In a lost embrace

This is a text I sent last week from the Houston airport to my wife, children and some other friends.

Supreme moment of digital age disconnection: woman runs to greet a teen boy (seemed like she was an Aunt), and as she embraces him tightly and verbalizes her love for him and marvels @ how much he has grown, behind her back he is scrolling on his screen looking at his Instagram. Breathtaking.

The woman had been excitedly talking to someone near me for some time about a relative she had not seen in years. She kept saying, “It’s been so long, I wonder if he’ll even recognize me.” I assumed she would be meeting him when she landed wherever she was going, but suddenly she jumped to her feet and ran toward this 15 or 16 year old boy who had walked up to our terminal. “Seamus!” The energy from her voice electrified the air, catching the attention of lots of people and generating lots of smiles and “awws.”

But, as I happened to be leaning against a post right next to them, I noticed the details of what I described above. She squeezed him for a good thirty seconds, rocking side to side as she repeated, “I love you! I love you! You are so big! I am so happy to see you again! Thank God! It’s been too long. How have you been?…”  I could see him scroll the Instagram posts up, “liking” pictures in rapid succession.

Yes, I knew I should turn my head away from this private moment, but that stunning sight seized control of me.

After they strolled off together, I sat down to take that all in. Someone next to me must have noticed my reaction, and said, “Yeah, I know, I saw it too. Sad.” I said, “Yeah. More like, unreal.”

Unreal. That’s it. We need an asceticism, a virtuous discipline that places technology at the service of ordo cartitatis, “the order of love,” attending first to the neighbor nearby, to the priority of real relationships grounded in the immediacy of real presence. Virtual reality should flow from and lead back to the reality that soaks your clothes in rain, makes you shiver in the cold or warms your heart in an embrace of love.

My wonderful and gifted colleague, Dr. Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, said once in an interview,

Out gadgets connect us but our screens can make us forget that on the other side there is another person there, a full, embodied complex human being. Communication toward communion keeps this in mind and forges true encounter.

That’s what was missing. And in the presence of the bodies of others, screens should pass away in favor of face to face, embrace to embrace, I and Thou.

My daughter Maria, about six years ago, was desperately trying to get my attention as I was working on my laptop in the dining room. I was writing a blog post (maybe on effective parenting? lol). As I typed away, looking intently at the screen, she repeated with antiphonal force, “Dad! Dad! Dad!” I quipped back several times in a sharp tone, “What?! Say it, child!” But she would each time resume her antiphon. Finally after half a dozen times, eyes still fixed on the screen’s dim glow, my exasperation got the better of me and I shouted, “What! Say it! I’m listening!” She said back, in a low voice, “But your face isn’t.”

That slayed me.

Since then, any time I am tempted to stray my attention away from the person I am with, and toward a gadget, I can hear Maria’s haunting words sound in my head.

For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. — 1 Corinthians 13:12

Kyrie eleison

A few unorganized thoughts written over a week’s time on The Cardinal, certainly not touching on a thousand complexities that demand response.

I have worked closely in and with the institutional Church for nearly 30 years. My overwhelmingly consistent experience has been of faithful clergy, men who have brought to me and my loved ones great good.


Cardinal Theodore Edgar McCarrick. Yes, we all know. Allegations, horrific and devastating. The cover-up of an egregious abuse of power and trust, certainly extending far beyond the Cardinal himself.

For people of faith this is the most terrifying abuse of trust in power imaginable — the abuse of sacra potestas, “sacred power.” Employing consecration to desecrate, using grace to disgrace, harnessing the trust of faith to exploit the faithful, stealing divine Fatherhood to abuse God’s children, victimizing in the name of the Priest-Victim, exercising the authority of the Shepherd to feed on His sheep. Ezekiel 34:2-4,10,

Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them …

Thus says the Lord God, I am against the shepherds; and I will demand my sheep at their hand, and put a stop to their feeding the sheep; no longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, so that they may not be food for them.

And so on.

Sacred power,

…the word “ordination” is reserved for the sacramental act which integrates a man into the order of bishops, presbyters, or deacons, and goes beyond a simple election, designation, delegation, or institution by the community, for it confers a gift of the Holy Spirit that permits the exercise of a “sacred power” (sacra potestas) which can come only from Christ himself through his Church.

The Holy Spirit permits the exercise of sacred power. What a risky permission.

Jesus saved His most biting invective for the religious leadership of His day, excoriating them for their abuse of sacred power (e.g. Matt. 23). In fact, He spoke very specifically of the grave consequences for the predicted abuse of that power among His own apostolic disciples in Luke 17:1-3,

Occasions for stumbling [skandala] are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come! It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Be on your guard!

