On Seeing Pope Francis. Or Not.

pope francisIn May of 2013, on a warm, sunny morning, I found myself sitting in St. Peter’s Square, the large plaza that welcomes thousands of visitors to the Vatican every week. Our family had the remarkable opportunity to spend that week in Rome, but in the time since we had purchased our tickets, something even more remarkable had happened. A pope had—what??—resigned, and a new pope had appeared. And not just any pope. Two months into his pontificate, Pope Francis was already demonstrating powerful magnetism. The crowd gathered for his weekly general audience was huge.

After hours of expectant waiting, the moment arrived, and Pope Francis appeared in his white car. We could see that he was smiling broadly, and we all were, too. A collective murmur moved in waves through the crowd, with cries here and there of “Papa!” He was in no hurry, making one turn after another around the square. For those of us gathered, for a moment, there was nothing else. We were there. He was there. We smiled and smiled.

For Catholics, there are some theological reasons for all this. An encounter with pope is an encounter with the visible head of the worldwide Church, a sort of personal embodiment of the whole Church, and, even more, someone who represents Christ on earth in a particular and unique way. This pope had only increased that sense, in acts of humility and love, offering himself as an icon of Christ. I was deeply aware of the privilege of standing there, and I remember thinking of and praying for all the people who would have loved to have such an opportunity.

I will probably have to offer some explanation, then, for what happened next. Pope Francis was being driven toward the front of the square, was stepping to the spot where he would sit to address us all, was settling into his chair. For me, something completely unexpected was going on: I was seized with a sudden and almost overwhelming urge to leave. Not just to leave St. Peter’s Square, but to leave the Vatican, and Rome, to get on the plane and go home. Immediately.

This was ridiculous, of course. All around me, everyone continued to beam, and Pope Francis was just beginning to speak. Now, though, the thoughts were forming in my head to accompany this sudden impulse. I was thinking more about those back at home, and I was thinking about a request Pope Francis had made for his official Inauguration in Rome. Via the Vatican ambassador in Buenos Aires, he asked his supporters in his home country of Argentina that instead of making costly travel plans to come to Rome, instead, they should stay home and give that money to the poor.

What Pope Francis knows is that there are other crucial claims in Catholic theology. A meeting with Christ’s representative on earth is a great privilege, but we meet Christ in other ways too–in one another; in the Eucharist; and, as suggested in his request, whenever we give to “the least of these.” It is these everyday meetings with Christ toward which Pope Francis has pointed us all, over and over again. Suddenly, in the sunshine of St. Peter’s Square, I felt myself dramatically recalled to my own everyday appointments with Christ: in my family and friends, in my work in theology, in the city of Providence. I could almost hear Pope Francis himself saying to me: “Go…”

So, in these momentous days when Pope Francis is here in the U.S., maybe this is something worth keeping in mind. If you can, then go and see Pope Francis. It is a historic moment. The opportunity to see him is a great blessing. But if, like most of us, you can’t, remember the pope’s own advice. Take money you might have spent and give it to the poor. Remember the invitation to meet Christ in the Eucharist, and even in one another. In the coming week, you may be called to something more important than going to see the pope.


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An Epic Post at Patheos


I didn’t choose the title for this essay at Patheos, but I think it makes it sound Very Important. Here’s the question I was asking: what does it mean–for U.S. Catholics and for all of us–to have the pope here, physically present on U.S. soil?

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A Guest Post at Cosmos the in Lost

“On Remaining a (Non-Polarized and Super-Sexy) Catholic,” written as a favor for my friend, Artur Rosman, and dedicated to my poor, teenage kids.


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What Should Catholics Do Now?

It has been 48 hours since the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision, and a million or so opinions have already been voiced. Uncomplicated expressions of joy or horror are easiest, and so we’ve seen those first. But there are other possibilities. I’m probably not alone in feeling that there is much to wrestle through. As a theologian who belongs to the Catholic Church, though, I’m convinced that there are several things worth saying now, to fellow Catholics. (Others are, of course, welcome to consider them insofar as they are relevant.)

1. We should stop describing “the Church” and “LGBT people” as if they were two discrete groups. LGBT people are not only, as the US bishops put it in 1997, “our children,” they are, in fact, us. They are lay people, priests, religious, and bishops–in a variety of situations with regard to their own experiences of sexual attraction and sense of identity.

