In the Garden of Gethsemane, Praying for Identity

For Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 is presenting spiritual reflections from a diverse group of students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California,  who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are involved with LGBTQ+ theological research and/or ministry. Today’s post is from Fernanda Beldero, a second-generation Filipinx-American, working as a Religious Studies teacher in the San Francisco-Bay Area. Fernanda received a Master of Arts in Ethics in 2014  from the Graduate Theological Union.

Scripture readings for Palm Sunday can be found by clicking here.

Today is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. As I reflect on today’s gospel story, I cannot help but identify with Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Allow me to explain.

Gethsemane – Matthew 26:36-46

While I identify as Catholic, and work at a Catholic high school, my lived reality is that I do not fit the pattern of an “ideal” Catholic.  I am marginalized in the Church in three ways: being Filipinx, a woman, and queer.

My marginalization goes further. On New Ways Ministry’s blog, we can read the list of names of employees at Catholic institutions who have been fired, forced to resign, or had offers rescinded because of their LGBTQ+ identity.  I was acutely aware of this terrible trend as I was finishing my master’s degree at the Graduate Theological Union and knew I would soon be seeking a job in a Catholic school.

Last year, a writer on a conservative Catholic website wrote an article about me after having trolled my school’s website and my LinkedIn profile, and then assumed that I am gay based on how I express my gender. This invasive experience made me question my ability to stay in the Church. Yes, I am gay, but this writer took my power away from me by outing me without my consent or knowledge. These are threatening times in our Church today for any LGBTQ+ person working in a Catholic institution, so this article made my employment as a Catholic educator extremely vulnerable. I was stunned and deeply hurt by this writer’s violation.

At the same time, I also heard the voices of my friends and family members who ask me “Why do you work for an institution that does not accept you?” After I found out about the article, I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I seriously questioned my calling to work as an educator for my faith, which is itself is a complex issue.

I have dated women who could not understand why I am still Catholic, and yet this community is very much a part of my identity. It has been a lens through which I have experienced my spirituality. The examples of my mother and grandfather, who embodied my Christian faith, the rituals and traditions of Mass and praying Novenas after a family member who has passed, spending time in nature with my family: all of these have lain the foundation of my current spirituality.

My faith is something I cannot shake, nor can I turn away from. And yet I struggle with it every day. Many in the Catholic LGBTQ+ community also struggle with this dilemma, asking the question: “How can we authentically be ourselves, our whole selves, which includes our sexuality?”

So, in today’s gospel reading, I am drawn to the image of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane, where, frightened at what the next hours will hold, he prays aloud: “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet, not as I will, but as you will.” How many times in our own lives have we said a similar prayer to God, in times of distress, sorrow, facing the unknown? Jesus knew his calling, his purpose in his life: to give us all people an example to live by, and to die on the cross to show God’s deep love for us. But in this moment, he showed us that while he knew his vocation, he, like us, had doubts and weaknesses.

We need to ask ourselves an important question:  What is our own personal calling and purpose in life? In what ways are we challenged by others who judge us as not fit to be following our call, or who do not accept our authentic, God-given selves?

After Jesus requested his disciples to stay awake with him while he prayed, they ended up falling asleep.  His response to them: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” My spirit is willing: I want to continue to impart to my students the best of the Catholic faith. I want them to know that the Catholic faith is centered on Jesus who ministered with the marginalized in his community, with the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, the outcasts. He preached and lived unconditional love. Our Catholic faith calls us to be in solidarity with those on the margins of society, of the Church, and of our world. Our faith is not a faith meant to keep us comfortable. It should challenge us constantly, shaking up our worldview, and inspiring us to seek justice for those who deserve to be acknowledged as human beings.

But it is my flesh, my ego, that is weak at times: I sometimes give into others’ judgments about me and my sexuality, the color of my skin and the organs I was born with. In order to be my whole self, I need to acknowledge and feel the sorrow, the hurt, the despair, that this dilemma has on me. I need also to reflection how I have to continue my work both as a queer womxn and as a Catholic educator.

