Now and again

Dear Readers:

At last my new blog routine has begun. I will only post infrequently, as I concentrate on turning my work here into publishable material. If you would like to be made aware of new posts when they come be sure to sign up for the emailed version –>

Thank you to all readers of Neal Obstat. What gratitude I feel in my heart for so many of you who have chosen to open your minds and hearts to my words. We pray for one another. God be with you.

I will leave you with my second favorite Twenty One Pilots song, Trees (#1 is The Tear in My Heart). It is a simply profound exploration of the heart of prayer: sinful humanity emerging from hiding to face God and say, “Hello.” I will offer no more commentary than to quote Genesis 3:8-10:

And they heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. But Yahweh God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

An alternative to anger

This is a homily delivered by retired Archbishop of New Orleans, Alfred Hughes, on Sunday, June 5 at the Cathedral of St. Louis in New Orleans. It was a masterpiece and so I asked him if I could post it here. He graciously agreed and then worked hard to turn his handwritten notes into this complete text.

He offers here a vision of faith-in-action that has the power to change our downward devolution into a culture of anger and division into an upward evolution toward a civilization of justice and charity.

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Tenth Sunday of Year – C

Michelangelo has captured in sculpture what has to be the most poignant moment in history: the widowed Mary, trying to cradle her crucified Son, after his body had been taken down from the cross. It is called the Pietà. (faithful devotion) Today’s Sacred Scripture focuses on two experiences of widowed mothers’ facing the death of their sons. Elijah was staying in the home of a pagan widow in Sarepta. Her son became deathly ill. He was given up for dead. Elijah restored him to full health.

In the Gospel, Jesus encountered the widow of Naim whose son had died earlier in the day and was about to be buried according to Jewish law before sun-down. Jesus intervened and with a word restored her son to life and to his mother.

Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that our country is like a widow who has lost a son? Our country, often symbolized by the woman depicted in the Statue of Liberty, seems to be widowed, cut off from our founding fathers. And now her children seem to have lost the life, liberty and happiness which that marriage once promised.

Our leading politicians have tapped into an angry reaction. And so we are led to believe that is the best we can do. Perhaps, we need to turn to angels of light rather than those of darkness. I propose today the inspiring memory of a New Orleanian woman, a widow who lost a child and provides an alternative vision. I speak of Margaret Haughery. She was born Margaret Gaffney in County Leitrim Ireland in 1813. At five years of age, her parents embarked on a perilous six month ocean voyage to America in the hope of escaping the dire poverty in which they lived.

They arrived in Baltimore in 1818. Within four years she lost both her parents to yellow fever.

As an orphan, she never received any formal education. She could not read or write. At twenty-one she married a sickly Irish man, named Charles Haughery. They moved to New Orleans in the hope that the southern climate would be more favorable to his health. But within a year, she lost bother her husband and her new born child, Frances. This plunged her into depression.

Margaret’s parish priest urged her to consider volunteering at an orphanage, run by the Sisters of Charity, in addition to her work as a laundress in a hotel, to help counteract her depression. She quickly fell in love with the orphans. But she realized that the orphans and even the sisters often went without milk and bread for sustenance.

Margaret gave up her job as a laundress and with her meager savings bought a cow, and then a second. She began a dairy that provided milk for the orphans. She would peddle her milk from a cart to cover her costs and give the rest to the orphanage.

As her business grew, she made enough money to buy a bakery. Then she began to sell both milk and bread so that she could have enough to supply her orphans with free milk and bread. This illiterate woman became a successful entrepreneur in order to feed her beloved orphans.
Not only did she feed the children at St. Vincent’s Orphanage, but she founded four orphanages of her own to take care of the children orphaned by the Civil War and the yellow fever plague which ensued thereafter. The despised Northern General Butler, who oversaw Reconstruction in New Orleans, allowed only one person free access to the city: Margaret Haughery.

When she died on February 9, 1882, Margaret, Mother of New Orleans’ orphans received a state funeral, presided over by Archbishop Perché. This simple woman, who owned only two dresses, one for work and one for Sunday, left all she had to the orphans of New Orleans, black or white, Jewish, Protestant or Catholic.

