The sky was overcast, almost glowing a soft grey blue as I drove my daily commute into our nation’s capital. I passed a cemetery separated from the road by only an iron fence. Scattered across the verdant grounds were all sorts of headstones and tombs, some as small as a shoebox and others obelisks on which perched mourning angels. Billowing above were the vibrant colors of the United States Flag so big as to cast a pall over every soul beneath it.  On the radio a reporter described a Syrian woman holding her infant daughter at New York’s JFK airport, “How do you feel?” “Good, my kids - if they're here, they get the citizenship, and they're able to actually achieve things and go to school and dream bigger.”

It was not without drama that Rafiq and Ghada Al-Saleh arrived with their children after a years-long ordeal to pass the interview and vetting process in place for international refugees. These are children of God, a husband and wife whose love brought children into the world and who now seek freedom and opportunity for them on the shores of this great nation forged of such people for centuries. [1]

The Catechism speaks clearly on the reception of refugees: “The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin.” [2] The United States Bishops have been outspoken in their response to the new White House executive action on immigration: “We need to protect all our brothers and sisters of all faiths, including Muslims, who have lost family, home, and country. They are children of God and are entitled to be treated with human dignity. We believe that by helping to resettle the most vulnerable, we are living out our Christian faith as Jesus has challenged us to do." [3]

To me it is clear where we stand as Catholics in today’s divisive politicized culture. We stand apart. To mine Catholic social teaching for wisdom on political participation is to find a call to desperately defend the dignity of life while maintaining the integrity of the soul. It is to tackle head-on complex issues of nuance with both charity and a lively conviction. Through the lens of a polarized nation, Catholic thought is full of contradictions precisely because its hunger for consistency inhibits conformity with any party or platform. 

And yet many of the faithful have been swept up in the tide of partisan politics. They are lost in the conservative echo-chambers of social media where articles conjuring fear of the ‘Muslims plotting the destruction of western society’ abound. Caricatures of Islam disregard internal discussions of reform in favor of propaganda that harkens back to the anti-Semitism of the 1930s. Even more disturbing is the barrage of falsity flowing from our new President’s administration (and his Twitter feed). Whether distortions meant to serve a narrative or calculated lies meant to disorient press and public, this departure from truth renders discourse nearly impossible.  

I am angry.
Not only has the Right acquired membership of many Catholics with the promise of defeating legal abortion but they have seduced them into accepting dangerous ideas as hypocrisy flourishes. The party that stresses the importance of defining Marriage as “between one man and one woman” dismisses jokes about sexual assault as “locker room talk.” The party that vows to end abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade is led by a man convicted that “torture works.” 

I am angry that some friends and family have bought in to the vitriol of this movement. I am angry that the preference for “spin” over facts has hindered access to truth. I am angry that a “Catholic” seeks to supplant the Pope of Mercy with the politics of fear and division. As I read the words delivered by Steve Bannon to a Vatican conference my stomach turns: “We’re at the beginning stages of a brutal and bloody conflict… bind together and form the church militant… in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism.” [4] Mr. Bannon either misunderstands the “Church Militant” to be an actual army (rather than all the faithful on earth fighting a spiritual battle) or intentionally manipulates the language of the Church to mobilize a new crusade. 

I am most angry because I lost. In a quest to ‘destroy’ ideas of hate and division I lost souls. And worse?

I lost Jesus.  

It is a powerless feeling to have the troubles of the world, the crises of a nation in your pocket as you go about your life: Facebook, Twitter, and other news apps with a limited capacity to effect change. In our own coming and going we brush up against cultural movements and effects of public policy but never so much as now have we been so aware, so connected. And what is there to do? As you take your lunch can you broker an international peace deal? As you get ready for work can you ease the fears of a people facing a refugee crisis? The average person is stuck, at their best, responding and making moral judgements on complex issues as fast as they can re-post, re-tweet and share. 

The anger I speak about is not hypothetical. When a family member posted an article arguing the intrinsic violence of Islam and a commenter cheered the departure of President Obama “the dirty Muslim”, I couldn’t stay silent. When a friend posted about the societal contributions immigrants make, another person responded with made up statistics, and I had to press for their source. Mostly it upset me to see otherwise faithful Catholics abandon charity for protectionism and moral virtue for arbitrary ethics, to suddenly believe their ends justify the means. I tried to point them to Church documents, important Catholic thinkers, and Scripture to argue my points. “This is what it means to be Catholic,” I would say, “not that!” 

There was one problem with my approach, it didn’t work. 

In confession recently the priest, a mentor of mine, questioned whether I was so different than these people I confronted. I had my own sin, my own tendency toward hypocrisy. I had spent years learning and stressing the importance of method, tone, and approach in evangelization. Do and say all things with charity that the message of Christ may be received rather than rejected. This may as well have been tattooed on my forehead! And yet, when it came to speaking to my fellow Catholics I allowed my frustration to color my arguments as attacks and express my concerns as condemnation. 

After a couple drinks I passed the keys to my wife, leaving me to look out the passenger window as we left a party in downtown DC. We had just enjoyed a lavish meal and an open bar and now drove past the massive white monuments that punctuate Washington’s cityscape. The radio was playing some beautifully sad requiem as we paused at a stoplight. On the curb several homeless persons were in various stages of bundling up to attempt sleep against the protests of the buffeting winter winds. The taste of scotch soured in my mouth as the stark reality of poverty lay shivering on the doorstep of wealth and power. I had that heavy feeling you get when someone stands behind you before you see them, a hand upon my shoulder- the presence of Christ showing himself to me. 

Why do some have so much: alcohol, dessert, excess? And others have so little, abandoning dignity for a few moments of rest? What burned in my heart now was not anger but sadness. More than injustice and the corruption of an ideal, the suffering of Christ was laid bare. I had found myself on the ropes, defending concepts and principles and was now confronted with the reality behind them in the person of my savior. 

