“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.

Spirited Conversations Interview: “Listen Up, Pope Francis: Catholic Women Speak”

Listen up, Pope Francis: Catholic Women Speak

What could be a watershed event in the Catholic church is happening in October. Just after Pope Francis leaves the U.S., where he’ll be hosting the World Meeting of Families, he’s convening in Rome what’s called a Synod on the Family. But women–key members of families–won’t be included in a significant way in the Synod.  An anthology of essays called Catholic Women Speak has been published in response to this omission. This interview features one of the authors, Rhonda Miska. She writes about her experience as a young single professional woman who’s worked in churches and retreat centers. This interview is part of a project called Spirited Conversations, in which Jennifer Szweda Jordan interviews inspiring people and explores rich places in the Catholic tradition and addresses topical issues.


(Paulist Press, 2015)

(Paulist Press, 2015)

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

Rhonda Miska (credit: Wendy L Wareham photography)

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. She currently serves as Coordinator of Programming/Development at Shalom Spirituality Center in Dubuque, IA. 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) which will be launched in Rome this week.

Of Sisters and Superheroes

“What about you? Do you have superheroes on your t-shirt?”

This question was posed to me by Ben, a friend’s energetic four-year-old son, after he had enthusiastically described the various Transformers on his shirt and their superpowers.

Ben's t-shirt

I explained that my t-shirt had the name of a community: the Sisters of the Humility of Mary , the congregation of women religious with whom I have been living and serving for the last year as a Partner in Mission.

Later that evening, after Ben was asleep in bed, I returned to his question and thought of the many sisters of various communities with whom I have worked, dined, prayed, celebrated, and otherwise shared life over this last year – and over my 34 years. Though they are not the superheroes Ben so admires, women religious possess unique gifts. Their abilities to continually adapt and renew themselves, to face challenges with calm and courage, and embody shared leadership are gifts much needed in today’s Church and world.

“The Second Vatican Council impacted religious life, as it did all Catholic life and the wider world, like a tsunami of the Spirit,” says Marie McCarthy, SP, in the LCWR Winter 2015 Occasional Papers. Marsha Allen, CSJ, the current LCWR president concurs: “It was like going from a horse and carriage to going to the moon all in one leap.” Vatican II led congregations to return to the core of their founders’ ideals, reflect on their charisms and history. Women’s religious communities did this work boldly; the changes it created were dramatic.

The stories I hear from Sisters who entered in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, and early 60s reflect a reality that is most foreign to my current observations of religious life. The total change for many congregations of women religious in the wake of Vatican II can’t be overstated. From a strict horarium to a schedule which allows them to respond to the needs of those they serve. From a perspective of religious as being holier, “better than,” and set apart to an embrace of the universal call to holiness. From being assigned ministries by a superior without consultation to actively sharing in the discernment of how they are called to serve. From formal habits to simple, modest dress. From a suspicion of “particular friendships” to an emphasis on mutual relationships. And the list continues.

The external scaffolding of religious life fell away and left in its wake a deeper internalization of charism, a more contemplative mode of prayer, a complete reorganization of decision-making and leadership structures. Today’s golden jubilarians (those celebrating fifty years as sisters) have lived through monumental change. I know many Sisters who weathered those significant changes…and stayed. There is much hand-wringing about the number of women who left in the wake of Vatican II. Rarely is there an acknowledgment of the courage, resilience, and vision of the women who lived through the implementation of this renewal, watched many sisters leave, weathered the ecclesial and social tumult of the second half of the twentieth century…and chose to stay. Who continue to choose to stay. They trust that the Spirit is indeed alive and continuing to call them to this life.

Moreover, they trust that the Spirit is afoot as they look to the future. In the face of dramatically fewer women entering and staying, communities respond with thoughtful trust, pragmatic hope and an openness to the new. They seek to share their charisms with lay people and form partnerships. And they show a remarkable detachment in the face of further change. “Who knows what God is doing? Who knows what will evolve?” one IHM Monroe Sister asked, with bright eyes and an inquisitive smile. “All we can do is be faithful and trust God calls to us from the future.”

Beyond responding to monumental change since Vatican II, women’s religious congregations have also encountered serious challenges in recent years. Both the 2008 Apostolic Visitation headed by the Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (CICLSAL) and the 2012 imposition of the mandate by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) over the LCWR required congregations to corporately collaborate to respond in as Gospel women. (For an excellent study on how congregations responded to the Visitation, see The Power of Sisterhood.) In the face of both challenges, sisters in general and the LCWR in particular responded with integrity, calm, and courage, choosing to enter into respectful, honest dialogue that consistently resisted polarization. In the words of LCWR president IHM Sister Sharon Holland, they sought to “eliminate the kind of mentality of a ‘we/they,’…that there’s a ‘we.’ That we work through things.”

In a hierarchical church where (as Pope Francis pointed out in his Christmas address to the curia) clerics all too often fall into careerism and competition, women religious’ flattened approach to leadership and democratic process of decision-making provide a welcome and much-needed alternative. They embody a spirituality of contemplative leadership which is nourished by lives of corporate and personal prayer and informed by decades of accompaniment of and ministry with those on the margins.

This leadership is also born out of the risk of lifetime promise, the “all-in” nature of a perpetually vowed commitment to God in the context of community. These women have lived with each other, struggled with each other, cared for each other, disagreed with each other, and served with and for each other for decades. One sister may have another sister as a high school teacher or college professor, then later they work side-by-side together as peers in active ministry, and finally one serves as the other’s caregiver until she takes her last breath. Positions and roles change, the bonds of sisterhood remain. In the words of a Franciscan sister: “it doesn’t matter what our title is or was when we are sistering each other.”

