To The President of Sacred Heart University

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To Dr. Petillo:

As a student, I am deeply disappointed, dismayed, and angered by the decision to permit Donald Trump to use the Pitt Center at Sacred Heart for a political rally. While I understand this was technically not a University sponsored event or an endorsement, the public association between the Trump campaign and Sacred Heart University has now been made and cannot be undone. Inviting or permitting figures to appear on campus who may be controversial in order to promote lively discussion and debate is indeed a noble endeavor and one which challenges those of us in the University community to examine our individual beliefs and continue to form our individual consciences. But at the same time, every speaker, every event held on campus is a statement about our collective University conscience. It reveals a part of who we are as a community.

We have dorms on this campus named after Pope John XXIII and Pope Francis. Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council with high hopes of promoting Christian unity, fostering ecumenism, and deepening the respect for the dignity of the human person. Pope Francis has called us to embrace, welcome, and protect the poor, the marginalized, the refugees, the immigrants and the disabled. These are great men who by their words and example showed us how to be people of deep compassion, people who build Christian unity, who uphold human dignity and who foster understanding amongst all religions. This speaks to core beliefs that Sacred Heart University was founded upon.

Mr. Trump, by contrast, would ban an entire segment of our student body from even entering this country based solely on their Islamic religion, which is not only practiced by my fellow students, faculty and staff, but studied in our classrooms. To permit Mr. Trump to hold a rally on campus is a slap in the face of Islamic students and faculty advisors who have worked so very hard to promote interreligious dialogue and build understanding on this campus.

And what about our Latino and Hispanic population? Or those with disabilities? Or any of the other groups Mr. Trump has deemed worthy of his seemingly endless contempt? Mr. Trump’s outrageous statements are not isolated incidents of sarcasm or political missteps. He has, since the start of his campaign, been quite plain about who he is and what he stands for. He is more than controversial, he is divisive even within his own political party. He has shown himself to be unwilling or unable to take part in healthy, respectful dialogue and, as such, he has shown himself to be the anti-thesis of core values of this community.

Ultimately whether people choose to vote for him or not based on their individual beliefs about what would be best for this nation is immaterial when it comes to the University. We are not responsible for each individual’s conscience. We should be responsible, must be responsible, for defining who we are and what we stand for as a University community. Is our Catholic identity a deeply held conviction or a convenient slogan? Is Catholic social justice our calling and our mission or merely a marketing ploy? Is our prized Catholic Intellectual Tradition a tradition we hold sacred or a just good branding?

As Christians and Catholics we are called by Christ to be ‘in the world but not of the world.’ This decision and the lackluster explanation of it are most decidedly an example of being ‘of the world.’ The leadership of Sacred Heart University needs to do some serious soul searching and decide what matters most to this community. Are we willing to sell out all that we proclaim to be for an event fee? And if we are, do we really deserve to be called a Catholic institution?

Respectfully,

Christine J. Pelfrey, Class of 2018, Theology and Religious Studies Major

 

Connect or Dig?

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“One of the salient features of the modern world is the growing interdependence of men one on another, a development promoted chiefly by modern technological advances. Nevertheless brotherly dialogue among men does not reach its perfection on the level of technical progress, but on the deeper level of interpersonal relationships. These demand a mutual respect for the full spiritual dignity of the person. Christian revelation contributes greatly to the promotion of this communion between persons, and at the same time leads us to a deeper understanding of the laws of social life which the Creator has written into man’s moral and spiritual nature.” – Gaudium et Spes (December 7, 1965)

Reading this document, it’s hard to believe it wasn’t written a month or two ago. The understanding that dialogue isn’t improved by technical progress but by deeper interpersonal relationships is a frequent discussion in news articles and blog posts. In this time of text messages, emails, and social media, we can certainly say we have progressed in terms of technology but have we progressed in interpersonal relationships? I’m not so sure. I see many people who engage in monologues on social media, whether it be for political or religious purposes. People spend more time defining and defending their views than listening to others, which essentially eliminates the social from the term “social media.”

