The Real Work of Being Pro-Life: Part 2

Three decades ago, Rembert Weakland, archbishop of Milwaukee at the time, convened a series of hearings throughout southwest Wisconsin to hear from women regarding abortion.  His intention was significant: As the church’s opposition to abortion was becoming more structured and pronounced, he thought it essential that bishops and others in leadership and ministry try to better know and try to understand those most affected by a Supreme Court ruling allowing abortion and Church teaching resolutely forbidding it.

Viewpoints ran the gamut of abortion-related positions that have become increasingly familiar and, regrettably, strident in the intervening years.  What the archbishop hoped might generate further dialogue, particularly with women who had undergone abortions, eventually dissipated amid allegations that such conversation gave scandalous credibility to those who had committed grievous sin and were not worthy of being heard.  A few years later, Archbishop Weakland resigned amid a sex and extortion scandal, and his abortion dialogue, at least within Catholic circles, went dormant.

To say that is unfortunate is an understatement, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding abortion.  As I wrote in a column following the leak of this recent decision, the hard work of being pro-life has just begun; it can’t just be a matter of opposing abortion.  It’s not as simple as collecting diapers and baby formula.  People who advocate for life, as the Catholic Church has, must now advocate for the programs and systems that help women realize healthy pregnancies and births, and assist them in raising children in safe and financially secure circumstances.

That’s essentially what women told Archbishop Weakland at his listening sessions.  As the New York Times reported on April 1, 1990, “At all the sessions many women were emphatic that the church should do more to promote private and public assistance to pregnant women in poverty or other difficult circumstances.”  One woman “described her decision not to seek an abortion when she became pregnant ‘without benefit of marriage’ and the difficulties she had faced as a single mother.  ‘It takes very little to pontificate,’ she said.  ‘If we’re not willing to do more, it’s unconscionable.’”

Examples of the “more” would likely include affordable child care, access to essential medical care, affordable transportation and housing, and workplace challenges such as gender pay inequity and uncertain maternity leave.  None of these factors justifies a woman’s choosing to have an abortion, but, regrettably, data and personal stories indicate that such burdens weigh heavily in such decisions.

Instead of a concerted effort to address these complex and, admittedly, controversial realities, the U.S. Bishops and many of us following their lead, put nearly all of our energy, money and attention into pursuing legal and political means of addressing abortion.  As I said in my previous column, we got into the business of working to change laws instead of hearts and minds.

Now, bishops and other leaders in the anti-abortion movement say they are determined to do whatever is necessary to assist women who might otherwise have chosen abortion.  The U.S. Bishops stated collectively that now is the time “for coming together to build a society and economy that supports marriages and families, and where every woman has the support and resources she needs to bring her child into this world in love.”  In his own statement, Bishop Callahan of our diocese spoke of “a profound care for mothers and their children” and his support of legislation “that ensures that no mother or family lacks the basic resources needed to care for their children, regardless of race, age, immigration status, or any other factor.”

Initiating some of this back when those women were sharing their stories, struggles and concerns with Archbishop Weakland would seem to have been remarkably helpful in terms of reducing the number of women choosing abortion – then, now and in these many intervening years.  Instead we now attempt to build this new society and economy supporting women and families in one of the most contentious eras in our country’s history.  It’s hard to imagine that the moral and political urgency of this reality will prompt a constructive, united response, but as gospel people we must strive and hope. 

Such is the hard work of being pro-life in this new moment.  TL


The Real Work of Being Pro-Life – Part 1

This column was written in May after the leak of the Supreme Court abortion ruling that became official on Friday. -tl

For many years, on a particular Sunday in January, several hundred of us participated in a pro-life gathering in Stevens Point.  It was an intriguing mix of ages, denominations and, I suspect, professional, economic and political backgrounds, all focused on a common, necessary purpose.

One year I realized that many of the Catholics I’d come to know and appreciate for their commitment to gospel justice were missing.  That year’s presenter was stridently political and disarmingly hostile in her tone.  The message wasn’t particularly life-giving or life-affirming; unlikely to encourage or sway minds or hearts, or help those who’d gathered to become instruments of gentle, loving persuasion.  It was a call for taking sides, and I wasn’t sure which side I was on.

