Language gap

Jamie Manson’s latest NCR commentary is entitled: “Dolan and Cordileone: Please don’t call it love.” She wonders what exactly it might mean for Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, and Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco, to proclaim that the Catholic Church really does love gays and lesbians.

Dolan said “I love you, too” (literally) in an Easter Sunday interview on ABC. He elaborated: “we want your happiness…you’re entitled to friendship.’” And when Cordileone arrived in San Francisco in 2012, he announced: “We need to continue to learn how to be welcoming, let them know that we love them and we want to help them.”

But Dolan is, of course, a vocal opponent of marriage equality. He also declined a request to meet with homeless LGBTQ youth last year. Cordileone, meanwhile, is nicknamed the “Father of Proposition 8.”

And Jamie notes that when the Human Rights Campaign recently distributed a red and white equal-sign graphic on Facebook, meant to be posted while the Supreme Court heard arguments on marriage equality, Cordileone’s PR staff went ahead with their own jaw-dropping riposte: “a graphic of a white division sign and the citation ‘Luke 12:51’ on a red square. (Luke 12:51 is the verse in which Jesus says, ‘Do you suppose that I came to grant peace on earth? I tell you, no, but rather division.’)” The archdiocese pulled it from Facebook when people complained, but the division sign had made its point.

Jamie wants church officials to stop using the word “love” unless they demonstrate it in concrete, relational ways:

When we love another person, we genuinely desire to know her or him. When we love, we long to listen to the beloved and to learn his or her story….But that quality of listening requires true presence and vulnerability. For now, men like Dolan and Cordileone continue to insist that gays and lesbians do not know the truth about themselves and their relationships.

Unsurprisingly, commenters began shooting back. One critic, who goes by the screen name Purgatrix Ineptiae (my rough translation: “she who cleans out the folly”), wrote that love means something else entirely:

When a bishop says he loves you, he means he wants to help you get into heaven. It doesn’t mean he will clear his schedule to listen (for the thousandth time) to your protestations that he should adopt your opinions. It doesn’t mean he enjoys your company. It doesn’t mean he wants you to like him. It means he wants to help you eschew sin and grow in faith in accordance with his understanding of sin and faith.

Reading Jamie’s understanding of love, which I confess to sharing, and reading the alternate view provided by Purgatrix, I realized (for the thousandth time) what one of the biggest problems is in the church today. It is the language gap.

For all intents and purposes, there are multiple Catholicisms. Words and symbols might coincide, but meanings do not. I began to grasp this near the end of my college career, while researching a paper on sexual ethics for a theology class. I read articles about John Paul II’s understanding of love.

The articles suggested that love for John Paul was, at bottom, the choice to disinterestedly pursue the objective good of another person, particularly the other’s eternal good. Because God is the creator and ground of all that is, we learn how to make such a choice by first studying God’s self-revelation, of which the church is the privileged custodian. Only secondarily do we study human experience.

This view appeals to our idealism, and has some beauty and logic. It is also somewhat removed from the friction of our everyday, embodied lives. It frequently does not allow our personal encounters to speak for themselves with all their compelling mystery and poetry, their unbidden ecstasy and sorrow. And so when we try to dialogue with the Vatican about love, particularly sexual love, the result is generally an impasse.

Speaking of dialogue, I had a related light-bulb moment while reading David Gibson’s book about Pope Benedict XVI, The Rule of Benedict. One passage argued that while Benedict considered himself wholeheartedly committed to dialogue, he often used the word in a different way than it appears in common discourse. Benedict’s model for “dialogue” was the Gospel of John, in which the truth-seeker asks questions of the truth-bearer, as Nicodemus does with Jesus, and then accepts what the truth-bearer reveals. This is dialogos with the divine logos, not a hashing-out among parties of equal standing. For me, it explained a lot.

If this is how much our basic terms and concepts differ, then consider just how much we talk past each other, and how much we will continue to do so. I obviously have no easy solution. I doubt there is even a hard solution.

But if I am not immediately optimistic, I yet have hope. My hope is in Jesus’ observation that the proof of the tree is its fruit. My hope is in Gamaliel’s counsel that what comes from God is not stoppable. We will see which language, which worldview, gives the most abundant life to the most people. And you know where my bias is.

Dies cinerum

I remember different Ash Wednesdays for different reasons. The first time I ever received ashes was in second-grade CCD class. The teacher herded us into the field behind the school where Father waited, vested in alb and purple stole. He burned the palms right there in a Weber grill while we watched.

Today this same priest is for me a dark avatar of penance and conversion. A couple of years ago, he pleaded guilty to looting the Sunday collection to finance a gambling addiction. Lent is now his everyday life: he works off the debt, dollar by dollar, as a hospital orderly.

In middle-school CCD, Ash Wednesdays–or at least the classes closest to them–were about getting little cardboard buckets to collect for Catholic Relief Services. I spent forty days begging change from my parents and obsessively scanning the school floors with a laser eye during passing periods. Given my school’s many staircases, its vast lunchroom, and its maze-like subterranean tunnel system covered in murals, seeking stray coins was quite the adventure.

I admit to making charitable giving one competitive Lenten event among others, like the couple of years I gave up snacks entirely, proud of the splitting hunger headaches I dedicated to Christ. But I did grasp that Lent should make you not only ascetic but generous.

I remember an Ash Wednesday from my Catholic high school, I think freshman year. With our ashes, we received a wooden nickel with a red cross on it, called “Cross in My Pocket.” It had a prayer on the back and we were supposed to carry it during Lent.

