What we owe America’s farmworkers

GUEST column
(Catholic News Service provides a regular sampling of current commentary from around the Catholic press. Following is an unsigned editorial from the Dec. 25 issue of America magazine, a national Catholic weekly magazine published by the Jesuits.)
U.S. agriculture is facing a silent crisis. The Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants has sown fear among farmworker communities, making workers harder to find than ever. Farm owners across the country are anxious about meeting their labor needs. Millions of dollars’ worth of crops are at the risk of rotting.
The present labor shortage reveals U.S. society’s dependence on farmworkers. The hands that pick what Americans eat are hands the country relies on. And with almost no native-born Americans willing to do the job, Latino immigrants have become indispensable. Even in the midst of the severe fires in California, farmworkers could not stop working lest harvests be lost.
Yet the nation’s collective reliance on farmworkers is not reflected in the way they are treated. In California, which produces two-thirds of the nation’s fruits, rates of food insecurity for farmworkers and their families range from 40 percent to 70 percent. Farmworkers’ low wages directly contribute to growers’ profit, but farmworkers regularly cannot afford to buy the food they pick.
Working conditions for farmworkers can be harsh. Even under the best conditions, a day of work is one of hard manual labor, with long hours and often high temperatures. The Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has approved the use of a pesticide known to be harmful to human beings. Farmworkers have already gotten sick on the job as a result.
Society’s failures toward farmworkers extend beyond poor working conditions. The children of migrant farmworkers endure seasonal displacement that can make staying in school difficult. Social mobility is weak for those born into farmworker communities, creating a generational cycle of poverty. State and local governments resist attempts by farmworkers to organize for greater protections. And despite being dependent on farmworker labor, many local communities are openly hostile to migrant workers.
It does not have to be this way. In 2016, California recognized the right of farmworkers to equal overtime pay. In Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers secured commitments from fast-food chains to buy only from agricultural sources that meet improved standards on pay and work conditions. That model of direct pressure on major companies is spreading. In Vermont, immigrant dairy workers just claimed victory in an agreement with the ice cream maker Ben and Jerry’s.
It is curious that so many Americans care about eating ethically (vegan, vegetarian, organic or free range) but do not think as much about the poverty and exploitation among the largely Latino farmworkers who are making their meals possible. Labeling programs, including the Equitable Food Initiative label, the Food Justice Certified label and the United Farm Workers Union label, support the fair treatment of farmworkers, but there is little indication that products carrying those labels are sought out by consumers.
The United States must do more to treat farmworkers with justice. A huge step would be to lift the threat of deportation that looms over many farmworkers by passing comprehensive immigration reform that recognizes both the need for labor in the United States and those laborers’ right to dignity and opportunity. Rectifying the injustice of the 1930s – when farmworkers were excluded from new federal labor standards – and finally offering farmworkers the same labor protections as other workers is also necessary. Farm work, like all work, carries an inherent dignity and should be a viable path for immigrant families into the American middle class.
The common thread in all the challenges farmworkers face is a lack of urgency. Perhaps every time Americans say grace before a meal, they could spare a moment to remember those who make that meal possible.

Turning the tide on apathy

Kneading faith

Fran Lavelle is the Director of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson

