Today my comments are more political than I usually express on this site, but those of you who know me will not be surprised at my views. In the midst of everything else, including cancer, some things must be said. All the religious talk in the world, and not even the specter of death, can spare us the obligation to look at what’s happening around us.
I read this morning two disturbing articles about where our society, at least here in California, has drifted over the past few decades. It is a well-known fact that California is awash in money but at the same time has some of the highest poverty and homelessness rates in the country—meaning that millions are living in poverty, and tens of thousands are homeless. Yes, the causes of all this are enormously complex, and I don’t want to paper over that fact. It is not a pretty situation.
But what is particularly disturbing is that the “haves” are beginning to demonstrate more out-spoken judgment of those who are less fortunate, and whose lives are not as “successful” as those who have carved out a piece of the California (and especially the San Francisco) pie for themselves.
For example, the San Francisco Chronicle has been running a series of updates on a group of well-to-do apartment dwellers who have hired a high-end pro-landlord lawyer to fight Mayor London Breed’s attempt to establish a navigation center nearby. They are spending tens of thousands of dollars to fight off the presence of the poor. This same NIMBY attitude is demonstrated in Sacramento, where Mayor Darrell Steinberg has challenged each district of the city to name a site for the location of a navigation center. So far, only two council reps have taken him up on the challenge, offering two or three potential sites. The others are sitting on their hands. Meanwhile, the city sponsors an annual dinner for the rich which takes over a public thoroughfare, the Tower Bridge, less than a mile away from homeless encampments along the river.
Today’s Sacramento Bee ran a full-length story on the harassment by citation of homeless (and disabled) people who have had to resort to camping along that city’s American River Parkway—punished for the crime of being poor and homeless while their council members refuse to lift a finger to help them, despite the mayor’s admirable efforts. (See https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/homeless/article228738554.html). And this morning’s New York Times ran a story on trash pickers in San Francisco—people (including a veteran) reduced to combing through the garbage of the super-rich in order to make ends meet. (See https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/07/us/trash-pickers-san-francisco-zuckerberg.html). Something is seriously wrong with a society where some, growing increasingly fatter and richer, do nothing to ameliorate the plight of the poor—and worse, judge them, arrest them, and wish them disappeared permanently from their perfect little playground.
Nowhere in California is this development worse than in San Francisco. Fueled by a Silicon Valley economic philosophy that has no real ethical compass beyond the negative carve-outs of libertarianism, San Francisco stands as a living representation of the moral bankruptcy of SV ideology. (I say this despite my long family history there, and despite so many good friends whose lives and views belie this larger reality). It is small wonder that many people with a conscience and a sense of justice are calling for radical solutions where the status quo refuses to budge. In this, too, California may be a harbinger of the future.
The following is taken from a homily I gave earlier this week. The Gospel reading was John 5:1–16, the story about the man who was waiting by the healing waters of theTemple pool (Bethesda) for thirty-eight years, perpetually frustrated because no one would help him in. Then along came Jesus, who, out of compassion, simply healed him.
Today I benefitted from one of the medical marvels of our time—a benefit that I was able to enjoy because of my privileged position as a well-educated, well-insured, citizen-resident of one of the most scientifically-advanced places on the planet. I underwent an advanced radiation technique at Stanford that zeroed in on some tiny “ditzels” on my brain—a charming way of referring to metastases. The entire procedure was painless, a bit like science fiction. Mozart was playing in the background. The medical personnel were all so kind. An experience beyond belief. I was beyond fortunate—I’d been taken to the pool, its healing waters, and was given a great dose of hope. The drive back home afterwards, through the glistening green hills, was glorious, uplifting. What an incredible gift.
Not everyone is so lucky. We don’t have to look far to see people who do not have the wherewithal to share in the bounty of our time, especially with regard to healthcare. This is the case for people in the poor nations of the majority world, but also, quite clearly, right here in the USA. (And, if my experience is what Medicare for all might look like, then I say, go for it. The push to take health care away from people in need is positively sinful).
In today’s Gospel we have a man, helpless, with no one to get him into the healing waters on time. He represents so many human beings—surrounded by scores of others, yet, in the final analysis, alone and helpless, unable to navigate the systems of life. One can only begin to imagine the depths of his hopelessness, even despair, as, each day others more nimble would rush into the waters before he could bestir himself. It was a matter of survival of the fittest, and, near as he was to the healing waters, he was barely surviving.
