Thesis writing as Activism

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For now, writing my thesis is my activism.

These words slipped out of my fingers as I was replying to what I had thought was a simple-enough Facebook post turned comment war, and I don’t know that I really believed them at first. Writing for a blog for Call to Action, and being the post following one on Standing Rock, I suppose I don’t really need to explain why I’m talking about activism on a Catholic blog. But let me just say that it’s in my DNA. I grew up with parents who write letters to political leaders and take part in protests out of a sincere desire to live out the social justice teachings of the Catholic Church. Much has been made of the debate between Catholics and Lutherans over whether one is saved by works or by faith alone, but whatever the answer, the good side of it is the motivation to get out and do something.

But what if you find yourself so busy that you really can’t fathom doing another thing? Certainly sometimes this is a sure sign that you’ve over-extended yourself in unimportant areas and need to refocus on what is important. For me right now, however, I have all I can do to focus on work, thesis writing, and being a good boyfriend. In that case, it helps to turn to these words attributed to Oscar Romero:

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing this.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

If I can’t add to my plate right now, perhaps I can see this plate in a new light – as doing something. I remind myself that I chose to work at the library because I was genuinely excited about being able to serve everyone. I know that my interactions with my boyfriend, on their best days, bring Christ into the world both for him and for others who see us.

And I warm up to the idea that perhaps writing my thesis is activism. I’m writing about different Catholic responses to the transgender community, and I hope to spur some healthy dialogue. If just one person reads my thesis and starts on the path of being a voice for transgender people, I will have at least done something. And yet, even without this outcome, my research is changing me. While I consider myself an imperfect but decent trans ally, I’ve realized that I had never taken the time to really look at the Church’s thoughts on being trans and pull them apart. If we agree that the Church needs a radical transformation on its stance, knowing that stance precisely is the first step toward an effective counterargument. At the same time, my understanding of the liberal Catholic response has evolved from “they think the official teaching is wrong” to an appreciation of the beautiful, creative theology being written by these groups to carve out a well-deserved place in the Church for trans people. When my thesis is finally signed off on, hopefully I’ll go back to the traditional forms of activism, but for now – and I now say this with conviction – my thesis is my activism!

About the author: Francis Beaumier is on the leadership team for the Dignity Young Adult Caucus and an active member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family as well as Angels of Hope Metropolitan Community Church. He currently works for Brown County Library as an IT Specialist and is pursuing a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. Norbert College.

Why I don’t like working in soup kitchens

Reposted from article in Patheos of the same title, July 20, 2016. 

Last week I served at the Emmaus Soup Kitchen in Erie, PA. The next day, Sr. Mary who runs the kitchen asked me how my experience was. I hesitated before telling her the truth; I didn’t like it and actually, I don’t like soup kitchens in general.

All I did was serve fruit on the line this time. In the midst of asking guests if they would like what I’m serving and then scooping canned fruit onto plates with as much dignity as possible, I overheard quite a few conversations.

For example, one woman begged a server to help her carry her plate. She had just suffered a miscarriage, she said, and by the looks of her, it must have been recent. She appeared so weak and pale in the face, like all of her energy was drained. Regardless of how strong she was at the time she still needed to eat; and I was impressed at her ability to get herself to the kitchen to get a meal.

Another woman who appeared much younger than me (and I’m 26) came up asking for seconds. She mentioned she was pregnant so I took that as an invitation to engage in conversation. I asked when she was due and if this will be her first child. She said this will be her second but her first was stillborn. And she told me this in the same peppy way she asked for more food, like it were normal and not much more than just something that happened. After she left with her food, I wanted to go in the back of the kitchen, sit on the floor in a corner and cry. It wasn’t her peppy response that made me sad; everyone deals with pain in different ways. It was the realization that within less than two hours I had met two women who suffered through unsuccessful pregnancies and found themselves in a soup kitchen to provide for that day’s meal.

