Do you know who you’re talking to?

As I walked down the hall and into our parish’s Spanish language youth group meeting after a very trying and somewhat disappointing middle school lesson on the Ten Commandments, I was fully immersed in beleaguered-teacher mode. I entered and quickly began an Advent lesson on Mary. We began reviewing the stories of the Annunciation, the Visitation, and the Nativity, and I was asking questions and giving answers in a pretty rote fashion: What’s the angel’s name? Who does he visit first? Who is Elizabeth the mother of? Yes, that’s right … no, that’s wrong … and so forth. But before long a more engaging question came up from one of the students: why doesn’t Mary get scolded for questioning the angel?

I paused. It’s a decent question. Gabriel shows up to Zechariah and announces a miraculous birth. When Zechariah asks how this shall come to pass given the age of himself and his wife, the angel takes this as a doubt-filled affront and strikes him mute. Fast forward a little bit, when Gabriel shows up to Mary and announces a miraculous birth. Mary asks how this shall come to pass given the circumstances of her virginity. Gabriel, instead of becoming angry, gives a fuller account and praises Mary even further. What gives?

light-shining-woman-on-bed
Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Annunciation” (image courtesy commons.wikimedia.org)

The students give various answers. They seem to me insufficient, and I say so; I’m the teacher after all. No, that’s not right. No, I don’t think so. I give some explanation which seems to me semi-convincing, and the kids nod. I prepare to move on. But another hand goes up, “No Mr. Steven, I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s a better explanation.”

“Oh,” I say, skeptical. “And what is that?”

The student continues. “I mean, I just think the angel knows who he is talking to … the mother of the King. In some way his own mother. You cannot talk to your mother that way. Maybe your brothers and sisters, maybe your friends, but not your mother. I would never, and surely the angel is better at these things than I am.”

I had never thought of that before. The student’s response knocked me out of my haze and into a moment of speechless consideration. I’ll admit, I don’t know the real answer to this question (who can pretend to know the minds of the angels? The mind of God?), but I loved his answer and his perception humbled me. I was no longer in teacher modeI was awake now, and pondering this possibility right alongside the rest of the class.

I just think the angel knows who he is talking to.

My student comes from a home where there is a much greater culture of traditional respect than in the home I grew up in. Most of the time, I talked to my parents any which wayif anything, familiarity was a sign of closeness and affection, not respect. And while both have their place, I realized that the discussion with this student meant I had missed somethingI couldn’t see what he could.

It is a lesson I have learned before and which I clearly need to learn again; perhaps one we must learn over and over countless times: we can only see the fullness of truth in a community of faith. Our viewpoints are limited and all those we encounter know something we don’t. We can learn something new from anyone at any time if we are willing to set down the answer book and listen. Just as an adolescent Jewish girl from Nazareth can outrank an angel in holiness, so too can students surpass their teacher’s insight; so too can we all be outmatched in wisdom by those we underestimate. Real wisdom is not ignoring those lessons when they come.

But the student’s answer is also challenging on a different level. As I left class that day I found myself thinking, “Do I know who I am talking to?” My students are kids; kids I am entrusted with teaching and correcting. But do I also recognize them as brothers and sisters and fellow disciples? People with unique experiences of God that frequently surpass my own in holiness? People who had a relationship with God before I stepped in the classroom and who will have one long after they have moved on from our time together?

Do I know who I am talking to in the people I meet every day? Do I know who I am talking to in the person on the street? Do I know who I am talking to when I argue with my enemy? C.S. Lewis once said that there are no ordinary people:

There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously — no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner — no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses.

All too often I don’t know this. For me, familiarity might not breed contempt but it can sure breed blindness and ingratitude. The people I see every day my family, my students, my co-workers and acquaintances —  become normal, and I can no longer see them each for the unique word of God that is spoken in them. The unique aspect of the Divine Person that they are in the world.

My student gave me a great gift on the first day of Advent and so it has become my Advent prayer:

Renew my vision. Let me see people as they really are; let me see them as you see them. Let me take no one for granted, and let me recognize your face in all I meet.

Lord, let me see who I am talking to. Amen.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven Cottam

Steven-Cottam-babySteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, with his lovely wife, precocious daughter and adorable infant son. He is an active member of Common Change, a group which seeks to gather and distribute tithe money in a relational and collaborative way. He has been friends with Sister Julia ever since they were students, coworkers, and cooking club members together at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice

The present era of misinformation and manipulation in the media and politics calls us to seek out truth amid the noise, and to discover the prophetic voices that can help us follow the spirit through our complex realities.

One the most powerful voices to guide our understanding is Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, former foreign correspondent for The New York Times, author, ordained Presbyterian minister and lover of the arts. His work speaks prophetically against the evils of absolute corporate power and our plutocratic war-hungry society so loudly that he has been relegated to places like RT America, Truthdig and, formerly, TeleSur English.

