Sunday, December 6, 2015

Trivia Night: A Note of Gratitude

A few years ago, our parish designated a previously scheduled Trivia Night as a fundraiser for our family. Here's the thank-you note I asked to be read that evening.

It’s Trivia Night, so here’s a trivia question for you: Category, Movies. What 1985 movie is memorable for featuring an Amish barn raising?

I’m sure this elite gathering will have no trouble in naming the movie “Witness” – what a great flick! It starred Harrison Ford as a detective who hides out from the bad guys in an Amish community and attempts to adopt the Amish way of life.

If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll especially remember the barn raising – the way the community comes together to aid one of its members; how the men and women and children all instinctively gravitate to tasks for which they are best suited; the manner in which the workers seem to challenge each other, even compete with one another, in accomplishing the tasks at hand as rapidly and efficiently as possible.

Of course, it’s a Hollywood version of a barn-raising, complete with swelling musical score, and I’m guessing a real barn raising would be a bit bumpier, a bit sweatier, and maybe even a bit grumpier. Even so, it’s a beautiful image of what the Body of Christ is all about – the corporate unity of believers that witnesses to its faith through how it serves and suffers with and loves.

Here, now, we are the recipients of that service and love, and we are keenly aware of how the Body of Christ is suffering with us. As many of you know, our child is battling a complicated and deadly disease. It’s also very insidious, and we didn’t catch it until it was pretty far advanced. Consequently, she had to be hospitalized out of state, and she's still not home.

We’re happy to report that her medical condition is very stable now, praise God, and she has been discharged from the in-patient unit to an out-patient program.

As much as we’d like to have her home and have our family fully reunited again, we have elected to continue with the program for it offers great promise in helping her beat this rotten disease. The staff is estimating that she will be in this program for 6 to 8 weeks. We’re hoping, of course, that she will be home sooner, but we have to be prepared for a longer stay if necessary. As you can all appreciate, we will do anything and everything to get her the help she needs to beat this disease and regain the joy and freedom which she lived so fully before it showed up.

And here’s where the barn-raising imagery returns to the fore, because you have joined us in that “anything and everything” – by making us meals, by watching our other children for us and giving them rides, by your encouragement and advice and emotional support, and, most especially, by your prayers.

We have said this many times to many people throughout this ordeal: We would be lost without our parish, our community, our friends. Thank you. Thank you. A hundred, a thousand times, thank you. We love you, and we know we are loved. That is the church. That is Christ.

Deo gratias.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Saint Amato Ronconi (1225-1292)

We don’t usually associate rock star status with sanctity, but there are exceptions – like Pope St. John Paul II, for instance, and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta. Both routinely attracted hordes of fans, and many of those groupies turned their lives around after their derivative brush with saintly fame.

Even hype is redeemable.

St. Amato Ronconi also generated a lot of publicity in his day, some of it good, some of it not so good – including money, fame, sex, and power, just like a real rock star! A son of privilege in the northern Italian region of Saludecio, Amato had a cushy start, but he lost his parents at an early age. The orphaned Amato moved in with his older brother, Giacomo, and took on the duties of a farmhand.

Giacomo’s wife, Lansberga, wanted Amato to marry her younger sister – mainly to keep the family estate intact – but Amato had other plans. Undoubtedly influenced by St. Francis of Assisi’s example (a saintly rock star himself and only recently deceased) and contacts with a neighboring Franciscan monastery, Amato ardently desired a celibate life given over to prayer and charity. He joined the Franciscan Third Order and adopted a penitential lifestyle augmented by extravagant generosity to the poor.

Lansberga complained that her young brother-in-law must be crazy, and she insisted Giacomo do something before Amato literally gave away the farm. To keep the peace, Giacomo divided the family estate and gave Amato his own piece of property – which the saint converted into a hospice for the indigent, the sick, and the many pilgrims on their way to Rome. Amato turned no one away, and when supplies ran out, he’d produce food seemingly out of thin air.

