on the walls, is a sign of the victory of the resurrection, when the dead barren wood of the cross blossoms as it will in Iraq. We believe that the blood of the martyrs will be fruitful.

Finally, in the camps, there are many children whose playful laughter gave us hope. We visited two hospitals in Baghdad founded and run by the Dominicans sisters of the Presentation and of St Catherine, each of which has a maternity ward. Here the future citizens of Iraq are being born, Muslims and Christians side by side. One sister, a midwife, was described to us as ‘the mother of Iraq.’

When we visited the camps in the north children came bounding up to meet these strangers in white habits. They had been dragged out of their homes, fled for their lives, and live in squalor, but they had a confident, trusting spontaneity which is not always evident in Western children. Just before communion in the Chaldean Catholic rite, two children come up to the altar to receive the sign of peace from the priest which they transmit to the congregation. Perhaps these children are the messengers of hope for the future, even if now we cannot imagine what form this might take.

What Can We Do?

This is a question which we often put to the brethren and sisters. Frequently the response was: ‘Tell people the truth of what is happening here.’ This is our motto: Veritas.

  • The truth is that this is a vast humanitarian catastrophe, which is crushing millions of lives.
  • The truth is that this disaster has largely been triggered by the West’s bungling intervention in the region, mainly in pursuit of its own interests.
  • The truth is that the confrontation with ISIS is symptomatic of a crisis which afflicts the whole of humanity at the beginning of the twenty first century, as traditional cultures confront modernity.
  • The truth is that the violence of ISIS is in part a sour fruit of the violence of a global economic system which is creating ever greater inequalities between nations and within nations. We should inform our politicians, invite them to visit Iraq and to work for a solution to this catastrophe.

Secondly, the Dominicans of Iraq ask for our prayers. Many of them pray every day: ‘How long, O Lord, how long?’  (Psalm 15.1) We should besiege the heavens with our prayers, like the importunate widow beating on the door of the judge until he gives her what she wants (Luke 18.2ff). We must pray frequently and insistently for peace in Iraq, and for its Christians, in our communities, our parishes, our various ministries.

Thirdly, it would be wonderful if some of the wider Dominican Family were to visit our brothers and sisters in Iraq, and meet the people whom they serve. The bumper stickers distributed by the Order during the last Iraqi war read: ‘We have family in Iraq’. We still do. Come, especially if you have some skill that could help the refugees, if you are a nurse or a doctor or an expert in the care of people with trauma. Maybe small groups of young people could come for a couple of weeks to be with the young in these camps, to share their experience. This would be transformative, both of those who come and those who are visited. Of course it is a little risky, but we should not be governed by fear: ‘Perfect love casts out fear’ ( I John 4.18).

Finally, we can raise money to help these refugees, so that they can live with dignity and hope. Funds to support the work of the brethren and sisters should be sent, marked ‘For Iraq’ to:

IBAN : FR 76 3005 6001 4801 4854 2857 016

“Undeservedly Justified”: The Gift of God’s Justice

Jessica Mannen Kimmet
Master of Divinity Candidate,
University of Notre Dame


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Editorial Note: This reflection was originally delivered as a sermon for Vespers on Tuesday, January 20. We are grateful for the author’s permission to post it here.

The justice of God has been manifested apart from the law, even though both law and prophets bear witness to it—
that justice of God which works through faith in Jesus Christ
for all who believe. All men have sinned and are deprived
of the glory of God. All men are now undeservedly justified
by the gift of God, through the redemption wrought
in Christ Jesus.
Through his blood, God made him the means
of expiation for all who believe. He did so to manifest
his own justice, for the sake of remitting sins committed
in the past—
to manifest his justice in the present,
by way of forbearance,
so that he might be just
and might justify those who believe in Jesus. (Rom 3:21–26)

To prepare for this reflection, I’ve done all of things you’re supposed to do to give a reflection on Scripture. I’ve read and re-read this text for over a week. I’ve waded through the syntax and even mentally diagrammed the sentences to try to make sense of the translation. I’ve compared multiple translations, consulted commentaries and old class notes, and given each word my attention in turn.

Fortunately, I also remembered to pray with this text, and when I did, most of it seemed to fall away. Only two words stood out to my consciousness, two words which summarize not only this reading but nearly the whole of Christian life: undeservedly justified.

Now I, for one, am not very comfortable with the idea of receiving something I don’t deserve. When I was in high school, I would sometimes hear my mom talk to her friends about how much she had done to get me to where I was. My internal reaction, although usually politely disguised, was always something like, “What the heck, Mom?” I felt that I had done the work to get whatever honors came my way, and I felt that at that point in my life there really wasn’t that much Mom was doing for me any more.

I suspect that many of us are the same way. In this academic setting, we are well trained not to take credit that is not ours. We scrupulously cite our sources, and we strive for originality. Outside the academy, too, justice is thought of as something ultra-rational. The word “justice” makes us think of legal responsibilities, of the limits on our behavior that make peaceful living possible. Even in the ancient world, Lady Justice balanced scales. She personified this view of justice as related to some sort of equation. When something is taken from here, something has to be given over there. It’s very simple math.

