Reflecting on the 2013 World Day of Peace Message and Reaffirming our “Option for the Poor” in the New Year.

PopeBenedictXVI_WorldPeaceDay_jpgThe “Option for the Poor and Vulnerable” is a principle of our Catholic social teaching. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) reminds us that this principle is firmly rooted in scripture and in our tradition. In its social teachings the Church has repeatedly expressed its concern for the widening gap between those who are wealthy and those who are economically poor. In his 2013 World Day of Peace message “Blessed are the Peacemakers,” Pope Benedict XVI again articulates this social concern:

It is alarming to see hotbeds of tension and conflict caused by growing instances of inequality between rich and poor, by the prevalence of a selfish and individualistic mindset which also finds expression in an unregulated financial capitalism. #1

Through this principle our Catholic church invites us to recognize that “a basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are faring.” As we consider economic and social policies in this New Year we are invited again to take up this principle and to reflect on how our policies affect those members of our communities that bear the burden of our economic development. While our tradition asserts this principle through Jesus’ own instructions (ie. beatitudes – Luke 6:20-23, final judgment – Matt 25:34-40) our church has also recognized that economic greed, far from being the social good that Gordan Gecco suggest in the movie “Wall Street,” is actually against the natural law. Basil the Great analyzed this in this way:

basilThe beasts become fertile when they are young, but quickly cease to be so. But capital produces interest from the very beginning, and this in turn multiplies into infinity. All that grows ceases to do so when it reaches its normal size. But the money of the greedy never stops growing.

Many of our Church Fathers would recognize the need for economic and social regulations. St. Augustine would go on to say that “In the absence of justice, what is sovereignty but organized robbery?” Our Church continues to express this concern from both our philosophical and faith tradition. The “option for the poor” is a principle that flows from our belief in the dignity of the human person. We all share a common dignity by virtue that we are all created “in the image and likeness of God.” We express our own dignity when we promote the dignity of those who suffer in our world. In this way we become agents of justice, and as agents of justice we become heralds of peace. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his 2013 World Day of Peace Message:

Peace is an order enlivened and integrated by love, in such a way that we feel the needs of others as our own, share our goods with others and work throughout the world for greater communion in spiritual values. #3

In this message Pope Benedict XVI invites us all to be peacemakers in our society by addressing critical social issues that we face. “The concern of peacemakers must also focus upon the food crisis… The issue of food security is once more central to the international political agenda.” Along with food security Pope Benedict XVI reminds us to reform the economic system so that they serve the human community and especially the most vulnerable members of our society. “The creation of ethical structures for currency, financial and commercial markets is also fundamental and indispensable; these must be stabilized and better coordinated and controlled so as not to prove harmful to the very poor. #5”

cchd2January is observed as “poverty awareness month.” In a recent post I offered some resources from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development on promoting this observance and issue. Please visit my recent post on and consider adopting the “option for the poor” as a lived principle of our communal faith in the New Year.

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January is “Poverty Awareness Month:” Visit the Poverty USA website and resources.

In a recent article posted on the Financial Times Pope Benedict XVI offered the following Christmas message titled “A time for Christians to engage with the world.” While the article is a economic reflection on the Christmas message it also offers a powerful reminder of the Christian’s social responsibility.

Christians fight poverty out of a recognition of the supreme dignity of every human being, created in God’s image and destined for eternal life. Christians work for more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weakest and most vulnerable. Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught and lived by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to fullness of life. Christian belief in the transcendent destiny of every human being gives urgency to the task of promoting peace and justice for all. #5

CCHDAs it happens January is “poverty awareness month.” The Catholic Campaign for Human Development (CCHD) is offering a calendar resource for us to observe and address the issue of food security during the month of January. Please visit CCHD’s Poverty USA website for great resources on poverty and visit the poverty map to see how your own state is affected by poverty.  The Catholic Campaign for Human Development is a project of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. I invite us all to take part of this observance and to accept our Christian social responsibility.  Below is the Poverty USA Tour video please watch and share this with your community.

CCHD | Tour Poverty USA from Crosby Marketing Communications on Vimeo.

