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.

Toward the fire

In 2002, during the months in which the The Boston Globe released the findings of its investigation into wrong doing on behalf of the Catholic clergy in the Diocese of Boston, I was a high school junior preparing for confirmation. The investigation exposed a widespread pattern of sexual abuse from several Catholic priests, five of them ultimately convicted of criminal charges and another — covered up on behalf of church leaders who knew about or at least suspected the abuse and hid it — for allowing it to continue. The initial investigation garnered national and international attention, and ultimately led to additional investigations in several other dioceses and in other countries like Canada and Ireland.

I remember being heartbroken for the victims and, as someone preparing to be fully initiated into the church, personally humiliated. Many of my classmates, especially those who had been Catholic and who had chosen to leave, sneered at me and asked how I could choose to be part of an institution that supported rapists. I remember sobbing in adoration for the victims, both because of their unfathomable pain and because I felt powerless to help them, powerless to do anything but be a punching bag for the community I loved due to the crimes of men I hated.

My classmates demanded to know how I could continue to support the institution and I realized that to me, the church was not an institution. It was a family. A family I loved. And my family was in trouble. The family homestead was on fire. It turns out that some of my fathers were deadbeat dads … to put it mildly. They weren’t really my fathers at all … they just dressed like they were. They pretended to care for us kids, but instead they violated my brothers and sisters and then set the house on fire. It was burning down around me.

franciscan-sistesrs-house-fire

Image courtesy Pixabay

I remember leaving adoration one night at 2 a.m., standing in front of my parish building with all of this on my mind thinking, “The church is on fire. The only response is to run.” But the question was: which way? “Do I run from the flames, or do I run toward them?”

In the time since that night I have become a youth minister, partly because I have seen how deadly serious, how incredibly important the preparation and protection of our young people is. I have become a facilitator of “Virtus: Protecting God’s Children.” It’s a program responsible for training volunteers in the creation, implementation and enforcement of safe standards for children and youth programming. As part of those training sessions, I show a video that includes confessions from child abuse perpetrators and testimonies given by their victims. It is incredibly hard to watch. I have led dozens of such training sessions … enough times that I have the videos nearly memorized. And so I could do other work while those videos play. I could busy myself with emails or calendaring activities. But I don’t. I watch every time. And every time I burn.

I burn with sorrow for their pain. I burn with anger at the injustice. I burn with conviction that I will do everything I can to build a world of safety and security for my kids, both for the son and daughter who live under my roof and for my little brothers and sisters who live with me in the shared house of our faith.

franciscan-sisters-flames

Image courtesy Pixabay

I’m not sure why I watch. Perhaps it’s to remind myself of how important this all is. Perhaps it’s a form of self-inflicted penance – not for any crimes I have committed, but on behalf of the wider church and the ways it’s failed. Perhaps it’s that the sheer power of the testimony that calls out for continual witness. But it’s always hard, and I find myself praying, “Holy Spirit, fill me with your fire, so I can stand in these flames of tragedy, until every last one is put out.”

The men who have betrayed the church by victimizing those who trusted them, either in outright abuse or by protecting abusers, are not the church. As Father John Lankeit said in working through his own thoughts on the subject, they are to priests what Judas was to the apostles or the devil himself to the angels … at the moment of their crime they amputated and scarred the body of Christ. They scarred my family. But I love my family, and I’m not going to abandon them – especially in times of trial. They mean everything to me. They introduced me to the Lord, to the Gospel; they have given me a peace that surpasses all understanding, a joy beyond all telling. I will not allow criminals to take from my children the chance to find that same joy and grace, the chance for them to know the church that I have known – the community of quiet saints who don’t make headlines but who serve the poor and live lives of mercy and work every day for justice. I have seen religious sisters save the lives of abandoned orphans, I have watched a priest give food and medicine to a homeless man dying of neglect, and I have seen a thousand small acts of heroism by normal people who are sincerely trying to live and love like Christ. I have seen what the church can and should be. I will not concede my family to monsters, or my house to the flames they set.