By Fran Lavelle
If you are like me, you are not only fatigued by the endless cycle of retail-driven holiday hysteria (yes, I said it, it is unnatural to see Easter bunnies before Epiphany) but I am also fatigued by the endless political news cycle that slings and flings divisive prose faster than a moth to a light bulb at night. I must admit I have not always felt this way about politics. It’s time for confession, well not exactly confession rather an exercise in transparency.
My first love was politics. From an early age I showed great interest in politics and the political process. When it came time to declare a major in college I had several fields that interested me, but I chose political science because, well, it was my first love after all. My political career was off to a great start. By the age of 26 I was working in Washington D.C. as a lobbyist for the American Association of Port Authorities and handled issues of international transportation and trade. Going to Capitol Hill to sit in on hearings, contributing testimony that resides at the Library of Congress, and watching our democracy live up to the ideals of our founding fathers was a wonderful experience.
In 1993, my Dad had a fatal heart attack and in the months and few years after that defining event I started searching for greater meaning in my life. In 1996, I launched my official entrance into ministry, leaving behind the force that had driven my life up until that time.
I have kept a reasonable interest in politics over the years, as all citizens should. I recognize that my passion for democratic governance – not necessarily partisan politics – will be something that I will always value. I credit my years in Washington for helping form the passion that I now have for ministry. But let’s face it folks, the political landscape as we now know it is less than ideal and even less effective. If you find yourself wanting to shy away from anything that looks like the political process, I completely understand. There’s an old saying that laws are like sausages, it is better not to see either of them being made. Regrettably, turning away from the problem does not make it go away.
Apathy is a lot like a cozy comforter. When enough of us get wrapped up in it, we normalize it. As Catholics we cannot allow apathy to get in the way of effectively living out our faith and proclaiming the gospel values set forth by Jesus. These are not liberal values or conservative values; they are rooted in our faith of both the Old and New Testament and have been affirmed and promoted for centuries.
As Catholics we are called to advocate for the seven principals of Catholic Social Teaching. They are:
Life and dignity of the human person —”The good Samaritan recognized the dignity in the other and cared for his life.” Luke 10:25-37;
Call to family, community and participation — “This is my commandment: love one another as I have loved you. John 15:12-17;
Rights and responsibilities –“Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” Matthew 25: 31-46;
Option for the poor and vulnerable — “True worship is to work for justice and care for the poor and oppressed.” Isaiah 58:5-7;
Dignity of work and the rights of workers — “All workers should be paid a just and living wage” Matthew 20:1-16;
Solidarity — “Above all, clothe yourself with love and let the peace of Christ reign in your hearts. Colossians 3:9-17;
Care for God’s creation — “God made the heavens and the earth, and it was good.” Genesis 1:1-31.
It is easy to say that our voice does not matter. It is easy to think that we alone cannot make a difference. It is not just about writing letters or visiting our representatives in local, state or national offices. There are many ways to convey Catholic social teaching in our public discourse (including social media), by our actions and how we pass those values along to the next generation. One way to exercise our concern for the people of Mississippi is joining Catholics from around the state for the Catholic Day at the Capitol on January 17th. This year our focus is on the tragic and unnecessary mental health crisis in Mississippi and the urgent need to enact legislation that will bring about needed change. Please consider registering for this important event. For more info or to register contact: Sue Allen, coordinator of social justice ministry, Catholic Charities Jackson or email sue.allen@catholiccharitiesjackson.org 601-383-3849.

(Fran Lavelle is the director of the Department of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Jackson.)

Don’t confess other’s faults, own up to sins, pope says at audience

By Junno Arocho Esteves
VATICAN CITY (CNS) – Fear and the shame of admitting one’s own sins leads to pointing fingers and accusing others rather than recognizing one’s own faults, Pope Francis said.
“It’s difficult to admit being guilty, but it does so much good to confess with sincerity. But you must confess your own sins,” the pope said Jan. 3 at his first general audience of the new year.
“I remember a story an old missionary would tell about a woman who went to confession and she began by telling her husband’s faults, then went on to her mother-in-law’s faults and then the sins of her neighbors. At a certain point, the confessor told her, ‘But ma’am, tell me, are you done?’ ‘No… Yes.’ ‘Great, you have finished with other people’s sins, now start to tell me yours,’” he said.
The pope was continuing his series of audience talks on the Mass, reflecting on the penitential rite.

Pope Francis hears a confession in the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, Italy, Aug. 4. (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters)

Recognizing one’s own sins prepares a person to make room in his or her heart for Christ, the pope said. But a person who has a heart “full of himself, of his own success” receives nothing because he is already satiated by his “presumed justice.”
“Listening to the voice of conscience in silence allows us to realize that our thoughts are far from divine thoughts, that our words and our actions are often worldly, guided by choices that are contrary to the Gospel,” the pope said.
Confessing one’s sins to God and the church helps people understand that sin not only “separates us from God but also from our brothers and sisters,” he added.
“Sin cuts. It cuts our relationship with God and with our brothers and sisters, in our family, in society, in the community,” the pope said. “Sin always cuts, separates, divides.”
The penitential rite at Mass also includes asking the intercession of Mary and all the angels and saints, which, he said, is an acknowledgement that Christians seek help from “friends and models of life” who will support them on their journey toward full communion with God.
Christians also can find the courage to “take off their masks” and seek pardon for their sins by following the example of biblical figures such as King David, Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman and St. Peter.
“To take measure of the fragility of the clay with which we have been formed is an experience that strengthens us,” Pope Francis said. “While making us realize our weakness, it opens our heart to call upon the divine mercy that transforms and converts. And this is what we do in the penitential act at the beginning of Mass.”

