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Knocking us out of our comfort zones

July 8, 2015

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Pope Francis is shown praying at an Austro-Hungarian cemetery for fall soldiers of World War I in Fogliano di Redipuglia, northern Italy, Sept. 13, 2014. The pope in his encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home," released June 18, said all cr eation is singing God's praise but people are silencing it. CNS

Pope Francis is shown praying at an Austro-Hungarian cemetery for fall soldiers of World War I in Fogliano di Redipuglia, northern Italy, Sept. 13, 2014. The pope in his encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home,” released June 18, said all cr eation is singing God’s praise but people are silencing it. CNS

Pope Francis’ encyclical letter “Laudato Si'” is addressed to all people who share our common home, the earth. Not that it will be well received by all people. Specifically mentioned in many passages, religious conservatives may well wonder why the Pope of all people, has made so free as to weigh in on Climate Change, Economics, the Free Market, and Private Property. Those on the “left” will find the Pope’s linking the degradation of our earth, and her rights, with the degradation of the unborn and the elderly, and their rights little more than a political bait and switch, gaining an international audience and ear on the subject of eco-conversion, and finding the Pope quoting Pope Benedict and other Popes as often as he brings forth something of his own, as for example in section 217 when he calls for an interior conversion as an answer for solving our eco-crisis. “The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast.” (Benedict XVI, Homily for the Solemn Inauguration of the Petrine Ministry, April 24, 2005)

Indeed one could call this encyclical co-authored. So many other bishops from around the world and past Popes are cited, John Paul II and Benedict the XVI especially, it truly represents the mind of the church, past and present, and often reads as a tutorial on the traditional longstanding Thomistic understanding of the common good, and private property. But old teachings applied to fresh new situations can yield much insight, and especially self-discovery.

Promoting Dialogue and Mutual Responsibility

The purpose of the encyclical is to promote dialogue between men of all faiths and political persuasions about how best to care for the earth, and for each other in the safeguarding of the earth’s precious resources. It is evident that the Pope’s eyes are on the poor, whose livelihoods are most at risk in the exploitation of the resources in the developing world, and in the gearing of economies to big businesses, which not only box the smaller producers out of the market, but create infrastructure and products with profit in mind, and not the long view of the well being of local economies, watersheds, and communities. It is a personal note to each citizen of the earth: a call to “Dare to turn what is happening to our world into our own personal suffering.” (Section 19) It is something that many on the left have been doing for a while, but the Pope calls even them to a deeper ecological consciousness and friendship, as he links our maltreatment of the earth to our maltreatment of human beings, the deterioration of nature with the deterioration of our culture.

It is a simple and almost fatherly reminder to become students of Nature. It is the cyclical order and pattern in nature herself that provides the whys and wherefores for recycling and composting and re-using. As more and more of the world’s population is becoming city-dwelling, it is often easy to forget the closed circle of fertility that occurs in natural ecosystems, as the Pope reminds us of in section 22, plants synthesize nutrients which feed herbivores; these in turn become food for carnivores, which produce significant quantities of organic waste which give rise to new generations of plants.” The industrial system does not emulate this model, found in nature. The Pope is suggesting we stop buying into the “modern myth” which presupposes unlimited material growth as undeniably good for us all, and which gives the industrial system a pass in the name of that myth, despite the waste and injustices, which such a system incurs in its process. He is asking us to question this system, and to use our modern talents and ingenuity to devise new means of production that place the long term good of both the earth and its inhabitants at their core, rather than profit. “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption.” (Section 23)

The Problem of Over-Consumption

Specifically the Pope draws attention to several issues in which human over consumption has contributed to. Among them: water pollution and waste, Climate Change, extinction of various species, loss of marine and forest ecosystems of the world, and also mental pollution (brought on by the modern “technocracy”.)

Speaking to people of Christian faiths, he explores Genesis to show that God’s gift of reason, which sets man apart from His other creations, is not to encourage domination on the part of human beings, but rather stewardship. God’s words to Adam and Eve in the garden, charging them to “till and keep” creation, refer not to domineering exploitation, but to working it and keeping/protecting it. “(The creation accounts in Genesis) suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” (Section 66) The Pope points to sin as that which causes the ruptures in these three relationships, both inward and outwardly.

