Thursday, October 23, 2014

Instructing the Ignorant Doctors

To instruct the ignorant... Cardinal Spellman once asked me what is wrong with the Catholic education? I said, "Your Excellency, frankly I don't want to answer that question. I know too much. Put me under obedience and I will answer it." So he did, and I said this sentence:

"Give me a grade school Catholic, a girl or boy who has just gone to grade school, and I will make a Catholic out of them in about three months. Give me a girl or boy who went through Catholic high school and it will take me, by the grace of God, six to eight months. Give me a B.A. who went through Catholic grade school, Catholic high school, Catholic college and it will take me a year to 18 months. Give me an M.A. and it will take me somewhere, with the grace, between 18 months and three years."

I have never succeeded to make a Ph.D. a Catholic.... one who has never been to a public school or anyplace else... just straight Catholic education from beginning to end! "Well, Catherine," he said, "this is a heavy indictment." I said, "It is, Your Excellency. It is that and more." "Well, what do you attribute it to?" I said, "The higher the education, the less the implementation."

A Ph.D. came to Friendship House--Mary was her name. Being that she has brilliant ideas I asked her to write for us a paper that we had to give to our Apologetics class - Sheed & Ward, about 300 people there - on the Mystical Body. Well, there was hushed silence when she finished. Tears were going down my face, and I don't cry over papers easily. A priest was sniffing through his handkerchief and blowing his nose. Sheed was looking at her and saying, "My God! What a brain!" That sort of reaction!

So Katie says to herself, "I have an idea. Tomorrow she goes to the clothing room," and in Harlem the clothing room was something! They were lined up a block and a half waiting for clothing. With that gift of understanding of the Mystical Body of Christ she would be ideal in the clothing room! I told that to the Cardinal.

So the dame lasted exactly three days and she comes to me and says, "B, I can't take it. They stink. They are dirty!" Now what is there after ten years of education or more? "They stink!" That gets to the very essence of working in the Mystical Body! When I go as a nurse into the carcinoma ward, which is the cancer ward, they all stink! You get that smell of cancer in the morning that just knocks you over. But love overcomes that. St. Francis kissed the leper. 

That is my brother in Christ! That is a member of my body! This is my finger! Sure it stinks, but let's wash it off and let's serve it. Why write beautiful articles on the Mystical Body and not be able to do that simple thing?
Catherine Doherty, Talk on the Spiritual Works of Mercy

Reflection – Catherine had her own take on things, and that’s for sure. I’m hoping to go through a few of these presentations on the spiritual works of mercy, from a little course she taught to the MH staff in 1957. I am finding her way of presentation here to not lend itself to short excerpts, so this blog may be a whole lotta Catherine, a little bit of Fr. Denis for these next days.

The Church is abuzz with talks of ‘mercy’ vs. ‘justice’ these days. I think we need to go seriously into the doctrine of mercy and what it means. It is not sentimentality and laxity—it is a serious, searching, self-sacrificing, and total concern for the good of the other person, no matter what the cost is to us, and a boundless compassion for the other person in his or her real circumstances and pain.

Ignorance is a terrible pain, a terrible poverty. In Catherine’s era, and especially in the 1950s when she gave this talk, people would be essentially catechized; what she saw was the calamitous failure to apply the faith to life, to implement it. And indeed, I don’t think the Church and the world would have blown up into such intellectual and moral chaos in the 1960s and 1970s if things had been all that hot in the 40s and 50s. And indeed, it was the intellectual class who had heads full of theory and data but little practical charity who led the charge into that chaos and confusion.

For sure, Catherine would have seen the need for basic catechesis in our day, and indeed she goes on in this talk to present her delicate and careful way of sharing knowledge of the faith with people who lack it. The two go together: knowledge of the doctrine and how it is to be implemented; creed and commandments united with charity and compassion; dogma and decree with delicacy and discretion.


But let us not forget: to instruct the ignorant is a work of mercy. My experience, growing up as I did in the 1970s and 80s, that it is the one work of mercy that has been neglected above all others, to disastrous effect. And in the ongoing work of evangelization and outreach to the ‘margins’, we must include if not emphasize, with great tact and discernment, this long-neglected work.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

How To Convert Sinners

I’m a bit under the weather today—nothing serious, just a bad cold—but it has pretty well scuppered my writing ability. I’ve thought of doing a series on the works of mercy, since this is a hot topic in the Church these days, and remembered that Catherine Doherty did a whole series of talks on them years ago.

So, since I don’t seem to have any words for the moment, here is the lady herself, giving her perspective on how to do the spiritual works of mercy that so often go forgotten these days in all the verbiage about the subject It’s a bit lengthy (but quite delightful), so it’s ‘beneath the fold’, so to speak:

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Place of Silence, and the Tragedy of Its Loss

In the modern world language is far from the world of silence. It springs from noise and vanishes in noise. Silence is today no longer an autonomous world of its own; it is simply the place into which noise has not yet penetrated. It is a mere interruption of the continuity of noise, like a technical hitch in the noise-machine—that is what silence is today: the momentary breakdown of noise. 

