I wasn’t sure what it would look like, or how terrible it would be, but deep in my gut I felt something squirming. An awareness. A knowing. An intuition. I had a feeling that bad days were ahead.
I am fairly certain that my intuition that we were heading toward a humanitarian crisis wasn’t unusual. I know I am not unique in this regard. It’s connected to the recent uptick in the popularity of dystopian novels and films. It’s related to the fear and anxiety that caused this nation to elect a racist, misogynistic and xenophobic president — to latch onto his tendency to scapegoat and split the unity that formed our identity. I’ve sat in circles with other sisters many times, musing over what we might do once a time of trouble arrived.
But I never thought it would be like this, a global coronavirus pandemic. Yet here we are. The crisis has arrived, and it is serious and costly… [This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]
The 2015 movie Spotlight shows the painful and vital role of the outsider in exposing the systemic sex abuse perpetrated by clergy throughout Boston, and the U.S. Key outsiders, including the Jewish editor of the Boston Globe, the Armenian attorney representing survivors of abuse, and, most importantly, the survivors themselves, unlocked this horrific cover-up.
One of the most telling scenes in the film is when abuse survivor Phil Savianotells his story of abuse to the Spotlight reporters at the Boston Globe. One of the reporters notes that he seems eccentric, too passionate and perhaps unstable.
Of course he was. He was abused, traumatized by a priest. He understands the church in a way an insider, who benefits from the system, never will.
The implication in Spotlight, is that Phil may be an unreliable source because his demeanor is not that of a slick communications professional or soft-spoken pastor. And more importantly, his story went against the dominant narrative of the church in Boston. It is just so easy to dismiss someone who has no power, who goes against the grain of an institution from which so many not only personally benefit, but identify with on a core level.
This week, Pope Francis will convene a 4-day summit with bishops from throughout the world on the sex abuse crisis that continues to traumatize Catholics.
On matters of official church teaching, the all-male hierarchy has the final say. This suggests a power imbalance. And as with all power imbalances, the question of whose voice is legitimized in dialogue should be raised. Who do we believe, in the church and in society? Whose voices matter? And why?
Throughout church history, it is often an outsider whose voice is most genuine and prophetic, and who sparks change. This is because outsiders often hold little to no power, and can truly understand corrupt and unequal structures. Outsiders, due to their vantage point, are a gift, and should be embraced by all who want a more just church and world.
I recently wrote a piece about Roy Bourgeois in the Patheo’s blog Sick Pilgrim, which I hope creates dialogue about the roles of outsiders and women in the church. Roy was a founder of SOA Watch, an incredible movement for demilitarization and anti-imperialism, for which he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. The movement was widely supported by many Catholics. Then, after 40 years of practicing as a priest, Roy was excommunicated from the church because he refused to recant his support for women’s ordination.
Remarkably, Roy became an outsider due to following his conscience before he was excommunicated, but, as I write in this article, his understanding of the church became much clearer after being emphatically pushed out.
Roy was silenced. His voice was not welcome because it threatened the power of the all-male clergy, challenged the dominant narrative, and suggested that women could help heal the church. And for many of his previous supporters, this was enough to ignore him. The Vatican legitimized his ostracism, and if you personally benefit from the institutional church, then it removed the burden of having to bother with women’s inequality anymore.
I think it is nearly impossible for most people to understand the full picture of an institution from which they benefit, whether it is their job, their social life or their vows. This is why outsiders are a vital asset to all groups and societies. History always shows us that it is outsiders who bravely step into the public sphere, shine light on the truth and guide our way forward.
As the discussion of systemic abuse continues this week at the Vatican, let’s pray for outsiders, for whom we are all indebted. It is through their courageous lives and the grace of God that institutional culture changes. Let’s pray for their strength to turn pain and betrayal into action. For it is only through action that they, too, can be free.
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.
During a recent volunteer stint at the local drop-in center for people who are homeless, I overheard a conversation between two of the guests. A man gestured toward me and said, “Don’t talk like that here, especially with her around — she’s a nun.” I don’t know what they were talking about or what words they were using, but I noticed the woman he was talking to squirm in disbelief and embarrassment.
She turned to check me out, to see if he was telling the truth. I introduced myself and explained that yes, I am a sister, but that they shouldn’t worry or try to be any different around me. I asked her to be herself and said I would be myself too. I said that I am an ordinary person who just lives a different type of lifestyle. After commenting on my simple outfit of leggings and a sundress, she relaxed and said…
Over eight years ago, I had a conversation about table manners that continues to challenge me.
At the time I was a canonical novice and fairly new to religious life. During that stage of formation, I was trying to make sense of what it meant to be a Catholic sister and sort through my ideals. I was in a period of serious discernment about whether this religious lifestyle would satisfy my deepest desires, to take a vow of poverty and to serve the poor.
Then, in a somewhat ordinary conversation about table manners, I learned one of my most important lessons about what it means to be sister. The sister was outlining her expectations for mealtimes. As she did, she casually mentioned her conviction that…
I have a lot of passion about this. My experiences and awareness have formed a little fire about inequality to burn within me.
Really, when I pray and think about this issue, much comes to mind. Limiting myself to just a few hundred words is going to be tough. So, my strategy is to share five things with you: a quote, a video, an image, a story and a call to action.