My thoughts immediately jumped back to my time as a graduate student when I often followed the doctors and nurses on their rounds in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU). As a non-medical student, the doctors or other students would often explain to me in layman’s detail about the conditions of the babies. What I learned is that not all, but too many of the babies spending their first days, weeks or months in the NICU were suffering from symptoms linked to inadequate prenatal care. The ethics folks, with whom I was working, would later explain to me that many of the mothers of these tiny infants came from poor or impoverished families in which prenatal care was not a financial priority.

Women in poverty are suffering with the consequences of inadequate educational and health care systems that fail them in so many ways. We need better education about learning our own bodies, specifically as it relates to sexuality, birth control, pregnancy, birth, and parenting. And we need way better health care that provides every woman with prenatal care no matter who they are and how much or little they can pay.

This inequality of privilege is due to the realities of human life and, accordingly, the corruption and brokenness of our institutional systems as too many fail to put the needs of the most vulnerable first. Soup kitchens are places in which the reality of humanity is displayed more than anywhere else I have ever seen.

But it doesn’t take a conversation with a guest of the kitchen to demonstrate the realities of brokenness; rather one just need sit at a table and watch who comes through the doors and what interactions are had. But I find it difficult to get through a conversation without any of this coming up, either verbally or in the actions of another.

I understand the necessity of soup kitchens. They serve all sorts of people. The humans who arrive (to eat and to serve) in different ways exemplify struggles of mental illness, addictions, homelessness, poverty, loneliness, inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, trafficking, prostitution, the inadequate health care system, lack of adequate education, lack of parent involvement, lack of positive parenting, and more. These realities take all different forms; some of the humans are the perpetrators, some are the victims, and some are just trapped in systems that don’t support their development into becoming a full human being.

This is exactly the reason why I don’t like working in soup kitchens. Because when I’m there, I can’t shield my eyes from the poverty or inequality or injustice that people struggle with on a daily basis. Nor can I ignore my own privilege of health, financial stability and community I too often take for granted. When I’m there, scooping fruit from a can onto someone’s plate with as much dignity as possible, I am forced to face the reality that humanity is broken and our systems (which ought to be healing our wounds) are corrupt. I am forced to recognize my own responsibility in doing something to stop this corruption, to heal the brokenness.

I am forced to consider what my options are for becoming involved in working toward wholeness and justice. And I am forced to question the beliefs I profess: that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of a Loving Creator and therefore deserve their innate dignity and the ability to flourish into their fullest selves. Do I really believe this? If so, why am I not working in the soup kitchen each day? Why am I not standing up to the corrupt systems, raising my voice, and begging for the dignity of all? Sister Joan Chittister says that we don’t need to try to save the world—because we can’t—rather, we all need to do what we can where we are in order to make a difference. I suppose, then, I need to move beyond my dislike for soup kitchens—for the reality of humanity that it throws in my face—in order to be a part of the change for the better, in order to act in accordance with the beliefs I profess.IMG_3017.JPG


Breanna Mekuly just finished a summer internship withSister Joan Chittister, O.S.B. Before working with Sister Joan, Breanna graduated in 2014 from Vanderbilt Divinity School with a masters in theological studies and an emphasis in biomedical ethics. She then worked as a university minister at Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee, WI. Later this summer, Mekuly will be moving to Indiana to live, pray and work with a group of sisters who raise chickens, bees and alpacas on an organic farm. Breanna is the co-creator of an online monastery for progressive young female- and Catholic- identifying adults, ” Seekers and Discerners.”

The Seven Last Words of Christ: Singing the Passion

n-s-dos-passos-19St. Norbert College hosts the Dudley Birder Chorale, a 150-voice choir under the direction of 89-year-old Mr. Birder himself for over 40 years.  While I am a member, I haven’t been able to participate in recent years because I’ve been pursuing a Masters degree.  But this semester, finding myself without a class, I seized the opportunity to sing once again, if only for a two-performance run.  Thus, on the 13th of March, I found myself back in my tux performing The Seven Last Words of Christ by Theodore Dubois, a musical setting of the last moments before Jesus’s crucifixion.  You can find many performances of this work on YouTube, in both English and Latin.

We performed the piece in Latin but offered reflections before each movement, allowing everyone to understand each section.  These reflections, Dudley’s insistence on singing the musical phrases and not the notes, and my own need to decode the Latin, forced me to really consider what I was singing, which ultimately lead to this being one of the most meaningful concerts I’ve ever sung.  Here are some of the thoughts I had as we sang this.  I hope they aid your Triduum reflection.