(Follow Arocho on Twitter: @arochoju)

Reading resolution? My top ten books from 2017

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Taste is subjective. Keep that in mind as I share with you the ten books that most touched me this past year. That isn’t necessarily a recommendation that you read them. They may leave you cold, or angry at me that I praised them. Be your own critic here and one who isn’t afraid to be critical of my taste. Nobody buys everything that’s advertised in a store.
So, what ten books most touched me this year?
First, I single out some wonderful religious biographies:
• Kate Hennessey’s, Dorothy Day, The World Will be Saved by Beauty. To my mind, this book is a treasure. As Dorothy Day’s granddaughter, Kate Hennessey had a privileged, intimate relationship with Dorothy, but that relationship also had its headaches and heartaches. Dorothy was a complex person who when called a saint, reacted by saying: “I don’t want to be dismissed that lightly!” This book captures both the saint and the woman resistant to that label.
• Jim Forest, At Play in the Lion’s Den – A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan. A great insight as to who Daniel Berrigan was as a man, as Jesuit, as a friend, and as a prophet. There will be numerous biographies still written on Berrigan, but none, I venture to say, will surpass this one. Forest knows his subject well.
• Suzanne M. Wolfe, The Confessions of X, A Novel. This is fictional biography, a story of St. Augustine’s mistress, Augustine’s love for her, their child, and St. Monica’s role in breaking up that relationship. Not historical, but researched well-enough to make it credible.
Next, some religious autobiographies:
• Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Coach Wooden and Me, Our 50-Year Friendship On and Off the Court. You may wonder why I list this book as religious autobiography, but it only needs to be read to answer that question. This isn’t a sports book, but a book that reflects deeply on life, meaning, friendship, race, and religion. Raised a Roman Catholic, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shares very candidly on what prompted his religious move to Islam. There are lessons to be learned here. This is a wonderfully warm story amidst all the pain it shares.
• Macy Halford, My Utmost, A Devotional Memoir. As an Evangelical Christian, Halford grew up with a deep faith, but one that wasn’t strongly challenged in her youth. As a young woman she moved to New York and then later to Paris to become a writer. Surrounded now mostly by friends and colleagues who consider faith a naiveté, she struggled to root her childhood faith more deeply so as to withstand the challenge of the new world she lives in. Her struggle and her eventual solid landing within the faith of her childhood can be a help to all us, regardless of denomination, as we struggle to keep our faith in an overly-adult world.
• Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard-educated lawyer who has chosen to put his talents to work in helping the poor, in this case, prisoners on death row who don’t have any means of helping themselves. The issues of racism, poverty, inequality, and how we blind ourselves to them, are front and center in this powerful book.
• Nina Riggs, The Bright Hour – A Memoir of Living and Dying. Nina Riggs died in February and this book shares her blogs as she, a young mother with two preteen children, journeys through terminal cancer, alongside her best friend, also a young mother, who is dying of cancer as well. They died a week apart. While Riggs doesn’t write out of an explicit faith, she faces both life and death with a courage, buoyancy, and wit that will make a saint envious. A delightful, deep book: you’ll laugh, you’ll cry – and you’ll learn how death can be faced.
A fine book in the area of Existentialism:
• Sarah Blackwell, At the Existentialist Café, Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails. This is one of the best books written on Existentialism that’s accessible to a non-professional reader. It will introduce you to the giants of Existential philosophy: Sartre, Heidegger, Simone de Beauvoir, Merleau-Ponty, Camus, Husserl and Jaspers. Bakewell believes you will understand a thinker’s philosophy much more accurately if you also have a picture of his or her life: “Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.” Those without a background in philosophy will get lost occasionally but if you continue reading you will soon find yourselves again fascinated by the lives of these famous, colorful thinkers.
Finally, two books on spirituality, where the author’s pedigree is sufficient recommendation:
• Tomas Halik, I Want You to Be – On The God of Love. Halik, a Czechoslovakian priest, is a renowned spiritual writer, winner of the Templeton Prize. This is a book of rare insight and depth.
• Henri Nouwen, Beyond the Mirror, Reflections on Death and Life. Nouwen needs no introduction, though this is a unique book within his corpus, chronicling his near-death experience after a serious accident.
Taste may be subjective, but these are good books!

