Be Prepared

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Today is the first Sunday of Advent, a time of waiting and preparing for the coming of Christ at Christmas. These words from Jesus in the Gospel struck me in a particular way: “Beware that your hearts do not become drowsy from carousing and drunkenness and the anxieties of daily life.” (Luke 21:34)

There’s not much chance I’ll succumb to carousing or drunkenness, but I have to admit that the anxieties of daily life often keep me up at night. Especially in the weeks before Christmas, I find myself lying awake ticking off my to-do lists in my head instead of getting much needed sleep. And all the busy-ness keeps me from focusing on what is truly important at Christmastime.

In the Church, Advent points not only to the arrival of a tiny baby in Bethlehem who will become the Savior of the world. It also points us to the end of our lives when we will be held to account for how we lived. How much did we love? How much did we give of ourselves to others? How much did we emulate the great sacrifice of Christ, who gave his very self for our salvation?

Even if you are not a religious person, it’s worthwhile to think about your impact on this planet and the people in it. Are you selfishly concerned only with your own gain to the exclusion or detriment of others? Are you so busy consuming that you fail to see the needs of your fellow human beings? Do you show kindness to others even when it’s difficult and inconvenient? How are you making the world a better place?

Advent invites us to consider our answers to these questions. As we prepare for the fun of the holidays – the family gatherings, parties, gift and cookie exchanges – can we take a little time each day to be reflective and consider how we might reach out to the poor, the lonely, the oppressed?

Are we content to let time just slip by as we engage in thoughtless pursuits? Or can we strive to live more meaningful and intentional lives? One of these paths leads to the greatest fulfillment both in this life and the next. Today I commit myself to taking that path and approaching Christmas by being prepared – prepared to open my heart to others, prepared to give more than I receive, prepared to make a positive mark on the world God has so graciously granted to us.

 

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Trump Can’t Lead Without Moral Compass

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President Trump chose to mark the loss of 11 lives due to white nationalist terrorism by traveling to Southern Illinois for another political rally. His visit was ostensibly to campaign for other Republicans, but really it was just to talk about himself and take jabs at Democrats and Hillary Clinton. These are not the actions of a leader.

Sure, Trump made a few remarks about his supposed intolerance for anti-Semitism. But in the days since the devastating attack on Jewish members of a Pittsburgh synagogue, the President of the United States has managed to do what he does best: make it all about him. He even complained that he was probably attacked more than anyone. Gee, Mr. Trump. Is that how you plan to comfort the loved ones of the deceased?

In the past two weeks, we have seen a series of attacks on the part of disgruntled white men who love everything Donald Trump stands for. First, law enforcement officials arrested the man accused of sending pipe bombs in the mail to prominent Democrats. He was a white nationalist whose actions gelled around his support for Trump and the politics of hate. Trump used the arrest not to appeal for peace and understanding, but to call for a renewed use of the death penalty.

Now we have one of the worst anti-Semitic attacks committed on U.S. soil in decades. But far from being able to rely on our president to lead us away from such violence, we have one who calls white nationalists “fine people” and uses dog whistle politics to appeal to their racism. Besides, he has to get back to his relentless attack on the caravan of undesirables heading for the U.S. border. It’s the only way to get Republicans elected these days apparently.

That Donald Trump has no sense of decency was revealed way back in 2015 when he started to campaign for president by claiming that the current one was an African-born Muslim. Throughout the campaign, he hurled insults and slurs, fomented white rage, and even suggested he’d hit on his own daughter if they weren’t related. He bragged about paying no taxes and grabbing women’s genitalia. Did we really expect him to get in office and suddenly start acting “presidential”?

Donald Trump even mocks the notion of being presidential by imitating a robot and garnering a few laughs at his omnipresent political rallies. No, we can’t expect leadership from a man who lives in a moral vacuum. And our country is much the worse for it.

