Catholic life in the United States, judging by my social media feed, is alive with energy and excitement about the Pope’s visit, and rightly so. Sister Sheila, our Congregation Leader, will be representing us at the Papal mass at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception today. Meanwhile, I will have to follow the excitement from afar since I am visiting our CSJP community in the United Kingdom for a couple of weeks.
Today I had the sheer privilege of joining some of our CSJP Sisters and Associates on an outing to visit the mission to seafarers at the Immingham Docks, the largest port in this country. I had no idea what to expect, and ended up being very moved by my experiences today. At the end of the day it felt more like a pilgrimage than an outing.
Immingham is located near Grimsby, England on the North Sea, the town where our first Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace began our mission of peace in 1884. The mission to Seafarers there is part of the Apostleship of the Sea – a global Catholic Charity which ministers to all seafarers, regardless of nationality or belief. Some of our CSJP Associates in the area volunteer with the mission.
At Immingham, we met Fr. Colum Kelly who is Chaplain to the mostly men, or “lads” as he calls them, who come from around the globe bringing imports such as coal, grain, biomass, wood, and automobiles to England. If you think about it, most of what we use comes to us wherever we are from places far, far away. And as I learned today, 90% of world trade is transported by ship. And, if you stop and think about it, those ships require human beings to navigate the seas.
That’s where the seafarers come in. A quick look at the visitors book shows that the seafarers come from all corners of the globe – Philippines, Vietnam, Poland, Greece, and Turkey to name a few. Fr. Colum told us stories of some of the cases he has been called in on to intervene, situations where the seafarers arrive in port hungry because there is not enough food on board, or in some cases they have not received their promised wages in months. Sadly, wage theft is a common problem in many industries, and is related to the reality of forced labor and human trafficking across the globe.
The stories Fr. Colum shared were powerful, and renewed my commitment to work against what Pope Francis has called the “globalization of indifference.” We live in a globalized economy, which means that we are intimately linked to the men, women, and sometimes children who harvest, mine, transport, and transform the raw materials which become the many consumer items we take for granted in our daily lives. Fr. Colum spoke of the invisible life of the seafarer. He also spoke with great passion and love for his ministry, which he described as the Church bringing its mission of hope and love to the margins, even in this invisible world to which we are all, in fact, connected.
Not all of the situations are so dire. Many of the seafarers work for honest companies, travel in safe vessels, and receive adequate food and regular wages. But they still spend as much as 9 months at sea, separated from family and isolated. The Seafarers Center welcomes them when they are in port with a shop, chapel, internet cafe, games room, money exchange, phone cards, etc… The mission was damaged in a flood after a tidal surge a couple of years ago, so the space we visited was bright and inviting. Fr. Colum and the lay chaplains also go on board the ships, offering a listening ear, providing religious services, and inviting them to the center. They also hold Christmas parties where they share gift boxes with toiletries and other sundry items donated from local parishes, often the only bit of cheer during the seafarers’ holiday.
In addition to learning about the mission and the life of the seafarers, we also were led in a couple of powerful meditations by Fr. Colum. One invited us to look at our own lives in terms of the cargo we carry–the “bad” cargo such as excessive busy-ness, past hurts, concern about what others might think, etc… — and our “good” cargo — our gifts and love and passion. How do we balance our cargo during our life’s journey, as we go about the work to which the God who loves us unconditionally has called us? Simple, really, but something which I found myself thinking about quite a bit on the two hour coach ride home.
Fr Colum also shared with us a devotion to Mary which was new to me … Mary Undoer of Knots. Apparently this is a favorite devotion of Pope Francis, which he first discovered when studying in Germany depicted in a painting he saw in a Church. This depiction of Mary draws on imagery from one of the early theologians of the Church, St. Ireneaus. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Francis introduced and encouraged this devotion in Latin America.
Fr. Colum shared a prayer of his own to Our Lady Undoer of Knots — a fitting devotion of course for someone who works with seafarers! He also led us in a time of reflection on the knots in our own lives before we ended the day with liturgy in the chapel there at the mission.
Each of us, of course, often finds our thoughts, minds, and even prayers tied up in knots. We worry about this or that, we are unsure how we will do x or how we will navigate that sticky situation with you know who.