First Word: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do

The power of this movement comes from the juxtaposition of Jesus’s prayer of forgiveness (sung by a soloist) with the chanting of the crowd (sung by the choir).  Here we are, a huge mob of people, insisting that Jesus is guilty and deserves crucifixion, even welcoming the blood that will be on our hands, while Jesus is asking God to forgive us.  It caused me to think of all the times when someone merely frustrates me and the best prayer I can seem to offer is not that they are forgiven but that I can keep my cool.

Second Word: Verily, thou shalt be in Paradise to-day with me.

Smarter minds than me have pointed out that only Luke’s Gospel has Jesus promising the repentant criminal that he will get to be with him in Paradise.  The words of the criminal — not a plea for forgiveness, but only desiring the gift of a passing thought — remind us to be humble.  Jesus’s response reminds us that God’s justice is not our justice and that God’s mercy is tremendous.

Fifth Word: I am athirst!

Jesus’s desire for something to quench his thirst, a most basic human need, goes up against a crowd of people taunting him to come down from the cross so that they might believe in him.  In singing this movement, the scorn of the crowd flows through me in a real way; I am faced with, and scared by, my own capacity for cruelty.  I don’t completely comprehend all this evil, but I can offer Jesus my thanks for having endured it.

Seventh Word: It is finished!

Jesus’s final words are echoed by the entire choir in a whisper, accentuating how used up Jesus’s earthly body is.  Then the organ takes over and you can just picture the curtain being torn in the chaos that comes out of the pipes.  Finally, the movement transitions into Adoramus Te, Christe.  After yelling at Jesus for so much of the work, it is a welcome relief to end with a song of praise.  Augustine was right when he said, “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”

About the author: Francis Beaumier is on the leadership team for the Dignity Young Adult Caucus and an active member of the Our Lady of Lourdes Parish Family as well as Angels of Hope Metropolitan Community Church. He currently works for Brown County Library as an IT Specialist and is pursuing a Master’s in Liberal Studies at St. Norbert College.

 

Gone is the Light

“Gone is the Light” is a reflection on Good Friday written by Breanna Mekuly while visiting the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA during Holy Week in 2015. 


“Gone is the Light”

On that day, our world grew dark.

The clouds covered the sun;

The people cried in distress

When they realized what they had done.

 

“And now he’s gone!”

“What do we do?”

Such a mistake we have made.

How selfish are our hearts

When they call us out of love.

What is it we want?

What is it we seek?

 

Gone is the Light

From which to guide us.

The earth sits still

Breathing, waiting.

 

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Gone is the Light.

 

Like losing our sight,

We lost our guide

Leading us to a life worth living.

What’s left for us now?

We’ve ruined it all.

 

No reason to smile,

No hope in our hearts,

Just bitter memories

Of our imperfection.

 

Because

Gone is the Light

From which to guide us.

The earth sits still

Breathing, waiting.


 

Breanna Mekuly is a spiritual seeker currently living aBreanna Mekulynd ministering in Milwaukee, WI. She is committed to searching for and helping others find the Beauty of the Creator in everyday life. She keeps an Instagram account: @4TheeBeauty where she posts daily pictures of nature with spiritual reflections. For more, check out her blog For The(e) Beauty.

We are the Immaculate Conception

somos tod@s la imaculada concepción…we are the immaculate conception
Mary Visits Elizabeth: Luke 1: 39-45:   In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leapt in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.’

I would like to start off with a short selection from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple …  

CELIE: God forgot about me!

SHUG: God takin’ his time getting around to you, I admit, but look at all he give us. Laughin’, and singin’, and sex. Sky over our heads, birds singin’ to us. I think it piss God off if anybody even walk past the color purple in a field and not notice it. He say,”look what I made for you.”

I use the story to engage this Gospel passage… The story of Mary … A woman who transgressed borders. A woman called to be a mother, prophet, apostle, revolutionary…She has been exulted and divinized, yet her humanity has often been forgotten and ignored …It is her story that we will look at today to wrestle and grapple with the church’s teaching on the immaculate conception.