Yes, there is an alternative to anger: strong, creative love, resistant to darkness and open to the light. Margaret Haughery was an heroic woman who let the light of Christ shine through her.

Isn’t that our call – yours and mine?

Every Other Day

Dear Readers,

In keeping with my changeable writing pattern, I have decided, for now, to post every other day. Gives me more time to write, and you more time to read.

Tomorrow will begin this new practice with a post, then a pause, then a post, etc. Thank you. Pax et bonum.

Ode to Twenty One Pilots

Yes, the obsession continues.

Someone recently sent me an interview with Twenty One Pilots lead singer, Tyler Joseph. He is so young, yet possesses a remarkable depth and authenticity. He is plagued by the anxieties and insecurities of our age, which makes him a powerful voice for the inhabitants of this age.

I was particularly interested when the interviewer asked him what the mission and purpose of Twenty One Pilots was; what explains the origin of their lyrics, their musical style? He struggled to answer, wading through the numbers game that dominates the music industry — profits, number of fans — and admitted these tempts him. But, he said, what really drives him is the idea that their music makes people think about life’s deepest and most universal questions. He said if their music lifted just one person up, making his or her life better and more full of joy, then that was the mission of Twenty One Pilots. “I don’t just want to entertain people,” he said, “I want them to think with me, to think about universally true things. I’m a seeker. I ask questions and hope they lead to joy.”

There’s no doubt the Christian worldview inhabits the lyrics, but Tyler is exceedingly careful not to speak with overtly religious language. He is very aware of the constraints of reaching a broad audience in a radically pluralistic world. His circumspect approach seems quite intentional. After listening to the interview, I wrote in my journal:

It’s like their music is composed and performed — “offered up” — on “the altar to an unknown God” St. Paul identified in the Areopagus of Athens (Acts 17:23). It’s a natural space to plant faith in the midst of our increasingly pagan culture, without being preachy. It’s a place where faith can encounter, give voice to and respond to the great questions and anxieties of our day. Their (lay) genius, to me, is that they are out there in the midst of that culture, singing with abandon of and to an unknown, hidden and humble God.

I also wrote a poem in my journal after hearing the interview. It’s my summary take on what I see to be their artistic mission. If I could send them a message, which I have concluded I cannot, it would be this poem.

Prophets of Zeitgeist

Voice of angst, prophets of zeitgeist
in authenticity, integrity unsacrificed
inscribing, singing a silent Christ
by twining faith in life, deftly spliced.

Rappers of deepest dark reality
facing who we are, we long to be
discovered by Truth who sets free
we, a restless, twisted humanity.

Not thru preaching, but evoking;
not thru imposing, but provoking
us to think thoughtfully; soaking
greying despair in colorful cloaking

by words that cut, yes make us bleed
though then only to heal and feed
souls yearning for an immortal creed
that won’t break the most fragile reed.

Your call and mission seem clear:
daring us hope in a world of fear;
outing a hidden God, so silently near
who whispers, “I am with you, here
wiping, drying, shedding every tear.”

Now and again

Dear Readers:

Beginning June 14 my new blog routine will begin. I will only post once in a while, as I concentrate on turning my work here into publishable material. If you would like to be made aware of new posts when they come be sure to sign up for the emailed version –>

Thank you to all readers of Neal Obstat. We pray for one another! God be with you.

I will leave you with my second favorite Twenty One Pilots song, Trees. It is a simply profound exploration of the heart of prayer: emerging from hiding to face God and say, “Hello.” I will offer no more explanation than to quote Genesis 3:8-10:

And they heard the sound of Yahweh God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Yahweh God among the trees of the garden. But Yahweh God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?”And he said, “I heard the sound of thee in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”

I’m not a Christian singer

I was sitting in McDonald’s the other day waiting for my car to be repaired, trying to write up some end-of-the-academic-year reports amid the noises that tend to populate a McDonald’s. Right above me was a TV that was blaring daytime talk shows. I mustered all of the skills of attentiveness that I have acquired over the years studying and writing amidst screaming children running wild in the house.I was successful until this one interview caught my attention.