As I struggle with all these challenges, I look outside my window and see the trees budding with new life, the cherry blossoms blossoming. I hear the sweet sound of birdsong. It is possible to experience peace in the midst of an inner storm.

As we embark on this Holy Week, may we all reflect on our own pains and sorrows as a way of sharing the pain of Jesus’ persecution for being who he is.  May we work toward being in solidarity with the pains that our human family and Mother Earth are experiencing which is the contemporary version of Jesus’ death on the cross. May we also not forget to look forward to the Easter hope of Jesus’ resurrection and to experience it in our own lives.

Fernanda Beldero, April 9, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.    

Spoiler Alert: God Isn’t a Rubik’s Cube!

Angie Hollar

For Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 is presenting spiritual reflections from a diverse group of students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California,  who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are involved with LGBTQ+ theological research and/or ministry.  Today’s post is from Angie Hollar, who received her Master of Divinity degree from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in 2015.  She currently teaches Catholic theology at a high school in the Seattle area.

Scripture readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent can be found by clicking here.

Whenever a gospel passage features the Pharisees, I brace myself. They are the sticklers for the rules: the finicky interpreters of all the nitty-gritty details of Judaism.  Pharisees seem to look quite easily past the raw vulnerability of the people right in front of their faces and see only legal case studies.  They ask leading questions; they attempt to pigeonhole their interlocutors; they use their institutional privilege to belittle, bully and silence others.  And so, predictably, whenever I encounter them in the Scriptures I can feel myself get riled up. I know a conflict is brewing and these guys don’t fight fairly.

The Pharisees had basically turned God into their very own Rubik’s cube. They were convinced they had worked all of the kinks out of God’s algorithm. They served a God who had clearly defined for them all of the rules of engagement. The covenants within the Hebrew Bible are not terribly complicated recipes for harmony between God and the Israelites. Do the prescribed good things and avoid the outlined bad things and all will be well. Therefore, the Pharisees were quick to take on anyone who even thought about rotating one of God’s color blocks. Their fear of losing what they perceived to be their control of God ultimately overtook their lives.

In these Pharisees vs. Outcast moments I want to identify with the outcast.  I want to read these stories through the lenses of the marginalized and oppressed. As a social worker and theology teacher, I want to diminish the power that the Pharisees wield and advocate for those who have the misfortune of tangling with them.  I fancy myself a good liberal; this is what we do, right?!

However, much to my chagrin,  this week I have been fixated on the Pharisees.  Therefore, my prayer for the past few days has gone like this: “Dear God, PLEASE don’t make me empathize with the Pharisees—especially not in public!” And yet, when I keep praying with the story of the healing of the man born blind, I find the Pharisees to be my primary point of connection.

Damn.

I feel like the Pharisees because I can relate to being fearful of a God of surprises and to desiring the same sense of predictability and stability for which they longed. I find myself wary of what God could call me to that might disrupt my life, and so I frequently attempt to keep God at an arm’s length. In my relationship with God I am sometimes the equivalent of one of my students who sits in the back of the classroom and avoids eye contact with me because she dreads being called upon to answer a question.

I wonder how many of us are standing squarely in the tension of desiring a radically more just and loving world yet are fearful of losing our privileges or comfort in the process of change. It’s ugly to admit, but it’s real.  After all, how many immigrants have been deported because they spoke out about unjust immigration policies? How many LGBTQ+ persons working in Catholic environments have been fired because of whom they love? How many people of color have been brutalized or killed because they demanded equity? How many women’s careers have been derailed because they rejected a boss’s sexual advances? How many theologians have been censured or silenced because the theological issues they explored threatened the ecclesial status quo?  The list goes on and on.  Actively discerning the ways that God might be drawing one toward greater authenticity and freedom can sometimes have very difficult and painful consequences.

Humanizing the Pharisees leads me to reflect upon more than my own spiritual challenges, though. Seeing them as individuals with their own sets of baggage also requires me to contemplate what other groups of fearful people I am called to love. I don’t know exactly what it means to love those family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers within my speck of the universe who are completely consumed by their fear of those who look, love, speak, and think differently than they do. While I don’t know exactly how to love them, I do know that connecting to them is exactly what today’s Gospel is calling me to do right now. In this intensely divisive world, perhaps recognizing our shared humanity and shared fear is a decent starting point. But if I could be nudged to empathize with the Pharisees this week, then my hope must spring eternal that God will show us the way forward.