This climate of the monologue can lead people to surround themselves with only likeminded followers. The danger in this is that such behavior has the potential to amplify selfishness, racism, classism, homophobia, anti-religious attitudes and xenophobia. I’ve seen families and friendships torn apart by political arguments that started online. I’ve seen religious apologists who, rather than offer education and/or gentle repudiation of error, choose to condemn and demean those who have differing views, thereby all but guaranteeing they will win few new followers to their cause and more likely will alienate many.

At the same time, social media has the potential for good. I’ve seen GoFundMe accounts raise money for cancer treatments and other medical bills. Acts of kindness campaigns have taken off. Grass roots campaigns that would have had a much harder time spreading the word now grow overnight. I’ve also seen religious figures use social media to educate, encourage and start open discussions. The Slate Project’s #SlateSpeak is a personal favorite of mine for asking tough questions, sparking social justice discussions and encouraging action.

So how does all this digital interaction impact the dignity of the human person? It is possible to use social media to build the kind of interpersonal relationships that deepen our appreciation for other points of view and for social groups other than our own. This is the kind of deeper understanding that can overcome discrimination in all its forms. This is what can lead people to move beyond online posturing to actually working within their communities to meet the needs of the most vulnerable amongst us. Online connections can lead to in-person connections. In this way, the barriers, both real and imagined, between “us” and “them” can crumble. Granted, that is a hopeful, some would say idealistic, outlook. The same digital interaction can deepen paranoia and radical views of all types. It can spread hate and violence just as easily as love and understanding. It will depend on whether we choose to deepen the sense of brotherhood of all mankind or dig trenches for our own like social group. If we’re going to reach out to others, we have to put down our shovels first.

 

Doors, Locked and Otherwise

florence-church-full_medDuring the Week of Guided Prayer, images of doors and houses came up every single day, which really isn’t all that shocking because I have a thing about doors, particularly closed, locked ones. One of the things that came up for discussion was a dream I had that was still haunting me. Two and a half years is a long time for a dream to stick with me. And it’s as real to me now as the night I dreamt it.

I was in the shadows across from a church door. A man came to the door and finding it locked, he began to beat on the door until his hands were bloodied and broken. He had his head against the door, crying as he pounded away in vain. I could smell the blood from where I was but could only watch, trapped and terrified in the shadows. I woke up still trying to scream and unable to.

I know this dream is something I need to work with, to explore in my writing. The imagery has become clearer and whatever was stopping me from moving closer is gone now. I learned the hard way writing The Gremlin and The Return of the Gremlin that sometimes my writing will not be under my control, at all, not even a little bit. This story of the man beating on the church door is one of those stories. It will not be writing. It will be more like watching and taking good notes. Knowing that, I started to doodle this morning and to piece out snatches of dialogue. Then I read today’s gospel. And what do I read? The man knocking on his friend’s door at midnight. Because, if nothing else, God is a stalker who likes to make sure He has my attention.

The obvious theme of that story is persistence. Keep knocking and the door will open. Keep asking and you will receive. And I realized that for most of my life, I’ve heard that story and pictured God on the other side of that closed, locked door, wishing I would go away and quit knocking. But what if this story is actually exactly what Jesus says it is: two ordinary people. And what if we look a little closer: there is a subtheme of indifference. A dialogue that could very well be something like this:

Knocker: Hey, I really need your help with this thing.

Knockee: It’s late. I’m tired. I worked all day. I’m in my pajamas, watching Netflix, and I literally just poured a glass of wine. Text me tomorrow.