I don’t know the name of the TV show, but the host was interviewing a rap artist about his lyrics. When I heard the beginning of the discussion, I stopped my work and started typing what I heard. Evidently his lyrics are free from the usual fare of profanity and sexually explicit content, which makes him unique among pop rap artists. Although he said he talks in his music about real-life struggles, and especially the hard realities of inner city life, he refuses to glorify sex, drugs and violence. The man interviewing him finally asked him, “So, are you a Christian artist?” He said, “It depends on what you mean by that.” He went on to say that there’s a real danger in putting himself in that genre of music, because he would immediately get stereotyped and holed-up in the “religion” box. He said something like this,

If I come into a studio to record and sing a song about life on the streets of Chicago — and that means tellin’ my stories about broken relationships or poverty or despair or about just tryin’ to make a livin’ — and then in the middle of my song happen mention Jesus, they’re gonna to say to me: ‘Yo man, what’s up? You a Gospel singer?’ I say, no man. But what that basically means is, ‘You ain’t a serious rapper cuz if you Christian you have to be all nice and sweet and syrupy about everything. They right away think you ain’t gonna be real and down low with the rest of us. Pie in the sky kinda deal. If you religious, they say, you can’t tell it like it is.’

But that’s not true, man, you know what I mean? Just cuz God comes into the picture doesn’t mean now you unreal, can’t face the dirt on the streets. But that’s the way they see it in the industry. So look, I can say I’m a Christian man who raps, but I can’t say I’m a Christian rapper. Then it’s all over for my career. I’ll get pigeonholed. See, religion’s been put inside this box and you’re either in or out. You can’t be both. You got Christian music and you got secular music. Oil and water. But I don’t like the box, so I just ignore it and sing about life. And God’s just, like, already out there in real life, so I ain’t tryin’ to drag people where they ain’t already livin’. I’m just showin’ what I can see. It’s the same world they see, except faith lets me see God’s right there in the middle of everything. And I want to show it’s a much better world when He’s around, you know?

His brilliant insight reveals very well the depth of impact a radically privatized faith has on how that faith is expressed in public. Every day we move closer toward what Richard Neuhaus called the “naked public square,” where religion is stripped from public life either by being domesticated and contained or by being altogether excluded.

It seems to me that artists, like this rap singer, are particularly well positioned to challenge and help us rethink the hegemony of this aggressively atheistic paradigm by reintroducing a vision of faith that does not threaten to abolish or overwhelm real life, but rather embraces it, builds on it, beautifies it, purifies it and perfects in it all that is good, true and beautiful.

As Pope Benedict XVI said so eloquently:

Are we not perhaps all afraid in some way? If we let Christ enter fully into our lives, if we open ourselves totally to him, are we not afraid that He might take something away from us? Are we not perhaps afraid to give up something significant, something unique, something that makes life so beautiful? Do we not then risk ending up diminished and deprived of our freedom? And once again the Pope said: No! If we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing of what makes life free, beautiful and great. No! Only in this friendship are the doors of life opened wide. Only in this friendship is the great potential of human existence truly revealed. Only in this friendship do we experience beauty and liberation. And so, today, with great strength and great conviction, on the basis of long personal experience of life, I say to you, dear young people: Do not be afraid of Christ! He takes nothing away, and he gives you everything. When we give ourselves to him, we receive a hundredfold in return. Yes, open, open wide the doors to Christ – and you will find true life.

As I am writing here of pop culture and faith, I have no option but to mention Twenty One Pilots. I believe they transgress the artificial barriers between faith and life, revealing in their music the infinite ways in which faith and life shade into one another. Their music leaves you more honest, more hopeful and more human precisely because they see so clearly that Christ is what it means to be fully human, God’s way. Like the rapper, I would say Twenty One Pilots is not a “Christian band,” but are musicians whose creativity emerges out of a rich Christian imagination. To that point, I mentioned to someone the other day that they epitomize Paul’s (slightly reworked) injunction:

Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, sing about these things (Phil. 4:8).

