Tuesday, July 28, 2015

A Moment of Grace for...Planned Parenthood?

Today the Center for Medical Progress released a third undercover video of Planned Parenthood staff talking nonchalantly about "procuring" intact organs after an abortion. Typically, the Center (a pro-life fact-finding organization which presented itself to Planned Parenthood as a "tissue procurement" middleman) provides an edited video for sharing on social media, with the unedited or complete footage available on line as well.

There has been a bit of an escalation as we have gone from one video to the next, with the tone becoming (as if that were even possible) more callous and matter of fact about the challenges of modifying a procedure (the abortion) in order to harvest the greatest number of usable organs, and the best approach to handling the "fees" the organization expects for this service to science. Today's video, we are warned, is extremely graphic. I have decided to stick with transcriptions rather than subject my memory to the images of an unspeakable horror.

In this continuing public relations nightmare, Planned Parenthood has attempted several different approaches, typically describing the video producers as violent lawbreakers while apologizing for the insenstive "tone" of the doctors whose frankness about dollars and cents doesn't square with the "caring" image the organization has spent so much money fostering. The reactions to the revelations has also left PP official sputtering that the videographers failed to get signed releases for the filming, and used "deception" to spread "false tissue donation rumors". Since the video released today shows the actual remains of aborted babies, Planned Parenthood even has the gall to accuse the videographers of violating patient privacy (since the mothers did not sign a consent form for their child to appear on camera?). (A press release warned the news media not to make the mistake of putting any of this content on the air, lest they, too, fall afoul of the law.)

Yet I pray that this a "moment of grace" for Planned Parenthood, the way "hitting bottom" is a mysterious moment of grace for an addict. These videos (and those to come) are holding a harsh mirror to an organization that, for decades, has promoted itself as the best friend of modern woman. Hopefully, many of the women who have trusted Planned Parenthood to look out for their best interest are now seeing what the organization really looks out for, and will go elsewhere. Hopefully, many of the women who work for or volunteer at Planned Parenthood will find that their desire to help women in need has been manipulated in favor of the bottom line, and will look for more positive ways to accompany women in need. Hopefully, even the well-compensated hierarchy of Planned Parenthood will feel the first healthy waves of shame that can invite them to re-evaluate the time and mental energy they have devoted to a destructive cause.

Abby Johnson (former director of Planned Parenthood and author of unPlanned) remembers when she was involved in harvesting fetal organs for Planned Parenthood. She helped establish "And Then There Were None," an organization that helps abortion industry personnel transition out of the sickening business. (It's not as easy as saying "I quit!"; people need jobs, but they also need healing.)

Pray also that in some way known only to God, these horrible revelations will provoke a moment of grace in women who, having had abortions at Planned Parenthood, signed forms donating the "tissue" for research. Many of them might have thought that the good of  medical research could offset the harm and loss of the abortion itself. The fact that Planned Parenthood coldly calculated just what "fees" it could gain for process and handling their babies' body parts may traumatize these women; it is important that we not only pray for them in this delicate hour, but be very careful of what we say (and how we say it) with regard to women who have had recourse to abortion out of fear, desperation, force or ignorance (an ignorance Planned Parenthood has worked hard to foster).

Read about the mission of "And Then There Were None" in their newsletter archives, and you'll see grace at work. We could be witnessing a moment of grace even now.

Update: Here's a first-hand description of an unlikely moment of grace for one former abortion clinic counselor: http://www.harvestisabundant.blogspot.com/2015/07/how-many-women-did-i-counsel-for-second.html?m=1

Monday, July 27, 2015

An out-of-the-way New Orleans Must-See for Catholics

Like most New Orleans Catholics, I grew up at least slightly aware of "Father Seelos," a kind Redemptorist who had spent just over a year in the city--almost a hundred years before I was born. Those months happened to coincide with a yellow fever epidemic which claimed the 48-year-old priest's life. In his all-too-brief ministry, the saintly Bavarian made a huge impression, and the city claimed him as one of its own, despite the much better claims of Baltimore (where he was ordained) and Pittsburgh (where he followed St John Neumann as pastor of St Philomena's parish).

