Friday, September 11, 2020
In our current politically polarized terrain, when it comes to cross-party dialogue about the upcoming election, many people I know - on both sides of the aisle - are close to despair about having fruitful conversation with "the other side." What if we change the frame - to ask how we might help each other to grow in charity in the way that we communicate our ideas? This very short Catholic News Service piece offers a few ideas for how to implement a buddy system for political dialogue.
Saturday, August 22, 2020
As we celebrate the centenary of the ratification of the constitutional amendment that gave women the right to vote, for most it will not be a shock to learn that the Catholic Church was not out front in the movement for women's suffrage. Nonetheless, we can still find ways to celebrate the journey toward increasing appreciation of women's contributions to public life - in this very brief CNS piece, with a little bit of help from Star Wars - The Rise of Skywalker.
A few years ago, as I was checking out my new classroom space prior to the first day of class, I ran into one of my IT colleagues who making sure all systems were go. Something about the way he moved made me realize that he was carrying a heavy weight. When we both pressed pause on our checklist of tasks, he was very relieved to connect beyond “how are you / I’m fine,” and we calendared a lunch to continue the conversation. As I left the classroom that morning, I could feel there was a shift in me. This tiny gesture of attention helped me to feel ready to work in that space to receive a new group of students.
Perhaps because at that moment I was working with Ed Pellegrino’s wonderful 1983 article, Professional Studies and Catholic Universities: The Consecration of Expertise for a book chapter on Catholic education, what came to mind was the image of pouring oil over an altar, as part of consecrating a new sacred space. The altar was ready.
In DC our local regulations are such that I am not starting the semester in a new physical space. What might it mean to “consecrate” a Zoom space to receive a new group of students this Fall? My Religion & the Work of a Lawyer seminar is not tiny, but it is manageable enough (24) to at least offer to meet and begin to get to know each student individually before the official start of classes. So far, to a person the students have been deeply appreciative of the chance for us to “see” each other in almost regular size (rather than as one among many squares) and to have a conversation beyond “how are you / I’m fine.” And with each meeting, I have felt a growing sense of calm with the idea of starting a very interactive discussion-based seminar online.
I have also been exploring new tech options to help the class as a whole process student input after breakout discussions. As part of an online orientation program, I did a test run of “Jamboard,” and made a mess of it. The little post-its rolled into the shared board too fast, and were too many and too small for me to process. But felix colpa: reflecting on exactly what went wrong, I realized that this was the “shift” that I needed. I had been overly focused on the question of how technology could help me to consolidate student input and to communicate that in an efficient and effective way. The shift? To foreground the question of how to honor each person as they give their input – which probably also means slowing down everything (the input and the discussion of the input).
Again, Pellegrino: “For the authentic Christian, no sphere of life can be isolated from faith. All work, however mundane or humble, becomes a ministry, and in that sense, consecrated.” I am not sure how long we will be online. But I am sure that we can continue to find ways not only to humanize the Zoom space, but even to consecrate our work in this platform.
Monday, July 6, 2020
Just out: a very short piece I published with Catholic News Service, "Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship Offers Guidance, Not Directives," - reflecting on the latest version of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops' voter's guide, and emphasizing the role of voter intent - and not simply the "non-negotiable" or "intrinsically evil" character of particular policy choices - when evaluating the moral character of decisions about voting.
My more extensive critique of an oversimplified appeal to "non-negotiables" is available in this 2008 essay, "It's Hard Work": Reflections on Conscience and Citizenship in the Catholic Tradition.
Saturday, April 11, 2020
In order to limit the spread of COVID-19, how much power should the state have to enforce limits on church gatherings this Easter? As we watch the showdown unfold in Kansas, Kentucky and Florida, I am also commenting on my students’ reflections on this topic, which was a perfect storm of a problem for our current Georgetown Law seminar on Religion, Morality & Contested Claims for Justice.
In our class discussion (over Zoom) last week, my first reaction was one of intense frustration and anger with what are probably the outliers – the religious and political leaders who seem to deliberately ignore the gravity of the crisis, or who seem callous to the health implications for the people of their communities and the broader public.
But on further reflection, I wonder if there is at least a tiny bit of room for dialogue across difference, in some circumstances. To what extent is some of the insistence on gathering grounded in the lack of trust that marks our polarized landscape?
At some point in my seminars we do an exercise in pairs entitled, “What is at Stake for You?” The goal is to create a space where each person can express in their own words, with their own categories, what are their stakes and/or what worries or concerns them most as we enter into conversation about an otherwise polarizing topic. The pair is then invited to jot down on a single index card a few words that capture their stakes, and to hold those thoughts throughout the conversation with the larger group. Generally, the exercise helps quite a bit in preparing a terrain for a more open, sincere and productive seminar conversation.