We no longer have definite silence and definite language, but simply words that are being spoken and words that have not yet been spoken—but these are present, too, standing around like tools that are not being used; they stand waiting there menacingly or boringly.

Max Picard, The World of Silence

Reflection – I’ve been periodically including bits and pieces of this luminous book on the blog lately. There is something deeply apt about reflecting on the need for silence and the poverty of language that does not come from silence, while writing on the noisy, clamorous, and garrulous world of social media.

More and more in my own life, I see what a prophetic woman Catherine Doherty was when she opened the first poustinia at Madonna House. Poustinia, for those unfamiliar with our MH ways, is a Russian word meaning ‘desert’, but which in the Russian spiritual tradition is a place—a room or a small cabin—where someone goes to be silent, to pray, to read the Scriptures and nothing else, to fast. In the life of the MH community, many of us go to poustinia one day a week, or every other week, or less frequently. A few of our members live in poustinia several days each week--a contemplative presence in the midst of this very active community.

In the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council was opening, Catherine sensed that the greatest need for the Church and the world in years ahead would be silent, listening hearts, that in these years of revolutionary change in society and in the Church we would need to go into deep silence and allow God to shape our words and our hearts there.

Poustinia is precisely this place where silence becomes not a mere break in noise, not a mere pause for breath between our words, but a Place unto itself, a reality in itself filled with meaning and import.

I believe firmly that there is a greater need for poustinia in the world in 2014 than there ever has been. The technological revolution has created a world that is literally filled with noise, with words. Children today can grow up, if there parents choose to allow them, without virtually no silence, no empty space in their lives, as the constant hum and beep and swirl of electronic devices fills up every solitary second of our time.

The loss in this is calamitious. Interiority, depth of reflection, capacity to know and hear God, ability to create a unique word of one’s own—all washed away in the constant stream of information and entertainment coming to us through incessant social media and games.

Essentially what is lost is our humanity and its deepest expressions. We are reduced to the level of the animal, constantly responding to stimuli, driven by raw desires and instinct. Worse yet is our reduction to consumers, where everything and everyone is made into an object for our use, stripped of any transcendent personal value in the process. This is worse than animalistic; it is in truth demonic.


Meanwhile, silence beckons us. Poustinia, however we may find our way of expressing that, beckons us. A place, a way of being, that is so utterly simple: simply me, simply God, simply nothing else. And yet in that simplicity a whole world is restored to us—the world of real values and real personal engagement. The world where, in the words of W.H Auden, “Everything is a Thou and nothing is an It.” 

Technology tends to invert that so that everyone is an ‘it’ and never a ‘thou.’ The conversion to silence is one that I believe we all need to make, and the need for it may only grow more and more urgent in the years to come. May we all find our way to the world of silence and let it teach us what it has to teach.

Monday, October 20, 2014

An End To 'Us' And 'Them'

Fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, they do abominable deeds;
there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind
to see if there are any who are wise,
who seek after God.

They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse;
there is no one who does good,
no, not one.

Have they no knowledge, all the evildoers
who eat up my people as they eat bread,
and do not call upon the Lord?

There they shall be in great terror,
for God is with the company of the righteous.
You would confound the plans of the poor,
but the Lord is their refuge.

O that deliverance for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice; Israel will be glad.
Psalm 14

Reflection – This psalm often comes up in discussions of why one should not randomly quote isolated bible verses to prove a point. After all, the Bible itself says ‘There is no God’!

Leaving aside that rather cute way of demonstrating the folly of proof-texting, this is one of the grimmest of the psalms, one we may genuinely have a hard time praying. Personally, I know several people who ‘do good’, at least once in a while. In fact, I am blessed as a priest and a member of Madonna House to be in constant contact with many, many people who pour out their lives and energies in works of mercy continually.

So how do I pray this psalm? This is a good example of how, in our prayer, we are not to only be praying as individuals about our own subjective experience. In prayer, we are to be in solidarity with all humanity, in all of its situations.

And this psalm certainly does closely correspond to the situation of many people. We can think of people victimized by historical atrocities like the Holocaust or the killing fields of Cambodia. We can think of people living in situations of terrible abuse and violence, extremities of poverty and injustice, desperation in its many forms.

And of course we can certainly think of people suffering right now under the violence and fanaticism of ISIS, for example. It could well be that this psalm would fit almost perfectly for such people, being eaten up as bread by evildoers. And we can pray this psalm with and for them, a cry for deliverance, entreaty to the Lord to save them.

The other way to pray this psalm is as a check against our own too ready complacency. I am pondering this much these days—one lesson I have personally derived from the tensions around the Synod on the family is that I cannot—we cannot—declare ourselves to be ‘the good people’, while those other people who have made morally wrong choices are ‘the bad people’.

No. We’re all just people, and are any of us truly wise, truly seeking God, truly not astray in any big or small way? We all need deliverance. We all need a savior. Whether our lives are hellish nightmares of violence and terror or essentially comfortable, whether we are living with a certain measure of moral order and sanity or in grave disorder and sin, no matter what—there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, no ‘good guys and bad guys’, none of that nonsense.


