Schools of Unconditional Love

My wife, Kristina, and I were blessed to be able to attend the World Meeting of Families conference back in 2015. The wonderful Professor Helen Alvaré gave one of the keynote talks during that week that really struck me.

Professor Alvaré was talking about how the love we give and receive within the family grows and overflows into the wider world. Specifically, she spoke on how a parent’s unconditional love for their child “organically and divinely” grows into the unconditional love of strangers. She said:

Eventually, if you have asked God day in and day out to work His will with you, you begin to see every child as if they could be your child…You won’t be able to look at the homeless, the sick, the depressed, the fatherless, without remembering how they are someone’s child or sibling or mother and then converting that co-suffering converting your maternal and paternal selves into action.

This comment resonated with me at the time and still resonates with me now.

Just a few weeks before this conference started, there was a picture of a little boy that was circulating online. The boy was three years old in this picture, just a little older than Simon, my eldest son. In the picture he was lying down with his knees tucked under him, his arms off to his sides, and his head full of light brown hair turned sideways. It looked just like Simon when he slept.

Except this little boy wasn’t sleeping in this picture, he was lying on a Mediterranean beach after drowning in the Aegean Sea. His name was Aylan Kurdi, and his family were refugees fleeing Syria.

I remember staring at this picture when it came across my newsfeed and it totally captivated me. This little boy reminded me so much of Simon. I realized at that moment that this little boy, Aylan, was loved by somebody as much as I love my own son. Aylan smiled and laughed and cried and played like my own son. Aylan drowned in the Aegean Sea along with his brother and mother because his dad wasn’t able to hold onto them. I just sat in front of my computer and cried.

 

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Aylan Kurdi – Daily Mail, “Daddy, please don’t die”
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3223447/Daddy-don-t-die-Drowned-Aylan-Kurdi-s-tragic-words.html

We’re supposed to see Christ in others, because all of us bear the image of God. We are especially supposed to see Christ in the poor and the hungry and the homeless and the refugee because He said, “Whatever you do to the least of these you do to me.”

But that’s really hard to do.

I mean, Saint Mother Teresa saw Jesus in the poor, but she’s a saint! The best I can muster up when I see a beggar is pity…not the love and respect due to our Lord. Yet God is so wise. He knows that it’s hard for us to see His image in the stranger, so He gave us our families to be training grounds for unconditional love. He lets us first see every child as if they could be our child so that we may eventually learn to love the outcast like we love our own children. He gave us our family as a school of love.

As a Christian, I must resist looking at the poor, the homeless, and the refugee as “people,” as an abstract group or “issue.” I must see every human person for the unique and valuable individual that he or she is. I must see the poor as I would see my own family. I must love the homeless as I would my own family. I must treat the refugee as if they were my own family.

As Professor Alvaré put it, “We start with family and end with strangers in need whose only link is our common humanity.” Go love your family, and let that love overflow into the whole world.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.

Mercy, Evangelization, and Pope Francis

Paul Fahey – November 9, 2016

This past summer I read a really wonderful book by Pope Francis titled, “The Name of God is Mercy.” The book is the transcript of a long interview the Holy Father did with a Vatican journalist about the Year of Mercy. Since this Year of Mercy ends this month, I thought that one last reflection on this Jubilee Year is in order. Also, now that the election is over I think a little more mercy in our lives would be a good thing.

I found the book comforting and refreshing, but I also found it very challenging, reading it was a kind of examination of conscience. The entire book really is fantastic and I cannot recommend it highly enough. For this article, I wanted to share one powerful passage from the book with you and give some comments on it. I would encourage you to read Pope Francis’ words slowly and prayerfully, read them as if he was writing to you personally.

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This passage comes from the chapter titled, “Shepherds, not Scholars of the Law.” Pope Francis says:

We need to enter the darkness, the night in which so many of our brothers live. We need to be able to make contact with them and let them feel our closeness, without letting ourselves be wrapped up in that darkness and influenced by it. Caring for outcasts and sinners does not mean letting the wolves attack the flock. It means trying to reach everyone by sharing the experience of mercy, which we ourselves have experienced, without ever caving in to the temptation of feeling that we are just or perfect.

While he doesn’t mention the word “evangelization,” I think that is precisely what the pope is talking about here. I’ve heard it said that evangelization is one beggar showing another beggar where the bread is. Likewise, I think Pope Francis would say that evangelization is one sinner showing another sinner how to experience God’s mercy. What’s cool about thinking of evangelization this way is that it’s not complicated and it doesn’t require a theology degree. How have you experienced God’s mercy in your life? How has God saved you from your own sin and suffering? Have you ever shared this story with anyone? The pope continues:

The more conscience we are of our wretchedness and our sins, the more we experience the love and infinite mercy of God among us, and the more capable we are of looking upon the many “wounded” we meet along the way with acceptance and mercy.

