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Friends of Merton

Posted in America Magazine, Thomas Merton with tags , , , , , , on April 21, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Merton_Berrigan-Daniel-001This column originally appeared in the April 28 issue of America magazine.

On Nov. 10, 1958, Thomas Merton wrote a letter to Pope John XXIII in which the famous American monk shared with the new pope some reflections about the world and the church. In one passage Merton describes how he had begun to understand that being a cloistered monk did not necessarily mean withdrawing from the world in some absolute way. Instead, he discerned the Spirit calling him to another form of ministry from within the walls of the monastery by writing letters, connecting with women and men he might never have had the opportunity to meet otherwise.

It is not enough for me to think of the apostolic value of prayer and penance; I also have to think in terms of a contemplative grasp of the political, intellectual, artistic and social movements of this world—by which I mean a sympathy for the honest aspirations of so many intellectuals everywhere in the world and the terrible problems they have to face. I have had the experience of seeing that this kind of understanding and friendly sympathy, on the part of a monk who really understands them, has produced striking effects among artists, writers, publishers, poets, etc., who have become my friends without my having to leave the cloister…. In short, with the approval of my superiors, I have exercised an apostolate—small and limited though it be—within a circle of intellectuals from other parts of the world; and it has been quite simply an apostolate of friendship.

Merton came to realize that part of his religious vocation involved connecting with people of different backgrounds, experiences and worldviews.

He corresponded with the writers Boris Pasternak, Czesław Miłosz, Ernesto Cardenal and Evelyn Waugh; with the activists Joan Baez, Daniel and Philip Berrigan; with the theologians Paul Tillich, Karl Rahner, Abraham Heschel and Rosemary Radford Reuther; with bishops, nuns and religious leaders of other traditions, like Thich Nhat Hanh; and with so many others, including ordinary, unknown people.

I thought of Merton and his “apostolate of friendship” earlier this month while sitting at a pub one evening in England. I was in the company of a diverse collection of people: a middle-age father from Ireland, an Episcopal priest from Scotland and a woman and man from England, both teachers. We were there enjoying some beer after a long but inspiring day of academic paper presentations and workshops on the life, thought and legacy of this American monk. We were in Oakham, in central Britain, for a conference of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland, an event held every other year. (In the alternating years, the International Thomas Merton Society holds a large conference somewhere in North America; the next will be in Louisville in June 2015.) I was there to deliver a keynote address, but the conference draws a diverse group composed of top Merton scholars, as well as people with a more casual interest in Merton and all sorts of others in between.

Strangers before this evening, those with whom I found myself at the pub all began to exchange stories about how each had come to discover the writings of Merton and what had led them to attend this three-day event. Most shared a version of “the typical Merton story,” which begins with reading The Seven Storey Mountain.

The Irishman, however, recalled a dramatic event that took place in a hospital room. Visiting his father, who was recovering from surgery, he was told that the man in the next bed was dying. The dying man happened to be reading a book, which led my new Irish friend to reflect: “If he’s dying and is reading, it must be an amazing book! I need to know what it is.” The book was Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain.

This man told us, decades later, that Merton remained a major influence in his life, ever since he read the book after that hospital encounter.

Few writers and thinkers can bring people together this way. Even fewer can do it long after their death. Thomas Merton continues to exercise an “apostolate of friendship,” bringing people together across many divides. If you haven’t met Merton and his friends yet, I encourage you to do so.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013). Follow him @DanHoranOFM.

Photo: Merton Legacy Trust

The ‘Unspeakable’ One Year Later

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Boston_Marathon_Explosions1_t607It’s difficult to believe that it has been a year since the Boston Marathon bombing. I’m not sure how the rest of the country relates to the event, but living in Boston both during those days last year and now it seems like this is something that remains a constant specter haunting the city. During these last few weeks we have been accompanied by hundreds of stories in the media about the event, about the loss of life, about those whose lives have been directly and painfully affected by the attacks, about what the future holds for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, about what it all means.

Yet, meaning and sense do not always come easily in difficult and tragic circumstances such as these. Is there meaning and sense in the thoughtless slaughter of children in Connecticut? Is there meaning and sense in the terrorist attack in an African mall? Is there meaning and sense in the big and little ways that women and men are daily afflicted by suffering and fear?

Sometimes there are no words to articulate the experience and no meaning that can explain such tragedy. Rather than  offer any attempt to articulate or explain, I thought I might just share an essay I wrote last year in response to the events in Boston we remember this week. We continue to pray for those whose lives were taken, for those who struggle daily to move forward, and for those who afflicted such senseless and needless pain and suffering on others.

The Unspeakable: The Boston Marathon and the Beginning of Christian Hope

There some events we encounter in life for which there is simply no language to describe adequately our experience or words capable of consoling the afflicted. The events last month at the finish line of the Boston Marathon and the siege of the city four days later might rightly fall into this category. Images of the explosions, biographies of the victims and interviews with the witnesses circulated through cyberspace, on television and in print with hypnotizing rapidity and emotion-dulling saturation, only increasing the overwhelming experience of those days. As a resident of Boston, my memory of that week in April will forever be marked by the surreal nature of a scene that seemed closer to an action movie than to the reality playing out in my backyard.