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Blessed are the Peacemakers: Reflecting on the 2013 World Day of Peace Message in light of the Connecticut massacre

As I consider the hope that we celebrate with the birth of the one we call Emmanuel, “God among us,” I am led to reflect on Matthew’s telling of the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Christ Jesus is the Prince of Peace, and we recognize God’s great love for us in the way that Jesus heals our physical, spiritual and social needs. Yet Jesus’ goodness will also juxtapose and highlight the violence and injustice in our present social reality. God’s radical love for each of us will challenge the social powers of our world. Herod we know responded to this message with unimaginable cruelty. Society continued to respond with the instruments of violence and ultimately condemned Jesus to death, but our faith reminds us that society did not have the last word. Our Christian heritage is to be witnesses to the fact that Jesus lives and God’s love, our hope, will persevere.

lament-of-rachelSadly, for us this is not a mere historical message. Recently we were scarred with the massacre of the innocents in a small town in Connecticut where 28 lives were lost. Our nation was moved to prayer and our thoughts went to the victims, their families, and the town that continues to live with this tragic experience. Fr. James Martin, SJ offered a powerful prayer that I shared in Facebook. In it he cries out to God in the midst of this tragedy but recalls that God, who suffered the death of His own Son, accompanied us on this painful journey. In an article written in America magazine Fr. Martin also reminds us that prayer can only be the first step. “Deep emotions are one way that God encourages us to act. Simply praying, ‘God, never let this happen again’ is insufficient for the person who believes that God gave us the intelligence to bring about lasting change.” Our faith tells us that God’s love will persevere. This tragedy must move us to bring about the peace of God in a world of violence. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops raised a call for action in response to the Newtown Tragedy challenging us to address the following actions:

1.Support measures that control the sale and use of firearms

2.Support measures that make guns safer (especially efforts that prevent their unsupervised use by children and anyone other than the owner)

3.Call for sensible regulations of handguns

4.Support legislative efforts that seek to protect society from the violence associated with easy access to deadly weapons including assault weapons

5.Make a serious commitment to confront the pervasive role of addiction and mental illness in crime.

I think it is nothing less than Providential that the 2013 World Day of Peace message by Pope Benedict XVI is titled “Blessed are the Peacemakers.” Peace, Pope Benedict asserts, is not a dream or something utopian; it is possible.” Peace requires a new mindset based on a vision of solidarity which recognizes that “we are, in God, one human family.” In this annual message he offers the following “pedagogy for peacemakers.”

Thoughts, words and gestures of peace create a mentality and a culture of peace, and a respectful, honest and cordial atmosphere. There is a need, then, to teach people to love one another, to cultivate peace and to live with good will rather than mere tolerance. A fundamental encouragement to this is “to say no to revenge, to recognize injustices, to accept apologies without looking for them, and finally, to forgive,” in such a way that mistakes and offences can be acknowledged in truth, so as to move forward together towards reconciliation. This requires the growth of a pedagogy of pardon. Evil is in fact overcome by good, and justice is to be sought in imitating God the Father who loves all his children (cf. Mt 5:21-48).

This Christmas let us offer one another the gift of peace by embracing this pedagogy and becoming an agent of God’s love to one another as we prophetically address the social issues that we need to confront in our violent world.

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Praxic Theodicy: A process for responding to tragedy

East Atlantic Beach: The Morning of Hurricane Sandy

In my own experience of Hurricane Sandy I witnessed and experienced a moment that theologian Jon Sobrino  calls “countercultural goodness.” A moment where in the midst of tragic suffering people are driven to give of themselves in order to help the larger community. In looking back on how the community of Long Beach, NY experienced this moment I wondered what the source for this orientation was. What gives us the drive to struggle with one another in moving ahead from the state of suffering that we find ourselves in? The Christian tradition suggest that there is a divine motivation that moves us into this spirit of self-giving, a spirit of kenosis (self-emptying). Through kenosis we empty ourselves of our own will and allow ourselves to be receptive to God’s will. To adopt God’s will is to exist for the common good. What we do is not guided by our own self-interest but for the good of all. We can accept self-sacrifice because we see ourselves investing in the community and we recognize that our own welfare is directly related to the welfare of the community. As an example, after the hurricane our block continued to have access to uncontaminated water while our friends on the block directly east of us had their water source contaminated. The spirit of kenosis moved us to offer and produce a system that gave those people in need access to our water, at least until the National Guard provided these communities with a larger supply. The spirit of kenosis moved many of my out of town friends to reach out and see in what way they could support us during this time. We give of ourselves in order to transform difficult experiences and to heal the suffering community.

Salvatore Dali’s “Christ of St. John of the Cross”

For Christians Jesus is our reference point for this spirituality of self-emptying. St. Paul the Apostle teaches us that “though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.”(Phil 2:6-7) This is the example we are given and in this way Jesus demonstrates a perfect example of being human. By sacrificing his own will and self-interest he exalted himself in adopting God’s will and placing himself in the service of our humanity. Through this example St. Paul instructs us to “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (Phil 2: 3-4) This is the spirituality of kenosis which we are invited to share.