In spiritual life, this is dangerous, because the logic of it can become an idol. It would be comforting to believe that we can earn the love of God. It would be nice to receive a set of minimum guidelines that would guarantee our salvation. But this is not the sort of justice by which God operates. We could never deserve to be created, to be beloved, to be redeemed. We could never earn the incredible superabundance of life and love that God offers us. God’s justice is a language of utter and absolute gift. God’s justice would absolutely shatter any scales on which we tried to weigh it.

Our role in our salvation is only ever response to God’s initiative. God has already saved us, and this can be a heavy gift. The realization of our powerlessness can be paralyzing. But we are called to respond. We are called to respond with gratitude; we are called to respond with generosity. We are called to grow in our awareness of how undeservedly beloved we are. And we are called to pass on that same love to others who in our eyes don’t seem to deserve it.

This task of realizing and responding to our undeserved belovedness takes more than a lifetime to achieve. It can seem overwhelming, but I take some comfort in noticing that the late-twenties me can see much more clearly than sassy teenaged me that I do owe an incredible amount to my parents. How much more do we owe to God. How blessed we are to be given the capacity to respond with our own self-gift.

Three Things We’re Reading Today: John the Baptist, Bonhoeffer, and Rejoicing

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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1) A timely piece by Michael Rubbelke at Daily Theology on the Third Sunday of Advent:

This Advent has brought us close to the depths of our self-deception. This violence, distress, and suffering can be seen in the injustices surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and others; the Senate’s report on torture; the continuing warfare and persecution of Christians in the Middle East. There are innumerable situations closer to home—our pride, our infidelities in relation to others, our own snubbing of the poor in our communities—that cry out for our attention. Both the Baptist and Delp show that Advent calls us to be shaken awake to ourselves, our personal and structural sin, and the reality of a world crying for God’s action.

In this painful awakening, we must rejoice, not despair. Shaken awake, confronted with the sinful reality around us, our eyes can be opened to God working in this desert, in and through those whom we have hurt by our sin, our privilege, our negligence. The Incarnate Word is the One sent “to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1), but He is also the One Whom we serve in the poor, the hungry, the victims of injustice. Christ is both the One acting and the One acted upon: the Savior of the world who destroys evil and the One Whom we serve in being anointed with the Spirit and following His example.

2) Bonhoeffer in the season of Advent at First Things (by Timothy George):

here was a tender side to Bonhoeffer, but he was no sentimentalist, and he did not romanticize life inside prison. In letters to his family, he put up a brave front so as not to increase their worries about him. But he confided to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, “Despite everything I have written, it is horrible here. The dreadful impressions often pursue me well into the night, and I can cope with them only by reciting countless hymn verses, and then my awakening sometimes begins with a sigh instead of a praise of God.” To Bethge alone, he confessed the shadows and self-doubts later reflected in his prayer-poem, “Who Am I?” “I often wonder who I really am: The one always cringing in disgust, going to pieces at these hideous experiences here, or the one who whips himself into shape?” God does not fill the emptiness, Bonhoeffer said. Rather, God keeps it empty, and in this way he preserves—even in pain—our authentic communion.

3) A beautiful piece by Michael Jordan Laskey on the kind of rejoicing that is possible in the midst of sorrow at the National Catholic Reporter:

This coming Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, is all about joy in the midst of darkness. As we wait for the coming of Christ, we light a cheerful rose-colored candle on the Advent wreath as a reminder that our waiting will not be in vain. The Sunday gets its name — “gaudete,” which means “rejoice” — from the introit to the day’s liturgy: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.”

These words come from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, which he wrote from prison. Paul was no naïve optimist, and he obviously knew real suffering. Despite the intense unhappiness of imprisonment, Paul was joyful anyway — the word appears 17 times in various forms throughout the short letter.

“Gaudete” is the word’s imperative form. We are commanded to rejoice. Against the backdrop of heartbreaking news out of cities like Ferguson, Mo., and New York this Advent, I don’t really feel like rejoicing. I probably need that sort of urgency from Paul. Of course, there are sad headlines every Gaudete Sunday, and every other day. Our celebration this week (and at Christmas) is a countercultural declaration that even in sadness, we rejoice because our hope is in the one who is stronger than death.



Three Things We’re Reading Today: The Sacred, Lots of Advent, and Justice

TimOMalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Sorry about the delay in posting our Monday, Wednesday, Friday list of what we’re reading. Because I’ll be traveling tomorrow to San Antonio for the National Catholic Conference of Youth Ministers, we’ll be featuring six things that you can read.

