Forgetting the Women

Today’s first reading tells the story of Susanna, from the book of Daniel.  Two old men corner Susanna as she was walking through the garden, and demand sex from her.  Should she refuse, they tell her, they will publicly accuse her of having sex with another man—not her husband—and she will face a penalty of death.  Susanna chooses to take her chances with their false accusations, rather than submit to their demands.  She will almost certainly die, but prays to God for deliverance.  God sends Daniel to rescue her, and expose the men’s lies.  The men are then delivered to the same fate that they would have visited upon the innocent Susanna-death.

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I couldn’t help but think, given the coverage of the rape trial in Steubenville, OH, what the reaction would be should the priest presiding at mass choose to preach about what a shame it was that the old men suffered as they did, with no thought to what they had done to Susanna.  That, essentially, was the perspective adopted by news agencies such as CNN in their coverage of the verdict in the Steubenville trial.  It was all about how the lives of the two young men found guilty were being ruined by this verdict, and the punishment that went with it.  There was almost no mention of the victim of the rape, and nothing in the way of sympathy for her suffering, how her life had been ruined.  And, while I certainly cannot be without sympathy for the dire consequences these men’s actions have led to, the lack of any sympathy expressed for their victim was more than disturbing.

I did not have the opportunity to preach today, but I would have felt myself remiss had I not made that connection, and I hope that some priests today had the courage to do so.

Indeed, when the story of Susanna comes up and the readings, as well as the story of the woman caught in adultery in yesterday’s Gospel, I can’t help but remember an “angry mass” that I experienced in my first year of priesthood, when both readings came at the same mass.  I wrote about it then:

As I considered what to say in my homily this morning, I realized that there was no way around it–today’s readings definitely had something to say about injustice against women. To avoid the issue, as some might have, seemed to me to be ignoring the elephant in the room. Today’s readings clearly had something to say to use about gender justice, and the injustice perpetrated against women by abuse of power and sinful double standards. That’s what I spoke about in my homily. I admitted that I myself haven’t exactly been the best advocate of gender justice, and have been known to roll my eyes at academic discussions of the evils of patriarchy, but that it was clear in these two readings that gender justice is something we are meant to be concerned about. We are called, like Daniel, not to stand idly be but to speak up when we see injustice being perpetrated against women. And, we are challenged by Jesus to examine the ways in which our own attitudes and opinions ignore such abuses of power, and conform to sinful double standards. And while we can often point to more egregious examples of injustice and violence against women in other countries, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognizing that there is plenty happening here, right in our own communities.

Honestly, this was a bit out of my comfort zone, and so I was pretty nervous. I wasn’t sure how people would react. I was pleased with the homily, though it took a lot out of me. And, as I reflected for a few moments afterward, I was confident that what I had said indeed reflected God’s concern.

And that was why I was so appalled and angered by the prayers of the faithful! Now, they come from a book which the parish bought, so no one there is to blame, but I couldn’t believe that after I had said all that, the first prayer was for “our bishops, priests, and deacons.” And it only got worse. There was not a single mention of women, never mind injustice against women. I wanted to scream! Instead, I did the more genteel thing, and added my own prayer at the end for women who are victims of sexual abuse and violence. I wonder if I should have said something more, but I always want to be careful not to distract people from the liturgy of the Eucharist (and I’d already said quite a bit). And, hey, I’m saying something more now.

But I was distracted, and I wondered if people noticed that I was angered by how the prayers had indeed managed to ignore the elephant in the room. I couldn’t help but wonder if that was a deliberate omission, and whether the people who wrote the prayers had considered how out of sync that first prayer was likely to be with many a homily today. Sometimes at mass I’m taken by how well the prayers, usually written independently of me, fit with the subject of my homily. And sometimes when they don’t, I wonder if I missed something. But today was the first time that I felt the prayers didn’t seem to get it at all; that it wasn’t me who missed something . . .

