Tag Archives: Catholic

Wheat, Weeds, and Cancel Culture

On Holy Thursday, I brought Nikolai Ge’s haunting “The Conscience of Judas” to prayer, along with the various Gospel accounts of Judas’s betrayal of Jesus. I soon found myself pleading with God to be merciful with this broken man whose very name is synonymous with “traitor.”

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When I was seventeen, I betrayed a friend. I will not disclose specific details because the story is not mine alone. I simply offer that my (sadly, former) friend and a certain young woman, who had been his girlfriend, were involved.

If this were a matter for a court of law, I may be able to argue successfully for a reduced sentence. Indeed, I believe there were some mitigating circumstances. Still, the cold fact is that someone I cared about, and still care about, was deeply wounded by my selfish, deceitful actions; and, I have carried that grief, that frightening yet enlightening awareness of what I am capable of doing, with me ever since.

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One of the features I enjoy most about Facebook is the “Memories” function, which reminds users of their post(s) on the same date in prior years. Recently, I was reminded of an inspiring quote I originally posted back in 2017. The quote spoke about virtues invariably found in healthy Christian communities, and its relevance for the present-day Church, so rife with division, was blatantly obvious to me. I was about to repost the memory until I saw the name of the person I had quoted – Jean Vanier.

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In 1987, two of my dearest friends, Nina Pension and Janie Korins, joined me in offering a Lenten mission in several local Catholic parishes. The mission, titled “I Believe; Help My Unbelief,” was based upon the pericope found in Mark 9:14-29, in which a father seeks help from Jesus in healing his apparently demon-possessed son. In pleading his case, the tormented man says to Jesus “… if you can do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds with a challenging statement that all things are possible for one who believes. At that point, the father confronts and confesses his own weakness by uttering the words comprising our mission’s title.

My co-presenters and I could sense the power of that theme even as we met to discuss the mission’s content and our respective assignments. We knew that the words of that desperate father could aptly be placed on our own lips, as well as on those of all who would attend the mission, at various times in our respective lives.

I must have drawn the short straw because one of my assignments was a presentation titled “Forgiving the Church.” I based the talk on Matthew 13:24-30, the parable of the weeds among the wheat.

The story is a familiar one. A man sows good seeds in his field, but an enemy comes at night and sows weeds among the sprouting wheat. The owner must then decide whether to root out the weeds during the growing season or to wait until the crop has matured and then separate wheat from weeds at harvest. He wisely chooses the latter approach so as not to risk rooting up the growing wheat along with the weeds.

At the mission, one of my living examples of a weed among the wheat of the Church was a bishop (from the Midwest, if I’m recalling correctly), who had been credibly accused of abusing children. Little did I know then of the startling revelations that would dominate the headlines fifteen years later and well beyond – headlines that would strike painfully close to home.

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The late Jean Vanier was a personal hero to countless people, Christians and non-Christians alike. His founding of L’Arche, his voluntary life of sacrifice and (apparent) chastity, and his close fellowship with people with mental health disabilities made him a model of agape love at work.

To call him an inspiration would be an understatement. Like many, I drank in his writings because he seemingly lived a life that mirrored the virtues he extolled. In other words, he “walked the walk” and thus, credibly, “talked the talk.”

I had always struggled to appreciate the Gospel of John, until I read Vanier’s book Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus Through the Gospel of John. I subscribed to an email service that provided a daily reflection drawn from Vanier’s writings. In that way, he was with me every morning to strengthen and encourage.

I described one instance of Vanier’s influence in my essay “Bridging the Chasm.” In that case, his challenging words, working in tandem with God’s grace, gave me the courage to move beyond my comfort zone when I really needed the push.

Vanier’s fall and the exposure of rank weeds growing in his life was, for me, the most disillusioning of all the Church-related sexual abuse revelations. I do not want to let his case harden my heart; yet, thinking about this man, whom I once considered a living saint, now yields profound sadness.