This wasn’t a matter of opposing abortion and the destruction of human life.  That was a given.  The tension I felt that day, and have felt through these intervening years is what “pro-life” means and how it complements or conflicts with efforts, many well-intentioned, to influence political and legal outcomes.  Should a candidate who opposes abortion, for example, automatically be regarded as “pro-life”?  Or, is there more?

The inner tug of that long-ago wintery event, returned amid the rancor surrounding the leak of a Supreme Court decision that would end a legal protection for abortion.  It’s heightened my frustration and regret that in putting so much energy into the legal aspects of abortion, those of us who promote life have not better addressed what prompts a woman to make such a choice.  In working to change laws, we haven’t worked at changing minds and hearts.  A presumed legal victory is a bit hollow without the other.

I won’t go into all the moral inconsistencies that contradict a “pro-life” position centered exclusively on abortion.  Pope John Paul II, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Pope Francis and so many other moral and faith leaders have urged consistency in advocating for life and protecting life.  Significant to the argument is that we strengthen the case for life by being consistent in defending life across the vast spectrum of the human experience – from conception to natural death, as is often stated, which includes a lot of controversial and, quite frankly, messy life issues in between.  As Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago so powerfully explained, if we pull one thread from the seamless garment of life the entire fabric of life is jeopardized.  He never wavered in his opposition to abortion.  But, he always insisted upon more.

Also central to this reality, but often overlooked in the harsh political give and take, is the need to promote circumstances that welcome and sustain the babies who are born, and who will be born, but who, regrettably, are unwanted and unloved.  Society also needs to enhance stability and trust among women anticipating the birth of a child, and after that child is born.  Such concerns have largely gone unmentioned in the recent conversation. 

Lost amid all the competing sound bites, for instance, was this statement from the U.S. Bishops: “As Catholics, we care about every unborn child and every mother. Our Church has consistently witnessed in word and deed that life begins at the moment of conception. …  We pledge to redouble our efforts to accompany women and couples who are facing unexpected or difficult pregnancies, and during the early years of parenthood, offering them loving and compassionate care.”

In other words, as I ponder their statement and the challenge it identifies, it’s all too apparent that the real work of promoting life has just begun. TL

11 September: Remembering Preaching & Prayer

Marge arrived just as we were beginning Mass, a couple dozen folks gathered that bright fall morning in the Newman Center Chapel for morning Mass. She’d heard something on the radio about a plane striking one of the World Trade Center towers. By the time Mass was over, the world had changed.

Within the hour, Deb, our liturgy director, arrived and, before even saying “Good morning,” asked, “So, what are we going to do?” Indeed, what were we going to do, how would we respond to this moment, how would we help our students respond to this moment? We did what we knew how to do, we invited students and others to gather for prayer – that night, and the next night, and on Sunday, of course.

Below are the homilies I preached at those gatherings, as well as 10 years later at a local community remembrance. There’s also a link to what was the perfect hymn with which to begin our worship that night, “Each Winter As the Year Grows Older.” I’ve also included a link to “Shelter Me,” which my friend Michael Joncas wrote in the early days of the Covid pandemic, but which resonates so perfectly with our 20 year commemoration of September 11. TL

Each Winter As the Year Grows Older by William and Annabeth Gay

Shelter Me by Michael Joncas

Sr. Thea & Mike Wallace

Sr. Thea 1
Speaking to all of the country’s bishops, as Sister Thea Bowman did in 1989, would seem like the culminating experience in such a person’s public life.  But for Sister Thea that moment had come a few years earlier when she was interviewed by the legendary TV newsman Mike Wallace for “60 Minutes.

The fact that Mike Wallace was going to be interviewing her and narrating her story spoke of the producers’ regard for this woman who’d gained a reputation far beyond Canton, Miss., where she’d grown up, and La Crosse, where she professed vows as a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration and taught literature at Viterbo College.  As people of a certain age will remember, Mike Wallace was usually seen on Sunday nights chasing down shady corporate executives and asking tough questions of shifty politicians.  For younger readers, yes, Mike and Chris Wallace of Fox News are related – father and son.

But there would be no gotcha questions in this interview, just questions about Thea’s life as a black woman in a predominantly white society and Church, her ministry, her compelling message and her battle with cancer that began when she noticed a lump in her breast in 1984.

They sat and talked in the Canton school

where she once studied, later taught herself, and remained a dominant presence.  As they spoke, Mike Wallace was clearly captivated by this woman.

