Sunday, March 31, 2013

He is Risen

Earlier this Lent, Terrance Klein wrote that in our search for meaning "the temptation is ever to settle for neat, pat, cheap endings." It is a temptation many of us will be feeling today as we struggle with the resurrection of Jesus. How we want to believe that this has simplified life. But if we search our hearts and souls, we know that everything has been wonderfully complicated instead. Love will do that.

"You rose, so we’re saved … right? But maybe you rose not to give us heaven, but to give us back our earth. Life is lived here and now, not in some cloud-world we go to after we die. Perhaps you rose to show us the primacy of love, that nothing, not even death itself, can stop it. And maybe you meant to show us the kingdom we long for is right in front of our faces. You rose … I will rise with you my brother."

So let us rise. Alleluia! Alleluia!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Fig Tree

Once upon a time, a man was hungry. Spotting a fruit tree, he went over to it, but there was no fruit. So the man said to the tree: "May no one ever eat of your fruit again!"

Does this story sound familiar? How many electronic devices were told to "go to hell" today because of some sort of malfunction? Irrational anger is like a cherished human pastime. But what happens when "the man" becomes Jesus?
When he was going back to the city in the morning, he was hungry. Seeing a fig tree by the road, he went over to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. And he said to it, "May no fruit ever come from you again." And immediately the fig tree withered.
When the disciples saw this, they were amazed and said, "How was it that the fig tree withered immediately?" Jesus said to them in reply, "Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
Matthew 21:18-22
"Jesus' act seems arbitrary and ill-tempered, but it is a prophetic action similar to those of Old Testament prophets that vividly symbolize some part of their preaching," or so says the note attached to the above gospel passage. Why are we unwilling to concede that Jesus' behavior was exactly what it appeared to be: irrational anger? Is Jesus' explanation for his behavior remarkably different than the rationalizations we come up with for hitting inanimate objects that have somehow annoyed us, especially when our behavior was observed by a friend or colleague?

We claim to believe in a fully human Jesus. So why are we uncomfortable with the idea that he was imperfect in some ways, just like the rest of us? The first reading for Holy Thursday's evening Mass is the story of Passover from Exodus. Our Jewish siblings began their annual celebration of this event Monday night. Why are so many of us willing to believe in a God who commits mass slaughter of innocent children on our behalf, but not in one who chooses to share in all of our idiotic humanity?

Perhaps the simple truth is that we do not want Jesus to be like us. That is a terrifying reality. He loves and forgives those we do not want to love and forgive. It is easier to put Jesus on a pedestal. His perfection is the perfect excuse for not even trying to be like him. But then who exactly are we worshipping during this Holy Week?

"Why is it that all we remember about you is death and resurrection, miracles and commands? Where is your laughter? Where is your anger? Where is the way your eyes sparkled when you talked? What about the times you were sick or drunk or silly or stupid or spectacular? What about when you were alive? You weren’t just some sacrificial lamb. You were one of us … You are one of us."

There is so much beauty in that one little cursed fig tree. So why do we try to explain it away? Are we afraid of looking in the mirror and seeing Jesus staring back at us?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Protecting Our Family

In his homily for the papal inauguration Mass earlier this week, Pope Francis declared that the human vocation is to protect creation and one another. Evidence of our failure to live out this calling is not difficult to find. And it is easy to wallow in that failure.

All this week, I have struggled over what, if anything, to say about all that has unfolded in Steubenville, Ohio. Given the date of this post, I have not been very successful in coming up with coherent thoughts. It is such an unholy mess and I just want to ignore it, but there is something about that mess that keeps drawing me back.

We have failed to protect one another in a colossal way in this instance. It starts and ends with the evil done to a young woman by her peers. But in the middle of it all, we have created a circus. Our brave new world may provide us with the tools to enmesh ourselves into the lives of people we will never meet in person, but it cannot expand our willingness to actually listen to those people; that is up to us.

In trying to understand this mess, I continually return to the many voices speaking of a "rape culture" that they believe permeates our society. I can see the truth in what they see, and yet I still find myself uneasy with such attempts to package human behavior. Do these constructs help us to see one another as we truly are, or do they reinforce pre-conceived expectations? Are they a cure for what ails us, or just an aspirin to treat the symptoms? Would I see this differently if I were a woman?