The hurricane gave us all an experience of powerlessness and weakness. Through the spirituality of kenosis we are able to place our own sense of weakness within the context and service of our neighbors shared suffering. In our moment of weakness we are empowered by the Spirit of God to become transforming agents of God’s love for one another. Reflecting on the Indonesian context of the transformative spirit of kenosis, Professor Johannes Banawiratma tells us:

Following the self-emptying spirituality, Jesus’ disciples are transformed to become more like Jesus. Such is a spirituality of powerlessness and continuous conversion, of renewal to be more open to others and to God. The self-transformation of Jesus’ disciples makes an impact on their social solidarity and stimulates wider transformation, namely, the transformation of societal life.[1]

“Countercultural goodness” shows us how we instinctively allow ourselves to experience a spirit of kenosis in the midst of our shared tragedy and suffering. The question is; how can we sustain this divine experience? Jon Sobrino proposes a process, in light of the experience of social suffering from either violence or natural disasters, that he calls “praxic theodicy.[2]” This three step process allows us to struggle with our shared sense of powerlessness in order to move us towards self and social transformation.

  1. Indignation: In the face of incomprehensible suffering it is very much appropriate to question the failure of God (theodicy) and humanity (anthropodicy) to allow this situation to take place. In doing this we are recognizing the incomprehensible suffering for what it is and allowing ourselves to be moved out of our complacency in order to declare that this situation is simply not fair or just. Expressing indignation is very much part of our Scriptural tradition; the Psalms, Lamentations and the Book of Job are replete with expressions of indignation towards unjust suffering.
  2. Hope: In the book of Job we find the tragic figure of Job expressing indignation to God over the painful experience he is undergoing and the social injustices that he witnesses. During this moment of despair however Job is able to make an astounding declaration of faith: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” (Job 19:25) As Sobrino says: “God-whether or not God has the power to overcome suffering- does have the power to nurture human hope.”[3] By declaring hope we are affirming the resurrection and the belief that God will not allow our suffering to have the last word. As a people and as a community we will grow from this tragic experience and become transformative agents for a better world.
  3. Honesty: What Sobrino calls honesty I would want to call agency. For Christians a declaration of hope does not allow us to passively offer well wishes to others. As St. James tells us, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Jas 2: 15-16) Honesty forces us to take responsibility in helping our suffering neighbors and to allow God’s hope to work through us. It moves us to action (agency). Through direct charity and social justice we become transforming agents of God that respond to tragedy and share in a common belief that has become a mantra for globalization activists, “another world is possible.”

From a spirituality of individual self emptying we construct a community that embodies this “countercultural goodness.” This countercultural community is identified by St. Paul as koinonia or the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13: 13). It is a fellowship of mutual respect that shares all things in common. The early Christian community offers us this model (Acts 2:42) and St. Paul tells us that this divine fellowship of “countercultural goodness” is the ultimate aim of our existence (Rom. 8:22-24). Ethicist John Mahoney explores a spirituality of koinonia as a basis for the renewal of moral theology arguing that “koinonia is not simply a Christian addition to human destiny, but responds to the deepest aspirations of God’s human creatures, who are made in his image[4]” Mahoney then continues to develop this “deepest aspiration” for humanity.

Such a theology of the traditional Christian doctrine of man as made in God’s image puts before all men and women, then, not only a common destiny but also a shared moral programme of a fellowship of persons as the creational and Christian task to be worked for all at all levels of human society… It is to give witness in human society to that fellowship of individuals to which every man is called and to give evidence of the degree to which he is already enabled, by the Spirit of Christ, to live in communion with God and his fellow men.[5]

In the face of tragedy Sobrino offers us this process that allows us to intentionally develop the spirituality of kenosis and koinonia; a spirituality that allows us to be emptied of our own self-interest and to construct a community based on a fellowship that responds to Christ’s mandate to “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)

[1] Johannes Banawiratma, “The Pastoral Circle as Spirituality: toward an Open and Contextual Church” in Frans Wijsen, Peter Henriot, Rodrigo Mejia (eds.), The Pastoral Circle Revisited: A Critical Quest for Truth and Transformation (Maryknoll, Orbis: 2005) pp. 82

[2] Jon Sobrino, “Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope” (Orbis Book, Maryknoll NY, 2004) pp. 143

[3] Ibid., pp.143

[4] John Mahoney, The Making of Moral Theology: A study of the Roman Catholic Tradition (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1987) pp.345

[5] Ibid., pp.346

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Hurricane and Natural Catastrophes, “Where is God in All this?”