Holy cards of "Servant of God Francis X. Seelos" were as common as
images of Our Lady of Prompt Succor. When my Dad's cousin Thomas was diagnosed with terminal colon cancer, we didn't just visit him: we pinned a relic of Father Seelos on his hospital gown. (Tommy lived another ten years, caring for his wife through her ordeal with Alzheimer's, and, mission accomplished, followed her in death three weeks later.) When Mom was dying, I held a first class relic of Father (now Blessed) Seelos in her hand, counting on him and Our Lady to escort her to God's presence.

So why is it that until this summer I had never visited the Assumption Church where Father Seelos was parish priest, and where he was buried? Maybe because it was in an unfamiliar, out-of-the-way part of the city. All I can really say is that the opportunity never really came up, and I never actually pursued it. Until Sister Julia Mary (on her "good bye tour" of the city) posted pictures from the Seelos Shrine on Facebook and I saw what I had been missing. The GPS app on my phone showed that Assumption Church was not all that far from the Quarter, and we really could find our way there without too much trouble. I convinced my sisters to make a visit part of our "French Quarter Day" on a sweltering Saturday.

Now in my office.
For some reason, I wasn't all that keen on beginning at the clearly marked Visitor's Center. (I preferred to be more discreet!) But that is the only way in: the Church doors facing the street are bolted shut. (I tried them. Both.) Happily, when we rang the bell, it was my sister Jane's best friend who was on volunteer duty that day. She was thrilled to see us (and even admitted praying that we would be able to connect that weekend, somehow). She showed us the well-prepared one-minute "tour" presenting the Blessed's life and artifacts (none of us felt called to imitate the "Cheerful Ascetic" in his penitential practices, though seeing his "cilicium" really made me question my own expectations of comfort and pain-free living). There was even a wax museum-style depiction of his
last pastoral act: visiting and anointing a man who was dying of yellow fever. (After leaving the man's bedside, Father Seelos returned to the parish and collapsed, stricken with his own final illness.) The gift shop was well-stocked and comfortable (so much for penances!): I even got a small statue for my office shrine, and bonus holy cards for anyone who hasn't yet heard of the good Father.

Finally, a group of us were escorted to the Shrine itself, its entry facing a lawn where once Father
Seelos' rectory had stood. (The approximate spot of his room was marked.) There is a long foyer with a winning statue of Father Seelos, and several paintings of his life and ministry (including the time he spent with St John Neumann, his novice director), as well as the narrow old casket in which he was first buried. In a chapel, a large and ornate reliquary, modeled on Bavarian architecture, holds the Blessed's mortal remains. Overlooking it is a Bavarian statue of Our Lady which first arrived at the parish during Father Seelos' tenure, and which he himself had blessed. A shrine volunteer held a  Crucifix (it is connected to the miracle which led to Seelos' beatification in 2000) and invited each us us in turn to bless ourselves with the Crucifix and to entrust our intentions to Seelos' intercession. She then led us in a spontaneous prayer. ("I have a learning disability," she explained, "and I just haven't been able to memorize the official prayer.") We also had time to visit the fabulous Church with its hand-carved high altar and the soaring pulpit (hand-carved) from which Father Seelos preached.

It was too hot (the heat index was well over 100ยบ) to spend much time outside, but the area between the Visitor Center and the Church seemed ideal for a day of retreat; the life-sized statue of Jesus in Gethsemane really inspired the desire to "stay with Me."

So, if you find yourself in need of some spiritual refreshment while in New Orleans, the Seelos shrine is definitely one landmark you won't want to miss!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Robert E. Lee and the dignity of defeat

While I was visiting my family in the Deep South, verbal battles raged on social media and in the
local newspapers about the desirability of removing all monuments to Confederate leaders, and renaming streets and squares. The murders in Charleston, inspired by (or at least blamed on) a romantic notion of the Confederacy as some sort of lost glory for the white race, rendered every one of those tributes questionable. Ideas were floated in New Orleans to rename avenues like the Jeff Davis Parkway after notable African-American contributors to the city (Xavier University President Norman Francis was one of the suggested honorees). The mayor recently proposed dismantling the monument in Lee Circle, but this is one monument that was not a belated attempt on the part of the KKK to create a past in its own image, having first been dedicated in 1877, less than twelve years after Lee's surrender.