I soon noticed abandoned wooden nickels all around the building. Here I was, a former “public” kid in this mythical wonderland of Catholic education, slowly absorbing that many classmates did not share my devotion, that not a few were in fact calling B.S. on it. Learning to sit with this, without judging, later became a major theme in my faith journey.

My most memorable college Ash Wednesday was the one when I watched Mel Gibson’s lurid epic, “The Passion of the Christ.” I got my forehead smudged, inhaled a vegetarian quesadilla, and joined my housemates in a darkened cinema to take in the blood-spatter. Knowing that in real life the Romans most likely gave Jesus thirty-nine lashes, I sat dumbfounded as I counted seventy-eight. The rest of the film proceeded with similar enthusiasm. Hours later I stood shivering on an El platform, feeling grossed out and violated.

Looking back, I realize that was when I finally rejected a particular Catholic aesthetic, one perversely fascinated with mortification. There is a difference between embracing the natural risks and pain of self-giving, on the one hand, and the pornography of suffering on the other. Officially, the church agrees. In practice, we still get confused.

A few years later, I distributed ashes for the first time. We had many young kids in the congregation that night, and we are not the sort of parish that does the “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel” thing. So I bent down to these munchkins, who all seemed to have uniformly flaxen hair and angelic eyes and speckled-puff faces, and ground soot into their foreheads while informing them they were dust and unto dust they would return.

The words were harsh. I winced apologetically. Yet Christianity is not a religion of caramel and marshmallows, and it is probably better to learn that early.

This year also really stands out. It was the first time I’ve begun Lent knowing there would be a new pope at the end. I knew it because only two days prior, and for the first time since the Middle Ages, the pope cashed in his chips before he died.

I don’t doubt Pope Benedict XVI’s official reason for retirement, his age and infirmity. But for two centuries, popes have routinely lived into their eighties. I suspect a deeper reason is the wall of “everything and all at once” his age and infirmity ran up against: hemorrhaging church attendance; a still-exploding sexual abuse crisis; Vatican infighting and backstabbing, gone septic and exposed by VatiLeaks; inquiries into alleged Vatican financial misconduct; restive women and LGBTQs who simply refuse to stay silent; and more.

Meanwhile, “everything and all at once” suggests it’s not just the accretion of individual problems. They are all somehow linked. And they are signalling that the world is about to turn.

So I will remember Ash Wednesday 2013 in a unique way, not for how it spoke to me personally, but for what it revealed to the whole church: that we now officially live, however uncertainly, at both the end and the beginning.


*Dies cinerum, Lat., “day of ashes.”

evangelism: not a dirty word, an important one

The other day I had one of those beautiful moments in my classroom when I had to step back and let God do the teaching. I was trying to help my students understand mortal sin and in my explanation it suddenly seemed very important to emphasize the mercy of God and forgiveness more than death. I told my students how although some people in history have clearly committed sins that may seem to be considered deadly the Church has never declared that anyone is in hell. (Wise move, Church!)

“We can’t fully know,” I told my students, “the power of God’s love. God loves us all so much it’s beyond our comprehension. Think of someone who loves you no matter what you do, and who will always forgive you. If you can’t think of anyone, think of me. I’ll always love you no matter what. Consider that the love that that person has for you is only a sliver, a tiny fraction, like 1/1000th of how amazing and big God’s love is for you.”

My students stared at me in disbelief. The implications of that love started to sink in. And then, like many teenage boys would, they mixed silly with serious, from their worldview. For my students, their worldview is a Chicago south side African-American male worldview. “Would you take a bullet for me, Sister?” “Yes! Of course I would!” Then the devil snuck in and whispered one of his lies about love into their ear. “Would you shoot someone else for me, Sister?” “No, because love never kills.”

At the end of the day, when I reflected on the moment, I realized that I am totally an evangelist, 2010 style. I am so happy that I get to preach about God’s love and share God’s love through my witness. It’s a joy to be an evangelist. And, although preaching to a classroom full of boys that are trying to pass religion class may not be as glamorous as street preaching like St. Francis of Assisi and his brothers did back in the day, it is probably just as valuable.

As a Franciscan, I’m supposed to be living an Evangelical life. That means I am trying to live a Gospel life, a life that shares the Good News. Technically us Franciscans are neither apostolic nor contemplative in the model of religious life that we live, but we live a 3rd type of religious life that is a combination of the two. We’re evangelicals, and it’s fabulous.

Today, in 2010, I still think that us Christians have a lot of evangelizing to do. We really ought to share the Good News in all the ways we can. Let’s convince people of God’s love, and their dignity and that they are needed to help build the reign of God. Let’s help people convert away from greed, violence, and lies about God and Love. Let’s give people what they need to be people of generosity, peace and Truth.

I have to admit, sometimes part of me wants to grab a megaphone and hit the streets in order to holler about Justice and Forgiveness. I just am not sure that it is the most effective way to share the Good News today. Pope Benedict had a great suggestion this week about how to reach the masses with the Good News. Come on Christians, use ye Blogs and Facebooks and Twitters. Let the world know: God loves everybody!

Originally from Northeast Iowa, Sister Julia is a  Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, based in La Crosse, Wisconsin.  Her love for God and God’s good world is manifested in her attempts to be an educator, a youth empower-er, an earth lover, and a peacemaker.  She ministers at an inner-city Catholic high school in Chicago.