Losing My Religion

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I’m heartsick with grief for the sexual victims of men hiding behind the cloak of the priesthood in the Catholic Church. The revelations that thousands of children in Pennsylvania were being abused by priests while the diocesan hierarchy essentially aided and abetted their crimes has truly left my faith shaken.

Growing up, I was taught to deeply respect priests for their dedication and closeness to God, for their role in the Church in persona Christi. My teenage sisters worked in the rectory office and sometimes served dinner to our parish priests. My mother sewed their priestly vestments. To imagine any of these men violating a child in such a manner sickens and horrifies me.

The breadth of the pedophile scandal in the Catholic Church is truly astounding. There seems to be no major diocese in the United States that has not been affected by it. Hundreds of priests and thousands of victims are involved. If this were any other kind of organization, there would be protests in the streets and calls for heads to roll.

Pope Francis has reiterated his sorrow at the horrors of priestly depravity, renewed his plea for forgiveness for the Church’s failures to stop it, and pledged that sexual abuse by priests will not be tolerated and that those in charge will be held accountable. But he has said all these things before. And few, if any, members of the Church hierarchy have been removed from office. Victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests have listened to our pope’s words and found them wanting.

What has enabled the flourishing of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church is the all male, celibate priesthood. How else to account for the untold numbers of victims? Yes, other institutions have been found to harbor sexual abusers. But there is no comparison in the number of victims and the longevity of the problem to what has gone on in the Catholic Church for decades.

The Catholic Church must address the epidemic of sexual abuse of children head on, first of all by removing not only the offending priests, but also the bishops and other higher ups who shuffled them from parish to parish and otherwise allowed them to continue to abuse children. It is also time for the Church to allow priests to marry and to welcome women into the ordained priesthood.

I’m not saying that the condition of celibacy causes pedophilia. But I do believe that the requirement makes the priesthood attractive to men who are wrestling with the demons of their own predilection for young children, and they seek refuge there in greater numbers than in the general population. I also think the presence of women within all levels of church hierarchy would make the abuses less likely to be hushed up or tolerated.

It has been extremely difficult for me to attend Mass in my local parish since the latest revelations of sexual abuse by priests came to light. My membership in the Church gives tacit acceptance to what is being done – and more importantly, what is not being done – to address this horrible stain on the reputation of Catholicism.

I don’t want to lose my religion. My faith has been a grounding and inspirational force in my life, and I believe it can still be a force for good in the world. But more of us Catholics have to stand up and demand what is right and good and holy from our leaders. Only then can we carry on the sacred mission for which Christ died on the cross.

Suffer the Children

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Dear Jeff Sessions,

Here are a couple of Biblical quotations you might have missed:

Matthew 19:14: “But Jesus said, Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.”

Mark 10:15: “Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein.”

Don’t go quoting the Bible to justify the inhumane act of separating parents from their children. During the Holocaust, at concentration camps, the first thing the Nazis did was separate adults from children. As one victim of America’s shameful policy of Japanese internment pointed out, even he was never separated from his parents.

The spin being put on this horrifying immigration policy by the Trump Administration and the pundits on Fox News is making me want to vomit. Their excuses are simply lame.

The first one is that this is a long-standing policy that Bush and Obama followed. That’s just wrong. Except in extremely rare cases where the legitimacy of the parent/child relationship was in question, Hispanics crossing the border illegally were not separated from their children.

The Trump Administration’s second lame excuse is that the policy will deter illegal immigrants from trying to cross the border. Clearly that’s not the case when were are seeing literally thousands of children being warehoused in cages like animals.

The third excuse is that it’s all the Democrats’ fault! I’m surprised Trump hasn’t blamed Hillary and her emails for the policy. Seriously, Republicans. You are not going to weasel out of responsibility for this heinous violation of human rights that easily. (Of course, the U.S. has just left the UN Human Rights Council since it would be hypocritical to be a part of something it doesn’t actually practice itself.)

I’m not sure why, but when I picture Trump, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and Sessions cooking up this heartless policy in the Oval Office, I see them all in Nazi uniforms. I wonder if they stood at attention the way Trump would prefer all his underlings to do in front of him. After all, that wonderful guy Kim Jong Un gets that kind of treatment.

