He Did It. Trump Broke My Family

In 1981 my aunt Sister MJ, a Benedictine nun, spiritual matriarch of my Alabama family on my mother’s side, a woman known for her unconditional love of her nieces and nephews, decided to reinstate our family reunion. Through the summers of the 1950s and 1960s we had gathered in the back yard of our grandparents’ house in a small central-Alabama town. We called them “Daddy C” and “Mama C.” The reunions had lapsed after Mama C died in 1970. Then after Daddy C died in 1980, Sister MJ decided to start them up again. (Note: names are truncated here as a kindness to, and out of respect for, my deceased family members and living cousins.)

I wrote a poem for the 1981 occasion entitled “Backyard Reunions at Daddy C’s and Mama C’s House” It began like this:

Those years seem all suffused with light, that backyard in the heart of Alabama all filled with light. Light off the white boards of the house. Light penetrating the green leaves of the bean stalks in the garden. Light lovely and soft in the pecan tree branches that towered high above the yard, or ghostly pale, where it shone through the dried bass head our grandfather had tacked to the clothesline unnumbered fishing trips before.

The poem went on to celebrate games of “burnout” where we boys threw a baseball as hard as we could into each other’s mitts. Drinking soda pop from metal garbage cans filled with ice. Stuffing ourselves on half-chickens and corn ears wrapped in tinfoil taken from Daddy C’s barbecue pit. Enjoying fresh garden string beans with bacon fat from Mama C’s stove.

The reunions also reminded us that our family was a “Gold Star” family, evidenced by the picture of our Uncle Rene in his cocked Navy hat hanging on the living room wall. He was Daddy C’s firstborn son, 25 years old, a Ship’s Cook 3rd Class, when he perished in 1943 after his ship was sunk in the Solomon Sea by a Japanese torpedo, his body lost forever.

And how, every year we came to hear the story of the broken window pane, the one that Uncle Rene broke as a boy, before going off to war. And how, when Rene never returned, Daddy C just refused to repair that window – just let it be.  And how I would steal glances at that crack, a silver curve of light marking an unbroken line of grief.

After recalling more memories of “a community composed of flesh and faith” that was created in that back yard, a community I thought would endure forever, the poem ended so:

Life given and understood in the small details of that backyard. Details measuring, like the silver crack in the window pane, an unbroken line of love.

That is how I have thought of my family all my life. Never to be broken. That is how I wanted my own children and their children to think of my mother’s family, as well as cousins on my father’s side, all our Alabama cousins, all “our people.” The mother of my children is buried in a Birmingham cemetery alongside my parents, and recently my sister. Alabama has remained for me the place to go home and be with my family.

That all changed after Donald Trump became President of the United States.

Of course, fissures had been there before; every family has them. They showed up during the horror of the ill-gotten Iraq War, when one cousin’s son spoke at our 2005 reunion about being deployed to guide bombing runs into Iraq, a war I resisted as part of Military Families Speak Out. Yet I could understand that. He was a young man on fire to serve his country, acting on trust that his president would not deceptively send him to war. I had been there myself at his age. It was post-9/11.

Cracks grew wider in 2009 as cousins began sharing online Fox News reports delegitimizing a dark-skinned President, accusing him of being a closet Muslim, not even an American. Later there was the “Blue Lives Matter” retort to “Black Lives Matter.” Then later still the NFL “take a knee controversy” which Trump successfully re-branded as being about dishonoring the flag and disrespecting the military, not about unarmed black men dying from police violence. One cousin reacted this way: “When I got a new President, that was when I took a knee, to THANK GOD!  Donald Trump Is My President and I stand with pride for my Country my Flag the National Anthem and all the service men and woman then and now.”

I could deal with all that. We could thrash out our differences and each conclude that the other was badly misinformed. And besides, what difference could politics make in terms of breaking the deeper bonds of family between us?

Then came Trump’s explicitly racially-charged “zero-tolerance” immigration policy, stripping babies and young children from their immigrant parents seeking asylum. While I had grieved over President Obama’s record deportations and his sad, brief move toward incarcerating families (which the courts stopped), Obama had not built his immigration policy upon an overtly racist framework sold as necessary to repel “rapists” and “criminals” coming from “s***hole” countries. Obama was dealing with all bad options rooted in 20 years of bipartisan Congressional inaction on immigration. Trump was exciting his base with red-meat racist canards.

“Zero-tolerance” purposely designed to break up families – that is when Trump broke my family. How can I break bread, much less Holy Communion at the closing Mass of our reunions, with people who justify the detention of innocent children in cold cages under Mylar blankets? Why should my son and his children go to the reunion of a family that tolerates this?

Yes, I know, it is not everyone in my family, but the burden falls on us who know what Trump is doing to challenge with love our cousins who appear to be blindly following him. Silence is complicity when innocent children are being harmed like this, and it is our country that is doing it, and it is being justified in a specifically racist way that is not a silent dog whistle but a bullhorn amplifying the racist, fear-mongering justification. History tells us we all come to a very bad end if we remain silent in a time like this, and that means being unafraid to let our families know what we think and how we feel.