My block of East Atlantic Beach, After Hurricane Sandy

Practical or (within the Hispanic context) popular theology places an emphasis on the lived experience of the faithful community. I offer my experience of Hurricane Sandy in a recent post as the setting for a theological investigation on how our Church needs to respond to these situations. Like most theological investigation the question of theodicy (the concept of God’s Justice or better yet asking the perennial question “where is God in all this”) is often times done within the academic halls and it fills volumes of writings that are studied within a sanitized academic setting. Yet practical/popular theology recognizes that the appropriate place for this investigation must reside with the lived experience of the people. Curiously enough this branch of theology has been explored from tragic experiences that others have had. Famous theologians such as Jurgen Moltmann and Edward Schillebeeckx wrestled with this question during the aftermath of the Second World War. More recently contextual theologians like Elizabeth Johnson and Jon Sobrino continue to contribute to this project. These are meaningful contributions to the topic, yet practical/popular theology also makes it a point to say that it must not only be informed by the experience of the people but it must also be able to relate to the people who, like the neighbor above, are stating their theological concerns and frustrations.

Theodicy poses a challenge to practical theology in that it raises one of the most difficult questions that people confront in some of the most horrific experiences that they have. It is a question that is easier to address within the realm of theories then in the lived experience. People who have just experienced this disaster are part of an historical tradition that has wrestled with the famous Epicurean question, “If God is all powerful and God is just where does evil come from?” We must explore the role of the Church in being present during these difficult questions and journeying with those who suffer in a way that allows people to engage in reflecting and developing their understanding of theodicy in light of their experiences.

Jesus himself offers a response to a similar question that he reflects with his disciples. In the 13th chapter of Luke’s Gospel they consider God’s purpose over an act of political violence and a natural tragedy. The common belief is that those people who suffered these tragedies were obviously great sinners and deserving of God’s wrath. Jesus responds in this way; “do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” (Lk 13:4-5) Jesus then goes on to offer a parable of the barren fig tree. This parable emphasizes a couple points. The owner, God, is looking for the tree to bear fruit. In asking for repentance Jesus is asking that we engage in a conversion process whereby we bear the fruit of God’s love to one another. The gardener (who plays the role of Jesus) will do what he can to promote the mission of God’s enduring love for all creation. The second point that is made with this parable is that God, in His mercy, will patiently wait for us to bear fruit. The disasters that begin this chapter then are not God’s condemnation against a group of sinners, instead they are an opportunity for us to grow and repent by being agents of God’s love to one another.

St. Ignatius Parish, Long Beach NY

The central Christian answer to the question of “Where is God?” in the midst of disasters such as this recent hurricane is the Paschal Mystery. The idea that the suffering and death of Jesus was not in vain, social injustice would not have the last word. God would vindicate His suffering servant and raise him so that we, as Christian disciples, can be witnesses of God’s great love for humanity. This is the mystery of faith that allowed someone like Monsignor Romero of El Salvador to declare, moments before he was assassinated, “I do not believe in death without resurrection.  If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador.” Through the resurrection God would give meaning to the senseless and unjust death that Jesus experienced. So it is that we are called to experience God in the suffering that people go through and in that way we can respond with faith by bringing God’s love to one another especially to those who have suffered. Pope Benedict XVI tells us:

To suffer with the other and for others; to suffer for the sake of truth and justice; to suffer out of love and in order to become a person who truly loves—these are fundamental elements of humanity, and to abandon them would destroy man himself.

But then Pope Benedict XVI would raise the question, “are we capable of this?” He then goes on to say that on our own we are not capable of this, but then again he suggests that we are not alone.

Man is worth so much to God that he himself became man in order to suffer with man in an utterly real way—in flesh and blood—as is revealed to us in the account of Jesus’s Passion.  Hence in all human suffering we are joined by one who experiences and carries that suffering with us; hence con-solatio is present in all suffering, the consolation of God’s compassionate love—and so the star of hope rises.[1]

Jon Sobrino reminds us that the question of theodicy must also bring us to raise the question of anthropodicy[2]; in claiming the divine dignity that we all share through God if we wish to hold God accountable we must also be able to hold ourselves accountable as well. St. Paul reminds us that “we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.” (1Cor. 3:9) We are not passive agents of the Gospel mission. Sobrino rightfully will place the challenge of God’s justice at our feet. “The challenge to God, and to human beings, is where were they both in Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Gulag…? Where are they today in the African Great Lakes, Haiti, and Bangladesh?[3]