My favorite statement from these monsters was Sessions’ inane argument that if these immigrants don’t want to be separated from their children, they should leave the children at home. Say what?

I’d like Americans to picture the desperation a person must feel to undertake the perilous and difficult journey to come to America in search of safety and a better life. Now imagine how much more dangerous and difficult that trip would be with one’s own precious children. What the U.S. does about so many immigrants trying to obtain asylum in this country is open to debate. But whether or not to put their children in cages is not.

 

 

Personal Touch Foils Prejudice

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Like many people, I am prone to snap judgments. Upon meeting or even seeing someone for the first time, I immediately make an assessment about their likability and character. That would be all well and good if my judgments proved to be unerringly right; but so often my first impressions have been dead wrong.

I can recall a girl in my high school English class whom I immediately characterized as a spoiled rich girl. She was impeccably coiffed, made up, and dressed, and she was not afraid to speak up in class. All this made me dislike her out of hand. As the school year progressed, though, and we were thrown together on class projects, I discovered the girl’s real self: an eccentric, witty, self-deprecating girl whose passion for literature matched my own. For her part, she had me pegged as a prissy goody two shoes based on the sole fact that I never crossed my legs. Of course, we became fast friends.

We all have our prejudices, and it’s probably a vestige of our survival instinct. Prehistoric humans needed to be able to assess danger within seconds in order to protect themselves. So they developed an ability to categorize an animal or other human instantly as either dangerous or safe. With the development of more sophisticated societies, these snap judgments remained while the need for protecting ourselves from outsiders dwindled.

Over the past 50 years, America has made great strides in civil rights. Even Martin Luther King, Jr. himself would probably find it hard to imagine the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. Yet with the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, much of the remaining racism in our country has bubbled to the surface. Now more than ever, our citizens need to find a way to come together and surmount the deep-seated fears and hatreds with which we have grown up.

Here is where the personal touch can help. It’s harder to demonize whole groups of people when we have personal relationships with some of them. A case in point is the story of Chris Buckley, former Klansman and Army sergeant with an unyielding hatred of Muslims. Buckley’s wife reached out to an organization that helps white supremacists leave behind their hate-infused worlds. A member of that organization introduced Buckley to Heval Mohamed Kelli, a Syrian Kurdish refugee who had made a life for himself in America and is now determined to give back to the country that took him in. (Chicago Tribune, June 10, 2018)

Chris Buckley’s encounters with poor African Americans and with men like Kelli have helped dispel the fear and hate he had built up in his heart. Himself a drug addict and the survivor of an abusive household as a child, Buckley has chosen the path of compassion and help for others who are struggling as he has struggled for most of his life.

In my previous post, I wrote about how the personal touch can help us feel more connected and less lonely. But I believe it can do even more. Personal encounters with people of different races, religions, and social classes can bridge the gaps in our understanding and break down the walls of prejudice we have falsely convinced ourselves we need for protection.

Stories like Buckley’s make me hopeful that there is deep goodness inside each of us, and with some effort we can all bring out that goodness for the betterment of society and even for ourselves.

 

 

 

Who Needs Hell?

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The latest brouhaha in modern society’s never-ending quest to feel outraged is over Pope Francis’s supposedly claiming there is no Hell. In a private conversation with a friend, the pope reportedly conveyed the idea that bad souls just disappear into the ether. The Vatican had to work overtime to reassure us all that Il Papa was not quoted verbatim and thus the sentiments purported to have come from him cannot be taken at face value.

Now I don’t believe for a second that Pope Francis is truly dismissing centuries of Catholic doctrine about Heaven and Hell. Despite his humane and conciliatory approach toward such issues as homosexuality and divorced Catholics, the pope has not asserted any challenges to existing Catholic beliefs.

But the issue got me to thinking about why many Christians need to hold up the prospect of an eternity in Hell in order to be faithful to God’s mandate that we love Him and our fellow human beings.