These news reports coming out of Steubenville certainly missed something, and they should be ashamed.

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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.

The Cause of Christ

What’s your cause?

It seems like more and more these days Christians are becoming identified with their causes, instead of with Christ.  Sure, we can put some of the blame on the media, and those who don’t like us, but I think we also have to accept some of the blame ourselves.  I know some Christians–and you probably do too–whose Christian commitment seems all about commitment to a single cause, whether that is opposing abortion, promoting traditional marriage or trying to convince everyone they should be “real Catholics,” like them (whatever they take that to mean).  And then there are those who use causes to promote an unChristian agenda, pretending they are motivated by Christian morality, when really they are motivated by something else.  This usually manifests itself in a certain selectivity as to who they go after.  They raise the alarm about someone’s shortcomings, criticizing them for failing to sufficiently follow the Church’s teaching, or failure to support a given cause.  But often such failings are only evident in those who don’t agree with them politically or ideologically, while those who do get a pass for the same failures.  Take, for example, those on either side of the debates about whether President Obama (with his problematic views on abortion) or President Bush (with his endorsement of torture and the death penalty) should be allowed to speak at a Catholic university.  It seems to me you can only go one way or the other on this subject.  Either both should be allowed, or both should not.  Frankly, I find myself more inclined to the latter these days.  At least that would speak of some consistent Christian outlook, rather than picking and choosing based on one’s political convictions.  Sure, we can argue the relative merits of various pro-life positions, but personally I think that obscures our belief that all life is sacred, which I believe is the Christian position, no matter how you parse it.

This is not to say that Christians should not be involved in what are worthwhile causes.  And it also doesn’t mean that I don’t recognize that one can only put one’s energy into a limited number of causes despite their support for and belief in various others.  Indeed, I believe that some people are especially called to be proponents of certain causes.  I’ve seen this happen with a number of my students over the years.  It’s when people start to believe that those who are dedicated to a cause other than their own cannot have a legitimate calling from God that things get out of whack, and uncharitable and even hateful behavior can ensue.  When those, for example, who are dedicated to the causes of social justice look askance at and even speak ill of those dedicated to pro-life causes, and vice-versa (and many of us know this is happening), the fabric of the Christian faith starts to tear, and suddenly Christians both answering the call of God see themselves to be on different “sides.”  And the battle is on to be the winner of the title “real Christian.”

I have found myself examining a lot lately the extent to which my causes can get in the way of my commitment to my calling.  As I interact pastorally with all varieties of people, I realize that as much as I would like them to see things as I do, to adopt my causes, the more important thing is that I help them to discover the unique vocation that God is calling them to.  And I am urged to remember that their calling and mine all find their foundation, measure and answer in our common, ultimate and most important cause–the cause of Christ.  When any cause starts to seem more important than this one, that’s when I hope with God’s help, that I can step back and reassess my priorities, so as not to lose sight of Jesus, even if that means climbing a sycamore tree like Zaccheus, or like Peter stepping out of the boat and into the sea.

Rough Hands

This past weekend I joined the nearby parish where I help out for their patronal feast.  It was a wonderful celebration.  The church was packed.  One of the bishops came and presided at mass (doing so both in English and Spanish—I was impressed).  Everyone was well-dressed.  At the offertory, representatives of various different countries came forward dressed in ethnic costume to present some native foods.  Then came the offering of the bread and the wine.  Dinner and dancing followed in the newly renovated parish hall downstairs.

There were many things to remember that evening.  I enjoyed the company of the parishioners, and the fellow priests who came.  I got to know the bishop a little bit, a Bronx boy himself.  But there was one thing that stuck with me above all else, and it’s not what I would have expected.  Usually that means God is trying to tell me something, so it’s been the subject of my prayer this week.

