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Highlighting the Franciscan Character of ‘Laudato Si’

Posted in Laudato Si, Pope Francis with tags , , , , , , on June 18, 2015 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

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This is an article that originally appeared at America magazine simultaneously with the release of the Encyclical Laudato Si. For full coverage and additional commentary, visit America’s commentary page. For the full text of the encyclical, visit the Vatican website.

Perhaps it is no accident that, after opening his encyclical letter “Laudato Si’” with a quote from St. Francis of Assisi’s famous Canticle of the Creatures, Pope Francis cites Pope St. John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” (1963) as the model for his audience of “all people” (no. 3). Shortly after “Pacem in Terris” was published, the renowned Trappist monk and author Fr. Thomas Merton wrote an article commenting on the text, stating that, “the whole climate of the encyclical [Pacem in Terris], in its love of man and of the world, and in its radiant hopefulness, is Franciscan.” Now we are privileged to witness the publication of another powerful encyclical, one that is without a doubt even more “Franciscan” and one authored by a pope named Francis!

What marks this authoritative teaching as particularly “Franciscan” is more substantial than the mere references to the Saint from Assisi. Pope Francis clearly “gets” both the letter and the spirit of the Franciscan theological and spiritual tradition. From among the many Franciscan themes that arise in “Laudato Si’,” at least three are worth highlighting from the outset: leaving behind “naïve romanticism,” recognizing the inherent value of all creation, and seeing the connection between abject poverty and environmental degradation. What I offer here is only a preliminary response, for the richness of this encyclical letter exceeds the limits of initial commentary. 

Leaving Behind ‘Naïve Romanticism’

In the early section of “Laudato Si’” under the subheading “Saint Francis of Assisi,” Pope Francis calls the Christian community and those people who admire the history and legacy of St. Francis to take seriously the medieval saint’s deeply theological convictions about the relationship of the human person within and among the rest of the community of creation. We read: “[St. Francis’s] response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection…Such a conviction cannot be written off as naïve romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior” (no. 11). Whereas some people have viewed Francis of Assisi’s poetic Canticle of the Creatures and romantic depictions of him as a nature lover in the birdbath, Pope Francis understands that his medieval namesake recognized a profound truth of revelation: that you and I are deeply interconnected and inherently related to all else that exists. Whether we like to admit it or not, we are part of a family of creation and not kings or queens over and above nonhuman creation. 

Near the end of “Laudato Si’” Pope Francis exhorts us to follow the example of Francis of Assisi whose own experience of “ecological conversion” helped open his eyes to this reality. “I ask all Christians to recognize and to live fully this dimension of their conversion. May the power and the light of the grace we have received also be evident in our relationship to other creatures and to the world around us. In this way, we will help nurture that sublime fraternity with all creation which Saint Francis of Assisi so radiantly embodied” (no. 221). This vision of creation is far from one associated with the overly romantic and easily dismissible caricature of the “saint who loved animals.” Instead, it calls to mind the real complexity of Christian discipleship that extends beyond communion with God and other humans to include all of creation.

Intrinsic Value of all Creation

Pope Francis highlights many of the ways in which nonhuman creation has been and continues to be assessed according to its instrumental value or usefulness. Arguments, Christian and secular, have been advanced in favor of conservation in order to provide for future generations. However, as Pope Francis notes at several points, “it is not enough to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves” (no. 33). Later, in a paragraph invoking the work of Teihard de Chardin, Pope Francis states that, “The ultimate purpose of other creatures is not to be found in us” (no. 83), suggesting that just as human beings have their source and goal in God, so too does the rest of creation. It is, in other words, not all about us.

In addition to the respect, value, and dignity with which Francis of Assisi approached all aspects of the created order, from the smallest worm to the largest mountain, there are other Franciscan resonances present in the affirmation of the intrinsic value of all creation found in “Laudato Si’.”  For instance, it is the medieval Franciscan philosopher and theologian John Duns Scotus who advanced a principle of individuation (popularly referred to as haecceitas, literally meaning “this-ness” in Latin) that suggested that all aspects of the cosmos are individually loved into existence by God and their particularity is no accident or afterthought, but coextensive with their very being. 

Furthermore, Pope Francis relies heavily on the thought of St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan theologian and doctor of the church who affirmed the inherent dignity of all creation due to each creature being a vestige of the creator and mirror of the Trinity. As a vestige (from the Latin Vestigio, literally meaning “footprint”), each aspect of creation bears an imprint or mark of its creator. As a mirror, all of creation reflects the Trinity. Pope Francis references this latter point when he says that, “The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile” (no. 239). The Holy Father calls us to follow the example of St. Bonaventure in terms of contemplation, coming to “discover God in all things” and continues, noting: “Saint Bonaventure teaches us that ‘contemplation deepens the more we feel the working of God’s grace in our hearts, and the better we learn to encounter God in creatures outside ourselves” (no. 233). 