Mostar, Bosnia, a city heavily bombed during during the war in Yugoslavia covered by Chris Hedges while he was a war correspondent (photo by Sophie Vodvarka)

Hedges exiled himself to his current places in journalism after following his conscious and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq. His truth-telling in television as well as in numerous articles and books covers wide-ranging current affairs including war, the rise of Christianized fascism, the plight of the working class, the prison industrial complex, the demise of a legitimate liberal class, environmental issues and climate change, to name a few.

Through these topics and many others, Hedges speaks directly, historically, spiritually and analytically about the United States empire and how our system of unfettered corporate capitalism has infiltrated our institutions and our hearts. He has written extensively about how today’s terror of President Trump is a direct result of a decaying society and how we ought to understand his presidency, including in his recent piece The Cult of Trump.

I’ve been consuming Hedges’ vast library of work for three years now and have observed that it takes a lot of caring for my own well-being, spiritual growth and time for me to be able to digest his incredible analysis of our society. Hedges does not pull any punches. He speaks directly about the fact that our democracy is what Sheldon Wolin (one of his favorite thinkers) refers to as a state of “Inverted Totalitarianism.”

Let’s be real: his work is tough to consume. It is tough because it makes you realize how much propaganda and misinformation we consume daily through our airwaves and how delicate our democracy, and institutions, really are.

I’ve found that when I am not in a place where I can live a healthy life and take time to care for my soul, I can easily be overwhelmed by Hedges’ work. We all deserve to have enough time to think complexly about the world, though many are not afforded this privilege. I am grateful to have the choice to give myself more time to consider ideas that are much more extreme because of their lack of saturation into the mainstream conscious, while partaking in sustained self-care and personal growth.

The complex reality of our times requires us to love ourselves as God loves us; to provide the space we need to hold darkness without being driven into despair or maniacal messiah-complexes. Of equal importance is gaining strength and holding the light while caring for ourselves so that we may cultivate and sustain our spiritual, physical and mental well-being in the midst of these difficult times.

This non-dual thinking creates spaces for some incredibly interesting, albeit difficult, work. Here are just a few reasons why becoming familiar with Hedges’ work is absolutely crucial for any truth-seeking human right now:

1. Hedges believes in the power of love to keep us human despite all horrors, and that living a virtuous life is the highest good we can all achieve. He writes holistically and speaks against the evils of careerism, materialism and the degradation of our shared world and environment. He is a passionate lover of the arts, reminding us of the power of creative living and that the good attracts the good.

2. His work helps build bridges. He is so unbelievably knowledgeable of history, and his personal experience living abroad has contributed to a really interesting perspective I don’t see many other places. (I appreciate this particularly after having also lived in a number of countries besides the U.S.) This perspective is so decidedly non-partisan that I gave his first book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning” (which I loved) to my Republican father, whose politics are usually opposite of mine. He loved it too. This gives me hope.

3. Hedges helps me think critically in the same way that a good liberal arts education teaches you how to think, not what to think. Why? Because what Hedges reports is so far out of what the mainstream media is covering right now that, despite the factual evidence of his work, it sometimes feels hard to believe what he is saying. In addition to this, I also sometimes struggle with his impassioned speeches about the very real possibility that our society is near collapse. Hedges has covered numerous wars, rebellions and many other catastrophic events across the world. He is used to high drama, and awareness of this has helped me stay centered while being informed.

Chris Hedges’ prophetic voice has been profoundly influential in the way I view the world. His work aims to affirm the dignity of all living things, shine light on illusions and carry the glow of love through unimaginable terror. His well-informed voice ought to be the most powerful in the land but, like most prophets and truth-tellers in their times, he is pushed to the margins, relegated to speak where he is able.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Sophie Vodvarka

Photo courtesy Sophie Vodvarka

 

Sophie Vodvarka enjoys writing about creative living, particularly spirituality, art, travel and current affairs. She has an affinity for gypsy music and lives joyfully in Chicago, Illinois, with her partner. Follow her blog @ Straight into oblivion and on Twitter @SophieVodvarka.

Serving up accountability this holiday season

Thanksgiving in the United States is often a time to come together with family, friends and whomever else we call community.

My favorite memories of Thanksgiving are around the table sharing food, memories full of warmth, comfort and a feeling of belonging.

But as I grew up, I also learned about the real history behind Thanksgiving; a terrible history, far removed from the supposed “reenactment” of a generous meal shared between settlers and indigenous people who I was taught to participate in as a kid in my Catholic elementary school.

And now that I know that Thanksgiving, in fact, recalls the meals that celebrated massacres of indigenous people, I cannot “un-know” that history — a settler society built the United States on genocide.