Just a bunch of human beings who God loves, who need His mercy, and who are offered His mercy over and over again. And this psalm brings us there, in its rather blanket dismissal of humanity as being of no great account. It is the Lord and his saving work that makes us glad and rejoice, not our own rather fragile virtue. And the Lord’s saving work is anything but fragile, but is strong and abiding and inexhaustible, offered for all people, everywhere, no matter what.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

What Does Mercy Mean, Anyway?

‘Mercy’ has been the word of the day in many corners of the Church. What does it mean to be merciful, anyway? Does it mean that we stop teaching doctrines that have been intrinsic parts of the Catholic faith for 2000 years? Does it mean we never say anything to hurt anyone’s feelings? Does it mean we reverse 2000 years, again, of consistent practice and invite everyone unconditionally to the reception of the Eucharist?

Or does it means we essentially stay the course on these matters (which is my own firm belief), that we are to teach boldly and fearlessly the truth of God about sex, marriage, and family life, and continue to patiently explain why there is a connection between reception of the Eucharist and freedom from mortal sin?

But if that is the case, what does mercy mean, exactly, in that context? This is where I think we have to take very seriously that our Holy Father is calling the Church to examine the question of mercy, the call to mercy more deeply. My own firm belief is that the conversation has been utterly sidetracked by the question around communion and the related issues around annulments. It is not principally a juridical question, a matter of rules to be changed and ‘policies’ to be re-evaluated.

Mercy is not a policy. Mercy is not a program. Mercy is not something that a bunch of old guys in Rome (with all respect to them) are going to discuss, process, chop up, and then issue as a position paper or even as an apostolic exhortation, and then we will have dealt with the mercy question in the Church.

Mercy, and the call to be merciful, is something much deeper, much more personal, much more intimate. It is a call from the Lord Jesus to each one of us, a call that invites us into a Christian maturity, a level of commitment and engagement in the mission of the Church that is far beyond what many of us feel comfortable with or equipped for.

We want to just be told the rules, and then we have the rules, and then we keep the rules, and tell everyone else the rules, and if other people break the rules we can judge them, and it’s all nice and clear and simple. And spiritually infantile. Mercy calls us to become adult men and women driven by a deep concern for the salvation of souls and so engaged at every level of our being—our minds, our hearts, our bodies, our worldly goods—in what is factually good for the one in front of us, what this person needs right now from me.

I wrote a whole book on this subject, which some people at least have found helpful. Towards the end I pose the question ‘what does it mean to be merciful, anyway?’ This is what I wrote:

The life of mercy: our home away from home, the way home itself, and the constant choice that brings us there. The awesome inestimable reality of God’s mercy, the truth of His tender love and compassion, given to us so we can give it to others. And yet, as I have often said throughout this book, how hard it is for us to believe in this, to really accept it, to absorb it into our very being.

“The problem is that we cannot absorb this. This is how it seems to me. And the only way we can try to absorb it is to act like He does.”  Oh, so that’s the key! We can only absorb this deep truth of mercy by practicing it ourselves. To be merciful, as the Lord reveals to us, is blessedness itself, since it is by being merciful that we absorb the awesome joyous truth of God’s mercy to us, and are opened to receive this mercy into the depths of our being.

To be merciful – what is it? What does it mean to be merciful? Well, I don’t think it’s complicated. It is to be as generous as we can with whatever share of life’s goods we possess; it is to honestly try to refrain from judgments, harshness, accusation of our neighbors; it is to forgive our enemies from our hearts; it is to strive to become free of all anger, hatred, jealousy, bitterness, violence. To be merciful: it is the life of joy and freedom and beauty, even now, even while we still wait outside that final Door.
Going Home, 126-7

The sharing of our goods certainly includes the bold proclamation of the Gospel—our faith is the greatest good you or I have been given, right? It also includes being very generous indeed with our possessions. What are we doing to help people in difficult situations—unwed mothers, and the like? Anything? Teach, yes, but don’t be in the position of the lawyers who ‘put heavy burdens on men’s back and lift not a finger to help them.’

But in all that teaching, to truly, honestly, and deeply not judge people. Yes, there is truth, good, evil, and these are objective realities. But people are confused today, and the moral law is anything but clear to many millions of people. So don’t judge anyone’s conscience—period. Cut it out, right now! Neither you nor I nor the Pope nor anyone besides God Himself knows what is happening in the depths of anyone’s heart and mind, even if we do know that their choices are wrong and harmful.

And to live free of anger, hatred, bitterness—that is so crucial. We have to guard our hearts constantly against this. A person who presents Gospel teaching and the moral good with anger and contempt and scorn is… well, not very effective. And, honestly, not doing such a crack job in living out what they are teaching, either.


Mercy—it’s the word of the day, and it’s a serious word, a vital word, a word that pushes and pulls us into a depth of following of Christ, a depth of Christian maturity and evangelical generosity. Let us strive for it, not be distracted by misuses of the word, but reclaim it as the heart of the Gospel (which it is) and live it out today, as best we can.