Friday, February 16, 2018

Mass Killings, Mental Illness, Spiritual Nourishment

We are quick to suppose that perpetrators of mass shootings are “mentally ill.”  It is our go-to explanation for senseless murders such as the Columbine High School massacre (Jefferson County, Co., April 20, 1999), the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival shooting  (Las Vegas, October 1, 2017), the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School attack (Parkland, Florida, February 14, 2018).

When I look for a definition of “mental illness” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (fourth edition), I find in DSM-IV that “although this manual provides a classification of mental disorders, it must be admitted that no definition adequately specifies precise boundaries for the concept of ‘mental disorder’…The concept of mental disorder, like many other concepts in medicine and science, lacks a consistent operational definition that covers all situations.”

Further, “Neither deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual...”

And further still, DSM-IV acknowledges that “in most situations, the clinical diagnosis of a DSM-IV mental disorder is not sufficient to establish the existence for legal purposes of a “mental disorder,” “mental disability,” “mental disease,” or “mental defect.”

Categorizing the behavior of mass shooters as “mentally ill” may assuage our inability to explain their deviant behavior, but in truth there may be other elements, either ignored or forgotten,  which must be considered before we can arrive at an accurate conclusion.

A diagnosis of mental illness or a mental disorder in the perpetrators of horrific crime does not necessarily preclude their ability to think or plan.

After each killing spree, we hear public officials, desperate to respond sympathetically to the tragedy and suffering, call for more money for more mental health care. Without denigrating that response or denying the need, I want simply to suggest that another response should be a call for better spiritual care as well.
There is a spiritual side to every human being, and like the physical it too needs to be nourished.

Art is one way we feed our souls. Art, whether painting, music, literature, has the ability to sensitize us to the good we should do and the evil we should avoid. Education is meant to give us knowledge not only for the head but also for the heart. Conscious awareness of nature, whether walking in the woods or gazing at the stars, can tap what President Abraham Lincoln once termed “the better angels of our nature.” 

This notion speaks to the point made more than a century ago by English art critic John Ruskin, that we should thank God for the glory of his works, that we should be reminded of  "the duty of delight."

Recall the famous quote from Fyodor Dostoyevsky's novel The Idiot, when the prince (a Christ figure) says that "the world will be saved by beauty." It is necessary to stop and smell the roses.  A population that fails to sensitize its spirit in the light of goodness, beauty, and love is a population in darkness, and that darkness first harbors alienation, secondly shrieks in pain, and then strikes out in rebellion, hard-heartedness, and destruction.

You may remember the story of the boy who admitted to his grandfather that he felt there was a war going on inside him, as he struggled with temptation and rebellion. Grandfather explained that there are two wolves within us, a good one and a bad one, and throughout our lives they will fight with each another. “But,” the boy asked, “which one will win?” Grandfather smiled and replied, “The one you feed, my son, the one you feed.”

For many of us, religion is a primary source of nourishment, helping us discern what is right and good. Whether the teacher is Buddha, Ghandi or Jesus, the instruction and example of their lives arouse sympathy, compassion, forgiveness, and love.

People who kill innocent people may well have mental disorders, but I have to think that one of the antidotes to such disorders is spiritual nourishment. Exposing the troubled person to beauty, to compassion, to acceptance is surely a healing balm for those suffering from hardened hearts.

Home, school and church are avenues for awakening sensitivity and discernment in troubled souls. Perhaps each institution needs to re-think its role and meet the need.

When I checked the DSM-IV for reference to “spirituality,” the manual simply listed “Religious or Spiritual Problem,” and explained this is the category for focusing clinical attention to a religious or spiritual problem, such as distressing experiences involving loss of faith, conversion to a new faith, or questioning spiritual values.

DSM-IV gives only diagnoses. What we need is preventative medicine.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Ash Wednesday on Valentine's Day

It’s a challenging juxtaposition when Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday fall on the same date. This hasn’t happened since 1945. The celebration of romance and love, with hearts and candy, conflicts with the fasting and abstinence of the penitential season of Lent.

Perhaps there’s a lesson in such a coincidence.

In his The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky describes genuine love as “a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” He was acknowledging that romance is one thing; love, another.

Love in the fullest sense is a choice for the good of another. 

St. Paul described it centuries ago: “Love is patient…kind…not jealous…not pompous…not inflated…not rude…seeks not its own interests…not quick-tempered…broods not over injury…does not rejoice over wrong-doing but rejoices with the truth…bears all things…believes all things…hopes all things…endures all things” (1 Cor 13). Love can be harsh and dreadful.

