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.
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.
A beautiful, quiet, rainy Sunday morning in San Francisco, as seen through my slightly blurry window. You can make out one of the towers and some of the lines of the Golden Gate Bridge in the background.
Next week promises to be gorgeous and sunny. I’ll be hopping into the garden to do some pruning for the explosion of Spring flowers, just around the corner.
In the Letter to the Hebrews, we are given an exalted view of what it means to be a human being. The author quotes the sublime Psalm 8:
Who are we that you should be mindful of us. . .? Who is any one of us, that you should care for us, each uniquely? Yet you have made us little less than the angels, and crowned us with glory and honor.
How does God care for us? In a highly focused way. What makes God “God” is an unimaginable intentionality of love for each and every creature, and for each of us. We could say that God’s love is given, not generically, like the rain, but uniquely, like a mother’s love, to each creature. It is Love that sustains us in being. It is as though each creature, each person, each one of us were the only recipient of God’s loving care. And we human beings have been given the gift of aspiring toward that kind of love, to love each person, each part of creation, intentionally and with a sense of wonder.
We can speak, then, of a unique place for the human within God’s creation. For we are not only the intersection of matter and spirit with the capacity to love with intentionality, but we have the reflective capacity to see that, to stand in awe and wonder over this gift. We further have the power to question, as does the Psalmist: Who are we, that you have made us this way? Why do we exist at all, having been drawn out of nothingness by your love? In wonderment, gratitude, and questioning, we discover that from this capacity to love springs forth the capacity to pray: to praise, to adore, to sing and give thanks—intentionally, and with all our being. This is a gift given to no other creature under heaven.
But . . .
In the face of this, so much tragedy, death, sin. Darkness seems to prevail. The gift has been occluded. Day after day after day takes up the story. To be human is also to feel unmoored from God, and God from us. On the one hand, we know God’s love and stand in awe before it; on the other, we are ever waiting for it, as though it had not yet come. It is at times ungraspable, unbelievable. In our daily lives we come to feel like Estragon waiting for Godot—a Godot who never arrives.
Little less than gods? With God’s mercy, this is perhaps one way of trying to express the conundrum of being human. Yet, as the Psalmist elsewhere says (139:6), “All of this is too much for me.” We are left with a gaping openness toward the unanswerable, waiting for God—the God who nevertheless has already offered his love. How do we hold all this together in our mortal state? unfinished…
What can I say? Even their name elicits joy. When I was a kid, my Mom had them planted in the long brick planter on the front of the house. Same glorious color, too. And they’re always a surprise in the middle of January (as are Narcissus). Spring is just around the corner, and I’m ready for it! December was unbearably dark and thankfully the days are gradually lengthening. The squirrels are showing up again, too. Good signs.
The following is the slightly edited text of a homily given at Mission Santa Clara on Sunday, January 6, 2019, the feast of the Epiphany. The Epiphany, or manifestation of God to all peoples, is symbolized by the well-known story of the visit of the Magi to the stable. The Magi are represented as coming from a far-off land, the ultimate exotic outsiders.
Before we close out the Christmas season, we return to the manger. Charming as the story of the Magi may be, it is in fact an odd, even comical, scene. We are back at that same stable, a rustic and dirt poor refuge where the Savior has been born. The shepherds are there, but they were not styled then as the gentle pastoral types we see in manger scenes; they were considered in their own time to be socially marginal yahoos. One commentator compared them to members of a motorcycle gang—threatening and to be avoided. And they were presumably not regular synagogue attendees. Onto this scene, in the boondocks of Bethlehem, arrive the three astrologers, sumptuously clothed, laden with precious gifts. Together with the oxen, donkeys, and the rest, we have a menagerie to entertain the newborn king.
It was “outsiders” not of the Jewish people who first recognized that a “king”—more specific to the Jewish imagination, a Messiah—had been born. These outsiders were in possession of an insight that it would take some time for even Jesus’ own disciples to see and accept. And the people of Jerusalem would persist in perceiving Jesus simply as a country rustic, an irritating rabbi imposter. Yet it was non-Jews who would recognize that in this helpless baby, born in a stable, God had come to save not some, or even many, but all, without distinction. As Paul reminds us: “the Gentiles”—outsiders—“are coheirs, members of the same body, and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (Eph 3:5–6).