By the way, I found out yesterday they are coming to New Orleans in March. I am beyond manic about it.

Back to my point. They are particularly masterful at giving clear voice to the existential “feel” of living in a post-Christian culture that is no longer sustained by a Christian architecture. Ours is a deracinated culture, uprooted from faith and so rife with anxiety. Our world has lost its sacraments, repealed its laws, silenced its scriptures, and rendered opaque the stained glass windows that once let in the light of eternity, leaving us stumbling about in the dark. Twenty One Pilots articulates, with such grit, the tremors of Doubt that shake our cultural landscape, especially among the young. Yet — their gift! — they teach us how to pray right out of the heart of this world:

“…entering the kingdom of God before you…” Matthew 21:31


Jesus eating with sinners

God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments. — Catechism #1257

We know that Jesus himself ate and drank with sinners (cf. Mk 2:16; Mt 11:19), conversed with a Samaritan woman (cf. Jn 4:7-26), received Nicodemus by night (cf. Jn 3:1-21), allowed his feet to be anointed by a prostitute (cf. Lk 7:36-50) and did not hesitate to lay his hands on those who were sick (cf. Mk 1:40-45; 7:33). The same was true of his apostles, who did not look down on others, or cluster together in small and elite groups, cut off from the life of their people. — Amoris Laetitia #289

Discernment must help to find possible ways of responding to God and growing in the midst of limits. By thinking that everything is black and white, we sometimes close off the way of grace and of growth, and discourage paths of sanctification which give glory to God. Let us remember that “a small step, in the midst of great human limitations, can be more pleasing to God than a life which appears outwardly in order, but moves through the day without confronting great difficulties”. The practical pastoral care of ministers and of communities must not fail to embrace this reality. — Amoris Laetitia #305

I was speaking to someone early last week about Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia, which is something I really enjoy doing. This person is Catholic, but the vast majority of her co-workers and friends and relatives practice no faith at all. She herself was raised in a very hard home situation. She’s very bright, teaches literature at a college, loves to write and returned to her Catholic faith a number of years ago. She considers herself a “permanent seeker” because she was raised in an ocean of unbelief which was, as she says it, “kneaded into my marrow and so is hard to totally shake.” She’s quite remarkable, super-honest, incisive and on point, and we have had some of the most refreshingly candid conversations over the years.

I asked her if I could share this one point she made, and she agreed. She shared especially her frustration over what she perceives as the lack of realism among some Catholic pundit-elites who have been railing against the Pope (or the “idiots” who try to make the Pope push their own anti-church agendas). I think the point she makes in my excerpt below is more of an intuition than an argument. While it certainly does not answer the more important technical questions in Amoris about, for example, Communion for the divorced and remarried, I believe it’s a very powerful insight and captures what I consider to be the pastoral genius of Pope Francis. She said (as I recall),

Pope Francis has brought a message of hope to people who find themselves stuck in nearly hopeless dysfunction and complications — their fault or not. People who can’t imagine a seemingly pristine religion of good and saintly people having any place in their yucky life. To me, his message to people like this is: the real Jesus meets you right where you are, right now, and loves you exactly there. He wants to pick you up and take the next best step with you, no matter how incredibly small it is. You don’t have to wait for your life to get fixed first, or match up with all the moral standards, to start feeling you can be holy and worthy. It can start now, in the worst wreckage. Isn’t that where Jesus made the world right?

I think the Pope’s saying: just set aside just for a moment questions about who gets Communion, which canon laws apply or not here and there, and let’s meet the human being where they are, as they are. Let’s show them Jesus wants to eat a meal with them right now. Alright, not Communion yet, maybe, but still a real meal. Right? Not the Real Presence but He’s still really present. And He’s hanging out right in the middle of the sinner’s dinner, long before we get to the Last Supper, and salvation is already there. No matter how furious the Pharisees grow, He’s free to spread His riches as He wishes.