Here are some of the things Sister Thea said in the story that aired in May 1987:
“I think the difference between me and some other people is that I am content to do my bit.  Sometimes people think they have to do big things in order to make change.  If each one of us would light the candle, we’ve got a tremendous light. …

“Oh no, I don’t preach!  I witness.  I testify.  I share the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The priests can preach.  You know women don’t preach in the Catholic Church. …

“Who you gonna listen to first, the official preacher or your own mama?  I think women have always had influence within our own communities and always will.  So if I can’t preach in the Church, that’s all right with me.  I can preach in the school.  I can preach in the home.  I can preach on the bus.  I can preach on the train.  I can preach on the street. …

“Black is beautiful.  You have to believe it.  Should I try it out on Mike Wallace?  Black is beautiful, and then you take your finger and point it at yourself and say, ‘I am beautiful.’  And some children have a hard time saying that.  When I say that I am beautiful, what does that mean?  It means I am caring.  It means I respect myself.  It means I am confident.  When I work with children, I always say to the kids, repeat after me: ‘I am poised’ … and they go through that (litany). …

“I still didn’t hear Mike Wallace say black is beautiful.”

Mike Wallace said, “Black is beautiful.”  Sister Thea replied, “Amen!”

She died in March 1990 at the age of 52. In 2018, the Diocese of Jackson, Miss., initiated a process that might one day lead to the canonization of Sister Thea as a saint.

Last month the bishops of Jackson and Biloxi, Miss., identified Sister Thea as “an icon of hope” in the ongoing pursuit of racial justice.  In declaring racism a “force of destruction that eats away at the soul of our nation,” the bishops said, “Sister Thea’s life and legacy can provide a way forward for our church and nation that is grounded in gospel faith, hope and love.” TL


Sr. Thea & Wisconsin

Sr. Thea 3
Thea Bowman is an unlikely figure to be associated with the Diocese of La Crosse.  But, thankfully, she is.

Thea grew up in Yazoo City, Miss.  Her grandfather had been a slave.  She was raised a Methodist until the age of 9 when, by her persuasion, her parents agreed that she could become a Roman Catholic, a faith revealed to her by missionaries dressed in full-length black habits and veils.  They were teachers at the black Catholic school opened just as Thea was entering the sixth grade.  The Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration had come to Mississippi from La Crosse to do one of the things they did best: inspiring children to learn. (I can speak from personal experience because they were among my elementary school teachers as well.)

When she was 15 Thea established the link to the Diocese of La Crosse when she enrolled at the Sisters’ high school 900 miles north of her home.  Her arrival in La Crosse made news.  The diocesan newspaper identified her as a ‘Negro aspirant.”  Thea studied literature at Viterbo College and in 1958 became the first black Sister in the FSPA community.  She was often the first black person many of her associates had ever met.

Unfortunately, Thea also has a fleeting connection to Central Wisconsin.

In 1955 she tested positive for tuberculosis and was taken by ambulance to a sanatorium in Stevens Point operated by the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis. She would return to Stevens Point in 1983 to accept the first Justice and Peace Award from Bishop Freking of the Diocese of La Crosse.  (That event, commemorating the murder a year earlier of Christian Brother James Miller became an annual observance.  Blessed James was beatified in December 2019.)

Sister Thea went back to Mississippi to teach elementary and high school students, and to endure hostility toward a black nun living with white nuns.  The nation’s racial injustices would become a more central part of her life as she pursued graduate studies in literature at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.  A black friend’s suicide and the strife of the 1960s jolted her toward a more profound awareness of her identity and her role in her religious community and the Church.  Finished with her studies, Sister Thea returned to La Crosse as a professor of literature at Viterbo.  Her ministry, however, extended beyond the classroom as she introduced students and audiences far outside La Crosse to African American music and culture, and the harsh realities confronting black citizens.  For example, Sister Thea accompanied college students on spring break trips to Mississippi where they encountered separate black-white facilities and stayed with black families.

Asked often about “the race problem” when she was back in La Crosse, she offered a presentation in July 1963 on “Negroes,” the terminology of the time.  “Naturally, whites fear change, and they also are afraid the Negro will weaken American culture.  These fears are not artificial, they are founded in facts,” she said.  “Negroes fear white dominance because they have experienced it.  They fear rejection.  They are barred from advancement.  They cannot fulfill basic needs.”

