St. Damien, Mr. Stevenson, & Rev. Hyde

Damien StatuePreparing to preach yesterday on the Feast of St. Damien of Molokai, I found one of those historical incidences that appealed so much to my various sensibilities that I just had to share it.


It seems that not long after Father Damien’s death, a certain Protestant clergyman in Hawaii, named (interestingly, as you’ll see) Hyde, set out to describe Damien to a colleague, and his comments were made public.  He wrote:


“In answer to your inquiries about Father Damien, I can only reply that we who knew the man are surprised at the extravagant newspaper laudations, as if he was a most saintly philanthropist. The simple truth is, he was a coarse, dirty man, headstrong and bigoted. He was not sent to Molokai, but went there without orders; did not stay at the leper settlement (before he became one himself), but circulated freely over the whole island (less than half the island is devoted to the lepers), and he came often to

Honolulu. He had no hand in the reforms and improvements inaugurated, which were the works of our Board of Health, as occasion required and means were provided. He was not a pure man in his relations with women, and the leprosy of which he died should be attributed to his vices and carelessness. Others have done much for the lepers, our own ministers, the government physicians, and so forth, but never with the Catholic idea of meriting eternal life.”


This letter received a rather strong and lengthy response by the author Robert Louis Stevenson (of Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde fame) in the form of an open letter.  It’s an often harsh, but also quite inspiring response in defense of the saint, calling the clergymen out for his jealousy (worth reading the whole of):


“But, sir, when we have failed, and another has succeeded; when we have stood by, and another has stepped in; when we sit and grow bulky in our charming mansions, and a plain, uncouth peasant steps into the battle, under the eyes of God, and succours the afflicted, and consoles the dying, and is himself afflicted in his turn, and dies upon the field of honour – the battle cannot be retrieved as your unhappy irritation has suggested. It is a lost battle, and lost forever.

One thing remained to you in your defeat – some rags of common honour; and these you have made haste to cast away. Common honour; not the honour of having done anything right, but the honour of not having done aught conspicuously foul; the honour of the inert: that was what remained to you. We are not all expected to be Damiens; a man may conceive his duty more narrowly, he may love his comforts better; and none will cast a stone at him for that. But will a gentleman of your reverend profession allow me an example from the fields of gallantry? When two gentlemen compete for the favour of a lady, and the one succeeds and the other is rejected, and (as will sometimes happen) matter damaging to the successful rival’s credit reaches the ear of the defeated, it is held by plain men of no pretensions that his mouth is, in the circumstance, almost necessarily closed.

Your Church and Damien’s were in Hawaii upon a rivalry to do well: to help, to edify, to set divine examples. You having (in one huge instance) failed, and Damien succeeded, I marvel it should not have occurred to you that you were doomed to silence . . .”


Stevenson basically says what can be said of many—if not most—saints: He may not have been perfect, but he served more faithfully and lived more heroically than most of us.  Reason for silence indeed.

(Above photo is of the statue of Damien which stands in the U.S. National Statuary Hall)

One of My Favorite Easter Moments

PeterJohnTombI preached and presided at all the Triduum masses this weekend for the Visitation Sisters and their neighbors in Brooklyn.  Since their house was a place of limited technological sophistication, my homilies were given with mostly just some notes scratched down on paper, the old-fashioned way.  I’ll try to post some of my reflections later, but in the meantime, here’s part of my Easter message from today.

I’ve told this story before,but it’s always good for me to remember that one of my favorite Easter moments came during what was probably my most difficult year as a Jesuit.

Each year when Easter rolls around, I remember Mayo Kikel.

Mayo was one of the first teachers I met when I visited Jesuit High in Tampa the Spring prior to starting work there in 2002. She impressed me with her conviction that God wanted her there. She could easily have worked at a school closer to where she lived, but instead she made the extra long trek to our school each day. I have only met a few teachers like her, so convinced that they were fulfilling a mission. When I began work at the school the next Fall, she quickly became one of my favorite colleagues.

This made it all the more difficult when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. We were already to chip in and fill in for her wherever needed. But, amazingly, even after she started the cancer treatments, she never missed a single day of work. It was what she lived for. And though it left her with little energy to do much else, she came back day after day. None of us would have faulted her for taking a day off, much less complaining, but she rarely did.