So it stands for now. Trump has broken my family. The loss feels very deep to me. It is not clear to me how we mend it back together, even with the abiding love I still hold in my heart for all my cousins.

Postscript: The house where Daddy C and Mama C lived was sold three decades ago. I went by to see it one summer. Of course, the new owners had fixed that cracked window.

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More than X’s and O’s on These NFL Players’ Minds

Memo 4 players sent NFL commissioner Roger Goodell & NFL Response

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The Vietnam War – My Story, What is Yours?

Watching “The Vietnam War” documentary surfaces the old memories, despite whatever flaws the documentary may have as history or memory or even film making. Not that I have the horrid memories depicted in the film, thankfully, and God bless and help the veterans of that unjust and unnecessary war who do suffer still from those memories, as well as the families of millions of Vietnamese that we brutally slaughtered, but my memories are not theirs because I am fortunate enough to not have to carry that burden around for the rest of my life.

The film has men and women who came of age in those days telling their story. Below is my Vietnam story, in a nutshell, which every man (and woman) of my age must tell – in answer to the questions: “What did you do in the Vietnam War?” or “How did you handle the draft?” or “Where were you 1965-1974 in the Vietnam War era?”

For people of a certain age who read this, what is yours?

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I was in seminary 1967-68, having passed on a chance to go to West Point with a conditional appointment from Senator John Sparkman of Alabama. As a son of the South, God and Country were pretty much equivalent for me, and service was service, whether as priest or soldier. Since the diocese of Mobile-Birmingham did not have its own seminary (Catholics were only 2% of the Alabama population), I was sent to the diocesan seminary in Catonsville, MD. Yes, that Catonsville, MD where, not far from the seminary, on May 16, 1968 Fathers Daniel and Philip Berrigan, with seven other people (“The Catonsville 9”), burned draft files with homemade napalm, after which some guys at the seminary who had their draft files at Catonsville went down and voluntarily reconstructed them. I had noticed what happened down the street from me at the draft board, of course, because it made a lot of news, Catholic news, but I was focused on Senators Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy and the 1968 election as a means to get out the war, and my idealism took a major blow on June 6, 1968 when I woke up to find that Bobby Kennedy had been struck down after winning the California primary.

After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and Bobby Kennedy’s deaths in early 1968, while I was finishing up freshman year at the seminary, and after witnessing the smoke from afar as Baltimore burned after King’s assassination, the life-goes-on-as-usual of the seminary and America, where a graduation ceremony was happening on the very day when Kennedy’s body went cold, when everything should have stopped with Bobby’s death, I felt, and we were all singing and endless “Na na na nah” from “Hey, Jude” as the top song of 1968, and the social turmoil of resisting authority that was present even in seminary life, such as boycotting classes over a dispute with the Rector’s heavy-handed discipline, which I did not understand at all, it was then that I became deeply disillusioned and quit the seminary, telling Dad, a career Army man, that I was going to join the Army.

I know, that does not make sense. Why would I support either McCarthy or Kennedy to end the war, and then sign up for it? I was 19. Does that explain it? I was brought up in a military family? Does that? Maybe it was that summer of 1968 when I saw another underbelly of the American experience while selling encyclopedias to poor families who could not afford them, and kind of falling for one of the young women who was on our sales team, only to find myself in a hotel in Mississippi while a couple of guys laughed as they listened through the wall to our boss having sex with “Peggy.” Then going back to the Catonsville seminary for a week to start sophomore year, but quickly realizing that my heart was not in that anymore and I did not really know what I wanted to do next.

That was the Fall of 1968, a year in which 16,592 American soldiers would die in Vietnam. Dad said “No, you’re going back to college” (his message, not necessarily his exact word), and so I did in January 1969, deferred from the draft while in college. I worked my way through the “D’s” of the college catalogue (University of Delaware, University of Dayton, and University of Dallas), looking for a humanities curriculum that might help me make sense of what it means to be a human being. Yes, I really thought like that.

It would not be until 1971, the day after I graduated from the University of Dallas, a bastion of right wing Catholics at the time (which educated some major leaders of the American Right, like classmate L. Brent Bozelle III, founder of the Media Research Center), which Playboy magazine listed as one of the safest conservative colleges to which parents could send their children in those days when 400 colleges nationally were holding “Vietnam Moratorium” boycotts and strikes and marches against the war (Mom probably hoped that Playboy was right), it was in May, 1971 that I entered the Army, by that time having been classified by the draft board as 1-AO Conscientious Objector with a middle-range draft number (151) who volunteered for the draft as a CO, moving to the head of the line, who would not have to carry a rifle, instead being slated to be trained as a medic, still attracted to being a hero, to being “a good American like my Dad” as the poem by a Vietnam Veteran says.