A Sign of Hope

Without having a deep theological foundation of theodicy the community in which I live demonstrated an innate sense of anthropodicy when we helped each other and accompanied one another in the aftermath of the hurricane. Certainly acts of vandalism and looting that take place when a community faces devastation but overall it is overshadowed by the goodness and assistance we experienced with our neighbors. The broader community responded as well, outside of first responders and social agencies I was blessed with an amazing outpouring from family, friends, co-workers and students who reached out to offer whatever they could. That type of compassion accompanied by a strong sense of solidarity moves a community to engage in a form of goodness that transcends our social conventions. Instead of relating with one another within the cultural framework of competition and self-preservation we are able to relate with each other in a spirit of self-less giving and authentic solidarity. Reflecting on the 2001 earthquake of El Salvador Jon Sobrino describes this as a “countercultural goodness.”

Organizations passing out resources in Long Beach

Goodness shows that evil can be overcome, although sometimes at a very high cost. The generosity, integrity, and solidarity that appear in times of earthquake show that the good is possible, but at the same time they unmask the selfishness, corruption, and arrogance of governments and agencies, and they challenge those who helplessly or cynically hide behind perceptions of inevitability. Thus against all apparent logic, goodness becomes something conflictive and countercultural.[4]

Hurricane Sandy hit us right before a major election. It was inspiring to see how this community, in light of all that it suffered, made sure that it would engage in voting process. East Atlantic Beach had the voting booths open in the beach house one week after the Hurricane and we along with many New Yorkers made it to the polls to participate with our civic responsibility. In the midst of our devastation we would not hide behind a feeling of “helplessness or cynically hide behind perceptions of inevitability.

National Guard distributing resources

Hurricane Sandy provides us with a teachable moment. During catastrophes and natural disasters we can recognize this type of “countercultural goodness” where we allow ourselves to be moved by what Abraham Lincoln called, the “better angels of our nature.” Sadly these moments eventually pass away and we again succumb to our culturally competitive values. The question for us is, how can we sustain this “countercultural goodness” that allow us to adopt these countercultural values and norms which are authentically Christian? The task for practical/popular theology is to build on the experience the community has and further empower us by placing our experience within a theological framework which will move us deeper into adopting this “countercultural goodness” accompanied with a communal vision of hope.

[2] Jon Sobrino, “Where is God? Earthquake, Terrorism, Barbarity, and Hope” (Orbis Book, Maryknoll NY, 2004) pg. 25

[3] Ibid., pg.26

[4] Ibid., pg.103

[5] Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861:

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Lectionary reflection for Nov. 11, 2012: Giving beyond what we owe.

Lectionary Readings:

  • 1 Kings 17:10-16. A widow of Zarephath is willing to share her last food with Elijah and is rewarded with a continuous supply till the drought ended.
  • Heb 9:24-28. Christ has entered into the heavenly sanctuary to appear before God on our behalf. He will come to earth a second time to bring final salvation.
  • Mark 12:38-44. Unlike the ostentatious scribes and wealthy donors, the widow unobtrusively gives all that she possesses, two small copper coins.

Thoughts for Your Consideration:
One time when I gave a talk on Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical “Charity in Truth,” I was approached by a retreatant and asked “How much should someone making over $200,000 give to charity?” This particular retreatant expressed frustration at what he perhaps considered a harping message from the Church to constantly give. In this exchange he went over how much he gives and how much he volunteers and after hearing about a Papal message where charity is further extolled  he simply wanted to know how much his Church is asking him to give.

The readings do not give us a sliding scale to account for how much one ought to give. Charity does not offer a formula for how much we ought to give. The widows in these readings give what little they have not to fulfill a financial regulation, but in a spirit of giving to those in need. Charity in Latin, caritas, is defined as the act of loving, it is a state of life where we demonstrate God’s love for one another. A spirit of charity does not ask how much we should give. The source of this spirit is the knowledge that we are loved by God and “as the objects of God’s love, men and women become subjects of charity.” (Charity in Truth #5) Pope Leo the Great reminded the fifth century Christian community, “If God is love, charity should know no limit, for God cannot be confined.”

The widows in the readings for this week offer us an example of charity freely given. Pope Benedict XVI reminds us, however that our state of freely giving to others can only exist after we have given what we owe in justice to one another.