In the initial silence of that Monday afternoon, as confusion ensued and victims were treated, I thought of the renowned
spiritual writer, social activist and Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. He had a term that seemed to capture this event: the
Unspeakable. There are times when we encounter something so terrible and terrifying, the experience pushes us to the edges of the effable. Such experiences of sin and violence in our world are concrete encounters with the Unspeakable. Merton explains, in part, what he means in his 1966 book Raids on the Unspeakable:

It is the void that contradicts everything that is spoken even before the words are said…. It is the emptiness of “the end.” Not necessarily the end of the world, but a theological point of no return, a climax of absolute finality in refusal, in equivocation, in disorder, in absurdity, which can be broken open again to truth only by miracle, by the coming of God…for Christian hope begins where every other hope stands frozen stiff before the face of the Unspeakable.

The Unspeakable is neither a word of comfort nor a greeting of consolation. It is a moniker that is challenging and indicting. It names a reality that most people would rather forget. James Douglass, in his book JFK and the Unspeakable, describes Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable as “a kind of systemic evil that defies speech.” However, it is not simply the object of our fear or an enemy from outside. Douglass continues: “The Unspeakable is not far away. It is not somewhere out there, identical with a government that became foreign to us. The emptiness of the void, the vacuum of responsibility and compassion, is in ourselves.”
To confront the Unspeakable requires that we face the ways we too are always already complicit in a culture of violence present in our world. This does not mean that individuals are exonerated from the particular and egregious acts of violence they commit, but it does mean that to look into the void of the Unspeakable involves looking into the mirror of our own participation in systems of violence.

Our Culture of Violence

One temptation we encounter in the face of violence like the events at the Boston Marathon or in Newtown, Conn., is to objectify the source of the violence and place it as an evil in opposition to the rest of us. This happens frequently, for example, in the use of the phrase “culture of death” (which originally comes from Pope John Paul II’s 1995 encyclical “Evangelium Vitae”). There is a sense in which a Christian might claim to be “for life” and therefore make the “culture of death” an exterior enemy to be fought.

Merton’s approach to evil, sin and violence in the world is more nuanced. To begin, we might realize that “death” is not the most opportune word and recall that death is a natural part of life. Talk about a “culture of death,” while the intention is good and the meaning important, could be taken to suggest that death in itself is a bad thing. St. Francis of Assisi, for instance, has a different take on this. In his “Canticle of the Creatures,” Francis praises God for the gift of “sister bodily death,” whom all living creatures will inevitably encounter. As a people of the Resurrection, we also believe that Jesus Christ has “put an end to death” (2 Tm 1:10) and that death does not have the last word. Death should not be feared in itself.

But violence, unlike death, is not a natural part of life. Violence is made manifest in little and big ways, in words and actions, in things seen and unseen. Merton’s concept of the Unspeakable captures the significance of this reality in two key ways. First, violence is not something that is ascribable only to individuals who commit evil acts, like murder and terror. In his book New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton describes how we are often quick to blame others and acquit ourselves.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self.

In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice.

It is difficult to accept that all of us are somehow implicated in the finitude and sinfulness of humanity. Merton writes that “we tend unconsciously to ease ourselves still more of the burden of guilt that is in us, by passing it on to somebody else.”

Here we have the second insight about the Unspeakable, which arises from the realization that we are also sinners and participants in an unnecessary culture of violence. What makes the Unspeakable unspeakable is the masking over and avoidance of this reality in which we too are always already a part. Unlike common conceptions of the “culture of death,” which is an outside enemy to be fought, a “culture of violence” exists in the language, presuppositions, behaviors and attitudes of a population. This is what is hidden, what is reflected back to us when we are forced to look into the void or face of the Unspeakable.

Michael Cohen, a columnist for the British newspaper The Guardian, wrote a sobering piece the day after the bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev had been apprehended and his brother, Tamerlan, killed. He asked pointed questions that shine an uncomfortable light on a society that, in the same week, can shut down a major metropolitan city because of one suspect on the loose, yet fail to pass federal legislation to mandate criminal background checks for gun sales, a reform supported by nearly 90 percent of the population. He asked, with all due respect and sympathy to the dead and maimed in the Boston attack, how a society in which more than 30,000 deaths are caused by gun violence annually could react so drastically to the specter of terrorism when, in the past year, 17 Americans were killed in terrorist attacks.

Cohen’s concluding comments echo Merton’s concern:

It is a surreal and difficult-to-explain dynamic. Americans seemingly place an inordinate fear on violence that is random and unexplainable and can be blamed on “others”—jihadists, terrorists, evil-doers, etc. But the lurking dangers all around us—the guns, our unhealthy diets, the workplaces that kill 14 Americans every single day—these are just accepted as part of life, the price of freedom, if you will.

Part of what makes the culture of violence Unspeakable is our strong desire not to face the reality of our complicity in perpetuating injustice through our economic choices, attitudes, language, behaviors, lifestyles, biases, support (or lack thereof ) of legislation and so on.

It is a lot more comforting to blame the “other”— whether a “terrorist” or an amorphous “culture of death”— than it is to accept our individual and collective roles in perpetuating our unspeakable culture of violence.