Shortly after being elected pope, Francis was asked “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” And his response was, “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” The Holy Father says that it is a true grace for someone to feel like a sinner, and that if we don’t feel that way then we should ask God for the grace to feel like a sinner. It is only as a sinner that we can experience God’s infinite mercy, it is only in our weakness and humility that we can truly know God’s greatness. When I read this passage of the book I was really challenged. I don’t like to see myself as a sinner, I like to think of myself as a good and righteous person. Since then I’ve found myself at times asking God for the grace to see myself as a sinner in need of mercy, because if I’m not a sinner then I have no need of a Savior. Recognizing oneself as a sinner is also one of the first steps of evangelization, the pope says:

So we must avoid the attitude of someone who judges and condemns from the lofty heights of his own certainty, looking for the splinter in his brother’s eye while remaining unaware of the beam is his own. Let us always remember that God rejoices more when one sinner returns to the fold than when ninety-nine righteous people have no need of repentance. When a person begins to recognize the sickness in their soul, when the Holy spirit – the Grace of God – acts within them and moves their heart toward an initial recognition of their own sins, he needs to find an open door, not a closed one. He needs to find acceptance, not judgement, prejudice, or condemnation. He needs to be helped, not pushed away or cast out. Sometimes when Christians think like scholars of the law, their hearts extinguish that which the Holy Spirit lights up in the heart of a sinner who stands at the threshold, when he starts to feel nostalgia for God.

This passage really hit me like an examination of conscience because I find myself really quick to judge someone else’s faults. Too often I act like a “scholar of law” who stands on a self-righteous pedestal judging others. It’s easy for us to treat people as “the other,” as enemies in a culture war, as bad Catholics, instead of Children of God. But judging other from “lofty heights” is the opposite of evangelization.

It’s easy for us to judge the young unmarried couple bringing their baby to be baptized, the couple who lived together before their wedding, the couple we know is using contraception, the gay person at work, the person with the Other Party’s bumper sticker in the church parking lot, etc, etc. I use all of these examples because these are ways I have judged others in the past. “These people” aren’t enemies in a culture war, these are the “lost sheep” who Jesus rejoices over more than the ninety-nine who never strayed.

Pope Francis is telling us that we can only stop judging others and start loving them when we have the humility to see ourselves as the greatest sinner in the room. The Holy Father said, “Every time I go through the gates into a prison to celebrate Mass or for a visit, I always think: Why them and not me? I should be here. I deserve to be here. Their fall could have been mine.”

In these final days of the Year of Mercy let us pray for the humility of Pope Francis and the courage to share God’s mercy with those who have fallen away from the Church. Let us ask God for the tremendous grace to see ourselves as sinners so that we may fully experience His Love.

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and professional lay person. He is a student of Theology, History, and Catholic Studies. If you like what he has to say, check out his other articles or follow him on Facebook.

Capital Punishment – Blinded by Vengeance

Last week, I read a chilling article from The Atlantic titled The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett. The author, Jeffrey Stern, in one of the best written I’ve ever read (on any topic), shares just how corrupt and unethical capital punishment is in this country. Corruption and ineptitude that led to prisoners being administered inadequate and untested cocktails of drugs by unqualified personnel, culminating in the torturous executions of multiple inmates.

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In a post-holocaust world, Conservative politicians want to execute people in gas chambers.

The Supreme Court is currently ruling on a case involving the botched executions of three inmates in Oklahoma, including Clayton Lockett. Undeterred from their blood lust, Republican lawmakers in Oklahoma passed a law in April allowing for execution by gas chamber just in case the Supreme Court rules that lethal injections are unconstitutional. That’s right, in a post-holocaust world, Conservative politicians want to execute people in gas chambers. It should cause us serious alarm when the champions of capital punishment tend to be “pro-life” Christian Conservatives with 76% of Republicans favoring the death penalty for convicted murderers.

There is no adequate justification or defense of the death penalty in the United States today – especially if one is calling themselves a Christian. The reasons are numerous, not only in variety but in kind – ethical, theological, and economic arguments for the abolition of capital punishment are legion.