And yet love is supposed to be the hallmark of a Christian’s life. The First Letter of John draws the bold conclusion that “God is love,” and that “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates his brother, he is a liar!”

Jesus gave us the example of the fullest, most sincere kind of love: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). And what he did through his passion and death, he expected of his followers: “This command I give you: love one another” (Jn 15:17).

The romantic love celebrated on St Valentine’s Day is good, but love in the fullest sense is much more. Feelings come and go, but choices can endure: “for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part.”

The development of such death-defying love is a life-long process. It takes discipline, perseverance, compassion, forgiveness, selflessness  –it requires within the human mind and heart the injection of divine love. It is possible to love fully only when human love is empowered by the divine.

That’s where Lent comes in. Lent is the season for the spiritual exercises which strengthen and refine the ability to love. Prayer, fasting and alms-giving (the traditional penances of the season) are empty ritual if they do not lead the practitioner to greater love.

Maybe that’s why, on rare occasions, the beginning of Lent falls on February 14. Perhaps there’s a lesson in such a coincidence.

It would be like our God (the God of surprises) to put Lent right in the middle of  Valentine’s Day!

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Vatican II - a Work in Progress

For many Catholics the Second Vatican Council is ancient history. 

They may acknowledge that it was important, momentous, decisive.  And even if they were not alive when the Council  met (1962-65) and did not personally experience the changes and challenges it brought about, they can agree that it was a critical moment in the life of the Church. But it happened a long time ago, and it may appear to them to be dated and irrelevant for the Church of today.

The truth is: though it ended in 1965, the work of the Council is still underway. Vatican II is not over; in many ways it has just begun.

Vatican II set the direction for the Church as she ended the 20th and entered the 21st century. The 16 documents developed by the bishops and approved by the pope provide goals and strategies for implementation. 

More than 50 years later Pope Francis urges the people of God to follow that direction.

Dozens of subsequent documents, such as instructions on proper implementation, have been issued by the pope and Vatican offices over the years to insure correct understanding of the Council’s pronouncements and to encourage their appropriate application to a variety of pastoral situations and circumstances not necessarily addressed by the Council documents themselves.

The Church can be compared to an ocean liner; it cannot change course on a dime. It takes time, and returning it to its proper course and destination is still underway.

One example of the changes to be implemented is respect for “competent territorial ecclesiastical authority.” Among the decisions articulated in the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium, approved on December 4, 1963) is recognition that regulation of the liturgy within certain defined limits belongs to various kinds of bishops’ conferences, legitimately established, with competence in given territories (22.2).

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, therefore, has a right to regulate, with approval of the Apostolic See (the pope), certain aspects of the celebration of the sacraments. Translation from Latin for use in the liturgy is one of those aspects which must be approved by the competent territorial ecclesiastical authority (36.4).

The recognition of this local input flows from the Council’s acknowledgement that the Church does not want to impose rigid uniformity, but rather respects and fosters the qualities and talents of various races and nations (37).

With this in mind the Council agreed that competent territorial ecclesiastical authorities may specify adaptations for administering the sacraments, for processions, liturgical language, sacred music and the arts (39).

In 2001, Liturgiam authenticam, a directive from a Vatican office, insisted that translations from the Latin  “in so far as possible, must be translated integrally and in the most exact manner, without omissions or additions in terms of their content, and without paraphrases or glosses. Any adaptation to the characteristics or the nature of the various vernacular languages is to be sober and discreet."

In effect the translation now used for the prayers at Mass so follows the word order and structure of the Latin phrasing that the English version is often awkward and sometimes a challenge to understand.

The “poster-child” of such challenging prayers is the collect for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: “Almighty ever-living God, whom, taught by the Holy Spirit, we dare to call our Father, bring, we pray, to perfection within our hearts the spirit of adoption as your sons and daughters that we may merit to enter into the inheritance which you have promised. Through our Lord Jesus Christ…”

In pre-Vatican II days priests often before Mass translated the Latin into English so they could understand what they were saying. Today many priests before Mass translate the “English” into English.

In September, 2017, a directive from Vatican II-minded Pope Francis affirmed for bishops conferences that it is their responsibility faithfully to prepare versions of the liturgical books in vernacular languages, suitably accommodated within defined limits, and to approve and publish the liturgical books for the regions for which they are responsible after the confirmation of the Apostolic See.