The Connection Between Poverty and Creation

One of the most striking, and seemingly controversial, dimensions of “Laudato Si’” is the explicit connection that Pope Francis makes between abject poverty and environmental degradation. The truth is that this is not a new idea, but goes back as far as Francis of Assisi, if not earlier. Pope Francis writes early on that, “The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled” (no. 11). This statement points to the heart of St. Francis’s embrace of evangelical poverty as a means toward deepening solidarity. What the saint from Assisi recognized in his time was how not just things but also women and men began to be valued in financial terms. One’s worth came to be determined by how much money one had, rather than by the inherent value that comes with being lovingly created by God. Francis’s refusal to play by the rules of the rising merchant economy led him to embrace a voluntary poverty that allowed him to draw near to all people and, eventually, all of creation. 

There are numerous early legends that testify to Francis of Assisi’s continual call for the friars in particular and society in general to care for their sister and brother animals and other creatures that were often ignored or disregarded. They, like the lepers of his time or the poor and unwanted of ours, did not count according to the standard of economic valuation. Pope Francis draws our attention to the interrelationship between the reality of global climate change (largely caused by the affluent and powerful of our time) and the poor who suffer the devastating effects disproportionately. Pope Francis states: “Its worst impact will probably be felt by developing countries in coming decades” (no. 25). The category of “the marginalized” extends beyond the human species to include our very planet, or as Pope Francis says: “the earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor” (no. 2). 

For Francis of Assisi radical lifestyle change was required to authentically follow the Gospel. Embracing evangelical poverty as a means of protest against social injustices and a means toward closer solidarity led him among the poor and outcast of his day. Concurrently, his renunciation of the power systems of his society allowed him to—like St. Bonaventure—see God in all things and become a nature mystic. Today, we too are called to change our lives to follow the poor man of Assisi who has so inspired the present bishop of Rome to teach us with such authority and clarity rarely seen before.

Daniel P. Horan, OFM is Franciscan friar, a columnist for America, the author of several books, and is currently writing a doctoral dissertation titled: “Imagining Planetarity: Toward a Postcolonial Franciscan Theology of Creation.”

Photo: AP

The Community of Creation

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality with tags , , , , , on July 11, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

water_mountains_blueskyThis column originally appeared in the July 21-28 issue of America magazine.

Having grown up in central New York State, not far from the Adirondack Park, I have always had a special place in my heart for the beauty of deciduous forests. The green trees and shrubs, the rolling hills and glacial valleys, the clear blue lakes and streams illustrate for me the truth of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poetic vision, inspired as it was by the Franciscan John Duns Scotus, that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

That a Franciscan friar is writing a column about creation may seem like a bad joke or a tired cliché. What’s next? My headshot replaced with a portrait in a birdbath?

But despite the apparent predictability of a Franciscan’s sentimental attachment to creation, there is something that touches me more deeply than the immediately recognizable beauty of the earth. When I am awestruck at the sunset over an Adirondack lake or turn the corner on a road that reveals a landscape that takes my breath away, I reflect on the place that we humans have in this world. This is in part because the landscape of upstate New York has shaped my theological imagination as much as it has informed my aesthetic preferences.

For a long time now theologians, pastoral ministers and environmental activists alike have decried the ways we have treated and continue to treat the earth. We are well aware of the effects of our hubris, like global climate change and pollution. We know that we have a responsibility to the earth and the rest of the created order, and this has developed beyond older interpretations of Scripture that justified a “dominion” approach to creation that advocated human sovereignty over land and animal. We have come to recognize that we are not “lords of the earth” but “stewards of creation.” But I have long wondered if this “stewardship” response is sufficient or even if it is correct.

I am not alone in my doubt about the popular “stewardship” tropes used, admittedly with good intentions, to talk about our relationship to the earth and the rest of its inhabitants. One well-known critic of this paradigm is the theologian Elizabeth Johnson, C.S.J. In Professor Johnson’s new book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, she calls for a renewed look at the biblical, theological and scientific traditions that inform our understanding of ourselves and the rest of creation. She, like the theologians Ilia Delio, O.S.F., and John Haught, reads the work of Charles Darwin not as a threat to Christianity but as a resource for theology and for our effort to engage in faith seeking understanding. The result is a call for humanity to remember what has too often been forgotten: we are part of creation, not over and against it, not above or radically distant from it, as earlier conceptions of an anthropocentric universe suggested.

It is this insight that unsettles the standard stewardship approaches to creation. Rather than think about the whole of nonhuman creation as being entrusted to us, which makes us cosmic landlords or property managers for God, we should consider our inherent kinship with the rest of creation. In addition to the account of creation in the second chapter of the Book of Genesis, which reminds human beings that we are ha-adamah(“from the earth”), we also have extensive physiological evidence that supports Carl Sagan’s assertion that “we are made of starstuff.” We share the same building blocks as the rest of creation.

Yes, we are called to care for creation, but that care does not arise from some extrinsic obligation. Rather, this care should be grounded in our piety. The Latin pietas means duty or care for one’s family, which stems from a deep relational connection. The care we have for our children, parents and siblings should model how we think about and “care for creation.” In this sense, St. Francis of Assisi had it correct from the start. Each aspect of creation is our brother and sister; we are part of the same family, the same community of creation. In this sense, those who don’t live up to their creational family obligation are not very pious at all.

When I hike through the Adirondacks and find myself overwhelmed by the beauty of God’s creation, I am grateful to be a part of this community. The rest of creation cares for you and me; it is our duty to care for it as well. And that’s not just some romantic birdbath talk; it is what it means to be part of this extended family.

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: File

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.

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