I suspect that like me, many of you can also pinpoint some event/occasion/person in your life which brought about a significant change in direction in your life. Here’s mine.
After graduation from elementary school in 1936, I entered St. Joseph Seminary, Westmont, Illnois, an institution for candidates who hoped to become Franciscan priests. Enrollment there — a “minor’ seminary — meant four years of high school and two years of college education studying the classics. Entry to the pre-Vatican II priesthood in those years started that way for most students who aimed to become diocesan or religious order priests.
At the conclusion of my third year of high school at the seminary, I packed my bags and headed for home in Nebraska – a long bus ride from Chicago in that early June of 1939. I had decided to discontinue studies for the priesthood, but unclear what to do next.
It just so happened that my seatmate on this trip was a young scientist from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. He intended to spend some summertime studying the extinct large elephant-like animal remains housed in the museum at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. That struck my fancy! We talked a lot.
Sometime during that discussion, religion became the subject. He doubted that God existed. “Strange… very strange!” I thought. Why was he so unsure? I don’t remember if we argued the issue or not. But we did talk about it. Then later in the evening, as we traveled through western Iowa approaching Omaha, with a sky all gloriously lighted by the setting sun, he remarked, “When you see a sunset like this, you think that only God could do so.”
That did it! Clearly my future! To be a spokesperson to those undecided — especially scientists — about God’s presence in our life and world. No way then, of course, could I even imagine how this would gradually become real over the years! But I stayed in the seminary, became a priest, a scientist, a professor, and a writer. Now 80 years later, I can only say that God “called” me through a “Doubting Thomas” scientist. Thanks, God, for doing so!
As spiritual assistant of a local fraternity of the Secular Franciscan Order, I responded to a quite racist post by a member of the fraternity about those who wish to cross our southern border. I responded by providing the members of the fraternity with the statements from the US bishops about migrants and refugees.
A member of the fraternity responded, “I feel like arguing with him!!! Open borders are creating the crisis. Attracting families to come!!!!! Should I say that to him?”To which, I responded:
Refugees vs. Migrants
I would respond by saying that refugees are different from migrants, and it’s important to know the difference. Migration at the southern border is at an all-time low. Refugees fleeing violence in their countries are the people clogging the border crossings!
Refugees have human rights internationally. These rights are among those enumerated in numerous international treaties. All countries are constitutionally obligated to accept refugees. The U.S. bishops remind us that we are also morally obligated to accept them. I’d have to say that, for me, accepting refugees seems to also be in line with Gospel values.
It is, of course, important to distinguish between true refugees and those just trying to get into the country any way they can. Under the current conditions, it is clear that most people presenting themselves at the southern border are women and children fleeing violence in their countries. This makes them true refugees deserving of human right protections.
So, what can we do to stem the tide of refugees at our borders? The most critical thing, in my opinion, is to build up their countries at home. We’ve been deporting gang members for some time now, as we should, but without any concern for what they’ll do back in their home countries. The effect has been outright lawlessness and people taking their children and fleeing the chaos which has now enveloped their countries. Instead of threatening to withhold foreign aid, that aid is the key to restoring law enforcement to these countries which have become, in effect, failed states with no ability to effectively police their own cities.
I agree that there is a crisis at the border, but it seems to be not a crisis of “open borders” but rather a crisis for an unprepared nation having problems dealing with the refugees presenting themselves at the border or to agents once they’ve crossed. As much as we’d like to think that there’s a simple solution, such as a wall, the problem in Central America has been building for some time now, and there are no easy solutions. In the short term, we need to beef up our refugee processing, and — in the longer term — work at improving living conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, etc. in order to address the root problem.
What does the Church teach about refugees?
Catechism #1911 Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy equal natural dignity, implies a universal common good. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to “provide for the different needs of men; this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education, . . . and certain situations arising here and there, as for example . . . alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families.”
Catechism #2241 The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants’ duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens.
US Bishops, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship The Gospel mandate to “welcome the stranger” requires Catholics to care for and stand with newcomers, authorized and unauthorized, including unaccompanied immigrant children, refugees and asylum-seekers, those unnecessarily detained, and victims of human trafficking. Comprehensive reform is urgently necessary to fix a broken immigration system and should include a broad and fair legalization program with a path to citizenship; a work program with worker protections and just wages; family reunification policies; access to legal protections, which include due process procedures; refuge for those fleeing persecution and violence; and policies to address the root causes of migration. The right and responsibility of nations to control their borders and to maintain the rule of law should be recognized but pursued in a just and humane manner. The detention of immigrants should be used to protect public safety and not for purposes of deterrence or punishment; alternatives to detention, including community-based programs, should be emphasized.
Inability to Accept
Now, what do we do if we find ourselves to be in disagreement with the teachings of the Catholic Church?
I think that the Church was quite wise to print the text of the catechism in different size fonts. The largest font is reserved for dogmas (e.g., “Jesus is the Son of God”) and smaller and smaller type is used for the application of these dogmas.