It is the outsider, and the outsider in us, the Gentile in us, that God summons to the stable, to come inside, to enter into the ambit of God’s love. There is no judgment here, but only inclusion of and co-partnership with the outsider. This serves as a model of what the church must become. As Pope Francis recently wrote to the US bishops:
The Church. . .bears in her heart and soul the sacred mission of being a place of encounter and welcome not only for her members but for all humanity. It is part of her identity and mission to work tirelessly for all [and to] contribute to unity between individuals and peoples. . .without distinction. For “there does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female. All are on in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28).
What a radical view of reality, for any time, but especially for a time like ours, when rather than imagining ourselves as one in our humanity, we have divided ourselves into tribes, parties, and generations: Boomers vs. Millennials, progressives vs. reactionaries, liberal vs. conservative Catholics, straight and gay, citizens or aliens—marking ourselves off from others and building walls between us. This is the age of identity, a preoccupation that arises when the world seems difficult to map and people feel fearful, fragile, or flung at sea. We turn then, perhaps naturally enough, to what we think we know most intimately—ourselves, our group, and fortify ourselves in an identity essentialism that easily functions as an ideology.
Yet we can delude ourselves by delimiting ourselves within one or even multiple identities. We can paper over the multi-layered complexity of human experience, of our own hidden and interior selves—a complexity that resists sharp demarcation or boundary. And, worse, when we claim identities in a group or tribal way, we can be drawn into impasse, demonization of the other, and dismissal of certain people (the way shepherds were dismissed as ruffians) or writing off whole generations as either too old or too young. The worst outcomes of identity absolutism are truly dreadful, as we have seen on the worldwide political stage and in the tragedies of war and genocide.
There is of course validity to acknowledging our distinctiveness. We may come from a home infused with a culture—be it Italian, Irish, Mexican, Filipino or Vietnamese—where language, food, religion, customs, and family systems are distinctive. This is a good thing. Yet there are some identities, or locales of human experience, such as those of women, of LGBTQ people, and of African-American people, that need to be vigorously asserted within the life of a church that is still exclusionary and inscribes some forms of exclusion in doctrine (namely, the exclusion of women from ordination, and the deficient language about gay sexuality in the Catechism that has led to exclusionary practices). But in seeking an ideal church, we need to keep in mind that in Jesus’ view of the world, there are to be no identities at war with one another, and this must be pressed. Those whom I or we or some might consider to be outsiders are not only to be included, but they are to become co-heirs, co-partners. We are to learn from them and from one another.
This is very difficult for us to grasp and accept, because it threatens the boundaries set by any claim to self-certain identity. It is a little bit scary. Yet it lies at the core of God’s revelation in Jesus. To be a Christian is to live in a fundamental openness to the other, even the radically different, for God may be at work there, and that other may indeed see God in a way that we do not, as did the Magi. This possibility that God is present in the “alien” other is the foundation of Pope Francis’s urging that Catholics not build walls, but welcome refugees, for they are among the outsiders, the “Gentiles” of our time. It is also the foundation for an openness to and embrace of those, like the shepherds, whose very presence might unsettle the comfortable.
Jesus’ deepest identity lay not in his Jewishness, gender or politics. It lay in his intimacy with the mystery of God, whom he called Father. This intimacy anchored him and captured his imagination like a star in the vast heavens. It freed him to transcend boundaries and to welcome the outsider. This began at his birth. The great star that hovered over the stable in Bethlehem was awaiting his gaze. That star remains a reminder today that God’s love is offered to all people, inviting all, without exception, into God’s family, and that our deepest “identity” lies in intimacy with God—an intimacy that frees us and finally dissolves the need for any identity. This is the intimacy that the Magi sought, and which they found, alongside the shepherds, in the poverty of the manger. May it be so for us.
For further reading, the pope’s letter can be found at http://whispersintheloggia.blogspot.com. It is well worth a read. For a reconsideration of the notion of identity in our time, see Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (New York: Liveright, 2018).