And then into this mix steps Pope Francis, who will celebrate Mass on Holy Thursday at a juvenile prison. The man who told us to protect one another is going to wash the feet of boys and girls not all that different from the ones in Steubenville. We are being called to protect absolutely everyone, both the young woman who was violated and those who violated her, everyone. But will we be brave enough to even speak up for this kind of love, let alone live it out? More personally, will I?

But will it even make a difference if we do? Today is the anniversary of the murder of Oscar Romero. Last weekend, my wife and I watched the movie version of his three years as the Archbishop of San Salvador. What struck me, in a way that it never did before, is the reality of failure in Romero's life. He did not end the oppression and the killings. El Salvador's civil war continued for more than a decade after his death. What was the point of it all? What good did Romero's love do?

It is easy to look upon martyrdom as an act of futility. Who can the martyr protect after he is dead? But as I wrote two weeks ago, martyrs are meant to be confounding. They preach a truth with their lives that, in the end, our contribution of faith, hope, and love is the only measurement that counts. Is it a coincidence that Romero was assassinated while celebrating the Eucharist, or a sign of what our vocation should look like?

Perhaps that is where my unease with Steubenville lies. We want to fix it, but it cannot be fixed. We want to end violence, sexual or otherwise, but it cannot be eliminated. So we scream in holy rage. But does that rage draw us closer to love or does it simply fuel more rage? I keep thinking about the washing of feet and I see Monsignor Romero with a basin of water and a towel, kissing the foot of his killer.

"There is no ultimate triumph in creation, just more life and more love."

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Habemus Papam

Today, when Pope Francis asked the People of God to bow their heads in silence and bless him, before he blessed them, I could not help but smile. And then, sitting in front of the television, I sent forth my prayers just like our brothers and sisters in St. Peter's Square. Here was an approachable and humble man, dare I say a holy man, or so my first impression told me. After reading John Allen's pre-conclave profile of him, I trust those instincts even more. Cardinal Bergoglio's papal name seems well chosen.

As auspicious as that name is, however, it should also serve as a sort of cautionary tale. Our new pope's namesake was indeed directed by Jesus himself to rebuild the Church. That is reason enough to excite the horde of Catholics who published papal wish lists prior to the conclave. But do we love Francis of Assisi because he was so successful or so faithful? After all, his own religious order pushed him aside during his lifetime. So let us be wary of ecclesial fantasy-lands and utopian dreams, while at the same time opening ourselves to all that this new Francis has to give to us.

For that is what a pope is, a gift from the Holy Spirit to all of God's family. Let us pray for our Brother Francis, that he serve our family well.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Martyrdom Lessons

But he understood at last what Dumbledore had been trying to tell him. It was, he thought, the difference between being dragged into the arena to face a battle to the death and walking into the arena with your head held high. Some people, perhaps, would say that there was little to choose between the two ways, but Dumbledore knew -- and so do I, thought Harry, with a rush of fierce pride, and so did my parents -- that there was all the difference in the world.
J. K. Rowling, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince", Page 512
As I read this passage a couple of months ago, my thoughts turned to the story of the martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, whose feast day we celebrate tomorrow. We are told that these two women, along with their fellow martyrs, "marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear." Such was their spirit in facing death that Perpetua actually "took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat." What are we supposed to make of such behavior?

For one thing, we have cheapened martyrdom. Too quickly and too easily do we cry persecution, too often simply because we have not gotten our way. As David Gibson remarked, "Ah, the joys of being a martyr who is in no danger. Doesn't get any better than that." Whatever else martyrdom is, it is not cheap or easy.

There should be something confounding about people like Perpetua and Felicitas. It's one thing to grimly do your duty while fighting the good fight. But to go to your death not just willingly, but joyfully, even gleefully? We use every means at our disposal to cling to very the last second of life. And yet here we have the young and vibrant, with children and friends to live for, welcoming death like a lover.

When we look at self-sacrificial love, most of us focus on the sacrifice. All the martyr sees is love. And they know that death is no match for love.