How beautiful to call on Mary the undoer of knots in these moments of our lives. I’ll copy Fr. Colum’s prayer below, because perhaps you too might like to call on Mary in this way:
Holy Mary, mother of God and our most blessed mother too. You know my problems, both small and large, that like knots are tight and difficult to undo. I feel restricted by them and do not know how to overcome them. The knots of my heart, the knots of difficult family relationships, the knots of loneliness, knots of things yet to be forgiven …. Mother of mercy, untie the knots I am burdened with, journey with me from the darkness of confusion, into a new path of light.
Yes, this is a teaching document, but it is so much more. It is a poetic reflection on what it means to be human. It is a challenge to “every living person on this planet” (3) to responsible living on our common home for present and future generations. It is an invitation to shift our understanding of our relationship with the rest of creation from one of domination to partnership, from exploitation to protection, and from separation to connection.
It is certainly significant and meaningful to have a religious and world leader with the credibility of Pope Francis unequivocally state that “. . . we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system. . . . mainly as a result of human activity” (23). However, his message is much deeper and even more challenging.
Having just finished my second reading of Laudato Si’, I think that his most radical message is that we are family. God has put us into relationship with each other and all of creation, and we therefore share responsibility for the whole. “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another. Each area is responsible for the care of this family” (42).
You know you run in certain nerdy church circles when your Facebook feed fills up with creative ways to observe the liturgical season of Lent. One meme that is making the rounds is a “Reverse Lent Challenge,” with the message that rather than giving something up (like the proverbial chocolate) you might consider taking something on, such as making a commitment to helping a family member or friend, writing notes to lonely folks, etc… It’s a nice idea to be sure.
As for me, I gave up giving up a long time ago. Well, that’s not actually exactly true. I do still take the opportunity of this season to look at my life and see what is getting in the way of a healthy relationship with God, others, and even self, and commit to making adjustments. The focus that helps me is not on what is given up, but rather what is gained. I also find this to be a very personal practice, and so I’ll be keeping to myself what I’ve chosen as my own personal Lenten practice(s).
We don’t have to go far to see what kind of fast it is that God seeks. This morning’s reading from Isaiah is one of my all time favorites, and makes it pretty clear:
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
This time of Lent is such a gift. It is a time set aside to reorder our priorities and to prepare our hearts, lives, and world for the joy of the resurrection.
If you are still sorting out your own Lenten practice, I highly recommend reading the Lenten message from Pope Francis. I’ve adopted his closing lines as my own Lenten prayer:
During this Lent, then, brothers and sisters, let us all ask the Lord: “Fac cor nostrum secundum cor tuum”: Make our hearts like yours (Litany of the Sacred Heart of Jesus). In this way we will receive a heart which is firm and merciful, attentive and generous, a heart which is not closed, indifferent or prey to the globalization of indifference.
Blessings of peace as we ease into this Lenten season. May your heart (and my heart) be opened by God’s love to what is really important.
I will never forget the day when I first learned about the four American church women who were killed in El Salvador 24 years ago today. It was 1988 and I was a junior at a Catholic girls high school. One of the Sisters from the community who sponsored my high school came to our religion class to speak about her work with the people of El Salvador, which was still embroiled in a brutal and bloody civil war. She brought pictures of the children and families she accompanied and shared the story of her ministry. She also told us the story of Sister Dorothy Kazel, OSU, lay missioner Jean Donovan, Sister Maura Clarke, MM, and Sister Ita Ford, MM who had been beaten, raped, and murdered by five members of the National Guard of El Salvador just a few years before, because of their presence and ministry to the people of that country. Their bodies were left in a shallow grave along an isolated roadside. I remember being shocked by the story. I also remember being overpowered by the realization that this Sister who was talking to us and sharing her own story also put herself at risk of a similar fate. And it became clear to me that her reason was love. Love of God and love of the people of El Salvador.
Love … that’s the real meaning of Sisterhood. Love is worth living for. Love is worth taking risks for. Love is even worth dying for. What else does the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus teach us?
In the words of Sister Ita Ford in a letter to her goddaughter, written just a few months before her murder:
I hope you come to find that which gives life a deep meaning for you…something worth living for, maybe even worth dying for…something that energizes you, enthuses you, enables you to keep moving ahead. I can’t tell you what it might be — that’s for you to find, to choose, to love. I can just encourage you to start looking, and support you in the search. Maybe this sounds weird and off-the-wall, and maybe, no one else will talk to you like this, but then, too, I’m seeing and living things that others around you aren’t… I want to say to you: don’t waste the gifts and opportunities you have to make yourself and other people happy.