It remains to be seen whether the US Conference of Catholic Bishops and other English-speaking Episcopal conferences will re-visit the translation of the Roman Missal we are currently using. Such a re-assessment and the development of a truly vernacular translation would be an example of the spirit and letter of Vatican II  —a worthy project for 2018 (as the current copies of the Roman missal are showing wear and need repair).

Monday, October 23, 2017

A Motive Behind the Las Vegas Shooting?

We may never know why Stephen Paddock fired on the concert crowd outside the Las Vegas’ Mandalay Bay Hotel that horrific night, October 1, 2017, leaving  58 dead and  547 injured.  Authorities have searched for his motive in his politics, religious beliefs, marital failure, loss of money, medical history, and drug use but can find no satisfactory link or answer. 

   In a way we could deal more successfully with this appalling slaughter and further the healing process if we knew why he did it. The cloud of unknowing hangs over the victims, the city, the nation at large.

   I do not pretend to know his motive, but I wonder if Paddock simply fell into the dark hole of despair. Perhaps, despite his money and seemingly care-free lifestyle, he came face to face with a meaningless existence, finding nothing of value in his own life and feeling jealousy and anger that others had something that he did not.

   If, in his mind, life had treated him badly, he would get revenge by bringing misery and death into the lives of those around him.

   Psychiatrist Victor Frankl’s experience in a concentration camp during World War II convinced him that “the striving to find a meaning in one’s life is the primary motivational force in man. That is why I speak of a will to meaning in contrast to the pleasure principle” of  Freudian psychoanalysis or “in contrast to the will to power stressed by Adlerian psychology.”

   He recalled the decision of a fellow prisoner who had made “a pact with Heaven that his suffering and death should save the human being he loved from a painful end. For this man, suffering and death were meaningful.”

   Frankl concluded that “Nietzsche’s words, ‘He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how,’ could be the guiding motto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners.”

   Perhaps despairing Paddock became killer Paddock because he decided, “I’m not OK –You’re not OK” either. Without meaning in his life Paddock gave into a meaningless massacre.

   Something was missing in Paddock’s life and the emptiness became unbearable. He gave in to misery rather than continue his search for meaning.

   For Christians, Jesus’ revelation “I am the way and the truth and the life” ( cf Jn 14:6) is an invitation to find meaning not in material possessions, nor in power, nor in sexual perversion, nor in escape from reality by drugs, nor in self-inflicted harm, but rather in a person, in Jesus himself, Son of Man, Son of God.

   Anyone without a sense of meaning in his life soon feels he is worthless. The Judaeo-Christian tradition counters such a conclusion with the assurance that human beings are made in the image of God (Gen 1:27), that humans are “crowned with glory and honor” (Ps 8:6), that God so loved the world (human beings included) that He gave his only Son (Jn 3:16), that “what you do to the least of my brothers and sisters you do to me” (Mt 25:40).

   The search for meaning, for motivation, leads many of us to Christ.

   We may never know Paddock’s motive, but we can be sure that protecting the sacredness of human life, of proposing the truth of God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, and promoting the dignity of and respect for others can be an antidote to the malaise of despair and the disease of revenge.


Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Measure of Perfection

I have long been troubled by Jesus’ command in Mt 5:48, “You therefore are to be perfect, even as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Confraternity of Christian Doctrine translation, 1941).

The Greek term translated  “perfect”  is teleios.  Most English translations choose to render teleios as “perfect” (so NJB, NAB, NIV, NRSV) though it could be understood as complete, adult,  mature.  The Greek adjective is related to teleō which means “bring to an end,” and connotes “ not merely to terminate a thing but to carry out a thing to the full.”

When I put this command back in its context in the sermon on the mount, I see it is a command to be loving even to one’s enemies. That is the modus operandi of our heavenly Father, and that’s the way the followers of Christ are to live as well.

The perfection Jesus demands is imitation of the Father’s love. As Scripture scholars note, of all four Gospel writers only Matthew uses the word teleios (5:48 and 19:21).  In a parallel passage  Luke 6:36 renders Jesus’ saying  with “Be merciful, just as also your Father is merciful.”

St Thomas Aquinas quotes the sixth century bishop of Reims St Remigius (aka, St Remy) who commented that “the utmost perfection of love cannot go beyond  the love of enemies” but he adds that human beings must be aided by the Omnipotent One, and so Jesus is directing his followers to be “like” their Father: “be perfect as your Father is perfect.”

