Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Thoughts on lay responses to church sex scandals

I wrote this in response to a recent times article reporting Benedict's words on the abuse scandals: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/world/europe/12pope.html


At a listening session at my church about the abuse scandals two weeks back I wrestled with the question, what can we (the laity) do about this. What came to me was not more watchdog groups, or focusing on one individual in the church. Instead, I imagined churches all over the country, coming together in prayer services, claiming responsibility (though not necessarily culpability.. I still have to meditate on that) for the sins of the church, and as John Paul II asked for forgiveness at the wailing wall for the sins committed against the jews throughout two millennia, we would ask forgiveness too for being part of a culture of silence, a culture of inaction and a culture that has enabled this abuse to continue. It was my thought, why wait for the bishops or the pope to enact this. We can change the church from the ground up. Wouldn't it be something if churches everywhere claimed penance, created a culture of penance and in effect shifted the world so that the bishops and the pope would follow suit. True penance does not allow a sin to continue and reparations and change are necessary. We would through our penance make change necessary. What do you think of that?

Now, this voice for penance comes from the highest (and lowest) position in the church, the pope. He isn't saying the bishops have to relearn penance, nor simply himself, nor simply the monstrous priest-abusers or the enabling bureaucracy (for its always more than just a bishop); instead, he is saying the whole church must learn penance.

In 1st corinthians 12, Paul says that if one member of the body suffers, the whole body suffers. When the body is the community, you can't simply "pluck the eye out" because it causes sin. It is easy to split the church in two right now (as Kristof does in the NY times), and identify "the bad church" of the vatican, the old boys club, and then the good church of the laity and of priests and nuns doing amazing work on the ground. If we are to change this church, we must do the counter-intuitive, and not only "take responsibility," but also claim responsibility. I believe we can do this liturgically, but it only begins there. We are responsible, not simply because we share in the sin of the church, but also because we are agents who can make a difference.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Walking with the immigrant on the Way of the Cross

Here is a blog originally published at http://worshipincrisis.wordpress.com/ for a conference I am helping to plan. Any of y'all are welcome to join us on April 23rd at the University of Chicago or in our conversation online at our blog linked above.

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At the 4th station, Jesus meets his mother. We are asked to remember the suffering of immigrant families torn apart due to deportation. 32nd annual Via Dolorosa. Good Friday, April 2nd, 2010. Pilsen.

Attending the annual Living Stations of the Cross in Pilsen this year, as a Catholic I looked forward to a cross-cultural encounter with the Spanish-speaking Catholic community. Good Friday has always had a means of reaching across 2000 years of history, bringing the passion of Jesus into my mind and heart in meaningful ways. Rather unexpectedly, as the Way of the Cross of Pilsen proclaimed the plight of immigrant alongside the sufferings of Christ, this unified piercing message connected my own individual personal concerns and prayers to social concerns. My own spectatorship, the disconnected and thus detached observer of the plight of the immigrant became aligned with the silent spectators of Christ crucifixion in Jerusalem. And together, myself and thousands others on pilgrimage down 18th street, Spanish and English speaking, sang out “Perdona a tu pueblo Señor” (Lord, pardon your people.)

The living Stations of the Cross began at 9 am in the basement of the Providence of God Church. A sizable crowd of around a hundred gathered with me outside, unable to enter due to the number of people already there. We joined with them on this mini-pilgrimage however, directed towards Harrison Park almost 2 miles away where the crucifixion was to take place. I have never participated in a Living Stations, and was excited to see this living relic of Latino Catholicism in America. At each station, Christ’s journey became the journey of the immigrant. At the 4th station, where Jesus meets his mother, Mary’s own suffering from seeing her son being taken to be crucified was linked to the deep pain of immigrant families torn apart due to deportation. At the 9th Station, as Jesus falls the 3rd time, we were called to remember the difficulties that many immigrant teenagers and children of immigrants face in completing their studies right next to a vacant lot where the Resurrection Project, one of the Way of the Cross’s cosponsors, would be building a new dormitory for Latino/Latina immigrant students. Throughout, Spanish and English speakers alike were called to remember and acknowledge their own lack of compassion before those within our communities living in fear, desperation, and in need. As we marched on, thousands joined, entering into this Living Way of the Cross that was as much an enactment of the stories surrounding us in and beyond the Pilsen parish communities, as it was an enactment of the story of Christ from the Gospels.

Though the grandchild of a French immigrant and a native of a region filled with migrant workers and immigrant families, it is easy to live my own life disconnected from the plight of the modern immigrant. This liturgical binding of modern crisis to the biblical crisis event that we lift up as a central part of my Catholic faith enabled me not only to attend to this social justice issue in a new way, but also to draw it into my full person in prayer. As a spectator of this modern day crisis, I was drawn into the spectatorship of the city of Jerusalem watching Jesus. I was equally compelled towards action as these living stations demanded the painful gaze of attention be directed to those families and communities all around us living under fear of the threat of disruption, as well as to the grief of seemingly irreparable loss as family members are deported out of this country without word or notice.