But there was also wheat, amazing wheat!

—–

The lyrics are simple but sublime.

I will come to you in the silence

I will lift you from all your fear

You will hear My voice

I claim you as My choice

Be still, and know I am near…

They give voice to the longing in the heart that draws one to prayer. No doubt, many have used a recording of that contemporary hymn specifically to lead them into prayer. The songwriter is the accused serial sexual abuser David Haas.

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At a crucial time in my life, when much was going right, but I nonetheless felt a deep sense of emptiness, a (then) young priest helped me to rediscover God and was thus instrumental in changing the course of my life. I wrote briefly about this pivotal encounter in my essay titled The Red Sweater.

This priest became a trusted friend and even officiated at my wife’s and my wedding. But, in 2005, he was finally laicized after multiple instances of molesting children.

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The Catholic Church teaches that only two people have ever walked sinless upon the earth, Jesus and his Blessed Mother. My presentation on “Forgiving the Church” focused on the hard truth that we all can sense in our hearts. Our lives and characters comprise both wheat and weeds.

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus sends his twelve apostles out two by two on a mission trip to preach repentance, heal, and cast out demons (Mark 6:6b-13). Judas Iscariot was among those missionaries. His efforts likely touched, healed, and redirected many lives toward God. Wonderful wheat!

Yet, weeds have become his defining legacy – a Biblical example of cancel culture.

I pray for and have compassion for Judas… maybe because I know in my heart that I have been Judas.

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Sometimes the wheat and the weeds are so intricately interwoven that only God can do the untangling. The disciples tried to help the father and his tormented son, but Jesus alone could set them free from their bondage.

—–

I understand the motive behind cancel culture. Public figures who are revealed to have engaged in abhorrent behavior are finally and rightfully being held accountable. Vanier is no longer held up as an example to follow. David Hass’s music is no longer played at liturgical celebrations. The priest who touched my life can no longer exercise a priestly ministry. Judas is a pariah.

I get it. But, I’m left with some haunting questions.

What do we do with the good, the wheat in their lives?

Is the L’Arche movement invalidated by Vanier’s sins? Are his inspirational words nullified?

While Hass’s music is rightly no longer played in churches, would a believer who has always been inspired by his songs be wrong to play them privately if they still inspire prayer and faith?

Should my wife and I remove pictures from our wedding album that show the offending priest?

—–

Is there hope for Judas? I pray that there is, because therein lies the hope for me.

Praying on 3rd Base, Etc.

For a number of years, I have been in the habit of writing a Thanksgiving essay as my way of expressing gratitude for the many blessings in life. Typically, those essays have taken the form of a single, sometimes lengthy story. This year’s entry, however, represents a departure from that tradition.

Earlier this month, I turned sixty-one years old. Having now completed the first full year of my seventh decade of life, I am in a scattered yet reflective mood. So, this year’s Thanksgiving entry finds me less with a (longish) story to tell and more with a few short musings possibly consistent with this later stage of life.

I hope one or more of them will bless you.

A friend of mine recently said to me: “God cannot be put in a box.” Her intention, of course, was to express that God is bigger and greater than we could ever imagine; and, I wholeheartedly agree with her. Yet, virtually every day of my life I violate that awesome truth.

When I sit down to pray, I most often do so with a concept/image of God in mind, something to make God seem more real and approachable. I suppose “boxing” God in that way helps me to cope with the mystery, especially God’s silence – even apparent absence – at difficult moments in life.

One such depiction of God, an anthropomorphic image found in the book of Genesis, grips my imagination like no other. It appears in the story of the fall of Adam and Eve, and it reads as follows:

“And they [i.e., Adam and Eve] heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day…” (Genesis 3:8a, RSV-CE)

I cannot explain my fascination. I can only admit to bringing a personalized version of this verse (i.e., a God box) to prayer countless times. In truth, one of my deepest longings has now become walking with God in the garden in the cool of the day.