The pilgrim visitors spread stories about Amato’s wonder-working far afield, and it’s no surprise that the curious began flocking to Saludecio to gawk. The saint sought relief by becoming a pilgrim himself, making the Camino de Santiago to Spain on four separate occasions. Those trips capture the humility of St. Amato so well that depictions of him invariably include a pilgrim’s staff and the distinctive Camino scallop badge.

Amato’s sister-in-law, however, was not so impressed by her other-worldly relation, and she sought revenge for her thwarted schemes. She knew that Amato was particularly close to his sister, Chiara, who had herself adopted a Franciscan way of life in imitation of him. Lansberga started a slanderous rumor throughout the community that Amato and Chiara were having incestuous relations. When a city official investigated, a miraculous sign not only convinced him that the siblings were innocent, but that Amato himself was a saint.

On a fifth Camino attempt, an angel appeared to Amato and urged him to head back. Understanding this as a mortal premonition, he set his affairs in order and deeded his property to the Benedictines so that they could continue his apostolate to the poor. This they did for hundreds of years, and today a home for the elderly continues to operate on the same site.

Amato died on May 8, 1292, and Pope Francis declared him a saint on November 23, 2014 – the Feast of Christ the King. “Jesus has opened to us his kingdom,” the Holy Father declared at the canonization, but “his kingdom begins now – by being close in concrete ways to our brothers and sisters who ask for bread, clothing, acceptance, solidarity.”

In this, Amato excelled. May we follow in his footsteps.

A version of this story appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Blessed John Forest (1471-1538)

King Henry VIII's presumptuous rebellion against the pope brought out the worst – and the best – in the Catholic Church in England. Some Catholics turned traitor to the Church of their birth, while in others, the flame of faith shone more brightly. John Forest, who lived his whole life on fire for God, stood as a beacon of truth in that dark time.

A teenager when he entered the Greenwich Franciscans, Forest went to Oxford for advanced theological studies and earned honors as a doctor of theology. With his intelligence matched by natural leadership and rooted in a profoundly Franciscan vision of humble service to Christ, John was an easy pick for the post of provincial.

Despite his peace-loving Franciscan temperament, John's fiery side flared up when it came to defending the Church. As provincial, he once cursed 19 fellow friars for resisting a visit from papal legate Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – a reprimand based less on religious hospitality than on respect for the pope in his representatives, no matter how disagreeable their persons.

The good friar's reputation for wisdom and sanctity eventually spread beyond his religious community, and the queen herself, Catherine of Aragon, asked Father Forest to become her confessor and spiritual advisor. Catherine greatly benefited from the Franciscan's plainspoken direction, and she later referred to herself as Father Forest's "obedient daughter."

The king, too, took a great interest in religion. Henry VIII vigorously opposed the Protestant revolt spreading everywhere on the continent and even acquired the title "Defender of the Faith" in recognition of his efforts. Nevertheless, when Henry made up his mind to divorce Catherine to marry Anne Boleyn, he disregarded papal objections and declared his own rebellion against Rome in 1533.

Immediately, Henry set about consolidating power and obliterating dissent. Father Forest's entire order, publicly unified in their rejection of the king's aberrant assertions, was suppressed in 1534, and the learned priest thrown in jail. An accomplished theologian, virtuous priest, and royal confessor, Forest was just the type of popular figure Henry sought to win over – or, short of that, eliminate.

Prison did nothing to weaken Forest's opposition to Henry's new church. The priest actually yearned for martyrdom. Commenting on his advancing years, Forest wrote, "At such a period of life as this, a man easily perceives that people can do without him; consequently I am most earnest in my prayer that I may be dissolved to be with Christ."

Four years into his confinement, Forest still managed to stir up fresh sparks of controversy. The theologian composed a polemic that boldly refuted the king's claims and upheld the pope's universal authority. When the work became known, Henry ordered John Forest to be burned at the stake.

Trumped up charges and mock trials followed, along with pressures to recant in exchange for freedom. Forest remained steadfast. "Gentlemen," he told his accusers, "with this body of mine deal as you wish!"

The government took Forest at his word and consigned him to the executioners on May 22, 1538. Blessed John made it clear in his final statement that no manner of torture or threat or sophistry or calumny could turn him from his "old sect of this Bishop of Rome."