See, it’s not the fact that the door is closed and locked. It’s the indifference, the active choice not to acknowledge that there is a problem that sets up the refusal to help. It’s a choice of the knockee to remain indifferent by making excuses that sound reasonably valid in hopes that the knocker will go away and figure out their issue on their own.

doorSo maybe the takeaway here is that the knocker isn’t pounding away on the door to get the thing, whether it’s a loaf of bread or money or advice in an emotional crisis. Maybe the knocker is pounding away at the door to knock down the indifference, to call attention to the excuses we make that only sound reasonable at midnight when you’re in your pajamas watching Man in the High Castle with a bowl of popcorn and a nice glass of Riesling. Would that same excuse sound as reasonable in the morning after your second of coffee? Or do you hear the knocker’s plea a little differently in the daylight?

There are an awful lot of people in this world knocking on doors that are closed and locked. Are we really listening to what they need or do we just want them to go away?

Writing The Weeks

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Around Christmas, I stumbled across a Twitter post about an Anglican rosary-making society. And the first thought into my head was: Wait a minute – I thought the Catholics had an exclusive on that.  It should be said that I have never been a devotee of the Catholic rosary. The nuns tried but like the Act of Contrition and the Baltimore Catechism, the Catholic rosary just didn’t take hold for me. No matter how much I tried, it felt forced, awkward and confining. I envied those who found so much peace in the decades.

I was intrigued by the pictures the Anglican priest had posted and asked him for more information. He sent me a link, which led to another link and there I was, several links and an hour later, ordering myself an Anglican rosary. So if the Catholic rosary was never my thing, why would I even bother with reading about, much less buying, an Anglican rosary? Pure, relentless, incessant curiosity.

The Anglican rosary is far smaller than a Catholic rosary, only 33 beads rather than 59. There is a cross, an Invitatory bead, and then four sets of seven beads called The Weeks which are separated by four larger beads known as the Cruciforms. The prayers are variable, some are the prayers of saints, others are lines of scripture, most are no more than few lines long. As I started to explore, what I found was simplicity and a whole lot of open space. Six months later, I have found is that I adapt those prayers to fit where I am in life at the moment. Whether it’s a prayer for strength, trust, mercy, or stillness, I have found what I needed.

In the month leading up to the Week of Guided Prayer, I prayed for clarity. God gave me far more than I ever expected. And while, God gave me clarity, God also gave me homework. The lines of scripture that hit home for me over the past few days will become a part of my daily prayer. I spent my Sunday morning writing out the lines that will become the Weeks and the Cruciforms for me for the foreseeable future. That was easy part of my homework. I have lot more writing to do in the coming months. But I’ve found a way of praying has the meditative quality found in repetition and yet the open space I need to be at home in my own skin. That combination has been nothing short of a gift. I also found that while the Weeks and the Cruciforms have changed, the Invitatory prayer that has been my mainstay for the past month remains the same.

Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

~Saint Patrick

Let Go

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So what happens when you put a perfectionist with no artistic talent whatsoever in a painting studio? Eye twitches. Eye twitches happen. And clenching of the jaw and a death grip on the paintbrush. But it’s okay because I’m in a private party with some of my longtime Catholic grammar school friends and we’re all hopeless perfectionists. We’ll leave the connection between Catholic grammar school and perfectionist tendencies for another post. For now, there’s food and there’s mimosas. There’s music from our younger days. It’s all good. Except I can’t paint creatively. I can paint a room, including the trim, and it will be gorgeous. But a beach? At sunset? With palm trees?

Ha ha ha! No.

For the next couple of hours, I reminded myself with every third stroke of the paintbrush to lighten up and let go. In the end, we all had a great time. We laughed ourselves silly and I came home with some great memories of friends that I love dearly and a painting of a beach at sunset – or the beginning of the apocalypse – with what could be either a sickly palm tree or a dead tarantula on it. But whatever, it’s hanging in my kitchen, conveniently covering the calendar, and, oddly enough, I’m rather fond of my apocalyptic tarantula.