Sister Thea’s influence had just begun to blossom.  In time she would be profiled on “60 Minutes” and speak to a gathering of all of the bishops of the United States.  TL


Sr. Thea & the Bishops

Sr. Thea 1
BY THE TIME SISTER THEA BOWMAN spoke to an assembly of the U.S. Catholic bishops in June 1989 she was already confined to a wheelchair, the cancer first detected in her breast several years earlier had spread.  Her physical immobility, however, could not contain the strength of her voice and her message.  Like most of her audiences, they were captivated.

One biographer described her remarks as a conversation between a sister and her brothers.  She recalled the history and the in this land and this is our land,” she said.  “Our people, black people, helped to build this nation in cotton and grain and beans and vegetables and brick and mortar.  They cleared the land and cooked the food that they grew.  They cleaned houses and built churches — some of them Catholic churches.  They built railroads and bridges and national monuments.  Black people defended this country as soldiers and sailors.  Black people taught and molded and raised the children and I’m not just talkin’ about the black children. …

“Surviving our history physically, mentally, emotionally, morally, spiritually, faithfully and joyfully — our people developed a culture that was African and

American.  … Despite all of this, despite the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, and the socio-educational gains of the 70s — blacks in the 80s are still struggling, still ‘scratching and clawing’ as the old-folks say,  still trying to find home in the homeland and home in the Church.  Still struggling to gain access to equal opportunity.”

Sister Thea was just getting warmed up.  She was preaching to a room of preachers with a fervor few, if any of them, could ever hope to muster.

“Today we’re called to walk together in a new way toward that Land of Promise and to celebrate who we are whose we aren’t,” she said in anticipating her conclusion.  “If we, as Church, walk together, don’t let nobody separate you — that’s one thing black folk can teach you, don’t let folks divide you up — The Church teaches us that the Church is a family of families and the family got to stay together and we know that if we do stay together … if we walk and talk and work and play and stand together in Jesus’ name, we’ll be who we say we are — truly Catholic and we shall overcome.  Overcome the poverty, overcome the loneliness, overcome the alienation and build a Holy City, a new Jerusalem, a city set apart where they’ll know that we are here because we love one another.”

Then she did something remarkable.  She told those bishops to stand up — actually she asked, but it was really a command.  They stood up, crossed their right hands over their left, joining the hand of the bishops on either side.  Sister Thea reminded them that this was a posture used in protests so that when the bullets, tear gas, dogs, horses or tanks came “brothers and sisters would not be separated from one another.”  The clergy, the bishops, she said, would be “right up front to lead the people in solidarity with our brothers and sisters who suffer … all over the world.”

And, with their arms crossed and hands held, the bishops swayed and sang with this bold, sick, determined, courageous woman:

We shall overcome.

We shall overcome someday. …

We shall live in love.

We shall live in love today.

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall live in love.

“That’s all we got to do — love the Lord and love our neighbors —today!” TL


One pastor’s qualms

pandemic 1We gathered last night with about 25 parishioners who will be among the ministers welcoming people back to church as we celebrate public Masses beginning this weekend. It was great to see faithful parishioners I haven’t seen in more than two months, and it was wonderful to have a gathering in church that involved more than six people. But.

Seating just these 25 people while honoring the physical distancing protocols was tricky. It required patience, flexibility and creativity on the part of those doing the seating and those who were being seated. Yes, several of them were told where they had to sit! Will everyone who comes to Mass be so willing? Will everyone wait patiently at six-foot distances the way these people did? We also discovered that if we are honest in terms of the necessary distancing, you won’t fit as many people into our pews as we’d imagined.

More than the technical aspects I increasingly struggle with whether this is the right thing to do. We aren’t going to concerts or ball games, festivals or fairs, and we won’t be going, it seems, for quite some time. Most of us aren’t going to restaurants or coffee shops, if they are even open. Many of us are going to the grocery store once or twice a week, at most. Some of us have stopped going to certain businesses because of their woeful lack of precaution.

Going to church, then, is one of the few activities – maybe the only activity – that comes to mind in which people are gathering in groups, such as we will at our parish this weekend. And we’ll be doing it three times. Is it safe? Is it appropriate? Is it responsible? Those are questions that haunt me through this entire process of returning. And I can’t honestly and definitively answering any of them in the affirmative.