1) Most of what we’re reading is Advent themed. But this piece on the liturgical formation of children caught my attention this morning:

Churches are not meant to make us feel at home, and Mass is not at all like our family table. Our Churches are meant to elevate our senses beyond this world, and give us eyes to see and ears to hear the things of eternal significance. Children are smart, and they are naturally programmed to experience awe and wonder. Their capacity to understand and respond to the sacred is way more advanced than we have given them credit for, I think.

They do not need another environment artificially geared toward their needs. They do not need to feel at home at Church in the sense that Church does not evoke a different experience than home. What children need is a sense of the sacred–an awareness that what happens at Church is differenent than what happens anywhere else outside of Church. Stepping into Church should inspire a sense of his heavenly home, not his earthly one.

We need to allow our kids to grow up with a sense of the sacred. In our world, where our daily lives are more and more marred by humanity’s faults and sins, we need a place set apart that reminds of the hope of eternity, that lifts our senses beyond the world around us to the glory and wonder and majesty of the throne of heaven. And our kids need to grow up experiencing that same sense.

2) Rick Becker on the new liturgical year:

What’s going on here? It’s like the very last scene of the church year yesterday led into today’s liturgical trailer that previewed…more of the same!


You know the answer, I’m sure. It’s because the new liturgical year is more of the same, and that “same” is Jesus himself who’s always showing up at unexpected times. For Christians, there’s only one show, and it’s perpetually new. As St. Patrick put it, it’s “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me; Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me; Christ on my right, Christ on my left,” basically Christ all over the place. He’s the director, cast, and crew; he’s the dialogue, the plot, and the script; he’s the special effects, the soundtrack, and the cinematography.

The whole shooting match, the whole shebang! And we always have to be ready to receive him, not just at Christmas!

So, yes, take a deep breath – one screening has past; the next is just about to start. Sit back and stay awake: The adventure is about to begin all over again.

3) Kate Mahon on the First Sunday of Advent over at Daily Theology:

This Sunday’s readings (we’re in Year B now) remind us of our distance from God, who created us and to whom we desperately wish to return, and of God’s promise of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. And even though Christ has already come to Earth, our salvation will not be fulfilled until he comes again on the last day. And so we turn to God, despite our imperfections, and, strengthened by God’s grace, await Christ’s return. It’s a little dark; but, then again, Advent is a little dark. I’ve always loved how, in the Northern Hemisphere at least, right at the time that winter begins to rear its ugly head, right when the days reach their shortest and the nights their longest, right when a little, primordial part of you begins to wonder if the world will ever be warm or bright again, we mark this dark season by lighting a new candle each Sunday and we celebrate our expectation of the coming of the Light of the World on December 25th. It’s incongruous, but the celebration lies in the incongruity. But of course, the triumph of light over darkness, of life over death, of good over evil, is not accomplished on December 25th and was not achieved on the day when Jesus Christ was born of Mary. That is not what we celebrate at Christmas. Think about it: the human infant is one of the most helpless and vulnerable of all the newborn creatures on earth. Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, could not have vanquished a fly, let alone darkness and death at his birth. It’s precisely this vulnerability, exemplifying God’s total humanity in Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas. Again, it seems that we are celebrating what is incongruous, what doesn’t fit. But what we are celebrating, in fact, at Christmas, in Advent, on this First Sunday of Advent, and throughout the liturgical year, is not what doesn’t fit, but how it all fits; that is, how each event memorialized in the liturgical year fits into God’s plan of salvation manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. And that salvific plan culminates in Christ’s redemptive death and resurrection, a theme that reverberates in each and every feast, fast, and season of the liturgical year.

4) A lovely poem by Charlene Nelson at the journal Second Nature (for those readers still reeling from the electronic saturation of Black Friday):

There were kids to kiss
And blissful songs to sing,
Laughs to roar
And that truest sense of living.

Oh, but tiny morsels
Bleak and gray
We kept snatching up
So we forgot to play.

And then,
At the end of the day
It all fell useless
In a pile
Of vain-memory decay.

Didn’t it

5) An excellent essay by Benjamin Mann at Catholic Exchange on gadgets and the art of presence (for your Cyber Monday through Sunday):

When we extend our minds, in McLuhan’s sense, through the use of electronic media, we externalize both the mind’s strengths and its weaknesses. The Internet enables our curiosity and speculative capacities (our abilities to “be elsewhere” in at least potentially good ways), but it also empowers our pre-existing inner capacity for distraction – the ability to be elsewhere when we ought to be present here and now. Without such technology, the mind “goes elsewhere” on its own: surfing through its inner realm of facts, commentary, and possibilities. With the Internet, it does so externally and visibly.

McLuhan’s idea of externalization suggests that our deepest problem is not our relationship to technology, but something more ingrained. Long before “smartphone” entered the dictionary, each of us carried around a resource with amazing powers of access and connection, as well as vast potential for distraction and self-indulgence. That resource is our own mind. Today, we have simply externalized and boosted its abilities and habits.