I don’t write these words to defend myself or to assure you that I am part of the solution. I write these words only to say what I am absolutely convinced of: the Church of Christ is worth too much to let its betrayers define it. I cannot step away and let that happen. I would rather burn.

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. His interests and passions include language learning, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.

Being part of a Church broken by sex abuse and lies

Imagine you were violently attacked and dropped off a balcony into a dark alley, and somehow you survived. Your body is broken, bloody, mangled; you are twisted and contorted into a mess upon cracked asphalt. Your arms and legs are shattered. The most private parts of you have been violated. All of your muscles ache as if they are being stabbed with a thousand spears.

You are gasping for life, for help. You feel all alone. You are helpless. You see no way out.

This broken body is yours. It is everyone’s who is a member of the Roman Catholic Church. The horribly broken, disfigured, wounded, twisted and mangled Church. The Church is the Body of Christ and we are the Church; we are the broken Body of Christ.

This body, the broken and disfigured and hurting body, is the Church that I have dedicated my life to as a Franciscan Sister. This is the body I love. I would not be me without my participation in this body: at this point, I can’t imagine my life in any other form.

And, when all the wounds are festering, infected — when it is apparent that this body is disfigured and ugly — it is only appropriate for each of us to struggle. To lament. To feel violently angry. To weep. To demand change.

The wounds of the body of Christ — the Church that I love dearly — have been exposed over and over in my lifetime. They first appeared when I was a college student and falling in love with the body, when I was being fed and experiencing a sense of belonging in its arms. And now, again, within the past week, when the results of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups became public, it has become visible to the masses how truly sick and broken this body is. It can be an ungodly sight, too awful to look at that. So ugly that a temptation nudges me to turn away, to decide that I can’t be part of it, that I want nothing to do with it, that it simply hurts way too much to be near the brokenness, the festering wounds.

But I can’t divorce myself from the body to which I belong. And, I know that the body cannot heal or become strong again without tiny little me being a part of it, either.

I am disgusted. The corrupt state of my body is due to the failure of those who are meant to be representatives of its head. Made sleazy by power and sickened by an evil that twists the sacred and holy — sexuality, service, sacramentality — into demons of torture and doubt, these men have damaged the body that helps me know meaning and belonging.

And for other members of the body, their pain is greater than anything I could know. They have been made powerless by those in power, they have been tortured by those who were supposed to be instruments of healing and peace. No attempt to make things right by any other member of the body will ever be an adequate response to their pain. Their voice of courage is a gift of hope to the rest of us. My chest aches with the sorrow of loss as separation is inevitable.

The body is likely to remain permanently disfigured. I don’t know how I could ever defend its goodness and beauty to the little ones again — to the members who have been hurt the worst; to those who have lost their faith and trust that the body is made for healing, not harm. They have every reason to argue with me if I try to teach them that the body is good and holy. I wonder if the body will ever be strong again, but I can’t stop thinking about how the body is made whole only through its weakness. The agony of paradox is disorienting and frustrating right now.

Except, somehow, below all the pain and misery is a feeling that is deeper and stronger than any other: I still love this body. I do believe in its goodness, its holiness. I know that many —most — of its members are willing to love to the point of self-sacrifice, they are willing to lay down their lives for their friends and enemies. Joy and love radiate from the face. A mercy flows from the wounds. Compassion runs through its still beating heart. Its lips are uttering constant prayers for forgiveness, for help, for reconciliation and peace.

Eventually, grace can uplift the body and help it from the concrete. But it will take a lot of work and repentance, a lot of restructuring and consideration of what caused the body to get to such bad shape. It will take a rescue from the Holy Spirit and all the angels and saints, before it goes off for a stint in reconstructive surgery and rehab. No matter how the recovery process goes the scars will be ugly; the body will forever wear the history.