Why that? Why after protesting the war at University of Dallas? Why after throwing off my gown and tossing my mortarboard hat onto the stage, like a dangerous Frisbee, when the Baccalaureate professor/speaker, dressed in his foppish white suit and snakeskin cowboy boots, who had been chosen to be our speaker by the 1971 graduating class conservatives, almost as a joke and payback to the “liberals” like me, got up and gave a defense of America’s involvement in Vietnam? Why then?

Dad was still not happy with my choice to go to the Army, but I remember him as overall supportive of me. Mom was proud, I believe. Maybe Dad was still the answer to why I went to the Army. Maybe it was losing my college love and then another in a rebound relationship, and being somewhat adrift personally. But why did I refuse to go after a Danforth Scholarship for which Sister St. John, my favorite professor, wanted to recommend me? That might have gotten me to graduate school and avoided altogether any service in the military.

I really do not have the answers to my questions. I just know what I did. I volunteered for the draft under the 1-AO classification.

In the Army I came face to face with the dispirited and demoralized “lifers” who had committed to a military career, good men like my father. I saw my father in them in their faces, which appeared to me weary and demoralized, revealing the damaged integrity of being caught up in the Vietnam debacle – or was I reading that into them? Impossible to know. I did know this, however, that the Army was broken. I saw new recruits acting out to get kicked out of the Army; but by contrast, at first, I was so “gung ho” myself that I won the American Spirit and Honor Award for my basic training class of 80 men down at Fort Polk, LA, becoming the class sergeant and marching men (with guns) all over the base to the sound of my cadences (I have a big voice), some of which were, oddly, anti-war cadences. It did not matter as long as the men marched. And there I was, marching them. And there I was, a CO who had never lifted a fist in anger at anyone in my life, never been in a fight at all (still have not), facing down an angry soldier who wanted to hurt me, but refrained from doing so because I had those class sergeant insignia protecting me.

After Fort Polk I was off to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for medic training, where I continued to do well enough that I was selected to go to the United States Army Airborne School at Fort Benning (the place of my birth) after medic training and learn to jump out of airplanes, which was considered to be an opportunity offered only to “elite” soldiers. I had done a loyalty and commitment interview to get that, a fact that left the officers who conducted it quite mad at me as things later turned out.

Only later would I come to such a crisis of conscience about the Vietnam War, which was still killing men in 1971 (almost 2,400 Americans that year), that I applied for full release as a 1-O status CO. Maybe it was after reading the motto of the medical corps – “”To Conserve Fighting Strength” – and learning that principles of triage would require me to let men die if they could not get up to fight, focusing instead on those who could still protect the fighting unit.

There is more. It has to do with a religious vision (nothing else to call it) that I had at the time, very much like the vision that Trappist monk Thomas Merton had at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, Kentucky, which he describes in his book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, only mine took place on the street in San Antonio. I will write about that more at some point, but it was the moment when I saw for myself, realizing generally but not in specifics, that some sort of suffering lay ahead for me, and that it would be a privilege of my faith to undergo that suffering – it was then that I believe I saw  the God within everyone on the street around me that day, all of them beaming and translucent with some sort of light coming from within them, right down to the baby in a carriage, and I knew for certain that humans have a Soul, that we are Good, that we are made of Light, or whatever we wish to call it, that we are Life, not Death.  And I felt a peace about whatever was to come next, which I was still in the process of discovering.

So at some point I entered the process of lining up my dad and my own personal army of priests I knew from the University of Dallas (one of whom was an anti-communist Hungarian Cistercian priest who attested to my true belief, with which he vehemently disagreed, which could only help me), to plead my case of being a true conscientious objector who should be released to alternative service. I felt it was a sure thing that I would be released, but after much anguish I felt I had to speak out in some way more than that; especially, it seemed to me, because I knew how to speak out as a college graduate, while the other guys, every bit the CO I had become, some of them rural guys from Tennessee and elsewhere with only high school educations, were throwing furniture out of 4th floor windows or refusing to have their hair cut or coming up with other disobedient ways  to say “Hell, no” to the Army and the war, bringing much trouble into their lives.

I recall – is it a true memory? – being moved by the words of Isaiah to do more than just get myself out of the Army. (“The Lord GOD has given me a well-trained tongue, that I might know how to answer the weary a word that will waken them.” Isaiah 50:4)

And so I protested in ranks, wearing a small cross on a chain outside my uniform, gift of a Catholic retreat weekend that I had attended and which I later conducted while at University of Dallas, which I had worn under my T-shirt next to my chest until then, and doing that to object to the Vietnam War, and in order, quite deliberately and with forethought, to say “No” to Sergeant Brown when he ordered me to put it inside, and then to the Captain who gave me the same order, and to take that “No” to its logical conclusion and thus get to know what the Army stockade at Fort Hood looked like from the inside out, but not before being quarantined in barracks as I awaited court martial, where I sat up a small devotional altar with candles and scriptures next to my bunk (that was a little bit weird) and read Daniel Berrigan’s book “No Bars to Manhood,” and from where I would hurl my American Spirit and Honor Award as far out on to the yard as I could, no longer wanting any part of it.