I still believe strongly that the extraordinary nature of the COVID-19 pandemic presents appropriate circumstances for the strong exercise of state power to limit and/or regulate the size of gatherings of any kind – including religious gatherings. But I wonder: if each “side” of this debate felt that others were trying to understand their stakes, might that lead, in some circumstances, to more openness to the kind of creative problem-solving that might also ultimately help to “flatten the curve”?
Thursday, April 9, 2020
This image of a priest, Fr. Clint Ressler, biking around to visit with his Houston-area parishioners on their porches (from a socially-distanced 6 feet), seemed like a good way to celebrate the gift of the priesthood on this Holy Thursday: Church closed? No problem. Texas City priest is biking to homes to pray with families. Best wishes to all for a blessed Triduum.
Sunday, April 5, 2020
In a setting that now feels like an eternity ago - when I was emerging from the house to commute to campus - this essay, “Be Part of a Listening Team: A Response to the Coronavirus,” published in the Focolare’s monthly magazine, Living City, reflects on how the example of love and care for neighbors in the wake of the Taal volcano eruption in the Philippines shines a light on a personal response to the Coronavirus crisis. Even if, for the time being, we are not chatting in the halls with colleagues or holding in-person office hours, I sense that many are nonetheless finding numerous creative ways to continue to be part of a “listening team.”
Monday, March 23, 2020
As citizens concerned about “flattening the curve” of the impact of the Corona virus, especially for our most vulnerable populations, here in my Maryland Focolare community house we are hunkered down indoors, pretty much emerging only for essential groceries and a socially distanced walk in the neighborhood.
As we stayed home yesterday (Sunday), what to make of the cessation of public liturgies? I realize there has been some discussion in the religious press about whether this is a sign of solidarity or of cowardly capitulation. Personally, I see it as an unambiguous sign of wise, prudent, loving solidarity.
Perhaps because of our community’s international reach, the news of the tragic proportion of the crisis, especially in Italy and other countries, often arrives with a very individual human face: the illness or death of someone we know, or of their relatives, of a community leader in a specific city, and yesterday the news that in one Italian town a whole convent of 40 religious sisters is infected.
With this awareness, I have received the national and local public health recommendations with tremendous sense of gravity. As a Catholic who in normal times is a daily mass goer, this past week I have found great solace by participating in a recording of the daily mass celebrated by Pope Francis. I have been wonderfully nourished by his essential homilies, petitions that embrace the wide range of suffering on our planet, and the profound invitation to reverent “spiritual communion.”
When the Holy Father pauses at length before the Blessed Sacrament at the end of the liturgy, I of course realize that there is a tremendous difference between physical presence in church and my interaction with a recording on a screen.
But in these circumstances, I also sense that this enormous gap can be filled with love: the love that emerges from being united with our local Archbishop, who issued the guidelines to not publicly gather; love for those who are most vulnerable to the virus, especially those who are elderly or with fragile health; and of course a very concrete love for our medical workers, with the awareness of how reductions in public gatherings can contribute to keeping them from getting overwhelmed… and so on.
We are One Body, the Body of Christ – and we are experiencing that reality in a way that I never imagined we could.
So what is mine to do in these circumstances? First, I feel a very deep invitation to prayer. Struggling with insomnia as I worry about the people in my life who are vulnerable, I have been pasting tiny post-its with their names on a large picture of “Mary Untier of Knots,” and I feel that with this Our Lady herself is helping me to let her hold those fears in her loving hands. Second, I try to reach out (via email, zoom or phone) to at least two people per day (beyond those in my community house), to simply check in, listen, and participate in whatever they are going through, to again bring all of those concerns to prayer.
Finally, leaning on these two walking sticks, I have sensed over the past week that these practices nourish the insight that I need to be thoughtful in my approach to accompanying my students as we proceed with a virtual teaching platform. I intuit that they may need different things at different times: some need continuity in the projects that they have undertaken, others need flexibility, and others are in dire need of a listening ear. And perhaps most fruitful, these practices also help me to admit that I too feel vulnerable, and greatly in need of a sense of connection and community. Amy Uelmen
Tuesday, September 11, 2018
As I try to steady myself amidst the earthquake of the crisis in the Church, I frequently return in my mind’s eye to living and working in New York City during the tragic event that we mark today, 9/11. I remember going to a liturgy for the victims in a large and packed church in the heart of Manhattan. It was only when two very large candles were lit that I began to sob: “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.” In the intense days that followed, I frequently touched that mercy in the atmosphere on the streets, and especially riding the subway. We were strangers, but our best hope was to be human together and attentive to each other’s pain and each other’s needs.