Angie Hollar, March 26, 2017

REGISTER BY MARCH 27TH TO AVOID A LATE FEE!                                                    New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.    

Coming Out to Proclaim the Gospel of Jesus

John Michael Reyes

For Ash Wednesday and the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 is presenting spiritual reflections from a diverse group of students at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California,  who either identify as LGBTQ+ or who are involved with LGBTQ+ theological research and/or ministry.  Today’s post is from John Michael Reyes, who holds a Master of Divinity from the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University. His spiritual formation, community life and heart is with the Franciscan School of Theology (Berkeley), now located in Oceanside, CA.  He has served as a hospital chaplain, liturgist and currently works at Santa Clara University’s Campus Ministry focusing onSacramental Formation and Liturgy.  He is a native San Franciscan who enjoys working out at the nearest OrangeTheory Fitness and is a parishioner of Most Holy Redeemer Parish, San Francisco. John Michael is coordinating the liturgies at New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, “Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss:  LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis,” April 28-30, 2017, in Chicago.  See the end of this post for more information on the event.

Scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Lent can be found by clicking here.

Have you ever been so embarrassed that it paralyzed you?

In my 29 years of living, I have been embarrassed by my actions many times, resulting in not being able to  “show face.”  I have made poor decisions that impacted the opinion of people I value.  My childhood was not fun: I dealt with challenges ranging from abuse to the repercussions of not fulfilling a parent’s dream that I pursue the medical or legal professions.  Later in life, an unhealthy environment led me to isolation and a diagnosis of depression. A suicide attempt shook all parts of my life. I was embarrassed to show myself at events.  I hid until the coast was clear to do the things I needed to do: to eat, to do laundry, among other mundane tasks. I was not doing myself any favors.  

“Jesus and the Woman at the Well” by He Qi

Today’s gospel– the Samaritan woman at the well encountering Jesus–made me remember this time of my life.  First of all, have you ever noticed that the story is dripping wet with details of her, yet we do not know her name?  This anonymity allows her to represent all of us; I felt like the Samaritan woman.  She snuck out when the coast was clear at off-peak times to the well. She snuck out so no one would see her–her wounds, her failure, her weakness, her humanity.  Just like the woman at the well with many husbands, I was held victim to these “husbands” of isolation and depression instead of seeking the one love, the one husband, who could free me: Jesus.

Despite trying to hide from others, the woman was noticed by someone:  Jesus. Her story was recognized and she was seen for who she was; she was able to “come out.”  This story highlights the desire for Jesus to come closer to us and allow us to be held close to His heart. It highlights a response to His action that we all could give: “I believe, with all my heart, that you, Jesus, are the way, the truth, and the life.”

When I work with those preparing for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, I always tell them that joining the Church is not solely a process of “becoming Catholic,” so as to be able to “check off a box” but a process of “coming out” and sharing with those in your world that you are on this faith journey to Jesus–that there is something about Him that captivates you, making Him irresistible to follow ever more closely.

Today’s gospel story is not so much about the woman believing in Christ but about the woman fulfilling her role in helping Jesus proclaim the gospel.  She reminds us that our baptism commits us to a life of discipleship.  These days, we might be “married” to the wrong love: drugs, alcohol, the thirst for power or money,  sex, or even control of the other.  Thus we can hear Jesus say, “the husband you have right now is not your own.”   It would help if we tried to answer the question: “How can we prioritize our lives so that Christ can be at the center?”

When we encounter the living Christ (in the sacraments or in our daily experiences) and we immerse ourselves in that encounter, we are bound to change.  And that change should hopefully bring us to discipleship.  Discipleship comes at a cost.  I am asked to be a better Christian, one who does not live on fear or anxiety.  A poor self-image–like the one held by the Samaritan woman or my younger self —does not reflect that I am a person loved by God.  A person who God loves is not alone and is not left without anything.