Those days are a long way off, I am afraid. For now, we pause to admit the truth. We are broken and disfigured. We need help and healing. Much must change. But for now, the body is broken. The body is weak. The body is a mess of struggle. And it’s awful.

Photo by Ricky Turner on Unsplash
RESOURCES FOR READERS ON CATHOLIC SEX ABUSE

Pope Francis’ Letter to The People of God about the sex abuse crisis. August 20, 2018

Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

LCWR Statement on Sexual Abuse by Clergy

Statement of Catholic Theologians, Educators, Parishioners, and Lay Leaders on Clergy Sexual Abuse In the United States

U.S. Church’s Response to Sex Abuse Shows Progress, but Questions Remain (A Timeline of the Catholic Church’s Response to Abuse Allegations Dating Back Several Decades) Catholic News Service. August 17, 2018.

“Prayer for Angry Catholics” by James Martin, S. J. America. June 6, 2012.

“For Catholics, Gradual Reform is No Longer an Option” By Kathleen Sprows Cummings, NY Times, August 17, 2018

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests 

Take Action: Stop Child Sexual Abuse

If you see child sexual abuse, have a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse or your child has been sexually abused, call 911 or your local police immediately.

If you suspect abuse, call the National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or visit the Child Help Hotline. Trained crisis operators staff the lines 24/7 to answer your questions. If necessary, they will show you how to report in your local area.

Child pornography is a federal crime. If you see or suspect images that may be child pornography, report it to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTip Line.

On the brink and remaining steady: solid footing in rapid change

“The rate at which Antarctica is losing ice has tripled since 2007, according to the latest available data. The continent is now melting so fast, scientists say, that it will contribute six inches … to sea-level rise by 2100.”  — “Antarctica is Melting Three Times as Fast as a Decade Ago” (New York Times, June 13, 2018)

Living in a world of rapid change, of destruction, chaos and and reconstruction demands a certain level of attention from each of us, especially those of us who are aiming to live the Gospel.

We are called to have a consciousness about the part we play. We need to remain involved with a particular participation that is prayerful and hopeful.

Yet, there are times when our awareness can cause us to feel helpless, discouraged. There are times when we need to tune out and enter into the present moment around us, to awaken to the beauty and the goodness of God revealed in every person and part of creation in our particular corner.

Lately, I’ve heard folks declare that they no longer pay attention to the news, because they must take care of their mental health, because it’s is too dizzying and disturbing. I’ve heard others describe how they are are coping with the bad news they hear: playing with their kids, taking breaks from the internet and bingeing on escapes, like television. Although this can be OK every now and then, it should not be our habit.

As the world changes so quickly and technology allows us to have an infinite amount of knowledge,  we find ourselves feeling split between needing to find a safe haven and needing to keep turning outward.

In Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis insists that we allow the Spirit to show us the way through this gap, through the temptation to care only for ourselves, while the Gospel calls us to respond to the needs of our neighbors:

133. We need the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralyzed by fear and excessive caution, lest we grow used to keeping within safe bounds. Let us remember that closed spaces grow musty and unhealthy. When the Apostles were tempted to let themselves be crippled by danger and threats, they joined in prayer to implore parrhesía: “And now, Lord, look upon their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29). As a result, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken; and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness” (Acts4:31).

134. Like the prophet Jonah, we are constantly tempted to flee to a safe haven. It can have many names: individualism, spiritualism, living in a little world, addiction, intransigence, the rejection of new ideas and approaches, dogmatism, nostalgia, pessimism, hiding behind rules and regulations. We can resist leaving behind a familiar and easy way of doing things. Yet the challenges involved can be like the storm, the whale, the worm that dried the gourd plant, or the wind and sun that burned Jonah’s head. For us, as for him, they can serve to bring us back to the God of tenderness, who invites us to set out ever anew on our journey.