"But what of that which you fear most: death? Yes, the end will come, not just for you, but for this world as a whole. Do not be afraid, for this is a great joy. It is not an end, just part of the process of life. That is not just good, it is wonderful."

Saints Perpetua and Felicitas, pray for us.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Monthly Reading Links

"The complex legacy of Benedict XVI"
John Allen, National Catholic Reporter

"Bitter Pill: Why Medical Bills Are Killing Us"
Steven Brill, Time

"The Godfather"
Brian Harper, America

"After the Flaw: Noticing the little 'ifs' during Lent"
Joseph Hoover, America

"Happy Valentine's Day! (Or Why I hate Disney's The Little Mermaid)"
Jason King, Catholic Moral Theology

"Neat, Pat, Cheap Endings"
Terrance Klein, America

"Chicago mother has lost all 4 children to gun violence"
Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune

Please follow me on Twitter (@jwbidwell) for additional reading recommendations.

An Open Letter to Cardinal Mahony

The Los Angeles Times published an article on Wednesday about your social media efforts of the last few weeks. I am one of the Twitter users anonymously quoted in that article. While the quote itself was accurate, I fear the context of it was not.

You sent out a tweet on Monday about your blog post on "loving your enemies." I sent two tweets in reply, intended as commentary on your blog posts of the last few weeks. As the article points out, your "blog doesn't allow readers to post responses." So my tweets, the first of which was partially quoted in the article, were these:
I've met you. You're a good man. But this online pity party is unseemly. Don't just praise the "silent Jesus", act like him. *
And please give up denial for Lent. Your enemies aren't all judgmental haters and you aren't a persecuted scapegoat-martyr. *
You probably don't remember me, but we spoke a few years ago at the Cathedral one Sunday. My wife and I had brought her parents to Mass and we decided to have lunch on the Cathedral plaza. As we ate, you came up to say hello. It was late afternoon, the plaza was pretty deserted, and you were by yourself. You didn't just shake hands and move along, you chatted with us for a few minutes. You never acted like the Cardinal-Archbishop of Los Angeles, you were simply a pastor getting to know some visitors to your church. It was just a brief encounter, but it spoke volumes to me about the kind of priest and bishop you are in your heart of hearts.

Your ministry to immigrants is noble. I greatly appreciate the gift to the Church that is the Religious Education Congress. I love the Cathedral, especially the Communion of Saints tapestries. I worked with one of your former close aides, who shared stories, good stories, about his time working for you. The point is, when I wrote that "You're a good man," it wasn't just a line, it is a truth I know from direct experience.

Yes, your legacy is much more than just the sexual abuse crisis. I take you at your word that you made every effort to fix the mistakes of the past. But you made those mistakes and you need to stop trying to spin them.

Yes, our social media culture promotes instant judgmentalism. But it also promotes a sort of knee-jerk self-defensive denialism. "Loving your enemies" should also involve taking the time to thoughtfully discern if our "enemies" grievances are warranted and just. That would be a genuine imitation of the "silent Jesus."

I cannot begin to imagine how humiliating it must have been to be so publicly rebuked by your successor. But you had an opportunity to teach us something noble and you blew it. What might have been, had you proclaimed respect for Archbishop Gomez's decision and chosen to spend Lent in private prayer and reflection? Pope Benedict has just shown us that we need to put our family, the Church, before ourselves. Can you honestly say that you have been doing the same lately?

At the beginning of February, Elizabeth Scalia wrote, "Mahony tells the truth when he says the world and its experts supported some of his responses. But Heaven never could have. And he should have known that." I suspect you agree with her, and that your acts of denial are an attempt to push away not only the humiliation others have heaped upon you, but also that which you place upon yourself. But none of this denial and spin is going to get you any closer to the forgiveness you crave.

My sincere hope, as your brother in faith, is that you will take off the suffering servant scapegoat-martyr hat, and use the remainder of Lent, especially the imposed solitude of the upcoming conclave, to humbly reflect on all that has happened.

I also ask that you perform one small penance. Please read the following two essays by Joanne McPortland. If you've already read them, please read them again.

I was proud of the man that I met on the Cathedral plaza on that Sunday so long ago, proud that such a man was our bishop. I want to be proud of you again.