Charity goes beyond justice, because to love is to give, to offer what is “mine” to the other; but it never lacks justice, which prompts us to give the other what is “his,” what is due to him by reason of his being or his acting. I cannot “give” what is mine to the other, without first giving him what pertains to him in justice. If we love others with charity, then first of all we are just towards them. Not only is justice not extraneous to charity, not only is it not an alternative or parallel path to charity: justice is inseparable from charity, and intrinsic to it. Justice is the primary way of charity or, in Paul VI’s words, “the minimum measure” of it, an integral part of the love “in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:18), to which Saint John exhorts us. (Charity in Truth #6)

Justice is that which a person needs to experience the fullness of life with dignity. Through justice we are first attentive to the legitimate rights of the person including the right to life and sustenance. Charity then is not merely something owed; it is that which we give freely above and beyond what is owed. As St. Gregory the Great would say, “when we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”

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An Experience of Hurricane Sandy

Hurricane Sandy approaching East Atlantic Beach (west of Long Beach, NY)

Hurricane Sandy made landfall around 8pm on Monday October 29, 2012. It headed straight into the center of New Jersey as a level one hurricane but with other conditions including a full moon and stronger storm surges it had a wide effect that devastated our shore line community of Long Beach, NY. My family and I stayed at home since we thought that this storm would not be any worse than Hurricane Irene last year. Many of our neighbors, most of whom had lived in the community for a while, believed that this storm would have similar effects to last year’s storm. Up till 6:30pm some our neighbors reassured us of this although others, including myself, began having second thoughts. By 7:30pm many of us recognized that this storm was going to be far more devastating. One neighbor’s (who was very optimistic up till quarter to 8pm) face changed into a dreadful awareness as he exclaimed “I have never seen this happen before.”

The bay waters entering the West End.

At that time I went out to the corner because I could see the excitement of other neighbors and saw that the Ocean had entered the west end of Long Beach two blocks from our house. At first I wasn’t worried because I recalled how this happened last year. However, as the waters started going past me I became aware of one unusual fact. This occurred last year at the height of the storm surge. This time, we were not even close to that. I came in just in time to see the Ocean and the Bay meet on our street. When the waters rose past the curb we started to move our belongings from the first floor to our bedrooms on the second floor. We attempted to take the kids to our neighbor’s house whose property was more elevated but the water moved so quickly that we could not make it without seeing the potential danger of being swept away by current. So the family huddled upstairs while I waited for the worst downstairs. The waters came up to the deck which was one step away from entering the first floor. I placed towels along the doors in a last ditch effort. There I stayed monitoring the progress of the water as it engulfed all our cars; the salt water triggered the electrical components of the car (which in my case opened the windows of the cars thus making the damage that much worst). A neighbor called for help regarding her elderly mother but we could not get over there.

The waters starting to recede from my deck

It was then that I found myself in prayer. Looking out the window I offered my petitions that God spare the destruction to my home even as I affirmed that “thy will be done.” For a half an hour I waited and it appeared to that the waters were beginning to recede. I waited till I could validate this and then told my family the good news. I went out and looked around from my deck. After awhile, with the waters stagnant, I was overcome with exhaustion and crashed in bed.

Burnt cars one block away

A strong smell of electrical fire woke me up early in the morning. I got out and checked the house and surrounding houses to see if there was any danger. I then realized that the waters had receded. Going out I saw three cars completely burned. I also saw first responders including Fire department and police. I directed them to the elderly lady’s house and they were able to take care of her needs. At that point many of us began to congregate and assess our situation. For the most part many of us were just happy with the fact that we survived. We knew that we sustained damage but that would not yet overwhelm us on the morning after. Later during the day some of us would examine the surrounding neighborhood which had received greater damage, and then we would look at the ocean front and the once famous Long Beach boardwalk. We were becoming aware of the devastation that our community experienced.

Oceanview Street on the West End of Long Beach where the sand dunes were pushed.

In the days to come many of us would begin to assess the damage and become overwhelmed by the loss we had suffered. For some of us the loss was material, but for others the loss included their livelihood and others simply lost everything. It would take a couple of days for me to fully accept that we no longer had any car and that our boiler shed and crawl space was hopelessly wrecked (thus leaving us with mold and no floor insulation). For at least a full week and a half we would have to live with no power, heat or hot water. We were one block away from houses that had no access to potable water, so again we were blessed. Yet for many of my neighbors the situation became one where they did not know how to start repairing the damage. The first step of course was to clean up the garbage and throw away the debris. As soon as I was able to get to the office I was able to place a claim on all the damages we had and start that part of the process. We stayed for 6 days but with the weather getting colder the family would finally evacuate to my in-laws where there was power, heat and hot water.