135. God is eternal newness. He impels us constantly to set out anew, to pass beyond what is familiar, to the fringes and beyond. He takes us to where humanity is most wounded, where men and women, beneath the appearance of a shallow conformity, continue to seek an answer to the question of life’s meaning. God is not afraid! He is fearless! He is always greater than our plans and schemes. Unafraid of the fringes, he himself became a fringe (cf. Phil 2:6-8; Jn 1:14). So if we dare to go to the fringes, we will find him there; indeed, he is already there. Jesus is already there, in the hearts of our brothers and sisters, in their wounded flesh, in their troubles and in their profound desolation. He is already there.

Indeed, God can be our solid footing as we live this Gospel life. Even if it feels that the world is crumbling under our feet, even when the ice beneath us is melting at an alarming rate, even if we are dizzy and unsteady, God is eager to keep us grounded. God wants to be united with us, on the brink of every margin, on the edge of every cliff.

Photo courtesy of Charish Badzinski

As we continue to try to find the balance between love of God, self, and others, true communion with Christ will likely compel us to serve, to reach outward. I have learned that I feel closest to God when I am serving others, because God is with those who are most in need. Union with God insists that my life is not about me.

Last summer, I was struggling with various heartaches–with the suffering of people in general and particular ones I love. I was learning how to love in a balanced way, I still am. I wrote about it here.  Grappling lately with the need for solid footing, with my desire for groundedness in God, I revisited what I wrote.

. . . I don’t want the suffering of the world to consume me. At times, I can feel flooded by tragic news stories spilling forth from every corner of the globe, of disasters and crime and wars. I can easily become so saddened and disturbed by news of tragedies far away that I am frozen and unable to respond locally to my neighbors in need next door.

Gradually, through much trial and error, I am learning the importance of being a careful consumer of information — even of true stories of human suffering. I need to remain attentive to the sources of my information as well as its content; I need to work to build in some balance about how I learn the news. I like the suggestion found here to “make a conscious decision about when and where I’ll get news — and what I’ll do afterwards.” This is part of the self-care that I have found is an important aspect of modern Christian living. I need to maintain my own mental health so I have the strength to serve, to nurse the wounds of others nearby. . .

As I continue onward on this Christian journey, I feel like the lesson is slowly sinking in: embracing suffering as a companion to the joy of love is the meaning of the cross. In the cross, I am reminded that our human suffering has been redeemed, that we never need to carry our heartaches and troubles alone. Turning to those two crossbeams daily might be just as important as learning to balance the way I learn the news and love my neighbors.

No matter how quickly the world changes under our feet, no matter how much the icebergs are melting, God is offering us solid ground so we can continue to love others and ourselves. Next to Christ’s crossbeams of compassion, we are balancing self-care with being lovingly present to the world around us — the world crying out for our attention.

Fear, faith and the flu

I am not a germaphobe by nature, but this year’s flu season has me in a tizzy of microbial paranoia.

Daily news reports about the severity of this specific flu strain and the extent of the epidemic have fueled my anxiety, as did a recent email from my daughters’ school informing us of confirmed flu cases within the student population. Yesterday, a doctor on NPR waxed dystopic about the particular vulnerability of people who have underlying health conditions.

As the mother of a 6-year-old with asthma, I feel frightened and exposed.

Although our entire household got the flu vaccine back in early fall (as we do every year), I know there is no guarantee of immunity. With the flu season now in full force, I want to wrap my kids up in Purell-lined bubbles and safeguard them against all the insidious germs that assault their immune systems on a daily basis. I want to protect them from the physical misery and dangers of influenza.

ballerina-red-tutu
Photo by Nicole Steele Wooldridge

As a matter of fact, I want to protect them from all suffering. Forever.

But of course, the world doesn’t work that way. Try as we might, we parents cannot prevent our children from suffering.