The Beginning of Christian Hope

On the day of the attack in Boston, Cardinal Seán O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., archbishop of Boston, wrote: “In the midst of the darkness of this tragedy we turn to the light of Jesus Christ, the light that was evident in the lives of people who immediately turned to help those in need today.” There are times—for example, when those who might otherwise run away from danger out of fear run toward others to provide care and assistance—when signs of Christian hope displace the behaviors and attitudes of the culture of violence. Christian hope is not a belief in a far-off utopia that will come from outside. It is a description of God’s presence in the world now, when, like Jesus, we love the unlovable, forgive the unforgiveable, embrace the marginalized and forgotten and heal the broken and broken-hearted.

Christian hope is a hope that withstands the challenge as it appears to us when we look into the void of the Unspeakable and realize that we can do something about violence in our world and live a different way. It is a hope that proclaims through the incarnate Word of God that what was once ineffable in the Unspeakable can be named and overcome, but it also requires our honest admission of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” Only then do we confront the culture of violence that we would rather forget.

The Unspeakable culture of violence extends far beyond the city borders of Boston and Newtown. It is perhaps more acutely seen in the communities of Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and in places largely unknown to us. There the experience of the Unspeakable witnessed on a sunny Boston afternoon is an everyday reality: Marketplaces, buses, houses of worship, elementary schools and neighborhoods are all affected by the terror of violence and fear that we in the United States cannot begin to imagine.

In his essay “Letter to an Innocent Bystander,” Merton challenges us with a truth that undergirds the perpetuation of an Unspeakable culture of violence on the local, national and world stage: “A witness of a crime, who just stands by and makes a mental note of the fact that he is an innocent bystander, tends by that very fact to become an accomplice.”

Merton’s challenge for us in Boston and around the world is to overcome the fear that leads us to claim innocence while scapegoating the “other,” to embrace the Gospel and become more human in compassion and to look into the void of the Unspeakable so as to accept our complicity in the continuation of a culture of violence in so many little and big ways. Then we might be able move on to speak and live the word of Christian hope that begins there in the face of the Unspeakable.

This article originally appeared in the May 20, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Photo: Wire

Give Nonviolence a Chance

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on January 11, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

world-peaceThis column originally appeared in the January 20-27, 2014 issue of America magazine with the title “Daring Peace.”

On Dec. 10, 2013, the eyes, ears and hearts of the world were focused on Soweto, South Africa, on the occasion of a memorial service to remember the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela. Mandela will be remembered for a great many things, including his commitment to peacemaking and nonviolence in his later years. But in a way unlike Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi, with whom Mandela will be remembered as a great world leader of liberation, Mandela’s relationship to nonviolence and peacemaking was especially complex.

As a Los Angeles Times article by Robyn Dixon, titled “Nelson Mandela’s Legacy: As a Leader, He Was Willing to Use Violence” (12/6), reminds us, Mandela once “embraced armed struggle to end the racist system of apartheid.” In the 1950s and ’60s, Mandela was convinced that the nonviolent efforts the African National Congress had adopted to fight the white supremacist regime were ineffectual. He and others trained for military action and established Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed branch of the A.N.C., which was willing to use violence to reach its goals. Yet Mandela would not always maintain this stance.

Dixon reminds us: “Umkhonto we Sizwe abandoned its policy of violence in 1990 as negotiations on the dismantling of apartheid and the setting up of free elections continued. After his release, and on becoming South Africa’s chief executive in 1994, Mandela adhered to the commitment to peace, tolerance and equality that became the hallmark of his presidency.”

Nelson Mandela’s story is not about embracing radical nonviolence from the outset. It is about conversion to nonviolence. His is a story that offers hope for those who believe that they cannot let go of the necessity of violence in our world. His is a story that encourages us, especially those who bear the name of Christ, to give nonviolence a chance.

Nonviolence is often viewed as impossible, an unrealistic dream of the naïve and foolish, particularly in an age marked by drones, nuclear weapons and diffuse terrorist networks. This sort of logic is what led the young Mandela to endorse taking up arms. It was this sort of logic that led U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last September to write off his own suggestion that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria could avoid violent intervention from the international community by “[turning] over every single bit of his chemical weapons to the international community in the next week.” Kerry expressed his incredulity: “But he isn’t about to do it.”

However, there are prophets who continue to cry out in the wilderness of our 21st-century world on behalf of nonviolence. Pope Francis, for example, called both Christians and people of good will alike to join him in a prayer vigil for peace in Syria on Sept. 7, 2013. During that day of prayer and fasting, Pope Francis spoke in St. Peter’s Square: “We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves as if it were normal we continue to sow destruction, pain, death. Violence and war lead only to death.”

Pope Francis, who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the government of Argentina for this nonviolent witness and its result, challenges the world to follow in the spirit of Mandela’s own lifelong conversion toward peace and nonviolence. What seems impossible and illogical might just be our own unwillingness to take seriously the Gospel imperative of peace. Pope Francis asked during the peace vigil: “Can we get out of this spiral of sorrow and death? Can we learn once again to walk and live in the ways of peace?” And he offered a Gospel response: “I say yes, it is possible for everyone. From every corner of the world tonight, I would like to hear us cry out: Yes, it is possible for everyone!”

Pope Francis’ challenge to us is to return to the Gospel and embrace nonviolence as the way to be peacemakers and reconcilers. Nelson Mandela’s life story illustrates the possibility of this conversion. The logic of violence has had its reign for long enough. Can we too give nonviolence a chance?