In short, these women love each other, for life. The quality of that love and the depth of its commitment is breathtaking. During my year at the motherhouse, I witnessed small and large acts of loyal, generous love every day. More than once it has moved me to tears.

(I don’t mean to idealize; I’m not claiming sisters have it all figured out. For all my admiration of women religious, no group of human beings is perfect. No matter what high ideals of justice, peace, and love are espoused in a community’s mission statement, it doesn’t mean those ideals are lived out flawlessly – especially when someone has left their clothes in the washer of my laundry day, or has left their dirty dishes abandoned in the sink! Conflict still happens, personalities still clash and growing pains exist – sisters are still people!)

Religious women’s ability to continuously adapt to monumental change, respond to challenges with courage and equanimity, and model a spirituality of shared, collaborative leadership make women’s religious communities a valuable, powerful witness of Christian common life. In a Church rocked by division and scandal, in a nation wounded by partisan bickering and racial tension, in a world marked by divisions and inequality we need models of how to live together, respond to change with hope instead of fear, and listen deeply to one another and to the Spirit. Reflecting on my year as a “motherhouse millennial,” I believe that women religious can help show us the way forward in our Church and world.

Wendy L Wareham photography

Wendy L Wareham

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. She spent one year as a Partner in Mission with the Sisters of the Humility of Mary at the Villa Maria Education and Spirituality Center in Villa Maria, Pennsylvania and recently relocated to her native Wisconsin. 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 which will be published by Paulist Press later this year.

Caught Between Doctrines – What a Lucky Kid

thinking allowedLast week, the pastor at my church was talking about a youth member who attends Catholic school during the week and comes to UCC faith formation on Sundays. He mentioned that, “She’s learning a lot about Catholic doctrine, so she comes to confirmation study with questions about Catholic theology, and we try to make sense of it in the context of what we’re learning here.”

I leaned over to my husband and whispered, “What a lucky kid.”

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Loving Lent: A Reflection for Good Friday

All_Saints_Catholic_Church_(St._Peters,_Missouri)_-_stained_glass,_sacristy,_Sacred_Heart_detailWhen I was younger (being only 27, that probably means “just a few years ago”), I was often concerned with feeling the proper emotion for the occasion.  At a funeral for example, you’re supposed to feel sad, so I had to be sad the whole time, right?  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to realize that almost all occasions will be associated with a variety of different emotions.  I’ve switched to the approach of recognizing what emotions I am feeling, trying to understand why, and being OK with that.  So when my fellow MCC-goer said that he was glad that this had been a Lent with plenty of light moments, instead of just being all somber all the time, I smiled and nodded.  Sincerely.

With all that in mind, I want to approach today not with sadness (although the readings and music at today’s service will see to it that some sadness will arise) but with love and gratitude.  It’s no mystery why love is on my mind.  My grad class this semester is entitled Love Stories: Our Shifting Perceptions of Romantic Love.  All semester we have been looking at various examples of love (starting from Ancient Greece) and analyzing them in an attempt to figure out how things have changed and how things have stayed the same.

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“He came that we might have life”

Erica_carnea0The original plan was to have me write a Christmas post, but I appear to have missed that season by a couple of weeks.  I therefore instead offer you a winter Ordinary Time post with a Christmas connection.

I’ve been handed several opportunities to think about life recently:

  • Riding along with a friend, we narrowly avoided an oncoming car that decided to quickly turn onto our why-is-there-parking-on-both-sides-of-this-street? side street.
  • Visiting my dad after his heart surgery, I saw the vast array of machinery that is needed to sustain life after such an operation.  I also got to see him with and then without the breathing tube: he transformed from the “scary mechanical man” to “my father with a couple of tubes and wires” — it’s hard to capture in words!
  • Walking from the bus stop to work on one of the coldest days of the year, I was at the same time aware of just how alive I am (since I could really feel the cold) and of how fragile life is (with the weather working so hard to take it away)
  • Since they needed a cantor, I found myself at an Embracing Life Mass at my parish in the middle of the week.  A Mass that I probably wouldn’t have attended otherwise turned into a hour of grace for me as we reflected on the importance of all life and had 17 petitions to pray for the unborn, LGBT individuals, the elderly, and everyone else.

What’s the Christmas connection?  John 10:10 (ASV) tells us that Jesus said:

I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.

This Jesus-life connection hit me again at The St. Norbert Abbey’s monthly celebration of Taizé prayer where we sang:

With you, O Lord
Is life in all its fullness
And in your light,
we shall see true light

So what?  With all this thinking about life, I should be intensely grateful for it and yet I still have gloomy mornings where I find it very challenging to get up at 6am and give thanks to God.  I still have no quick answers to a political system that can be very devoid of live-giving energy.  However, I have noticed in myself a more intense desire to do life right.  At the MCC church, where the traditional sermon time is replaced by a group dialogue, I have begun to ask more questions (such as, “What part of this do you struggle with and why?”) in an effort to really understand the wisdom of my fellow travelers in faith.  As my dad continues to recover from his heart surgery, I let the question of whether or not I am doing enough to help my parents eat at me a little.  I am more aware of the time I spend on entertainment Web sites such as YouTube and find it easier to stick to just a few videos at a time.  And I hear myself asking how I can ensure that my interaction with others is life-giving.

Returning to our vaguely Christmas connection, I can think of no better closing than Clarence’s words from It’s a Wonderful Life:

You see, George, you’ve really had a wonderful life!