We can get them the flu vaccine, but that doesn’t mean they won’t get the flu. We can provide them with love and stability, but that doesn’t mean they won’t struggle with depression and addiction. We can raise them in a household of faith, but that doesn’t mean they won’t turn away from God.

In this world – as in the flu season – there are no guarantees. And so we vaccinate as early and as extensively as we can … and then we trust.

As Christians, our trust is based not on the presumption that we will avoid suffering, but rather on our faith that God is with us when we suffer and that Divine Providence (aka “God’s Plan”) will ultimately triumph. We trust that the Good News of Jesus prevails, even when our lives are filled with bad news. We trust that our suffering is not in vain.

Easier said than done (at least for me).

Sure, some suffering makes sense – either right there in the midst of it or decades later, with the hindsight of lessons learned and otherwise-missed life journeys. But some suffering will never make sense this side of eternity; some suffering is so dehumanizing and apparently pointless that it falls into the category of the “Big M” Mysteries of Christianity.

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Image courtesy freeimages.com

This is the kind of suffering I fear most for my children and – by extension – myself. It is the suffering I find most baffling and scandalous … and the suffering for which I most need the baffling and scandalous grace of God.

Especially as a mother.

Elizabeth Stone famously wrote, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

It’s true. And it’s why, as I drop my children off at school – where H3N2 germs, Mean Girls and any number of other potential threats await them – I am thankful that they (and my heart right along with them) are ultimately in the hands of Someone I trust.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Nicole-Steele-Woodridge-with-daughtersNicole Steele Wooldridge is a friend of Sister Julia’s and mom to 6- and 4-year-old daughters in the Seattle, Washington area. Her contributions to Messy Jesus Business tend to focus on the intersection of faith and parenting. For the record, she’s really not interested in a debate about vaccinations right now.

Honoring all the souls

It felt like an ordinary Sunday Mass. I knelt and prayed next to people I love. I sang hymns loudly, straight out from my heart. I bowed and received communion; chewing, sipping and swallowing all to gain union with the Body of Christ.

Then, at the end of Mass, a nice man stood up and made a few announcements. He reminded everyone that November 1st was a Holy Day of Obligation and, November 2nd, the Feast of All Souls. He pointed out the altar in the back of the church, and said we were all welcome to bring in pictures of our loved ones and to write the names of our beloved deceased in the book of remembrance. I turned my head and looked back at the altar. I admired the decorations and felt grateful for the opportunity, for the chance to remember those who have died before us, who are part of the communion of saints.

After Mass, I hugged my friends goodbye. I grinned at the many friendly faces that flooded out of the sanctuary. And then, I approached the altar for the deceased and saw the face of one of my friends who died earlier this year, Sharon Chavolla. Surprised to see her beautiful face upon the altar, I quietly moaned, overcome by a sudden wave of grief; grief I was lugging around in my heart unconsciously.

Altar of remembrance. Photo by Julia Walsh FSPA

For many months, since Sharon’s passing in May, an item has steadily remained on my to-do list: send Sharon’s family a sympathy card. I don’t know why I have not yet done this, why I have procrastinated on doing something so important to me. Yes, I feel inadequate, like I am incapable of offering comfort and sympathy to a family that is an extension of my friend’s kindness. Many times I’ve started, I’ve tried to write, but found myself frozen and staring at the blank page, numbed by the sorrow.

To be honest, one of the hardest things about living, of being in relationship with others, is the way that it opens me up to suffering and grief. As I have written: I am almost tempted to believe that life would be easier if I didn’t know so many people, if I didn’t try to love so often. With each relationship, I risk an encounter with brokenness and hurt. I wonder if my habitual openness somehow has me spread too thin. I can empathize with those who decide instead to stay guarded; I want to protect myself under a cloak of separation.