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Photo: File

Slavery and Dangerous Memory

Posted in America Magazine, Social Justice with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVEThis column appears in the December 2, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Sitting in a Cambridge, Mass., movie theater with a friend, I forced myself not to look or shy away from the violent scenes in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Unlike the gratuitous violence of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” there was nothing over-the-top, nothing selfish about what was painfully depicted on screen in McQueen’s adaptation of the story of Solomon Northup. That is what made it so difficult to watch and why I wanted to look away so badly. The presentation seemed so real.

As the Yale historian David Blight, an expert on American slavery, said in an NPR interview, “We love being the country that freed the slaves, [but] we’re not so fond of being the country that had the biggest slave system on the planet.” Whereas Gibson’s depiction of the Passion was an idiosyncratic reflection of his own personal piety and Tarantino’s slave film was fictive, “12 Years a Slave” offers an indicting narrative that forces its viewers—particularly its white American viewers—to confront a dangerous memory that we would collectively like to forget.

Blight said that the history of American slavery is “a problem in our culture because, to be quite blunt about it, most Americans want their history to be essentially progressive and triumphal, they want it to be a pleasing story. And if you go back to this story, it’s not always going to please you, but it’s a story you have to work through to find your way to something more redemptive.”

The way Blight talked about the importance of McQueen’s film reminded me of the work of the German theology professor Johann Baptist Metz. In his book Faith in History and Society, Father Metz describes two types of memories. The first is the sterilized form of memory, “in which we just do not take the past seriously enough” and recall everything in a soft, glowing light. This type of memory is usually evolutionary or progressive, reflecting a trajectory of history moving toward an increasingly better world. The other type is what Metz calls “dangerous memories, memories that make demands on us.” The latter are what he sees constituting the Christian narrative when we take seriously the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Metz explains that these dangerous memories “illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently come to terms with, and show up the banality of our supposed ‘realism.’”

Far too often the history of slavery in the United States is reduced to the sterile, clichéd and comforting former type of memory. The stark reality of slavery and our collective complicity in its perpetuation are reduced to a caricature. Alternatively, we tell a story about the triumphant work of the “liberator-martyr” Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, which overshadows the complexity of a past marred by the indescribable suffering of generations of persons who have been dehumanized, sold, owned, raped, murdered and destroyed. Many who have the luxury to look away and forget do so. This selective memory silences the oppressed, the victims and the dead. This is a kind of memory that allows the sins of American racism and white privilege to continue today, an unquestioned status quo shielded by our willful ignorance and desire for historical “progress.”

But slavery in this nation is a memory of the latter kind, a dangerous memory. Like the resurrection of Christ, which can never be separated from his life and death, there is something redeeming about calling to mind the suffering caused by American slavery and its continuing effects.

What is redemptive is not the belief that “all is O.K. now.” Rather, the way toward redemption is directed by an awareness that things are far from O.K. What makes the memory of American slavery so dangerous is that in calling to mind the suffering of history’s victims, we begin to see that the suffering continues. Hope is found in the interruption that films like “12 Years a Slave” make in our everyday lives and presumptions. This interruption should shock us into hearing the muted cries of history’s victims (Psalm 34) and recalling that, although we are many parts, we are one body in Christ (1 Cor 12:12).

The body of Christ continues to suffer. The dangerous memory of slavery calls us to take seriously the question: What are you and I going to do about it?

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

Respondeo: On Clericalism

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , , , , on November 19, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

priest-collarThe response to my column “Lead Us Not Into Clericalism” (10/21) has been a mixture of those whose experiences resonated with what was described in the piece and those who have taken to defending the trappings of a clerical lifestyle including the wearing of fancy vestments and use of titles. A sampling of some letters to the editor and Internet comments about the column can be found in the November 18, 2013 issue of America.

There are several things that I believe merit additional comment from me. Unfortunately, with about a 700-word spatial limit, there’s only so much that can be said in a single column. I’ve waited to let the dust settle, meanwhile observing the responses and reading the feedback across various media. Some of the strongest resistance has come from the “blogosphere,” while some of the most supportive and encouraging responses have come in the form of private emails, letters, and Facebook messages. What readers have picked up on and what they have offered in response has been enlightening.

Attire and Titles

There has been a surprising amount of discussion, primarily on blogs by diocesan priests, about clergy attire, vesture, and titles (for example, “Titles and Cassocks and Vestments, oh my!” and “The False Charge of Clericalism”). The attention paid to these themes in themselves is surprising to me (and to many readers) because nowhere in the column do I claim that any of these things are inherently problematic. In fact, there is only one mention of vestments or titles at all and the point is that some priests “appear to be more concernedabout titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all.”

The attire and the titles are a problem, I suggest, because they can be seen as ends in themselves and that far too much attention is given to what is distinctive about the clerical lifestyle than what is shared in common as baptized Christians and fellow members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church.

Nevertheless, it is striking that there would be so much energy poured into defending the uniqueness in clothing styles and the instance on titles – some suggesting that clerical titles be used even among family and friends. The question for reflection is whether or not how we dress, how we interact with others, how we introduce ourselves, and what we expect from the people with and for whom we minister breaks down barriers to relationship or adds unnecessary barricades to potential relationships.