Behind my house, the day after.

A neighbor would comment “I am not sure the community can ever get back to normalcy” but most of us just took it day by day, recognizing that at some point this community will once again stand tall. Giving us a sense of hope was the fact that we all worked together to help each other. Neighbors would come back from wherever they were staying and drop off essentials like ice, water and bagels (a long island essential). The National Guard, state police and FEMA began to respond with food and water distributions. The city and county would soon begin to clear the larger debris.

The rectory of St. Ignatius Parish, Long Beach, NY. Parts of the Long Beach boardwalk ended up on the doorstep.

Although our Church was also without power and sustained some damage we were able to have at least one Mass on Saturday and Sunday. Many came for a sense of normalcy, others came for support. Our Pastor would not only supply us with our spiritual needs but took the opportunity to have the community announce the services, distributions and community meetings that the Church and community would be providing. However, the feelings we all had ran the gamut. We would be strengthened and supported by each other but sometimes we would look like zombies as we would feel overwhelmed with our situation. Many of us would ask questions with reference to what this reality (in light of two hurricane disaster two years in a row) means for the future of our community. Is this weather pattern a cyclical expectation that we will simply have to live with? Is this community no longer ecologically sustainable?

This community will rise again and as a people of faith we will experience the hope and joy of having developed a stronger sense of community that struggled together in the face of this disaster. For now we are all taking it one step at a time and journeying with each other in addressing our own needs and frustrations. At one point I let a neighbor who was an avid churchgoer know the time for the weekend Catholic Mass. Her response was “I am angry with God right now” (she had fervently prayed the week before for God to spare us this devastation). A moment later she recanted what she said but I told her that she need not take back her anger. “Sometimes,” I told her, “its okay to be angry with God.”

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“New Evangelization” with a Commitment towards Praxis

In her article “Pastoral Theology or Practical Theology” Kathleen Calahan reminds us that practical theology is not associated with the actions of the Church, “rather it is the determination theologically of the Church’s ‘principles and prescriptions for the Church’s present action’.”[1] Citing both Karl Rahner and Heinz Schuster Calahan presents practical theology as providing “a basis for a scientifically responsible self-awareness of the Church as she has to act here and now.”[2]

Practical theology, as I shared with a recent post, is presented as a pastoral process the employs a scientific method to critically engage the Church (and its various theological disciplines) with society. Calahan goes on to note that this theological proposal  offered by Rahner and Schuster never made it officially into Catholic theology but she proposes a glimmer of hope insofar as practical theologians are moving forward in employing this method. In another article Calahan unpacks this a bit by saying that:

…there is a remarkably “catholic” approach to theology currently in place. Certainly the rise and acceptance of liberation, feminist, contextual, Asian, African, and more recently communicative theologies, are kin and cousins to practical theology in important ways, especially their commitment to praxis and theology’s role in a revitalized faith for the mission of the church.[3]

Calahan’s assertion resonates with what practical theologians are saying within the various theological contexts mentioned above. The “Pastoral contribution to the Synod for Africa” declares that practical theology’s purpose is “to provide a critical and theological reflection on the pastoral praxis of the church in the contemporary situation… Practical theology is called practical because the subject matter of its study is the praxis of the Church.”[4]

Praxis and methodologies are vital components of Latino practical theology. Allan Figuero Deck suggest that practical theology, understood this way, offers a great contribution to the efforts underway for what the Church calls, the “New Evangelization.” Surveying the treatment of “new evangelization” since the time of Pope Paul VI Deck is hopeful that this unfolding concept will be “arguably the most ecclessially sanctioned, illuminating and practical visions at hand for what is supposed to be happening in the life of Christian communities today.”[5]

For Deck one of the major challenges for the Church is its inability to “make the explicit link between faith and justice.” Certainly at the level of the Pope and even with national conferences we do get periodic links regarding how the teaching of our faith can instruct us on social issues (although that tends to be a one sided relationship insofar as the Church does not generally allow for a critical self-examination of itself with respect to social developments). Nevertheless I share Deck’s concern that especially at the local parish and perhaps even at the diocesan level we often do not know how to integrate this link.