Llena de gracia…full of grace

Catholics around the world accept the teaching of the Immaculate Conception. However, what does it actually mean? In 1854, Pope Pius IX stated: “The most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instant of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.” What does it mean that Mary was preserved from sin? It is the belief that because of her unique mission, Mary was conceived immaculately in her mother’s womb so that sin would not pass on to her child, Jesus, who as son of GOD is free of sin.

It was a common belief in Israel that the sins of the parent were passed onto the child. If Jesus was to be free of sin, his mother would also have to be free from sin. My queries are…where does the cycle end…if sin is passed from generation to generation, was Mary’s mother, Anne, also free from sin? How far back does the immaculate lineage have to go? If Mary was not marked by sin, did she really have a choice … would she come down with sinfulness if she had said no? By focusing on conception for future conception, have we limited, distorted, and reduced Mary and by extension all women to worth based on biological breeding?

This feast and dogma has wider implications than explaining that Mary was a suitable receptacle for a son–it impacts how the church treats women and their bodies. It is a source of much division among Christians … with some believing that women should be subservient to their husbands as baby factories (those who cannot are defective machinery) while others affirm the right of women to be ordained and preach.

It is dogmas like the Immaculate Conception that lead to confusion and misunderstanding about Mary and I believe a neglect women, we coerce their womanhood into mindless biological assembly lines. It is this theological marginalization that we need to address so that we can proclaim all as being llena de gracia, full of grace.

In this place, I invite us to relook at what it means to be la Imaculada Concepción…To be conceived immaculately.

In proclaiming Mary as the Immaculate Conception, we are also proclaiming our own immaculate conception as children of GOD. The feast is not about Maria as an exception to the rule, but a celebration of who we are and who we will become. We are all conceived immaculately, each of us is llena de gracia, full of grace

If we look to Genesis, we are told that we are created in GOD’s image and that creation is good. From the beginning we are holy, we are perfect. Regardless of the goofs up that we may do upon entering the world, regardless of the run ins with the Sarah’s of the world who reject us and castigate us for being different, we are good, we are llena de gracia.

Past all the mistakes and oopses, past all the things we coulda woulda shoulda, we are good, we are llena de gracia. Many of the women included in biblical texts are due to their calling to be mothers. What does this calling mean What about those of us who cannot conceive children? Are we less filled with grace? No … regardless of our capacity or ability or willingness to give birth biologically … we are all called to give birth to the divine in our actions, words, and deeds … we are called to give birth through our vocations and callings. We too have been entrusted with baring GOD to the world. GOD has consecrated and created us with a mission from the time of our birth.

The prophet Jeremiah tells us that “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” We are all llena de gracia.

As the Psalmist proclaims, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Regardless of the defects that society says we have or how denominations may tell us that we are unworthy for being a woman, black, or transgender, or when we are looked down upon for standing in solidarity with the oppressed, may we hold unto, remember, embrace that we are created, conceived and consecrated as good, as holy, as llena de gracia.

No one can take that away… We are Llena de gracia, full of grace.

Like our foremother Mary, we all have a purpose and personal vocation. It is a calling that we will learn to live out, that we will grow into, that will be revealed to us through out our lives, perhaps with angelic visits in the deserts of life, moments of prayer in chapel, proclamations received through loved ones.

We are not just born and that’s it … No, no, GOD has a special something for all of us to accomplish. Mother Teresa is humorously quoted as having said, “GOD as entrusted me with a specific amount of things to accomplish in this life, I am so far behind in my work, I will never die.” If we look to all the births that were announced in Scriptures, Isaac, Ishmael, Samuel, John, Jesus… The child born always had special vocation to live out.

This is not limited to Biblical figures, all of us come into this world with a special calling to live out, to be the change, holiness, and love GOD wants in this world. There is no right or better calling or right or better way to express it…it is expressed through a marian enthusiastic yes and through hagarian righteous anger. Immaculate conception does not mean we are passive and submissive, but like Mary we embody spiciness and chutzpah to care for those who are sacred to us.