Chances are, most of the people who will tune in to the second episode of the ‘reality’ show The Sisterhood tonight do not know this real life story of the power of Sisterhood. Hopefully, however, the message still comes across that vowed religious life isn’t about giving up make up, or hiding away from the world, or fleeing the drama that comes with being human. In my experience, it’s about finding something worth living for, something that energizes you and causes you to share your God given gifts in a particular way to help address the unmet needs of the world. It’s about responding to the transformative love of God in a way that challenges, supports and transforms you as you seek to transform the world in the company of your Sisters. It’s about love.
In the words of Pope Francis in his message for the Year of Consecrated Life: “You will find life by giving life, hope by giving hope, love by giving love.”
Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent. It is also the first day of the “Year of Consecrated Life,” which Pope Francis has convened and which finishes in February 2016. Today, the Vatican released a message from Pope Francis to consecrated men and women on the occasion of the start of the year. It is a beautiful and challenging letter, made even more so perhaps because, as a Jesuit, he is intimately aware of the joys, challenges, and promise of vowed religious life.
In my first read of the letter, I was especially drawn to to one particular passage. Pope Francis outlines three main aims of the year: to look to the past with gratitude, to live the present with passion, and to embrace the future with hope. The passage that caught my attention is in his discussion of this third aim:
“This hope is not based on statistics or accomplishments, but on the One in whom we have put our trust (cf. 2 Tim 1:2), the One for whom ‘nothing is impossible’ (Lk 1:37). This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future. It is to that future that we must always look, conscious that the Holy Spirit spurs us on so that he can still do great things with us.
So do not yield to the temptation to see things in terms of numbers and efficiency, and even less to trust in your own strength. In scanning the horizons of your lives and the present moment, be watchful and alert. Together with Benedict XVI, I urge you not to ‘join the ranks of the prophets of doom who proclaim the end or meaninglessness of the consecrated life in the Church in our day; rather, clothe yourselves in Jesus Christ and put on the armour of light – as Saint Paul urged (cf. Rom 13:11-14) – keeping awake and watchful.’ Let us constantly set out anew, with trust in the Lord.
I would especially like to say a word to those of you who are young. You are the present, since you are already taking active part in the lives of your Institutes, offering all the freshness and generosity of your ‘yes’. At the same time you are the future, for soon you will be called to take on roles of leadership in the life, formation, service and mission of your communities. This Year should see you actively engaged in dialogue with the previous generation. In fraternal communion you will be enriched by their experiences and wisdom, while at the same time inspiring them, by your own energy and enthusiasm, to recapture their original idealism. In this way the entire community can join in finding new ways of living the Gospel and responding more effectively to the need for witness and proclamation.“
Ok, if I’m honest, it was this line that really drew my attention: “soon you will be called to take on roles of leadership in the life, formation, service, and mission of your communities.” Indeed. That “future” would be in a little over one month for me, as I begin my six year term as a member of our congregation leadership team in January. As you might imagine, I step onto this path with more than a little trepidation. But that is also balanced with a lot of love for my community and belief in the future of religious life. How wonderful to have this letter to reflect on and pray with during Advent, my own time of “waiting” for this new adventure to begin.
This is an unusual time in the history of consecrated life. Granted, the history of religious life is filled with “unusual times,” from the Ammas and Abbas who sought solitude in the desert and instead formed communities, to the call of Francis to rebuild God’s church which lead to a whole new form of religious life, to the suppression of religious during the French revolution which spread religious further into the new world, to the church’s own revolution in the form of the renewal of religious life after the Second Vatican Council which we are still experiencing in echoes and reverberations.
Today’s unusual time, from my perspective as a newer and younger religious, is a precious one. As Pope Francis so beautifully puts it, this is a time for younger religious, who are both part of the present and part of the future, to be “actively engaged in dialogue with the previous generation,” to be “enriched by their experiences and wisdom, while at the same time inspiring them, by [our] own energy and enthusiasm, to recapture their original idealism.”
While there have always been multiple generations in religious life, our current demographic reality means that there are 30 to 40 decades between me and most of my mentors in religious life. That makes this time all the more precious, and makes me grateful to be actively sharing my own energy and enthusiasm at a time when I can mix and mingle that energy and enthusiasm with those who have been living religious life, in some cases, longer than I’ve been alive. I am so very grateful for the presence, love, support, and friendship of my Sisters of all ages.