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Carol of Christmas past

Melvin Arrington, Jr.

Guest Column
By Melvin Arrington, Jr.
“Marley was dead, to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that . . . Old Marley was as dead as a doornail.” What little boy with a fertile imagination would not become hooked on those opening lines?
More to the point, how could a child know that a tale about death and ghosts was really about divine mercy and metanoia (repentance and the redirection of one’s life toward Christ), if not for a big person to guide him to an understanding of the spiritual truths conveyed by the story?
I was the little boy, the guide was my daddy, the time was one Christmas in the late 1950s, probably 1958, and the book was, of course, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. That year Santa Claus brought me, in addition to a few toys long since forgotten, a brand new edition of Dickens’ classic story published by Grosset and Dunlap and visually enhanced by sixteen unforgettable color illustrations by Libico Maraja. At that point I was just beginning to leave comic books behind. That hardcover volume was one of my first “real” books.
Almost 60 Christmases have come and gone and I still have that copy of A Christmas Carol. Considering its age, it’s still in pretty good condition. I think I can truthfully say that it has held up better than I have.
The period from Thanksgiving to year’s end was always a happy, joyful time in our family. I think my parents looked forward to Christmas almost as much as my little sister and I. Mama liked to spend time in the kitchen preparing holiday meals, and Daddy enjoyed getting everyone in the Christmas spirit by telling the story of Old Scrooge.
Why did my father take such a special interest in Scrooge? I knew that following his service in the Pacific during World War II he had returned home, married and started a family, like so many young men of his generation.
But during those post-war years he found himself moving further and further away from God, and he stopped attending church. He was never a hateful old miser like Scrooge, but he had let sin dominate his life. Then in the spring of 1957 he had a profound life-altering conversion experience. It was several years later when I came to understand that Daddy liked Dickens’ story so much because in many ways it mirrored his own transformation.
Christianity is a religion of second chances.Scrooge, in revisiting all the times in the past when he failed to be charitable eventually realized that his life was not about himself. Daddy made a similar discovery. Given a second chance he, like Scrooge, responded to the call to metanoia and became a new person.
I’m thankful that Santa Claus brought me a copy of A Christmas Carol that year. Books have been an important part of my life ever since, and that one has brought me great joy because of the wonderful memories it evokes of my daddy.

(Melvin Arrington is a Professor Emeritus of Modern Languages for the University of Mississippi and a member of Oxford St. John Parish.)

Proclaim Christ by witnessing to the Church’s unity this Advent

Deacon Nick Adam

Seminarian Reflection
By Deacon Nick Adam
As we come to the end of the holy season of Advent, we remember that our third pastoral priority is to “Proclaim Jesus Christ and our Catholic Faith.” This is a vital priority in a place and time where proclaiming faith of any kind can be a source of controversy. Being a Catholic in Mississippi has always meant that we will run into misunderstandings with members of other Christian denominations, but increasingly we experience the rejection of God all together by wider society.
Many Americans would rather we keep our opinions to ourselves and allow each individual to draw their own conclusions about who God is and how God interacts with the world. These realities certainly demand a courageous willingness to share the Good News as much as possible. In order to witness to the faith most effectively, however, I contend that an even more fundamental issue needs to be addressed first.
The way we interact with one another within our own church must come to the forefront. Over the past several months I have been preparing a thesis project as my seminary formation draws to a close. My thesis focuses on the unity of the Catholic Church. We profess a common creed every Sunday, and yet often we struggle to find common ground. We can quibble about issues ranging from liturgy to Church personnel. We can place labels on one another like conservative, traditional, liberal and progressive. My thesis basically states that these labels are not helpful in unifying us as Church. These labels make the Church out to be just another social club that can be broken up into different groups who share common values. This is not what the Church is. The Church is our very life; it nurtures us, teaches us, sanctifies us and saves us.
In my five and half years of seminary formation, I have seen my own opinions on these externals move and shift. I have been inspired by the example of men and women whose expression of faith is different than mine. I have also had to allow my own expectations and opinions to be challenged and sometimes reformed when faced with the truth of the Gospel and the teachings of the Church. This is the essence of living in the Church. The Church should not be a place where our own preconceived notions are always affirmed. The Lord wants us to become better people, not stay in the same old place doing the same old things the same old way.
I am certainly not a finished product in this regard. The bottom line is that we like what we like. We are comfortable with the familiar, and when we run up against something that is different, we sometimes can feel tempted to push it away. But this is not what the Church is. Our Church is guided and unified by the Holy Spirit, not by one opinion or one perspective. As we seek to implement the pastoral plan and Proclaim Jesus Christ and our Catholic faith, we have to start in our own parishes. Our message will not be as credible to non-Catholics if they hear us speaking about parishioners and priests who share our creed as if they were in rival camps!
During Advent we prepare our parishes, our homes, our families, and our hearts for the coming of Jesus on the great feast of Christmas. You can start to unify yourself with your parish during this time of preparation, and you can do this in many ways. There will be Advent penance services offered throughout the diocese so we can receive the gift of reconciliation as a community. Sin is not just a personal failing, it has an effect on the whole body of believers. When we confess our sins as a community, this is a beautiful sign of the healing that is offered to us as members of the mystical Body of Christ.
Sharing in the sacrament of penance also prepares us for the fruitful reception of the gift of the Eucharist, remembering that Christ did not only come in the flesh 2,000 years ago, but he seeks to be united with us each time we receive communion. Christ not only unites us to him in the Eucharist, but we are truly united as Church when we celebrate this sacrament. Remember that unity the next time you see something that bothers you in the Church. Instead of bickering with, or about, that person, pray for that person, ask the Lord to bring a spirit of unity to the Church of Jackson as we await the celebration of the birth of Jesus, who came to save all of us.