In Section 95 the Pope quotes the New Zealand Bishops who suggest that the over consumption of the developed world is a sin against the 5th commandment, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” It’s a sobering thought. One that is backed up by big guns, the likes of Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis quotes him in section 206, when he urges us to vote with our food dollars for a more eco-friendly world: “Purchasing is always a moral-and not simply economic-act.” (Caritas in Veritate 2006)

Reminding us of our universal solidarity with all men and creatures on this planet, the Pope has some important reminders about private property: “If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. “ Section 95 And “The Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable, and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” (Section 93). This may prove to be something of a shocker to many politically conservative Christians. Which brings us to perhaps the crux of this encyclical and why it’s proving to be so pesky to so many. This letter suggests that there is really no distinction and separation between what we do financially and what we do morally, that our consumption is a civic act, not a private one. It suggests that our Religious beliefs and our environmental actions are interconnected more that we might care to think, that the action of buying mass-produced Chinese goods in a big box store which underpays it’s workers, and contributes to massive amounts of material waste, flooding lives with goods that are not needed, and often discarded after a few uses, that this may not indeed be the action of a Christian.

Any time the church seeks to infiltrate the part of our lives spent outside of the pews, it gets pesky. Things get uncomfortable. At rock bottom, we like our lives to be neatly separated into Tupperware containers, faith and worship over here, shopping over there, what goes on in our bedrooms in this box, and what we eat over in this other one. In his encyclical the Pope is reminding us of the interconnectedness of things. Our relationship with the earth is connected to our relationship with our fellow human beings, and vice versa. What we believe in church affects where we should shop, and what we should buy. It is not simply a matter of looking into the companies that produce the goods we buy, we ought to ask ourselves how we can better pursue a path of simplicity, and in this, we can be inspired by people of other faiths and political persuasions, who have chosen to invest in time to contemplate and renewable energy sources, and lifestyles which involve less consumption as a whole.

Technocracy and the “Modern Myth”

One of the most interesting critiques of the encyclical is the one of modern technology. The Pope points out that over-mechinization has not only unemployed a great deal of humanity, it has also furthered our ability to dominate nature while at the same time separating us farther from it. “Technological products are not neutral, for they create a framework which ends up conditioning lifestyles and shaping social possibilities along the lines dictated by the interests of certain powerful groups.” (Section 107) He points to the fruits of the Technocracy as bitter indeed. Already they are clearly seen: “ environmental degradation, anxiety, loss of the purpose of life, and of community living.”(Section 110) The fragmented knowledge imparted in this modern technocracy that we live in, often leaves us with no clear sense of the whole, nor any means with which to answer deeper questions of philosophy and ethics, which underpin the whole of our existence on earth. Life in a technocracy also lends itself to a frenetic pace, we are constantly “connected” electronically, and consequently never really in one place wholly, for any amount of time, a fraction of ourselves somewhere else via text, or twitter, or any of the other social media outlets. #Half There Anywhere. In response to the technocracy the Pope advocates a big SLOW DOWN, a recovering “of the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.” (Section 114) He reminds us to reacquaint ourselves with reality, and its limits. Limits, which our over-consumption and our use of technology in the pursuit of our wants have obscured.

 

The free market is profit driven, and is governed by wants rather than needs. This is why, the Pope points out, it is insufficient to leave to the “invisible hands” of the free-market the job of governing the economy and solving the eco-crises we find ourselves in today.

The Dignity of Work

One of the ways  to self govern our impulse toward over consumption is developing a vivifying understanding of work. If more people choose to do more for themselves, and not rely on the expensive and elaborate system of distribution of goods and food that we find ourselves in in the developed world, there would be less of a burden placed on local economies, many of which, (in developing nations), export commodity crops to their detriment. “We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfillment.” (Section 128)

Global Eco-Initiatives and Oversight

Some global goals that the pope sets are:

  1. Sustainable and Diverse agriculture
  2. Renewable Energy
  3. Efficient Use of Energy
  4. Better use of Marine and Forest Resources of the World
  5. Universal Access to Drinking water. (Section 164)

Regarding Energy:

  1. Favoring Production with maximum energy efficiency
  2. Diminishing the Use of Raw Materials
  3. Removing from the market products which are less energy efficient or more polluting
  4. Improving transport systems
  5. Encouraging construction and repair of buildings aimed at reducing energy consumption and pollution. (Section 180)

He makes it very clear that there needs to be global authority (with the claws and teeth necessary to enforce the laws) to hold nations and states and businesses accountable with regard to eco-abuse. The responsibility is Universal, but the developed world, being as it has helped itself to more of a piece of the global resource pie, has a responsibility to contribute more to these efforts at accountability.