We may cringe at the sight of two people sitting across a restaurant table, both absorbed in their smartphones. But how often have we met with a friend or loved one, and ended up absorbed in our own inner thoughts and concerns, of one kind or another? It is the same tendency: unsatisfied with present reality – for trivial or serious reasons, or no reason at all – we look for ways to be elsewhere, ways of escape that become habitual and start feeling necessary.

6) Mike Laskey, a dear friend of the Center, on the relationship between social justice and the New Evangelization:

Right relationship is also at the core of what the Church has termed “the New Evangelization,” which is an ongoing process that calls Catholics to share the Good News with new vigor in a world where so many are searching for meaning. The New Evangelization is all about deepening our relationship with Christ as friend and savior and deepening the relationships we build with one another as Church. This shared emphasis on relationship makes social justice work and the New Evangelization natural partners.



Beware of Political Messiahs

Tim O'MalleyTimothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

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Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they answered him, ‘John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.’ He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ slide-20-jesus-and-peterPeter answered him, ‘You are the Messiah.’ And he sternly ordered them not to tell anyone about him. Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at this disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ (Mk 8:27–33)

As a young child at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Alcoa, TN, I was always deeply puzzled by this reading. A renowned brown-noser in school myself, I always felt for Peter. One minute, he bestows the perfectly correct answer (Jesus is the Messiah) and the next he receives a rousing rebuke from the Word made flesh.

My own reading of the text, of course, has matured over the years. I now understand that the kind of messiah that Peter expected would function with far more political power than Jesus seemed willing to take up himself. He would conquer Rome and re-build the Temple.  He would expand the state of Israel to its proper size and scope. He would rule from the throne like David.

How disappointing it must have been for Peter to have heard these political hopes deconstructed by the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Unlike the deconstructionists of our own day, Jesus offers another vision of what it means to be the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of Man. The text continues:

He call the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life with lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?’ (Mk 8:34–36)

Christ_Carrying_the_Cross_1580It is not power politics that Jesus employs. It is not a violent revolution where one system of ideas replaces another. Rather, the messianic advent of the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, is nothing less than the introduction of a new divine politics. It is the politics where self-emptying love (kenosis) is the virtue of the day. Where love unto the end is the stump speech. Where the victory is achieved not in front of thousands of supporters in a hotel ballroom but in the divine solitude of the Cross.

The revolution of self-sacrificial love that Jesus enacts came to mind as I read the Facebook feeds of friends last evening throughout the United States. Some were overjoyed that the Republicans had defeated the Democrats, bringing about a new political order in which now justice and truth would reign. Others saw the take-over of the Senate as the defeat of all truth and goodness. In both cases, one perceived a sense that either salvation was at hand or that God’s glory had left creation altogether.

Perhaps, there is something about the human condition in which we are constantly looking for political messiahs, those who will usher in the kingdom of justice and peace desired by the human heart. Yet, we should not be surprised to find ourselves continually disappointed that men and women in political office fail to embody our greatest hopes for what it means to be a nation, a community of justice and peace. Human beings are in need of a savior, but not one who comes to us wearing an American flag pin on his or her lapel.

Salvation is only obtainable by those who unite themselves to the messianic peace of the Kingdom of God. In the coming weeks, we will celebrate the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The Church will pray in her Eucharistic Liturgy:

17-85-FD9-134-92.0048-R200For you anointed your Only Begotten Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, with the oil of gladness as eternal Priest and King of all creation, so that, by offering himself on the altar of the Cross as a spotless sacrifice to bring us peace, he might accomplish the mysteries of human redemption and, making all created things subject to his rule, he might present to the immensity of your majesty an eternal and universal kingdom, a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace. (Eucharistic Preface)

The kingship of Christ finds its foundation not in political slogans or polling numbers. Rather, it is founded upon the weakness of the Cross, a politics in which holding onto control at all costs is nothing less than a sign of sin itself.

Our present political system is suffering from this sin. It is full of advertisements in which one party attempts to defeat another by molding the truth to whatever the polls say. Rather than engage in any form of authentic dialogue, clichés and slogans rule the discourse of the day. Women and men are willing to do whatever it takes to hold onto power, whether that involves telling vicious lies about an opponent or spending obscene quantities of money in campaigns that now last for years. In the end, the election of whatever political messiah we support leads to further disappointment and ennui. Perhaps, the latter is the reason that turnout for elections is often so low.

If Christians are to engage in this system (and at least to me, we must), we need to engage in a non-messianic form of politics. We bring to the political arena a vision shaped by the peaceful messianism of Christ the King. We bring to this politics an awareness of human frailty, a sense that human beings will not create the perfect society. As Patrick Deneen writes:

Democracy is not premised upon the eventual perfection of our imperfect city nor the citizens who reside therein but precisely upon the permanent presence of imperfect humans who must, by dint of their equal insufficiency and the permanency of need, inhabit, and govern together, cities of men. (Patrick J. Deneen, Democratic Faith, 116)

The path forward, for those who call themselves Christians and political beings alike, is not merely to publicly confess Christ in the midst of elections. Rather, it is to allow our vision of humanity, our sense of politics as ultimately a non-salvific action, to influence political discourse at the local and national level.