When we began sharing our Masses on-line back in March I had two concerns: that we do it in a manner that was respectful to the liturgy; and that we do it responsibly, in that ministers who joined us in church were able to conduct their ministry in a safe manner. More or less, I’m confident we have been respectful and responsible.

As we supposedly “return” to Mass I have those same concerns. (I put “return” in quotes because 1) few members of our usual assembly will decide to return at this time, which is understandable and, to be honest, laudable; and 2) because what they encounter will be starkly different than what they last experienced in mid-March.) Now, I am concerned that the accommodations we are imposing, all of which I appreciate and advocate, also compromise, I fear, the integrity of what we are doing. The various precautions pertaining to registering, gathering, singing, receiving communion, wearing masks – all of these are necessary and yet all of them are problematic to a worthy celebration of the Mass. Furthermore, and of greatest concern, I fear we’re being irresponsible as we open doors and invite people back? Aren’t we luring people, some who are potentially among the most vulnerable, into a situation that puts them at greater risk and puts others at risk?

Horror of horrors, all of this prompt me to wonder if Mass on-line isn’t more respectful and responsible than what we’ll begin doing this weekend! (Which is why we’ll continue to offer that possibility.)

There’s no conclusion to this, or at least not one that’s satisfactory. Our doors will be open, literally propped open so that people don’t touch the handles. We’ll celebrate Mass with the limited number of people who choose to participate and reserved a spot, as well as those ministers who answered our call for assistance. We’ll follow all the necessary precautions as best we can. The Eucharist will be celebrated! And yet, as pained as I am to ask, Is that the right thing to do? And, to those who choose to join us for Mass on-line: don’t apologize, we’re glad you’ll be watching. The reality is, to take grossly out of context what Jesus once said to Martha regarding Mary, you (may) have chosen the better part.

The only one

This is the text, more or less, of the Christmas homily I preached in my parish.

The movie “Yesterday” begins, essentially, with Jack Malik riding home on his bike late one night when all the lights around him begin to go off. But, it’s not just around him, for 12 seconds the entire world goes dark – Red Square, Times Square, Tiananmen Square, St. Peters Square, the Eiffel Tower, the White House. From the North Pole to the South Pole, the entire world is in darkness.

As Isaiah said: The people who walked in darkness!

Jack is an aspiring, but most failing singer/song-writer. It is after yet another depressing evening of performing that he is headed home. And at the very instant the lights go out, he is hit by a bus!

When Jack gains consciousness in the hospital, there is Ellie, his long-time manager and should-be girlfriend, at his side. As she’s leaving for, Jack thanks her and flirts with her a bit: “Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?” Ellie is puzzled. 64? That’s kind of random. You know, Jack says, the line in the Beatles’ song. She thinks is still delusional from the head injury.

What Jack begins to discover is that he is now living in a world in which no one would understand that reference. A world in which, when he sings the classic Beatles’ song, “Yesterday,” his friends are blown away. How did he write such an amazing song? Where did that inspiration come from?

Jack comes to realize that in this new world the Beatles never existed. Nor did Coke or cigarettes or Harry Potter.

But he also comes to the remarkable awareness that he has exclusive knowledge of the Beatles and their extensive repertoire of legendary music. Now this guy who couldn’t attract attention in a coffee shop is now filling football stadiums. He’s an international rock star. But Jack also has to work at remembering all of the lyrics and music – remember none of it exists in anyplace but his brain, his memory. It’s a rather long and winding road to putting together all the pieces of “Eleanor Rigby,” “Let It Be,” “Hey Jude,” “Here Comes the Sun” and the rest.

It’s a fascinating concept played just for fun, with some moral consternation thrown in as well.

But, consider that scenario with a slightly different twist.

What if when you wished the clerk at the grocery store a Merry Christmas or Happy Holiday, and they didn’t have a clue as to what you were talking about? What if you were kind of mindlessly singing “Silent Night” or “White Christmas” for your family or friends and they were amazed at the beauty of your music and confused as to its subject? What if there were no blow-up snowmen in peoples’ front yards, no lights or ornaments on a tree – no Christmas trees at all? No Nativity scenes in our homes or in church – no churches at all, really?

What if you discovered that you were the only person who knew about Jesus Christ?