I suppose my fondness for this painting has less to do with what it looks like and a lot more to do with what went into it. And I suppose maybe that applies to a lot of things in my life. I know where I’ve been and I know what it took for me to be where I am. The last few months got way more hectic than I can comfortably handle. So when I caught myself reading American history during what was supposed to be my prayer time at the beach in the morning, I knew something had to give. I need that time with God far more than I need an A in history. Yeah, I actually had to read that sentence out loud a few times until I could say it without my voice shaking.  I will most likely walk away from this summer class without an A, bringing an end to a two-year streak of perfect grades, and I am okay with that because I know what when into it was the best I had to give at this point in time. It seems like perfect timing that the Week of Guided Prayer starts this weekend just as one class ends and the next one starts. It’s the precisely the interruption I need. I’m not feeling like I’m on the most solid of footing, but that’s okay too because when I first attended the Week ten years ago, it was supposed to be a one-shot deal and yet, here I am again. I’ve been on more solid ground and I’ve been on shakier but it doesn’t matter because it’s all holy ground.

So, ultimately, what did my little foray into the arts teach me? That sometimes it’s okay to let go and when I find that things aren’t turning out quite the way I think they should, it’s completely cool – and actually rather helpful – to throw down the paintbrush, jump up and dance the YMCA with three other friends while the rest of the class paints on. Because in the end, it was never about the perfect beach painting. It was about the part of my soul that went into it. And you know, I think that’s pretty much what life is all about in the end. It’s not about what life looks like. It’s about how much soul goes into living it.

 

Feast of Questions

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Pope Francis has decreed that Mary Magdalene will now have feast day on the same liturgical level of importance as the other apostles. For nearly 1500 years, she has been described as the apostle to the apostles. She has had a memorial day on the liturgical calendar for centuries, sharing the date with fifteen other memorials. Now that the day is a feast, the Gloria will be sung and prayers dedicated to Mary Magdalene will be offered. The celebration carries more weight. This is beautiful thing.

But… I have questions. Lots of them.

Why announce the change in the liturgical calendar now? This announcement follows hot on the heels of the statements Pope Francis made about convening a committee to study (yet again) the possibility of ordaining women to serve as deacons. It also was timed during a three-day Jubilee Celebration of Women Priests which included participants from the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests and Women’s Ordination Worldwide, and was widely also publicized by A Church For Our Daughters and Call to Action. On the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart, Pope Francis made an announcement recognizing Mary Magdalene’s equal importance to her brother apostles while in the Piazza Pia activists from WOW held a purple stole witness for the ordination of women priests followed by a procession to Saint Peter’s carrying a petition titled Open The Door to Dialogue. So either this was a very lucky coincidence for the supporters of women’s ordination or a very shrewd marketing maneuver by Pope Francis to reiterate his message that the Church needs to create a greater (still undefined) role for women.

It should be duly noted that all Roman Catholic Women Priests have been excommunicated lata sententia for heresy, as have most of their public supporters. Attending a liturgy held by a Roman Catholic Woman Priest is an act of heresy. Members of the other three organizations are also considered out of bounds on many issues but since their actions are more indirect, they have not yet faced the same harsh penalties.

It’s true that Mary Magdalene had a memorial centuries before the ordination of the Danube Seven but it has taken the Church two millennia to not simply acknowledge, but to actually celebrate with a feast day the fact that, as Fr. James Martin put it, “Between the time she encountered Christ at the tomb and when she proclaimed his Resurrection to them, Mary Magdalene was the Church on earth because only she understood the full meaning of Jesus’s ministry.”

Why did it take so long? What was the Church so afraid of? The long held argument against the ordination of women centers around the scriptural accounts of Jesus’ followers. In the simplest of terms, the Church asserts that because Jesus chose to enter the world as a man and chose only men to be apostles, then clearly Jesus intended only men to serve as priests. No matter what position one takes on the ordination of women, one cannot avoid the obvious question: If Jesus intended for only men to serve as priests, why did he choose to first appear in his risen form to a woman? Furthermore, why did he then choose to send a woman to announce his resurrection? Keeping in mind his divinity, did Jesus not foresee the way these choices would influence the Church? Did the apostles, who were so entrenched in their patriarchal society, miss the message, as they so often did? Is it at all possible that by choosing to send a woman to announce the Resurrection, that Jesus was also sending the message that women had an equal, if not superior, role in proclaiming the Gospel? After all this is Jesus we’re talking about here. He could just as easily have appeared to the disciples in the locked room and foregone the encounter with Mary Magdalene. So why didn’t he do that? If we aren’t looking for that reason, we’re missing something.

