Archive for Social Justice

FMS World Care Annual Benefit and Celebration

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality with tags , , , , , on March 21, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

FMS_Image2014Every Spring, Franciscan Mission Service (FMS), a wonderful organization that provides training and support for lay missioners who serve from two to six years in various Franciscan placements around the world — e.g., Bolivia, South Africa, Zambia, and Kenya — hosts a fundraiser and celebration. The World Care annual benefit and celebration takes place in Washington, DC, and is set this year for 7:00pm on Friday April 11, 2014. Each year FMS honors a person who has demonstrated leadership in social justice, global transformation, and modeled the priorities of FMS. This year the honoree is Jack Jezreel, the founder of JustFaith Ministries. FMS also invites a keynote speaker to offer a reflection on the theme of that year’s event. The theme happens to be “Profoundly Changed: New Disciples for Peace, Justice, and Hope,” and the speaker is me.

It is an honor to be invited to be the keynote speaker at this event and humbling given the tremendous good work that FMS does at home and abroad. For those in the Washington, DC, area, I encourage you to consider coming to the benefit and celebration on April 11 or help out FMS in any way you are able. You can visit the website via the links above to learn more.

Saint Francis, Pope Francis, and The Gospel

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Pope Francis, Scripture, Social Justice with tags , , , , , , on September 22, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Italy Vatican Pope

I think it’s fair to say that today’s off-script remarks in Cagliari, Sardinia, represents one of the most “Franciscan” actions of his pontificate so far. Reuters reports:

Francis, at the start of a day-long trip to the Sardinian capital, Cagliari, put aside his prepared text at a meeting with unemployed workers, including miners in hard hats who told him of their situation, and improvised for nearly 20 minutes.

“I find suffering here … It weakens you and robs you of hope,” he said. “Excuse me if I use strong words, but where there is no work there is no dignity.”

He discarded his prepared speech after listening to Francesco Mattana, a 45-year-old married father of three who lost his job with an alternative energy company four years ago.

What makes this so Franciscan? Well, it has to do with the overlap of Pope Francis’s understanding about the Gospel notion of the dignity and value of the human person, his critique of current systems of economic degradation, and the Gospel readings for this Sunday.

Saint Francis’s preaching and way of life (i.e., his “deeds”) centered on a response to the emerging money economy of his medieval time. Already in the 13th Century Francis saw what has become so extreme today: the valuation of human persons — their time, their talents, their lives — in terms of wealth and money. He knew that this was not God’s intention, but something insidious that was capturing the imaginations and speaking to the greedy hearts of his contemporaries. If only he knew how bad things would get eight-hundred-years later!

Later in the day, Pope Francis spoke during Mass, echoing the prescient words of the medieval saint after whom the modern pontiff took his name:

“We don’t want this globalised economic system which does us so much harm. Men and women have to be at the centre (of an economic system) as God wants, not money.”

“The world has become an idolator of this god called money,” he said.

How timely this critique and call to action really is today! In all three of our readings for the 25th Sunday of Ordinary time we hear proclaimed the Wisdom of God in indicting and challenging ways.

The first reading, from the Book of the Prophet Amos — one of the twelve minor prophets in Hebrew Scriptures best known for scathing critique of social injustice — decries those in authority who exercise their power in such a way as the benefit at the expense of the least among the community.

Hear this, you who trample upon the needy
and destroy the poor of the land!
“When will the new moon be over,” you ask,
“that we may sell our grain,
and the sabbath, that we may display the wheat?
We will diminish the ephah,
add to the shekel,
and fix our scales for cheating!
We will buy the lowly for silver,
and the poor for a pair of sandals;
even the refuse of the wheat we will sell!”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
Never will I forget a thing they have done!
(Amos 8: 4-7)

The ancient prophet’s words really speak for themselves. They traverse the divide of time, space, and culture to strike at the ears and hearts of women and men in our day — but do we listen? Do we take this seriously?

The Second Reading from the First Letter to Timothy is significant for at least two reasons. First, prayers are requested for the conversion of the “kings and all in authority” so that they might prioritize prayer, tranquility, peace, and justice over their other preoccupations — presumably with power. Second, there is the affirmation that God desires “everyone be saved” and that Christ Jesus “gave himself as a ransom for all.” This is striking especially for those who want to form an “elite” church and vision of salvation. That is not God’s plan, that is a human misrepresentation and distortion that reflects selfishness and exclusivity unknown in the Gospel.

Finally, today’s Gospel summarizes the major theme of the Christian life this weekend with the line: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” Or, for those who aren’t familiar with that term, put more simply: You cannot serve both God and money!

How do we orient our lives? Do we prioritize our own wealth and live according to the norms of a capitalistic culture that values human beings according to dollar signs and the accumulation of material goods? Or do we, hearing the cry of the poor (Psalm 34) through the proclamation of the Gospel in the exhortation of Pope Francis and in the example of Saint Francis, live following in the footprints of Christ Jesus in working for a just world?

Photo: Wire

Jesus Was Not Such A ‘Nice Guy’

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 18, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

jesus-painting_1280_x_1024Jesus was not such a “nice guy.”