(Deacon Nick Adam is set to be ordained to the priesthood in May of 2018.)

The Christ-Child of the Year

Father Ron Rolheiser

IN EXILE
By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
Every year Time magazine recognizes someone as “Person of the Year.” The recognition isn’t necessarily an honor; it’s given to the person whom Time judges to have been the newsmaker of the year – for good or for bad. This year, instead of choosing an individual to recognize as newsmaker of the year, it recognized a category of persons, the Silence Breakers, namely, women who have spoken out about having experienced sexual harassment and sexual violence.
Part of the challenge of Christmas is to recognize where Christ is being born in our world today, where two thousand years after the birth of Jesus we can again visit the stable in Bethlehem, see the new-born child, and have our hearts moved by the power of divine innocence and powerlessness.
For Christmas this year, I suggest we honor refugee children as the “Christ-Child of the Year.” They bring as close to the original crib in Bethlehem as we can get within our world today because for them, as for Jesus two thousand years ago, there is no room at the inn.
Jesus’ birth, like his death, comes wrapped in paradox: He came as God’s answer to our deepest desire, badly wanted, and yet, both in birth and in death, the outsider. Notice that Jesus is born outside the city and he dies outside the city. That’s no accident. He wasn’t born a “wanted” child and he wasn’t an accepted child. Granted, his mother, Mary, and those with genuine religious hearts wanted him, but the world didn’t, at least not on the terms on which he came, as a powerless child. Had he come as a superstar, powerful, a figure so dominant that knees would automatically bend in his presence, a messiah tailored to our imagination, every inn door would have opened to him, not just at birth but throughout his whole life.
But Christ wasn’t the messiah of our expectations. He came as an infant, powerless, hidden in anonymity, without status, invited, unwanted. And so Thomas Merton describes his birth this way: Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for Him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because He cannot be at home in it, because He is out of place in it, and yet He must be in it, His place is with those others for whom there is no room.
There was no room for him at the inn! Biblical scholars tell us that our homilies and imaginings about the heartlessness of the innkeepers who turned Mary and Joseph away on Christmas Eve miss the point of that narrative. The point that the Gospels want to make here is not that the innkeepers in Bethlehem were cruel and calloused and this singular, poor, peasant couple, Joseph and Mary, were treated unfairly. The motif of “no room at the inn” wants rather to make a much larger point, the one Thomas Merton just highlighted, namely, that there’s never room in our world for the real Christ, the one who doesn’t fit comfortably into our expectations and imaginings. The real Christ generally shocks our imagination, is a disappointment to our expectations, comes uninvited, is perennially here, but is forever on the outside, on the periphery, excluded by our imaginations and sent packing from our doors. The real Christ is forever seeking a home in a world within which there’s no room for him.
So who best fits that description best today? I suggest the following: Millions of refugee children. The Christ-Child can be seen most clearly today in the countless refugee children who, with their families, are being driven from their homes by violence, war, starvation, ethnic cleansing, poverty, tribalism, racism and religious persecution. They, and their families, best fit the picture of Joseph and Mary, searching for a room, outsiders, powerless, uninvited, no home, no one to take them in, on the periphery, strangers, labeled as “aliens.” But they are the present-day Holy Family and their children are the Christ-Child for us and our world.
Where is the crib of Bethlehem today? Where might we find the infant Christ to worship? In many places, admittedly in every delivery room and nursery in the world, but “preferentially” in refugee camps; in boats making perilous journeys across the Mediterranean; in migrants trekking endless miles in hunger, thirst and dangerous conditions; in people waiting in endless lines to be processed in hope of being accepted somewhere, in persons arriving at various borders after a long journey only to be sent back; in mothers in detention centers, holding their young and hoping; and most especially, preferentially, in the faces of countless refugee children.
The face of God at Christmas is seen more in the helplessness of children than in all the earthly and charismatic power in our world. And so today, if we want, like the shepherds and wise men, to find our way to the crib in Bethlehem we need to look at where, in this demented inn, the most helpless of the children dwell.
(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)