The call to motherhood is not about breeding like rabbits or limited to female bodied individuals, we are called to be fruitful through the evolving multiplication of our abilities to listen, cook, design buildings, theologize, preach, and understand how the physiological makeup of fungus has implications for sexual ethics. By expanding our understanding of the immaculate conception. By honoring Mary, we celebrate the prophets and disciples we are all called to be, of who we are now on our journeys of faith and who we will become in the desert.

We are llena de gracia, full of grace, in our callings to be hospital chaplains, professors, parents, immigrant rights activists, reproductive health advocates, parish priests, youth ministers…all of the above, none of the above…in our calling to be human, we are full of grace, llena de gracia.

In the chaotic joy of living into our multiple callings, we must remember, hold onto, internalize, and put on a post it that we are not forgotten by GOD as Celie laments in the color purple, we are not abandoned or sent alone. We must hold onto Shug’s reminder of how GOD provides through laughter, singing, and sex. GOD does not forget about us for GOD is with us, just like GOD came to Hagar in the desert, meeting her where she was … just like GOD came to the prophet in the stillness after the thunder and storm … just like GOD came to a poor Jewish girl from the barrio … just like GOD was with Mary at the foot of the cross … just like the names Emmanuel and Ishmael … GOD with us and GOD listens … GOD is always there and is always here.

We may not feel it or believe it in our moments of grief, confusion, depression, chaos … when anger causes us to flee from the world into deserts of despair. In our earthquakes and hurricanes and pervasive brokenness… in our desolation for being rejected for fulfilling a task given to us–GOD is there, GOD is here…through a friend, through an email, through a butterfly, through an angel who tells us we will be cared for, despite our belief.

GOD is there and GOD is here…through the fact that we manage to get up and face the desert despite our exhaustion. GOD is there, GOD is here, for we are llena de gracia and full of grace. In this time of Advent as we prepare to celebrate the Word made flesh, may we remember our own births, how we were divinely knit, how we are lovingly woven together with purpose.

Though this homilitecal engagement is perhaps heretical and not what the good ol’ boys in Rome had in mind, I like Mary will not sit and wait, but will be counter-cultural and provide a counter narrative–we are the immaculate conception. We cannot let the church and society take away that we are immaculately conceived with sacred and sassy chutzpath!

We too are good, we too are consecrated with purpose, we too are llena de gracia, full of grace.
Amen!

delfin bautista is a former member of cta’s vision council.   They currently serve as the director of the LGBT Center at Ohio University. 

“You are anointed for mercy…”

The following is an adaptation of a sermon preached on Saturday, November 7, 2015 at the FutureChurch liturgy “Celebrating Women Witnesses of Mercy” in Milwaukee, WI. The readings were: excerpts from Pope Francis’ March 13, 2015 homily; Dorothy Day’s “The Scandal of the Works of Mercy;” Psalm 33; and Matthew 25:31-45.

Mercy! What is it we are talking about when we talk about mercy – about God’s mercy, and our prayer to be merciful as God is merciful? And how, in the words of Pope Francis, might we “rediscover and make fruitful” the mercy of God? Pope Francis has said that mercy is “the very substance of the Gospel message,” and “the mission of the Church to be a witness to mercy.”

Where does mercy live? Not in our heads. It is not something we can think ourselves into. Mercy resides in our hearts – think of God telling God’s people in Ezekiel their hearts of stone will be replaced with hearts of flesh. Mercy is in our bodies. There are two words – one Hebrew and one Greek – which show us something about the nature of mercy.

The Greek word splanknon and the Hebrew word racham.  Literally, splanknon can be translated as “guts” or even “bowels” or “entrails” – in the ancient Near East, this was the seat of passions and deep emotion. In our time in English, we speak about knowing something in our gut – that deep, intuitive, visceral place within us.

The Hebrew racham – found primarily in the writings of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Hosea – translated as “compassion” or “mercy” is closely related to the Hebrew word for “womb.” It is another very bodily image – and a profoundly feminine one, as well. In Isaiah 29, the prophet compares God’s mercy to a mother’s unconditional love, rhetorically asking “can a woman forget her nursing child, and not have mercy on the child of her womb?”