This might be difficult to accept at first glance, because the image of Jesus we have today has been so sanitized and packaged as to make wearing a precious-metal cross around one’s neck or identifying oneself as a Christian in public is not a particularly uncommon (nor unpopular) thing to do today, especially in places like the United States. But who is this Jesus that is so immediately attractive, so easy to follow, so much like our own imagining? And, then, who is this Jesus that we hear about in today’s Gospel, who claims to have come to bring division rather than the establishment of peace (Luke 12: 49-53)?

There are at least two reasons we might understand that Jesus was not entirely a “nice guy.” The first is that the Romans, despite anachronistic misunderstandings of their behavior and outlook, did not typically go around crucifying “nice guys.” Yes, while Jesus was without a doubt an innocent man who happened to be crucified, we should not forget that there was a reason that he drew attention to himself and it wasn’t for saying kind things about the way the status quo was maintained. More on that in a second.

The second reason that we can reasonably assume Jesus was not such a “nice guy” is that he tells us as much in today’s Gospel selection from Luke (and we hear it echoed in the synoptic Gospel of Matthew with an even-more disturbing emphasis on not-nice-guyness in terms of Jesus’s claim to bring “the sword”).

It can be difficult to get beyond the seemingly violent message that Jesus appears to convey in his exhortation to his disciples. We might hear in Jesus’s admittance that he didn’t come to “establish peace on the earth” something of an advocation for violence. But that’s not really what is going on.

Likewise, it might seem that Jesus does not respect “family values” (isn’t that an interesting read) in suggesting that those who follow him and live life according the Good News he announces will find themselves among divided families and communities. But that’s not really what is going on.

What is going on is a straightforward, albeit counterintuitive, admission of the risk, challenge, and reality of authentic Christian living that centers on following the Word of God and becoming a prophetic in one’s time and place!

In other words, we are called, like Jesus was, to not be “nice guys” (and “gals,” for those who aren’t Millennials and use “guys” in an inclusive manner).

Jesus did indeed come to bring peace, but it was — as we hear elsewhere in Sacred Scripture — a “peace the world cannot give” (John 14:27). The peace that Jesus is talking about here, the “peace” that he did not come to establish, is the kind of peace that we might talk about when we express a desire to maintain the status quo or wish “not to ‘rock the boat.’” It is a kind of “keeping the peace” that eschews “tough love,” or a “challenging voice,” or the “hard truth.” It is a kind of “establishing a peace” that exists according to the wisdom of the world and not the foolishness of God, and rests in the reason of human injustice and not within the Reign of God.

Jesus was crucified, in part, because he did not come to preach a word that kept things the way they were, but instead was sent to proclaim the in-breaking of God’s Reign, which is about the establishment of justice and not the earthly status quo of injustice and violence. In other words, Jesus was not sent to be a “nice guy,” because nice guys don’t rock the boat nor do they upset people by challenging the way things are. And, oh, how Jesus upset certain people who had so much to lose because they had gained all — power, wealth, status, etc. — at the expense of others!

As those who bear the name of Christ and claim to be his disciples, we are called to not be “nice guys” like him. We are not to keep the peace of things as they are, but to open our eyes to the plight of the poor and forgotten, the underserved and abused, the marginalized and those suffering at the hands of others’ greed. And this might mean that we face divided families and communities, unsettling those who are not able or willing to hear the Gospel.

This is not an entirely new concept. It dates back to the Hebrew Prophets, such as Jeremiah, who we hear about in our First Reading. Jeremiah, a reluctant prophet who at first resisted God’s call to preach the truth of God’s justice and peace, is threatened with death by the king. His proclaiming the truth of the world as it really is in contradistinction to the way God intended the world to be is a threat to those in power, who benefit from the oppression of others and the maintaining of the status quo.

Like Jeremiah, we too might be reluctant to take on this mission, but like him and Jesus we have been called by God to do just that, to surrender our desire to be “nice guys” who “keep the peace” of the way things are. Instead, we are meant — by virtue of our baptismal vocation — to preach the Kingdom of God in word and deed, risking greatly.

But how can we do this?

It is certainly not easy, which is why in our Second Reading the author of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us of the “Great Cloud of Witnesses” we have to provide models and guides for us. This is a way of talking about the Communion of Saints, those who have gone before us and remain connected to us in spirit. They support us as we continue to persevere and “run the race” of Christian living, a marathon to be sure, a journey that is tiring but one that is the most authentic way of being ourselves.

The question we are left with this weekend is to discern what it means to be a Christian. Do we take the risk of being the prophet who speaks the hard truth and does the right thing, or do we prefer to not “rock the boat” and establish an earthly peace that maintains the status quo of violence and injustice?

Photo: Stock

Pope Francis and a Powerful ‘Way of the Cross’

Posted in Lent, Pope Francis, Prayer, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Easter Weekend 019Today Pope Francis will lead the annual “Way of the Cross” service in the Colosseum in Rome. As an interesting aside, it was Franciscan friars that popularized the devotional series of meditations known as the “Way of the Cross” in its earliest years because of the in ability of pilgrims to make a physical trip to the Holy Land during the shameful and devastating years of the crusades. Walking the “Way of the Cross” in one’s local church allowed Christians to enter into the experience through imagination, meditation, and prayer. Traditionally, each station included the (real) prayer of St. Francis, also known as St. Francis’s prayer before the crucifix:

We adore You, Most Holy Lord,
Here and in all of your churches throughout the world,
And we bless You, Because by Your Holy Cross
You have redeemed the world.