2. We should be candid about the profound differences on these questions among the faithful–and even among the “most faithful,” insofar as that phrase describes Catholics whose identity and sense of vocation is firmly rooted in the Church.

3. We should begin, and continue, to attend to the testimonies of LGBT people, including, and perhaps especially, testimonies of those in the Church. It is still the case that many of us have no grasp of the isolation, sadness, and feelings of shame that are often involved. Many of us don’t see what causes the suicides. Note that such listening may produce concern across a range of issues. (If, e.g., anyone should be reaching out with a broad range of service for homeless LGBT teens, it should be the Catholic Church.)

4. We should be clear about the fact that there are many children in the U.S.–two million, by some estimates–being raised by gay or lesbian parents. As Pope Francis leads us to focus on the state of the family, we should consider together what our position is vis-a-vis these families.

5. We should attend again, with care and with openness, to the account of conjugal marriage given by the Church’s teaching office. This is the duty of every Catholic, on every issue, of course, and it is perhaps especially important here. Every day, I see flippant opinions in the media that make clear this account is not understood well, or at all. Every semester, I talk with college students, many of whom who have completed more than a dozen years of Catholic schooling, who have no idea what it involves. (“Well, that makes a lot more sense than I thought it did,” is what they often say, and some seem positively intrigued.) I’ll say here what I say to them: if the Catholic Church’s official position on marriage just seems silly to you, you haven’t understood it yet. On the other hand, if Catholics haven’t managed to convey this vision to our own children, can we really blame others who find it baffling?

6. Those living out this conjugal view of marriage have no task more important than embodying a Catholic vision of “fruitfulness.” This means openness to children, but it means more than that. A fruitful marriage is not only for the good of the spouses involved, but is a source of hospitality and grace to others, as well.

7. In engagements in the public square, Catholics should spend zero time or energy worrying about the preservation of the Church–or the Church’s influence. That is simply not our concern. Insofar as living out Catholic convictions costs us in more personal and painful ways, we should accept that with a minimum of melodrama.

8. We can never compromise our consciences, but everything else is up for grabs. Money, comfort, convenience: none of these matter.

9. We should be creative and do what we can. We should speak out, in public and the private spheres, against violence, or any other form of dehumanization, that we encounter. We should lean in, looking for any possibility to build and preserve relationship. We should imaginatively seek the good of the other, even and especially at our own expense. A business owner who cannot in good conscience cover benefits for same-sex spouses of employees can look for another way, and can make clear that the last thing she would want would be to see any household go without the coverage they need. Families should commit themselves to making sure that LGBT sons and daughters (and sisters and brothers and cousins…) know that they are cherished beyond measure.

10. We should refuse indifference and the anger that becomes despair. Beyond all these things, we should put on love.


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A Church Divided?

No posts here for awhile amidst end-of-semester busyness, and part of that was the chance to attend a small gathering at Notre Dame on what I take to be an important topic: polarization in the Church.

Over at America Magazine’s blog, I’ve offered a few reflections coming out of that conversation, including a response to a pretty important question: “What is polarization, anyway?”


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Adoption and the Christian Life

“…not in spite of loss or ambiguity, but precisely in the midst of them, we are seen and known, and in our particular, ongoing story, we continue to be knit together in mysterious ways.”

A reflection from me, theological and personal.


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The Latest Buzz: Clicktivism and Gossip

It is a big job, really, meeting the demands of our age. We must be perfectly savvy, always seeing things just a bit more incisively than the rest of the naive folk bumbling around us. At the same time, we must be perfectly morally innocent, constantly dodging any charge that could possibly be hurled our way. Who can keep up?

gossip.jpgOne of the more effective strategies (ones I myself have sometimes employed) is simply to “pass along”—generally on social media—”news stories” of which we are derisively critical. A single sentence of outrage may be included, but this works best when they require no commentary at all, and our silent outrage is all the testimony we need that we are one step ahead.

As I said, who can keep up? We’ve got to figure out something. But I am somewhat disappointed to report something I’ve noticed this Lent. This way of passing along information often functions primarily as a sophisticated form of a terrible sin, a sin roundly and consistently condemned in the Christian Scriptures and Tradition: gossip. The motivations for gossip, unfortunately, have always been the same. I indicate that I am deliciously “in the know.” And my pointing finger is a way to get leverage—and distance.