We are to love like the Father, and it is the Father's love working within us, enabling our weak human love, which brings that love to perfection.

My concern about this perfection business stems from two things: 1)  my early and naïve interpretation of the  insistence of spiritual directors and writers that we must seek perfection (I didn’t understand the distinctions of perfection simpliciter, perfection secundum quid, and instrumental perfection); and 2) my older and I trust wiser realization that most of my heroes fell short of “perfection” on one or more occasions in their lives.

The imperfections of my heroes give me comfort and courage. The Bible is full of examples of heroes and saints who stumbled and fell: Jacob’s deception in stealing his brother’s blessing, David’s sin with Bathsheba, the fictional Jonah who tried to escape God’s plan, Peter who denied Jesus, Thomas who doubted.

The faults of Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr, and of many others suggest that even in the effort to do what is right and good, we may fall easily into what is wrong and evil.

In a sermon he preached on several occasions, King advised his congregation that “each of us is something of a schizophrenic personality. We’re split up and divided against ourselves. There is something of a civil war going on within all our lives…Within the best of us there is some evil, and within the worst of us there is some good.”

Merton acknowledged an inner turmoil. He prayed, “Why do I mistrust Your goodness, mistrust everyone but myself, meet every new event on the defensive, squared off against everybody? Dear Lord, I am not living like a monk, like a contemplative. The first essential is missing. I only say I trust You. My actions prove that the one I trust is myself –and that I am still afraid of You.”

On a bus trip Day was thinking about the sins and shortcomings of others and suddenly it occurred to her “to remember my own offenses, just as heinous as those of others. If I concern myself with my own sins and lament them, if I remember my own failures and lapses, I will not be resentful of others. This was most cheering and lifted the load of gloom from my mind. It makes one unhappy to judge people and happy to love them.”

It is consoling to accept the notion that God does not love me because I am good; God loves me because God is good. It is a comfort to hear Pope Francis’s response to the question, “Who is Jorge Bergoglio?” (He replied, “I am a sinner.”)  It is encouraging to realize that the saints in heaven include a lot of people who failed time and  time again while on earth.

I think I shall continue to link Jesus’ command to be perfect with Mother Teresa’s insight that God does not expect us to be successful, only faithful.

The devotion we call “The Way of the Cross” has Jesus’ falling three times (not what you would expect from the savior of the world) but each time he fell he got up again. And he wasn’t so prideful that he would refuse help in carrying his cross. 

Perfection isn’t measured in sins avoided but in love shown --and accepted. 

Friday, June 23, 2017

AUSCP Assembly 2017 in Atlanta

Just back from the AUSCP assembly held in Atlanta, GA, June 19-22, 2017.

About 175 members of the Association of US Catholic Priests met for their organization’s sixth annual assembly to focus on “Peacemaking In Our Fractured Society.”

Bishop Gregory Hartmayer, OFM, of Savannah led an optional retreat day prior to the opening of the assembly. Also included in the schedule was a  prayer service led by members of the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.

Speakers for the assembly included Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta (“Peace Not As The World Gives”), Jack Jezreel, founder of JustFaith Ministries (“Pope Francis and a New Paradigm for Parishes’), and Father Bryan Massingale, professor of theology at Fordham University (“To Redeem the Soul of America”).

Assembly attendees  prioritized goals and resolutions for the association’s focus in the coming year.  The top three goals were: 1) Immigration (promotion of  immigration  reform and urging members to lead parishioners, deanery groups and diocesan agencies in study and prayer about this issue in the United States).

2)  Seminary Formation (establishing  a study group to contribute to the US Catholic Bishops’ current project of reviewing priestly formation, especially in the light of Pope Francis’ challenging priests to revitalize their ministry, e.g., to experience the “smell of the sheep,” to see “the church as a field hospital”).

3) Ordaining Married Men to Priesthood (encouraging our bishops and the USCCB to engage in open discussion about ordination of married men,  viri probati,  to insure adequate response to the needs of our country’s 17,000 parishes regarding  priestly pastors and the Eucharist).

Among other issues under discussion by assembly members were: 1)  a resolution asking US Bishops to develop a national plan for the pastoral care of “priestless parishes,” 2) a request to the USCCB to petition the Holy See for authorization of deacons to administer the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick.