Since the first versions of the “Way of the Cross” devotions there have been a variety of approaches to the series of meditations that focus on how the prayerful reflection on the Passion of Christ might apply to our times and places. For example, the Maryknoll is sponsoring an “Economic and Ecological Way of the Cross” today in Washington, DC. Others have focused the meditations on the condemnation and suffering of Christ in terms of the violence and suffering of our world today or other injustices that might persist.

This year’s Vatican-sponsored “Way of the Cross” is very social-justice oriented. The meditations and prayers feature reflections on injustices in our world, the recognition of our complicity in systems and acts of injustice, and the hope that we might work for justice and peace with God’s grace. The stations include reflections on today’s tyranny, the suffering of families, homelessness, poverty, the indignity many women experience, the problems of drugs and gangs, and so many other themes. These are well worth reflection and perfect for those looking for something to pray with on this Good Friday.

Station I: Jesus is Condemned to Death

A Reading from the Holy Gospel according to Mark 15:12-13, 15

Pilate again said to them, “Then what shall I do with the man whom you call the King of the Jews?” And they cried out again, “Crucify him.” Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released for them Barabbas; and having scourged Jesus, he delivered him to be crucified.

From Pilate, the man with power, Jesus ought to have obtained justice. Pilate did indeed have the power to recognize Jesus’ innocence and free him. But the Roman Governor preferred to serve the logic of his personal interests and he yielded to political and social pressures. He condemned an innocent man in order to please the crowd, without satisfying truth. He handed Jesus over to the torment of the Cross, knowing that he was innocent … and then he washed his hands.

In today’s world, there are many “Pilates” who keep their hands on the levers of power and make use of them in order to serve the strongest. There are many who are weak and cowardly before the spectre of power, and mortgage their authority to the service of injustice, trampling upon man’s dignity and his right to life.

Lord Jesus,
do not allow us
to be among those who act unjustly.
Do not allow the strong
to take pleasure in evil,
injustice and tyranny.
Do not allow injustice
to condemn the innocent
to despair and death.
Confirm them in hope
and illumine the consciences
of those with authority in this world,
that they may govern with justice.

Read the rest of the “Way of the Cross” Meditations here

Photo: File

Wednesday of Holy Week: A Word to the Weary, The Strength to Carry On

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 27, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Justice of GodToday’s reading from Isaiah seems perfectly fitting for the day. It’s not just that we’re preparing for the Holy Triduum, recalling what we mark tomorrow night in the garden after the Solemnity of the Lord’s Supper or the effect of the betrayal anticipated in today’s Gospel when Judas finalizes the plans and Jesus acknowledges what is to come. It’s that there is a very nuanced and complicated sense to a prophetic passage that I believe speaks to our time and place, particularly as questions about the equal civil rights of all people under the law are being considered in the highest courts of the land.

The prophet Isaiah begins: “The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, That I might know how to speak to the weary a word that will rouse them.” The question I find myself asking today is: How might I speak to the weary? How can I offer a word that will ‘rouse them?’

This is a question for all Christians, for those who profess faith in a God whose love is so great and gratuitous that the Word Incarnate would refuse no one and who preached, demonstrated, and died for a love that is beyond all telling. This is a question for all Christians, for those who recognize that it is truly and only in Christ that we receive a “peace the world cannot give,” a peace that has been given to us, as we proclaim in the celebration of the Eucharist each time we gather in communion. This is a question for all Christians, especially for those moved by concern for those who are unjustly marginalized, treated as inherently sinful, and against whom discrimination is leveled in a way that we largely recognize as unacceptable in any other context.

As we move through the days of Holy Week, aware of the via crucis that lies ahead, we must ask ourselves about the way of the cross that is the regular commute for so many women and men in our world and local communities. There are the poor and the abused, the voiceless and the ignored, and there are those in our society — perhaps not poor nor necessarily voiceless  – who are nevertheless treated unequally. Regardless of how one views her personal religious beliefs, surely we can come to agree that the love and peace of Christ is not a limited resource to be distributed as those in a majority, those in places of power and influence, and those who otherwise exercise hegemonic control see fit.

When it comes to love and understanding, what would Jesus do?

Yet, the prophet Isaiah does not stop with simply posing the question to us about what word of hope can be offered that might rouse the weary. The servant of God moves forward, striving to recognize the direction and call of the Lord, and accepts the fact that the path won’t be smooth and the journey will be fraught with difficulty.

Morning after morning
he opens my ear that I may hear;
And I have not rebelled,
have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
My face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

Can we drink from the cup that Jesus does, that Isaiah’s suffering servant does?

When the struggle for justice, for equal rights under the law, for the amelioration of the human condition in a world of poverty, for the cessation of violence becomes overwhelming and seemingly impossible, who give us the strength to carry on? Isaiah explains:

The Lord GOD is my help,
therefore I am not disgraced;
I have set my face like flint,
knowing that I shall not be put to shame.
He is near who upholds my right;
if anyone wishes to oppose me,
let us appear together.
Who disputes my right?
Let him confront me.

In these complicated days when some work for justice and others work for themselves, the challenge of the prophet rings in the ears of Christians, or should anyway. Can we face those who would put us to shame for preaching the love of Christ? Can we appear together with those who dispute our rights as children of God defending the rights of all? Can we set our faces like flint in the encounter of confrontation?

