When I was a child, my parents never fought in front of me, never anything stronger than a cross or stern word now and then. That doesn’t mean they didn’t occasionally argue. My bedroom was next to theirs; we shared a wall. I could hear them raise their irate voices with each other late at night. Occasionally, I could detect frustration, tears, pain.
On those rare nights, unable to muffle their disagreement from my ears, I felt overcome with fear that they were headed for a divorce. I couldn’t sleep. I prayed a lot. My heart hurt.
As I got older, I grew uncomfortable with arguments, especially those involving antagonism and anger, hostility and rage. I don’t mind a genuinely healthy, constructive debate; I do find my mind shutting down and anxiety setting in as soon as any dispute sinks into name-calling and attacking.
These days, when I think about our communities, our country, our world and even our Catholic Church, well …
My heart hurts. Deeply and profoundly, my heart hurts.
Every Wednesday, when I say Night Prayer, I read this sentence from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “If you are angry, let it be without sin. The sun must not go down on your wrath; do not give the devil a chance to work on you.” I ask God to forgive us for enabling evil to soak into our speech and actions, that He will change us from looking at each other as “opposites.”
Sadly, we have become a world of adversaries. There aren’t as many Democrats and Republicans as there are people who detest anything advocated by, respectively, Republicans and Democrats. We hear hostile words of racism and classism and sexism, vehement words involving sexual preference and immigration. Many wealthy people openly abhor poor people, and vice versa.
Just because someone is, say, Christian or Muslim doesn’t mean that person has to be, say, anti-Muslim or anti-Christian. I have met people who openly loathe religious people. I have encountered many Protestants who hate Catholicism and tell me I am headed for hell because of my faith. Some Catholics have re-embraced the Church because of Pope Francis; others think our Pope is leading the Church to ruin. Some are “Traditionalists” who indicate they’re “better” Catholics because they attend only Latin Mass, while others loudly call for female and married priests.
I won’t join the fray. I can’t. I have pondered it in my heart and have come to understand I’m not gifted with the ability to debate, to defend, to change minds with argument. I frankly don’t have the stomach for it.
My charism is to pray, to witness with positive actions and words of love and peace.
I know what some people think about that: Silence on certain stances hints at approval of those stances. Jesus said, in Matthew’s Gospel, that he did not come to bring peace, but a sword. Catholic Christians must speak up, stand up for our beliefs, or we deserve some of the blame for society’s ills.
I get all that. And I am not mute on divisive matters. If I hear someone citing evidence that they misinterpret or misunderstand, I will correct them – gently. If I hear someone leading others in perilously dangerous directions, I will speak my concern – considerately. If I feel insulted because of my beliefs, I will express my pain – kindly.
I will not get into a verbal war. I will not choose up sides. If circumstances turn a man or woman into my “enemy,” I will not speak hatefully about that person. I will try to “be Jesus” and love my enemy, pray for those who persecute me.
Among fellow Catholics, among fellow Christians, among fellow Americans, among fellow human beings … aren’t we all supposed to be on the same team?
When I write, usually I prefer to share my own words, but occasionally concern such as this moves me to have more questions than answers, thoughts I struggle to express. That prompts me to look for guidance outside my own heart. Recently, I ran across this from a German priest named Carl Sonnenschein:
“The religious person is primary. Therefore, let us pray. Second, however, is the social person. You must help your brother. Without delay. Without ambivalence. You must honor the presence of Christ in him. … Kneel before the presence of God in your brother. Am I my brother’s keeper? I do not know him, do I? I have no contact with him. Yes: You are your brother’s keeper. Create contact. Christians, join hands and act … caritas. Do not ask questions. Do not look behind you. Do not judge. Help!
“Unknown heroism. No billboard reports it. It does not get through to the people in the street. It does not cry out seductive slogans. But it exists. In a thousand forms and figures the incomprehension, the distress of human life, passes through the world. Therefore there have to be priests and lay people who still speak a word when all the words of this world are useless; who open a well when all other wells have dried up; who still have a sparkle in their eyes when the stars have ceased to shine.”
Father Sonnenschein died in 1929. He shared these ambitious notions when much of the developed world was enjoying dramatic change and prosperity. The decades following his passing saw global economic depression, persecution and willful blindness, Godlessness and a tragic example of what happens when hatred and evil are allowed to thrive.
Our country, our world, our Church often seems in the midst of an intensely dark night. These pastoral thoughts need to find a place deep in our 21st-century hearts.
My heart hurts when I sense hatred. I wonder if Jesus feels the same.