I recently spoke with someone who is upending her life in order to move thousands of miles away to help care for an aging grandparent—a mentally disabled old woman living alone, isolated, unstable, in a ten by twelve room in Ohio. In a generous and even courageous decision, my friend has elected to act on her desire to help. Without any self-credit, she nevertheless said through her tears that there was no one else in her family who would do it. Yet, for reasons too much for her to comprehend, she found herself moved to undertake this life change. She has decided herself to help her grandmother into the healing waters of living, and dying, with dignity—the final leg of life. Rather than rely on institutions of the state to move in and warehouse her, my friend’s heart was moved with pity, compassion, for someone who could in no other way find the help she needed.
This is the kind of example Jesus shows us, the third great “sign” of Jesus’s ministry as depicted in the Gospel of John. It is this kind of helping of others to which we are called, not only in the spirit of Lent, but by the waters of our baptism that stirred us to life, and faith, in the first place. Those of us who have already found our way into those healing waters know full well the needs that surround us. If one of the notes of Lent is the giving of alms, then, taken in its broadest sense, we might ask ourselves how we can be better “almsgivers” in our own lives, how we can help people get the help they need, how we can let the healing and life-giving waters from the Temple wash over them, and over us as well. For wherever there is frailty or helplessness, there is God’s possibility.
There’s a little less laughter these days, much less song, and the thrill of life has waned. But we carry on, in hope. And heaven is now a merrier place.
Today my father (Charley, as Mom called him) would be 108 years old. Virtually nobody lives that long, so there is something almost fictional about the number. He was born in a house on Tennessee Street in San Francisco, back when that area (now called Dogpatch) was primarily Irish, Italian and Jewish—all working-class people. My grandfather was a coppersmith, and for a while he and my grandmother ran a grocery store on the corner of 22nd and Tennessee; that building is now a historic landmark. Although he was born in the twentieth century (1911), his parents were born much earlier, in the 1880s, also in San Francisco. And their parents had arrived in San Francisco in the 1870s. Irish generations are long. (Dad was forty when I was born). My mother’s parents were also born in the nineteenth century, in the East, but moved to Southern California in 1900.
I have always felt visceral tie to nineteenth century California, despite having born into a wholly new and transformed world in 1951. The nineteenth century came streaming into my post-War, futuristic 1950s childhood. It all gives one a sense of the whiplash of historical change, of how rapidly things crash from one world into another; yet, how there are also continuities. I used to muse that, if everyone bred at the slow pace of the Crowleys, we’d only be thirty generations out from Jesus. But I later discovered that the Crowleys were anomalies, and that most families were far more active in the generation department.
Dad was on the poetic side of the Irish spectrum, with nary a practical bone in his body. But he taught us to love life, its beauty, the wonder of plants and animals, music and art, nature, California redwoods and San Francisco treasures—the kinds of things that can deeply sustain a human life. He once stayed up nursing a dying guinea pig with little doses of whisky. His faith was quiet, internal, deep, but unheralded. He was not a joiner; naturally ecumenical. At home, he was in there pitching in the house long before men had to be coaxed to the kitchen sink; he was way ahead of his time. Brought Mom coffee in the mornings and fixed the breakfast so she could get ready for work. I could never fully express how unusual, very special, he was.
I’ll never forget his saying, long before I entered the Jesuits, that on his deathbed, he wanted a Franciscan to come hear his confession. He imagined, rightly so, that a Franciscan would be gentle with him. He deserved such gentleness, because he was a gentle soul. His death was a huge blow—my first really big one. There was no Franciscan when the time came, but God was gentle. I still miss him so. He left me with the gift of Irish tears, a living tie to him and to generations past.
Recently, I read an opinion piece about Pope Francis on the sixth anniversary of his election. The author is a well-known commentator whom I know and very much respect, and I agreed with most of the piece. (You can see the commentary here).
The only sentence that struck me as a bit off about Francis was the following: “He understands the importance of changing the culture of the church, but does not understand the importance of reforming church structures.”
I cannot understand how one could reach this conclusion. I am not here to defend every word or action of Francis, especially concerning women. But I do not believe he is a naïf when it comes to institutions and how they run, nor when it comes to administering them. He understands the challenges before him very well, but has been set up against a fiercely defiant, cynical, and corrupt phalanx of opposition—old men determined to defeat him. And they have deep-pocketed, monied allies in the banks, opposition groups, reactionary movements, and old societies with tentacles world-wide. It is not for nothing that he has railed against the hypocrisy of modern-day Pharisees, and condemned their hardened hearts. It will take some time to turn around more than 500 years of a deeply corrupt clerical institution (the Curia), one that is self-fortified against change.