It’s true that it is very hard to be good. Our self-interest leads us to be greedy and competitive, and when others conflict with our needs or desires, we can be mean-spirited and cruel. Our pride causes us to build ourselves up while putting others down. Our anger often erupts in hurtful words or violence to others. In short, whether or not we believe in Hell, many of us deserve to spend eternity there.

But the overarching mission for which Christ came to Earth was love. Not some hippy-dippy-wear-beads-and sing-Kumbaya type of love, but an all-encompassing, self-abnegating, self-sacrificing love; a love that knows no boundaries of country, race, religion, gender, or ability.

And Jesus Christ made it clear: Our mission is to practice that same humble and self-sacrificing love with everyone we meet. We were made not just to aspire to communion with God in the next life, but to bring about the kingdom of God in this life.

It’s a paradox that the more we realize earthly life is hard, fleeting, and involves suffering, the more we are called to reach out in love to others: to alleviate suffering, to quench others’ loneliness, to swallow our pride so that our fellow human beings come first. In doing so, we can create a sort of Heaven on Earth. There can be as much joy in holding the hand of a dying friend as there is in holding a newborn baby – if we look through the lens of love.

I don’t need the fear of Hell to do what is right. I just need to look at what Christ did on the cross for me and for the world to know what my vocation is: to die to self and pour myself out for others in love.

Sisters Aren’t Doing It For Themselves

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The 2018 NCAA basketball tournament has created the unlikeliest of media darlings: 98-year-old Sr. Jean Dolores Schmidt, the chaplain and biggest fan of Chicago’s Loyola University Ramblers. The Ramblers will make their Final Four appearance since 1963, and their diminutive mentor and cheerleader has played a role in their success.

Before each game, Sr. Jean prays with the Catholic university’s team. She sends the players encouraging emails throughout the season. And she is there to watch them play, in spite of her age and frailty. Sr. Jean has been in such demand for media appearances since Loyola’s unlikely run in the tournament that her handlers have had to turn offers down. But what I love about Sr. Jean’s fame is that she puts a public face on modern Catholic women religious in America.

Most people use the terms “nun” and “sister” interchangeably. But nuns are women who live in religious communities and function within the confines of these orders: praying, contemplating, often taking vows of silence. While nuns are also referred to as “Sister,” Catholic sisters are more active in the world outside the convent walls. Many are nurses, teachers, and agents of hospitality to the poor and marginalized of society.

When I was a child, my Catholic school had many Sisters of Mercy as teachers. My dad liked to joke and call them Sisters of No Mercy, and indeed, they could be harsh disciplinarians. The image of the sister with her ruler at the ready to physically admonish a misbehaving student is a cliche with some basis in reality. But I was always fascinated with our sisters, who wore black habits and veils that revealed absolutely no hair. I loved the click of the black rosary beads that circled the sisters’ waists.

As Vatican II started to liberalize some Catholic customs, many women religious stopped wearing habits. I remember a sister at our school who did wear a habit but allowed a large shock of bright red hair to spill out of her veil. I don’t recall her name, but she was young and she made Catholic sisters seem more human to me.

Catholic women religious in America have made important contributions to our society, including founding some of the first schools for African-American children. They have been advocates for the rights of women and minorities. But by far their most important roles have been those out of the limelight: helping the poor, tending to the sick, teaching and mentoring the young.

Long before she was a media sensation, Sr. Jean Schmidt was an active member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (B.V.M.). She has been a teacher for many years and was an administrator at a Catholic women’s college before winding up as Loyola’s chaplain.

As much as Sr. Jean seems to enjoy the limelight, she is still focused on her vocation as the most important thing in her life. In other words, it’s not about her or even about her beloved Ramblers. As she recently told The New York Times, “Whether we win or lose, God is still with us.”

Like the thousands of other nuns and sisters in America, Sr. Jean is special not because of her undying loyalty to Loyola basketball, but because of her undying love for God and others.