The closing lines of today’s First Reading offer me the tentative answer to the question about how any of this is or will be possible, how one can find the strength to carry on and speak a word to the weary.

See, the Lord GOD is my help;
who will prove me wrong?

Photo: Stock

Pope Francis on Power, the Poor, and all Creation

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Huffington Post, Pope Francis, Social Justice, The Papal Watcher with tags , , , , , , on March 19, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Pope FrancisI know it seems a bit early for such enthusiastic endorsements of a pontiff who has only been in the office of Bishop of Rome for less-than-a-week, and I do have my own cautionary concerns, but I have to say that there is something immediately and recognizably affable about Pope Francis. His presence has indicated as much, certainly to the chagrin of the security guards entrusted with his care, as he has shirked the traditionally requisite boundaries and protections that ordinarily separates — if only for the ostensible sake of security — the pope from the rest of the People of God. This guy doesn’t seem to care about his own safety, but rather recognizes that, as the Jesuits say, “the greater glory of God” requires relationship, embrace, love, support, and care. He comes across as a pastor and good one at that.

Pope Francis’s homily for the “Inaugural Mass of Petrine Ministry,” drew on the readings from scripture for the Solemnity of St. Joseph. The connecting thematic thread throughout his accessible and down-to-earth reflections was that of Joseph-as-protector.

This is a particularly fecund image for a man who, as the visible leader of more than 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, understands his ministry as especially directed toward the protection of the poor and marginalized of our planet. What was especially striking, and something that I found particularly exciting, was the centrality of the rest of other-than-human creation in the pope’s considerations on what it means to follow the example of St. Joseph as protector.

How does Joseph exercise his role as protector? Discreetly, humbly and silently, but with an unfailing presence and utter fidelity, even when he finds it hard to understand…

Joseph is a “protector” because he is able to hear God’s voice and be guided by his will; and for this reason he is all the more sensitive to the persons entrusted to his safekeeping. He can look at things realistically, he is in touch with his surroundings, he can make truly wise decisions. In him, dear friends, we learn how to respond to God’s call, readily and willingly, but we also see the core of the Christian vocation, which is Christ! Let us protect Christ in our lives, so that we can protect others, so that we can protect creation!

The vocation of being a “protector”, however, is not just something involving us Christians alone; it also has a prior dimension which is simply human, involving everyone. It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world, as the Book of Genesis tells us and as Saint Francis of Assisi showed us. It means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it. Be protectors of God’s gifts!

As a Franciscan friar and one particularly interested in the construction of a more authentic Christian theology of creation, the fact that Pope Francis does seem to be filling the shoes of his saintly namesake is quite moving. What he describes, correctly and prophetically, is not the responsibility of just the pope or of a few individuals, but the vocation of all. This is something that is not often recognized and the consequences are dire: “Whenever human beings fail to live up to this responsibility, whenever we fail to care for creation and for our brothers and sisters, the way is opened to destruction and hearts are hardened.”

He continued to reiterate the central place of creation in the human vocation to follow Christ and to be models of protection, care, tenderness, and love after the example of St. Joseph.

Please, I would like to ask all those who have positions of responsibility in economic, political and social life, and all men and women of goodwill: let us be “protectors” of creation, protectors of God’s plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment. Let us not allow omens of destruction and death to accompany the advance of this world! But to be “protectors”, we also have to keep watch over ourselves! Let us not forget that hatred, envy and pride defile our lives! Being protectors, then, also means keeping watch over our emotions, over our hearts, because they are the seat of good and evil intentions: intentions that build up and tear down! We must not be afraid of goodness or even tenderness!

Pope Francis acknowledged the reality of power in the leadership position with which he has been entrusted: “we are celebrating the beginning of the ministry of the new Bishop of Rome, the Successor of Peter, which also involves a certain power.”

Power plays a central theme in the life of St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis’s whole program of vita evangelica, the “Gospel Life,” was about the renunciation of power that placed barriers between him and others, him and God, and him and the rest of creation.

Pope Francis seems to understand the significance of his name and its implications for exercise of power. It is about loving, humble service!

Certainly, Jesus Christ conferred power upon Peter, but what sort of power was it? Jesus’ three questions to Peter about love are followed by three commands: feed my lambs, feed my sheep. Let us never forget that authentic power is service, and that the Pope too, when exercising power, must enter ever more fully into that service which has its radiant culmination on the Cross. He must be inspired by the lowly, concrete and faithful service which marked Saint Joseph and, like him, he must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). Only those who serve with love are able to protect!

Toward the end of his homily, Pope Francis lays out what he understands the responsibility of the Bishop of Rome to entail, and it includes creation first and foremost! “To protect Jesus with Mary, to protect the whole of creation, to protect each person, especially the poorest, to protect ourselves: this is a service that the Bishop of Rome is called to carry out, yet one to which all of us are called, so that the star of hope will shine brightly. Let us protect with love all that God has given us!”