The king's men chained the priest to a stake. On top of the usual logs and kindling they added a large wooden statue of St. Derfel Gadarn. St. Derfel was an obscure sixth-century Welsh soldier turned monk who had acquired an impassioned following over the centuries. The statue, an object of no little Catholic devotion, had been sent to London for disposal.

An old Welsh saying predicted that this statue would one day "set a forest ablaze." The prophecy proved true enough as the famed carving of the Welsh warrior-monk fueled the pyre of John Forest, the friar who had become a warrior.

In 1886, Pope Leo XIII approved the veneration of Blessed John Forest along with 54 other English martyrs.

A version of this essay was originally published in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

A Bad Plan

The headline above Heather Cope’s Oct. 15 Voice letter – “Youths need accurate info about sex” – is true enough, but it’s an open question whether her employer, Planned Parenthood, is the best one to provide it.

Planned Parenthood is not, as Cope would have us believe, in the helping business; it's in the contraception and abortion business. Although it operates as a charitable organization, Planned Parenthood Federation of America managed a $35.2 million “excess of revenue over expenses” last year, and it has realized similar “excesses” every year since 1987.

Even if one overlooks this enormous revenue stream, it is hard to ignore Planned Parenthood’s passionate commitment to their mission to undermining traditional, family-oriented sexual mores and to ensuring unfettered access to abortion for any reason and at any time. When Planned Parenthood representatives suggest resources about sexuality and contraception, we should be on our guard and question the impartiality of the proffered advice.

Case in point: Cope presents statistics regarding the sexual practices of teens, and her only remedy is to push condoms and urge better access to the Planned Parenthood version of sex education. Conspicuous by its absence is any hint of a recommendation that chastity and self-control be promoted among our teens. Parents who are truly interested in the long-term welfare of their children would do well to avoid Planned Parenthood’s advice, and turn to places like Sex Respect or Rock for Life for support.

In a sex-obsessed world, our youth need reinforcement in their struggles to choose purity and abstinence, not encouragement to choose immediate gratification and excess.
This letter appeared in the "Voice of the People" section of the South Bend Tribune on November 6, 2005.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Statement of Faith

Byzantine mosaic of the Creation of Adam (12th c.)
Bethel College, my alma mater and employer, is in the news these days. A couple weeks back, the College released a "philosophical statement" regarding creation and evolution that had been in the works for years. That statement has led to the resignation of an esteemed colleague on account of his association with BioLogos, an outfit in Michigan seeking to reconcile Evangelical Protestantism with scientific majority opinion, especially when it comes to evolution and human origins.

Bethel is associated with the Missionary Church, a conservative Protestant denomination, but I'm Roman Catholic. Consequently, I'm an outsider with regards to the squabble over human origins it's primarily an Evangelical tussle. Still, my proximity to the current controversy might give rise to a question: How is it that a devout Catholic is teaching at an Evangelical college anyway? It's an unusual situation, to be sure, but not unprecedented. Besides, I grew up in the Evangelical tradition, so I'm very comfortable with Bethel's culture, its vocabulary of faith, and its values. I've happily participated in the life and mission of Bethel for over ten years now, and I don't expect that to change any time soon. 

However, now that this whole origins thing is out in the public eye, I'm starting to get queries – like this one from my son: "Dad, you've signed a contract saying you don't believe in evolution?" The simple answer is "no," although it's an incomplete answer. The fact is that I did sign a Statement of Faith (with appended interpretive remarks) back when I was hired in 2004, but it did not include any mention of human origins. It's that original Statement of Faith, along with my appended comments, that I have in mind each year when I sign my annual contract.  