Ultimately, this mid-term election will not be our last “crowning” of the new political messiah. The messianic discourse will pick up in the coming days as our attention is violently turned to the 2016 elections. Presidential candidates will tell us that only they will be able to transform the economy, bring equal rights to all, save us from moral degradation and from terrorists and from poverty and from disease and from all that goes bump in the night.

It is our responsibility as Christians to beware of political messiahs, to those who promise that they will build the kingdom. Christ alone comes to transform humanity into one, peaceful kingdom. Until then, our political action must seek truth and goodness, justice and love, with a deep awareness that we remain fragile, sinful creatures who are still learning to love unto the end.


The Temptation of Either/Or: Liturgy and Loving the World

HopeBoettner Hope ’15, Theology Undergraduate Fellow, Center for Liturgy         Recently, Elizabeth Scalia over at the Patheos Catholic blog wrote a piece about the need for the Church to be evangelical and missionary. She specifically highlighted what she called the “Incarnational” aspect of good evangelization. In the Incarnation, “the Word became flesh and dwelt” (“pitched His tent” as the translation sometimes reads) “among us.” And so she discusses the need for this Incarnational evangelization:

Incarnational Evangelization happens when Christian men and women leave the comfortable place of their own origin, just as the Word proceeded from the Father, to set a tent among the “others,” where they are at, and learns their names and their stories. It talks with them, eats with them, laughs and cries with them, helps to birth them and, if necessary, to bury them. It is first and foremost about service to the “other” and to Love. Which is God.

Talking about the need for the Church to be more evangelical is definitely on the forefront these days. Both Scott Hahn and George Weigel have recently written books about it and Pope Francis’ leadership style has further lead to the wider Church collectively thinking about this and acting on it in various ways. However, I’d like to make a bit of an addition to what Elizabeth Scalia is saying. When we talk about the Church as evangelical and missionary, about being present, about “serving,” we tend to set up a false dichotomy. We’ve got the “social justice” (“progressive,” as the media labels this) people on one side and those who want to teach or retain an understanding of the Church and the sacraments on the other (these folks usually get labeled the “Tradition and liturgy and sacraments,” the “conservative, Church-ey” kind of people). We see a classic example of this in how the Pope Benedict persona versus the Pope Francis persona gets played out in the media; Pope Benedict was a fuddy-duddy who cared about liturgy and translations of things, and Pope Francis really loves the people because he wants to hug and serve them. (This is also unfair to how Pope Benedict actually led as well, but that’s for another piece at another time.) The progressive versus conservative, reductionist lens of understanding what faith is and how faith works—especially when it comes to understanding how we ought to evangelize– does a disservice to the Church. I love the quote Scalia cited from Pope Benedict about thinking about what ought to be the goal in evangelization. Christianity is not about a concept or a cause. Christianity is about a Person:

“One doesn’t begin to be a Christian because of an ethical decision or a great idea, but rather because of an encounter with an event, with a Person, who gives new horizons to life, and with that, a decisive orientation. The evangelization of the person and of human communities depends totally on this encounter with Jesus Christ.” statue

The way to be an Incarnational and an evangelizing, missionary Church comes not in choosing one version of presence. In order to be “present in people’s lives,” and to walk with them, we don’t have to lose the chance to “understand the Real Presence” and the sacraments. Our evangelizing mission in this world, our seeking the face of Christ as we walk with with our brothers and sisters does not come from leaning on one over the other. Learning how to better be an incarnational Church comes in learning that we can hold the people and the Person in tandem. It comes in learning that we can and need to say social justice and liturgy. Relationships and worship. Community building and sacraments. Active action and deep lives of prayer. The two are not diametrically opposed. Far from it! They absolutely need each other. I think that we sometimes think of liturgies, of the Mass, and of the sacramental life of the Church as boring, as non-incarnational and as less helpful at building relationships with Christ and with others because the latter are old. For example: the Mass is a sleepy habit to most of us. It is an hour’s length worth of motions that we go through, that many of us have been doing as long as we can remember. This is why the new translation of the Roman Missal jerked us out of our complacency for a short while and made us think about what we were saying at Mass. What do I mean here by “old”? It’s time to turn to my good friend Gilbert Keith Chesterton.Gilbert_Chesterton

“A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is…. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” (From the chapter “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy)

In order to fully restore the concept of how we can evangelize as a Church, how we can most deeply speak to the needs of this world, we have to remember both to be present to people in relationships and in walking with them through a liturgical life. To do that we have to realize that we have aged in sin and that the heart of our relationships have gotten a bit stony. Instead of beating excitedly with young love because we encounter Christ in a deeply Incarnational way through the sacraments, our hearts have old-married couple syndrome. So the action of the Church and the rooted nature of the Church need to be constantly feeding off of each other, for the betterment of both of them. I think this is why two of the most important documents from Vatican II were on the mission (Gaudium et Spes) and the nature (Lumen Gentium)of the Church. The AND is where we ought to be. Our Lord held this tension in mind better than anyone. In Matthew 28, the classic citation for evangelization, He said:

“Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” BaptemeFotosearchsmall(1)

Because He is with us always and He has called us to be with others always, He has simultaneously commanded that we baptize and practice and fully live the sacramental life of the Church. The way we observe all that He has commanded us is to properly hold the tension between active, present love in the world that meets people where they are the way that Christ did, while simultaneously loving and being loved in the way He is present to us in the sacramental life of the Church.