What if it was up to you to tell the story, to introduce and promote and establish what for so many of us is so easily, too easily, taken for granted, or maybe simply ignore?

What if it was your exclusive, sacred task to establish the mission of faithfulness, of discipleship, of promoting the good news of the kingdom of God.

That’s not a bad notion for us to consider as we celebrate Christmas. It’s a concept that requires us, I think, to focus on what’s most essential – remembering and embracing the overall concepts, as well as the precise, most consequential, details.

For example, it’s not just this story from Luke’s gospel that we would want to remember. But far more consequential are so many other words, phrases, lessons, encounters, bits and pieces of the ministry of Jesus that would need to be collected and preserved, remembered and proclaimed. Kind of like Jack does with the Beatles’ lyrics in the movie:
Blessed are the peacemakers.
You are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.
There is no great love than to give up one’s life for a friend.
Forgive 70 times 7 times.
I give you a new commandment, love one another.
As I have done, so you must do.
Blessed are those who believe and have not seen.
Come to me all who are weary and find life burdensome.
Take and eat. Take and drink. Do this in remembrance of me.
Go, therefore, to all nations. And know that I am with you always.

And, it’s not just the words and phrases, but the life and love that must emulate from the words, the phrases, the lessons, the encounters in the ministry of Jesus. There’s also the necessity of living and loving as if we are the only ones who know; of living the way of the one who was born in a manger and rose from the dead; of sharing that remarkable awareness with everyone and in every way imaginable.

That’s what our world desperately needs of those who know the words and phrases, who know the stories, who have a sense of living according to his way. The world desperately needs for us to move beyond the manger, despite our fear and trepidation; to move beyond the manger to walk out of the darkness – to live as the light and love of the Lord. TL

In Days to Come

20170111_111127A homily for the First Sunday of Advent

In days to come.
In days to come, the prophet says,
all people shall climb the Lord’s mountain.
In days to come, weapons of war and destruction will be melted down and transformed into tools of peace and creation.
In days to come, nations will no longer wage war on one another.
In days to come, strenuously urges the prophet –

In days to come, says Paul the apostle, we will depart from
the ways of darkness and sin.
In days to come, we will put on an armor of light.
In days to come, we will live as disciples are meant to live
– not in rivalry or jealousy, but in goodness and compassion.
In days to come, those who believe in him will put on the Lord Jesus Christ – as if to be as one with him.

In days to come, all the prophecies will come to pass.
In days to come, the Sun of Justice will shine with his healing rays.
In days to come, an uncertain young mother’s fear will be abated.
In days to come, a confused and dreaming fiancé will come to his senses.
In days to come, a strong, challenging voice from the wilderness
will be heard
– and, remarkably, somewhat, at least slightly – his cry for repentance will be heeded.
In days to come … if we are attentive
… if we are prepared
… if we’ll allow the time, the patience, the silence, the prayer
… if we are alert
… if we stay away.

In days to come, the kingdom of God will be accomplished.
In days to come, the pleading of strange words
Maranatha. Emmanuel. – will be honored.
In days to come, on a day, at an hour, we do not expect, and cannot know – and probably would rather not know
– the Son of Man will come.

But, now is also that day, already that day …
Now is already that day to slow down … to listen …
… to watch … to be silent – more, some, as hard as that may be.
Now is already that day to give at least a little time …
… to pray … to reconcile
… to find the darkness in ourselves into which we might allow a spark of light.
Now is already that day to learn peace instead of war …
… to welcome instead of reject
… to affirm rather than condemn
… to protect rather than destroy
… to be careful rather than complacent.

Now is already that day –
– to stay awake – the ultimate, essential challenge of a disciple
– to be alert
– to walk – to walk in the light of the Lord.  TL

What’s just?

revenge.jpgThis is the text of my homily for Feb. 24, the Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time.  I don’t usually post my homily online, but since weather kept so many people from joining us for Mass and since I kind of like it, I’m posting it.  Always remember, how I preach it doesn’t always coincide with the text. – TL

Alan Dershowitz is someone some of you may know. He is a professor of Constitutional law at Harvard Law School and a fairly regular presence on Fox News Channel and CNN. The fact that you see him regularly on CNN and Fox News Channel might suggest, correctly, that he is sometimes controversial. True, but he’s not too far afield. Usually.