Separation, though, is contrary to everything I believe in. I believe that the point of all life is relationship, of growing in union with God and others. When I am part of an aging community wherein death is a regular part of my life, though, the separation of death can be a troubling, painful experience. Since death is a reality that I come fact-to-face with on a regular basis I must confront my resistance to it over and over; I must foster my faith that with death there is not actually a separation. I struggle to believe and see, again and again, that with the communion of saints we are truly one — united — always.

That’s what this sacred day is about, the Feast of All Souls. The many people I have grown to know and love, like my friend Sharon, are not actually separate and apart; they are interacting with us through a different dimension. They remain our friends and family who have a power and influence over us, whose presence is real and powerful in our lives. Christ has conquered death, it need not sadden us; with him we all are able to live together.

Behold, I tell you a mystery. We shall not all fall asleep, but we will all be changed,in an instant, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For that which is corruptible must clothe itself with incorruptibility, and that which is mortal must clothe itself with immortality. And when this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.

Where, O death, is your victory?

Where, O death, is your sting?”

~ 1 Corinthians 15:51-55

Sure, death does sting. We miss the embraces, the jokes, the grins of our loved ones. Because our humanity creates an illusion that we are separate from the spiritual world, the gap between heaven and earth can feel enormous and painful.

On the other hand, the truth is that we are very connected to those who have died before us. We are called to pray to them and for them, to continue to share our lives with them and let their love and care influence us. We are not separate; we remain in communion with each other, amazingly.

During this sacred month of November,  may we all remember those who have died who are most precious to us, let us honor their legacies. Let us engage in simple gestures that help every human life to be honored. I will finally send a sympathy card Sharon’s family, even though it will likely feel inadequate. I will reach out to others who are grieving the absence of their loved ones, too. This is a way of honoring the dead, of praying for those who may be hurting from the feeling of separation.

Through each gesture and prayer,  I hope we may all awaken to the truth that we remain united with those who have died, that they are very close and connected. No matter our fears and heartache, let us honor all the souls who live on forever.

We’re standing on holy ground

We arrive at the memorial already soaked. The rain has been pouring down for about an hour, making our one little umbrella woefully insufficient for our entire group. We huddle in the cab, unwilling to take that first step out into the dark, wet city.

We are five Catholic sisters from different corners of the United States, bonded by our vocation and by our participation in Giving Voice. Earlier in the day we had scrawled our names on a large piece of paper hanging on the wall at the bi-annual national Giving Voice conference in a suburb of New York City. We had spent the past three days praying together about healing divisions and building bridges. On this, our one free night of the conference, groups had self-organized into different activities; with bright markers we had written our names under the phrase “Go into NYC.” Before we met up to take the train into the city, different hopes had been named: someone wanted to eat pizza, another was interested in seeing Times Square. I said I wanted to visit the National September 11 Memorial. As for our route and itinerary, we agreed that we’d figure out our adventure as we went along.

We felt a lot of giddiness and excitement during the earlier events of the night — finding our way out of…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

(Photo Credit: GlobalSistersReport.org / CNS / Andrew Kelly, Reuters)

When disaster strikes, God remains

So faith, hope, love remain, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:13

Photo credit: businessinsider.com

 

The two narratives

twist together

when the waters churn

and the fears rise,

when the winds blow

and doubts intensify,

when the flames destroy

and homes burn to ash.

Every surrender surfaces

acts of courage and love.

Community is formed

around the cross of loss.

When suffering blinds us from

“trust in God” it is OK to scream

or cry or wonder if we’re being

ignored by the God of love,

to acknowledge the ache

of possible abandonment.

And in the still of the storm,

the heroes and the victims,

who are helpers and hurting

(all of us wear both badges)

make known the power of God’s

presence and the might of love.

This is our story of salvation,

this is the story of Incarnational

transformation. Although we are

frozen in fear, we arise to schlep

out junk. We splurge no more so

we can contribute more cash.

We grip arms as one

steadily moving forward

toward Sunday’s true joy.

Yes, by “love one another”

God remains real

in the midst of disaster.

