Faith, Ever Seeking Reason

On retreat and reflection
by Rachel Bundang

Today we can illuminate our cities so brightly that the stars of the sky are no longer visible. Is this not an image of the problems caused by our version of enlightenment? With regard to material things, our knowledge and our technical accomplishments are legion, but what reaches beyond, the things of God and the question of good, we can no longer identify. Faith, then, which reveals God’s light to us, is the true enlightenment, enabling God’s light to break into our world, opening our eyes to the true light.

— Benedict XVI, homily for the Easter Vigil (2012)


One does not typically review a retreat, as if it were a book or a film that others could readily seek out if they found the premise intriguing. By its very nature, a retreat is such an interior and singular experience of encounter that the retreatant alone determines its meaning and significance from the silence of the heart. So let’s chalk this essay up under the “Catholic Studies” part of what the Lane Center does.

I recently had the occasion to attend a retreat led by Br. Guy Consolmagno, director of the Vatican Observatory. It was equal parts a critical need for some time away to think and reflect on some knots in my life, plus curiosity about the man and his work, plus the sudden opportunity. Br. Guy first crossed my path through his interviews on shows with Stephen Colbert, Krista Tippett, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. The brilliance and humor that he displayed in those shows were indeed real. I don’t know whether he would use these same words, but I described him to friends later as “a joyful nerd”… and that is meant as every bit a compliment. He also exuded an easy wonder and awe for the work he gets to do in his dual vocation of religion and science. He had the air of one who now had no need to question that he really was where he was truly called to be. To harken back to Robert Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” Br. Guy’s love and need are clearly one, uniting his avocation and vocation.

If it were Oprah doing the talking, she would say that the man is “living his best life.”

Br. Guy covered a great deal of territory in his talks through the weekend. From the whole retreat, I wish to highlight three elements.

First, there is the practice of reverence for nature. Br. Guy used Benedict XVI’s Easter vigil homily to reinterpret for us the creation story in Genesis 1. In our age of electricity, he says, we rarely experience light and dark in their natural state. The artificial light disrupts ecosystems and sleep patterns. Unmoored from a simpler economy ruled by natural day and night, we work stressful jobs in order to afford the electricity and, by extension, the rest of our modern material lives, ultimately making us less self-sufficient. The artificial light, oddly enough, masks our fears– whether of darkness or pain or other unknowns– so that we make the mistake of equating light with safety. Br. Guy reminds us that it is only in the places far from the city that we can see what light actually looks like. Returning to Gen 1, he shows God already there at the beginning, supernatural and beyond time, deliberately creating the universe. In creating light first, God insures that all creation is out there for us to see. Real light, according to Br. Guy, makes knowledge, freedom, and faith all possible.

Next, there is the practice of community. We are a people who believe in the communion of saints– a community that crosses both space and time. A retreat like this was, on the most obvious level, an experience of being among fellow seekers– fellow saints already– being cared for in the simplicity of Jesuit hospitality.  Just as many faithful never grow past a child’s understanding of religion, many educated people have likewise not grown past a rudimentary understanding of science. We remain largely ignorant of how the cosmos actually works. Br. Guy reminds us that science is not about facts, but rather about understanding. He claims, “We are all scientists… and we are all priests.” In our scientific and priestly roles in the world, it is our charge to pay attention to how the universe works, to learn from its mysteries, and to promote understanding. In other words, we are called to practice both intellectual and spiritual generosity as acts of faith and community.

Lastly, we have the practice of silence and space. I am most decidedly an urban creature who would likely not survive off the grid. And yet there was great ease to be had in unplugging, in taking a silent meal if desired, in letting the rocks and trees and rain renew a life force that had been crushed and gone dry. We were even invited one evening, through the break between storms, to engage in stargazing as prayer. We could stay up as long as we wished, to look deeply into the heart of space and time, and feel humbled and alive in the midst of creation’s goodness.

Going on retreat gives us the chance to remember that God is indeed present in all things– even in things that we might consider dark or bereft of life. For Br. Guy, astronomy is prayer. There is no conflict between religion and science.  Rather, science is worship, a way to witness the unfolding of the glory of God, revealed in an ongoing fashion.

“The price for your glory is their suffering!”