Photo: Pool

Living La Vida Justicia: Reconsidering Pope Francis and Liberation Theology

Posted in Social Justice, The Papal Watcher, Uncategorized with tags , , , , on March 17, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

pope_Francis_subwayThere has been so much in the Catholic and popular (aka: “secular”) media coverage about Pope Francis, his past, his thoughts, his writings, his actions, and what the future holds for him, that it can be difficult to untangle the various threads of information (such as why he decided to select the name “Francis” in the hours and days after the election) and misinformation (such as the Cardinal Law banishment rumors of recent days). An interesting story was published today by Laurie Goodstein, the New York Times religion reporter who has a very hot-and-cold history with the Roman Catholic Church, especially in the United States and particularly after the sex-abuse cover up crisis of recent decades (not all her facts have been spot-on and subsequent corrections in the Times often go unannounced in hidden parts of the newspaper afterward).  Nevertheless, her latest piece titled, “New Pope Puts Spotlight on Jesuits, an Influential Yet Self-Effacing Order” is, for the most part, very good.

Goodstein draws on a number of very reliable sources in her presentation of the significance and, let’s face it, utter surprise that a Jesuit Cardinal would be selected to be pope. She spoke with a number of insightful European and American Jesuits (including Fr. James Martin, SJ, a well-known Jesuit in the US), who offered helpful background on the various factors that led to this surprise election of Pope Francis.

One thing, though, was mentioned at the end of her piece and in passing. It is something that has been repeated without much qualification over the last week in various summary news stories. Namely, that Pope Francis as a then-Jesuit-Provincial-Superior and, later, a Cardinal Archbishop, was hostile or rejected liberation theology. This is a very simplified presentation of a complicated set of conditions and factors. Part of the confusion, it seems to me, is what it means to talk about “rejecting” liberation theology — it also seems to rely strongly, if unacknowledged, on the interpretation of liberation theology and its reception according to the various commentators.

Here’s what Goodstein wrote in the Times:

The selection has thrilled many Jesuits, but dismayed others. Shaped by their experiences with the poor and powerless, many Jesuits lean liberal, politically and theologically, and are more concerned with social and economic justice than with matters of doctrinal purity. Jesuits were in the forefront of the movement known as liberation theology, which encouraged the oppressed to unite along class lines and seek change.

However, Francis, when he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina in the 1970s, was opposed to liberation theology, seeing it as too influenced by Marxist politics. The future pope came down hard on Jesuits in his province who were liberation theology proponents and left it badly divided, according to those who study the order and some members who did not want to be identified because he is now pope.

Goodstein very accurately describes the “mixed feelings” of many who heard these early reports about the new pope’s previous engagement with so-called “liberation theology” in Argentina during his tenure as Provincial and then Archbishop. But, I would suggest, this needs a much more nuanced interpretation — something that cannot be done in a paragraph or two in a major newspaper’s article and is impossible in a twenty-second cable-news soundbite.

What I mean by this call for an openness in complex thinking and nuanced approaches to the new pope’s relationship to liberation theology involves a few guiding principles.

First, what do we mean when we use a hegemonic and singular umbrella term like “liberation theology?” Are we referring to the particular texts that arose in the 1960s and 1970s from the academic and professional theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez and Leonardo Boff? Both of whose work, by the way, varies in style, method, and outcome. Do we mean the pastoral legacy of the slain Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero? Do we mean the Jesuits and diocesan priests who took up arms in El Salvador against the will of Romero who, according to the critiques of now-Pope Francis, would also be labeled “hostile to liberation theology?” What exactly do we mean?

Second, how are judgements made about what it means to “support,” “oppose,” “reject,” or “be hostile toward,” liberation theology in its manifold iterations? Without a very clearly defined notion of what it is we mean when we talk univocally about a broad (and continually growing) academic and pastoral field of social-justice concerns and contextual theology, it is nearly impossible to make an accurate statement about whether one is for or against this or that.

Third, what does someone’s lived experience say about the person we claim is for or against a given theological or pastoral opinion? I am reminded of the Gospel parable of the two sons who are told by their father to go into the field to labor.

A man had two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards he changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his father’s will?” They answered, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you. (Matt 21:29-31)

Just because someone “talks the talk” (in this case, perhaps, the ecclesiastical “party line” about liberation theology in general following the two CDF documents on the subject) doesn’t mean that someone “walks the walk.” Actions speak louder than words and are more indicative of what someone actually believes. Francis of Assisi is often attributed as saying, “Preach the Gospel at all times and, if necessary, use words.” He never said that. But he did say in the First Rule of the Friars Minor: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds” (Regula non bullata, XVII:3).

Pope Francis may have acted in ways that, due to the complexities of his role in leadership and the decisions of those in his care, might not have pleased some who understood “liberation theology” in a particular way. However, I think that taking all three of these points into consideration allows us to look at the life, the actions, the example, and the intentions of a man whose heart was imbued with the evangelical poverty that Francis of Assisi always strove to preach: in word and deed.

Pope Francis’s explanation about his choice of the name “Francis” to the world media this week highlights this truth most succinctly and illustrates how the pope sees social justice, solidarity with the poor, and the work of liberation from injustice at the heart of his ministry and at the core of the church.

And those words came to me: the poor, the poor. Then, right away, thinking of the poor, I thought of Francis of Assisi. Then I thought of all the wars, as the votes were still being counted, till the end. Francis is also the man of peace. That is how the name came into my heart: Francis of Assisi. For me, he is the man of poverty, the man of peace, the man who loves and protects creation; these days we do not have a very good relationship with creation, do we? He is the man who gives us this spirit of peace, the poor man … How I would like a Church which is poor and for the poor!