For us white folks only recently opening our eyes to the genocide, racism and oppression that founded the United States, it is only reasonable to ask, now what do I do?

One important response is to start focusing on accountability.

For the past five years I have facilitated a series of formation sessions dealing with issues of power and privilege for Franciscan Mission Service, a lay Catholic organization that prepares and supports lay missioners living and serving in solidarity in host countries outside of the United States.

And each year as I help prepare (mostly white) Franciscan missioners to live and serve in communities across cultural and racial differences, we talk about how vital it is for white folks to not only recognize and process our feelings of guilt when addressing the violence of racism and white supremacy, but also to move with that guilt into a focus on accountability

people-dinner-table-community-is-built-on-accountability
Original art by Annemarie Barrett

Accountability is a step beyond apologizing, a leap beyond feeling guilty.

It is pretty basic on a personal level: when someone hurts me I expect their apology, but that apology means nothing without accountability.

Accountability means that the person who hurt me not only apologizes for the harm caused but also makes a demonstrable commitment to change, to act and do differently from now on.

So for white Catholic folks who believe in Gospel values of social justice, inclusion and radical conversion, what if we treated this Thanksgiving as an opportunity to practice accountability?

Now that you know that the Thanksgiving holiday is not celebrating what you had been taught, how does your faith call you to respond? How might your conscience move you?

As white folks whose privilege and power was built on the genocide of indigenous peoples, what might practicing accountability mean for us on an individual, communal and even national level?

How might you move with your guilt into making concrete changes in what you do and how you act this upcoming holiday season? How might you choose to educate yourself further about this history? How might you share what you are learning and open conversations with other white folks about these challenging topics?

What might accountability mean at the level of the Catholic church?

While the Catholic church has in some circumstances recognized and publicly apologized for generations of sexual abuse in indigenous communities and Catholic boarding schools, what would it mean to move beyond apologies and focus more on accountability? What structural changes would need to be made? How might power dynamics necessarily change? What could you do to affect that change?

This holiday season is just a place to start. For white people, reflecting on accountability can become a part of a daily spiritual practice. We are invited to ask ourselves, how are we accountable to those most marginalized among us? How are we accountable to the immigrants, the refugees, the asylum seekers and the communities of color across our country surviving the terrors of police violence?

Now that we know, we cannot un-know our collective history. But, we can choose to humbly listen to marginalized experiences, actively educate ourselves to combat our ignorance, and courageously challenge our privilege and power in order to grow.

We can choose to confront the weak and problematic foundations of our communities and invest in radical change in order to rebuild on a stronger foundation of trust and accountability.

ABOUT THE RABBLE ROUSER

Annemarie Barrett

Annemarie-BarrettAnnemarie grew up in the Midwest and now lives in Bolivia, South America. Her spiritual journey has been greatly influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement and the Franciscan charism of humble availability and deep solidarity. She has also been influenced and transformed by the unique experience of spending most of her life in Western, capitalist culture and now living for years in Andean culture that is much more communal and rooted in the wisdom of indigenous communities. Today, she lives and farms with her partner and also creates and sells her original art under the name AEB Art.

 

God, the Ocean

A little over a week ago, I got to be near the ocean. I didn’t get to see it. I didn’t get to tuck my toe into the salty fluid; I wasn’t able to wade upon the sand and rocks and contemplate the depth beyond the shore.

(I was near the ocean because I traveled to South Carolina for an incredible interfaith retreat, which I will likely write about later. For now, though, I feel compelled to share a meditation about God as ocean.)

I was less than 20 miles from the expansiveness of the ocean, from the habitat for more species than I can ever encounter in my lifetime. I was only 20 miles away,  and I didn’t get to feel the force of the waves. I didn’t get to hear the crash of the water upon the solid rock. I didn’t get to see the movement of water or taste the salty breeze. Not even 20 miles away, I didn’t get to encounter the mystery and might of the sea.

(Lament is a sacred sound, for it makes manifest our longing for the bigness that is beyond us. I am a lover of the Incarnation and I pray with my feet, my flesh.)

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

Although I am Midwesterner and live over 1,000 miles from the ocean, I have encountered its vastness many times before. I was born about 40 miles from the ocean, in Bangor, Maine. I have looked down into the waves from a plane 30,000 feet above the blurry blue. My travels have permitted me to dip my body in both the Pacific and the Indian. I have entered the Atlantic over and over. I have waded into the water from the west and east coasts of North America and the west and east coasts of Africa. I have walked to the tip of Spain, thought to be the end of the world in the Middle Ages. There too, I stared into the sea.

You might say that the ocean and I have been in a relationship for as long as I have been on Earth.

Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

I have understood God as ocean for years, but it has mainly been a metaphor I’ve kept in the quiet of my heart. I really started to think of God this way when I was a new novice with my community and my contemplative life started moving me away from the shallow water and into a depth that was over my head. During those days, I found myself praying God, I want to swim in the deepest parts of your love. I wrote in my prayer journal, God, I want to swim with the creatures that glow in the dark. 