And so now too, I am drawn to the foot of the cross: “Lamb of God.” What a horrible, violent, shameful, ugly, fearful, repulsive scene. What must it have been for Mary, who sang of the greatness of God’s work when Jesus was in her womb, to witness the body of her Son so reduced—to the point that he even seemed drained of his divinity: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
And yet in the Gospel of John, Mary is called to focus her attention on the person who is standing beside her: “Woman, behold your son.” And John is called to turn to Mary: “Behold your mother.” And so John took Mary into his own home. (John 19:26-27). This is the powerful DNA of the newly born Church that emerges from Jesus’s radical identification with all forms of human weakness and suffering.
It is true that this moment of intense purification calls for a creative brainstorm on how to start or strengthen structures and practices of transparency, accountability, and shared decision-making. But perhaps in the midst of these conversations, we can also work together to identify some of the spiritual wounds that have led to unhealthy and even vicious practices within Church structures and institutions. For example, many who work within the Church—priests and laity alike—do not experience the warmth of an intimate and human space that nurtures their spiritual, personal and emotional integrity, and also keeps them connected and accountable to the larger community. Who is paying attention when inevitable personal crises emerge? Who has time to listen and walk together through those questions and doubts? What practices can sustain our focus and reinforce our efforts to be in the world, all together, a people of the Beatitudes: poor, meek, pure, just, close to those who suffer?
I think it may be here that Jesus’s words from the cross cry out to each of us: “Behold your son.” In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, the Church Father Origen explained that Mary had just one Son. The injunction was not to behold another son, but to behold her one Son, the Christ, in John: “Lo, this is Jesus, whom you bore.” (Book 1:6) When we behold the wounded body of today’s Church, we behold the wounded body of Christ.
“Behold your mother.” What might it mean for us to “take Mary home” in the wake of this crisis? There would be many ways to invoke her presence and her closeness to us in this moment. As our blog recalls, Mary is Mirror of justice, and she is also Refuge of sinners. Both dimensions of her love can accompany us in the important work of truth-telling and healing in the wake of the unspeakable crimes and abuse that have been revealed.
Perhaps one of the most powerful ways to bring Mary home is to focus on how her open adherence to God’s great love generates the presence of the living Christ in our world. This presence can then in turn be our guide in the difficult work of in-depth cultural change. Within the great mosaic of the Church we may have different roles and ways to respond to the crisis. For some of us, our contribution might simply consist in helping to create a space of community and love where people are welcomed and accompanied in the ups and downs of our lives, so that many can experience the Church as the home and school of communion. (Novo millennio n.43).
All of this work can be an expression of Mary’s own love and care for the Church, through which, in that stabat, she beholds her own Son. Mary, Seat of wisdom, Vessel of honor, Help of Christians, pray for us. Amy Uelmen
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
I am currently teaching a seminar in “Catholic Social Thought and Economic Justice.” Over the past few years I have re-vamped the syllabus, cutting down the number of topics I try to cover so as to have more time to discuss applications and the mesh with legal topics and structures. I am increasingly enamored of including film – at the moment, the Dorothy Day story, “Entertaining Angels” (1996, Paulist Pictures, with Martin Sheen); and “Romero” (1989 Paulist Pictures, starring Raul Julia).
Two snapshots of what I am learning from my students’ interaction with “Entertaining Angels”: First, really interesting observations about the tensions and ambiguities in Dorothy Day’s approach to single-mother parenting, as she raised her young daughter in the midst of the somewhat chaotic instability of the first Catholic worker house. This brought us into a fascinating discussion of how one’s commitment to working for justice (or any cause) impacts those closest; and how you think through those choices. It also gave me a glimpse of how much anxious pressure this generation feels to create an “ideal” setting for their children – which is making me think that as we move into Laborem Exercens I need to give some significant space to talking through a concept of “vocation” (both personal and professional) which allows plenty of room for human limitations, failures and frailty – as well as plenty of room (and permission) to work through the inevitable sufferings of life.
Second, there’s a fabulous culminating scene in which Day emerges from her own dark night in the community’s founding – which included tensions over whether to focus on the dissemination of ideas through the paper; or the day-to-day direct work with the extremely vulnerable and demanding homeless and poor. The turning point is through Day’s an encounter with Maggie, the alcoholic prostitute who was attempting to steal the community’s rent money. In response to Maggie’s sobs, “hit me,” Day responds: “I can see the light in you . . . the courage and the love … You are very beautiful . . . I love you.” What emerged in the class discussion was how this resolved the seeming tension between “contact” and “concepts” - as Peter-Hans Kolvenbach put in in his 2000 talk on the promotion of justice in Jesuit higher education -– “solidarity is learned through ‘contact’ rather than through ‘concepts.’” For me, Day’s “I can see the light in you” – leading to an attraction to the beauty of the encounter with Christ in the other – regardless of their external circumstances – captures what it means to find a powerful synthesis in a vision that fully contains both.