I’m still healing from my experiences.  The woman was free and told her people, “come and see someone who told me everything I did.”  I had people in my life that helped share my feelings and heal the chips on my shoulders.  They showed me the parts of myself that were hidden, that I myself had not admitted. This is another form of “coming out.”   

What are the things that you need to name freely for yourself and for Jesus?   Jesus does not want us to change our embarrassing pasts,  but to change our relationship with Him for the life of the world.  When the woman left that well, her outer appearance did not change: she was still a Samaritan, a woman, coming out to the well at an awkward time–and she still had her story.  But now, she was reoriented towards mission, whereas before she was simply scared and embarrassed.  

The Lenten Season’s call us to come out and deepen our conversion towards Jesus.  May we have the strength to take these steps so that we, like the villagers at the end of today’s gospel, can proclaim with our whole humanity – strengths and embarrassments – that Jesus is “truly the savior of the world.”

Reflection Questions:

What in your life still needs to come out? What in your life is in need of life-giving water?  Who are your “husbands”?  Who gets in the way of God, your one true love?

PS: In these next few Sundays of Lent, those who have been journeying in the Catechumenate process will be celebrating the Scrutiny Rites.  Please keep them, the Elect–those called by God for the Easter Sacraments–in your prayers that they too may experience life-giving water.

John Michael Reyes, March 19, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Reflect on Lent By Reading ‘Scripture and Story’ from LGBTQ Catholics

Today’s post is from guest blogger Jeff Vomund, who is Chair of the Liturgy Committee at Dignity/Washington.

I have heard the song “Lift Every Voice (and Sing),” known as the Black American National Anthem, sung hundreds of times over the course of my life.  (If you’ve never heard it, click here to listen to a moving a cappella version.) The hymn mixes James Weldon Johnson’s stark poetry with his brother John’s determined score.  Never has its title and first line felt so viscerally true to me as it has in our increasingly post-fact and post-truth world. The importance of each and “every voice” rings truer than ever.

dw-coverAnd while many voices have been raised recently in some form of protest, building bridges between people is also a vital concern for every voice.  Creating community has been a driving motive behind Dignity/Washington’s Lenten project:  Scripture and Story:  Lent through an LGBTQ Lens.  Dignity/Washington is a community of LGBTQ Catholics in Washington D.C., as well as friends and allies from across the spectrum of the Christian faith.  Scripture and Story is a book of daily reflections for Lent.  It contains a short reflection based on the daily readings for each of the 47 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday.  These reflections are not just a commentary on the Scriptures but they also relate the lived experiences of the LGBTQ people of faith who authored them.

You can download a free PDF of the entire booklet by clicking here:  You can order hard copies, while supplies last, by emailing jeffvomund@gmail.com.

This project began as a service to Dignity/Washington members as a way to show how unique yet universal each person’s “journey through the desert” is.  However, in a world where vocal volume can be equated with truth, we wanted to share our own quiet encouragement to community with others, too.  It seems more important than ever to lift up the voices of any who have been outcast or oppressed.  This imperative is not true just for the discrimination waged against LGBTQ people by Church leaders. We seek to join a chorus of voices that want to make their presence known to a world in which members of a minority can feel invisible and unimportant.

In no way do we denigrate the faith experiences of those in the majority.  Just the opposite.  If you look at the reflections of these 47 brave authors, the most obvious characteristic is the universality of all faith experience.  We LGBTQ-identifying Catholics have, in so many ways, a journey that looks like any other believer:  the struggle to understand God’s call; the desire to love deeply and have meaning; the call to follow Jesus’ example of compassion.

At some point, we are all in the desert, seeking the freedom of a Promised Land that we worry might never be ours.  This is true, even as we rejoice when we catch glimpses of that land “across the Jordan” from where safety and peace beckon us.  Yet while our journeys traverse a universal arc, we also look through a particular lens–the lens of having to live with being told that even though “God is love,” our love is wrong.  That mixed message has driven most LGBTQ-identifying folk to the brink of non-belief.  But for these writers, who have stayed the course, surviving the crucible of Church and sex has made them that much more invested in their journey through the desert.  