On a “hermitage day,” I visited the Shedd Aquarium and sat in a dark room beside panels of thick glass, where I gazed at the beauty of bioluminescent sea creatures. In the quiet and dark, I meditated and prayed. Among the glowing life, I embraced not understanding God’s mystery.

Sunset at Cape Point, South Africa. Photo by Julia Walsh, FSPA

A couple of days ago, while working on preparations for a writers’ retreat I am leading, my study brought me to this letter to artists by St. Pope John Paul II, which I didn’t know about before. A quick read brought me to this phrase, a total thrill:

“Artists of the world, may your many different paths all lead to that infinite Ocean of beauty where wonder becomes awe, exhilaration, unspeakable joy.” – St. Pope John Paul II

Apparently I am not the only one who knows God as an Ocean. Evidently others have experienced how many paths of goodness can lead to encounters of beauty, wonder, awe, exhilaration and joy. This, I am learning, is the stuff of saints.

This is what swimming in God’s love does: it opens up waters so deep that we can only rejoice. This is what communion with God’s Spirit is: a love so expansive that we cannot explore all of it in our lifetimes. I am not an oceanographer, but I suspect those who are would say the same about this planet’s great seas.

St. Pope John Paul II’s message is meant for everyone, not just those of us who might claim the title artist. All of us are called to be creative; we are children of God, who is infinite creativity. We all get to washed by this love, transformed by its power.

And, all of us are called to contemplate the goodness of God, to experience its expansive mystery. We are invited to dive to the depth of God’s mystery; this is a universal call to holiness. We all are invited into depths that are over our heads, where we can swim with mysterious creatures. Our discoveries and encounters in the Ocean will change us, awaken us.

I am learning that as we get farther from the shore, we will realize that we have always been swimming. No matter if we are in a land-locked place thousands of miles away from the ocean, the Ocean is where we came from and it is where we always are. The Ocean is our true home.

Will you come and swim with me?

At Cape Point, South Africa in 2002.

Dark Devotional: Getting Naked

The trees are getting naked around here.

The trees: companions in my neighborhood, definers of the landscape, manifestations of God’s goodness, creativity, and strength. Towering oaks, maples, aspens, birch, all tucked between the pines. These wide-reaching wonders now expose their bark, limbs and brownish cores. Orange-tan leaves that once defined them, now cover the ground and create a crunch underfoot.

It’s a stripping.

And, a great modeling of love.

Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.

– Deuteronomy 6:5

Radical discipleship demands a bold love from me, from you. God seems to expect the giving back of our whole selves to… [This is the beginning of a reflection I wrote for Sick Pilgrim at Patheos, about the readings for the 31st Sunday in Ordinary TimeContinue reading here.]

Sisterly solidarity, crisis in Cameroon

Beheaded bodies lying in the streets. Stray dogs and pigs picking at human corpses on the roadside. Vibrant communities silenced and still, everyone indoors, too afraid to go to school or to the market. Roadblocks stopping travel, isolating entire villages. A pregnant woman delivers a baby who doesn’t survive because they can’t get to the hospital. Food rots because no one can travel and farmers can’t transport their harvests, and survivors of violence become increasingly malnourished, moving toward starvation.

These scenes may sound like snippets from a nightmare, but for Anglophones in Cameroon, these are the current facts of life. I gleaned those descriptions listed from an email forwarded to my inbox a couple weeks ago, written by a Cameroonian to a friend of my community, a philanthropist in Wisconsin. The writer was lucky to be able to send the message to his friend in Wisconsin; the Cameroonian government has blocked the internet in the Anglophone region frequently in recent months. The writer is lucky to be alive.

Cameroon, a nation in West Africa, is about 80 percent French speaking and 20 percent English speaking. Late in 2016, students and professionals such as educators and lawyers in the Anglophone region began to protest the Francophone majority, declaring that they were being treated like second-class citizens. In response to their protests, the Cameroonian government… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

With my 2015 Global Local Group

Breaking down the walls because ‘tú eras mi otra yo’

I once stood near the United States-Mexico border. In the journey to this edge, I witnessed the evidence of militarization: guns, checkpoints, armored vehicles, cameras. The steel fence rose from the sandy earth like a misplaced mountain. I felt my body tense from the feeling of surveillance. I felt the unease and sorrow that seemed to hover in the dry desert air.

This was a little over two years ago, when I visited Nogales, Arizona/Nogales, Mexico as a participant in the 2016 Border Convergence. In the shadow of the giant steel fence, I prayed and protested along with other Catholic Sisters and members of Giving Voice.