Join revolution of tenderness

Sister Constance Veit

Little Sisters
By Sister Constance Veit
TED is a media organization that posts online talks under the slogan “ideas worth spreading.” Earlier this year Pope Francis surprised the world by digitally giving his own “TED Talk” at the organization’s annual conference in Vancouver. In his nearly 20 minute talk, our Holy Father challenged his listeners to ignite a much-needed revolution of tenderness in our world.
Tenderness, the Holy Father suggested, “is the love that comes close and becomes real. It is a movement that starts from our heart and reaches the eyes, the ears and the hands. Tenderness means to use our eyes to see the other, our ears to hear the other, to listen to the children, the poor, those who are afraid of the future. To listen also to the silent cry of our common home, of our sick and polluted earth. Tenderness means to use our hands and our heart to comfort the other, to take care of those in need.”
What better time could there be to launch a revolution of tenderness than during the Advent and Christmas season? After all, the heart of Christmas is the story of God’s coming among us as a helpless baby – this is the epitome of tenderness. As Pope Francis shared, “God himself descended into Jesus to be on our level. This is the path that Jesus himself took. He lowered himself, he lived his entire human existence practicing the real, concrete language of love. Tenderness is the path of solidarity, the path of humility.”
Imagine what Christmas would be like if we opted out of the commercialism of the season in favor of tenderness! If we didn’t have to be on the lookout for the next sale or the latest decorating ideas, we could better use our eyes to see the lonely and the misfit. If we chose silence over the 24-hour Christmas carol station once in a while, we would grow more attuned to the cry of the poor and the deepest hopes and fears of our children. And if our arms weren’t so full of packages, we could more easily reach out to others with the caress of God himself.
But we can choose tenderness over materialism and consumerism this Christmas! It’s a matter of slowing down, putting Christ at the center and prioritizing people over things. Reaching out to serve those on the peripheries and cherishing those who are close to us will bring us deeper fulfillment and more precious memories than all those material gifts we don’t really need. Tenderness is its own reward!
Meeting with a group of young people last Advent, Pope Francis invited them to welcome the joy of the season as a gift and to witness to it in their families, schools and parishes. He specifically encouraged them to share it with their grandparents by talking to them, asking them questions and learning from their memories and experiences. He also told grandparents that they should make an effort to understand their grandchildren, and to listen to their aspirations and hopes.
As a Little Sister of the Poor, I can think of no better way to launch the revolution of tenderness than for families to strengthen intergenerational bonds this Christmas. If you are young, reach out to your grandparents or elder aunts and uncles. And if you are older, shower the kids in your extended family with the unconditional love and attention that only elders know how to give.
I have one last suggestion this Christmas – and it springs directly from our Holy Father’s TED Talk. “Quite a few years of life have strengthened my conviction that each and everyone’s existence is deeply tied to that of others,” Francis told his audience. And then, incredibly, he asked for a little tenderness for himself: “We all need each other. And so, please, think of me as well with tenderness, so that I can fulfill the task I have been given for the good of the other, of each and every one, of all of you, of all of us.”
So, as you help ignite the revolution of tenderness this Christmas, don’t forget to say a little prayer for the man who inspired it!