As Easter approached, she came to ask me a favor. I was the Director of Campus Ministry and was in charge of the program for our once-a-week morning convocations, when the whole school gathered in the chapel to begin the day. She told me how good the boys at the school had been to her, and she wanted to use the convocation just before the Easter break to thank them. What she wanted to do, she explained, was to sing a song, an Easter song. Now this was not without its risks. Such an endeavor at a school of some 650 boys was just as likely to invite ridicule, as it was reverence. We talked about this, but she was determined. So we made plans.

When the day came, I stood up at the podium and said, “Mrs. Kikel has told me how wonderful you all have been to her during her illness, and she asked if she could do something to thank you.” The music began.

The song she sang was told from the perspective of Peter, beginning with a Peter all too aware of how he had failed Jesus. And, now that Jesus was dead, there would be no opportunity to make amends. Then it took up where our Easter Gospel reading began, with Mary come to announce that Jesus had been taken from the tomb. Peter runs to the tomb, John running up ahead. They find the burial cloths set aside, and Jesus missing, and they begin to realize what has happened. In the song Peter exclaims, “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive and I’m forgiven. Heaven’s gates are open wide!” “He’s alive!” “He’s alive!” The song built until Mayo sang out the final, “He’s aaaalive!” And then something happened which even now when I think about it inspires tears. Immediately and without hesitation, every boy in that chapel stood up and applauded.

We speak a lot in our Jesuit boys’ schools about being “men for others,” and I have yet to see a better example of that than I did on that day. When we speak about Easter, we speak about everything being made new because of what Jesus did for us, and because God raised him from the dead. Things were made new for me that day. No matter what they did after that day, I could never quite see those boys in the same way again. They had stepped up when it was most important. And I can never think of Easter without thinking of Mayo Kikel who because of her humility, faith and courage was able to inspire such a moment.

Mayo beat the cancer, but was stricken just a couple years later with a rare disease which took her from us. But I will never forget her. Few people in my life have exemplified as well as her what Easter is all about.

Meet the Author

Recently, I appeared on Radio Maria’s “Meet the Author” program.  

The host, Ken Huck, and I spoke about living a spiritual life in contemporary times, my book Already There, and briefly about my new book, Saint Ignatius Loyola–The Spiritual Writings.

You can listen to the interview here.

Jesus, the Easter Bunny, and My Friend, the Atheist

So, while I wasn’t looking, a friend of mine has become a somewhat notable neo-atheist (I’m not sure if it’s fair to call him that, but that’s how he’s being perceived, at least).  He’s a philosopher, and we both met while teaching philosophy, and sharing an office.  We live on opposite coasts now, so I don’t see him very much.  I don’t think he was exactly a believer when we were in the same city (New Orleans), but his ideas have certainly gotten more radical—and more public—since then.  He’s always been a provocative teacher, and that’s one of the things that I like about him.  I like that he challenges students to make reasonable arguments.  After all, in many ways that’s what philosophy is all about.  And I know from my own teaching how hard it can be to get students to risk making any argument sometimes!

From what he’s been saying lately, it seems he’s coming down quite hard on students who make arguments based on faith (though precisely what he means by faith, I can’t be sure).  I don’t object to that.  I have done the same myself, not in a dismissive way, but in a way that I hope helps them make more coherent arguments.  After all, Christianity has long held that faith and reason are by no means incompatible.  I suspect my friend would agree (or at least he would have in the past).  What I fear, though, is that those who listen to him will get the impression that this is not the case.  And that is a disservice to them.  The Letter to the Hebrews says that faith is “the substance of things hoped for.”  Do we really want to rob people of hope, in the name of truth?  And, can I really rid my life of what might be called “reason informed by faith”?  It would certainly make life more difficult.

I would have to stop introducing my parents as my mother and father, since I have never seen a DNA test proving that I’m even related to them.  Barring that, I can only offer faith-based arguments that they are, indeed, my biological parents.  Indeed, I might need to go so far as the philosopher David Hume to contend that I really have no way of knowing, despite the fact that it has always been my experience, that if I drop something heavy it will fall down instead of up.  For isn’t there a “faith” involved in assuming things simply because we have never experienced things otherwise?  Yes, we might find ourselves escaping Plato’s cave one day and finding that things are far different than we ever thought.  But does that mean that I should live my life in constant anxiety that my experience of it may not be what it seems to be?