For every person that is drawn to initiate a friendly chat with a Roman-Collar-wearing clergyman at the bank, there are others for whom that social symbol is a barrier to genuine human relationship. Does the church need priests appearing distinctively at all times? Or does the church need disciples of Christ, who minister by their presence, word, and sacrament? You don’t need to wear a cassock to the grocery store to reveal the compassionate face of God to your sisters and brothers in the community. If you think you do, then you might want to ask yourself why.

Conservative v. Liberal, Progressive v. Traditional, and Other Polarizations

Every response to this column that has included the claim that clericalism is “not just about conservatives” (or some iteration of that assertion) is absolutely correct. However, in the spirit of America’s new vision following the article by editor-in-chief Matt Malone, SJ, “Pursuing The Truth In Love” (6/3-10), I never used any of the following words in my column: conservative, liberal, progressive, or traditional. Not once. I never made a claim about what ecclesiastical or political self-identifying moniker those who exhibit signs of clericalism appropriate. I only mentioned a relative age group: young priests.

Yet, these polarizing terms have appeared frequently in the online comments, letters to the editor, Facebook replies, and, especially, on blogs. In retrospect, for it was never my direct intention to do so, this column seems to have served as a clericalism “Rorschach test.” Each reader projected his or her own biases and presumptions about who constituted the clerical class about which I was writing. This has left me thinking a lot about how deeply ingrained some of this polarizing discourse and these presuppositions surrounding Catholic clergy in the United States really are.

The Other Responses

I have also seen some comments on the America website, Facebook, and elsewhere that suggest clericalism is not a reality, that it is some fiction propagated by “(fill in the blank) types of Catholics.” While I cannot share the private emails and Facebook messages sent to me in the days and weeks after the column was published, I think it’s important to express that this topic of clericalism struck a chord not just with those who wish to defend some vision of a clerical lifestyle, but it also resonated with those who find themselves struggling daily with the burdens of this cultural phenomenon. I received notes from diocesan and religious priests, lay staff at parishes and major United States diocese, seminarians, and others who identified this reality. I heard from priests, seminarians, or staff in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Archdiocese of Newark, St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie (Archdiocese of New York), and the North American College in Rome, just to name a few.

Every single one of the emails or messages expressed an appreciation that the topic of clericalism was being discussed openly, but each also expressed the complications of being situated within a culture where clericalism was often present and, especially for the seminarians, pressures to conform were felt. This does not mean that there isn’t hope. Many of these notes included references to the hope for change in culture and attitude signaled by Pope Francis in recent months. It is a hope that I likewise share.

I still maintain that hope expressed at the end of my column: “Eight months into Pope Francis’ pontificate, I sense that he is challenging the whole church, but especially its ordained members, to a similar way of living. His call for humbler and more generous priests is a call to work against a culture of clericalism. It is a call for priests and bishops, young and old, to remember that their baptism is what matters most.”

This post was originally published at America magazine.

Latest America Magazine Column: Against Clericalism

Posted in America Magazine, Uncategorized, Vatican II with tags , , on October 14, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

priestIt has been really interesting to see the immediate and personal response from a whole spectrum of people to my latest America magazine column: “Lead Us Not Into Clericalism.” There have been a handful of comments on the America website itself, but there have also been a huge number of responses online — especially in the world of Facebook (take Fr. James Martin SJ’s public Facebook page for example). Additionally several blogs over at Patheos (Deacon’s Bench and Fr. Michael Duffy) have offered responses or tracked some of the comments. Here is the column, for those who haven’t seen it yet. Another interesting thing to note is that this has only been published online for three days, the print issue still doesn’t come out for more than a week.

Next month I turn 30. While that might seem like an old age to me as I approach the milestone, most people are quick to remind me of how young a friar and priest I still am. That statement of fact is often, but not always, accompanied by some well-meaning remark by a parishioner after Mass or an audience member after a talk suggesting that I’m not like other “young priests” they know.

What generally follows that sort of comment is an expression of concern about the perceived unapproachable or pretentious character of so many of the newly ordained. They appear to be more concerned about titles, clerical attire, fancy vestments, distance between themselves and their parishioners, and they focus more on what makes them distinctive than on their vocation to wash the feet of others (Jn 13:14–17), to lead with humility and to show the compassionate face of God to all.

What concerns people, in other words, is clericalism.

What I hear in these moments is not so much a compliment or praise for me as the worry people have for the future of ministry. As St. Francis cautioned his brothers, I realize that anything good that comes from my encounters in ministry is God’s work, and the only things I can truly take “credit” for are my weaknesses and sinfulness (Admonition V). And, trust me, there are plenty of both in my own life. At the heart of this encounter is the intuitive recognition that we are all sinners, yet we all have equal dignity as the baptized, and that those ordained to the ministerial priesthood should serve their sisters and brothers on our journey of faith.

While I know many good and humble religious and diocesan priests, I’ve encountered far too many clergy who, for whatever reason, feel they are above, better or more special than others. Pope Francis also recognizes this and spoke critically about it in the impromptu interview he gave during his return trip from World Youth Day.

Catholic News Service reported the pope’s words: “I think this is a time for mercy,” particularly a time when the church must go out of its way to be merciful, given the “not-so-beautiful witness of some priests” and “the problem of clericalism, for example, which have left so many wounds, so many wounded. The church, which is mother, must go and heal those wounds.”