With other Giving Voice Sisters at the SOAW Border Convergence, Oct. 2016, Nogales, Arizona. I am the fourth Catholic Sister from the left in the photo.

Since that time much has happened in my life, including earning a MA in pastoral studies from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. At my graduation last May, I loved hearing this speech from one of the recipients of an honorary degree: Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas from El Paso, Texas, a pastor, educator, theologian, advocate for migrants and refugees and founder of the Tepeyac Institute.

In his speech, Msgr. Bañuelas centered his comments around the meaning of the Spanish phrase he learned from his grandmother: “tú eras mi otra yo” or “you are my other me.”  According to Bañuelas, when we see our humanity wrapped up in the being of others, we see how “walls between us threaten our sacred bounds” because “oneness with each other is oneness with God.”

As I understand it, a community of any type cannot know oneness if those who are poor and marginalized are not included, honored, respected. We come to know God and ourselves through the poor. In Bañuelas,’ words, “there is no conversion to God if there is no conversion to the poor. Through their eyes we see what Jesus sees, a life rich in beauty, value, and meaning.”

Since my graduation in May, Bañuelas,’ words have remained a steady challenge to me. I often ponder if my life is being converted more to the poor; if they are my center and path to knowing God more deeply. I think about during my visits to the county jail. I think about it during my drives around rural America. As a retreat minister, I often wonder how I’m going to help others know the sacredness of the other. I also consider the Christian call when I observe the divides in society, the collapse of connections over political aisles and the evidence that even the ecosystems are feeling the torment of conflict. How can we build more inclusive societies? How can we tend to the most vulnerable among us?

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I stood in front of a group of teens preparing for confirmation in the Catholic Church. I read this aloud:

“In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people.” – Pope Francis (Gaudete et Exultanteparagraph #6)

In other words, not only is our humanity bound up in one other but our salvation is too. If we are divided and not caring for one another across borders and divides, none of us will be able to experience the fullness of God’s reign. We are a Church, a people, a community only as strong as the most marginal and weak among us. This is what it means to be part of the Body of Christ. This is the stuff of South African spirituality called Ubuntu, which means “I am who I am because of who we all are” and “I am a person because I belong.”  It’s “tú eras mi otra yo” put another way.

Visiting each side of the border two years ago with my peers, I encountered the sacredness of a community and the goodness of God’s creation. The heat of the sun and the desert life growing in abundance testified to the truth that God did not create borders. God created the beauty of humanity, the glories of nature. And humanity and nature is all communal, like God, the Trinity.

God’s has designed us for unity, communion, community; we cannot be made whole if knowing one another demands crossing through splits and divides, if we must conquer walls and fences in order to bond as neighbors.

Building unity demands tearing down the walls and advocating for justice. As Bañuelas says, “tú eras mi otra yo” means “Our hearts and our lives shrivel when remain silent about the silence of others.” And, “tú eras mi otra yo” … “is the lived courageous hope not afraid to take a stand for justice, knowing that each stand removes a brick from injustice until it all comes tumbling down … because love always wins.”

Now is the time to cross the canyons split into our civility. Breaking down the walls will strengthen our society. We need each other because we are human, because we are the people of God.

With the walls down, let us look into the face of the poor and come to see God — doing so means better knowing ourselves, because “tú eras mi otra yo.” And it means, wonderfully, that we will not be the same.

“There is an innate part of God in each of us that needs to be honored and respected always. When we listen with our hearts and share in solidarity with the sufferings, the struggles the hopes and dreams of the poor, our lives are shaped anew. Our theology and ministry formation finds its deepest meaning. Our passion for living explodes into shouts of joy and a new person, a new humanity is born. The poor show us that when we are together as one we are invincible in justice, peace, hope and reconciliation.”  – Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas  (Catholic Theological Union graduation, 2018.)

Changed hearts and lives, strengthened communities and Church, with the walls broken down there will be no more borders to visit or neighbors to fear. We are closer to God and encounter all people seeing clearly that “tú eras mi otra yo.”

Credit: SOA Watch

YOU ARE INVITED TO THE 2018 SOAW BORDER CONVERGENCE

The third mobilization at the border in Nogales, Arizona/Sonora Mexico is Nov. 16-18, 2018!

“Our move to the border responds to the present-day call to solidarity in Latin America. The mobilization at the border in Nogales is one more way to fight for the closure of the School of the Americas/WHINSEC and an end to U.S. intervention in Latin America. The third bi-national Encuentro at the militarized U.S./Mexico border aims to build the grassroots power necessary to challenge the racist statutes quo and push back against U.S. intervention in Latin America.”

Details are here: http://www.soaw.org/border/

A persecuted Church: Images of the Body of Christ in “Romero”

Blessed Oscar Romero will be canonized a saint in Rome this coming Sunday, October 14th. You can view the live Canonization Mass on EWTN starting at 3:30 a.m. ET or again at noon. In honor of the upcoming celebration, I offer you a review of the film about the last three years of his life that I wrote as part of my coursework at Catholic Theological Union.