I think Robert E. Lee is the one Confederate leader we ought to recognize with honor. Not because he led an army. Not because he fought for slavery or under the more palatable (and universally acceptable) banner of "states rights." We need Robert E. Lee as an example of dignity in defeat, just as we need to recognize Ulysses S. Grant not only as a President, but as a general who did not demean his adversary or place a crippling burden on the surrendering army. Lee and Grant saw a greater good at stake than the victory of one or the other army: their war correspondence acknowledges the desire to stem the loss of blood and property on both sides. That was what the surrender at Appomattox sought; that was the only motivation Lee had to put pen to paper.

So many times in social media, the climate really does resemble a battle in which the favored weapon is the ad hominem comment, with the lawsuit running a close second. It is not enough that florists and bakers be ordered to provide a product or service; they must receive crippling fines and sentences to re-education programs, and forever bear, in references on social media by the victorious party, the scarlet letter (H for "hater"). They are the losers. They aren't allowed anything but scorn.

That is why I would prefer to see New Orleans' Lee Circle remain as it is: not as a monument to the supposed glories of the Old South (New Orleans never did really fit in to that "Gone with the Wind" image), but as a reminder of the immense dignity even of the defeated, and an exhortation not to crow over the loser, or heap punishments upon them (history proves that this only creates resentment and leads to new wars). The stature of Robert E. Lee testifies that, even when someone is "on the wrong side of history," there can still be much about them that deserves honor.

Convent update

The summer season in our Pauline community is generally the time for the celebrations of vows and jubilees, as well as entrance into novitiate. This centenary summer has than the usual number of celebrations: we already marked our centenary in a solemn way with Cardinal O'Malley, and shortly after that witnessed Sr Emi Magnificat's perpetual profession of vows.

This Saturday we will celebrate our sisters' Jubilees: Sister Mary Jerome and Sister Hosea mark 25 years of vowed life; Sister Mary Agnes, 60 years, and 99-year-old Sister Mary Augusta, 75 years. The next day, the novitiate will expand to welcome three young women who have completed the two-year postulancy in St. Louis. And then on Monday, we will witness (as far as possible in this life) the completion of that journey, laying to rest Sister Mary Gabriella, who slipped away from this life while I was home visiting my family. The death notice sent to all the communities noted that Sister Mary Gabriella (who had been declining visibly all year, but was still mostly mobile) did not finish her journey here without first finishing dessert: thin as a rail, she had a prodigious sweet tooth and her local superior had brought a last, welcome treat up to her room just hours before she died.

Some years back, I asked Sister Mary Gabriella a bit of her vocation story, and a few anecdotes about her life as a Pauline, including her experience as a missionary in Pakistan.

May she rest in peace.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

Blessed Alberione's Travel Prayer

I'm off! Time for me to visit family, sleep in and read, read, read! That's right: vacation! I was happy to find a direct flight to New Orleans (they're sure not easy to come by), but I will still be praying Blessed James Alberione's safe driving prayer, which seems to cover all the angles, especially that wherever I go, I spread the "good perfume of Christ" to all I encounter.

Enlighten me to travel only and always in charity and with my gaze fixed on Heaven, my ultimate destination.

Be my guide, that I may have complete self-control, a sure eye and constant moderation.

Whever I go, be for me and for those whom I accompany or meet, joy of spirit and salvation of soul and body.

My Guardian Angel, kindly precede me and guard me.


Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Blessed Alberione's Prayer before Using Social Media

Granted, Alberione didn't compose the prayer with social media in mind (at least not our kinds of social media)! This is the prayer Blessed James kept on his desk, and which he prayed before opening the mail or receiving visitors. I think it is a perfect prayer to use before looking at Facebook or Twitter. (Is there any way to provide this prayer to the "Anonymous Commenters" of the world?)