Yet while our journeys traverse a universal arc, we also look through a particular lens–the lens of having to live with being told that even though “God is love,” our love is wrong.  That mixed message has driven most LGBTQ-identifying folk to the brink of non-belief.  But for these writers, who have stayed the course, surviving the crucible of Church and sex has made them that much more invested in their journey through the desert.  Paradoxically, that which the Church identifies as disorder has shown itself to be just a different way that God has “ordered our steps” as we travel to the Promised Land for which all creation groans.

That symbiosis between our faith and our sexuality is what we most wanted to share with those believers and fellow travelers outside of our community.  We offer it, not because our community or any of the individual authors believe we have reached this land of “milk and honey,” but because we are still on that journey. The more people who walk together, the further everyone can go.  We offer our voices of faith in the hope that it will encourage other people to share their own stories.  We are more convinced than ever that sharing our stories (and listening to others) matters deeply for our world.  And we have never been more convicted that for every voice to be lifted each person must add their own–no matter how imperfect–to the chorus.

Jeff Vomund, Dignity/ Washington, February 26, 2017

New Ways Ministry’s Eighth National Symposium, Justice and Mercy Shall Kiss: LGBT Catholics in the Age of Pope Francis, is scheduled for April 28-30, 2017, Chicago, Illinois. Plenary speakers:  Lisa Fullam, Leslie Griffin, Rev. Bryan Massingale, Frank Mugisha. Prayer leaders:  Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Bishop John Stowe, OFM, Conv.  Pre-Symposium Retreat Leader:  Sr. Simone Campbell, SSS.  For more information and to register, visit www.Symposium2017.org.

Beyond Being the Prodigal Child, We are Parent and Sibling, Too

13c624503a3550cf9b427e6f5a7e6e0d
“The Prodigal Son Returns” by Soichi Watanabe

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent are: Joshua 5:9A, 10-12; Psalm 34: 2-7; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

The Prodigal Child is among Scripture’s most well-known parables. In today’s liturgy, its rich themes of forgiveness and reconciliation are enhanced by the readings from the book of Joshua  and 2nd Letter to the Corinthians with which it is paired.

Interpretations generally position the reader as the wayward child returned to the parent, hinting that we are lost disciples returned to God’s loving embrace. This applies to our interpersonal relationships when we find ourselves welcomed back into families and communities which we may have left

But what if we position ourselves as the parent, or even the elder sibling? Doing so complicates a calming parable, raising questions for us when we would rather bask in being the prodigal child welcomed home and celebrated.

For instance, if we are the parent, we have to ask ourselves if we run to meet those who have abandoned and even harmed us? Are we “filled with compassion” by their presence? Do we unreservedly organize a celebration when someone accepts returns after years of exile? As people existing at the church’s margins who have experienced the very real exclusion and  harm which some church ministers can inflict, is our response to other excluded people like the parent in this parable?

If we picture ourselves as the elder sibling, are we ready to acknowledge that we want some people in our lives to remain absent and even figuratively dead? Are we envious when others receive greater love or care in certain moments? When reconciliation happens in our church, would we rather the divisions and wounds remain because we have adjusted to them? Have we so rooted ourselves and our identities at the margins that progress becomes unwelcome?

Asking myself these questions raises truths I would rather ignore. I have to admit that that at times I have not wanted to forgive, never mind to celebrate, certain people who have passed through my life. I am comforted that seeking LGBT justice in the Catholic Church seems to be stable employment, given the depth of institutional and cultural homophobia in our community. I would rather be the prodigal child, welcomed and held, celebrated and held up, than practice the parent’s boundless compassion or admit the darkness I share with the elder sibling.

Thankfully, the lectionary sets this parable of the Prodigal Child within a context. The first two readings are reminders of that God fulfills promises. In the passage from Joshua, the Israelites celebrate the Passover as their forty years of wandering comes to an end. The unceasing manna which had sustained them dries up. God kept God’s promise. In 2 Corinthians, Paul speaks of the new creation brought about by God through Christ. Again, God kept God’s promise.