AUSCP has already established working groups focusing on promoting reformation of the Roman Missal and promotion of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si  initiative, “caring for our common home.”

Members were also asked to pray for the canonizations of : 1) Sister Dorothy Stang, SND de Namur, murdered in Brazil in February of 2005; 2) Father Stanley Rother, first diocesan priest from the United States to be honored as a martyr (assassinated in July of 1981 in Guatemala); 3) Father Augustus Tolton, born in 1854 to enslaved parents in Missouri, and later the first Black man to be publicly recognized as a Roman Catholic priest ordained in the United States; 4) Father Solanus Casey, OFM Cap., known in Detroit for  great faith and spiritual counseling and as a worker of miracles, who died in July of 1957.

Assembly members visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, where  Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s grandfather and father were pastors, and the site of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s funeral. Nearby is the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site, which includes his boyhood home, surrounding neighborhood, burial site, and a museum. Also in the area is the first Black Catholic Parish in Atlanta, Our Lady of Lourdes, established in 1912, where the assembly members gathered with Archbishop Wilton Gregory as presider for Mass.

Members were introduced to Archbishop John Wester of Santa Fe, who has agreed to be episcopal moderator for the AUSCP.

Next year’s assembly is set for Albuquerque, June 25-28, 2018, with key-note speakers Father Richard Rohr, Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, and Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe.

Founded in 2011, the AUSCP’s mission is  “To be an association of U.S. Catholic priests offering mutual support and a collegial voice through dialogue, contemplation and prophetic action on issues affecting Church and society.”  The AUSCP’s vision is  “To be a Priests’ Voice of Hope and Joy within our Pilgrim Church. .”

Further information about AUSCP is available at

Monday, June 12, 2017

Personal Sacrifice vs Government Dole

In the Preamble to the Constitution the Founding Fathers listed the general purposes for which the government of the United States was founded, namely “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

It is highly unlikely that any of those founders would have expected the government of the United States to grow to its present size and to assume control and responsibility over as many issues and elements of public life as it has.

Periodically the citizens of the United States debate whether the government has taken on responsibilities that are beyond the promotion of the General Welfare.

During the time between the publication of this “Frame of Government”  in 1787 and its ratification by eleven states in 1788, there were public and private debates about its various proposals and the ramifications of accepting them.

For example, Robert Yates, aka “Brutus,” an author of anti-Federalist writings, questioned the government’s power to lay and collect taxes…to provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States. (article 1, section 8).

“Brutus” asked what is implied in this authority and where are the limits on this power. He did not question what is included in “general welfare,” but we can safely presume  that  today  this expression includes a great deal more than he would have imagined in 1787.

Many citizens see the widening of “general welfare” to be a necessary development of the government’s  responsibility. New times, they say, call for new measures.

The founders of the Catholic Worker Movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, often spoke of the need for a personalism which recognizes the sacredness of every human being.  No one can be discounted since all are made in the image of God.

Although there are several descriptions and definitions applied to the term “personalism,” for Maurin and Day it was radical, active application of love to all people, all creation.

Maurin saw the danger for a citizenry to rely solely upon the government to meet the needs of its people. Many Americans know first-hand the delays, waste, and failed opportunities resulting from governmental red-tape and mismanagement.

Without denying the need for government’s intervention in providing assistance in some cases of poverty (destitution), health, and child-care, Maurin was concerned that people in general, and Christians in particular, have lost the Gospel’s mandate to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, provide shelter for the homeless.

Maurin’s philosophy on this matter appeared in one of  his so-called “Easy Essays” in an early issue of  The Catholic Worker newspaper:

In the first centuries
of  Christianity
the hungry were fed
at a personal sacrifice,
the naked were clothed
at a personal sacrifice,
the homeless were sheltered
at  personal sacrifice.
And because the poor
were fed, clothed and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice,
the pagans used to say
about the Christians
“See how they love each other.”
In our own day
the poor are no longer
fed, clothed, and sheltered
at a personal sacrifice
but at the expense
of  the taxpayers.
And because the poor
are no longer
fed, clothed and sheltered
the pagans say about the Christians
“See how they pass the buck.”

Has the Church turned over to secular authorities one of its primary responsibilities? Without denying the value of many Church-related organizations serving the poor, the issue can still be raised on a personalist level to all Christians facing judgment day: “When I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when I was thirsty, you gave me nothing…”

Defending our inaction by pointing to the government dole may be  a rather flimsy excuse.