RonRolheiser,OMI

Daniel Berrigan – RIP

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Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider how good you’re going to look on wood! Daniel Berrigan wrote those words and they express a lot about who he was and what he believed in. He died yesterday at age 94.

No short tribute can do justice to Dan Berrigan. He defies quick definition and facile description. He was, at once, the single-minded, obsessed activist, even as he was one of the most complex spiritual figures of our generation. He exhibited both the fierceness of John the Baptist and the gentleness of Jesus. An internationally-known social justice advocate, an anti-war priest, a poet, a first-rate spiritual writer, a maverick Jesuit, he, along with his close friend, Dorothy Day, was one of our generation’s foremost advocates for non-violence.  Like Dorothy Day, he believed that all violence, no matter how merited it seems in a given situation, always begets further violence. For him, violence can never justify itself by claiming moral superiority over the violence it is trying to stop. Non-violence, he uncompromisingly advocated, is the only road to peace. Like Dorothy Day, he couldn’t imagine Jesus with a gun.

Berrigan lived by the principle of non-violence and spent his life trying to convince others of its truth. This got him into a lot of trouble, both in society at large and in the church. It also landed him to prison. In 1968, along with his brother, Philip, he entered a federal building in Catonsville, Maryland, removed a number of draft records and burned them in garbage cans. For this, he was given three and a half years in prison. But this also indelibly stamped him into the consciousness of a whole generation. He was forever after known as a member of the Catonsville Nine and once appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.

I was in the seminary during those tumultuous years in the late 1960s, when anti-war protests in the USA were drawing such huge crowds and Daniel Berrigan was one of their poster boys. Moreover, I was in a seminary where most everything in our ethos was asking us to distrust Berrigan and the anti-war movement. In our view at that time, this was not what a Catholic priest was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t a fan of his then. I’m a late convert.

That conversion began when, as a graduate student, I began to read Berrigan’s books. I was gripped by three things:  First, by the gospel challenge he was spelling out so clearly; next, by his spiritual depth; and, finally, not least, by the brilliance and poetry of his language. He was, flat-out, a very good writer and a very challenging Christian. I envied his vocabulary, his turn of phrase, his intelligence, his wit, his depth, and his radical commitment. I began to read everything he’d written and he began to have a growing influence on my life and ministry. I had never before seen how non-negotiable is Jesus’ challenge to act not just with charity about also with justice.

Father Larry Rosebaugh, an Oblate colleague who also went to prison for anti-war protests and who was later shot to death in Guatemala, shares in his autobiography how, the night before he performed his first act of civil disobedience that landed him in prison, he spent the entire night in prayer with Daniel Berrigan. Berrigan’s advice to him then was this: If you can’t do this without becoming bitter and angry at those who arrest you, don’t do it! Prophecy is about making a vow of love, not of alienation. There’s a thin line here, one that’s too often crossed when we are trying to be prophetic.

Ironically, for all his critical counsel on this, Berrigan, by his own admission, struggled mightily with exactly this, namely, to have his protest issue forth from a center of love and not from a center of anger. At age 62, he wrote an autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, within which he candidly shared that he had never enjoyed a healthy relationship with his own father and that his father had never blessed him or his brother, Philip. Rather his father was always more threatened by his sons’ energies and talents than proud of them. With this admission, Berrigan went on to ask whether it was any wonder that he, Daniel, had forever been a thorn in the side of every authority-figure he ever encountered: presidents, popes, bishops, religious superiors, politicians, policemen. It took him 60 years to make peace with the absence of his father’s blessing; but, God writes straight with crooked lines, the radicalness this fired in him helped challenge a generation.

In his later years, Berrigan began to work in a hospice, finding among the dying a depth that grounded him against what he so feared in our culture, shallowness.

His own generation will give him a mixed judgment: loved by some, hated by others. But history will speak well of him. He was always on the side of God, peace, and the poor.

Daniel Berrigan RIP.

Marking an Anniversary

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What we cease to celebrate we will soon cease to cherish. This year, 2016, marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the religious congregation to which I belong, The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate. We have a proud history, 200 years now, of ministering to the poor around the world.  This merits celebrating.

As a writer, I don’t normally highlight the fact that I am a professed religious, just as I don’t usually highlight the fact that I’m a Roman Catholic priest, because I fear that labels such as “Catholic priest”, “Father”, or “Oblate of Mary Immaculate” attached to an author’s name serve more to limit his readership than to increase it. Jesus, too, was pretty negative on religious labels. Mostly though I avoid writing under a specific religious label because I want to speak more through the wider prism of my humanity and my baptism than through the more specific prism of my priesthood and vowed religious commitment. It’s a choice I’ve made, respecting the choice of others.

With that being said, I want to break my own rules here and speak more specifically through the prism of my identity as vowed religiousSo I write this particular column as Father Ronald Rolheiser OMI, proud member of The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

Let me begin with a little history: Our Congregation was founded in Southern France in 1816 by Eugene de Mazenod, declared a saint by the church in 1995.  Eugene was a diocesan priest who immediately upon entering the ministry saw that the Gospel wasn’t reaching many of the poor and so he began to focus his own ministry very much on reaching out to the poor. It takes a village to raise and child and, soon enough, he realized that it takes more than one person to bring about effective change. It takes a community to make compassion effective: What we dream alone remains a dream, what we dream with others can become a reality. So he sought-out other like-minded men, diocesan priests like himself, and called them together around this mission and eventually they began to live together and formed a new religious congregation dedicated to serving the poor.