It was just after mass, as we stood outside the church.  As usual, we waited to greet the people as they exited.  One of the things I love about this community is that people are very eager to shake your hand, sometimes hug you, and say hello.  For some reason I noticed in a striking way something I certainly was not unaware of.  I noticed how so many of the hands I was shaking were rough, work-worn hands.  These are people who work hard, many of them in demanding manual labor jobs.  And their hands speak that.

You may have heard a priest or seminarian say, “these hands were made for chalices, not calluses.”  Even said as a joke, I despise that sentiment.  There is no reason that a priest shouldn’t have callused hands that lift chalices.  Priests shouldn’t be afraid of or avoid hard work, even manual labor.  Yet, even while thinking this, I find that I cannot ignore the fact that compared with such rough hands, my hands are embarrassingly smooth.  I take no pride in that fact.  I wish they were more callused, even though admittedly I have never been incredibly enthusiastic about manual labor.  It’s interesting that now that I’m a priest I’m in fact less averse to such work, though I find I now have fewer opportunities to do it.  But this week I’ve been trying to work out what God is trying to say to me with both these sets of hands.

Certainly it challenges me to be more aware of the lives which those I minister to are leading.  How hard they work, and how little pay they probably receive for that work.  I was also reminded that my father’s hands are similarly rough.  As a diesel mechanic, he has spent his life fixing trucks and equipment, and his hands certainly witness to that.  As I child I remember it being something of an object of fascination that his hands were so rough in comparison to mine.

At the same time, I’ve been taking a class on Eucharist and social justice, where we discuss the meaning and implications of our Eucharistic celebrations, like the mass we had this night.  At every mass I speak the words “the work of human hands,” often not really thinking about what that means.  This class is pushing me to be attentive to such things.  What we are saying at that point in the mass, in fact, is that our Eucharist is possible because the work of so many brings the bread and wine to us so that we can offer it as a gift to each other.  And it occurred to me for the first time that my father’s hands are part of that process.  In the course of his lifetime he has fixed probably thousands of trucks that have delivered all sorts of things, and certainly among those things food, bread and wine.  So, when we hear “the work of human hands” we are reminded that our Eucharistic food depends on the work of my father, and many of those rough-handed people who come to church each Sunday.

Recent discussions about immigration have focused around the fact that so many are unwilling to do the kind of work that brings food to our tables.  What does that say about us and our prayer?  Shouldn’t we be willing to get our hands “roughed up” a bit for the good of others? And if we are not willing or able, don’t we have a responsibility to care for those who will?  There is no Eucharist without bread.  There is no Eucharist without rough hands.

Not Quite Michael Clayton

This year, in addition to the various other things I was doing, I gave a bit of my time to help in the work of NJCIR (The National Jesuit Committee on Investment Responsibility). The NJCIR invests in different corporations and then, as stockholders, meets with leaders of those corporations to discuss social justice concerns. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I agreed to do the job. But it involved attending a couple of meetings with a corporation in White Plains, NY. Together with some NJCIR regulars and some representatives of partner organizations, we sat down at a table and made our concerns known. I wrote a short reflection on my experience for the NJCIR annual report. Here’s some of what I had to say:

As we sat down to our meeting with the agribusiness company, Bunge corporation, there were visions of the film Michael Clayton dancing through my head. Yet, thankfully, the only coincidence was the type of corporation we were dealing with. Tilda Swinton’s ruthless corporate villain was not sitting at the table with us. Instead, there was a rather amiable cast of characters, each willing to listen to our concerns . . .

. . . I always thought that if I were advocating for such things, I’d be living beside the poor in a third world country, not sitting at a corporate conference table in White Plains, NY. Our corporate responsibility efforts are certainly less visible and less romantic than advocating for refugees on the borders of Africa, but no less important. But in the midst of doctoral studies and teaching at Fordham University, it is nice to know that 90 minutes of my time, and a train ride to White Plains can make a contribution to human rights and environmental justice in other parts of the world.

You can find out more about the NJCIR, and read the entirety of my reflection in its annual report, which can be found here.