Saint Oscar Romero, pray for us!

When I taught high school, a poster hung in my classroom that read, “Stand up for what’s right even if you’re standing alone.” To my theology students, the poster presented a message about the cost of discipleship; Jesus and his early followers were persecuted for standing up for justice, and through the centuries Christians have been persecuted for living the Gospel.

For three years (1977-1980), Oscar Romero served as archbishop in El Salvador. By his courageous leadership, all people in El Salvador — no matter if they were rich or poor, powerful or oppressed — were challenged to unite together as one body of Christ, as a stronger Church, more focused on the mission of Christ. He confronted systemic injustice, challenged the status quo, and stood along with the poor and oppressed. In the end, his courage caused martyrdom for Archbishop Romero. The true story is a reminder for us all that the cost of being Church can be persecution.

Credit: Franciscanmedia.org

A FILM OF TRUTH AND PAIN

The courage and Christ-like love of the archbishop during his poignant and brief period of leadership is captured in a 1989 film that bears his name, Romero. In addition to telling the tale of Romero’s leadership, Romero says much about ecclesiology through images of the Church as a Persecuted Body of Christ. A major theme of the film Romero is a contextual presentation of a definition of Church; as we see people unite together as the Body of Christ and build the Kingdom of God, the people come to embody the persecuted Christ.

Viewing Romero stirred up deep emotions in me. It felt like an act of prayer to journey with the Salvadorian people, and I became deeply saddened by the truth of their suffering. I remembered my experience protesting at the School of Americas in Georgia; I felt shame to know that my country was on the side of the oppressors in this conflict. Additionally, I became curious about the authenticity of the Romero quotes and the historical accuracy of the film.

I viewed the film in light of my reading and learning in an ecclesiology course at Catholic Theological Union. I was stunned to realize how highly theological the film Romero is and what it says about the global Church in the Post-Vatican II era. I noticed that the film featured several local “non-actors” which served to emphasize the ways in which the poor are the people of God who make up the Church. With this in mind, the faces of the ordinary people became strikingly beautiful as I watched. I realized the meaning was presented through the film’s strategic design of layering the pictures of the people with the sound of Romero’s speeches. The juxtaposition of my deeper theological understanding with the Truth of the story caused me to feel horror each time the film showed an image of Christ or the dignity of a person violated.

THE PERSECUTED BODY

In each period of Church history, there has emerged a new understanding of what it means to be Church. In the 20th century, after the Second Vatican Council, the meaning of Church became multidimensional. Church is a pilgrim people, the people of God on a journey. We are the Body of Christ. In Romero, we see this ecclesiology manifested within the context of the conflict in El Salvador. More significantly, we see how the archbishop responded to the tensions by presenting a way of being a Church that builds the Reign of God through action. As noted by Dulles, “to be fully effective, images must be deeply rooted in the corporate experience of the faithful.” This is, in part, why Romero’s focus on the people being the persecuted Church was effective within the context of El Salvador.

In one particular chapter of the film, we see a simple village church that has been converted into a barracks. The archbishop courageously enters the church and announces to the uniformed soldiers that he has come to retrieve the Eucharist. A machine gun-bearing soldier hears him and turns to point his weapon toward the high altar at the front of the church. First, we see Jesus’ body hanging on the crucifix above the altar as it is sprayed with bullets. Then, we see the doors of the tabernacle blast off as the surrounding altar, wall, and flower vases fill with bullet holes. The soldier turns to the archbishop and tells him to leave the church, and then smiles with satisfaction when Romero does. Romero goes into the street and looks into the faces of the people who stare back at him with concern. Romero then re-enters the church, returns to the high altar and tries to pick up as many pieces of the Eucharist as he can from the floor while more gunfire sprays toward him. As he crouches and gathers his beloved Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, a soldier approaches and kicks him to the ground. For the third time, the archbishop leaves and returns, now wearing his priestly garments and walking through the streets of the village toward the church with people following him. Romero leads the crowd into the church. Together, they gaze straight ahead and move unflinchingly past the soldiers who are pointing guns at them. Despite the confused and shocked looks upon the soldiers’ faces, Romero and the people fill the church. Archbishop Romero stands near the altar, looks into the faces of the people and speaks. He declares that he and the people have come to

 … retake possession of this church building and to strengthen all those whom the enemies of the Church have trampled down. You should know that you have not suffered alone, for you are the Church. You are the people of God. You are Jesus, in the here and now. He is crucified in you, just as surely as he was crucified 2,000 years ago … And, you should know that your pain and your suffering, like his, will contribute to El Salvador’s liberation and redemption.