1.) A quote from one of my current heroes, Pope Francis:
If you’re not one to naturally think about things with a Catholic vocabulary, basically Pope Francis is saying that every social problem that exists–poverty, warfare, hunger and food insecurity, lack of clean water, lack of adequate housing, discrimination, human trafficking–all injustice is connected back to problems of inequality. Turning away from our sinful, greedy, prideful, violent and selfish tendencies will cause us to protect the dignity of all people, no matter what stage of life they are in. Sounds like good Gospel living to me!
Although the video focuses on wealth inequality nationally, not globally, it still helps paint the true picture of how horribly unequal things are–even in a rich and powerful country. For a video full of statistics, it’s definitely captivating and informative!
I’ve never been to Brazil, but the stark contrast in this image reminds me of the borders of some poor and rich neighborhoods that I have visited in other parts of the world, including Mexico and South Africa. Those travels help me to recognize that the houses on the left side of this picture are actually pretty sturdy and adequate, as they are mostly made of brick and appear to have water and electricity.
Still, the inequality disturbs me. In fact, when I consider how my convictions regarding social justice (and equality for that matter) developed, I think back to the uncomfortable daily drive through a shantytown to a neighborhood of wealth where I stayed in Mexico City when I was a 16-year-old exchange student. Something very deep stirred within me then, helping me to know that such inequality is wrong.
I am not naive. I know Haiti is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. The poverty there certainly is much worse than anything I have been exposed to in my lifetime.
Nonetheless, as I listened to the priest speak about his friends in Haiti, I realized how clueless I actually am. My comfortable American life is way too distant from the Haitian experience. I can easily go through my days without thinking about the harsh realities of economic inequality that impact most people.
I thought about all this as I drove back to my community after the home visit and I realized my comfort is combined with bad habits. Despite my concern and intentions, I have been influenced by this culture. I remembered that even during the Mass when I was praying, especially for the thousands of people in Haiti who are living in tents without sanitary water, my mind wandered to material things. My prayer was distracted by admiration for the fashion and clothing of other women in the Church. I started daydreaming about the clothes shopping I might do some day! Even when my heart is sick with the Truth of inequality, petty and materialistic habits creep up and tempt me to further increase inequality!
5.) A call to action to take today, to be in solidarity with those who suffer due to inequality:
Each of these opportunities will allow you to make a difference and help advocate for more equality and justice.
Inequality is real and it’s oppressive. As Pope Francis says, it’s sinful. Each person on earth has equal worth and we all deserve to live more equal lives. Let us pray and work together for God’s reign of justice and peace to come. Thank you and God bless you!
Yesterday I asked a section of my students to raise their hands if they thought power is something God gives us. Only half of the students raised their hands. When I asked the other half what they thought they spoke about how power is something people earn because of their success. “If we are all children of God, aren’t we equal?” I asked. Not really, I was told, status sets us apart.
I believe that the electric energy of equality has the power to unite all.
Within the core Christianity is a belief that all people are children of God. We are all made in God’s image and likeness, we are all people of dignity. Everyone is holy and is worthy of honor. God is alive within all of us. Although our diversity helps us all to be more whole, no one is better than anyone else. God sees as us equals and loves us all equally.
But then there’s the way society sees it. Common culture tells us a totally different story. Before we can read, we learn about winning and losing. Competition is fun. From a very young age we are taught that success and achievement are about accomplishing more, having more and earning more. In the dynamics of capitalism, we base power upon wealth. The rich and powerful seem to perpetually oppress the poor and powerless. Perhaps it is because of this that we blame the poor for their problems and we are convinced that the rich are powerful because they deserve it. Competition and consumerism connect with our experiences of power. The fanfare of the Super Bowl is a manifestation of these attitudes.
The principles of non-violence imply that all people have the same power. No one is actually more powerful than anyone else, just as in the eyes of God no one is better than anyone else. The problem is that power is abused, misused, misunderstood and unknown. Those who are more wealthy begin to believe they have the power to control, lead and guide. Those who are poor haven’t experienced the wealth and goodness of their own power. We don’t really need to empower others, we need to encourage them as they desire to unleash the power they already have.
As we try to be faithful Christians, the tension between God’s ways and the world’s ways seems to keep us moving in circles. When we want to experience what power really means we look to Jesus for grounding and growth. The early Christians had some pretty good ideas about all this:
“Then Peter proceeded to speak and said, “In truth, I see that God shows no partiality. Rather, in every nation whoever fears him and acts uprightly is acceptable to him. You know the word [that] he sent to the Israelites as he proclaimed peace through Jesus Christ, who is Lord of all..”-Acts 10: 34-36
We know Jesus loves all. Jesus has been with us through our highs and lows. Jesus’ humility is power’s true way. Into the broken, hurting, bleeding cracks of creation Christ is crying. He’s with us and showing us what is real.
Powerlessness and being powerful blend together in a place of true humility. We know we are nothing without God and this knowledge sets us free. As we bend to God’s power, we are enlivened for God’s good mission. We’ll build unity so that status no longer sets us apart. Energized to be together, we love like Christ loves: with great humility. May it be so, amen, indeed.