Image from heidicohen.com used under CC license.

Jesus Master,
Enlighten my mind to understand correctly what those who write or speak to me mean. Let me hear correctly; grant that I answer in you and according to you. Dispose their heart and my heart to seek only your glory and the peace of hearts.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Final Vows

Yesterday was the 32nd anniversary of my perpetual profession (final vows); today it is Sr Emi Magnificat's to "make the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience for all my life."
The community (along with Sr Emi's family and friends) began the celebration early, with an Hour of Adoration last night. The profession Mass and dinner involve the whole community at some level: music (that would include me), cooking, serving.... Your participation and prayers are most welcome, too, as Sr Emi confirms her commitment to Christ "among the Daughters of St Paul."

Friday, June 26, 2015

Self-Made Man (or Woman, whatever) of the Supreme Court


An image of humanity
as a whole, part of the
meaning of marriage.
Today's majority opinion included this gem: “The Constitution...includes specific rights that allow persons, within a lawful realm, to define and express their identity.” This takes us far beyond the “born this way” plea that has characterized much of the rhetoric surrounding same-sex marriage. Now it is a matter of an identity that can be self-defined. Man has become his own maker. It's going to be really challenging to maintain a society in which the laws must conform to individual autonomy.

The provision for religious freedom in the matter of the definition of marriage is especially troubling. It seems as weak as the supporting arguments in the majority opinion. And yet the issue is crucial for the unhampered functioning of the Catholic Church's structures as they now exist, since marriage is a pivotal sacrament (Pope John Paul called natural marriage the “primordial” sacrament), and a revelation (that's part of what a sacrament is) of the relationship of God and humanity.

It's going to be interesting to see where this takes us, but here is perhaps a preview, from Bonhoeffer:

The limits and claims of the secular calling are fixed by our membership of the visible Church of Christ, and these limits are reached when the space which the body of Christ claims and occupies in the world for its worship, its offices and the civic life of its members clashes with the world's claim for space for its own activities. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Abraham, model of Laudato Si?

I have to admit it. Even though St Paul drew insights in abundance from the stories of the patriarch Abraham, I kind of groan inside when the liturgical readings hit the Abraham cycle (Genesis, chapters 11-25). Guess what? We hit the Abraham cycle as of yesterday. Today's reading told of how kinsman Lot settled in the beautiful green valley near Sodom (cue the subtle bass tones that signal impending doom). Guess what else? I was blown away with insights in, if not abundance, a certain clarity. In a way, Abraham is showing us in today's reading something that Pope Francis is telling us in his encyclical Laudato Si.

Photo by Sr Mary Lou Winters, FSP.
Led by God, Abraham and nephew Lot have left Haran and entered Canaan, the land God intends to bestow on Abraham and his descendents (of which not a one existed yet). Used to leading flocks and herds, both men quickly appraise the territory. But neither one makes a land grab. They try sharing the area, but conflict arises. They may be kinsmen, but their goatherds do not share the family loyalties. Or rather, the herdsmen are loyal to "their" chieftan. For the sake of peace, the two family groups must separate. And Abraham gives the younger man first pick.

Younger and brash, Lot sets his heart on the well-watered gardens of the Jordan Plain, near prosperous Sodom. Abraham (still called Abram at this point) watches him go and then moves his camp westward.

This is where I see "Laudato Si." God had not yet given the land to Abraham; it was still in the realm of promise. Abraham treated it as a "common home," not as his to exploit (as if that was even possible in those pre-industrial times). As the elder, Abraham could have assigned Lot his, well, lot. That would have introduced into the family the kind of rivalries that were already taking place at the level of the shepherds, and the civilization that would have sprung from those roots would have been poisoned from the start with suspicions, accusations, deceit, grasping, coveting...