And I remember feeling as I went behind the chain link and concertina wire at the stockade, after riding with two MPs from San Antonio to Killeen, Texas with my hands and arms cuffed behind me (they were sympathetic to my pain, but following protocol), that I was the freest man in the world and that everyone outside the wire fencing were the ones who were in prison. It had rained and the wire fencing glistened with the raindrops and I was at peace. My story was being told on national radio (Elizabeth McAlister heard it in NYC), and on the front page of the San Antonio News with Father Art Moser of the Newman Center at the University of Texas standing beside a very skinny me, and on the hospital radio where my mom was recuperating from cyst surgery in Huntsville, Alabama (she was mortified and embarrassed by my action), while my dad was being interviewed by the Huntsville Times and standing behind my act of conscience, pointing out that the Army had over-reacted since they were about to release me anyway. No TV coverage. The Army information officers had made sure after the courts martial that national TV not get me on camera with my little cross dangling outside my uniform.

I was sentenced to four months but served only one as my 1A-O conscientious objector status was granted and the Army did not want to feed me anymore, so they cut me loose.

My life by that time had forever been changed by those days. From West Point candidate to Army prisoner in five years, with ample opportunities to avoid military service at all, but drawn by some ineluctable force to go there.

Postlude: Before I had protested in ranks in the Army, I had gone out to hear Sister Elizabeth McAlister (three times! so much that she took me for an Army spy in my uniform) as she talked about her impending trial with Father Phil Berrigan and six other defendants in Harrisburg, where they were facing serious charges for their resistance to the Vietnam War. She moved me deeply. During the course of the courts martial I met two Paulist priests (Art Moser and his classmate Ed Guinan) who would inspire me to go back to the seminary (the Paulists this time) after the Army and ultimately redirected my life (after leaving a seminary for the second time) to service of the inner-city poor and homeless of Washington, DC in the Community for Creative Nonviolence, CCNV, that Ed and some fellow Paulists had founded, and resistance to what was left of the war as I became part of the “Catholic Left,” entered into marriage with a CCNV member running a soup kitchen and with her three children, and otherwise  setting me on that path of life (anti-war activism and homeless services at the core of it) for decades to come.

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Francie’s Eulogy, Handel’s Messiah and Faith Renewed

Yesterday made two weeks since my sister Francie died.  Yesterday marked one week since I had read the following words from the Book of Job 19:25-26 at the start of Francie’s funeral Mass:

But as for me, I know that my Vindicator lives,
  and that God will at last stand forth upon the dust;
Whom I myself shall see:
  my own eyes, not another’s, shall behold God,
And from my flesh I shall see God.

Then yesterday, at the kind invitation of a new friend in Baltimore, Elizabeth and I found ourselves at a performance of Handel’s Messiah by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. After the “Wow” part of the Hallelujah Chorus was over, the part we all recognize, the Messiah continued to its Part 3 and I heard these words, a different translation of Job 19: 25-26 than the one I had used:

I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that He shall stand
at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

I was unprepared for what happened next as the Messiah continued toward the sound of the trumpets:

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.   (I Corinthians 15: 20)  Since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. (I Corinthians 15: 21-22)  Behold, I tell you a mystery; we shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. (I Corinthians 15: 51-52)  The trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption and this mortal must put on immortality. (I Corinthians 15: 52-53)  Then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” (I Corinthians 15: 54)  O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Corinthians 15: 57)

I have heard this all my life. I proclaimed it one week ago as we celebrated Francie’s life and carried her body to her grave. Yet throughout her funeral Mass I had maintained control. I had prepared and uttered the words and listened to my cousin Father Marcus proclaim this same belief in something bigger, something more, a Love everlasting, that goes back to Job and is heralded by Saint Paul in his first letter to the new believers in Corinth. I had seen the sadness on Marcus’ face as he sat down at different times in the Mass, and thought it unusual for him to show such sorrow, accounting it to his deep and lifelong feelings for his younger cousin, but as for me I had complete mastery over the words as I read from the Book of Job to start off our readings.

I read with conviction, but did I really believe? I shed not a tear while I attended to my duties. I wanted other people to cry for my sister, but not me.

Not so last night at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

When Part 3 of the Messiah came and the words of Job appeared before me again, I lost control.

The tears came down. My breath increased as I tried not to convulse and reveal to the people around me that I was crying. Elizabeth noticed. She handed me a tissue. She had her own memories of a lost one closing in on her at that time, too, as the trumpet, the glorious trumpet, sounded. She had understood what set me to crying. All that was just too much and I had to stare up at the ceiling and listen to the Soprano, the Bass, the Alto and the Chorus continue with the words of Saint Paul, the trumpet drawing me and all of us higher into a transcendent moment.