Anger is exhausting.
Far from despair, this sadness allowed me time to reflect, regroup and reshape my response to the world. In a climate where so many corrupt the core message of Christianity with the principles of party politics, what I felt called to trumpet was a return to that core message, an announcement of the person of Jesus Christ. Our worldview should be grafted to the Gospel message and our consideration given to those Christ entrusted it to. Given that promise of ecclesial wisdom I turn to the words of the Holy Father, Pope Francis: “We have rediscovered the fundamental role of the first announcement or kerygma, which needs to be the center of all evangelizing activity and all efforts at Church renewal.” [5] The “kerygma” (from a Greek word meaning preaching or proclamation) is the fundamental message of the Incarnation and, by extension Divine Revelation. Articulating this message Pope Francis continues: “the first proclamation must ring out over and over: 

Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.””

In recent years “kerygmatic Catechesis,” or the idea that this message must remain at the forefront of all religious formation, has steadily taken root deepening our pedagogy past the shallowness of dry doctrine. The challenge today is implementing the theory and carrying that Gospel proclamation out of the classroom and into our daily lives. The assurance of God’s love and guidance must characterize the content of our message and be embodied in its delivery. 

Those who fail to stand steadfast in the teaching of the Church, preferring instead a home in a political creed, may only be searching for strong leadership. We must be that leader. Reform is a continual theme in the history of our Church. To heal wounds of polarization and division we must revisit the igniting forces of the New Evangelization which invited each Catholic to renew their relationship with Jesus Christ and his Church. We must re-read the writings of the Church that spoke to the problems of yesterday and today and draw out the principles that will speak to the concerns of tomorrow. For example, we should study Humane Vitae and read beyond a condemnation of contraception to the principles of human dignity that will help us respond in unity to the complex medical ethics of the future. We must not be satisfied in responding to cultural shifts but determine their trajectory. Artists, writers, and filmmakers who speak to Catholic themes should be empowered to explore the nuances of human spirituality rather than be nitpicked and condemned. 

A practical question of how to personally rise to this challenge remains. In my own life it has begun with humility. When I see myself falling short of the calling I’ve been given I remember the words of Saint John Paul II that I — “like every other member of the Church—ought to grow in awareness that [I am] continually in need of being evangelized." [6] Wherever we seek to work for the Lord we should prepare to have our weaknesses exploited. Do you have a problem with anger? Check yourself before responding to that Facebook post. Do you have a problem with chastity? Maybe don’t pick a fight over sexual ethics until you’ve healed your own wounds. Do you have a problem with pride? Don’t be afraid to apologize and give people the benefit of the doubt. 

I have also been entering more deeply into discernment with my wife. When moved by a particular suffering in the world or need in the Church we ask what we can do instead of simply decrying injustice and scrolling past. Still a novice, I am constantly seeking these opportunities. But the important thing is that we seek them! Removing myself for a time of quiet prayer or spiritual reading often allows me to feel the Lord tugging my heart in one direction. When I leave the chapel I try to make goals that transform desire into mission. The press has yet to report on all the suffering in the world; let us not wait, but go out in search of those in need, remembering the words of Saint Teresa of Calcutta: 

“You and I have been created for greater things. We have not been created to just pass through this life without aim. And that greater aim is to love and be loved. Give yourself fully to God, who will use you to accomplish greater things on the condition that you believe much more in his love than in your weakness. Never think that a small action done to your neighbor is not worth much. It is not how much we do that is pleasing to God, but how much love we put into the doing.” [6]

In that spirit of humility I ask you to pray for me as I continue this great journey of faith. Be assured of my prayers that what is now a burning in our hearts may be a new Pentecost for the Church. Finally, I leave you with the exhortation of Saint John Paul II who turned the tides of history amidst supreme turmoil that we may follow in his footsteps: 

“Despite every difficulty, delay and contradiction caused by the limits of human nature, by sin and by the evil one... humanity is able to hope. Indeed it must hope: the living and personal Gospel, Jesus Christ himself, is the “good news” and the bearer of joy that the Church announces each day, and to whom the Church bears testimony before all people... as a sign and source of hope and of love.” [8]

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  1.  Lane, C. (2017, February 7). With Travel Ban Blocked, Syrian Refugees Arrive In New York To Start A New Life. Retrieved February 11, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/2017/02/07/513857863/with-travel-ban-blocked-syrian-refugees-arrive-in-new-york-to-start-a-new-life
  2. CCC 2241
  3. USCCB Committee on Migration Chair Strongly Opposes Executive Order Because It Harms Vulnerable Refugee and Immigrant Families. (2017, January 27). Retrieved February 11, 2017, from http://www.usccb.org/news/2017/17-026.cfm
  4.  Poggioli, S. (2017, February 8). Steve Bannon Aligns With Vatican Hard-Liners Who Oppose Pope Francis. Retrieved February 11, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/02/08/514102356/steve-bannon-aligns-with-vatican-hardliners-who-oppose-pope-francis
  5.  Evangelii Gaudium, 164
  6.  John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Dabo Vobis (25 March 1992), 26: AAS 84 (1992), 698.
  7.  M. (1987). Love, a fruit always in season daily meditations from the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. San Francisco: Ignatius Press.
  8.  Christifideles Laici, 7

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Anthony Esser is recently married and lives in Southern Maryland with his wife, Casey. They are excited to announce they are expecting their first Baby Esser this coming May. Anthony serves as Assistant Manager to the Bookstore at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception where he has worked for over two years. He considers himself an artist, a wannabe chef and a sometimes stand­ up comic. 

 

Photo credit
Jenna Pope
 

 

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