But Abraham acted as someone who knew that his inheritance from the Lord was secure; he did not have to seize the best land for himself or strategize how to get and keep it. The God who had brought him from Haran was the Lord, the maker and owner of it all, and he who had made the promises was worthy of trust. Abraham did not grasp at what God gives. He did not act as a proprietor, but as a visitor (aren't we all?), "looking forward to the city with foundations whose designer and builder is God" (cf. Heb. 11:9-10).

I think this attitude is a good one with which to read the new encyclical "On Care for Our Common Home": to let Pope Francis show us the whole land, belonging not to the tribes that presently inhabit it, or mine it, or rule it, but belonging to God and entrusted to everyone.

Do you have the faith of Abraham?

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Pauline history of Papal Documents

My postulancy in the Daughters of St Paul was not just an introduction to religious life; it was like a master class in All Things Catholic, like the liturgy and papal documents. 

We did a special series of
reprints for Vatican II
documents, pushing the
tiara over to make room
for an image. But the yellow
continued on for years.
In the convent I learned how to use a missal and prayed my first Vespers; I read my first encyclicals, too—yellow pamphlets (some so old the staples had rusted) with the papal tiara embossed over the  Latin title and maybe the price (10¢; some as high as 20¢), published by (you guessed it) Daughters of St Paul or (depending on how long ago it had been printed) St Paul Editions. There was a long history to those single-serve documents. Our Founder's entire vocational journey hinged on Leo XIII's Tametsi Futura Prospicientibus, so he was gung-ho on getting people to read documents that previously had had an audience of "The Venerable Patriarchs, Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops".

The sisters would do an initial print run of 10-25,000 copies of papal documents (in some cases, a 20 or 30-year supply; they didn't know about inventory management yet). There were a few of those booklets that underwent successive reprints (Humanae Vitae being one of them), but our stockroom had pretty much a lifetime supply of every major papal document ever issued, from Leo XIII through Blessed Pope Paul VI, then gloriously reigning, and judging from the rusty staples, most of them seemed to have been printed during the writer's reign and were thus older than I was. Since I worked in the shipping department, I quickly acquired a working knowledge of the major documents and their Latin and English titles, just from having to fill orders!
With Pope Benedict, we went
to a "New Pope, New Color"
cover policy.
The year I made first vows, the year of three Popes, things didn't really change. The Polish Pope issued his first encyclical and out came the yellow booklet, a bit chubbier than most of the earlier documents had been. (Redemptor Hominis was about the size of Gaudium et Spes or Communio et Progressio, our biggest document booklets up to then.) Pope John Paul continued cranking out the documents (mostly encyclicals and apostolic exhortations) and we started giving them unique covers, until the sisters in the publishing house decided to bring back the standard approach and popped most of the reprints into blue booklets or simple blue paperbacks (JP2's texts usually popped the staples on the booklets).

Late in John Paul's reign, he began publishing actual books. Suddenly the major publishers were interested: not just in his full-length books, but in the
Sneak peak at the new "Anniversary
edition" of a super important
document on the family.
documents as well, issuing them with amazing dust jackets and hard covers. Through it all, the Daughters kept publishing those “chapel sized” paperbacks, changing the color as the Popes succeeded one another: red for Benedict XVI, and now green for Francis. Recently we've introduced "anniversary editions" of major documents: On time for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis' visit to Philadelphia, we'll release the anniversary edition of powerful document from the last Synod on the Family: "The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World" with commentary by John and Claire Grabowski (members of the Pontifical Council for the Family). (Be on the lookout for it!)

Interest in papal writings sparked some abuses, too: a fake papal website; altered documents proffered as the real thing. The Vatican publishing office (which had long given the Pauline sisters open permission to print papal teachings) overhauled its rights and permissions. This means that although for now you can read “Laudato Si” online or download the pdf file from the Vatican website, you will have to wait for a print edition in English. The first copies will be coming from the US Bishops' Conference publishing arm, which administers Vatican copyrighted material. Other publishers (like Ignatius Press, OSV and Pauline) are preparing their editions, but cannot release them for another month. The Pauline edition will be the usual “chapel size,” and the most economical option. Naturally, I hope you will sign up now to reserve a copy as a way of supporting the community that made the paperback encyclical a standard item for the Catholic bookshelf!