Today’s unusual time is also a critical one, for the needs of the world and for the sustainability of our way of life to be a witness to God’s love in that world. Looking at the reality of demographics and resources and our own ability to cross the divides can make it all seem a little bit crazy. But as Pope Francis reminds us, our hope in the future is not based on statistics or accomplishments or our own abilities. It’s based on “the One for whom ‘nothing is impossible.'”
I’d like to end this post by repeating these words from Pope Francis:
“This is the hope which does not disappoint; it is the hope which enables consecrated life to keep writing its great history well into the future.”
The generations that are living religious life today all believe in that future. We are inspired by the stories that God started in our founders and that continue to be written today. We know that God is still writing that story, and lucky us, spurred on by the Holy Spirit, we have the opportunity and obligation to co-create that future full of hope for all God’s people in need. Amen.
I recently listened to an episode of This American Life which expounded on the phenomenon of FOMO, or fear of missing out. In the podcast, Alex Blumberg (formerly of the Planet Money podcast, now trying to get his own business off the ground) is speaking to a venture capitalist, seeking to get him to finance said new business. From the episode:
Alex: And Chris [venture capitalist] is like a teacher handing me the answers to a test he’s about to give, explaining exactly what he wants to see from me in order to invest in my company. I need to project conviction. Check. And I need to instill FOMO. For you non-Millennials, FOMO is an acronym– Fear Of Missing Out.
Chris: Airbnb, multi-billion-dollar business, right? I was one of the first people to see the Airbnb page. And I pulled them aside and said, guys, this is super dangerous. You’re renting out a room in somebody’s house while they’re still there? … There’s no way this’ll succeed. That’s a $10 billion business today that I’m not an investor in.
Dropbox. I saw the Dropbox guys, and I was like, this is great and everything, but Google’s going to crush you. They have a thing internally called G-Drive, and it’s going to absolutely crush Dropbox. There’s no way this thing’s going to succeed. That’s a $10 billion business today that I’m not an investor in.
Alex: “A $10 billion business that I’m not an investor in”? That is FOMO. Once you have FOMO on your side, says Chris, you no longer have to ask people like him for money. They’re lining up to give it to you.
FOMO is an interesting concept. As I was walking on the treadmill, listening to the podcast, I couldn’t help but translate the phenomenon of FOMO to religious life.
Conviction. Even though it makes absolutely no sense, as the picture says, “I ♥ Religious Life and Believe in its Future.” Really, I do! I know that this life is where I make the most sense, where I can experience and respond to God’s love and in the process (hopefully) help make the world a better place.
Yet I also realize that we are in a crazy transition time within religious life (sometimes called diminishment, although I prefer to call it demographic change). This makes it a hard sell, especially to young adults who look at religious communities and don’t see a lot of people who look like them. When you ponder making a lifetime commitment to a pretty radical way of living, it certainly helps to be able to imagine who you will be living that with into the future. I get that. It’s a challenge to be sure. So yes, the landscape is shifting rapidly within religious life and joining religious life right now can look like a huge gamble. You might wonder why you would invest your life in this particular vocation now, at this time.
I obviously took the plunge and made the investment of my life, love, and energy in both the present and the evolving future of religious life. And because I am a part of religious life at this time, I get to participate actively in how we navigate those shifts and where the ship of religious life is headed. Because I am here at this particular time in religious life, I have been able to soak in the wisdom, love, and laughter of some amazing women religious. Not only that, I get to call them Sister! Because I am here at this particular time in religious life, I have had the opportunity to build relationships and grow friendships with religious life peers across congregations, through my formation experience and participation in Giving Voice. My experience tells me, again and again, that this truly is a graced time in religious life.
Which has me wondering …. Not that we necessarily want to think of vocations and religious life in capitalistic terms, or even in terms of marketing, but what if we were able to express this graced transition time to young adults as something they don’t want to miss out on? FOMO it if you will. It’s an interesting idea, to be sure.
Join religious life now, and you get to help shape the future and navigate the demographic change.
Join religious life now, and you benefit from the wisdom, presence, and support of incredible men and women religious who will not be here that much longer.
Join religious life now, and, in the words of Pope Francis, you can help “Wake up the world! Be witnesses of a different way of acting, of living! It is possible to live differently in this world.”
The pope said solidarity entails struggling “against the structural causes of poverty, inequality, the lack of work, land and shelter, the denial of social and labor rights,” and confronting what he called the “empire of money.”