Liturgy and Justice: An Exercise of the Imagination



Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Editor, Oblation:  Catechesis, Liturgy, and the New Evangelization

Editor, Church Life:  A Journal for the New Evangelization

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I was recently making my way through a rather lovely, albeit deeply challenging book, by Fr. Emmanuel Katongole (a colleague here at ReconcilingAllThingsNotre Dame and teacher at this year’s Symposium) and Chris Rice (Duke University) entitled Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace and Healing. This book offers a vision of reconciliation not as an isolated ministry of the few but a challenge and gift offered to the whole Church.

In the midst of reading this book, I came across a series of comments on reconciliation and justice, which are helpful in considering the relationship between liturgy and justice. Often, I have heard this relationship articulated in a consequential manner. When we engage in Eucharistic worship (or any other liturgical rite), then we are obligated to live in justice. Justice becomes an act of the individual will of the one who celebrates the liturgy.

Katongole and Rice offer a different vision, one that is perhaps more true to the pedagogy of the liturgy itself. They write:

Reading Scripture and dwelling within its distinctive vision shapes new possibilities in our response to the conflicts and brokenness in the world. Quite often the brute realities of the world intimidate and overwhelm us. According to the world’s logic, it takes power, strength, money and influence to effect change. And so, given the widespread realities of war, conflict and violence in the world, we feel terribly over-powered and helpless, as if we lack the necessary resources to make any difference (66).

The liturgical rites of the Church are nothing less than an embodied participation in the distinctive vision of the Scriptures, one in which we are invited to consider new possibilities. That my body is valuable because it is a living stone, the temple of the Spirit. That bread and wine are destined to become Christ’s body and blood. That the rising and setting of the sun are natural phenomenon that take on new significance in light of Christ’s rising and death through the Church’sPeaceableKingdom embodied practice of chanting psalms. That humanity is not destined for violence, warfare, or division–but that every human being is called to the peaceful worship of the kingdom.

Justice is therefore not a consequence of liturgical participation, an act of the will of the one that has worshipped. Rather, through liturgical participation, I am shaped to see new possibilities of justice, of God’s justice, where before I could perceive only the darkness of death, grammars of power and control, of violence itself. Again, turning to Katongole and Rice:

“…early Christians did not start out with a quest for justice. Rather, they were captured by a fresh story of God’s new Pentecost, and as they were drawn into this story and its communion, they found themselves practicing a far more radical version of justice than they could ever have imagined” (74).


We learn to desire and perform God’s justice not through an act of the will alone. Instead, we come to be taken up into a vision of something larger, something for which our vision was too small to perceive. We are invited into the logic of the kingdom through the practices of worship that spill out into practices of radical hospitality, practices of forgiveness, practices of patience, practices of rest, practices of prayer.

Living justly is therefore not something separate from liturgical worship. It is not a consequence of this worship pure and simple. Instead, we begin to live justly when we lift up our hearts to the Lord, when we dwell in the peace of the Church.

Of course, our individual parishes or congregations are not always places of justice themselves. They too need to be lifted up into God’s own imagination. Too often, our parishes and congregations are concerned more with self-maintenance than dwelling in the distinctive vision of the kingdom (St. Paul addressed the Corinthians on this exact point). Yet, if we are to truly proclaim the living memory of the God who loved unto the end, then our parishes and congregations must become sites of this radical love.

FraAngelicoNativityPerhaps, the problem with such parishes and congregations is not simply that they have grown used to living unjustly. Perhaps, our parishes and congregations are afraid to teach and preach that vision of total, self-giving love revealed in Christ. Perhaps, our worship has become less about entering the life of the fearfully hospitable triune God and more about a divine praise of ourselves. Perhaps, what is needed is not simply exhortations to be more just; but instead, a renewal of the very heart of the Church to perceive anew how even now God takes flesh in the justice of a kingdom that is continuing to unfold in the power and wisdom of God. In the simple rites of the Church, in the simple life of the family, in the streets of the most violent neighbors: it is here that the Word seeks to become flesh and dwell among us.

Encountering the Eucharist through Art: Eichenberg’s “The Lord’s Supper”

Angela BirdAngela Bird

University of Notre Dame Class of 2016,
English and Theology

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Fritz Eichenberg’s woodcut print, “The Lord’s Supper” is a simple image that presents a striking view of Christ’s continuing presence on Earth and the connection between the sacrament of the Eucharist and the Christian call towards justice and peace.