Terrifying. Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany captures well the dark-heart of this abuse in McCarrick’s alleged crime,

The psychological and spiritual destructiveness of such predatory behavior, really incestuous by a man who is held up as a spiritual father to a son in his care – even if not a minor – cannot be minimized or rationalized in any way.

All that boldly said, we also must remember the comment Jesus makes immediately after the dire warning of causing “stumbling,”

If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”

If, then. The rebuke has sounded loudly, and we ‘people of good will’ hope it enters into every silent corner of the Church to shatter all pernicious secrets.

After hearing His ground-shaking words, the “apostles” say to Jesus, “Lord, increase our faith!” Indeed, a plea we all should heed and plead for our Shepherds every day.

Bishop Scharfenberger also made this point in a recent statement, “But, at its heart, this is much more than a challenge of law enforcement; it is a profoundly spiritual crisis.” It is spiritual, and it is institutional, cultural. And more.

I have no profound prescription, save that as in any age of human history when men fail both God and man, the response is never to flee from the garden of agony and betrayal (cf Mark 14:50-52), but to “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). Or succumb ourselves to the time of trial.

Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar once said, “The reason why I remain in the Church is certainly not that I have succeeded in seeing that the Church corresponds a) to my expectations, or b) to God’s expectations … despite the high degree of idiocy we have displayed, the Church has miraculousy managed to survive.” Then he says,

I remain in the Church because she is the Church of the saints … [who] do battle with the mediocrity of Christ’s Church not by protesting but by enkindling and encouraging the better. The Church causes them pain, but they do not become embittered and stand aside to sulk. They form no dissident groups but cast their fire into the midst.

Yes, the response must continue to be a searching, honest, radical institutional reform. That never ends in the Field Hospital. But in the first and last instance our response, born of faith, must be to surrender in absolute trust to the paschal mystery of the God who was betrayed in Christ. By us, with us, for us. The God who saved a wretch like me by rising with Wounds crying not for revenge, but for the severe justice of mercy.

How much I must criticize you, my church, and yet how much I love you! You have made me suffer more than anyone, and yet I owe more to you than to anyone. I should like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence. You have given me much scandal, and yet you alone have made me understand holiness.

Never in this world have I seen anything more compromised, more false, yet never have I touched anything more pure, more generous or more beautiful. Countless times, I have felt like slamming the door of my soul in your face–and yet, every night, I have prayed that I might die in your sure arms! No, I cannot be free of you, for I am one with you, even if not completely you.

Then too–where would I go? To build another church? But I could not build one without the same defects, for they are my defects. And again, if I were to build another church, it would be my church, not Christ’s church. No, I am old enough. I know better. – the late Carlo Carretto, Italian theologian


Busy days again. I am going to be off from blogging for a week or so, returning July 29th or so. Look forward to returning!

+ + +

The faithful, more precisely the lay faithful, find themselves on the front lines of the Church’s life; for them the Church is the animating principle for human society. — Pope Pius XII

Three tidbits I will leave you with.

A gentleman I know, who works in the restaurant business, came back to the practice of his Catholic faith several years ago (which is itself a great story). He said something like this to me when I happened on him at a local supermarket in June: “Being Catholic is the hardest thing I’ve ever loved. When your primary relationship circles are made up of people who don’t have faith and don’t share many of your most basic moral beliefs, it’s really hard to keep on going every day. The underlying tension is all the time in your face. Some days I wish I could just leave all of those people behind and start over again with people who see things the way I do now. But that ain’t gonna happen, and I know it would be a cop out. If it weren’t for the men’s group [weekly bible study], I’d have checked out of the God thing long ago. Anyone who says religion is a crutch hasn’t given it a real go. Religion’s not a crutch for the weak, it’s a cross for the courageous!” Then he said, “And please tell those seminarians that when they’re priests, and preach, please, please, please remember those of us out there in the fields who are just hanging on. Throw us a bone once in a while to help us face the heat, ‘cuz it’s hell out there.”

At a recent Sunday Mass, the priest (who is a widower) said in his homily, “What is the most important sign in today’s Eucharistic Liturgy? The Tabernacle? The Altar? The Holy Eucharist? What do you think?” Someone said, “The Tabernacle!” He said, “Well, yes! That’s a key sign. Of course, they are all key. But the most important sign for YOU ALL is the exit sign. That tiny red sign right there [he pointed to the lit exit sign] that tells you to Go! To go forth, to be sent by Jesus and do outside those doors what you heard and saw, touched and tasted in here today. There’s a world starving for the joy of this Feast. Give them a reason to believe, to see that joy exists in your face, and bring just one of them back with you next week if you can.”