Ok, so perhaps I should not have been so surprised. After all, Pope Francis mentioned solidarity 19 times in last year’s apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium. And really, the Church’s emphasis on solidarity is not new. It is often associated with the Pope of my childhood and early young adulthood, Pope John Paul II, who understood solidarity as a virtue. In his 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis, John Paul described solidarity as “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
As I said, I’ve been reading a lot about solidarity in preparation for comps. One book that has really helped me to dig deeper into the underlying challenge and promise of solidarity is Kinship Across Borders: A Christian Ethic of Immigrationby Kristin Heyer. Heyer describes three forms of solidarity.
Institutional Solidarity calls, you guessed it, institutions to understand themselves as collectively responsible to amelioriate the economic and political factors which cause injustice and inequity. The work of the United Nations, at its best, is an example of institutional solidarity, focused on transforming structures for the common good.
Incarnational Solidarity calls us to “immerse our bodies and expend precious energy in practices of presence and service in the real world.” Those of us who “have” can be isolated in our worlds and world views. Incarnational solidarity urges us beyond our protective bubbles to experiences and relationships which “better attune us to our connections.” This might be real life concrete relationships with actual people on the margins. Or this might be adjusting our own consumer choices to honor those we are related to, such as farmers, by making the choice to buy fair trade. Gregory Boyle, SJ sums up well the transformative power of incarnational solidarity when he says: “At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away.”
Conflictual Solidarity, according to Heyer, is often “underplayed” in Catholic thought. Until, that is, our current Pope who no doubt was transformed through his own experiences of incarnational solidarity in Argentina. Just ponder this quote from Evangelii Gaudium: “Solidarity, in its deepest and most challenging sense, thus becomes a way of making history in a life setting where conflicts, tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity.” If we are truly committed to life and human dignity for all, if we stand with those pushed to the margins, then it’s not just a matter of holding hands and singing kumbaya. We also need to get our hands dirty and sometimes face the necessary conflict. But, as Pope Francis recognizes in EG, how we do this matters. The goal is to seek “resolution which takes place on a higher plane and preserves what is valid and useful on both sides.”
The tradition of Catholic social thought is alive, developing, and deep. The themes peppered in the Pope’s recent talk to activists come from deep within the Church’s tradition. But I will admit, as an activist at heart, that it is also nice to read the Pope recognizing that when he speaks from this tradition, “some people conclude that the pope is a communist.” I believe Dorothy Day had the same problem.
My experience of God is often one of surprise. It seems that when I open my heart, God finds a way in, often catching me off guard. It was so lovely to read this experience described in the words of Pope Francis this weekend at the beatification of Paul VI:
“This is the perennial newness to be discovered each day, and it requires mastering the fear which we often feel at God’s surprises.
God is not afraid of new things! That is why he is continually surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways. He renews us: he constantly makes us “new”. A Christian who lives the Gospel is “God’s newness” in the Church and in the world. How much God loves this “newness”! …
Here is where our true strength is found; here is the leaven which makes it grow and the salt which gives flavor to all our efforts to combat the prevalent pessimism which the world proposes to us. Here too is where our hope is found, for when we put our hope in God we are neither fleeing from reality nor seeking an alibi: instead, we are striving to render to God what is God’s. That is why we Christians look to the future, God’s future. It is so that we can live this life to the fullest – with our feet firmly planted on the ground – and respond courageously to whatever new challenges come our way.”
Truth be told, not only am I surprised by God, I often experience God as a someone with a pretty wicked sense of humor. And sometimes as a trickster too! As in, playful with a good sense of humor and not afraid to call my bluff or play the sneaky Holy Spirit card, calling me to something new before I even know really where I am going.
The God of surprises led me back to my Catholic faith, through twists and turns and friends, after a ten years as a strident “ex Catholic.”
God playfully led me to discover my passion for peace through justice, even in the midst of some experiences of pain and grief.
Another surprising God moment (in an email from my pastor) made me consider that maybe, quite possibly, I had a vocation to religious life
And then God surprised me by guiding me to a community of fun, faithful, and fearless women who seek to live peace through justice in their daily lives. God led me “home,” to a community of women I have come to love, despite age gaps, diminismhment, or fears, a place where I can be my best me.
And then, God surprised me with a group of religious life age peers across congregations who make me laugh, keep me sane, and make me love my community even more and believe with all my heart in the (surprising) future God has in store for religious life.
These surprises which led me to the corner of Susan and St. Joseph are ones that keeps on giving. As Pope Francis says, God is continually surprising me, opening my heart and guiding me in unexpected ways. For real … and for that, I am so very grateful!