Through the combination of the words of Romero and cinematic technique, the film presents an image of the Church. We see that the Church stands with the oppressed; the Church itself is persecuted, for it is the Body of Christ. The scene mirrors the ecclesiology defended by Romero in his pastoral letter The Church, The Body of Christ in History in which he writes, “no one should be surprised that the Church is being persecuted precisely when she is being faithful to her mission … It is the Church’s belief that this persecution affects Christ himself; what touches any Christian touches Christ, because he is in personal union with all Christians — especially in anything that involves the poorest of society.” Romero’s particular attention to “the poorest of society” by his words and action is especially significant in the context; the Church was accused of being Marxist and “meddling in politics” because it stood beside the poor. Within the same pastoral letter, Romero defends the Church’s actions against these accusations by especially emphasizing that the Church “has done no more than fulfill her mission.” Part of that mission, he insists, is to promote the inclusivity and unity that is core to the Reign of God, for the Gospel does not exclude any person, rich or poor. As he wrote, “… the Archdiocese has been faithful to the Gospel, and for that very reason she has been persecuted. Yet out of this persecution arises a stronger unity that helps her to offer the people more effectively her message of hope and love.”

AS ONE BODY OF CHRIST

Throughout the film, as they respond to the sociopolitical tensions in their country, we also see how the poorest Salvadorian people arise united by their ambition to build the Reign of God. The film begins with a scene of the military of El Salvador providing surveillance at a political rally in February 1977. As the people in the crowd cheer to a speech that calls for a free election, it becomes clear that the people are united in their desire for freedom and confrontation of the power system. As the film progresses, the people persevere with unwavering determination, even while more and more people are assassinated, arrested, tortured and raped; disappear. Their cause is the Gospel that promotes the dignity and freedom of all people, but their courage is a threat to the power of the right-wing government and death squads.

Immediately after the martyrdom of Romero, the last scene of the film shows a group of ordinary poor people, old and young, moving along a crowded road. Mothers walk with their children holding their hands. One young woman carries a bucket while another carries a basket on her head. An older man guides a mule. As we look into the people’s faces and see their poverty, we hear Romero’s voice one more time: “I’ve often been threatened by death. If they kill me, I shall arise in the Salvadorian people. Let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be a reality. A bishop will die, but the Church of God, which is the people, will never perish.” With this conclusion of the film, we are once again given an image of the Church as the persecuted people of God.

LESSONS FOR OTHER CONTEXTS

Although the image of the Church that is present in Romero is particular to the sociopolitical context during and after Romero’s time, the image of the people of God being a persecuted Church is not unique to that historical situation. Images of Church “suggest attitudes and courses of action; they intensify confidence and devotion,” but they really are not effective if they don’t fit the experience of the members of the Church. Nonetheless, I can apply certain lessons from Romero to my particular context because I relate to the experience of persecution as a member of the Church.

As a Franciscan Sister, I regularly find myself in a state of discernment about how to live the Gospel no matter the cost of discipleship. Even though my experiences are not as drastic as the violence dealt with by the Salvadorians, I also must confront my fears about the price of discipleship. Romero fed me the courage needed to be a Christian in contentious times; I now expect persecution since I am part of the Church. As a member of the Body of Christ, I will do what the poster in my classroom said and “stand up for what’s right” when the Spirit calls me to. Because of my faith, the difference is that I will be united with my Christian brothers and sisters in Christ’s love. I will not be, as the poster says, “standing alone.”

SOURCES

James R. Brockman, “Pastoral Teaching of Archbishop Oscar Romero” Spirituality Today40, no. 40 (1988). Online.

Oscar Romero, “The Church, the Body of Christ in History,” in Voice of the Voiceless and Other Pastoral Statements, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985), 69 and 79.

Antonio D. Sison, “Reign-Focus: Theology, Film, and the Aesthetics of Liberation” New Theology Review 24, no. 3 (2011): 45.

Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium (1964), in Vatican Council II: The Counciliar and Post Counciliar Documents, ed. Austin Flannery (Northpoint, NY: Costello, 1998), nos. 13 and 50.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.

“Unity,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.

Romero, “The Church,” 79.

Romero, “The Church,” 78.

Romero, “The Church,” 79.

Romero, “The Church,” 72.

Romero, “The Church,” 76.

Romero, “The Church,” 76.

“End Credits,” Romero, directed by John Duigan (1989; USA: Paulist Pictures/Vision Video), DVD.

Avery Cardinal Dulles, Models of the Church (New York: Doubleday, 2002), 13.

Christian resistance in the style of St. Francis

It’s indisputable that today’s signs of the times point to heartache, injustice, division and confusion. The truth seems to be debatable. The persecutions of the little ones — from immigrant children, refugees, victims of natural disasters and targets of sexual assault; those who are on the margins — often are the ones who bear the brunt of the pain.