Eichenberg was a prolific print artist who illustrated many classic books including works by Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. Inspired by their shared love of Russian authors, particularly Dostoyevsky, the artist entered into a “creative partnership” with Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement. The-Lords-Supper - top detailThe pair desired to create contemporary sacred art with an awareness of social justice as inspired by the Gospel. Eichenberg contributed his talent to Dorothy’s newspaper, The Catholic Worker, helping her to communicate the ideas communicated in the newspaper to those readers who struggled with literacy. Thus, the prints that he created were bold and memorable, economically communicating powerful messages within a single, simple image.

Eichenberg’s depiction of the Last Supper is clearly not meant to be a traditional depiction of Christ’s life, but rather a reflection on the continuing presence of Christ in the world. Using the familiar image of Christ seated at the table with the twelve apostles, it communicates a message of Christ’s presence among the poorest and most vulnerable in the world. The image presents a union between faith and justice. The participation in the Eucharistic meal is placed in the context of a scene typical of a Catholic Worker house of hospitality, where the homeless and hungry are welcomed and served in the setting of a family, with recognition for the dignity of all.

The-Lords-Supper ChristWhile Christ is central to the image, his face is not shown, and actually his image is shown in much less detail than the rest of the figures in the print. However, the other figures in the image are facing Christ and curve in toward him. Many of them seem intensely focused on him, contemplating him with thoughtful expressions. The simplicity of Christ’s figure and the contemplative, focused nature of the surrounding figures is reminiscent of Eucharistic adoration. In the same way that the faithful gather to contemplate the outwardly simple, nondescript host, the apostolic figures in this image are drawn in shared attention towards the presence of Christ in their midst. The orientation of all of the figures towards the direction of Christ communicates the fact that Christ is the center of life and service, faith and justice. At the same time, the circular position of the figures indicates their communion with one another as they are drawn together by Christ.

The-Lords-Supper - right detailThis image of “The Lord’s Supper” does not necessarily attempt to tell the story of the Last Supper as it occurs in the Gospels, but rather to serve as an image of the way that our remembrance of this event in Christ’s life is lived out in our lives, as we participate in our own redemption. The Church, the Body of Christ, is shown in the gathering of the participants at the table, as they are in the real presence of Christ. The “Lord’s Supper” becomes a living, present event. Again, the linkage between faith and action for justice through radical love becomes apparent. As the figures of the apostles live out solidarity and justice, they are depicted as active participants in Christ’s life.

Practical Mercy: Can’t Read My Poker Face

Dorothy Therese

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Previous Posts in this Series:
The (Human) Dignity in Making Time
Blessed Are the Grouchy

As the author of the “Practical Mercy” series, Dorothy Therese is a young adult with a lay ministry degree who works as a case worker for mothers living in a homeless shelter. While reflecting on her work in light of her faith, Dorothy writes under this pseudonym to protect the privacy of the shelter guests, but can be reached via email through the link above.

I’ve been told by our shelter guests that I pull off my poker face pretty well.  They are surprised when I remind them that yes, I do have feelings, and no, I don’t enjoy punishing you.

Unfortunately, I’m not surprised that I am perceived this way: I’m part of an unjust system that has continued to oppress them, a system they have to manipulate to survive.  But if I’m going to be a Christian in this job, a disciple of Christ whose entire being was self-gift, then for heaven’s sake (literally), I need to do something differently.  I need to be just.

Return of the Prodigal Son - Rembrandt van RijnMy ‘poker face,’ is, of course, rooted in my desire to be professional enough not to dissolve into tears when I’m telling a mother that I’m kicking her out; but this needs to be in check with my status as a human being with just as much dignity as our guests.  The mission of the shelter is to break the cycle of homelessness for individuals and families, and guests cannot remain if they aren’t ready to work for this.  These mothers are indeed working so hard in a variety of ways: raising their kids, getting jobs, working on their GEDs, attending programming with open minds, attending counseling with open hearts; and yet in other ways, they keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again, and eventually the consequences of the poor choices become brutally clear.

But doesn’t this happen to all of us?

One of the most sweet, loving, hilarious moms at the Center, Anna, moved in right when I started my job, and she has been one of my favorite people at work.  She is open to growth, she wants to be in relationship with me, and (selfishly!) I appreciate that she looks at me like I’m a human being too.  But after literally ten incident reports for the exact same mistake, after asking her to write an essay about how she will change and then watching her forget to do it (twice), after countless apologies that didn’t seem to lead to change, I decided with our team that she might only learn from one thing: she would have to be asked to leave for awhile.  She knew, and we knew, that she needed a reality check.

But as we considered this choice, and what it would take for her to learn and grow, and how to help her be the person she is called to be, I couldn’t help but wonder: is this justice?