Then I realized in that music, I actually do believe that Francie lives! And Claire Marie! (My first wife who died at 43 from cancer.) And Mom and Dad! And Lucinda! (My second wife who died of cancer at 61.) And Sister Mary Jude! (My beloved aunt and Benedictine sister who was my exemplar of unconditional love.) Through that moment of unexpected connection with what I had just read a week ago, I could cry for Francie and all my lost ones, whether it be from grief or joy I cannot say for sure.

Faith pierced me in those moments. It was not wordsmithing or planning a beautiful liturgy, things at which I am good and over which I have control. It was grief pulling my faith forward from my flesh itself.

In that moment I felt myself to be connected with the One that the prophet Isaiah called “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” (A phrase which occurs earlier in the Messiah.)

Does it take great sorrow to draw nearer to the One from which we come, the One to whom we go? Can such a question even be asked outside of a Faith already received? Are we not all to become, the longer we live, men and women of sorrows, all too acquainted with grief? Is that the communion that counts most of all?

I had not expected Handel and his music to move me to tears, but ended up thankful that he and his music had done so.

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My eulogy for Francie – Nov 26, 2016

When I sat down to write this eulogy, the very first thought that came to mind was, “Help me, Francie, please help me.” As I gazed at her big smile on the funeral program that you have in your hands, I was reminded how much she had helped me over the years, through the crises of deep loss and affairs of the heart that marked my life. So why shouldn’t she help me now with a few words to remember and honor her?

I thought of hundreds of emails she had composed to me that ran deep with insight and wisdom gained at great cost, which she was sharing with me, and how they were all mine to have, evidence of the special love between us. And I was reminded of all the conversations I had with her friends and family these past couple of months, some of you sitting here today, in which you told me how essential she had been to your life’s journey, how her friendship, her laughter and her smile had enriched your lives. She was all yours in those special times, a friend indeed. She could be such a very dear friend to those she loved.

Listening just now to that song “This Is To Mother You,” I am moved to memory of when Francie brought the song home from the “Woman Spirit Rising” retreat that she had just attended at Sacred Heart Monastery in Cullman. Among a circle of other women at that retreat, she had shared “a safe place to tell our own stories, to do truth telling, and to share hopes and dreams.” There were stories of brokenness, shared between a diverse group of women from all walks of life, all needing healing and joy to burst forth within and between and among them.

“Everyone has some sort of mothering energy in their life,” she wrote to me in an email of September 28, 2015, telling me how much the retreat had meant to her. The retreat happened to fall at the beginning of what was to become for her fourteen very difficult months of chemotherapy, body rebellion, multiple invasive procedures, seeking out of holistic health supplements, hospital stays and finally her death in hospice care at home, attended by her brothers, especially her brothers Dave and Rich who were with her for the final three months.  The retreat and this song were very much a part of preparing Francie to endure her suffering.

While traditionally we speak of God as Father, I got the impression that Francie and these women were in touch with God as Mother, God-within as fully known by their female nature, hearing “Her” say to those gathered, through this song:

All the pain that you have known
All the violence in your soul
All the ‘wrong’ things you have done
I will take from you when I come
All mistakes made in distress
All your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss, yes
I will give you tenderness

When Francie came out of the retreat she wrote about what was most important to her, putting it this way: “After all is said and done, be kind to yourself and others. Love yourself. Be who you are.”

About one year later, in the hospital as we spoke about her obituary and funeral service, part of which she planned (it was her choice to use Psalm 91), I asked her about how she saw her life and what was most important to her. “I always loved to make people laugh,” she said. “Say ‘Thank you” and ‘I love you’ more often.” “Know that God is in everything.”

You have these words to take with you on the prayer card.

For all of you who knew her, you know that Francie’s passion in her life was the exploration of human spirituality, the search for God-within. Hers was a life given over to service, healing and beauty – whether as nurse or massage therapist healing the body, or as trusted friend to many whose lives were changed for the better, or as an artist in her paintings, some of which we have here today. I draw your attention to one in particular, her self-portrait here beside her body, evidence that, as serious as she was, she could laugh at herself.

I also draw your attention to the image on the front of her prayer card, a traditional image of a guardian angel watching over children who are crossing a dangerous bridge. She asked for that to be on her prayer card and she recited for me the prayer she had learned as a child.

Angel of God/ my guardian dear/ to whom God’s love/ commits me here./ Ever this day/ be at my side,/ to light and guard,/ to rule and guide./ Amen.

We can think of Francie that way as our lives move forward. Pull out her prayer card now and then and read her words on the back. Know that if you loved her and she loved you, she is that angel beside you now, acting on God’s love of you “to light and guard, to rule and guide.”