This context allows us to root ourselves in God, confident that God keeps the promise made by Jesus to be with us always. Knowing that God’s grace is operative in our lives, we know that when we do not love boundlessly or are ready to face our dark sides, we do not do so alone. We have God’s grace and we have one another, ambassadors of Christ in Pauline language, to mediate that grace to us. Lent is a time for conversion. My prayer today is that we may all come to know we are loved as the Prodigal Child, to know we must love as the parent, and to know that to love and be loved we must wrestle with our darkness as the elder sibling.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry

Burning Bushes, Barren Fig Trees, and Us

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Lent are: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Psalm 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; and Luke 13:1-9. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

Problematic vegetation is the dominant imagery in today’s Scripture readings.  In the first reading, the well-known image of the burning bush, a plant on fire but not destroyed.  In the gospel passage, we hear of a fig tree which just won’t produce fruit and face the threat of being cut down. God is obviously a pretty showy and aggressive landscaper!

One theory (and there are many) about the symbolism of the burning bush that I have read is that it is a symbol of God’s justice and mercy.   The Bible often refers to God’s justice as an all-consuming power, but the fact that in this case the power is revealed but does not consume is taken to mean that God’s justice includes mercy.  This theory fits with the rest of the passage, which describes God’s willingness to show mercy to the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt:

“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I like this God.  This is a God who hears prayers and answers them as people expect they should be answered.  If you are someone who works for justice for LGBT people, this is probably the kind of God you hope to one day meet and experience–a God who acts justly and mercifully to people who are treated oppressively.

But what about the image of God in the gospel passage?  The image of God in the parable that Jesus tells is not as re-assuring as this previous image.  The Gospel image, perhaps surprisingly, appears to be an image of a God who is unforgiving of failure and impatient for results.  I’m glad I’m not a fig tree.

Wait. Maybe I am one.

I think the introduction to this parable contains some important guides for understanding the behavior of the orchard owner (God) in the parable.  In the first part of the reading, Jesus is upbraiding his followers for a behavior which I think is all-too-common among us humans, especially us humans who claim to have faith.  They have been badgering him with questions about why others have suffered calamities, hoping that the answer will be that these people who suffered were being punished for their sins.  And, of course, the implication of that answer is that those asking the question, who have not suffered, have obviously not been judged by God as sinners, allowing them to be self-satisfied.

Jesus will have none of it.  His answer–terrifyingly direct–is:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

This seems to be such an important message for Jesus, that he repeats it almost verbatim.  God doesn’t punish people because of sin. God cannot be anything but just and merciful, kind and gracious, loving and forgiving, as today’s Psalm reminds us. But one thing God doesn’t like very much is people who feel self-satisfied and don’t repent.  God is not too fond of people who grumble about the sinfulness of others rather than focusing on repenting of their own sins.  The second reading warns us:

“Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.”

Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to illustrate God’s opportunities for us to repent, not a thirst for vengeance.  God wants the fig tree to grow and produce fruit. God gives it plenty of times (three years) and then offers a fourth year extension filled with care and fertilizer.  But if the fig tree does not cooperate, is that God’s responsibility?

I know that in my own work to promote justice for LGBT Catholics, I can often fall into the trap of self-satisfaction. We’re the good guys! Aren’t we?  Or are we?  Do we sometimes feel that because we think we are right that God is going to help us more–and in addition, throw in the smiting of those who oppose us, who we too-often think of as greater sinners than we are?  Gulp.  I’m afraid to answer those questions.

We need to do our work for LGBT justice in a spirit of humility, avoiding the trap of being so convinced of our own rightness that we start seeing those who oppose us as sinners, while we are on the side of the angels.

Our task is to rely on God and to repent of our own sins.  Our task is to rely on God’s justice and mercy to save us, not our own efforts. Our hope is in God, not in ourselves.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry

 

 

Bishop’s Letter of Apology Is a Model for Catholic Reconciliation

15241152-standard
Bishop Mitchell Rozanski

In a pastoral letter released Ash Wednesday, a Catholic bishop apologized to those hurt and alienated by the Catholic Church, including lesbian and gay people.

Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield, Massachusetts, addressed his Lenten message to those outside the church, as well as the diocese’s Catholics. Writing about the Jubilee Year of Mercy now underway, the bishop said he should “first apologize and ask your forgiveness” before asking anything of the letter’s audience. Among those to whom Rozanski apologized are:

“[Those] who have distanced themselves because they feel unwelcomed. The reasons here can vary, but key among them are race and cultural differences, a sense of gender inequality as well as sexual orientation.”

The bishop admitted that many Catholics hurt “from the pain caused by our past failings as a diocese, as well as the grievous actions of some who ministered in our Church.” Rozanski apologized, too, to victims of clergy sexual abuse, the first formal apology from the diocese, and those whose parishes were closed during recent consolidations.

Bishop Rozanski’s apology to lesbian and gay people is progress, particularly when one considers that he harshly criticized marriage equality in August 2014. As a newly appointed bishop in Massachusetts, which legalized equal marriage a decade before, Rozanski told a reporter that marriage equality contributed to society’s disintegration like crime and substance abuse.

So how do we evaluate Bishop Rozanski’s apology?

Admission that intense and painful marginalization have been experienced by LGBT Catholics, their families, and many others in the church, is a first step too many Catholic leaders cannot or will not make. In that sense, this is firm progress upon which bridges can be built and reconciliation can occur.

But in another sense, this apology is only a first step. Will Bishop Rozanski now encourage LGBT parish ministries? Will churches host educational workshops on gender identity issues? Will the bishop meet with LGBT Catholics and hear their stories?  Will he still work against equality for LGBT people in the civil arena as he has done in the past? If the letter is not backed by concrete actions which restore right relationships and pursue reconciliation, the apology will become ring hollow.

There is a third angle, however, and it is what I find most notable about this letter. Michael O’Loughlin of Crux explained:

“The letter’s tone was dictated by a questionnaire the Diocese issued last fall, which drew over 3,000 responses from both current parishioners and people outside the Church, Rozanski said. Many responses evinced concerns about the Church, but also a desire to reconnect with the Catholic faith, according to Rozanski. . .

“The survey also included comments from LGBT Catholics who are committed to their faith but feel alienated by the Church’s long-running battle against extending legal recognition for same-sex marriage. . .The church’s position has not changed, Rozanski said, but he included welcoming language in the pastoral letter in the hopes of winning back those Catholics.”

Rozanski admitted there is “much truth to these honest reflections” submitted to the survey, quoting several at length in his letter, including this from one respondent:

” ‘The gay community feels that they aren’t welcome. They don’t want to espouse another religion; therefore, they don’t attend church at all. Hopefully, a special outreach could be done to them.’ “

Refreshingly, Rozanski also acknowledged that many efforts for the New Evangelization are not substantive renewals but stylistic gimmicks. When marginalized Catholics return, they find nothing really changed and given this, the bishop concluded:

“Understandably this is a daunting task, but one we must challenge ourselves to undertake. We must make our parish communities places where people want to worship, meet Jesus, and form community. We must put the love of God foremost in all our efforts. We must walk beyond our parish boundaries, without fear, to demonstrate the faith we celebrate in liturgy takes form in the reality of the world around us.”

This effort of reaching out really is challenging if done correctly. Dialogue demands all parties be vulnerable, that they be open to receiving criticism and acting upon that criticism. Catholic officials and even local communities are frequently unwilling to do this.

But the model employed in this letter’s formation — of soliciting honest input from local Catholics, including those who are alienated or no longer practicing and then responding to it — is a way forward. It is very much in keeping with Pope Francis’ pastoral style. It is a model that every bishop should replicate in their dioceses: listening, discerning, apologizing, responding.

Lent is the perfect time to repent and turn away from sin, like the sins of exclusion and prejudice. May these forty days lead more bishops to act like Bishop Rozanski — and may there be more letters like his come next Ash Wednesday–and before then, too–as fruits of this Year of Mercy.

–Bob Shine, New Ways Ministry