(Sister Constance Veit is director of communications for the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

The Incarnation and the birth

Sister alies therese

from the hermitage
By Sister alies therese
Many of you will be familiar with the works of St. John of the Cross, OCD,: The Dark Night, The Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Spiritual Canticle, Living Flame of Love and so on. However, have you read his other poetry? Particularly the Romances? Of these I am particularly fond and for our purposes would like to share Romances 7-9, “The Incarnation and the Birth.”
St. John of the Cross, OCD, (1542-1591) was not only a writer of spiritual works but he was considered one of Spain’s finest poets. A graduate of the Jesuit College in Medina del Campo, John received a solid formation in the humanities. In 1559-63 that meant six hours a day devoted to grammar, rhetoric, Greek, Latin, and religion. He then went on to study for the priesthood and took the Carmelite habit in1563. In 1567 he was ordained in the spring and sang his first Mass in his hometown of Medina del Campo in September. It was here he met Madre Teresa of Avila, OCD, who was setting up her second foundation for her nuns of the Reform. She was 52 and he was 25. John had wanted to transfer to the Carthusian Order for a deeper life of prayer and solitude. She offered it to him in her plan to restore the Primitive Rule.
The following summer he finished theological studies and became an assistant professor at the Monastery of Santa Ana in Medina. He met with Madre Teresa and became convinced, that the Reform was where he needed to be. Soon there were six men in Duruelo who formed the first community. Because they were barefoot they were soon referred to as Discalced Carmelites.
However, by 1577 the Calced and the Discalced friars were deeply at odds. They demanded that John renounce the Reform and he declined. The tribunal called him rebellious and contumacious and ordered imprisonment. He remained in a closet 6’x10’, no window, cold, and extremely hot in summer. They took away his hood and scapular; his food only bread, sardines and water; and three evenings a week he had to eat kneeling on the floor in the middle of the refectory. It was here he wrote, in his head, the Dark Night and other poems that would make him so famous. After six months in that little prison, he was assigned another warder who showed him some compassion. He received a change of clothes and paper and ink. He, however, took advantage of the new jailer and in 1578 he escaped to the Discalced nuns in Toledo who hid him.
He would be elected to this and that as he grew and matured the Discalced vocation. But it was later in life he somehow found time to write things down. In 1591, however, there were great difficulties and he was not elected to any post. John felt free and commented in a letter to Madre Ana de Jesus: “…this life is not good if it is not an imitation of His life.” Efforts were made to expel John from the Reform. This horrible process was never completed as John died in Ubeda, at 49, in the odor of sanctity without agony or struggle. His prayers seemed to be answered: “not to die as a superior; to die in a place where he was unknown; and to die after having suffered much.”
He wrote the Romances probably in 1578 in Toledo in prison. This little bit of historical context is important. A beautiful way to use these Romances is to read them aloud to one another. There are several translations. I like this one.
Romance 7. The Incarnation
Now that the time had come when it would be good To ransom the bride Serving under the hard yoke
Of that law Which Moses had given her, The Father, with tender love, spoke in this way:
Now You see, Son, that Your bride Was made in Your image, And so far as she is like You she will suit You well;
Yet she is different, in her flesh Which Your simple being does not have. In perfect love this law holds:
That the lover become Like the one he loves; For the greater their likeness The greater their delight.

Surely Your bride’s delight Would greatly increase Were she to see You like her, In her own flesh.
My will is Yours, the Son replied, and My glory is That Your will be Mine.
That is fitting, Father, what You the Most High, say; For in this way Your goodness will be the more seen,
Your great power will be seen And Your justice and wisdom. I will go and tell the world, Spreading the word Of Your beauty and sweetness And of Your sovereignty.
I will go seek My bride And take upon Myself Her weariness and labors In which she suffers so;
And that she may have life I will die for her, and, lifting her out of that deep, I will restore her to You.
Romance 8. The Incarnation (cont.)
Then He called The archangel Gabriel And sent him to The virgin Mary,
At whose consent the mystery was wrought, In whom the Trinity clothed the Word with flesh
And though Three work this, It is wrought in the One: And the Word lived incarnate In the womb of Mary.
And He who had only a Father Now had a Mother too, But she was not like others Who conceive by man.
From her own flesh He received His flesh, So He is called Son of God and of man.
Romance 9. The Birth
When the time had come for Him to be born He went forth like the bridegroom From his bridal chamber,
Embracing His bride, Holding her in His arms, whom the gracious Mother laid in a manger
Among some animals That were there at that time. Men sang songs And angels melodies
Celebrating the marriage Of Two such as these. But God there in the manger Cried and moaned;
And these tears were jewels The bride brought to the wedding. The Mother gazed in sheer wonder On such an exchange:
In God, man’s weeping, And in man, gladness, To the one and the other things usually so strange.
Many blessings during this Christmas season.