 

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Post-Election Homily, Fr. Joe Muth, Baltimore, MD – Nov 12-13, 2016

Thirty-Third Sunday of the Church Year, 2016

Malachi 3: 19-20a

Second Letter to the Thessalonians 3: 7-12

Luke 21: 5-19

Good Morning!  Today you have come into church after a week of amazing changes due to the National Election on November 8.  I am glad we are in church, because in here we are not Democrat, Republican, Green Party, Independent, or Tea Party.  We are Church!  And now more than ever before we begin to understand what it means to be Church.

The readings this weekend are so timely.  We hear from the prophet Malachi that “the day is coming, blazing like an oven…but for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.” From Luke we hear, “Take care not to be misled.  Many will come in my name saying, ‘I am he’ and ‘The time is at hand’.  Do not follow them…Nation will rise against nation and kingdom against kingdom…By patient endurance you will save your lives.”

Patient Endurance!!  How did God know that we needed this particular phrase at this time?  It is an important spiritual phrase for us to hear.  But it is also very difficult to hear about “patient endurance” when many of us feel so impatient.  When we are so weary of racist language, abusive language, anti-immigrant language, anti-Muslim language, anti-women language, anti-LGBT language.  When we thought we were way beyond this as a nation, and now feel like we haven’t moved or changed at all.

We have made a great effort in the Church of St. Matthew and the Church of Blessed Sacrament to treat all people who come into our communities with dignity and respect.  We believe we are united in our mission and blessed with diversity.  We believe that God has called us to “serve people in all conditions and circumstances.”  Even our recent Pastoral Plan from the Archdiocese tells us that our mission priorities are the “outsiders, the disenfranchised, and the strangers.”   When our church words and the Word of God give us this direction, and the society around us is opposite this call, then some action has to be taken.

This week, as your Pastor, I contacted the two Mosques that we have been connected to in the last year, and Pat Jones, the Director of IOSC (St. Matthew’s Immigration Outreach Service Committee), contacted them also.  They thanked us for our kind and encouraging words and the principal of the Al Rahmah School said, “You have always reached out to me in difficult times and I am very grateful.”  They were worried what to tell their children about the election, because the children were scared.   The IOSC has also received calls from immigrants who are scared about what may happen to them.

Our contacts with the Mosques are important, but as important as these actions are they are too small, and our small churches should not be the only ones speaking and acting this way.  The Bishops, the larger church in the nation should be acting and speaking out.

I love the church and have been born and raised up in the Catholic Church.  But I am disappointed in the Catholic Church throughout this country of ours.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail says that:

 There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love….I see the Church as the Body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through the fear of being nonconformists…the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for this century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned to outright disgust.

We need a new Church.

So I want you to know brothers and sisters, at our churches of St. Matthew and Blessed Sacrament we are going to continue to do what God asks of us, even if it may seem unorthodox to the larger church or the outside world.  God has given us a great responsibility.  We, as a Church, do not belong to any political party.  However, we do stand in the midst of all the parties. We have a unique opportunity to bring together opposing sides, if we are willing to let go.  We reach out our hands in all directions and welcome all we touch and see.

Therefore, we must remember who we are as church.

1) We are immigrants, and we will continue to make our church communities safe places where all our families can find a home and raise their children;

2) We are Gay and Lesbian people, and we will continue to accept and love each other so that we all have a place to worship God in safety, with dignity and respect;

3) We are people of many colors, countries, languages, and cultures, and we will continue to make this a church of welcome by sharing food, prayer, and life together;

4) We are people of disabilities.  We stand with people who are disabled in body, mind, or spirit, and treat them with respect, patience, and understanding;

5)  God has given us the wisdom to be connected to the Muslim community this year, and we will continue to learn from them, share with them, and pray with them.  We will let them know that we are safe communities, and we are not afraid of their culture or their faith, but want to embrace their story, too.

We stand against abusive language, sexist language, racist language.  We honor the women of our communities and support them in their quest for recognition, and their dreams to achieve their highest potential, however and wherever God may call them.

Malala Yousafzai, the young girl from Pakistan shot by the Taliban because she spoke out for the education of girls, she became the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize Winner; she said about her assassin, “If one man can destroy the world, why can’t one girl change it?”  And she said, “When the whole world is silent, even one voice becomes powerful’.

Some people have cautioned me in the past.  Fr. Joe, be careful, you might get in trouble.

They have said you don’t want to be tagged as a trouble-maker.  When Rosa Parks was asked if she sat down on the bus because her feet were tired, she said, “The only tired I was…was tired of giving in.”

I am an old man and I would much rather be seen as a trouble-maker for justice, a trouble-maker for compassion, a trouble-maker for love, than a silent uninvolved voiceless Pastor.

Love is still the most powerful gift we have!!

We are about to move into the Advent Season where we celebrate the Coming of the Gift of Love in Jesus.  Jesus was born into a violent divided world. He died. Love survived! So, I am not in despair!  I am not afraid!  I have hope because I know we will not be divided by those who wish to keep us apart.  The prophet Malachi reminds us “there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays”, and Luke, “By patient endurance you will save your lives”, and I add, and the lives of those entrusted to your care.