Pope Francis names this the culture of clericalism, which maims and distorts the body of Christ, wounding those who seek God’s mercy but instead encounter human self-centeredness.

In an interview published in America (9/30), Pope Francis suggested ministers could help heal these wounds with mercy. He said: “The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”

St. Francis of Assisi is often remembered for having had a special reverence for priests, a characteristic that appears frequently in his writings. But he also had a particular vision for how the brothers in his community, ordained or not, would live in the world. His instruction seems as timely as ever in light of the persistence of clericalism.

In his Earlier Rule St. Francis says, “Let no one be called ‘prior,’ but let everyone in general be called a lesser brother.” He also wrote in Admonition XIX:

Blessed is the servant who does not consider himself any better when he is praised and exalted by people than when he is considered worthless, simple, and looked down upon, for what a person is before God, that he is and no more. Woe to that religious who has been placed in a high position by others and [who] does not want to come down by his own will. Blessed is that servant who is not placed in a high position by his own will and always desired to be under the feet of others.

All members of the clergy, not just Franciscans, should be challenged by these words.

Eight months into Pope Francis’ pontificate, I sense that he is challenging the whole church, but especially its ordained members, to a similar way of living. His call for humbler and more generous priests is a call to work against a culture of clericalism. It is a call for priests and bishops, young and old, to remember that their baptism is what matters most.

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including the forthcoming The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering.

Photo: stock

Pope Francis: Living Up to the Name?

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality, Pope Francis, Social Justice with tags , , , , , on September 30, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

03800364This post originally appeared today on America magazine’s “In All Things.”

Shortly after Pope Francis was elected the Bishop of Rome, I wrote in these pages about the significance of the name “Francis” as it comes from St. Francis of Assisi (“What’s in a Name?”). In light of the six-month mark of his pontificate and the unprecedented interview given in August and published earlier this month, it seems fitting to revisit some of the themes that are so importantly tied to the name Francis to consider how the pope may or may not be living up to the name. In other words, while there have been many excellent commentaries on the interview and the six-month pontificate, there hasn’t been much explicit discussion about the courageous decision to take the name after the Poverello, the most famous saint in Christian history. So here are a few thoughts from a Franciscan contributor to America.

There were three overlooked yet significant themes about the legacy of St. Francis that I named in the April article: The renunciation of power, reform with love for the church, and peacemaking that included proper love for creation.

As far as the renunciation of power is concerned, Pope Francis discusses his “experience in church government” in the America interview. There is a sense of humility that deserves recognition in Pope Francis’s acknowledgment that he has made many mistakes in the past. “My style of government as a Jesuit at the beginning had many faults.” Furthermore, he believes that he has learned from his mistakes, stating: “Over time I learned many things. The Lord has allowed this growth in knowledge of government through my faults and my sins…I believe that consultation is very important.”

It appears, through concrete actions and manner of living, Pope Francis has embraced a more collaborative, consultative, and humble approach to leadership. Rather than offering leadership “from above,” he reaches out for advice and assistance when pontiffs of the past preferred to appear to make decision unilaterally. Although no one can ever truly “renounce power,” especially given certain circumstances tied to one’s social location (it’s hard to be an average person when you’re nevertheless still the pope), the decision to eschew so many of the trappings– symbolic and concrete alike – of an antiquated and monarchical pontificate seems to suggest a positive effort to follow in the footprints of the Saint after whom he is now named.

It is clear that Pope Francis loves the church. What sort of reformer he will be remains unseen in the full, but there are glimpses that suggest a way of moving forward that bears a reflection of St. Francis’s way of being. Take his advocation of “thinking with the church,” an Ignatian concept from the Spiritual Exercises, in the America interview earlier this month. There is a connection between his preferential consideration of the church as the “People of God” (Lumen Gentium no. 12 and passim) and reform in terms of church discipline and doctrine (for more on this, see Richard Gaillardetz’s commentary in NCR, “Francis Wishes to Release Vatican II’s Bold Vision from Captivity”).

For example, he says: “Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people [of God]. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display thisinfallibilitas in credendo, this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together.” Following his love of the church, which is the People of God or all the baptized, the pope seems to gesture toward the possibility of a deeper, renewed, and unfolding sense of our faith that can be better understood in time and together.

Finally, his consistent reiteration of the need for the church and world to turn its attention to the poor and those at the margins is emblematic of what it means to be a peacemaker in the spirit of St. Francis. The poor man from Assisi let nothing get in the way of his embracing his sisters and brothers. Pope Francis, perhaps more clearly than in any other aspect of Christian discipleship, has modeled this in word and deed.

However, what remains to be seen is how the Bishop of Rome will encourage women and men of faith and all people of good will to renew their understanding of their right relationship with the rest of creation. Will he draw on the Franciscan theological and spiritual vision of kinship with all of the created order, rooted as it is in Scripture and the tradition? Will he help us to see that, like Leonardo Boff’s famous book by a similar title suggests, the cry of the earth is inextricably tied to the cry of the poor? Time will tell.

In the meantime, six-months in office as the Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis seems to be living up to the name “Francis” as best as one might expect so far. There is a lot that can still (and should) be done, and I believe much more will be revealed when his next Encyclical Letter, which rumored to be on the theme of poverty, is published.