The Deaconess Reality Check

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Earlier this week, Pope Francis answered questions at a meeting of the International Union of Superiors General, a gathering of 900 women religious leaders. He was asked about the ordination of women as deacons. His response was that he would call for a commission to study of the historical role of deaconesses and whether women could be ordained to this role today. This is a far cry from the usual resounding NO GIRLS ALLOWED response that is the stock answer whenever the words ordain and women appear in the same sentence and that fact alone was enough to send the internet into a frenzy. Supporters of women’s ordination cheered the idea as a baby step forward. I was tagged in multiple posts and comments on social media. Did you see this? This is awesome! Finally!

But I’m not super excited about the statement for a number of reasons. First of all, this was one of the pope’s infamous off-the-cuff remarks, which is Vatican slang for doesn’t mean a darn thing.  Secondly, if one read below the fold, the pope was also asked about a woman delivering the homily at Mass. The response was the customary NO GIRLS ALLOWED. Finally, the Church has been committed to ‘studying’ the possibility of ordaining women to the diaconate since the Second Vatican Council, a.k.a before I was born. Leading Church historians and theologians have used the exact same evidence to argue completely opposite positions.

Historically speaking, yes women served as deaconesses in the early Church. There is not only reference to this in scripture but also in records of early Church councils where there is discussion about the rite of the ordination of women deaconesses, specifically the Council of Chalcedon in 451. What has been refined and passed down to us is that deaconesses assisted with the baptisms of other women during a time when full immersion baptism would have required baptismal candidates to be naked. Scriptural references, however, speak of women preaching in the synagogues alongside the men. So what happened? The question centers around whether these women were merely given a blessing or whether there was an imposition of hands as there is in the Sacrament of Holy Orders. The practice of ordaining women as deaconesses was eventually ‘clarified’ and the role of women was eliminated altogether. That clarification came at a later Church council, later being defined as 1000 years later so hardly eyewitness apostolic kind of stuff. Be that as it may, the silt of centuries of Church teaching builds upon earlier layers of deposit and, right or wrong, it becomes solidified as tradition.

Could the Vatican reinstate the order of deaconess?  Yes, absolutely. The foundation is there both in scripture and in tradition. More and more highly placed archbishops and cardinals are starting to raise that possibility. While this generates a lot of excitement for supporters of women’s ordination, the reality is that a women’s diaconate would likely look nothing at all like the men’s diaconate we have now. Our deacons can proclaim the gospel and preach the homily at Mass. Pope Francis clearly restated the Church’s position that while a woman may offer a reflection at a prayer gathering, at Mass the priest or deacon delivers the homily in persona Christi, in the person of Christ, and thus must be a man. Sadly, this means that any hope that reinstating the order of deaconess will lead to us hearing a woman preach at Mass is decidedly misplaced. The only way that will happen is if, and only if, the Church revises its definition of what it means to operate in persona Christi and, since such a revision would also open the way for women to be ordained not only to the diaconate (as we now know it) but also to the priesthood, it is highly unlikely to occur in my lifetime.

Do I hope the Church might take a step, any step, even a tiny one, toward ordaining women? Yes, very much so. But hope has to be tempered with reality. The reality is that the Church would have to reexamine more than a millenia and a half of teaching before a woman could ever be allowed to preach at Mass. While the world looks at progressive changes in terms of years, the Catholic Church looks at progressive changes in terms of centuries. Change may come, but at 43, how long am I willing to wait for it? I’ve been told that younger women in the Catholic Church need women like me, women with passion, education, and most importantly a big mouth, to stay in the Catholic Church and push for change. But sometimes the only way to effectively create a change is to create a vacuum.