Finding the balance

 

Photo credit: http://www.freeimages.com

Carrying my laundry basket across the lawn, I feel a sudden sting.

I was feeling peaceful and content as I did my chores. I was enjoying this quiet Saturday — I thought. But then, as surely as if an insect just bit me, a wave of emotion interrupts my peace and I am caught off guard, startled to attention.

Miles away, a friend in a nursing home is being treated for chronic pain. In a few days, a dear sister and housemate is scheduled for surgery, a double-mastectomy to treat the cancer discovered only last month. On that same day, a relative will endure yet another round of medical tests to determine why she has been rapidly losing weight. In my prayer journal I have listed over a dozen situations of suffering loved ones.

In the sting of sadness, my consciousness has cracked. I feel overwhelmed, helpless, and worried. Faced once again with the challenge and invitation to give it all to God, I find myself groaning internally. I am almost tempted to believe that…

[This is the beginning of my latest column for the online newspaper, Global Sisters Report. Continue reading here.]

For the good of the guild

In a few of the less-productive minutes of my day, I play an online Star Wars game on my phone. I have some beloved characters which I attempt to constantly level up: by completing certain challenges, I can make my characters faster and stronger. In the game world I am part of a guild—a group of other players that band together to tackle in-game challenges far too difficult for one player to take on alone. Currently, we are all trying to level up our best characters to advance to the hardest level of guild challenges. While I hesitate to call anything related to a video game “work,” it is going to require some effort for us all to get there. We’re going to have to play smarter, get better, and put in some game time to get our characters to where they need to be. But because we know the next set of challenges holds greater rewards, we are all anxious and eager to do so. The harder the challenge, the more experience and spoils you receive when you complete it.

video-game
In this “in-game” screen shot, one of Steven’s characters faces challenge head on (image courtesy of Steven Cottam).

And lately, I’ve noticed how very different this mindset is from the way I approach my real-world journey. In the game I’m ready to take on the next difficulty; eager for the newest challenge. I want to tackle the hardest quest because I know my character will grow and the rewards will be greater. But in life, I’m constantly trying to get away from difficulties and run from challenges. I pray that burdens will be lightened or lifted, and that obstacles will be magically removed from my path. I avoid difficult people and situations. I try to offload problems onto others. I pretend an injustice I’m staring at isn’t really as bad as it looks, or that at the least there is nothing I can do about it.

That is no way to grow the kingdom, or to build a better world. The tasks the Church faces are huge—and they will not be solved by running from them. Instead, we must run toward them. I must adopt the attitude of “game me.” Where is the next challenge? I want it. Where is the next difficulty? I’m ready to face it. What if, instead of praying for lighter crosses, we started praying for heavier ones? For more obstacles, for greater burdens? What if we did this knowing that God provides the strength for any tasks He gives us? How much more grace we would receive, and how much more we might accomplish for God’s glory!

Believing that by granting her suffering God spares someone else that burden, St. Bernadette gave thanks for every affliction she received. With willingness to suffer she became stronger, more steadfast, more patient, and more trusting in God. And she knew that more of God’s work is done with each slight forgiven; all wrong patiently borne. I wish I could more fully adopt this mindset, seeing my God-given challenges not as slights but as gifts—gifts given to a servant who can be trusted to accomplish the task.

What injustice might you be tempted to turn from and avoid today? Go out to face it! What discomfort could you feel that might advance God’s cause of peace and love? Endure it! The greater the challenge, the greater the glory when it is overcome. My in-game guild knows this. I hope that my real-world guild and I (also known as the Church) can learn to better live this lesson as well.

About the Rabble Rouser:

Steven-CottamSteven Cottam serves as youth minister at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church. He lives in the Church Hill neighborhood of Richmond, Virginia, with his lovely wife, adorable daughter and very strange dog. 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. His interests and passions include Aikido, gardening, coffee, and becoming a Jedi Master.