A review of Martin Scorsese’s Silence
by Rachel Bundang

Over the holiday, I had the occasion to watch Martin Scorsese’s latest film Silence, based on Japanese author Shusako Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name. Catholic publications such as America and Commonweal have each offered articles, interviews, and more about the film, all dutifully noting that it is Scorsese’s lifelong “passion project.” As one who is a scholar of neither Scorsese nor Endo– in fact, I watched the movie without having finished the book– or Jesuit mission history for that matter, I wish to share a few thoughts on what a thinking Catholic may take away from it. [See book plot summary here or film synopsis here.]

First of all, the film is beautifully and masterfully shot. Its closest kin in terms of cinematic ambition and themes is Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986). True to its name, Silence is not hauntingly soundtracked with oboes and indigenous choirs, but rather with drumbeats and wails and environmental sounds. The rocky ground on which Christianity lands in Japan finds its echoes in the crashing of waves where Japanese converts were forced to choose apostasy or torture. Those who refused to renounce their Christian faith were subjected to cruelties such as anazuri (hanging upside down over a pit, being slowly bled to death) or by a sort of the crucifixion in which the martyrs were not nailed to crosses but instead lashed to them and set to drown at high tide. Other scenes, of course, recall not only other movies but also images from scripture and tradition. The captured Fr. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) being paraded to prison echoes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Jn 12). His trials, which grow progressively more harrowing, are grounded in the seeming abandonment from God (Ps 22). Kichijiro (Yôsuke Kuzaburo), in his terrified renouncements and betrayals and anguished pleas for forgiveness, is the Judas of this tale. The witness of Rodrigues before the old samurai Inoue (Issei Ogata) and the interpreter (Tadanobu Asano) is reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” chapter. And the Japanese converts choosing to gather and pray in secret, at great risk, are like the early Christians in the catacombs.

As the converts ached for their faith to be nourished by the sacraments– namely baptism, reconciliation, and Eucharist– the power of sacramentals, the tangible signs of the divine were all just as real: the crosses, folded and braided out of dried grass; the wooden rosary, broken apart for the beads to be distributed like the Eucharist itself; the fumie, with its carved images of Jesus, Mary, or other holy figures; the El Greco-esque painting of Jesus in which Fr. Rodrigues sees his own reflection. Things like these feed not only the Catholic imagination but also the faith. To see them play such a pivotal role in illustrating the dilemma that converts and missionaries alike faced was poignant.

There is, of course, the matter of the title itself. The silence can refer to the dilemma that several of the main characters– mainly Rodrigues, Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson), Kichijiro, and the community of converts– each face. Should they not only hide their faith, but renounce it publicly and repeatedly? If so, to what end? Is the real truth of one’s commitment hidden in the heart, known only to God alone? There is also the silence from God: why is God seemingly deaf to the cries of the persecuted converts? Is their suffering for naught? Rodrigues– and, by extension, Ferreira– sees that there is no glory or romance in martyrdom, only very real and brutal suffering, The process by which he wrestles with that in comparison to the existential and metaphysical pain of apostasy shows how much he has to shift everything he thought he has ever known and believed, particularly about the nature of faith.

Lastly, Silence provokes numerous questions about the role and value of missions, the nature of interreligious encounter and dialogue, and the possibility of ever knowing the other– person or God. An exhaustive treatment of any and all of those aspects is not possible here, but one must acknowledge them in critical reflection. In my case, watching this film as a 1.5-generation Asian American whose country of origin (the Philippines) continues to grapple with the legacies of mission and colonization makes me question why conquest was/is ever necessary. Can we ever think about the exchange of equals– giving proper weight and respect to another religion, country, culture, or view– or must one always be superior? Does that search for truth and the insistence on universals narrow our own perspectives so much that we cannot recognize the humanity and truth in another?

In the end, Silence is definitely worth the ticket. It offers much for rich personal reflection and would also be a great addition to a theology or philosophy syllabus. I invite your thoughts below.

Promoting the Common Good Starts with Justice in the Church

Promoting the Common Good starts with Justice in the Church
by Erin Brigham

The presidential election revealed deep divisions within the Catholic Church, reflective of larger divisions within society surrounding race, gender and class. As we prepare for the inauguration of president-elect Trump, whose victory was supported by over half of the Catholic vote, the Church is challenged to discern how we will promote the common good and defend those marginalized by injustice. I believe this should start with an institutional examination of conscience involving some hard questions about gender and race.