I am Fr. Joe Muth, and I approve of this message!!!

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The One-Year Anniversary of Laudato Si’- – Where is Bishop Zubik?

(Dateline: June 21, 2016)

 Saturday, June 18 marked the one year anniversary of the release of an encyclical that was intended to get the entire world, especially the Roman Catholic world, talking about and taking action on climate change as a moral imperative.

About a month before the anniversary I asked a diocesan official if Bishop Zubik would be doing a special event to mark the anniversary of Laudato Si’ – On Care for Our Common Home, Pope Francis’ path breaking encyclical about climate change. Here is what she said:

 “Typically, the Church marks significant anniversaries of Papal Encyclicals, such as the 25th or the 50th” she said, adding this: “I am not sure of definitive plans at this point.”

“I wish you the very best in your noble endeavor to care for God’s creation,” she said.

All across the world in the week leading up to the anniversary, and especially in poor communities likely to be hit hardest and first by climate change, Catholics gathered as part of the Global Catholic Climate Movement to mark the anniversary, committing to take action toward sustaining the planet for future generations. However, in the Diocese of Pittsburgh there will be no such public acknowledgement of the anniversary of Laudato Si’ according to the diocesan official with whom I have been communicating for several months.

An Associate General Secretary of the General Secretariat of the Diocese of Pittsburgh had called me into her office last February after I circulated to parishes in the diocese a blog post about the experience I had at St. James Catholic Church in Sewickley.

My pastor at St. James had told me emphatically “end of discussion” as I pressed him on why we could not have a study group on Laudato Si’ or a sermon or two about it.  He said that he would preach on the subject only when the Bishop and the Vicars of the diocese told him to do so.

Obviously the topic is a sensitive one in an area built on fossil fuels. This region of western Pennsylvania is going full bore on building a new cracker plant in Monaca and stringing pipelines to carry fracked gas to export terminals to sell it abroad. These kinds of economic development projects will lock in dangerous and polluting shale gas extraction for the next 50 years.

Many people in fossil fuel industries are pillars of their local Catholic parishes and major contributors to church coffers, so this is a sensitive topic indeed.

When we met six months ago, the official and I started our meeting with prayer, and we ended it with prayer. In between we talked about how the diocesan website resources on Laudato Si’ were good insofar as their content, although (in my view) were not enough to reach the people of the diocese.

“Who reads the diocesan website?” I asked. “Where is the Bishop Zubik’s letter on the encyclical to be read from the pulpits?” We brainstormed about how the bishop might make an address to Catholic schoolchildren to communicate the essential themes of the Pope’s encyclical. That was encouraging.

Then she sent me away with some pastoral letters that the bishop had sent to parishes of the diocese as examples of his leadership. I read through those. I searched the PDFs for a single mention of climate change. Nothing there.

Next came weeks of silence as I pressed the official about marking the anniversary with an event to be convened by Bishop Zubik, as we had discussed.  Finally she answered that the bishop did have the Vicar General share information with pastors to assist them in marking the anniversary.

I asked her if I could see the email that the Vicar General had sent out, but she was not at liberty to share it. “Is it a state secret?” I asked her, but now she has gone silent again.

As to the answer she did give me, the problem with marking the encyclical’s anniversary at 25 years from its release (2040) is that the planet is warming rapidly. “We are currently headed into uncharted waters when it comes to the rate of climate change we are now seeing” says Michael Mann at Penn State’s Earth System Science Center.  Arctic warming is expected to rise by 1.1°F per decade by 2040. Sea levels will continue to rise and cause widespread flooding and loss of coastlines.

“Present climate is warming to a level associated with significant polar ice-sheet loss in the past.” Dr. Andreas Dutton, a geochemist at the University of Florida, states that “Once these ice sheets start to melt, the changes become irreversible.”

It is time, past time, for Bishop Zubik to do his own pastoral letter on climate change. Pope Francis needs his help. We all need his leadership.

See also: https://angerandcourage.wordpress.com/2016/01/06/laudato-si-falls-among-thorns-at-st-james-catholic-parish-in-sewickley-pa/

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Laudato Si’ Falls Among Thorns at St. James Catholic Parish in Sewickley, PA

“As for the seed sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” (Matthew 13:22)

Hundreds of world leaders just met last month in Paris to discuss climate change. They came up with a framework for continued discussion and action to limit dangerous warming of the Earth’s life-sustaining climate.

However, at one Catholic parish in the wealthy Pittsburgh suburb of Sewickley, PA, where you can still find natural gas lanterns burning 24/7 at the entry sidewalk to homes, there will be no discussion of climate change anytime soon.