Personal Responsibility and New Paths of Simplicity

While making it very clear that the actions of concerned individuals will not be enough to stave off further ecological disaster, and coming class and resource wars, he does encourage us to follow the example of St. Therese of Lisiuex, performing little acts with great love, in solidarity with our fellow man and with the earth we co-inhabit. Using less energy, avoiding plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, recycling, composting, using public transportation or carpooling whenever we can, planting trees, turning out lights when not using them, all these things “reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. They benefit society, often unbeknownst to us for they call forth a goodness which albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread.” (Sections 211, 212)

In the end, Pope Francis reminds us that “though capable of the worst, (we) are also capable of rising above (ourselves), choosing again what is good and making a new start…I appeal to everyone throughout the world not to forget this dignity which is ours.” 

It is hoped, that in following paths of greater simplicity we will be freed up to respond to the poverty our heedless actions have caused in our neighbors, our planet, and in our own hearts. Listening to and deeply considering the words of Pope Francis in his encyclical “Laudato Si’” will help carve out a space in us internally, and in our lives externally, which love will fill.

Chiara Dowell farms with her husband, Shane, at Little Flower Farm near Skandia and worships at St. Peter in Forest Lake, and St. Mary and St. Michael in Stillwater. 

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A convert faces the confessional

July 6, 2015

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Penitents wait in line to receive the sacrament of reconciliation at Sts. Philip and James Church in St. James, N.Y., March 25, 2013. Sts. Philip and James and all other parishes in the Dioceses of Rockville Centre, N.Y, and Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Archdiocese of New York participate annually in Reconciliation Monday, which falls during Holy Week and offers the opportunity for confession from midafternoon into the evening. CNS

Penitents wait in line to receive the sacrament of reconciliation at Sts. Philip and James Church in St. James, N.Y., March 25, 2013. Sts. Philip and James and all other parishes in the Dioceses of Rockville Centre, N.Y, and Brooklyn, N.Y., and the Archdiocese of New York participate annually in Reconciliation Monday, which falls during Holy Week and offers the opportunity for confession from midafternoon into the evening. CNS

Most converts shrink from the idea of confessing their sins to a priest. Most Catholics, too, I suspect. Who doesn’t shrink from the confessional? A French philosopher once said it would do us all good to go about proclaiming our vices and weaknesses in the same loud voice we use to brag about our accomplishments and our virtues.

Well, here was my opportunity.

I was an odd convert. It was for confession that I had become a Catholic, among other attractions. I knew that the Protestant way was too easy. For me, at least, it was too easy to imagine a God who was not watching me too closely when I sinned or listening too closely when I asked for forgiveness. So, I had the double disadvantage of taking my sins more lightly than I should and not ever being quite sure I had been forgiven.

I was drawn to the idea of confession ever since I read the autobiography of the great psychologist Carl Jung, in which he admits that all he really did for people was to listen to them tell their story. When I thought about that, I realized that we have all experienced the power of someone else’s presence. Think of the times you were quietly depressed, all by yourself, and maybe not even really aware of how sad you were feeling until someone came over to you and asked you how you were doing, and you burst into tears. The presence of a sympathetic human being brings emotions to the surface, and in telling our story our inarticulate, half-understood thoughts and feelings become understandable to us because we are forced to utter them in words.

I knew that Jung was right and that the Catholic practice of confession must be keeping a lot of Catholics off psychiatrists’ couches. The Catholic way offered the sinner accountability, a palpable rite of forgiveness and the healing that comes of utterance.

When the time came for my first confession, I who had longed for the confessional found myself balking in terror. It wasn’t easy, at the age of 60, even to face a lifetime of one’s sins, let alone telling them aloud to a priest. With furious embarrassment I imagined holding up everyone else in line while I took forever to unburden myself, then emerging from the confessional, all eyes on this big sinner who took more than her share of time.

So it was with great relief that I learned I could make an appointment to see a priest in his office. I was more than willing to abandon my romantic image of myself as a mantilla-shrouded penitent kneeling in the cool anonymity of the confessional at dusk. The thought of that anonymity had been comforting, but in my mind, it hadn’t ever been sufficient. Disguise my voice? Go to a different parish to confess, where I am unknown? Best just to face the priest, look him in the eye, and face the humbling reality of my sinful nature.