Is it ever really just to kick a mother and her children out of a shelter?  Is it just for the mom, for the kids, for the community?  On the other hand, is it just to let her stay, when I could see that she was slipping through the cracks of her own mistakes and thus that I was not helping her to grow?  This couldn’t possibly be mercy either, could it?

But I held back my tears when I told her she had to go.  We had started the meeting joking around, as we do the instant we see one another.  She had told me she was so tired from her new job that she wanted to call me just to hear my voice.  She had saved notes from me teasing her, and loves to repeat these stories to me and to anyone who will listen.  But there we were; the meeting ended with her in tears, telling me she had no where to go, that she was sorry, and couldn’t there be another way?

Walking on Water iconGod showers mercy upon me day after day after day, and with Him, there is always another way, another chance.  Despite all my mistakes and sin—mistakes I, too, make over and over again, just like Anna, God gives me another chance.  Thomas Merton called God “mercy within mercy within mercy.”  Our sins are said to be just a drop in the ocean of God’s love for us, so immense is His mercy.

After all, God is Mercy and God is Justice.  God saves us from our sins while also separating the sheep from the goats.  God lets me confess my same sins over and over again and yet calls me to something more.  If justice is “right relationship,” God’s justice is embodied in the Trinity as a dance of love.  God’s mercy is deeper and more profound than I ever knew, wild and radical enough that He would send His Son to the Cross.  His very being redefines mercy and justice, and helps me to re-think the way I go through the day, given so many important decisions to make.

After just a year in my humbling work, I’ve learned that justice and mercy are not just questions.  They also unfold before my very eyes as I walk the corridors of the homeless center.  In my office today I overheard a mom go out of her way to help out our newest resident: that’s justice; that’s right relationship.  I wind my way through mat after mat of sleeping overflow guests when I work late, perhaps the people most bruised by our unjust social system, finally given a warm place to rest their heads.  I get notes in my box from staff praising my more angry residents for resolving fights on their own, and even saying sorry.  Justice.

Maybe mercy is giving a guest the cup of coffee I brought in for myself just because I know she would like it.  Or looking her right in the eye when I ask her how she’s doing.  Or whispering to her three-year-old to give Mom a hug because she’s crying.  Or pasting up that same child’s red and yellow crayon drawing on my door to make him smile.  Or asking the guests for advice to show them they have value—and because I truly do need them while they need me.

My job is teaching me so much about what it means to love people well.  Like a good parent, I need to know when to challenge and when to hug.  I need to know that consequences do teach lessons, but so does compassion.  I need to work for a just society even within our walls, and I need to imitate the abundance of God’s mercy in every encounter with a guest.

Anna reminded me today, as we stood in the parking lot catching up with each other, that the day I told her she had to leave was a day she really realized how much I care about her.  And this usually isn’t so—most of the time, I’m considered… a lot of words I can’t publish here, and I have to accept that.  But I know in my heart that I have prayed, that I have consulted experts, and that I would never intentionally hurt someone I love as much as I love our guests.  I have to trust in my own ability to harness the mercy God showers on me in order to shower it on others.

God is the one who is ultimately offering mercy and justice to homeless mothers, and all the people in our lives, through our unworthy hands and feet…and even, perhaps, a good poker face.

I Have Walkin’ Calves: Holy Thursday and the Footwashing

Aimee Shelide

Recruiting Coordinator, ECHO:  Faith Formation Leadership Program and Emcee of Notre Dame Vision

Catholic Worker Resident, Peter Claver House, South Bend, IN

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Cold water on tired feet.

Hot water on cold feet.

Warm water on sore feet.

The gentle touch of hand to foot.

Hand to heart.

Heart to heart.

People come into the free “Laundromat-café” drop-in center in downtown South Bend three days a week for a hot breakfast, laundry services, and showers.  The St. Peter Claver Catholic Worker community has been running this apostolate ministry for five years.  Its name, “Our Lady of the Road,” aptly reminds all who enter that Mary is the holy Mother of all, even—and most especially—of those who walk the streets.  They seek solace in her, Our Lady of the Streets, Our Lady of the Way, Our Lady of the Road.

The hope for this place is that tired bodies and bones, weary travelers and hearts, find rest.  On occasion, we have had enough volunteers to offer foot washing, massage, and moisturizing to the worn feet of men and women who ache for this care.

“I have walkin’ calves,” one of the women assured me recently when I was massaging her feet.  Although this phrase was new to me, I new exactly what she meant.  Foot-washing is humbling, for both the washer and wash-ee.  We hesitate to touch feet that show clear marks of trial and hardship.  We shirk away from having our own feet touched.

In this Holy Thursday passage from John 13, Jesus insists on washing the disciples’ feet.  Peter insistently refuses, probably expressing a sentiment that other disciples also feel, but are too intimidated to mention.  Receiving charity and works of mercy humbles us, making us vulnerable in naming our need for help.  Jesus reminds us, “I have given you a model to follow,” to wash and be washed.  That is how Jesus “loved his own in the world and loved them to the end.”  Go and do likewise.