So, in the interest of full disclosure and for my family and friends who may well wonder how it is that a practicing Catholic can teach at an Evangelical school – here's that statement, beginning with Bethel's "We Believe" affirmation (as it originally appeared on my contract), followed by my interpretive annotations:

As a Christian college, we believe...
  • God is the Creator and Sustainer of all things, and the Author of salvation. 
  • The Bible is the divinely inspired, only infallible, authoritative Word of God, and the unchanging rule of faith and practice.
  • Man's relationship to God, which was lost through sin, is restored through faith in the redeeming work of Christ, God's divine Son.
  • The Church is composed of persons who are born of the Spirit and empowered by him to live a holy life devoted to the fulfillment of the Church's Great Commission.
  • The personal return of Christ will bring about the end of the present age, the Judgment and the beginning of the glorious age to come.
Can you personally and unreservedly agree with this creed? Describe any exception you would make.

I do personally agree with the creedal statement as far as it goes, and yet I feel compelled to clarify that my belief and understanding extend beyond that which is explicitly articulated. The following addendum, therefore, is not an "exception" I would make, but rather a further fleshing out of how I embrace and try to live out all the points specified in the creedal statement.

Without reservation, I firmly believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired, only infallible, and authoritative written Word of God. I further believe that the Word of God includes both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition – the dynamic, divinely inspired transmission of apostolic teaching from one generation to the next. St. Paul refers to the dual nature of God's Word when he writes, "So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter" (II Thess. 2.15 [RSV]).

Furthermore, I believe that the twofold Word of God – like a single, unified Deposit of Faith – has been entrusted to the Church by Christ, and that the Church has the obligation to preserve it intact and proclaim it to the world. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Church also has the responsibility of interpreting the Word of God, and does so today with the same apostolic authority Christ granted the original disciples.

For more information on Catholic beliefs regarding human origins, see the Catechism of the Catholic Church (§282-289).

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Invocation at a Nursing Pinning

Holy God, we are gathered here to honor You through honoring these nursing graduates.

We all know how hard they’ve worked to get here, but no one knows it better than You.

And so, we ask for Your blessing—both on our celebration here today, and on the graduates themselves as they go forth to serve You as nurses.

Father God, Creator of all, You are the Author of Life.

Give these nurses courage to be defenders of life in a culture—and an industry—that too often sees death as a solution to difficult problems.

Make them warriors on behalf of the vulnerable, the weak, the defenseless, particularly the unborn and the elderly.

Lord Jesus, You are the Savior of the world.

Give these nurses a passion for the Gospel—for witnessing to their faith in both word and deed.

Make them bridges in their encounters with patients, families of patients, and co-workers—bridges to You and the salvation You offer the whole world.

Holy Spirit, You animate the church with love.

Give these nurses a capacity to love those whom the world despises—the diseased, the dying, the poor, the enemy.

Make them vehicles of Your infinite love, Holy Spirit, and cause them to be transparent in compassion and selfless in charity.

We honor and adore You, Holy God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Offered on April 28, 2007, at Bethel College, Mishawaka, Indiana.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Personhood and Compromise

Charles Krauthammer ("Cell Lines, Moral Lines," Washington Post, 8/5/05) simultaneously provides a weak argument for expanded federal funding of stem cell research while unwittingly drawing attention to the twisted morality of in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Krauthammer concedes that an embryo is indeed a “new human life,” but he sees no problem in destroying embryos in order to conduct research on their cells. His argument – emphasized in italics, no less – is that thousands of such embryos “will be destroyed anyway,” so snatching a few stem cell lines before they’re snuffed is simply a practical matter. 

Where Krauthammer does have trouble is the possibility that embryos will be produced (and presumably sold) for experimentation purposes only, and he calls for limits to be included in the stem cell bill that is working its way through Congress.

If Mr. Krauthammer is not bothered by the disposal of “extra” embryos, then why would he be bothered by entrepreneurs trafficking in embryonic tissue and cells? If pre-born human beings are not persons, as he suggests, then what difference would it make if free and fertile citizens made a few bucks by providing embryonic grist for the stem-cell mill? The inconsistency in Krauthammer’s logic betrays an underlying relativism that allows him to pick and choose what kinds of human life are worthy of protection.