(Sister alies therese is a vowed Catholic solitary who lives an eremitical life. Her days are formed around prayer, art and writing. She is author of six books of spiritual fiction and is a weekly columnist. She lives and writes in Mississippi.)

God’s closeness

IN EXILE

Father Ron Rolheiser

By Father Ron Rolheiser, OMI
There’s a growing body of literature today that chronicles the experience of persons who were clinically dead for a period of time (minutes or hours) and were medically resuscitated and brought back to life. Many of us, for example, are familiar with Dr. Eben Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife. More recently Hollywood produced a movie, Miracles from Heaven, which portrays the true story of a young Texas girl who was clinically dead, medically revived, and who shares what she experienced in the afterlife.
There are now hundreds of stories like this, gathered through dozens of years, published or simply shared with loved ones. What’s interesting (and consoling) is that virtually all these stories are wonderfully positive, irrespective of the person’s faith or religious background. In virtually every case their experience, while partially indescribable, was one in which they felt a warm, personal, overwhelming sense of love, light and welcome, and not a few of them found themselves meeting relatives of theirs that had passed on before them, sometimes even relatives that they didn’t know they had. As well, in virtually every case, they did not want to return to life here but, like Peter on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, wanted to stay there.
Recently while speaking at conference, I referenced this literature and pointed out that, among other things, it seems everyone goes to heaven when they die. This, of course, immediately sparked a spirited discussion: “What about hell? Aren’t we judged when we die? Doesn’t anyone go to hell?” My answer to those questions, which need far more nuance than are contained in a short soundbite, was that while we all go to heaven when we die, depending upon our moral and spiritual disposition, we might not want to stay there. Hell, as Jesus assures us, is a real option; though, as Jesus also assures us, we judge ourselves. God puts no one to hell. Hell is our choice.
However it was what happened after this discussion that I want to share here: A woman approached me as I was leaving and told me that she had had this exact experience. She had been clinically dead for some minutes and then revived through medical resuscitation. And, just like the experience of all the others in the literature around this issue, she too experienced a wonderful warmth, light, and welcome, and did not want to return to life here on earth.
Inside of all of this warmth and love however what she remembers most and most wants to share with others is this: “I learned that God is very close. We have no idea how close God is to us. God is closer to us than we ever imagine!” Her experience has left her forever branded with a sense of God’s warmth, love and welcome, but what’s left the deepest brand of all inside her is the sense of God’s closeness.
I was struck by this because, like millions of others, I generally don’t feel that closeness, or at least don’t feel it very affectively or imaginatively. God can seem pretty far away, abstract and impersonal, a Deity with millions of things to worry about without having to worry about the minutiae of my small life.
Moreover, as Christians, we believe that God is infinite and ineffable. This means that while we can know God, we can never imagine God. Given that truth, it makes it even harder for us to imagine that the infinite Creator and Sustainer of all things is intimately and personally present inside us, worrying with, sharing our heartaches, and knowing our most guarded feelings.
Compounding this is the fact that whenever we do try to imagine God’s person our imaginations come up against the unimaginable. For example, try to imagine this: There are billions of persons on this earth and billions more have lived on this earth before us. At this very minute, thousands of people are being born, thousands are dying, thousands are sinning, thousands are doing virtuous acts, thousands are making love, thousands are experiencing violence, thousands are feeling their hearts swelling with joy, all of this part of trillions upon trillions of phenomena. How can one heart, one mind, one person be consciously on top of all of this and so fully aware and empathetic that no hair falls from our heads or sparrow from the sky without this person taking notice? It’s impossible to imagine, pure and simple, and that’s part of the very definition of God.
How can God be as close to us as we are to ourselves? Partly this is mystery, and wisdom bids us befriend mystery because anything we can understand is not very deep! The mystery of God’s intimate, personal presence inside us is beyond our imaginations. But everything within our faith tradition and now most everything in the testimony of hundreds of people who have experienced the afterlife assure us that, while God may be infinite and ineffable, God is very close to us, closer than we imagine.

(Oblate Father Ron Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is President of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, TX.)