It is too early for people to make bold claims that need more qualifications than most are willing to allow. To say that Pope Francis “opposes liberation theology” is to oversimplify a reality that is preached in action and deed. Let’s look at the whole picture.

This post was also published concurrently on the America Magazine website.

Photo: Wire

Do US Catholics Care about Latin America Anymore?

Posted in America Magazine, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 11, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

NW SOA Vigil 2008My good friend, David Golemboski, a doctoral student in government at Georgetown University and a member of the Board of Directors for the nonprofit organization Witness for Peace has an excellent article in the latest issue of America magazine, Still ‘Presente’? U.S. Catholics Should Reconnect with Latin America.” David has long worked in the field of social-justice-related concerns, most recently as a staff member of NETWORK prior to his beginning the graduate program at Georgetown. This is an essay well-worth reading, here’s the beginning of it, click the link below to read the rest on the America website.

Since August, several workers formerly employed by General Motors in Colombia have been protesting unsafe working conditions and demanding compensation after being fired following injuries sustained on the job. Some of the protestors have launched hunger strikes, sewing their mouths shut and declaring that they are prepared to die if G.M. does not agree to a fair resolution of the conflict. The protest has received coverage in major newspapers and has expanded to include demonstrations at G.M. locations around the United States, including the corporate headquarters in Detroit and the home of G.M.’s chief executive officer outside Washington, D.C.

A number of human rights organizations and faith groups in the United States have spoken in support of the workers and organized to pressure G.M., but none of the most vocal advocates have been representatives of the U.S. Catholic community. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not made any official statement concerning the protests. This conspicuous absence is no one-time phenomenon. Rather, it highlights a shift that has occurred in the U.S. Catholic community over the past two decades.

During the 1980s and early 1990s, great portions of the U.S. Catholic community were heavily engaged in various forms of outreach and expressions of solidarity with the people of Latin America—the land of Archbishop Oscar Romero, liberation theology and death squads. This included delegations of Americans who traveled to Nicaragua, El Salvador or other places and the establishment of sister-parish relationships between U.S. and Central American congregations. According to Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, more than 100,000 U.S. citizens traveled to Nicaragua during this time “to observe its revolution firsthand.” At home, the sanctuary movement saw faith communities sheltering political refugees from Latin America, often illegally. Countless Catholics joined in advocacy efforts to reshape U.S. policies in Central America, the movement to close what was then the School of the Americas in Georgia being a prominent example. The growing use of Spanish songs and prayers in U.S. liturgies originated largely in the spirit of solidarity that flourished in this era.

But since the 1980s and early 1990s, this widespread and intense commitment to Latin America has waned. The annual School of the Americas protest continues (the S.O.A. is now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), but the event is now as much an annual convocation of progressive Catholics as a targeted advocacy effort. Whereas Latin America was once a central preoccupation for the U.S. Catholic Church, it now appears to be a dwindling niche concern for a handful of aging diehards.

Should we expect that Latin America will remain a relative non-issue in the American church? Do U.S. Catholics still care about Latin America?

Shifting Priorities

The gradual eclipse of Latin America on the agenda of many U.S. Catholics has much to do with changes in geo-political dynamics and the U.S. government’s foreign policy agenda. In particular, the end of the cold war and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have had enormous consequences in shaping U.S. objectives abroad. Soviet Communism has been replaced by Islamist terrorism as the nation’s primary perceived enemy, and the corresponding “battlegrounds” have shifted as well. No longer do U.S. covert interventions and overt wars aim to stop the spread of communism, but rather to disrupt the operations of Al Qaeda and other terrorist threats. Central America figured prominently in the old struggle, but the Middle East has taken center stage in the new one. During this fall’s presidential debate on foreign policy, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney mentioned a single Latin American country by name. As the currents of global politics have changed, the projects of global activists have evolved as well. Catholics who once protested wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador now find themselves focused on countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and Syria.

This shift has coincided with a growing perception that the economic and political crises that once called for urgent attention in Latin America have abated. The civil wars that ravaged El Salvador and Nicaragua ended more than 20 years ago. Jess Hunter-Bowman, associate director of the Latin America solidarity organization Witness for Peace, believes that this has contributed to diminished interest in Latin America. “When there isn’t that front-page issue,” he says, “people turn their focus to whatever new crisis needs to be addressed.” Also, globalization is steadily, if unevenly, delivering many benefits of economic growth to Latin America. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, between 2000 and 2010, gross domestic product per capita in Latin American countries grew at nearly six times the rate that it had over the previous two decades. Only a naïf could believe that Latin America is entirely liberated from its struggles, but one is no longer besieged by the horrific reports of the kind that used to emanate regularly from Latin American countries in decades past.