My niece is on her third marriage with as many children, and she seems to have finally found a decent guy who treats her well and holds a job and loves her kids. Her life is really messed up. So is his. But Francis tells me I can invite her back to church today and let her know that God is ready to take her back today and fill her with all His love, even though her life’s still so far off the mark. It’s not that we say everything’s okay, or don’t worry about the annulment. It’s that we say, “God loves you when everything’s not okay and loves you in every step you take forward; in every time you fall back and get up again. He never quits loving.” And even if you die still muddling around, there can be holiness.

Imagine telling people far from the mark there can still be holiness for them here and now. That’s awesome, more hopeful than many critics of the Pope would ever realize. I am convinced that unless you share life with people in desperate situations all the time, you really cannot read Amoris this way; or get its core point. The Pope’s lived with people like that for a long time. The Jubilee of Mercy is designed for people who seem stuck in merciless hells.

I already let my niece know that the Pope says to her — even if she’s not ready for Communion or Confession with all her and his unresolved marriages — God’s mercy is everywhere and God loves her just as infinitely today as He will the on the day she, God willing, can take Communion again. I’ve got her praying now and reading the Bible, and the next step is back to Mass. So far so good. She’s loving finding herself loved. Repentance only comes, it seems, when that is known first…

Fr. Tom Hopko echoed this point:

A woman once wrote me: “Some people seem to come out of the womb with a spiritual silver spoon in their mouths. Yeah, maybe they have huge trials, but they also are holy from their childhood. They have all the advantages that leave them inclined to make good use of all the graces they’ve been showered with. Others get to be used and abused and never even have a choice. And never get to be saints, because they’re just too damaged. If, as the Church teaches, God calls us all to be saints, why is it that he lets some people to get so damaged by life that the best they can do is stumble around the rocks at the foot of the spiritual mountain, never able to trust God enough to make it up the mountain?”

But I would dare to say, maybe that’s the vocation! And if a person still stumbles around the foot of the mountain, and they’re still at the foot of the mountain, and they still have enough sense to know that they’re never going to make it up, my guess is that that person is a saint. That person will be saved. Man, according to the Holy Fathers, if you know that you’re a sinner and you can’t do anything, you’re already saved. You’re saved. If you’re stumbling around the foot of the mountain, you’re saved. You’re a saint. Who knows, maybe you’ll get on an icon one day. Probably not, but that doesn’t matter. It really does not matter. It shouldn’t matter in any case, and if it does matter, then 99.9% of us are in huge trouble if that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter.

I love Fr. Tom.

I will end with that stunning selection from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment that I have quoted three times in this blog before. The book is a must-read! In this scene, Marmaladov, a drunkard and despicable lout who allows his own daughter to take up prostitution to feed the family, and spends her money on alcohol, gives voice to Dostoevsky’s vision of divine mercy that comes to full flower in the midst of the Last Judgment:

…And He will forgive my Sonya, He will forgive, I know it. I felt it in my heart when I was with her just now! And He will judge and will forgive all, the good and the evil, the wise and the meek. And when He has done with all of them, then He will summon us. “You too come forth,” He will say, “Come forth, ye drunkards, come forth, ye weak ones, come forth, ye children of shame!” And we shall come forth without shame and shall stand before Him, and He will say unto us, “Ye are swine made in the image of the Beast and with his mark; but come ye also!” And the wise ones and those of understanding will say, “O Lord, why dost thou receive these men?” And He will say, “This is why I receive them, O ye wise, this is why I receive them, O ye of understanding, that not one of them believed himself to be worthy of this.” And He will hold out His hands to us and we shall fall down before Him and we shall weep and we shall understand all things! Then we shall understand all!… and all will understand, Katerina Ivanovna even… she will understand…Lord, Thy kingdom come!

St. Augustine said, “If you should ask me what are the ways of God, I would tell you that the first is humility, the second is humility, and the third is humility. Not that there are no other precepts to give, but if humility does not precede all that we do, our efforts are meaningless.”