St. James Parish, the church that announces itself as “the love of Christ in the heart of Sewickley” has other things to do with Christ’s love than discuss the issue of which Pope Francis has said: “If I may use a strong word, I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”

After repeated entreaties to the church’s pastor Father Thomas Burke to allow me to help form a discussion group on the Pope’s encyclical Laudato Si’, the word came down to me emphatically:

“End of discussion. I was ordained a priest not to be an environmentalist,” he told me.

I do not think he meant it quite the way his grammar indicated, but in his own way he spoke a real truth. Priests are not normally prepared by their training in a manner that they might hear the message of Laudato Si’. This may be especially true of priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, where fossil fuels and industries built upon fossil fuels have been kings of the economy, and thus essential to the collection plate, for more than a hundred years.

Sewickley swarms with Cadillac Escalades, GMC Yukons, Hummers, Mercedes Benz sedans and SUVs, Audis and BMWs. It is quite a bit like one big open air luxury car showroom, which makes it a veritable thicket of fossil-fuel-nourished thorns among which the seed of the Pope’s climate change encyclical must try to grow.

The U.S. Congressman Keith Rothfus (R) lives across Walnut Street from the church’s rectory and is a prominent member of the parish. What is his view about climate change? “I do not believe it’s man-made and I am not convinced that it is a fact.”

He “believes” this despite NASA science that “The year 2014 ranks as Earth’s warmest since 1880… (and) the 10 warmest years in the instrumental record…have now occurred since 2000.” Just recently the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that 2015 is ending up even hotter than 2014. NASA and NOAA may have the facts, but the Congressman has his beliefs, none of which are likely to be challenged at the church he attends.

My dialogue with Father Tom began in March 2015 when I read the church’s pastoral plan and saw no mention at all of addressing climate change. As we communicated, I discovered a decent and gentle man, a good shepherd of his flock, but one who was not going to take the lead on a contentious issue like climate change that might offend some of his parishioners.

Father Tom told me: “We had our recent Vicariate Meeting with Bishop Zubik and our focus right now with the Priests in the Diocese of Pittsburgh is ‘On Mission for the Church Alive!’ in which parishes are starting to work together to look at ministries and staff and clergy distribution. If I get a directive from Bishop Zubik to focus on environment issues or to preach on the Pope’s Letter, then I will do what I am asked from my superiors. My main task is to focus on parish life and the liturgy and evangelization.”

“What about what the Pope is saying?” I asked. Imagine the evangelizing power of a church taking the lead on climate change to save God’s Creation for future generations. Is not saving future generations of earthly species, including humankind, as pro-life as we can get?

Instead Congressman Rothfus’ wife will be leading a bus of parishioners who will go to the March for Life in Washington, D.C. on January 22 to defend the unborn. The bus is likely to be packed, yet as much as they are sincere about protecting the unborn already gestating, will they even think of these words from Pope Francis?

“The children who die of hunger or from bombings, the immigrants who drown in search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden; the victims of terrorism, wars, violence, and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters.”

This is not likely a legislative agenda that her husband Congressman Rothfus will support.

I looked into what Father Tom told me is the priority of the Pittsburgh Diocese. “The Church Alive!” at its heart is a capital campaign, something which all institutions do. It supports many good programs and services like Catholic Charities. However, it seems not to intersect at all with the Pope’s encyclical that is primarily about social justice in a world deteriorating from human greed, a world dying from our excessive and selfish emissions of greenhouse gases.

At this moment there is no effort to educate the clergy and adult Catholics in the Pittsburgh diocese about climate change. Something really big appears to be missing from the priorities of the diocese. It is not the fault of Father Tom; let me be clear about that. He is a good guy by just about any metric of what a pastor should be.

A priest at Duquesne University wrote to Bishop Zubik on June 29, 2015 asking how the Diocese planned to make the content of Laudato Si’ known throughout the parishes. It took until November 3, 2015 (4 months!) for the Director of the Diocese’s Office of Marriage, Family and Life (an odd choice) to respond to the priest by noting the Laudato Si’ resources that the Diocese has posted on its website, including a memo from the bishop.

Basically the Diocese was saying that they had touched that base and no more needed to be done.

In lieu of any action by Bishop Zubik, some priests took it upon themselves to hand-deliver copies of the encyclical to the parishes in the Diocese – a mission of spiritual mendicancy to beg the pastors to take a look at what the Pope was saying. I cannot think of another papal encyclical that became a beggar’s burden to distribute.

Bishop David Zubik’s priests are awaiting his leadership on Laudato Si.’ The seriousness of the climate change issue that compelled the world’s leaders to gather in Paris requires more than the one memo about the Pope’s encyclical that Bishop Zubik published on the Diocese’s website. When will we hear from him? When will his priests be directed to make sure every Catholic knows how to access the resources for study and reflection that he has posted on his website? Would it be too much to ask for a letter to be read from the pulpits at Mass?

CONTACT: J. Stephen Cleghorn, PhD
jstephencleghorn@gmail.com
Currently worships at St. James Parish
Sewickley, PA
Cell – 814-932-6761

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