But what are we to do? What about raising awareness? What about righteously unmasking real injustices?

In the spirit of Lenten repentance, let me offer four principles that may prove helpful.

First, let’s cultivate awareness of our own motivations as we “pass along” information.

Second, if we speak, let’s focus on situations and issues that we feel we know well, especially situations about which we can offer context and insight. For Christians, of course, the ultimate context of any comment of any kind would be love.

For the third and fourth (surely the most important!), I turn to someone who has offered a steady, loving call to abandon gossip: Pope Francis.

If you must speak, he urges, say it to those “who can remedy the situation,” but “not to the entire neighborhood.” At this point in the information age, does your entire friend list just “need to know” about another outrage? If you feel strongly that you need to inform us, at least let us know what we realistically can do.

And finally, citing another age-old principle, “do not judge anyone” because “the only Judge is the Lord.”

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Mary as Global Icon

Here’s an unusual opportunity for an “online tour” of the exhibit currently showing at the National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC): “Mary as Global Icon.” Well worth a look.

Mary Icon

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Lent When Life Already Feels Like Lent

Lent, an ecclesial tradition of at least 1600 years or so, has, it seems, somehow become a thing. Non-denominational megachurches are advertising Lenten reflections. Baptists are talking about a “spirituality of subtraction.” In a particularly moving example, even some Muslims are joining in.

As for me, a convinced Catholic, a theologian by profession, someone who especially likes to think about liturgy and liturgical seasons: I struggle with the whole thing. This essay from Prof. Rachel Lu captures my own feelings well:

I’m a wife, mother, parishioner, community member, philosopher and professional writer.And a bona fide Catholic, with a real sacramental life. In countless ways, my life has grown immeasurably richer. But it is also dramatically more constrained. Everything I do or don’t do affects other people. Free time? What’s that? I’m only familiar with “chip away at the never-ending to-do list” time, and that clock keeps running until my body and brain refuse to function anymore. Then I sleep, and it all starts over again.

To be clear, I really don’t mind having a hectic life. As I see it, this middle-adulthood phase is meant to be like that: crammed with meaningful activity. It’s appropriate. It’s a blessing. But it does make Lent somewhat challenging, because I just don’t have much latitude for personal adjustments. It’s hard to do corporal works of mercy with multiple small children in tow. Social media is pleasant but not really a luxury; I use it all the time for my work. And while I can pass on the occasional cookie or sundae, I can’t return to the serious fasting of my younger days…

It may seem extreme to ask, as Lu does, “How do you observe Lent when your whole life sort of feels like a perpetual Lent?” But that is often how I, too, feel. Already completely poured out.

So, this year, I have turned to look directly at the Biblical image most often evoked in connection with Lent, the forty days wilderness.jpgJesus spent in the wilderness. I have looked for something new, and here is what I have seen. The wilderness is a harsh place. It surely does involve “giving some things up.” A more fundamental dynamic, however, is at play. The forty days in the wilderness is above all a place of preparation, a place to hear and follow a vocation. For someone like me—busy, distracted, and poured out—it feels like that listening is what is most needed, if I am to learn again how to be a follower of Christ.

So, this Lent, I have “given up” only one thing, which is some of the time I spend on social media. But mostly, I’ve tried to turn that time and that mental energy to spiritual hearing and to contemplation and to the particular question of my own vocation. What does God have to say to me, and where is God calling me now? Dear busy-ones-like-me, the answer has been resounding. It is a call simply to rest and to be beloved.

This has been reinforced in many ways, but especially in relationship to work. All of a sudden, I am encountering the notion of “working from rest” at every turn. Of course, much of my work is teaching, and, in fact, this Lent, I have found myself unexpectedly adding homeschooling one of my children to my list of teaching to-do. At the same time, though, I have also encountered the beautiful concept of “teaching from rest.”

I don’t know what all this looks like yet. But I offer it for what it’s worth. If your Lent has felt impossible, has felt mostly like One More Thing, it would be good today to remember that it’s not over yet. There are at least two weeks, including two weekends, left. Maybe what is needed most is just a chance, even a small chance, to listen.

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Please Meet Myriam, a Teacher of Theology

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