Today would have been the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene. Sad we don’t get to revel in her Apostolic honors at the Altar today. St. Mary Magdalene, Equal of the Apostles, pray for us!

Break again

I am heading out on the last leg of my journey, coming to an end July 5. So the week of July 8 I hope to resume posting again.

Always a delight and privilege to think with you here with and about Christ.

I will leave you with Kari Jobe’s The Garden, which I think is among the greatest contemporary pop Christian songs ever written. It has a profound theology in it, rich in biblical metaphors. Placing the Cross, the true Tree of Life, at the center of the Garden of Paradise that sends its redeeming ‘ivy’ branches through the fences of history, is genius.

Her ability to pray her performances is a thing to be greatly admired and emulated.

I had all
But given up
Desperate for
A sign from love
Something good
Something kind
Bringing peace to every corner of my mind
Then I saw the garden
Hope had come to me
To sweep away the ashes
And wake me from my sleep
I realised
You never left
And for this moment
You planned ahead
That I would see
Your faithfulness in all of the green
I can see the ivy
Growing through the wall
‘Cause You will stop at nothing
To heal my broken soul
I can see the ivy
Reaching through the wall
‘Cause You will stop at nothing
To heal my broken soul
Ohh, You’re healing broken souls
You’re healing, You’re healing broken souls
Faith is rising up like ivy
Reaching for the light
Hope is stirring deep inside me
Making all things right
Love is lifting me from sorrow
Catching every tear
Dispelling every lie and torment
Crushing all my fears
You crush all my fears
You crush all my fears
With Your perfect love
Oh-ohh, with Your perfect love
Now I see redemption
Growing in the trees
The death and resurrection
In every single seed

“I try to stay away from all secular music.”

[this tom tome is a re-post from 2014]

The world is in itself secular. — Pope Paul VI

The laity have a secular genius which is properly and peculiarly theirs. — Vatican II

“I try to stay away from all secular music.” I overheard this comment over lunch during a retreat I gave, as the people sitting at the table next to me were talking about how difficult it is to live in such a “secular world.”

My interest was piqued, so I said to the woman who made the comment, “I hope you don’t mind my intrusion, but can I ask you a question?” She said, “Sure.” “What do you mean by secular music?” She replied, “Oh, I just mean all of the godless music out there. You know, the trashy music about sex and violence.” I said, “So secular music to you really means music that promotes immorality?” She said, “Yeah, I guess. But also music that’s about worldly things and not about God.”

I decided to press it further. “This is really helpful. I love to learn from other people’s perspectives. Do you mind if I ask more questions?” She seemed open. “So do you think that for music to be good or worthy to listen to it has to mention God?” She said, “Well, not really. I guess my problem is focusing on the world and the secular, and not on spiritual things.” I continued, “Do you think the world has a spiritual value?” “Yes, if it’s connected to God.” I replied, “What does it mean to you for the world to be connected to God?”

At this point I was worried she was becoming uncomfortable with my inquisition, and everyone else at her table stayed silent. But after a few moments, she said, “If you use the things of the world to do God’s will, that seems like it would be somewhat spiritual.” I replied, “That makes sense. So going back to your original comment about secular music. What does the word secular mean to you?” She said, “Godless. Worldly.”

That was it. The words “secular” and “worldly” were for her both entirely pejorative terms. So, I thought to myself, how can one possibly speak about the positive value of this life on its own terms? What word do we use?

I pressed her further, “Okay, so fair enough. Then if you were asked by someone who was not Christian, what word would you as a Christian use to describe the goodness of this life now that you live in? You know, the world that includes things like money, the natural environment, social and political institutions, science, art, business, human love, suffering, tragedy, and so on. If you can’t use the words worldly or secular, what would you say?”

She paused and said, “That’s a good question. I don’t know if I can find a word. Maybe creation?” Then she said, “What word would you use?” I said, “World and secular.” We all laughed. I continued, “Here’s the thing, secular and world are words that Christianity treasures in its vocabulary. ‘Secular’ comes from the Latin saecula, which simple means ‘age’ or ‘epoch,’ and refers to the realm of time and space we presently inhabit in this world, in contrast to the realm of eternity, which is called the saecula saeculorum, the ‘ages upon ages’ that never end. For Christians, God is the creator of the saecula, the secular time-bound age we live in, and the saecula saeculorum, the endless Age to Come. So secular and world are in a sense synonymous. So to be secular and worldly are the way God intended us to be.”