That was 200 years ago and the Oblates (as we’re commonly called) have had a proud, if not always comfortable, history since. Today we are ministering in 68 countries on every continent on earth and our mission is still the same. We serve the poor. That’s why you’ll find us ministering mainly on the margins of society, where mainstream society prefers not to cast its glance, on the borders with migrants, on Native reservations, in immigrant areas of our cities, in tough inner-city places where the police are reluctant to go, and in developing countries where access to food, health, and education are still scarce commodities. Our mission is not to the privileged, though we try to bring them onside with our mission, and our members themselves are often drawn from among the poor and our message to the young men entering our ranks is: If you join us, consider what’s not in it for you!

And we’re missionaries, meaning that we understand our task to be that of establishing communities and churches, helping them to become self-sufficient, and then moving on to do this over and over again. That may be a noble task, but it’s also a formula for heartache. It isn’t easy on the heart to be forever building something only to give it over to someone else and move on. You don’t ever get to have a permanent home; but there’s a compensation, as a missionary, after a while every place is home.

We aren’t a large congregation, we’re only about 4000 members scattered in some 68 countries, humble in comparison to the likes of the Jesuits, Franciscans, and Dominicans. Indeed in an early version of the famous French Larousse Dictionary, we were described as “a kind of mini-Jesuit found mostly in rural areas.” We are flattered by this description. Our call is not to be in the limelight, but to be at the edges. No accident that it’s there, at the edges, in a rural area, where I met the Oblates.

We also pride ourselves on being robust, practical, earthy, and close to those we serve, and our dress often betrays this. Our families and close friends are forever buying us clothing to try to upgrade our less-than-stellar wardrobes. It’s not that we deliberately cultivate an image of being somewhat unkempt; it’s more that we tend to draw men to our ranks who have other priorities.

And our founder? He wasn’t an easy man, obsessed as he was, as sometimes saints are, by a single-mindedness that doesn’t easily tolerate weaknesses among those around him. He could exhibit blessed rage sometimes. I’m secretly glad that I never met him in person, fearing his judgment on my own weaknesses; but I’m wonderfully glad for his charism and for that motley group of men, often over-casually dressed, who continue his mission.

Loyalty and Patriotism Revisited

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In a recent article in America magazine, Grant Kaplan, commenting on the challenge of the resurrection, makes this comment: “Unlike previous communities in which the bond among members forges itself through those it excludes and scapegoats, the gratuity of the resurrection allows for a community shaped by forgiven-forgivers.”

What he is saying, among other things, is that mostly we form community through demonizing and exclusion, that is, we bond with each other more on the basis of what we are against and what we hate than on the basis of what we are for and hold precious. The cross and the resurrection, and the message of Jesus in general, invite us to a deeper maturity within which we are invited to form community with each other on the basis of love and inclusion rather than upon hatred and demonization.

How do we scapegoat, demonize, and exclude so as to form community with each other? A number of anthropologists, particularly Rene Girard and Gil Bailie, have given us some good insights on how scapegoating and demonization worked in ancient times and how they work today.

In brief, here’s how they work: Until we can bring ourselves to a certain level of maturity, both personal and collective, we will always form community by scapegoating. Imagine this scenario: A group of us (family or colleagues) are going to dinner. Almost always there will some divisive tensions among us – personality clashes, jealousies, wounds from the past, and religious, ideological, and political differences. But these can remain under the surface and we can enjoy a nice dinner together. How? By talking about other people whom we mutually dislike, despise, fear, or find weird or particularly eccentric. As we “demonize” them by emphasizing how awful, bad, weird, or eccentric they are, our own differences slide wonderfully under the surface and we form bonds of empathy and mutuality with each other. By demonizing others we find commonality among ourselves.  Of course, you’re reluctant to excuse yourself and go to the bathroom, for fear that, in your absence; you might well be the next item on the menu.

Moreover, we do that too in our individual lives to maintain balance.  If we’re honest, we probably all have to admit the tendency within us to steady ourselves by blaming our anxieties and bad feelings on someone else.  For example: We go out some morning and for various reasons feel out of sorts, agitated and angry in some inchoate way. More often than not, it won’t take us long to pin that uneasiness on someone else by, consciously or unconsciously, blaming them for our bad feeling. Our sense is that except for that person we wouldn’t be feeling these things! Someone else is blame for our agitation!  Once we have done this we begin to feel better because we have just made someone else responsible for our pain. As a colorful commentary on this, I like to quote a friend who submits this axiom: If the first two people you meet in the morning are irritating and hard to get along with, there’s a very good chance that you’re the one who’s irritating and hard to get along with.

Sadly we see this played out in the world as a whole. Our churches and our politics thrive on this.  Both in our churches and in our civic communities, we tend to form community with our own kind by demonizing others. Our differences do not have to be dealt with, nor do we have to deal with the things within ourselves that help cause those differences, because we can blame someone else for our problems. Not infrequently church groups bond together by doing this, politicians are elected by doing this, and wars are justified and waged on this basis – and the rich, healthy concepts of loyalty, patriotism, and religious affiliation then become unhealthy because they now root themselves in seeing differences primarily as a threat rather than seeing them as bringing a fuller revelation of God into our lives.

Granted, sometimes what’s different does pose a real threat, and that threat has to be met. But, even then, we must continue to look inside of ourselves and examine what in us might be complicit in causing that division, hatred, or jealousy, which is now being projected on us. Positive threat must be met, but it is best met the way Jesus met threats, namely, with love, empathy, and forgiveness. Demonizing others to create community among ourselves is neither the way of Jesus nor the way of human maturity. Loyalty to one’s own, loyalty to one’s religion, loyalty to one’s country, and loyalty to one’s moral values must be based upon what is good and precious within one’s family, community, religion, country, and moral principles, and not on fear and negative feelings towards others.

The lesson in Jesus, especially in his death and resurrection, is that genuine religion, genuine maturity, genuine loyalty, and genuine patriotism lie in letting ourselves be stretched by what does not emanate from our own kind.