Of mercy, margins, and minorities

In the midst of conversations on inclusion during the recent Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome, New York Archbishop Cardinal Dolan spoke of a “new minority” in the Catholic Church in an October 12 statement. Among its members: “couples who welcome God’s gift of many babies,” couples who don’t live together before marriage, wives who give up careers “to stay home and raise their children,” and gays who remain chaste. Dolan expressed a concern that such people “often feel excluded and feel themselves to be “a minority (emphasis his), certainly in culture, but even, at times in the Church!”

The question of how to include those who feel excluded important, and I am grateful the Synod fathers took it up in their discussions. Dolan observed that those who are “single, those with same-sex attraction, those divorced, widowed, or recently arrived in a new country, those with disabilities, the aged, the housebound, racial and ethnic minorities” are among those who were the focus of these conversations about inclusion. Laudably, Dolan states of people in these groups:  “we in the family of the Church love them, welcome them, and need them.”

In my pastoral experience these “old” minority groups in the Church all too often do not feel welcomed, loved and needed. I think of a former Catholic who began worshipping in United Church of Christ community because they better accommodated to the unique needs of her family members with intellectual disabilities. I think of the a divorced and remarried Catholic woman who sits in the back pew, hoping no one will notice when she stays in her seat at communion time. I think of the Spanish-speaking immigrant woman living with an abusive partner who didn’t receive adequate counseling and support from her parish staff because of her limited English proficiency. I think of the Catholic friend who struggles to make her Protestant husband feel welcome in her parish when he cannot participate fully in the Eucharistic celebration. I think of a homily berating parishioners for being lazy when they arrive late to Mass when they – whose undocumented status means they are unable to obtain driver’s licenses – have spent up to an hour and a half traveling on unreliable public transportation to make it to the parish. I think of a family whose son is gay who avoid going to Mass altogether, or sit with baited breath during the homily at what the preacher might say. I think of undocumented Catholics (like this one whose testimony I shared in a previous post) who can’t produce baptismal records as requested to sign up their children for first communion preparation because all their possessions were left behind or stolen from them on their journey to the US.

The list could continue. These are not hypothetical situations, but real people I have encountered.

It has been through ministerial experiences like these that I have become aware of my privilege in Church as a white, heterosexual, educated, middle-class, non-disabled, educated native-English-speaking US citizen. I carry an “invisible backpack” of privilege because of these attributes. I have never worried any marriage I would seek would be blessed by the Church. I can find a Mass in my own language with an assembly (and a presider) who look like me relatively easily. I will likely hear preaching that is geared toward me as a member of majority culture. Parish materials are available to me in my native language. In attending faith-based peace and justice demonstrations with parishioners, I can choose to risk arrest without the potential of deportation. In addition, because of my race, I will probably be treated more kindly by law enforcement officials than parishioners of color. I can offer to serve as proclaimer and Eucharistic minister and not be hampered steps to approach the altar and ambo.

The invisible backpack of privilege (Peggy McIntosh).

The list could continue. In short, I have power and unearned privileges because of particular attributes.

Perhaps at this point you are internally rolling your eyes or shifting uncomfortably in your chair. Maybe you’re thinking, “there goes one of those bleeding heart Jesuit-educated social justice warriors types harping about privilege, bias, oppression, structural injustice and all that stuff again…”

To which I respond with a firm, unapologetic, Jesuit-educated “yes. Here I go again.” Not because I am trying to be trendy or a self-proclaimed prophet. Not because acknowledging the reality of my majority status in the Church is comfortable – indeed, the opposite is true. But because though I believe that “the arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr), it won’t bend without acknowledgement of structural injustices and commitment to transforming systems to more clearly reflect God’s kingdom.

In order for conversion to happen and transformation to take place the realities of privilege and systemic injustice must first be honestly named. We cannot tire of calling for justice for those on the margins, listening to their voices, checking our own privilege, and recommitting ourselves as allies. In her essay in Catholic Women Speak (written as a resource for the Synod on the Family) Chilean Carolina del Rio Mena states that “the search for a more just order and God’s truth is not work that can be given up.” It is a long, hard slog much of the time.

Thankfully, as we celebrate on this feast of All Saints, we stand on the shoulders of many saints and witnesses who have struggled on behalf of justice. And we are the inheritors of a rich spiritual and intellectual tradition that can guide our individual and corporate efforts. Pope Francis’ emphasis on mercy and going out to those on the margins is only the most recent articulation of a long Judeo-Christian tradition of particular concern for those excluded. From the Hebrew Scriptures’ continual refrain to care for the anawim (widows, orphans and strangers) to Jesus’ teachings about the extravagance of the father’s love for prodigal son to Catholic Social Teaching’s articulation of the preferential option for the poor, we are the inheritors of a long tradition of concern for the marginalized.

The final relatio of the Synod, paragraph 76 offers a beautiful challenge for which we can all pray and work in our respective communities and we strive to be Church that enfleshes Jesus’ radical inclusivity and concern for those on the margins. The relatio challenges ordained and lay members of the Church “to learn ‘the art of accompaniment so that ‘all may learn to take off his (sic) sandals before the sacred ground of the other” (cf. Ex 3:5). In our struggles for a more just and inclusive Church, may we see the other as sacred ground, and – to return to Dolan’s words – may all find in the Church a home where they are “loved, welcomed, and needed.”

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

About the author: Rhonda Miska (rhonda.youngadultcatholics@gmail.com) is a former Jesuit Volunteer (Nicaragua, 2002-2004) and a graduate of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. Her past ministries include accompaniment of the Spanish-speaking immigrant community, Muslim-Christian dialogue, social justice education, direct outreach to people who are homeless, congregation-based community organizing, and coordination of a community with adults with intellectual disabilities.. Her writing has appeared in appeared in various print and online publications and she is a contributor to Catholic Women Speak: Bringing Our Gifts to the Table (Paulist Press). A native of Middleton, WI, she lives in Dubuque, IA.

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