She seemed puzzled, and said, “Then why does the Bible tell us that the world is against God or that we shouldn’t be worldly?” I replied, “Because the Bible uses ‘world’ in several senses. First, it is the ‘very good’ world Genesis describes, created by God out of love in the beginning. Second, world is used to describe creation in rebellion against God, which is what you described when you said ‘worldly’ in a negative way. And third, world is a description of creation as the ‘theater of redemption,’ as loved by a God who wants to redeem and heal it from its rebellion. As in John 3:16’s famous ‘For God so loved the world that he gave…'” I continued, “So we have to be careful not to conflate all the meanings of the word ‘world’ into the Second negative sense only. That would be a disservice to God’s view of things, ignoring two-thirds of the Bible’s meaning.”

At this point, the woman said, “Please, join us at our table.” I sat down and we continued our lively exchange. I said, “Okay, so can I rephrase your original comment about music?” She said with a chuckle, “Sure. Why not!” “Okay, so what you really meant to say was, ‘I try to stay away from all music in rebellion against God.'” Everyone laughed. She said, “Exactly! You took the words out of my mouth!” I went on, “But music that is about anything in God’s good world — about humanity’s attempt to make sense of that secular world in all its complexity, or about the drama of evil and the struggle to find redemption — these worldly themes would be okay to enjoy as a Christian? Or even to write and perform such music as a Christian?” She said, “Yup, I guess so.”

“So,” I concluded, “you do enjoy secular music!” She and all her companions all laughed and she said, “Yes! Guilty as charged.”

Then the woman said, “So why does the word secular just sound so bad? Get such a bad rap?” I replied, “Because in the last several centuries, western culture has come to define the secular without any reference to God, as a closed system that is not open to transcendence; not open to an understanding of the world as filled with God’s presence and action and glory. God was seen as a threat to the world’s autonomy, in some ways because certain prominent strands of Christianity tended to treat the world as hopelessly corrupt, condemned by God. Or as a mere thing to be used, subordinated to the really important things: religion, spirituality, God. I like to say, when Christians feel the need to debase the world to exalt God, or debase the material to exalt the spiritual, the world feels the opposing need to debase God and the spiritual in order to exalt the world and the material.”

I continued, “And inasmuch as Christianity privileges the negative Second Sense of world, beats up on the secular world or trivializes the importance of this life in the grand scheme of things, Christianity promotes and emboldens the very atheistic secularism it abhors. A Christianity that highlights rejection of the world as hopelessly tainted, or as alien to what is truly spiritual feeds atheistic secularism. And a Christianity that idealizes ‘fleeing the world’ into a totally ‘religious bubble’ as the highest expression of what it means to be Christian, makes those 99% of people called by God to immerse themselves fully in the secular world feel they have to choose between God and the world. Between being spiritual and being secular.”

The woman said, “Never thought of it that way.” I replied, “Think about it, if your best option is to at least mildly disdain the secular world in order to fully love God, those who feel the innate and powerful mission to give themselves to the secular world will be left with little choice. Of course there’s much more to the story, but that’s an important part.”

“So,” I concluded, “we people of faith who live in the world have to love the world even more than our atheist secular neighbors. But we have to love it the ways God does, in accord with His commandments and the law of love. And we have to realize that sharing in God’s love for a broken world looks like the cross. But the point is we must be lovers of His beautiful, broken world. So we really have to get our language clear on this or we just continue to feed the ever-deepening divide that has tragically divorced faith from life in the secular world.”

If I had had my Vatican II texts with me, I would have concluded with this:

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age.

Therefore, let there be no false opposition between professional and social activities on the one part, and religious life on the other. The Christian who neglects his secular duties, neglects his duties toward his neighbor and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation. Christians should rather rejoice that, following the example of Christ Who worked as an artisan, they are free to give proper exercise to all their earthly activities and to their humane, domestic, professional, social and technical enterprises by gathering them into one vital synthesis with religious values, under whose supreme direction all things are harmonized unto God’s glory.

Pastry Chefs & Prostitutes [& Theology]

Today, I am simply posting a dear friend’s commencement speech from last week at our Seminary’s graduation. Hi name is Austin Ashcraft, and he gave me permission to post his brother’s phone recording (text here).

In just a few minutes, Austin captured a dynamic vision of theological education that offers a real response to the aggression of atheistic secularism with an equally impassioned theistic secularism, i.e. that prepares students to hand over a God who “so loved the world” in (an uncaged) Christ.

Let me tell you, the quality of seminarians and laity who graduated this year makes me realize the New Evangelization is in full throttle in the Deep South.