Several years ago Dershowitz wrote a novel that was quite intriguing, a morality play really. The main character is Max Menuchen, a fictional professor of Bible at Harvard Divinity School. The story begins as Max is a young boy growing up in Lithuania. It’s an April evening in 1942 and Max and his family are sitting down to celebrate the Passover Sedar meal. Max’s grandfather, Mordechai, tells Max’s younger sister to open the door to greet Elijah. As is the custom of Sedar meals, there is an empty spot set at the table for Elijah, or whoever might appear at the door to share the meal.

The sister, excited by this honor of possibly welcoming Elijah, opens the door and finds, not Elijah, but rather the frightening, expansive presence of Marcelus Prandus, a captain in a Lithuanian military force collaborating with Hitler’s regime. Prandus and his troops order the entire Menuchen family into a truck and they are taken to a remote field, they and several other townspeople are give shovels and are ordered to dig a sizeable hole. Then, Prandus, beginning with the smallest child begins shooting every person in the group, their bodies shoved into the hole. Throughout the violent ordeal, Mordechai, the grandfather is shouting, Nekama! – “take revenge!”

Somehow, remarkably, Max survives, crawls out of the grave, makes his way to safety, and finally to the United States. Now, more than 50 years later, Max discovers that Prandus, the militia leader, is living just 20 miles away, dying of cancer. Now, Max, who has never so much as been stopped for speeding, is confronted with an extraordinary dilemma between what he knows to be just by the norms of society and what he feels in his gut to be right by other, undefined laws.

We might have some idea as to how this story turns out. We have heard similar stories before. Situations, real and fictional, in which people endure unconscionable horror, pain, loss, terror, violence. And, yet, somehow, from somewhere, those who’ve endured the trauma are able to reconcile, to confront their attacker, to forgive.

That’s the direction we’d probably expect of Max’s story: Max confronting Prandus; a dramatic, emotional, in-your-face showdown in which Prandus is brought to his knees in repentance for his horrible offense; Max remarkably able to overcome the words of his grandfather that have echoed through his mind for all those years. They reconcile and embrace.

That’s the way we would expect the story to go because that’s what David does in the first reading. (1 Samuel 26.2-23) He’s found his nemesis King Saul sleeping right in front of him. One thrust of the spear and it would be finished. But David relents. He cannot do himself what is for God to do.

That’s the way we would expect the story to go because we’ve just heard Jesus talk about loving enemies and offering the other cheek and forgiving. Giving more of our stuff to people who’ve already stolen from us. Extending mercy based on some bizarre assurance that we might be shown mercy. (Luke 6.27-38)

We would hope in light of the context in which we find ourselves that Max could have overcome the decades-old drive for revenge. But he doesn’t! He pursues a vicious plot of murderous revenge.

And as much as we might like for the story to have gone in a different, better direction, when we think about what Max saw that night, what has haunted him every moment of every day, those words of his grandfather as sharp now as sever – Nekama! – “take revenge!” – we have to acknowledge that in each of us there is probably a small, isolated place in our hearts that allows us to sympathize with Max, that allows us to think that, obviously, yes, revenge is reasonable, maybe even necessary.

There’s a small place in our hearts that thinks David was crazy not to take care of his rival right then and there when he had the chance.

There’s a small place in our hearts that thinks all this stuff Jesus says is a bunch of pious gobbledygook. Jesus saying things that are completely unreasonable, impossible, ridiculous. We know the world doesn’t work that way.

But, if we’re here, regardless of what might haunt a vast, dark corner of our hearts, we have to trust that what Jesus said wasn’t that unreasonable, not unrealistic. It’s unrealistic only in that we as his disciples haven’t done more to make it real. We haven’t attempted better to think as God thinks and not as human beings thing. We conclude that what Jesus says about doing unto others doesn’t work because we haven’t worked to make it work.

Alan Dershowitz’ novel is titled Just Revenge. It reminds me of a more recent book, a memoir by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer in the south who works to exonerate people wrongly accused and convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the South, many of them African-Americans. He is one of my living heroes. Bryan Stevenson’s book is titled Just Mercy.

What I’d suggest, what I hope we could conclude, based upon the stories we’ve heard today of Max and David and the lessons of Jesus is this: Revenge is never just. Mercy, on the other hand, is always just.  TL