Anointing at prayer service (photo: Rhonda Miska)

Anointing at prayer service (photo: Rhonda Miska)

As these two Scriptural words illustrate, mercy is deeply physical, something we do with our whole selves. More than a matter of orthodoxy (right believing or right thinking), mercy is about orthopathy (right feeling) and orthopraxy (right action). A matter of heart and soul and hands more than head. Indeed, Matthew’s gospel seems to imply the measure of salvation is not in believing or thinking correctly, it is in acting correctly – in a way which honors that those most in need embody God’s presence. It is acting out of a depth of feeling. Think of Jesus weeping with Martha and Mary at Lazarus’ tomb, and then raising his dear friend from the dead.

Mercy involves a willingness to be broken-hearted – which is not easy to do. There is a temptation to numb out – either by shutting out what is happening in the world around us and pretending tragedies and loss aren’t happening, or by somehow making ourselves believe that those who suffer and don’t share our privilege are less human, or fundamentally different. Keeping our eyes open to the uncomfortable truth of suffering is just that…uncomfortable. This is where we turn to our cloud of witnesses, finding countless women and men who have courageously lived out mercy.

Sr. Karen Klimczak is one woman witness of mercy in our time. She ministered to women who were incarcerated and to ex-offenders, and was active in promoting peace and non-violence in Buffalo, New York. In 2006, at the Halfway House she helped to run, one of the men she accompanied murdered her while under the influence of crack cocaine when she caught him attempting to steal her phone. Poignantly, she was murdered on Good Friday – like the merciful Jesus she followed. Her life of service to those viewed with scorn and suspicion is a powerful embodiment of Francis’ words that no one is excluded from the mercy of God. “We must love to the point of folly,” said Dorothy Day. Karen certainly did so – and paid a much higher price than the loss of her wallet.

St. Joseph Sister Karen Klimczak (image: http://www.buffaloah.com/a/ndiv/418/ext/jpegs/08.jpg)

Our acts of mercy may often look like folly, as Dorothy said, they tax our faith. Providing food or shelter to a chronically homeless addict who might never escape his chains of addiction. Forgiving someone who has harmed us over and over. Investing our time and energy in a person who has no ability to repay us in any tangible way. Only through the eyes of faith, only through transformed and converted eyes, only when we (as Pope Francis says) “look beyond and not stop at the surface of things,” do these acts make any sense. Matthew 25 doesn’t just tell us to love the deserving poor or those who express gratitude – it simply and powerfully tells us that anyone in need is in fact the face of Christ in our world.

The extraordinary witness of Sister Karen is a grand act of mercy – we can think of other grand gestures of mercy, like a stay of execution for a death row inmate or the courage of a murder victim’s family member who develops a relationship with the offender in a restorative justice program. In reality, most moments of mercy are smaller, less newsworthy, and more daily. There are countless opportunities each day to choose to give another the benefit of the doubt and to release resentment; to be charitable instead of exacting and compassionate instead of judging with that noisy neighbor, that annoying coworker, that trying family member, that other driver on the interstate, that person in line ahead of us at the grocery store. And, of course, mercy towards ourselves when we inevitably fall short of our own hopes and expectations.

We know that lives of mercy, that is to say authentic Christian lives, aren’t easy. We don’t do this alone. We do this in community. Equally as important, we daily choose to live mercy in union with Christ, and out of a deeply contemplative place. This stance of open-heartedness (which inevitably leads to moments of broken-heartedness) only makes sense in these contexts: human community and deep union with God nourished by prayer.

We commit ourselves – our full selves, bodies, hearts, hands, minds, splanknon and racham – to the works of mercy. Inspired by Sister Karen and countless women and men who witness to God’s endless mercy, we say “yes” yet again to do mercy – to feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, visit the sick, bury the dead, shelter the homeless – even when it looks like folly. We pray again for our eyes to see Christ in those in need and for our hearts to be tender to their needs. May we – with Dorothy Day, Sister Karen, and countless others witnesses – walk the road of spiritual conversion and so enflesh God’s extravagant, endless mercy.

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.

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.