While the liturgical calendar seemingly trudges on without any notice to the ordinary lives that we lead, the Christian story equally can pierce through the layers of history and our own indifference to speak to our hearts and our social context as this Good Friday Way of the Cross illustrates. Theologically, the witness of Christ’s incarnation imposes an understanding that if we are to not “cling to” him as a resurrected Jesus warns Mary Magdalene from doing in John’s Easter season Gospel text, we must acknowledge the story of Jesus of Nazareth is not merely one moment in history, nor a locked away personal treasure, but instead continually lived out in the interconnected social world around us. Christ’s story is not lost to history, but living everywhere there is injustice, even in our failed immigration system. As Christ’s story liturgically fuses to our shared stories, new resources in ritual and prayer are given to us to align our suffering with this cosmic injustice of the God-abandoned crucified Christ and the ultimate triumph over death. As the liberation theologians used to proclaim, “Christ is crucified with the poor in their sufferings.” Those like me, who falsely live apart from this immigrant crisis that touches our neighborhoods and faith communities, are also impelled to solidarity in the realization that our own culpability as mute and inactive spectators of this modern day crucifixion calls us to responsibility to receive pardon and to penitentially move to new action. Witnessing the Living Stations of the Cross in Pilsen efficaciously draw thousands of us into the story of Christ and the story of the immigrant inspires confidence in the power of liturgy to affirm our faith identities not apart from our social context, but instead drawing in our pains, sufferings, histories, and even guilty inaction along with our whole hearts. “Perdona a tu pueblo Señor”

Michael is a 2nd year MDiv Student at the University of Chicago and a pastoral intern at St. Clement Church

More Links:

Video of the Way of the Cross made by Yochicago:


The Resurrection Project in Pilsen: http://www.resurrectionproject.org/home.aspx

Monday, February 22, 2010

Ash Wednesday Sermon: Return with your whole heart

“Return with your whole heart”

Joel 2:12-18 and Mt 6:1-6, 16-18

I preached this sermon for the imposition of ashes service at St. Clement Church on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 17th, 2010

My friend Justin hated Ash Wed as a child. He recounted to me looking up at his mom, with a scratch of ash in the sign of the cross on her forehead and pulling at her clothes, asking her, pleading her to take the mark off.

Justin’s recollection ends here. I imagine his mother calming his distress with soothing words. I wouldn’t pass so quickly over his response, however. Perhaps Justin’s reaction is more than just a childhood discomfort with seeing change on his mother. She was marked. She wore on her forehead that which remains hidden to the innocent eyes of a child, the failure and regret of a parent.

On this day where we mark ourselves in ash and dirt, we allow our finitude, our sin and our death to pierce through the pretty masks we wear.

We mark ourselves in our finitude. It does not belong to us to be anything but creatures. A pastor and poet named Walter Bruegermann writes

“we begin this day with that taste of ash in our mouth:
of failed hope and broken promises,
of forgotten children and frightened women,
we ourselves are ashes to ashes, dust to dust;
we can taste our mortality as we roll the ash around on our tongues.”

We mark ourselves in our sin. We admit our wrongs as wrongs and not merely accidents. In a radically counter cultural way, we admit to failing; we have sinned. We don’t do that in America, certainly not publicly.

In this church today, we don’t mark ourselves, admit to wrong, to pick at the scabs of our failings. We mark ourselves so as to begin a journey.

Today we begin Lent, joining with Christ as he spends 40 days in the wilderness. It is always in the wilderness that Israel is called back to recommit to God.

In the first reading, Joel calls us to this journey today: Return to me with your whole heart.

This is message sent for the chosen people in Joel. The whole world struggles with this. Today, this is a message for us who have chosen to be in this church. In these words we are both radically welcomed, even as we are beckoned to wholeness

Return to me with your whole heart.

How do I come with a divided heart?

Many of us within these walls are shamebound. My shame shackles parts of myself away, keeping it out of sight of the community? Instead of shame, it may instead be my ambition. I put my best foot forward and I strive to look great on paper. To rise in society today, one must master well the maxim, “fake it until you make it.” For better or worse, we catholics have sung that tune for a long time.

It may instead be fear that divides my heart. I’m not ready to set aside my anger, my frustration, or even my sense of guilt, so I’ve quarantined it off, and leave it at home. It is out of God’s reach, free of the risk that an encounter with God entails.

We mark ourselves with ashes today so as to begin journey

Return to me with your whole heart

But a journey can only begin with where your two feet are at. I must start where I stand. It takes grace from god to see myself honestly.

Return to the Lord

Return with your anger

Return with your doubt

Return with you fear

With your feelings of inadequacy.

Return with the knowledge that your words have commited violence

Knowing that your silence has meant a failure to share your love.

Return with the injustice in society of which we are a part

Return equally with your beauty, with your relationships, with your success, with your joys, with your praise.

Return, Return, Return to your lord.


The ashes we wear already speak volumes: we wear on our forehead all of this. We need, as Joel says, to do the same with our interior, to bring our whole heart.

In order to begin to the journey, we have to see where our two feet are at. We have to accept ourselves as accepted by god. We have to accept ourselves as accepted by god and we have to trust our God who may and will transform us. God calls us to wholeness, not prettiness.

Return to the Lord, your god.

In our parish there are many ways we make this journey with Christ. We do it in our fast and in our penance. We are invited each and every Friday to walk with Jesus through his passion in the stations of the cross here at St. Clements.


Jesus tells us today how to begin this journey and how to return.

We are called to enter the inner room,- we seek a place of solitude. We are told to close the door. We shut our mouths, and we are silent. We listen. We allow the light of god guide our attention, sifting through the whole of ourselves, and we seek the hidden father. This is the true secret of ash Wednesday. Every journey is filled with anticipation for what is to come. We seek the father who is hidden within us. We move towards Easter.