Can’t We All Just Coexist?

So, there it was again, in front of me, slipped in between “My Other Car is a TARDIS,” and the “Vulcan Science Academy Alumni” stickers.  Now, I’m not averse to either of those.  I, too wish I had a TARDIS (for the uninitiated, this is a blue police box, bigger inside than out, which travels in time and space and is piloted by a Time Lord, who calls himself “The Doctor”) and, back in the days when I had a car of my own, I seem to recall a Starfleet Academy sticker somewhere.  So, I’m not opposed to bumper stickers in general, but there is one that particularly sticks in my craw.  You’ve probably seen it.  It’s the one that says, “COEXIST,” but in the place of the letters are symbols of various world religions.  They can vary a bit, but one is likely to see a star and crescent, a star of David, a peace symbol, a ying-yang symbol, a cross, etc.  You get the idea.  At this point, many might wonder: Unless you are a religious militant or bigot, why would you object to that?

Well, I don’t consider myself either of those things.  You could call me a Christian evangelist, and I wouldn’t object to the term.  I am even ready to admit that I would love to have you become a Christian or a Catholic if you are not already one (and some, I suppose, even if you are!).  However, I admire anyone who is faithful and devoted to his or her religious tradition (or lack thereof), so long as they are not out to harm me, or worse kill me, because of mine, or because I don’t share theirs.  They can even try to convince me to convert if they’d like, though I doubt they’d be successful (chalk it up to an opportunity to learn more about them and what they value).  Given all that, sounds like I should be slapping one of those babies on my car too, right?  WRONG.

While I’ve no doubt that most people who sport such stickers have good intentions, I’m not sure they fully realize that they too are participating in their own form of bigotry.  As a Christian, when I read this “peaceful” reminder of my duty to live peacefully with my fellow human beings, I read condescension.  I read the presumption that my faith and the faith of others are naturally prone to violence and are, as some believe, at the root of all wars and conflict.  The implication is not simply that people of different faiths should coexist (because, in truth, we already do), but that if we really want to bring peace to the world we should all abandon our faiths and become secular humanists.  Yet, as Star Trek has shown us, even a federation founded upon a form of secular humanism, still has to fight battles with Klingons, Romulans, and various other peoples, races and factions that are different from them.  We cannot, nor should we, erase difference.

And truly, that is what is at the root of conflict and war.  Not religion, but difference.  Granted, some wars have been fought over religious differences, but many have not.  Thus, the “COEXIST” bumper sticker could just as easily feature the flags of various different countries.  It could include an elephant, a donkey, a teacup(?), and the symbols of various other political movements or parties.  It could include, as some do, the symbols for men, women, and the various LGBT communities.  Or, a combination of all of these things.  There is even one that suggests that aficionados of various sci-fi shows—Whovians, Trekkies, and the like—might also need to find ways to COEXIST.

To bring this way of thinking to its most absurd conclusion, then what we really need to do away with is coexistence.  If all religious peoples, video gamers, or sci-fi fans are by nature violent and intolerant of each other, then what we really have to do is give everybody in each community or category there own little peace of the earth.  That’ll solve things, right?  I’m still not convinced.  Jesus once said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”  He could just as easily have said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name—or anyone else’s, for that matter—there is difference.”  Thus, all of us, whether we adhere to a religious faith or not, whether we like it or not, are forced to coexist.  But, that’s obvious.  We don’t need anyone to tell us that.

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SyFy Sacramentals: Warehouse 13

At first it seemed like a weird premise and, I thought, this show’s going nowhere.  How are they going to maintain interest in a show in which covert Secret Service agents wander the country in search for powerful artifacts wreaking havoc in the real world, instead of being safely locked up in a warehouse in the middle of South Dakota?  You know the place.  It’s kind of like that warehouse in which the supposed ark of the covenant is shelved at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the infamous “Area 51” where the government hides all evidence of alien visitations and technology on earth.

But what do I know?  The show in question—Warehouse 13—has not only been successful, but now carries the distinction of being the Syfy channel’s most popular show ever.  I would argue that there have been better shows on Syfy—the recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica, for example—but for some reason Warehouse 13 seems to have a broader appeal.

Sitting waiting for penitents to come for confession recently (no, I do not have holy and pious thoughts every moment, even then), it occurred to meet that as a Catholic I should have realized sooner the appeal of the show.  The idea behind the show is not unlike the Catholic belief in “sacramentals.”  Sacramentals are material objects which, because of their special connection to someone or something sacred or holy, thus possess special qualities or are able to mediate God’s power or blessings in some way.  Thus, we invest religious medals, sacred art or relics connected with a particular saint with greater power or significance than just any other ordinary object.  They possess this power or significance not in and of themselves, but because of their connection to a significant or powerful person or moment in time.  Some see Catholics’ devotion and enthusiasm for such objects as strange and even superstitious.