Today, on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi in 2018, I am not going to write volumes comparing and contrasting the 1200s with the present time. But I would like to suggest that the legacy of St. Francis — and particular Franciscan values — offer a formula for Christian resistance.

Francis reacted to much of the injustices occurring around him by behaving countercultural, by responding in ways that were opposite to the status quo. I believe that we could do the same by fostering the values of joy and humility within ourselves. To do so is radical resistance,  a response to the wrongs in our time.

Joy 

photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

The headlines can be discouraging, can cause us to feel weighed down with despair.  Adults mock those who are hurting in ways worse than children on playgrounds. The poor and elderly are dying in floods, earthquakes, fires. More women are speaking the truth of how they have been abused, violated. With such facts spinning around us, it may be only natural to be down.

Yet, the Franciscan way to resist the gloom and despair is to expand the goodness, to rejoice in the sweetness of God becoming part of the mess through the Incarnation. This is not a blissful, Pollyanna happiness but a refusal to let the negativity discourage us or overcome us. It is a deep joy because God’s goodness is greater than any sorrow. This was the spirit of my community’s assembly this past June: we started A Revolution of Goodness, so that goodness could overtake the awfulness corrupting hope and joy around the world.

For us Franciscans, the perfect joy persists no matter how awful the circumstances. God’s goodness provides a zest deep within.

Here are some words from St. Francis of Assisi, regarding the meaning of true joy:

Above all the graces and all the gifts of the Holy Spirit which Christ grants to his friends, is the grace of overcoming oneself, and accepting willingly, out of love for Christ, all suffering, injury, discomfort and contempt; for in all other gifts of God we cannot glory, seeing they proceed not from ourselves but from God, according to the words of the Apostle, “What hast thou that thou hast not received from God? And if thou hast received it, why dost thou glory as if thou hadst not received it?” But in the cross of tribulation and affliction we may glory, because, as the Apostle says again, “I will not glory save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Amen.

Humility and Poverty 

Like Francis, we live in a society that puts the rich, famous, and accomplished on pedestals. We love to celebrate the wealth and might of the rich. The image of success that we are fed is often a scene of materialism: a nice house, car and tons of stuff. Such greed for power and wealth is dangerous to our relationships, our civility and our planet, though. What is the way to resist?

St. Francis’ response to the pressure to become wealthy was a radical renouncement of money and power. Francis literally stripped down the wealth from his cloth merchant father, becoming naked in the public square. He took on the clothes of a poor man. He taught his followers to go the margins to live with and serve the lepers. He embraced poverty and humility, wholeheartedly, insisting that brothers forming community with him to call themselves the Order of Friars Minor. This Franciscan value of is often called minoritas by those of us that are Franciscans.

In today’s world, we can resist the greed for wealth and power and instead embrace the Franciscan values of poverty and humility by becoming downwardly mobile. Instead of working to associate with the elite, we turn our attention to the little ones, the poor and marginalized. We serve and spend time with the weak ones who are often ignored, aligning our selves with them on the streets; in shelters, soup kitchens, prisons and detention centers. We become smaller and lesser in the process as we pursue the chance to serve others instead of being served.

Here are some strong words from St. Francis of Assisi challenging us to grow in humility:

Consider, O human being, in what great excellence the Lord God has placed you, for He created and formed you to the image of His beloved Son according to the body and to His likeness according to the Spirit.

And all creatures under heaven serve, know, and obey their Creator, each according to its own nature, better than you. And even the demons did not crucify Him, but you, together with them, have crucified Him and are still crucifying Him by delighting in vices and sins.

In what, then, can you boast? Even if you were so skillful and wise that you possessed all knowledge, knew how to interpret every kind of language, and to scrutinize heavenly matters with skill: you could not boast in these things. For, even though someone may have received from the Lord a special knowledge of the highest wisdom, one demon knew about heavenly matters and now knows more about those of Earth than all human beings.

In the same way, even if you were more handsome and richer than everyone else, and even if you worked miracles so that you put demons to flight: all these things are contrary to you; nothing belongs to you; you can boast in none of these things.

But we can boast in our weaknesses and in carrying each day the holy cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Admonition V)

Photo credit: www.datinggod.org

Franciscan joy and humility are not the only ways to resist the injustices corrupting our current society; peacemaking, contemplation, and continual conversion are also good Franciscan values to influence us. It actually seems that joy and humility will naturally grow in us while we pursue peace, contemplate God’s goodness, and develop into who he is calling us to become.

Franciscanism is Gospel living, after all. And Gospel living itself is a constant turning to Christ. We follow Jesus as we promote the peace and justice that comes from him. We love our enemies. We decrease so God can increase. We spread the Truth of love.

These are radical ways to behave. We are Christian resisters in the style of St. Francis of Assisi, boldly living with joy and humility. May it be! Amen.