As for structural reform, he has been trying to set the stage for a whole new way of being church, which is summarized under the rubric of “synodality.” This is an ancient approach to understanding the nature and governance of the church, an approach that was forgotten as things became more centralized, structured and “Roman.” If fully realized, it would spell dramatic changes in how we imagine the church, with much more autonomy given to the regional churches of the world. It would also change our understanding of how the papcy functions. Francis cannot accomplish this in five or six years; it will take a couple of decades, with any luck. He is planting the seeds of something that could have been closer to reality if two previous popes had not acted to reverse the momentum set by the Second Vatican Council. Perhaps the most important thing Francis has been doing, gradually, is to appoint cardinal electors who do not come from the power centers, bypassing the ambitious men who thought they had it coming to them.
In short, I think he deserves more credit for institutional savvy than some people, even his fans, give him credit for.
Here’s something I wrote for the Jesuit School of Theology’s prayer blog, A Heart Renewed. You can subscribe to a daily reflection here: https://mysantaclara.scu.edu/JST_SeasonalEmails.
Famously, Ash Wednesday is the day more people go to church than any other, including Easter. Countless more people will receive ashes this day than will receive the Eucharist. We are strangely attracted to the mark of the ashes, a stark emblem of the mortal flesh that we bear, and of the death that is the inevitable destiny of each of us. Like the fire that generates them, ashes are primordial. They literally represent the judgment of Genesis 3:19: “For you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” We will one day become the ashes we wear—a humbling thought. And to be marked with ashes this day can indeed be a profound spiritual experience.
Despite the beauty of this sacramental observance, the Scriptures of the day ironically point us in another direction: “Rend your heart, not your garments,” counsels Joel, “and return to the LORD your God.” Jesus is even clearer: Do not perform religious rituals in public or parade your religiosity so that people will notice: “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.” These exhortations could well make a case against pridefully wearing ashes in public. They are certainly an indictment of fetishizing religious ritual. The Scriptures of this day nudge us toward internal renewal, not outward show.
For despite its name, the point of this day is not ashes. The point of this day is mercy—seeking the mercy of our God, who is rich in kindness, abounding in steadfast love. The Psalmist, evoking the mortification of David, opens his heart to the God of mercy, begging forgiveness, the renewal of a faithful spirit, and the restoration of hope and joy. The Lenten drama takes place not in public places or in religious ritual (Ps 51:18–19), but in the hidden corners of the human heart, those parts seen only by God and most in need of God’s forgiving love. Freed by that love, we can even face death itself without fear, knowing that beyond the ashes there looms the fulfillment of life in the promise of resurrection.
The following is a homily given at Mission Santa Clara on February 10 at the 10 a.m. Community Mass. The inspiring text was Luke’s account of Peter’s marvelous catch of fish. (In my experience, the text of a homily falls short of the spoken event; but some people asked that I post this, and so here it is).
Speaking as a fellow traveler through this life, I’ve always found final forgiveness, particularly of myself, to be one of the most difficult things to “accomplish.” The bad fairy sitting on my shoulder wants to keep going back to the pangs of guilt, especially over the really big stuff. Even when I may know intellectually the gift of a profound forgiveness, my dogged mortal nature cannot quite accept the reality of it; I must still be guilty—there is still something to pay for. To that bad fairy, the good fairy (on my other shoulder) answers for me: Yes, I am ultimately responsible for my life, and my sinfulness, and whatever suffering I have caused; but I am also loved beyond measure, and thus freed for a deeper loving. In the sight of God, there is nothing more to pay. In whatever ways I have harmed others or squandered that responsibility, it has been borne already by the God who, on the Cross, died in order to bring an end to our tendency to become green-shaded clerks of moral accounting. God does not want us to drown in guilt. Jesus chose to die rather than see that view win. God wants to free us.
A friend recently sent me a quotation from the well-known Buddhist practitioner and author, Jack Kornfield: “Forgiveness,” he says, “is giving up all hope for a better past.” Forgiveness is giving up all hope—for a better past. It is a way of letting go of the past, and of our past selves and the past selves of others. My friend went on to say: “I’ve never been good at SELF forgiveness, but somehow taking this perspective seems really liberating. Offering forgiveness is ultimately about completely freeing ourselves and others from the wish that things had happened differently.”
There is so much truth to this statement! To its wisdom I would only add that it does not all depend on us. When we feel that we cannot forgive ourselves, or others, that is the time to remember that it is God who is doing the job, not us. For, in the final analysis it is not we who are doing the forgiving; we are only the secondary actors in the drama. We may struggle to forgive others, or ourselves, but what we fail to see is that we are already being forgiven. All is grace. Mercy is a divine gift, constantly being offered us for the taking, the self-offer of a God who delights in excess. This gift of being forgiven is the great catch, the overwhelming divine largesse, that is already filling our boats.