But one might object.  That after all is “trust,” not faith.  A rose by any other name?  And, besides, what is objectionable is not that kind of faith (if you want to call it that), but religious faith.  How is it different, as my friend put it in a recent talk, than believing in the Easter Bunny?  Well, for one thing, I know now that the things the Easter Bunny was once credited with doing were actually being done by the people I call my parents.  But were they?  Why should I believe that what they have told me is true, and that they are not just trying to protect me from the reality that there is indeed an Easter Bunny?  But I have never seen the Easter Bunny, and I have seen and learned to trust those who claim to be my parents, so the truth of their assertion is at least more probable.

But here’s where they’ve got me!  Since I have never seen God, isn’t he just as ridiculous a notion as the Easter Bunny.  Well, it depends again whether you are willing to trust what people have told you.  I come from a tradition that descends from the historical encounter of a people called Israel with a real God.  I come from a tradition that believes that God also entered history in another way in the person of Jesus Christ, a human person who lived, whom other people experienced, who died, and who, according to their accounts, visited some of those very same people after his death and rising from the dead.  I have to take their word for it.  I also have to take the word of the millions of people who have also experienced God in a variety of ways over the centuries.  Sure, some of them were probably crazy.  But even crazy people can argue from experience.  I may be one of them.

But I don’t just have to take their word for it.  I have experienced God for myself.  Anyone can say that I’m just making it all up, that I’m delusional.  Certainly, if there is no God, I have made a joke of my life.  I can say that.  But, interestingly, I’m pretty sure that’s something my friend would never say to me, or even believe of me.  He has experienced the concrete effect that my belief in God has on who I am, what I do and why I do it.  He knows that much of my life is based on reason, informed by faith, and that some of my life rests on faith alone.  He objects to what a lot of “faithful” people do—and so do I.  But that doesn’t make faith objectionable to me, it just means that people can mistaken conclusions based on faith, as they can commensurately so based on reason.  And life is a mixture of mistakes and successes based on both.


It’s Holy Week.  And this week that is the story we remember.  A story of mistakes and successes, of friendship and betrayal, and a love that expresses itself in a way that is both reasonable and which transcends reason.  It’s a story that we know really happened—people experienced it, history records it.  Yet it is also a story that for those of us who believe, who have faith in Jesus Christ, happened once and for all time.  It is no less real today than it was on the historical date that it happened.  And it demands something of us that is not reasonable.  It demands that we give our lives to over to the mission and the person of Jesus Christ—completely.  In doing this, we do not ignore the fact that people have and continue to do hateful things in the name of Jesus Christ (which is one of the atheists’ favorite bludgeons), or that peopledo amazing, loving and heroic things also in the name of Jesus Christ.  Or that people do both, without believing in Jesus or God.  They can be as heroic or fallible as those of us who do have faith.

I’m not offended by the offense they take at my faith.  I am, however, concerned that in championing the truth, they might, even if unwittingly, take people’s hope away.  Especially because I suspect that, ultimately, they are looking for “the substance of things hoped for” too.  Their substance is just different than mine.  Mine is Jesus Christ, who I have experienced, and who calls me, guides me, lives in me and loves through me.  Theirs is, well, I’m not sure.  Hope in Jesus may be as ridiculous to some as the Easter Bunny, but it is everything to me, and the community of faith to which I belong.  It’s just how we roll . . . (if we can say for sure that anything, in fact, rolls.)

Happy Feast of St. Ignatius Loyola!

Today Jesuits worldwide and our many friends and collaborators celebrate the feast day of the saint who inspires how we live, and much of what we do for the people of God.  On this day, we pray especially for Saint Ignatius’ intercession for blessings on our work and for the gifts of grace we need in our lives.

Here’s one of my favorite quotes from his letters, one which I find especially relevant today:

“To sum up my meaning in a few words: If you thought carefully about how deeply you are bound to defend the honor of Jesus Christ and the salvation of your neighbor, you would see how much you are obliged to dispose yourselves for every toil and labor to make yourself apt instruments of God’s grace for this purpose, particularly nowadays, when there are so few real laborers, so few persons who seek ‘not the things that are their own but the things that are Jesus Christ’s’ [Phil. 2:21]; you need to strive all the harder to make up for what others fail to do, since God is giving you such a special grace in this vocation and resolve.”

Happy Feast!

Listen to Me Now

Already There is now available in audiobook version.  You can sample it, and download it, at  You can ‘read’ it in about six and a half hours, which is about four hours less than I spent recording it!  For you multi-taskers, just imagine the things you can do while listening to the book :).  And you don’t have to wait for it to be shipped, you can download it immediately!  Get it here.

The Reviews Are In!