Photo: Wire

On The Pope Interview: What Else is There to Say?

Posted in America Magazine, Pope Francis with tags , , , , , on September 20, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

pope-francis_2541160bLike the rest of the world — minus a few dozen Jesuits and their medal-deserving team of secret translators — I was absolutely blown away yesterday by the 12,000-word interview given by (and subsequently approved by! The pope reviewed the Italian text before it was sent out for publication) Pope Francis. The publication coordinated by the world’s leading Jesuit publications in several languages, including America magazine for which I have the honor to serve as a columnist, was a feat that Fr. James Martin, SJ, jokingly tweeted was perhaps Pope Francis’s very first miracle. Everything about this interview is simply amazing.

I hesitate to say anything else here for at least two reasons. The first is that, because I was more or less sequestered all day yesterday in a sound-proof recording studio in Cincinnati, OH (where I return again this morning) to record the audio version of my forthcoming book The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering, I have not had the chance (or the torture) of reviewing much of the spin and already existent commentary that flooded the media waves, newspaper pages, and blogosphere. So I’m afraid that I might simply echo what has already been said over and over again. The second is that I don’t really know where to begin. Honestly, there is simply so much there and so much on which to comment that I don’t know that I can or should do that in one blog post.

For that reason, I feel as though for the time being the words of Pope Francis should simply and powerfully speak for themselves.

I will return to these themes discussed in his interview, as I’m sure many other theologians, journalists, and “talking heads” will, at some point in the future. But now is the time to offer nothing more than a few snippets for reflection. Here are just a handful of the many, many quotable lines from the interview. Words that will no doubt inspire and challenge many. Words that I read with awe and a sense that the Holy Spirit is indeed at work in the world!

  • “Here, this is me, a sinner on whom the Lord has turned his gaze. And this is what I said when they asked me if I would accept my election as pontiff…I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”
  • “Sometimes discernment instead urges us to do precisely what you had at first thought you would do later. And that is what has happened to me in recent months. Discernment is always done in the presence of the Lord, looking at the signs, listening to the things that happen, the feeling of the people, especially the poor. My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people and from reading the signs of the times. Discernment in the Lord guides me in my way of governing.”
  • “My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions [as a Jesuit Provincial] led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative. I lived a time of great interior crisis when I was in Cordova. To be sure, I have never been like Blessed Imelda [a goody-goody], but I have never been a right-winger. It was my authoritarian way of making decisions that created problems.
  • “The image of the church I like is that of the holy, faithful people of God.”
  • “This church with which we should be thinking is the home of all, not a small chapel that can hold only a small group of selected people. We must not reduce the bosom of the universal church to a nest protecting our mediocrity. And the church is Mother; the church is fruitful. It must be.”
  • “A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”
  • “Religious men and women are prophets…They are those who have chosen a following of Jesus that imitates his life in obedience to the Father, poverty, community life and chastity.”
  • “We must walk united with our differences: there is no other way to become one. This is the way of Jesus.”
  • “Women are asking deep questions that must be addressed. The church cannot be herself without the woman and her role. The woman is essential for the church…The feminine genius is needed wherever we make important decisions. The challenge today is this: to think about the specific place of women also in those places where the authority of the church is exercised for various areas of the church.”
  • “I pray mentally even when I am waiting at the dentist or at other times of the day.”
  • “We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods. This is not possible. I have not spoken much about these things, and I was reprimanded for that. But when we speak about these issues, we have to talk about them in a context. The teaching of the church, for that matter, is clear and I am a son of the church, but it is not necessary to talk about these issues all the time.”
Photo: File

Back with Zombies

Posted in America Magazine with tags , , , , on August 13, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

city-zombies-wallpaper_After being away for a little vacation, today I return to the normal routine. During my time away a lot of things have unfolded in the news and around the world that are worth discussing, but I figured that something a bit lighthearted might be the best way to kick things off again here at DatingGod.org. So here is my latest column for America magazine, which was published this past week in one of the summer issues. The original title of the piece is “Faith, Hope, and Zombies.”

*     *     *     *      *

Zombies. They’re everywhere! At least that is what our contemporary cinematic and popular literary market would have us believe. With the current onslaught of zombies on the various platforms of video games, comedy shows, books, film and even spoofed classic literature (for example, the 2009 book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies), the undead have infiltrated our cultural psyche in a way that is rivaled only by the popularity of their more seductive supernatural cousins, the vampires.

A few years back, Jack McLain, S.J., wrote a thoughtful piece for this magazine (“A Need to Feed,” 5/17/10 Web only) about the cultural significance of the increasing zombie attacks and mentioned the then-recent publication of Max Brook’s book, World War Z, which was released as a film this summer. While zombies aren’t typically “my thing,” I saw the movie in no small part because of the surprisingly positive review offered by David Denby, The New Yorker’s film critic, who asserted that “‘World War Z’ is the most gratifying action spectacle in years.” Who could pass up that opportunity?

To my surprise, the film awakened in me an unexpected interest in the cultural phenomenon of recent zombie popularity. Why was it so pervasive, and why had I succumbed to being bitten by this mythic monster?