So I found myself one afternoon sitting before a priest, Kleenex in hand, sobbing my way through my misspent life, while a pair of quiet, gentle, nonjudgmental eyes gazed at me in sympathy.

All of it? Am I truly forgiven for all of it?

There was someone in the room with me to say, yes — all of it. It’s God’s free gift. And, by the way, here’s your penance.

Penance! I had forgotten about that. And I learned about making amends, which would show God and my fellow creatures that I meant business, that I believed however falteringly in the possibility of Christ’s command to “go, and sin no more.”

It wasn’t long before I understood that for continuity I needed a single confessor. I needed someone who would come to know me, know my persistent failures, help me with my struggles, cluck sympathetically, “Yes, that again.” But most importantly, I confess (it becomes a habit), I couldn’t imagine broadcasting my sins among all of our priests. The idea of every resident priest knowing a portion of my depravity was more than I could bear. How this thought exposed and embarrassed my vanity!

I chose a confessor and came to meet with him for reconciliation every month or two. After the first few euphoric visits I began to feel discouraged. I heard myself confessing the same old sins over and over. What was the matter with me? Wasn’t I serious about reforming?

My confessor counseled patience and self-forgiveness. I thought he was being too easy on me. That was the whole thing about this Catholic God. He was too loving! He was a pushover for a penitent tear or two. But over the months, in wrestling with my resurgent demons, I gained insight. The battle lines were mostly drawn, and I was forced to recognize the true power of the old, ingrained habits I was struggling against. I took the measure of my enemy and it soon became apparent I needed to fight harder, and smarter.

It was also discouraging to discover I was more sinful than I thought. In preparation for reconciliation, I used various guides to the examination of conscience, and I discovered the looming reality of sins of omission. Here was a bottomless pit of potential sin. How ever could I do all the things love and conscience told me to do?

Yet, in a small way I began to do some of the things I was now aware I had been neglecting. Sometimes, truly, seeing is doing, and struggle is subverted. I learned that freedom from sin is not just a matter of avoiding doing wrong. It is also filling our lives with right actions.

There have been great benefits to my regular appointments with my dark side. Confession is the mark of my commitment to fearless self-searching, to conscious effort to become the person I want to be and to seeking spiritual guidance in this process of self-transformation.

And it works.

As in any struggle to change, it’s easy to feel I’m not getting anywhere until one day I notice that the view from my window is different, and it’s because I’m standing in a new place.

Each time I go to reconciliation, I am reminded that I have God’s unfailing forgiveness and support, the Church’s unfailing support, and the support of one wonderful holy person whose eyes are love. Once I even blurted out in the midst of my confession, “I can’t believe there’s a person whose job it is to do this — that alone is enough to make me believe in God!”

I have become more forgiving of myself because of confession. After all, I have a priest commanding me in the name of God to forgive myself! This is a sacrament of repeated forgiveness, of palpable, embodied forgiveness. I find myself again and again in the presence of this God who is just love, and whose love is truly unconditional. It makes me want to ease up on myself — and others, too.

I am returned again and again to my community. I am reminded that I am not alone in my troubles, and that my sins do not harm me alone, that reparations are in order, that I am important to the community and my good works are needed. I leave with a lightness of spirit, a feeling of having been released, filled with hope for the future and a sense of my place in the great and interconnected human brotherhood. (I also feel this way when I leave the dentist.)

I’m not much better at resisting sin, but temptation seems to come around less often, probably because I’m much better at throwing myself into the path of grace. As a convert, I am dazzled by the profusion of channels of grace in the Catholic Church. Channels and rivulets and cascades and waterfalls of grace! Of these, reconciliation is a wide river I drink from, an anchor point, a regular return to God embedded in my routine life, and it is one of the greatest gifts of the Catholic tradition. It is God inviting me to turn back toward him again and again, over and over, until one day I never turn my face away at all.

A few centuries again, when every self-respecting Protestant middle-class family had servants, it was well known among these families that if you wanted an honest, hard-working servant, you hired a Catholic.

And people knew why, too: Catholics had to face the confessional.