I was excited recently to find myself pictured on the cover of America magazine (see photo).  How that happened I’m still not quite sure.  But I’m even more excited by the latest issue of America!

Emilie Griffin has offered a very kind review of two books by Fathers named Mark, Fr. Mark Thibodeaux’s book, God’s Voice Within, and my own book, Already There.  It’s a nice commentary on our similarly-themed, but very different books.  Here’s how she starts:

“Ignatian wisdom is universal and has blessed many (including me). No question, St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, meant this practical spirituality to speak in all times, places, cultures and all life’s seasons. That original vision is fine-tuned and fresh in the hands of two very different Jesuit spiritual masters. Mark Mossa and Mark Thibodeaux, both Jesuit priests who are creative teachers, directors and ministers, bring life to the ancient path. And it is good; we who were once formed by it have reason to welcome these new treatments of spiritual life in all its depth and surprise. Each author pins down for the reader a yearning, a sometimes disturbing voice, coming out of real stories, personal pitfalls and God’s sometimes puzzling response.

Mark Mossa, long a minister for young adults, now teaches theology at Fordham University. He seems to have spent most of his life growing up; he wants to help others through the same self-doubt, darkness and blundering. With chapters like “Living in Palookaville,” “Taking the Scary Bits Out of the Freezer,” and “Who Told You That You Were Naked?” Mossa buttonholes the reader. After stumbling through most everything in life (that’s his version of the story), he puts his practical insight to work for us. “Already there” is the seemingly casual phrase he uses—insists on—to tell us how he eventually learned (and has to keep relearning) that the Lord was with him through every dilemma, every pratfall . . . “

Enjoy the rest of the review here.

Osama Bin Laden & A Child’s Question

I must admit to feeling at once relieved, inspired, and disturbed by news of Osama Bin Laden’s death last night.  I saw the images of crowds celebrating outside the White House, heard some fireworks and sirens joining the celebratory chorus nearby, and watched as a student walked past my window on campus, playing the bagpipes.  I found myself laughing uncomfortably.  Clearly, I didn’t know how to feel.

Yesterday, interestingly, had begun with me questioning, in response to a New York Times article announcing the death of Gaddafi’s son and grandchildren: Is this article suggesting I should be happy at this news?  I was disturbed at the thought of celebrating anyone’s killing.  The same question came back to me again shortly before midnight as I listened to the President speak in ways that inspired in me a sense of pride.  When he referred to Bin Laden as a “mass murderer,” I was kind of shocked by the words, but also had to acknowledge their truth.  Later, someone being interviewed said, claiming he was not only speaking for himself, but for many: “I hope he rots in Hell.”  Despite my mixed feelings about the matter, I resented the fact that this man might think he was speaking for me.  No matter my relief at an evil man being prevented from doing further evil, I realized at least that I could not bring myself to wish this for him, or anybody.

Some of my friends are thinking about similar things, and asking important questions.  Fr. Jim Martin is asking: What is the Christian Response?, and Mike Hayes asks: Can We Forgive Bin Laden?

As for me, I’ll add to what I’ve said above something I wrote for America Magazine almost nine years ago in their “Of Many Things” column about my challenges teaching CCD in the Bronx that year.  Here’s an excerpt:

One day, for instance, they were challenged by the notion that God loves us, whether we want God to or not. Can’t God, some of them suggested, choose who to love and who not to? No, I insisted, God cannot not love any person; God loves everyone, unconditionally. To this came the astute and timely response of one student: “Does that mean God loves Osama bin Laden?”

Read the whole article here.

With Friends Like These . . . or the Tango Maureen

One of the interesting things about being a Jesuit is that we get dragged into a lot of fights, whether we are involved or not, whether it is merited or not.  People are especially eager to believe things about the Jesuits, especially if it seems to confirm their prejudices about us, both good and bad.  Someone years ago tried to speak to me about support for abortion among Jesuits, for example.  The assumption was that since Jesuits are “liberal” (another questionable prejudice), that there must be widespread support for abortion among Jesuits.  I told her—and it’s true—that I don’t know a single Jesuit whom I would consider anything but pro-life on the abortion issue.  Still such mistaken perceptions endure.  My most commented-on blog post ever was when I called out the author of a Catholic magazine article for a spurious claim that the Jesuits were at the “vanguard” of the opposition to a Vatican document when, in truth, the vast majority of Jesuits had expressed no opinion about the document one way or another.  If that logic held, then, there were any number of organizations that could have joined us in the “vanguard.”  But it’s much more sexy to blame the Jesuits.