There has been a good deal of reflection in recent years on the social criticism latent in the zombie genre that is not to be found in some other supernatural or mythical subjects. Some critics have seen a link between society’s obsession with unbridled consumption and a psychoanalytic reading of the zombie as a non-living specter of Freud’s theory of the “death drive” that haunts our collective desire for control and meaning. Theories like this are indeed compelling and helpful; but, being particularly interested in theology and spirituality, I am more drawn to what the cultural obsession with the undead might say about our faith.

Most frightening about zombies, the theologian Kim Paffenroth observes in his excellent book, Gospel of the Living Dead (2006), is that, “unlike aliens, robots, or supernatural beings, such as demons, the distasteful and horrible aspects of zombies cannot really be discounted as unhuman, but are rather just exaggerated aspects of humanity.” Zombies do not embody an enemy from without. As Ola Sigurdson writes in a recent article in the journal Modern Theology, “zombies represent the alien within us.”

Classic zombie films, like those by George Romero, typically portray the surviving, non-zombie humans as scrambling to respond to the effects of the zombie attack rather than to address its causes. And the means they use tend to be individualistic and violent. Not only do the zombies reveal us at our worst, but the behavior of the surviving humans does so as well.

Both of these characteristics are eventually reversed in “World War Z.” The story focuses on the quest to find the cause of this outbreak, which leads the protagonist around the world. As a way to address the root of the problem, a violent defense proves useless, but—spoiler alert—weakness saves the lives of those who survive. Jana Riess, who blogs for Religion News Service, sees something Christ-like here: “Weakness becomes strength. Actively choosing weakness—especially when every cell of your body is screaming to cling to power instead—leads to life. Huh. That sounds a whole lot like Jesus.”

If we look at the compulsive, consumptive, individualistic and violent aspects of the undead and those who fight them as an allegory for our human sinfulness, the zombie genre might serve as a reminder of what it means to have true life, and have it to the fullest. What makes us “a whole lot like Jesus” is addressing the causes and not just the effects of systemic sin in our world, like poverty or violence; embracing community instead of succumbing to the temptation to care only for ourselves; choosing weakness and humility instead of defending our desire for control, power and security.

Zombies can remind us of what lurks deep within ourselves, but stories about resisting them also offer us cautionary tales of how not to be human when trying to overcome our worst selves.

A Franciscan’s Gratitude for St. Ignatius

Posted in America Magazine, Pope Francis, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 31, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

jesuit seal society of jesusA lot has happened in a year. While I’m not usually accustomed to marking my life in terms of Feast of St. Ignatius to Feast of St. Ignatius (I actually don’t think many Jesuits do that either), I was thinking this morning of the many ways that Ignatius and the Jesuit tradition have played a role in my life over the last year, since I last celebrated this feast day. Here is a personal reflection on how grateful I am for the life and legacy of St. Ignatius in my own experience over the past year.

One of the most significant Ignatian-related events of the past year for me has to do with my decision to enroll in the doctoral program in systematic theology at Boston College. Among the various options available to me, it became clear as I discerned where I would fit in best that BC was the place for me. Since spending a year at BC, I have come to recognize the über-enthusiasm of the students, faculty, administrators, and Jesuit community for the Ignatian tradition that ostensibly grounds this illustrious university’s history and mission.

I began my graduate career at BC on the occasion of the university’s 150th anniversary year (just a few years younger than its Franciscan big-brother, St. Bonaventure University, which celebrated the big 150 in 2008). One of the first major Ignatian-related events I participated in was as a concelebrant for the celebratory Mass at Fenway Park. What an event that was!

My time at BC has confirmed, and the condition for the possibility of full-funding for theology doctoral students with generous stipends illustrates, how committed Jesuit institutions (e.g., BC) are to fostering the Catholic intellectual tradition. It requires sharp advancement and marketing skills to stabilize the financial future of such a huge and important university like BC, and the Jesuits deserve a lot of credit. Their business savvy is, without a doubt, the envy of many religious communities around the world that have not always been as foresighted.

My time at BC has also been nothing short of a joy. I really love the theology department, faculty and fellow classmates. There are many top-notch programs in theology in the United States — a true embarrassment of riches within the academy — yet, talking with colleagues across the country at conferences and in social settings, it has become clear that many departments do not function with the generous, supportive, enthusiastic, and positive environment that the Boston College Theology Department provides. I am grateful for the rich intellectual and theological environment made possible by BC, which ultimately owes its origin to St. Ignatius.

Another significant event this year of an Ignatian sort was the surprise invitation by the editors of America magazine, undoubtedly the most prestigious Catholic weekly periodical in the United States and one of the oldest, to become a columnist. Like the existence of Boston College, America must trace its provenance to St. Ignatius and the founding of his Society of Jesus. (I wonder if Iggy is rolling over in his grave knowing that a Franciscan friar is now a staff columnist at America — ha).

Finally, perhaps the most surprising of all the significant Ignatian-related events in my life this year was one that has impacted the entire church and world. Pope francis. Who would have guessed a year ago that Pope Benedict would have announced his plans to retire as Bishop of Rome and that a former Jesuit Provincial and retired Archbishop from South America would be elected his successor? This has been and continues to be one of the greatest contemporary legacies of St. Ignatius’s influence. A Jesuit striving to live after the example of Francis of Assisi — could there be a more powerful combination?

Happy Feast of St. Ignatius — may what he began centuries ago continue to bring good things to fruition today and in the future!

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