To talk. To listen. To finally understand. And then, to rest in God’s peace.

One day…

This past summer, my wife Marianne and I attended several of our grandson Joseph’s little league baseball games. One inning of one game left a lasting impression.

The field where the game was played restricts spectator access along the baselines, so we were watching from behind the left field fence. Since we arrived a few minutes late, and our vantage point was a healthy distance from the dugouts, we weren’t even sure Joseph knew we were there. That question, however, would soon be answered.

When Joseph got up to bat for the second time, he got an infield hit. As often happens in little league, a series of fielding miscues followed; and Joseph, who should have been on first base, made it all the way around to third. His foot had no sooner safely landed on the base when he pivoted around and waved enthusiastically to us.

“Did you see that? Are you proud of me?” his wave seemed to say.

That endearing gesture spoke volumes to this grandfather’s heart. Joseph’s Mom and Dad had dropped him off that day, but they couldn’t stay for the game. If we’d not been present, with whom would Joseph have shared his great accomplishment?

Joseph’s wave reminded me of a child’s vulnerability and of his/her need to know support, affirmation, love, and acceptance. Since we are all God’s children, and since my mind inevitably works this way, it also taught me a lesson about prayer.

Sometimes I turn to God with a broad smile and wave. Other times, I turn and desperately search for God’s face in the crowd. Still other times, I turn and can only bow my head in sorrow.

What matters is that God comes to every game.

And, as it turns out, 3rd base is an excellent place to pray.

When I was a boy in parochial school, I learned that we all have a guardian angel assigned to guide and protect us. I can’t help wondering what the guardian angels of the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School were doing while Adam Lanza was on his hellish rampage.

Years ago, when I was working for the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), I was invited to deliver a presentation about preservation microfilming to an audience of imaging scientists at the Polaroid Corporation. That was, perhaps, the most intimidating lecture I’ve ever had to give. Before speaking, I remember studying the faces of those in attendance, knowing full well that every one of them was more knowledgeable than I about photographic processes.

Some years later, I had a similar experience while teaching a six-week adult-education course in my parish on the topic: “God and Human Suffering.” Looking out at the participants before my first lecture, I realized that every person in the room had suffered, many quite profoundly. Further, each person had processed his/her suffering in such a way as to reconcile it with his/her view of God. I was an amateur charged with speaking to an audience of experts.

Fortunately, the course was very well received. In fact, after the final lecture, many expressed a desire to meet for an additional session just to talk about what we had collectively learned. We did so, and it was a beautiful and humbling experience – so many moving stories.

I’m now convinced that discovering the beauty and goodness of God in the midst of our suffering is one of the most important adventures in life.

I can’t imagine a more central element to the spiritual life than daily prayer. Yet, in all the parishes to which I’ve belonged over the years (nine or ten, if memory serves), I’ve never found one that consistently prioritized teaching adult parishioners how to develop and deepen their personal prayer lives.

Why?

The divisions that exist in the Catholic Church today exhaust me. Twitter, in particular, has become a battleground wherein uncharitable comments from both the right and the left abound.

With that in mind, it is an interesting exercise to read James 3:1-12, while mentally substituting the word “keyboard” for the word “tongue.”

It is also worthwhile to recall that, whenever someone expresses an opinion that differs dramatically from one’s own, that person is defending what he/she believes to be good, i.e., he/she is not knowingly proposing evil. In all circumstances, deeper understanding is called for, not aggression.

I have a friend I greatly admire, who is an atheist. He is kind, thoughtful, socially conscious, a devoted husband and father, and he certainly has known his share of suffering. Though we’ve never discussed the matter outright, he and I would surely differ in our views about an afterlife.

Of course, the only way we will know which of us is right is if I’m right.

Should that prove to be the case, it would gladden my heart immeasurably if my friend were to walk with me – and with God – in the garden in the cool of the day.

Happy Thanksgiving!