Yet Deck remains hopeful that if the Church embraces the gifts of the contextual theologies then it may be able to recognize a process for praxis. Using the context of Latino theology Deck prescribes that the Church (at the parish level) ought to be intentionally familiar and embrace the multicultural diversity of its parish community within the liturgical and social life of the parish. He also suggests that an intimate link needs to be forged between the worship life of the Parish and the social issues that affect it. In this way he proposes that Catholic Social Teaching must be part of the evangelical message. Finally, he also recommends “a much more differentiated and creative approach to ministry” that seeks out the unmet social and spiritual needs of its parish community.[6]

[1] Kathleen Calahan, Chapter Six, “Pastoral Theology or Practical Theology? Limits and Possibilities,” in James Sweeney, Gemma Simmonds, and David Lonsdale (eds.) Keeping Faith in Practice: Aspects of Catholic Pastoral Theology (London: SCM, 2010), pp. 105

[2] Ibid., pp. 106

[3] Kathleen Calahan, “Locating Practical Theology in Catholic Theological Discourse and Practise,” International Journal of Practical Theology, Vol. 15 (2011), pp. 17

[4] Cecil McGarry, Rodrigo Mejia, Valerian Shirima, A light on our Path: A Pastoral Contribution to the synod for Africa (Nairobi: St. Paul Publications, 1993), pp. 35-36

[5] Allen Figueroa Deck, “A Latino Practical Theology: Mapping the road ahead,” Theological Studies 65 (2004) pp. 280

[6] Ibid.; pp. 296-297

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Faithful Citizenship asks us to promote Civil Dialogue

In the introductory note of “Faithful Citizenship” the U.S. Bishops make a point to declare their hope that by offering this document they could “contribute to civil and respectful dialogue.” In another section, they recognize that “unfortunately, politics in our country often can be a contest of powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites, and media hype. The Church calls for a different kind of engagement.” This analysis from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) ought to be recognizable to us all. As of late the rhetoric that is employed in politics has become extremely partisan and very divisive. We have witnessed town hall meetings and political gatherings that have deteriorated into unproductive yelling matches. Conspiracy theories abound and folks seem to comfortably accept these fear-based tirades sowing a deep sense of mistrust in all our public officials. Popular media pundits tend to offer opinionated, biased, and often unreflective responses to their political opposition. Rarely does the media engage in offering critical analysis and reflection on important issues that our nation must address. The American Catholic community is not immune to this divisive political atmosphere and often we may contribute to the promotion of civil discord rather than civil dialogue.

Our Bishops invite us to offer “a different kind on engagement.” The invitation is to promote civil dialogue and to approach our political issues and differences with charity and love for one another. Cardinal Dolan of New York gave us a wonderful image of that when he invited both Presidential Candidates to the Al Smith fundraising event saying: “the posture of the Church towards culture, society, and government is that of engagement and dialogue. In other words, it’s better to invite than to ignore, more effective to talk together than to yell from a distance, more productive to open a door than to shut one.” This remind of what St. Augustine means when he says “In essentials unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” The Second Vatican Council invites us to adopt a tone of civil dialogue as we engage in our civic responsibilities:

Catholics should try to cooperate with all men and women of good will to promote whatever is true, whatever just, whatever holy, whatever lovable (cf. Phil. 4:8). They should hold discussions with them, excel them in prudence and courtesy, and initiate research on social and public practices which should be improved in line with the spirit of the Gospel. (Apostolicam Actuasitatem #14)

We are called to be a leaven to our American society so that through our witness of careful listening and respectful dialogue we can transform our own political landscape in a way that engenders civility and mutuality. To that end the USCCB “faithful citizenship” website gives us some great resources and tools to help us become this type of political witness.  Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, wrote a brief essay on Civil Dialogue that parishes can place in their bulletin. Attention to this statement will be crucial. I would like to highlight the ground rules that Cardinal Wuerl shares in his essay:

  1. Make sure everyone has an opportunity to speak.
  2. Share your personal experience, not someone else’s.
  3. Listen carefully and respectfully. Speak carefully and respectfully. Do not play the role of “know-it-all, convincer or corrector.” Remember that a dialogue is not a debate.
  4. Don’t interrupt unless for clarification or time keeping.
  5. Accept that no group or viewpoint has a complete monopoly on the truth.
  6. “Be more ready to give a favorable interpretation to another’s statement than condemn it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2478, quoting St. Ignatius of Loyola).
  7. Be cautious about assigning motives to another person.

The USCCB also has two video’s on this subject.

Finally, I would also like to draw attention to a pledge that is sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. This pledge is called “Civility in America.” By clicking on this link you can personally take this pledge to “employ a more civil tone in public discourse on political and social issues, focusing on policies rather than on individual personalities.” Through this pledge your parish community can commit to participate in civil dialogue.

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