One could say, “I’m with the bishops on everything except the death penalty” or “I’m with the Church on everything except accepting refugees.” These are disagreements with the teachings of the Church and not with the underlying dogma.
One would hope that, in time, with prayer and reflection, one would confirm their conscience to the teachings of the Church, but it is the human condition that occasionally we fall short. It’s why we find Catholics who are actively involved with the application of the death penalty, who work with nuclear weapons, who are pro-choice, who want to refuse safety to refugees, etc. These Catholics can accept the dogmas of the Church but find it difficult to accept fully the application of that dogma, as taught by the Church.
The Church has always taught that the conscience is supreme. Catechism #1782 tells us “Man (sic) has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience (emphasis added). Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.'” (You can see more of what the Catechism has to say about conscience here.)
The Church does say that we are obliged to correctly form our consciences, but more than anything we are obliged to follow it. If one sincerely feels in their conscience that it is wrong to assist the refugees at the border or to deny them the safety of our country, then they are obliged to follow their conscience regardless of what the bishops teach about it.
When visiting in other countries, it is polite and helpful to learn a few basic words and phrases in the local language. Yes and no, hello and farewell, please and thank-you, I would like…, what is the cost of…?, where is the bathroom? — these are just the bare beginning of what can be useful in another place.
Among the very first things we teach children who are learning to speak and to interact with their world is the importance of saying “please” and “thank-you.” If children ask for something without first saying “please,” we ask them, “What do you say when you want something?” and we won’t give them what they want until they say the “magic word.” And right after they get what they asked for, we ask them, “Now what do you say?” And of course, we expect the appropriate answer.
Please, then thank-you. This is the way we were taught to interact with each other as soon as we started to speak. So it is no surprise that this is how we relate to God. We ask for what we want, and then thank God for having received it. Yet, like small children, how frequently we forget the thank-you part when it comes to God! All of us fail from time to time in our expression of gratitude to God for the many signs of care and love we are given by the Lord. Perhaps we can be helped by looking at our relationship with God a bit differently than how we relate to one another.
With each other we ask before we thank; with God, we need to thank before we ask. We do this every time we celebrate Eucharist. Indeed, the very word Eucharist in the original Greek ευχαριστία means “thanksgiving.” So every Mass is Thanksgiving! And this model for our relationship with God and all God has done is rooted in this dynamic – we thank, then we ask.
In many African-American congregations, it is customary for the priest at Mass to ask of an elder or council of elders permission to begin worship or to preach to the assembly. It is a wonderful reminder that the leader of the prayer is first a servant of the community whose authority comes from the people to whom he is responsible. A form of that conversation between priest and congregation takes place at every Mass, right at the very beginning of the Eucharistic Prayer. Before we sing the great Sanctus and kneel down for the extended prayer, there is a quick but crucial back-and-forth between the priest and congregation called the “Preface Dialogue.” This is the familiar and very brief three-part, six-line conversation that concludes with the priest saying, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” to which the people respond “It is right and just.” This little dialogue is, in fact, the very first section of the whole Eucharistic Prayer! Imagine, the highest form of prayer offered by the People of God begins with a conversation about what we are about to do.
Think of it as a kind of permission being asked by the priest. “Let us give thanks” is almost a kind of question. “Are we ready to give thanks?” It’s as if to say, hang on to your seats because we are about to do something awesome and eternal and powerful – are you all ready? The response of the people, “It is right and just,” is like saying, “Alright, let’s go! Let’s do this! It is the best and most right and proper thing we can imagine!”
But what if someone were to be hesitant, not so sure about whether they were ready to give thanks, or even worse – certain that they were in fact not very grateful at all? Would we really be having Eucharist then? What if that less-than-grateful person were you? Can your own ungratefulness become a heavyweight or obstacle to others as they stand before the God whose gracious goodness they are ready to praise?
Perhaps we are only accustomed to expressing gratitude only when everything seems to be going our way. I am healthy and have good friends, a comfortable home, regular meals, satisfying work, loving family, and some social status – thank you, Lord. But can I be grateful to God when I am ill, lonely, poorly sheltered, hungry, underemployed, orphaned, or marginalized? Again we turn to the Eucharistic prayers where, after the Preface proclaims the greatness of God in all that has been done for us and joins our prayers to the prayers of the entire cosmos, we plunge immediately into the sacred words which remind us that the Table of Plenty is also the Altar of Sacrifice. God’s generous abundance is revealed precisely by drawing into the eternal and ongoing mystery of the Paschal Mystery – a mystery of a God who suffers with us so as to draw our own suffering into the Divine Heart whose love is as deep as eternity.
Within this embrace, we are most closely united to each other and to God. We discover anew that the cause of our gratitude, our thanksgiving, our ευχαριστία is found precisely in our capacity to empty ourselves – or, more accurately, to invite God to empty us – into a compassionate sharing in the sufferings of others. This loving surrender to the mystery of God revealed in another, especially in others who are “not like us,” gives us reason to proclaim that Thanksgiving is always right and just!
On behalf of the US Franciscans, we wish you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!