Recently I’ve been thinking about the fact though that it’s not just our critics who love to drag us into their fights.  It’s our friends too.  People, often with little thought, are sometimes quick to presume that we are on their side in a given matter.  Or, short of saying that we are on their side, they somehow implicate us in what they are saying.  Again, this is either because it’s more sexy to include the Jesuits, or because they are using “Jesuits” to refer to an amorphous constituency within the Church that includes some Jesuits, as well as many people who are not Jesuits.  It’s more akin to a pop culture phenomenon than an assertion of the truth about the Society of Jesus.

What prompted me to think about this in particular this week was Maureen Dowd’s column in last weekend’s New York Times entitled, “Hold the Halo,” about the beatification of John Paul II.  In it, she cites John Paul II’s support of Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, as evidence against his beatification and eventual canonization.  And, she makes a valid criticism, as few would deny that for all his virtues, John Paul II had something of a blind spot when it came to Maciel.  He refused to believe that Maciel might be guilty of the things that we now know he was indeed guilty of.  Now perhaps I’m naïve, but I’ve always believed, contrary to the assertions of Dowd and others, that this was not a case of deliberate concealment of Maciel’s crimes, but a certain naivete on the part of an aging Pope.  But here I’m not really entering into the debate about whether John Paul should be canonized or not, because what bothered me more was where she goes next.

“The ultra-orthodox Legion of Christ and Opus Dei,” she continues, “were the shock troops in John Paul’s war on Jesuits and other progressive theologians.”  Now I presume from this statement that Dowd would consider herself as, at the very least, positively inclined toward the Jesuits (whether she is our ‘friend’ or not, I don’t want to presume to say), but there are so many problems with this statement that I hardly know where to begin.  First among them is, of course, the fact that she equates Jesuits with “progressive theologians,” as if every Jesuit can be presumed to be a progressive theologian.  Only a small percentage of Jesuits, of course, are theologians, and not all of them could be said to be progressive.  Nor can this be said of all Jesuits, as people often presume.  The joke among Jesuits is that if you poll four Jesuits about some matter, you’ll get five different opinions.  It’s funny, because it’s not far from the truth.  And the Jesuits were never at war with John Paul II!  The pope did intervene in Jesuit governance at the beginning of his papacy, because he was led to believe that he had reason to be concerned about the Jesuits.  If there was going to be a war, it was then.  But what surprised many—including the pope—was that the Jesuits did not rebel, but obediently accepted the situation (even if they weren’t so happy about it).  There never was a war.  Among Jesuits you’ll find as many men many who are ardent supporters of John Paul II and his papacy as you’ll find detractors.  And you’ll find many, frankly, who don’t find it necessary to have an opinion or stance toward any pope, because the main focus of their lives is their ministry to the people of God.  Indeed, belief in the importance and primacy of their ministry is the thing that you’ll find most Jesuits in agreement on.

There is much more I could say about the implications of the above statement and the ways in which it distorts the truth.  But, again, my main goal is to point to it as an example of how “friends” of the Jesuits sometimes misrepresent us as much as our critics, and anyone who might believe themselves to be “at war” with us, might.  So, thanks Maureen for liking us, but if you want to speak of a war on “progressive theologians,” leave it at that, and keep us out of the equation.  Sure, there are some Jesuits who share your concerns about John Paul’s beatification, but there are also plenty of Jesuits, even some “progressive theologians” among them, who will also be celebrating the beatification this weekend of a flawed but holy man and pope, even if he wasn’t always our biggest fan.

Thanks for “Buddies”

My friend Mike Hayes has written a nice response to my “Friends and Contacts” post, and in doing so named me a recipient of one of his Lenten “50-Day Giveaway” gifts.  THANKS, MIKE!!!

The gift will certainly find pride of place on my desk, and is rather appropriate to the course I’m teaching this semester on Catholicism and Popular Culture in America.  The gift is a “buddy Christ,” which you might remember from the movie Dogma.  This week in class we’ll be discussing the movie The Exorcist, but we will finish out the semester discussing Dogma.  So, I’ll definitely bring my gift along with me to class that day!

Mike is a good friend, and a great disciple to young adults across the nation!  He’s way up there in Buffalo these days, so I don’t see enough of him.  Still, I thank God for the gift of his friendship.  And, yes, he is among the privileged few who appear in my text-messaging inbox!

He blogs at “Googling God,” which you’ll find a link to in my Blogroll, and a feed from down below that.