In today’s Gospel we have Peter, who is having a slow day fishing, until Jesus happens on the scene. All of a sudden things pick up. One minute there is nothing; in the next, the sky is raining down fish! He is thrown off his footing in downright fear before a chaos beyond his control: leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man. Facing Jesus, Peter experiences a holy confusion, a confusion through which, ironically, he comes to see himself more clearly. And in this moment of clarity, he beholds the truth of his life. He is Peter and remains Peter, a sinful man (we’ll take his word for it), but now a Peter who is freed to live for a future not of his own making, with more marvelous catches to come. He has experienced a love so powerful that it is forgiving—meaning that it overcomes our past and opens up a future. This is the grace of forgiveness, of redemption.
How often we miss this, as we writhe in shame we cannot shirk, in guilt we cannot shake. We cannot forgive ourselves, much less others, when we consider the sweep of our lives and the suffering we might have caused, or the affronts we may have endured. And, these days, we as a puritan society seem to find it impossible to grant forgiveness, the possibility of redemption, to some who have made grievous mistakes. Granted, actions have consequences, and justice must be pursued; but, as in all things, a justice bounded by mercy. Yet accusation itself, even self-accusation, has come to signal the impossibility of redemption, the absurdity of God’s offer of forgiveness:. a moral self-righteousness shared by the pure. Rigid lines are drawn and dogmatic judgment rules. In that frame of mind we can easily forget that we are all in need of forgiveness. God’s ways are not our ways, yet we would often enough impede the flow of God’s love into our own lives and the lives of others.
What we need is to be more like Peter, capable of being thrown off balance and shocked into a new way of seeing things. I don’t want to paint a pie-in-the-sky picture here. The reality is that we get thrown down only to get up, get thrown down again, and get up again. Remember, Peter’s moment was chaotic! The actual experience of God’s forgiveness and our own patterns of failure are often enough comically predictable. We keep doing the same old things; we often feel stuck, our lives chaotic. The point of the Gospel story is not a one-off conversion, as if we are all to go home from here, pack up, and sell the house (although the apostles seem to have done something like that!). It is, rather, that again and again, we stand to be astonished. And we can change. Over time, we can learn to forgive those who have harmed us, be they parents, spouses, friends, coworkers, or lovers. We can gradually come to an authentic self-acceptance, self-forgiveness, by seeing ourselves as Jesus saw Peter, with a love that saw right into him and brought him to his knees.
The late French Jesuit, Yves Raquin, once described God’s desire for us:
God wants before himself
a real human being,
one who is able to shed tears, to cry out
under the effect of his purifying grace…
It is a real human being
whom God wishes to see before himself,
for otherwise his grace
would not be able to work its transformation.
The real human being stands naked [before God].
The real human being stands naked before God. Such was Peter (who, by the way, in John’s account, was fishing naked). In fact, we all stand naked before God whether we like it or not, starting from the day of our birth. There’s no use trying to hide behind the fig leaves of religious moralism or morbid self-flagellation. We must strip away such flimsy covers and let God throw us off course. For each of us will also die in nakedness. And it is only in our nakedness that we can allow God to reach us, to saturate us like the sea waters, to let God astonish us.
Then, like Peter and the apostles, we can witness fish raining down from heaven, filling our boats to overflowing. Then we can leave our boats ashore, leave behind the past, and start life anew, yet again. The invitation to freedom is always there; we need only open our hearts to let the work begin.
A dear friend in Massachusetts recently reminded me of the wisdom of the great theologian Karl Rahner. When all the other books are long gone, Rahner’s will the only theologian I’ll still have at my bedside. It is for good reason that he’s been called “Doctor Mysticus,” for the God-Mystery imbues even his most difficult works.
My friend, John Carmody, introduced me to Rahner’s work when I was an undergraduate, and then I went on to study him further in graduate school with Jesuits whose own lives had been deeply shaped by him: William Dych, SJ, and Michael J. Buckley, SJ, to whom I am immeasurably grateful. Rahner has been an inspiration to me and countless others through many years.
Here is an excerpt my friend sent me from Rahner’s treasure of a book, Encounters with Silence. It comes from the chapter entitled, “God of My Life.”
Only in love can I find you, my God.
In love, the gates of my soul spring open,
allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom
and forget about my own petty self.
In love, my whole being streams forth
out of the rigid confines of narrowness
and anxious self-assertion,
which makes me a prisoner of my own
poverty and emptiness.
In love, all the powers of my soul flow
out toward you,
wanting never more to return,
but to lose themselves completely in you,
since by your love you are the
innermost center of my heart,
closer to me than I am to myself.
But when I love you,
when I manage to break out of the narrow circle of self and
leave behind the restless agony of unanswered questions,
when my blinded eyes no longer look merely from afar and from the outside
upon your unapproachable brightness, and much more
when you yourself, O Incomprehensible One, have become
through love the inmost center of my life,
then I can bury myself entirely in you,
O mysterious God, and with myself,
all my questions.