Virginia Chase Sanderson is a retired college instructor of literature and writing who lives in Minneapolis. The essay is based on a talk she gave at St. Stephen in Anoka.

 

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Hope amid upheaval

July 2, 2015

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The Cathedral of St. Paul, cathedral of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

The Cathedral of St. Paul, cathedral of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

I woke up the morning of June 15, and in typical morning fashion I scrolled my newsfeed. The first story I came across was the news that both Archbishop John Nienstedt and Bishop Lee Piché had resigned. I then read the comments that followed. Some were of those who had been advocating (and hoping) for resignation, and others were from those who felt they were mourning the loss of their shepherds.

I then began to examine my own conscience.

“What opinion do I have of this situation? What opinion should I have? I work in the trenches of the Church daily. My co-workers, our parishioners, the teens I serve — they will be talking, and Michelle, you need to be ready. You need an opinion — and a good, well-articulated one! What will you say if you someone asks you if it was right that they resigned?”

Neitzke

Michelle Neitzke

After some self reflection, I realized I didn’t have all the answers I wanted. I want to believe that truth will have its reign, that justice will be made known and that mercy will follow. I want to trust the decision of the bishops who resigned and that they were cooperating with their consciences. I want to trust that the Holy Spirit will appoint the right bishop to serve our archdiocese.

As of yet, those were the only conclusions I could come to. I resolved that this situation was, in a way, beyond me. I want answers just as much as the next person, but as of now, I still remain a spectator.

The questions that became pertinent to me were: How do I minister to the faithful who may be confused or hurt? How do I as a faithful daughter of the church, speak hope and truth to a local church that is bruised and hurting? How do I show them that I have trust and faith in the Church, the hierarchy, and the office of the episcopate, but yet at the same time realize the humanity and frailty of those who are appointed?

How do I show them that the church is constant, strong and as history shows, capable of enduring a storm? How do I tell of a God, who is full of mercy and who weeps with those who weep, a God whose heart beats with love and that bleeds with compassion for his children?

And yet, I know the world is watching, and local Church is asking:

Will the archdiocese recover?

Where do I place blame?

Can the Church withstand this?

In times turmoil, angst and scandal it is easy to look to the outside for answers and consolation. The answers do not come from the outside, but from the inside, and not even within those who hold offices in the Church, but in the Church herself, and how she prevails against the cursory and transient epochs of her time here on earth.

I believe that there is hope amidst upheaval and that the Church will endure.

The church can withstand this — but not because of the actions of man, but by the power of Christ and what is promised to us. The Church is not merely an institution — who is certainly subject to the struggle and sins of her human members — but a body of believers, who groan and travail until our final sanctification.

She exists now, and there at the same time.

She is in time, but rooted eternity,

is immanent, yet transcendent.

Suffering, while at the same time gloriously triumphant.

A shelter for its members, but is not contained by her walls.

She is ever ancient, and ever new.

And until the end of time, she will remain so.

And she will prevail.

I have promised and I will do it, says the Lord.

I really do believe this. I realize to many the beliefs I hold and the life I live is one of wonder. I have spent six years studying theology. I’m in my 20s and I have chosen to work for the Catholic Church, and so far, I have dedicated my career to it.

Many people unabashedly ask me, “Why would you work for that Church? The Church that can’t stay out of the headlines, and has many times been wounded by its own members?”

My answer to them is the same as it is to those who are angry, hurt and confused by the current events in our archdiocese.

The Church is a human body, but also a mystical body — mystical because its head is the one who is Glory Himself. Our Church is a pilgrim, susceptible to the failings of its members but never defeated by them. Imperfect now, but perfect then, and continually holding on to the promise of restoration and renewal. Christ will not abandon his church and the Holy Spirit will not be quenched. Renewal and sanctification are not far off possibilities but obtainable realities.

Hope is not mere sentimentality but a virtue, which certainly requires humility and trust. Hope demands that we trust not in ourselves, but in the power of God. Hope is not weak, but rooted in an expectant faith. Hope believes that God will deliver what he has promised. We hope in the glory to come, but are also aware that this glory can be present here and now, just as the sun  peeks rays of its light, God will show his glory through cloudy and dim circumstances. He will make things new.

My prayers are with the Church, and those who are confused, suffering, hurt and lost.

My hope is in Christ.

Michelle Neitzke is the director of senior high faith formation at All Saints in Lakeville.

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