A second question for Krauthammer follows hard on the heels of the first: If he is troubled by the idea of “human manufacture,” then why isn’t he complaining about the IVF industry itself? It is well known that successful IVF is dependent on embryonic redundancy, and that every attempt at achieving pregnancy through this method will result in the production of multiple “spare” embryos that are usually destroyed. Isn’t this the very utilitarian human manufacture that Krauthammer is afraid of?

The pro-life bottom line is this: All human life is precious, including the zygotes and blastocysts that Krauthammer so glibly dismisses as non-persons. To designate certain stages of human development as expendable is to engage in the very moral reasoning that has been used to justify all kinds of depravity and violence in the recent past.

Either human life is sacred and deserving of every protection from conception until natural death, or else no one is safe. This is not merely a lesson from religion; it is a clear and disturbing lesson from history, and one which our national leaders should heed as they consider the stem cell issue.

A version of this letter originally appeared in the South Bend Tribune's "Michiana Point of View" on September 2, 2005.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Bothered by Bonhoeffer

Originally posted on Facebook (April 22, 2010). 

Joseph Loconte's review of Eric Metaxas' new Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography appears in today's Wall Street Journal, and it got under my skin.

I so much respect Bonhoeffer's devout orthodoxy and passionate commitment to living out the Gospel, heedless of the world's conventions and compromises. His embodiment of radical grace and costly discipleship is tremendously challenging and certainly deserves greater attention and imitation, particularly today.

But the assassination plot: I can't get past the assassination plot. I know I can't judge Bonhoeffer's decision to be party to a plan to kill Hitler—I wasn't there in wartime Germany when Jews and others were being exterminated by the hundreds of thousands.

Still, we rightly condemn those who today turn to violence in the name of protecting the unborn, and so the question arises: What's the difference?

Can we ever countenance intentional killing, even of someone like Hitler? Was Bonhoeffer simply wrong?

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Person Must Never Be Allowed to Starve to Death

Theresa Marie Schiavo (1963-2005)
Thank you for the editorial "Every human life deserves dignity" (May 29, 2005), which comes significantly just about two months after Terri Schiavo's death. Since then, the issue of artificially supplied nutrition and hydration has virtually disappeared from the headlines, and it might seem that all the fuss about tube feeding has simply faded away. 

Nevertheless, the question of whether Schiavo was allowed to die or was killed is very much current for those who care for others in similar circumstances. While it is true that the courts allowed Terri's husband to remove his wife's feeding tube – thereby ensuring her death by starvation – they in no way legitimized what he did. Indeed, the drama surrounding Schiavo's demise only serves to illustrate how inhuman this practice is, and the revulsion most people of good will experienced during the ordeal makes it plain that it should never be allowed to happen again.

Unfortunately, as anyone who works in healthcare can attest, it is a situation that recurs with alarming frequency in our hospitals and nursing homes today – often with the prior consent of the victim. Many so-called "living wills" include clauses that allow signers to explicitly reject the artificial administration of food and water if they become incapacitated and unable to eat on their own. By signing these forms, people agree to accept a horrible death, whether wittingly or unwittingly, and too many doctors are all too willing to carry out those wishes once the circumstances present themselves. 

This is the kind of dangerous moral surrender that Pope John Paul II addressed in a speech he made back in March 2004. Speaking to a gathering of experts on persistent vegetative state (PVS), the pope made it very clear that the provision of nutrition and hydration must always be considered a part of ordinary care. Even when artificially administered, John Paul said, food and water "always represents a natural means of preserving life, not a medical act." The debate on this issue among moralists and theologians had gone on for many years, but the Holy Father's clear statement effectively put an end to the controversy. 

Even so, confusion on this issue is rampant, even among Catholics, and even those who were on the right side of the Schiavo issue are unaware of the full implications of her case. Much was made in the media of the question regarding Terri's wishes concerning what she'd want if she were in a PVS, but according to the Holy Father's instruction, a person's wishes are irrelevant to the provision of food and water. Simply put, a person must never be allowed to starve to death, no matter what that person desires or requests. 