But despite some positive developments in Latin America, poverty, inequality, corruption and social instability remain wide-spread. Mexico has been terrorized over the last several years by the brutality of the international drug trade and scandalized by the government’s ineffectual response. In Colombia, similarly, a U.S.-led “war on drugs” bears a share of responsibility for violence, displacement and devastation of agricultural communities. In Honduras violence and impunity have spiraled out of control since the 2009 coup that overthrew that country’s democratically elected president. According to the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared of Honduras, a leading Honduran human rights organization, more than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses by state security forces have been filed in the last three years. In early 2012 the United Nations called Honduras the world’s most dangerous nation. Responsibility for this crisis falls partly on the United States, given the Obama administration’s decision to more or less accept the outcome of the coup…

To read the rest, visit: America Magazine’s Website Here

Photo: Witness for Peace

The Splendor of our God: Good News for the Exiled

Posted in Advent, Social Justice with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 11, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Advent_by Thom CurnutteOne of my favorite parts of the Season of Advent is the return to the Hebrew Scriptures to focus on several of the prophetic texts that, in Christian retrospective style, seem to foretell the coming of Christ. The most significant of these major prophets is Isaiah and, because of the anniversary of Thomas Merton’s death yesterday, I was unable to share a short reflection on the First Reading (Is 35:1-10) that belonged to the Monday of the Second Week of Advent. I feel that this particular passage is beautiful in a way that might get overlooked when too much attention is given, as is often the case, to the New Testament passages that seem more straightforward, narrative, and relevant to the contemporary Christian experience.

The poetic passage begins:

The desert and the parched land will exult;
the steppe will rejoice and bloom.
They will bloom with abundant flowers,
and rejoice with joyful song.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to them,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
They will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God.

This is the anticipatory setting for what is to come, for what the exiled People of Israel can expect as a result of the saving power of God. The next few lines strike as particularly moving when you consider the number of years, the physical burden placed on the hands and shoulders of the people in exile. In other words, this is not simply a poetic foretelling of some other-worldly heaven or eschatological reality, but a real-order consideration of what it would look like to be redeemed and to be returned home.

Strengthen the hands that are feeble,
make firm the knees that are weak,
Say to those whose hearts are frightened:
Be strong, fear not!
Here is your God,
he comes with vindication;
With divine recompense
he comes to save you.
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
Then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.

I think the commentary offered by Gene Tucker in the New Interpreter’s Bible commentary is insightful for those who wish to romanticize the language of Isaiah a little too much. “For those inclined to hear such language as reference to a religious status, the biblical tradition provides a corrective. ‘Redeem’ and ‘ransom’ have political and economic meaning in the Old Testament. In the story of the exodus tradition, these terms, as well as ‘salvation,’ meant actual release from physical slavery” (282).

What does this mean for people in our day?

Yes, as Christians we can — as one among many ways to interpret the scripture — understand an implicit religious dimension here, the foretelling, as we’d put it, of the coming of the Lord. However, as women and men of the twenty-first century, does this passage from Isaiah speak to the hearts of those who remain exiled, are refugees, or are in some other way oppressed?

Does this passage challenge us in this season of alertness, waiting, attentiveness to the coming of Christ, to look beyond the spiritual meaning of the text to see the prophetic cry that calls for our participation? To work to strengthen the weak, to give voice to the voiceless with muted tongues, to care for the marginalized and forgotten and different?

As this passage reads, the splendor of God is made manifest, is revealed, and seen by the world in this return of the exiles, to the welcoming home of those who are homeless, lost, forgotten, and ignored. How can we live the prophetic word of Isaiah today?  In what way can we, especially Christian women and men, be bearers and enactors of good news (Gospel) for the exiled?

Photo: via Thom Curnutte

Reconsidering Our Ecclesiastical Priorities: Penance and Social Justice

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on November 14, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Reports out of the Fall USCCB assembly have been mixed, to say the least. News outlets and social-media sources have effectively reported on some of the more controversial statements, discussions, proposed texts, and documents to be the subject of consideration in Baltimore in recent days. To be fair, not everything has been negative. Take, for example, the USCCB’s interest in social media and internet presence of the church. On Sunday the USCCB hosted a gathering of significant Catholic bloggers that allowed for the bishops and those who were providing online content in a variety of forms to interact. The event included a panel discussion with clergy and laity who are actively engaged with social media today. The reports about this event from colleagues has been generally positive (by way of full disclosure, I was invited by the secretary for communications to participate in this event, but had to decline due to pastoral ministry obligations).

However positive the initial steps to explore social media and internet presence as modes of evangelization might have been, the news chatter has been preoccupied with some more disconcerting reports. The first was related to Cardinal Dolan’s presidential address in which he called for a more concrete sense of penance. Citing Sacrosanctum Concilium, Dolan asserted that the Second Vatican Council’s call for penance has, rather than being taken up wholeheartedly, seems to have diminished from sight. He said:

What an irony that despite the call of the Second Vatican Council for a renewal of the Sacrament of Penance, what we got instead was its near disappearance.

He rightfully challenges us as members of the Church, which is the Body of Christ, to be aware of the need for consistent penance and, as we recall at the start of every Eucharistic liturgy, to be mindful of “what we have done and what we have failed to do.” He continued:

And so it turns to us, my brothers. How will we make the Year of Faith a time to renew the Sacrament of Penance, in our own loves and in the lives of our beloved people whom we serve? Once again, we will later this week approach the Sacrament of Penance.