Pragmatically, it’s a fact that death row inmates cost states more than those serving life sentences, in some cases three times as much. Additionally, there’s no evidence that the death penalty actually deters crime. Furthermore, we are killing hundreds of innocent people because 4% of those on death row are likely innocent, this fact alone should be enough for to stop us from implementing the irrevocable punishment. And if these facts are convincing enough then we must consider that 3-7% of executions are botched with inmates screaming in agony as their given unreliable drugs prescribed, not by a doctor, but by the prison’s warden or attorney.

The sheer evil and stupidity of capital punishment is even more evident for Catholics living in the United States. Quoting Saint John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, the Catechism states that while the teaching of the Church does not outright prohibit the death penalty, but only if there are no other means to protect innocent people from violent criminals. The Catechism continues:

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people’s safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means…Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (CCC 2267).

In other words, the only way that a Catholic in the US can licitly support capital punishment, no matter how heinous the crime, is if it can be proved that there are no other means to protect society from the convicted criminal. Otherwise one would be contradicting the Catechism, St. John Paul II, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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The death penalty, like abortion, is an issue where Catholics, along with other reasonable people, are blinded by self-interest.

The death penalty, like abortion, is an issue  where Catholics, along with other reasonable  people, are blinded by self-interest. In the case of  abortion we can’t see past the inconvenience of  having a baby and the restriction that pregnancy  puts on our sexual preferences and practices.  Likewise, we are blinded to the evil of capital  punishment by our desire for vengeance and the  “need” to see bad men suffer. Like the prophet  Jonah who lamented over God sparing the city of  Nineveh, we have such a desire to see the wicked  suffer that we make viewing areas for executions.

So, when confronted with a convicted murderer and terrorist like Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, do we fall blindly into lockstep with the jury and all who wish to see Nineveh burn for it’s crimes? Or do we look on this man with the eyes of Christ?

Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”(Matthew 25:34-36)

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We are commanded to look at the incarcerated and see the face of Christ.

Our Lord explicitly identifies himself with the terrorist, thief, murderer, rapist – thus we are commanded to look at the incarcerated and see the face of Christ. How does a Christian respond to the evil of the Boston Marathon bombings? I think the Jesuit priest, Fr. James Martin, said it well in a recent Facebook post:

You don’t have to feel much pity for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. I don’t. But that doesn’t mean that his life is not sacred. And the more I live as a Christian, the more I am convinced of this truth: every human life is utterly sacred.

Tonight let us pray for the victims of the Boston bombings, both living and dead; for those who mourn the dead and comfort those who were so terribly injured; and also, difficult as it may be, but as Jesus commands us when he asks us explicitly to pray for our enemies, for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

 

Linked sources and further reading:

  • The Cruel and Unusual Execution of Clayton Lockett
    – http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/06/execution-clayton-lockett/392069/
  • Lethal injection case exposes U.S. top court’s death penalty divide
    – http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/29/us-usa-court-deathpenalty-idUSKBN0NK1EP20150429
  • The Trouble with Oklahoma’s New Execution Technique
    – http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/oklahoma-death-penalty-gas-chamber-117156.html#.VVzh2vlVhHx
  • Americans’ Support for Death Penalty Stable
    – http://www.gallup.com/poll/178790/americans-support-death-penalty-stable.aspx
  • The slow death of the death penalty
    – http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21601270-america-falling-out-love-needle-slow-death-death-penalty
  • 1 In 25 Death Sentence Prisoners Is Likely Innocent, Study Finds
    – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/28/death-sentence-prisoners-_n_5229094.html
  • 7 Things You Should Know About The Death Penalty, Even If You Support It
    – http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/15/death-penalty-boston-bomber_n_7294748.html?ncid=fcbklnkushpmg00000013
  • Evangelium vitae
    – http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_jp-ii_enc_25031995_evangelium-vitae.html
  • Catechism of the Catholic Church
    – http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a5.htm
  • Having the wrong debate about the boston marathon bomber
    – http://www.catholicvote.org/having-the-wrong-debate-about-the-boston-marathon-bomber/
  • Death penalty / Capital punishment
    – http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/death-penalty-capital-punishment/
  • Fr. James Martin’s Facebook Page
    – https://www.facebook.com/FrJamesMartin
  • Killing Capital Punishment
    – https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/04/death-penalty-public-support-firing-squad/
  • Dzokhar Tsarnaev Gets the Death Penalty
    – http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/dzokhar-tsarnaev-death-penalty/393446/?utm_source=SFFB
  • There’s still no evidence that executions deter criminals
    – http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2014/04/30/theres-still-no-evidence-that-executions-deter-criminals/

 

Paul Fahey is a husband, father, and the Director of Religious Education in small town USA. He’s studied just enough Theology to get him into trouble. Click here to see his other posts for The Porch.