It is perhaps too obvious to begin with the observation that the Catholic Church, by excluding women from the highest levels of ecclesial leadership, hardens the glass ceiling in other areas of life. And while this does not explain why the majority of white Catholics voted for Trump despite his crass displays of misogyny, it presents an occasion to reflect on whether or not the Church is doing enough to challenge institutionalized sexism, which it firmly regards as sinful. The Church’s teaching on gender complimentarity—that the gifts of men and women naturally differ—allows it to reject sexism without reimagining its own patriarchal structure. Assuming the feminine genius is better suited for nurturing than leading enables some people to be uncomfortable seeing a woman in authority without considering themselves to be sexist.

At the same time, few Catholics today would explicitly support exclusionary patterns based on race. Yet, theologians such as Bryan Massingale have highlighted how the Church has done a better job denouncing racist structures than prompting a critical reflection on white privilege. The exit polls according to the Pew Research Forum reveal a striking gap between white Catholics and Hispanic Catholics with 60% vs. 26% respectively voting for Trump. There are a number of factors that shape voting patterns but it invites the question of whether or not white Catholics oppose bigotry as wholeheartedly as our brothers and sisters of color.

I see two problems that impede the Church’s solidarity and commitment to defend human dignity and empower the marginalized. With respect to gender, there is a failure to recognize how structures reinforce attitudes—seeing men exclusively in positions of power reinforces the belief in male superiority. With respect to race, there is a failure to recognize how attitudes reinforce structures—unexamined white privilege hinders the mobilization of the church against systemic racism in this country.

I am not alone in pointing out that Catholics, who do not vote as a bloc but whose voting patterns consistently reflect the outcome of US presidential elections, are poised to rebuild solidarity after this divisive presidential election. I am convinced that it must begin within the Church itself. Only by examining our own complacency with sexism and racism can the Church live out its commitment to build a society that honors human dignity and the common good.

Reading Amoris Laetitia as an Act of Critical Hope


by Jane Bleasdale
Associate Professor
USF School of Education


With its challenging vocabulary and dry nature, reading a papal document on your own is no easy task. However, participating in a discussion like a book club makes the experience more lively and palatable, both spiritually and mentally.

Over the course of three meetings, a group of us faculty and staff read Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love), Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation from this past spring. In our discussions, we focused on themes that were relevant, provoking, and affirming:

  • Gender, feminism and modern families
  • Love in marriage and LGBTQ relationships
  • Conscience, pastoral practice and divorced and remarried Catholics

 In a Catholic Jesuit university setting such as ours at USF, it is unsurprising that diverse voices were heard around that table when gathered to reflect on the experience of reading Amoris Laetitia. In reading the document, we found places of and occasions for great hope. The voice of Pope Francis resonated, and his message of mercy and inclusion was deeply present.

In the opening paragraphs, Pope Francis gave us great hope that we were about to read a document that was a true reflection of the modern Church and the families we love:

Each country or region, moreover, can seek solutions better suited to its culture and sensitive to its traditions and local needs. (sec. 3)

But as we journeyed through Amoris Laetitia, we found the document lacking a true understanding of our world, our community, and our families– perhaps because the voices of experience were missing from the conversation. Perhaps we were hoping for something that would at least leave the door open and offer a sign of hope for those trapped in marriages as victims of abuse, the childless couple who decide to use IVF (in vitro fertilization), or the significant numbers of our community who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

The Synod process allowed for an examination of the situation of families in today’s world, and thus for a broader vision and a renewed awareness of the importance of marriage and the family. (sec. 2)

Pope Francis’ voice of grace and mercy was definitely present in the document – we found this to be consoling and a sign of some hope that those of us at the table who are divorced, or gay or unmarried– or perhaps in nontraditional marriages– would be accepted and welcomed to the table too.