And we’ll have the opportunity during this meeting to approve a simple pastoral invitation to all our faithful to join us in renewing our appreciation for and use of the Sacrament. We will “Keep the Light On”during the upcoming Advent Season!
The work of our Conference during the coming year includes reflections on re-embracing Friday as a particular day of penance, including the possible re-institution of abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. Our pastoral plan offers numerous resources for catechesis on the Sacrament of Penance, and the manifold graces that come to us from the frequent use of confession. Next June we will gather in a special assembly as brother bishops to pray and reflect on the mission entrusted to us by the Church, including our witness to personal conversion in Jesus Christ, and so to the New Evangelization.

For the most part, this is a welcomed attempt to draw our attention the perennial need we have to be aware of our own individual sinfulness. Yet, what is more absent than present is the admittance and call for continual awareness of our collective sinfulness.

Contrary to Francis of Assisi’s powerful expression that human beings are to be reconcilers and peacemakers (see Canticle of the Creatures) — and Francis is of course the paradigmatic model of Christian penitence — this exhortation for the faithful to abstain from meat on Fridays throughout the year seems to miss the mark.

What the Cardinal does not seem to consider is the individualistic quality of such an act, one in which unity might be seen as ghettoized superficiality rather than an expression of genuine solidarity. My understanding of the lifting of the mandatory abstinence from meat throughout the year in the 1983 Code of Canon Law (CIC) is rooted in this very fact. Instead of something as trivial as dietary abstinence, the faithful was simultaneously challenged and empowered to engage in more constructive, solidarity-building, and meaningful forms of good deeds and penance.

It’s hard to see how the reinstatement of meatless Fridays will effect the spirit of penance Dolan genuinely and legitimately sees as part of the spirit of Vatican II.

Furthermore, what makes this suggestion controversial is that, some have argued, it is not the “people in the pews” who are in most need of renewed emphasis on penance in their Christian lives — God knows (literally) how difficult it is to live authentic Christian discipleship today in light of the various pressures from all sides and conflicting narratives that both come from within and without the Church — BUT, there is a need for our ecclesiastical leaders, especially the bishops, to demonstrate their embrace of penance.

There are manifold ways in which we could offer a litany of the things our bishops have “done and have failed to do” in the last decades and in recent years. The model of the Archbishop of Dublin and our own Cardinal Séan O’Malley in the penitential act seeking forgiveness for the abuse cover-ups in Ireland some years back is a good start. Yet, the US bishops have failed to do something similar.

Then there is the controversial text that, thank God, was not approved this week (despite it still garnering a plurality of bishop support). The proposed statement, “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times: A pastoral message on work, poverty and the economy,” was a pathetic shadow of the true depth, richness, and challenge of Catholic Social Teaching. This was made most clear by the retired Archbishop (and former USCCB President) Joseph Fiorenza. According to an NCR article, Fiorenza publicly decried the draft text and noted that it “did not have a single reference, even in a footnote, to the bishops’ landmark 1986 pastoral letter, ‘Economic Justice for All,; which the bishops developed after years of consultation with economists and other experts. The letter addressed a full range of applications of Catholic social teaching to economic policy and practice in the United States.” The article continued:

“I am very disappointed, and I fear that this draft, if not changed in a major way,” will harm the U.S. bishops’ record on Catholic social teaching, he said.

“The title of this document is about work, and it seems you only gave one sentence to our social teaching … on the right of workers to unionize,” he said.

“One sentence,” he added. “It’s almost like it was an afterthought. But when you look at the compendium of the social teachings of the church, there are three long paragraphs on the right to organize, the right to collective bargaining, and the right to strike.”

Those kinds of rights are “at the heart of our social teaching” on the rights and dignity of workers, he said.

Indeed this is most troubling. That the bishops would even consider a text containing such an oversight bespeaks some serious problems. On the one hand, it might be symbolic of the shift in the US episcopacy toward a political engagement with so-called “conservative” views that have been extraordinarily hostile to organized labor and the rights of workers in recent years. On the other hand, it might be symbolic of the general ignorance of the USCCB’s textual history and Catholic Social Teaching more broadly on the part of recently appointed bishops in recent years and decades.

That 134 bishops would still vote to pass such a text is halting. (The text failed to gain the necessary votes even with 134 yes; 84 no, and 9 abstentions).

The NCR piece continued:

“Why don’t we address [in the proposed statement] the growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots, beginning with Paul VI in Populorum Progressio [his 1967 encyclical letter, "On the Progress of Peoples"] and John Paul II, Benedict XVI: They speak about the growing gap between the haves and have-nots and the right to a redistribution — redistribution has become a dirty word, yet the [recent popes] have said that this must take place,” he said.

“There’s not a word about this” in the proposed new statement on the economy, he said.

“I fear that this will not be an effective instrument” for the bishops to address the current woes in the U.S. economy or the people suffering from those problems, Fiorenza said.

What is striking, and fearsome at the same time, is that the most vocal critics of this new direction are the retired bishops. Where are the current bishops who should know better? When the retired auxiliary bishop of Hartford, Peter Rosazza, asked the chair of the drafting committee whether an economist had been consulted — the disturbing answer was that none had! How did these bishops responsible for drafting a document on the economy propose to do so without consultation of economists, ethicists, and theologians?

These two issues to come out of the Fall USCCB meeting are indeed troubling, but we must not get too carried away with concern just yet. What this signals to me is the need for the Church in the United States to collectively and genuinely reconsider its priorities. What is important? What are the signs of the time? and How do we read these signs in light of the Gospel?

Photo: CNS/Pool

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