HEREFORD, Arizona—The desert is a harsh place. Without warning, dry gullies can turn into raging currents after a rainstorm, even a rainstorm miles away.
Just last August. Bulmaro Garcia Guerrero moved through the desert seeking a better life. He moved stealthily, trying to avoid the border patrol, with their dogs and heat-seeking sensors. He moved quickly up the dry gully, stopping to listen to make sure the way was safe. Then, he heard what sounded at first like a good thing in the desert: water! But the noise kept getting louder. He turned to run and tried to climb out of the side of the gully when the waters reached him. Bulmaro was 32 years old when he drowned.
Despite a decrease in migrant crossings and Border Patrol apprehensions on the southern border, the number of bodies recovered from the desert remains high. Bulmaro was one of over 6000 men, women, and children who have lost their lives crossing the US-Mexico border in the 18 years of this century.
On August 19, a group of Franciscan friars, School Sisters of Notre Dame, and like-minded lay people from around the Arizona border town of Douglas, gathered to “plant a cross” near the spot where Bulmaro drown. The group did this, as they have so many times before, to ensure that those dying in the desert are remembered, not as cold statistics, but rather as the people they were.
In a ceremony composed of a mixture of Christian and indigenous religious customs, the group commemorated Bulmaro’s life and tragic death. They prayed for his family and those who miss him. They prayed for the hundreds who will die similarly lonely deaths this year. Before leaving, the group left gifts and mementos on the cross.
“The severe and unforgiving land here is responsible for the majority of these deaths. Most die from exposure, which includes heat stroke, dehydration, and hypothermia,” said volunteer Karen Fasimpaur. “Crossings are happening in more rural and rugged areas. We’ve done cross-plantings in every corner of the county.”
I’ve been a news junkie since the fourth grade, reading the daily newspaper Chicago’s American every afternoon after school, first because I liked the comics but later because I found other “comics” elsewhere in the paper. Later I learned that those other “comics” were actually political cartoons. This section of the paper was the editorial page, which I devoured. Some addictions actually do start when you are young.
I also started reading the Bible in the fourth grade, when Sister suggested we start with the Gospel according to Matthew. Sure, the Christmas story part was pretty familiar, but the stories about John the Baptist and Jesus in the desert seemed a little weird and hard to understand. Yet the stunning jolt in chapter five still gives me pause today as it did in 1967: “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” From that time on I’ve been fascinated, indeed grasped by, the audacity of the preacher from Galilee.
The turmoil of the mid-1960s met the bold clarity of Jesus in the mind and heart of the little kid who ended up becoming the friar writing this now. Politics and religion, the two things Mom said we should never talk about in polite company, are still entwined passions. It’s amazing I still have friends.
A couple years before this personal epiphany, Time Magazine wrote the following tribute upon the retirement of one of the most famous Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Karl Barth:
“Barth recalls that 40 years ago he advised young theologians to ‘take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible.’ Newspapers, he says, are so important that ‘I always pray for the sick, the poor, journalists, authorities of the state and the church—in that order. Journalists form public opinion. They hold terribly important positions. Nevertheless, a theologian should never be formed by the world around him—either East or West. He should make it his vocation to show both East and West that they can live without a clash. Where the peace of God is proclaimed, there peace on earth is implicit.’” (Time Magazine, May 31, 1963)
At that time the world was consumed by the danger of a polarized world, the East-West conflict between the Soviet Communist bloc and the United States. The hope that East and West could “live without a clash” seemed remote at best, if not impossible. Today we live in a world that is polarized again, although the fault lines are not as clear, and many wonder whether and how we can move forward in our Church and civil society “without a clash.” Perhaps it is still possible to disagree without necessarily questioning one’s intelligence, religious faith, or patriotism.
The word “politics” has taken on such a foul association with corruption and power that we forget the classical meaning from Greek and medieval Christian philosophy that considered politics as the means by which people seek out a common sense of meaning and make plans to attain the common good. As religious people, we believe God has given us in Jesus a clear sense of meaning and purpose, not just for ourselves but indeed for all people everywhere. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that the Beatitudes are an essential foundation to that vision and that the Christian vocation demands we propose that way of life in the public forum. Millennia of the faithful witness of saints and martyrs attest it is possible.
Many of us are familiar with the phrase, “The longest distance is the path from the head to the heart.” It means that we need to be as aware of our emotions as we are about our ideas. Lately, it seems that many of us are moved neither from the head nor the heart, but from the gut – where reside anger and fear. In the United States, we are in the heat of another voting cycle. Though many people simply tune out, that is not an option for a serious Christian. Too many of us lurch instinctively from urges deep in the bowels, not thinking before speaking and hurting others. It seems critical thinking skills are as necessary as they are sparse.
In the next few weeks we are once again being called to our hearts — not to some mushy and sentimental place, but the origin of our deepest desires. Instead of asking ourselves what we are afraid of (the gut tells us that), or what ideas we find convincing (the head), we need to be clear about what we love. If our love leads us anywhere else besides the Gospel, then before we cast a ballot we should pray for the blessings of the Beatitudes