A protestor outside the Florida courthouse where Terri's fate was decided.
Obviously, when the provision of nutrition and hydration is no longer serving any purpose at all – when nutrients can no longer be assimilated by the body or are not providing any comfort to someone whose death is imminent – then it may be discontinued. But such a situation was not being addressed by the pope in the spring of 2004; he was addressing a narrowly prescribed set of circumstances, and it seems providential that, almost exactly a year later, the specific circumstances he had referred to burst into the public eye with the battle over Terri Schiavo. We must never forget that Terri was not dying until her feeding tube was removed. This is the crucial point: When food and water are withheld such that a person dies as a direct result, the only possible conclusion is a willful homicide. 

Of course, consideration must be made for the particular circumstances of individual cases, but what the Holy Father has done is to help us know the limits of what can be debated, even in the hard cases. No one is claiming that food and water must be provided at all costs until the very last breath has passed ones lips; what the pope did declare is that no one should ever die from starvation and dehydration – and that is precisely what happens when feeding tubes are discontinued despite the absence of underlying pathologies that naturally lead to death. In fact, John Paul refers to such precipitate withdrawals of food and water as "euthanasia by omission."

No one would choose to be in a PVS for any length of time – whether 15 years or five years or even the required one year to attach that label to someone – but unforeseen and unfortunate things happen all the time, and it is in those very unforeseen and unfortunate situations that we are closest to the cross. Our brothers and sisters who are in a PVS (or "post-coma syndrome," as some Catholics writing on this topic are calling it to get away from the negative connotations associated with "vegetative") require our love an care. They are Christ, the Christ of Matthew 25 – "when I was hungry, you fed me; when I was thirsty, you gave me drink."

Can we do otherwise?

A version of this essay originally appeared in Today's Catholic on June 19, 2005. Terri Schiavo died of marked dehydration on March 31, 2005.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Hydration at the End of Life: Avoiding Unnecessary Dehydration

"The deliberate withholding of food and water, regardless of how it is administered, can constitute a form of passive euthanasia, particularly when the intention is to hasten the patient's death. 

"The Church has made it abundantly clear that all forms of euthanasia, whether passive or active, are gravely immoral and must be avoided."

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Real Life

Originally posted on Facebook, July 12, 2013. 

Snowboarding is a world utterly foreign to me, but I'm intimately acquainted with Down syndrome.

My son, Nick, has Down's, and his very life is a window on a world of freedom and joy that I'll never know—except through him. Thank God he's here.

I was reminded of that when I read Dorothy Rabinowitz' WSJ review of The Crash Reel, a documentary about snowboarder Kevin Pearce, his brain injury, and his recovery.

Kevin's story sounds compelling in itself, but what especially struck me was the portrait presented of Kevin's family—especially his brother, David:
David is a riveting presence. He's the family's Down syndrome child, now a young man—urgent, full of passion for his adored athlete brother, the raw voice of anguish over Kevin's accident that the other members of the family try to contain in themselves.
This is what we parents of Down's kids know; it's what the world that aborts them at a rate of 9 out of 10 needs to hear.

Is Down's a piece of cake? No. Here's more from the Pearces:
Mia, Kevin's mother, recalls her initial fear—soon dispatched—that she might not be able to deal with a Down syndrome child. David, that child now nearly a man, reveals details of the unhappiness he feels when he thinks about his condition, a description impressive in its eloquence.
Unhappiness about his condition, but better off dead? Hardly. Life is hard and filled with challenges, but killing to eliminate challenges not only doesn't work—it's terribly, painfully counterproductive. Sometimes, more often than not, the very challenges we wish to avoid turn out to be priceless opportunities that lead to new life. We just can't see it yet.

And when it comes to Down syndrome in particular? I pray for a world that, like Mia Pearce, will dispatch fear instead of persons.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

On the Authoritativeness of Scripture

The Paralytic of Capharnaum is Lowered from the Roof (Byzantine School)
'Problems such as John’s paraphrasing of Jesus’ discourses and the "thatched roof versus tile roof" controversy (cf. Mark 2:4 and Luke 5:19) are not truly divisive, nor are they dangerous to our faith. We agree that the gospels provide us with a generally reliable idea of who Christ was, what he did, and what he said.'