Thursday, June 18, 2015

First Look at Laudato Si (the real one)

Soon enough we'll find out how accurate the leaked draft of the new encyclical was; we have the official version to look at now.

After the Deepwater Horizon incident in the Gulf of Mexico, I remember expressing my distress that a company could be so cavalier about the potential for widespread environmental damage: Even if they had permission from all the neighboring nations to set up an off-shore oil drilling operation, didn't they have an ethical responsibility, one no government could waive, to protect the environment, which does not belong to any country or its government, nor even to the people whose livespans coincide with the operation, but an ethical responsibility toward the generations yet to come?

Photo by Les Stone, International Bird 
Rescue Research Center: washing 
oiled Gannet
“No,” I was told flatly. “By law, they are accountable solely to their shareholders and have no binding responsibility toward any other person or entity.”

I looked at the pictures of the dead workers, of their families (living in the same neighborhoods as my own family), of the oil-soaked pelicans and the workers pulling oil booms across the shoreline, at the shrimp fishermen whose livelihood was threatened for who knows how long. Nobody had to answer to them for anything. The government levied massive fines on BP (and its partners in the project, Transocean and Halliburton) for gross negligence and reckless conduct, but the company is still “accountable solely to shareholders,” and we can expect it and other massive corporations like it to continue to make decisions that put shareholders first, and the rest of us (and our planet) a few steps behind.

Pope Francis looks at a situation like this (and the many, many more that take place on a smaller scale and in settings where the media coverage is effectively dominated by special interests), and responds with an encyclical.

Unlike Rerum Novarum (the first-ever social encyclical, by Leo XIII), Laudato Si is not addressed to Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops, nor (like Quadragesimo Anno, by Pius XII) to Patriarchs, Archbishops and Bishops “and all the faithful of the Catholic world”, nor even (like Centesimus Annus, by St John Paul II) to Bishops, Priests and Deacons, Communities of Men and Women Religious, all the Christian faithful, “and all men and women of good will,” Laudato Si is addressed (in N. 3 of the document) to “every person living on this planet.”

It would seem that not even “good will” is necessary any more. Francis is simply pleading: “I would like to enter into dialogue with all people about our common home.”

By addressing himself to “every person on the planet,” Francis has put himself under some restrictions. He has to start with the concerns of “every person on the planet” and matters that “every person on the planet” can recognize and understand, not addressing as “Vicar of Christ” people who do not know or acknowledge Christ, but speaking as a elder brother to the whole world, and “every person living” in it.

As always, he presumes that Christians will read his words in a Christian manner, interpreting what he says in the light of all that the Bible brings to bear on the subject, even though strictly biblical reflections are developed explicitly toward the end of the document. He expects that Catholics will read his words in an even fuller context, not subjecting a papal document to an entirely secularist interpretive framework, but parsing it in the light of the Catechism and of the whole Catholic tradition, especially in the area of the common good. It would be a grave mistake, and even an injustice to the Pope and to one's fellow-Catholics, to read “Laudato Si” in a purely political light, whether that light is cast from the right or the left.

Catholics can be accustomed to taking Papal documents as “the end of the discussion”: Roma locutus est, causa finitus est, my Dad used to quote in sonorous Latin: Rome has spoken: case closed. At a press conference this morning, Cardinal Weurl said, “Francis is … offering a moral framework in which this discussion can take place … but he's not saying 'This is the conclusion of this discussion'.”

Do your part! Read the document (right-click to download and save to your computer):
Press Conference with Cardinal Weurl and Archbishop Kurtz:

Several Catholic publishers in the US (including the Daughters of St Paul's Pauline Books & Media) plan to release print editions of Laudato Si; to get a 20% discount on your first order from Pauline, sign up for our Discover Hopenewsletter. You'll be notified when the document is printed. (All the typical publishers in the US are under a one month embargo on this.)