I am in agreement with the many Synod Fathers who observed that “the baptized who are divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities in the variety of ways possible, while avoiding any occasion of scandal. (sec. 299)

And again,

Hence it is can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace. (sec. 301)

It is always jarring to read the words ‘mortal sin’ and know that your life, your relationship, or your family are being described in such ways. Some members of our group felt we could grasp onto the light the hope of this simple statement, while others appear once again crushed or alienated by the Church.

Many people in our group felt that the gift of conscience, written about in a deeply spiritual and faithful way in Vatican II, was once again being recognized by the Church. As faith-filled Catholics, my colleagues experience conscience as a grace, formed in faith and positive messages from the Gospels. We applauded the way conscience was embraced once aging by Church leaders.

Recognizing the influence of such concrete factors, we can add that individual conscience needs to be better incorporated into the Church’s praxis in certain situations which do not objectively embody our understanding of marriage. (sec. 303)

However, we also experienced sadness and frustration when the Synod seemed to go out of its way to affirm the traditional view of marriage and the role of the male and female: patriarchal, rooted in Old Testament teaching, and not what we commonly experience as ‘Gospel values.’ We felt at times that the tone of Amoris Laetitia did not sound or feel like the Pope himself was speaking, and that a more formal, less inclusive message was being conveyed.

As our group concluded – and Advent began—we shared some messages of hope for the Church. However, we were also left with a sense of disappointment for what might be, and could be, within our Church community.



Voting Catholic


As a theo-ethicist who engages in Catholic conversations for a living, I was excited to see two documents addressing the 2016 US presidential campaign from my colleagues at the Paulist Fathers:  their statement on moral issues, accompanied by a commentary on civic participation.  As Church documents typically go, each one makes a compelling argument; together, they can reach potential voters more powerfully than the comparable USCCB document, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Though the latter was revised last year, it seems to have been barely updated over the last few election cycles, and on many of the issues it covers, it still bears traces of the kind of culture war Catholicism– which itself has been aligned with evangelical Protestantism over the last few decades— that was more in vogue when the bishops first published it in 2007. Bishops Robert McElroy of San Diego and Gerald Kicanas of Tucson have advocated for more substantial changes to the document to reflect the current context and the priorities of Pope Francis.

I have been introducing students to Catholic Social Teaching this fall, with the aim of applying the concepts to a range of social issues, from rape culture to segregation by race and class to eco-justice. Many of them will be voting in a major election for the first time, and they seem to find the Paulist documents more current and accessible in relation to their own questions and concerns: bigotry and xenophobia, violence in our culture (whether random shootings or police brutality or war), and economic precarity. They are at turns angry with and dismissive of the hyper-partisanship and political obstructionism that prevents anything from getting done. They think that neither climate change nor a rape culture that is both symptom and manifestation of misogyny have received the attention they deserve from either presidential candidate. And they continue to argue for a nuanced, thoughtful feminist take on respect for life, which they sometimes see at odds with the traditional Catholic focus on abortion as the only absolute non-negotiable. They are distanced from the kind of Church hierarchy that, as recently as the 2004 campaign between John Kerry and George W. Bush, would deny communion to any Catholic politician who differed from official Church teaching. Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine has so far been able to reconcile his personal beliefs with his political responsibilities, but only time will tell whether that tension will hold.

In other words, I have been wondering with my students what it means to vote Catholic in 2016.  Writers such as E. J. Dionne and Jamelle Bouie have argued for some time now that a Catholic vote as such is no longer a meaningful designation, since Catholics themselves are a large and heterogeneous enough bloc to be subsumed into larger voting trends and patterns. Most of the Catholics I know would consider themselves more aligned with Pope Francis than Benedict XVI or John Paul II.  For these Catholics, piety and ritual are indeed important and nourishing, but they take a back seat to social justice commitments that instead emphasize care for the other and serve as their own kind of spiritual practice. We wonder when to vote with one’s own self-interests first, rather than foregrounding the common good or the greater good. We ask what it means to vote one’s conscience, especially if it leads one to differ from Church teaching, and what our obligation is to ensure that the conscience is as well-informed as possible. Are we really valuing fundamental human dignity and care for the earth by our votes?  What values and priorities do our choices signify and endorse? What does it mean to vote with peace, justice, and flourishing as ultimate aims?


[Photo by Dave Schumaker, Creative Commons license/Flickr]