But we Catholics, though we might appreciate it more, don’t have the corner on the sacramental market.  Just attend the latest Comic-con, or go to the Apple store, and you’ll see that the tendency to endow certain material things with special qualities because of their connection to something extraordinary—in this case, superheroes, a favorite TV show or the church of Apple—reveals itself as not something particularly Catholic, but peculiarly human.  One of the main differences is that “secular sacramentals,” the autograph of a famous person, for example, are often sold at a high price.  People profit monetarily from them.  Catholic sacramentals, on the other hand, are not meant to be sold for profit (though, still, they sometimes are).  People are meant to profit spiritually from them.  Sacramentals are meant to be used for good, not evil.

This is the mission of the Warehouse 13 agents.  They are on the front lines, trying to ensure that the errant “artifacts,” material objects often associated with a famous historical person or event (Lizzie Borden’s axe, for example) are not misused for the power they possess.  And, because the temptation to do so is so great, better that they be kept at the warehouse rather than become an occasion of sin.  Sometimes this means that the agents have to police each other.  Some in the past have gone rogue.  And, in the most recent episode, one agent draws his weapon on one the warehouse superiors, because she is using an artifact as a means of torture.  It will be interesting to see how the consequences of that decision are treated in future episodes.  The woman in charge of the warehouse now stands guilty of the very type of crime that the warehouse agents are out to stop.

The show is successful I think because most of us believe (or want to believe) that many material objects, like our own bodies, are more than just ordinary matter, floating in the soup of life.  Whether it be symbolically or even more substantially, certain special items hold a power which many people recognize.  There are a number of ways in which we memorialize significant historical persons, places or things.  And some hold power that only a given community or family might acknowledge.  In any case, we imagine that they all should be treated with respect, and that their power should not be used to harm others.  They are meant to fascinate and inspire, not to oppress or injure.  The good guys and gals at Warehouse 13 try to maintain that balance while taking care of each other, and having some fun in the process.  That’s why we like them so much, because they take seriously their duty to safeguard those things that we hold dear, without getting too uptight.

Seeking What’s Next

For the last three years, including last weekend, August 3-5, I’ve had the privilege of helping lead a young adult Charis retreat weekend called “What’s Next?: Finding Answers With Faith” at the Jesuits’ Ignatius House Retreat Center in Atlanta, GA.  This year, I put my admittedly amateur video skills to work in order to make a “highlight reel” of the weekend.  If you want to get a sense of what some young adults are looking for, and what our retreat was like, have a look at our video!:

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 Audible.com.  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.

“Find Christian Singles”

With targeted advertising, I often see such ads as the one above which promises to find other Christian singles for me to match up with.  I also get promises of many other things in my spam folder, which I’d rather not mention.  But the question of what it means to be a Christian single, and whether one can be content being so is an important question.  It’s also an interesting question for me because I’m a Christian who is permanently single.  So, last year, when my friend Beth Knobbe was soliciting articles for a collection of essays on living the single life as a Christian, I wondered: Do I count?

It’s an interesting question because for so many people being “single” means also to be “looking.”  Looking for that person that you might want to spend the rest of your life with, or just looking for someone whose company you enjoy who might make life a little less lonely.  But it could also mean that you are looking for God.  Which is often the case for me despite the fact that we are already “in a relationship.” But often “it’s complicated.”

For me as a priest being single means occasional loneliness, and even a bit of grief now and then over the fact that I don’t and won’t have that kind of relationship that two people who commit their life to each other in marriage hopefully do.  It also means now and then wondering, “what if . . . ?”  Yet, most of the time, my life is fulfilling enough that I’m not preoccupied with these questions.

Thankfully, Beth said that I did count, and so I did take a little time to write a brief essay, as did many others, about the experience of being a Christian single.  Those essays have been edited and collected into a book by Beth called Party of One: Living Single With Faith, Purpose & Passion, which will be published this summer.  So, if like me you have some questions about what it means to be single, and if you count, I’d encourage you to grab a copy when it becomes available, and even pre-order one now if you’d like.  Click here to access the Amazon page for the book.

You just might find that you are not so alone in the many joys and challenges you’ve discovered in being a Christian single yourself.  And for those of you that aren’t single, it might be a reminder of what it was like, or what some of your single friends might be experiencing (or not).  I know I’m looking forward to reading the other essays in the book!

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.

THIS ALSO SERVES AS A CHANCE FOR ME TO WISH A BLESSED EASTER TO ALL MY ‘BUDDIES’!