The Bars We Set

Last week, speaking about a group of students, a parent commented to me, “You can’t expect from them what you expected in your previous parishes… This is a different demographic.” And my heart broke… not for the student, but for the parent.

So what about inner city kids in DC today?

Earlier this week, on WAMU’s Kojo Show, a speaker commented on gentrification in America’s urban centers. On the one hand, he noted that gentrification pushes out the poor. On the other, introducing new possibilities – newer higher bars to be met – into the cultural vocabulary of inner city kids tends (studies show) to raise their test scores and achievement levels in school and careers. Might there be a way of raising those standards without displacing longtime residents? Yes… Mother Church!

A school principal once commented with dripping irony, “If you set a low bar for your children, don’t worry, they’ll meet it.” The TV show West Wing once said of leadership here in Washington, “It seems to me that more and more we have come to expect less and less of each other.” But Jesus says, “With God all things are possible!” (Mt. 19:26). This is the challenge and the glory of the Church: because with God all things are possible, we dare not back down from expecting the best, setting our sights high, doing miracles. The Society of Jesus, of which St. Francis Xavier (our parish patron) was a member, was famed for this. St. Ignatius would set a seemingly impossible missionary goal and send his priests to achieve it with the help of God… and they did! As a result, the faith spread to the Americas, subsaharan Africa and East Asia. Our own local saint, Mother Seton was the same way: Archbishop Carrol asked her to build a school in Emmitsburg, MD in 1806. It’s a small village now, it was barely a speck on the map then… but Mother Seton did it, and founded an order that would build the largest private school network in the world, our nation’s Catholic Schools. One of my favorite examples: St. Peter’s in Rome. Largest Church on earth… we built it before all the math even existed to complete it. When Pope Julius II began construction and destroyed the old Basilica (built by no less than Constantine), some thought it hubris… but I think it may have been an act of FAITH.

High standards are a hard bar, but they keep us in a world of miracles in which we can rejoice! This coming week we begin Catholic Education Week. We also take up the Cardinal’s Appeal. The task seems impossible: to alleviate poverty and lift up children to the glory of God by illumining their minds with Gospel Truth… But brothers and sisters, this is who we are. This is what we do. With our God, we do the impossible. Our St. Francis Xavier Catholic Academy works miracles each day. I’ve looked over the test scores and I’ve shared anecdotes with our principal. Stories of children who come to us as almost non-verbal in pre-K, but graduate and go to reputable Magnet Programs and Catholic high schools are not uncommon. In our schools, miracles happen because with God all things are possible! Truly, our kids are blank slates: the only limits on them are the one’s we impose. So if you ever think that phrase, “The kids today…” stop… back up and reexamine your own faith… because as our inner city Catholic Schools prove, “With God all things are possible.”

And another thing…Walking Annie at the dog park I meet some great local folks. Often enough, when they see I’m a priest they’ll poke at me with hot button questions like, “So isn’t it great that you guys are changing your teaching on divorce?” In the most appropriate way possible I try to explain the vast nuances of Church teaching and current events to my new friends in five minutes while watching our dogs wrestle in the dirt… the gist of it comes back to this teaching on divine standards: We haven’t changed our doctrine. We are renewing our commitment to walk with all our brothers and sisters under any circumstance. The reason we can’t change our teachings is because they come from Jesus himself. (This doesn’t usually carry much weight with my listener, but what follows does) The reason I would never want us to even contemplate changing doctrine is this: I would rather live in a Church and a world that believes in miracles, a world of “With God all things are possible,” than any other world of lesser standards. And when things get hard, or human beings make terrible decisions… then with God, we in the Church are called to embrace our neighbors through whatever else may come until one day by observing all our disciplines with love we are ALL in heaven.

Renewal from without and within

The Gospel this Monday (Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Mt. 2:18-22) offers us two lessons.  He tells the assembled crowd that his disciples rejoice because, “As long as they have the bridegroom with them they cannot fast.” He goes on to teach, “New wine is poured into fresh wineskins.”  A few thoughts on these lessons, which fall providentially on MLK Day this year.

Dr. King’s witness was unique and uniquely effective.  It was peaceful and thoroughly grounded in the Christian message.  Those who followed him turned the other cheek to the verbal abuse, legal intimidation, and even the physical violence of their persecutors.  They responded with words and even hymns of peace and hope.  They could do this because they kept the bridegroom with them in their hearts.  They knew that even should the struggle claim their lives, they had something greater to look forward to in the true promised land of heaven.  Like the first martyrs of the Church suffering in the arenas of the pagan world they shocked onlookers with their peace… the peace that only Christ can bring.

This peace comes from being filled with the love of the bridegroom like wine filling a wine skin.  And Jesus wants us to have an ever greater share of his loving presence in us.  Herein lies our challenge, because each time he renews us, each time he tries to fill us with a new share of his love we need to prepare “fresh wine skins,” to receive him.  We need to reinvent ourselves a little.  Back in the days when wine was stored in animal skins, the skins would – over time – become brittle.  New wine expands with fermentation, requiring a more flexible storage space, hence fresh wine skins.  How do we achieve this renewal?

Renewal comes from without and from within.  Without: It helps us to get beyond the echo chamber of our daily lives.  Last week I was in Arizona at a conference with Catholics from all over the US.  A member of our DC group remarked, “Father, do you notice how happy and optimistic all these people are?”  She made this observation in contrast to what she perceives as a gloominess in Washington.  I’m sure folks all over America have their own struggles… and that our fellow participants found the DC delegation a cheerful bunch.  The point is this: stepping out of our routines gives us a chance to re-assess things with fresh eyes, make new resolutions and return home different people.  Whether it’s a trip to Southern Maryland, or the Shrines of Emmitsburg or the wine country in Virginia, consider getting out of town just for a day.  You may be surprised at the new person who comes home.  Within: Renewal comes from within as each of us is washed anew by the stream flowing from the pierced side of Christ.  We turn to him in the fountain of the Word.  We turn to the fountain of the sacraments flowing from his pierced side.  In confession, at mass, and through our sacramental relationships (marriage, holy orders), we find an internal refreshment and inspiration to make ourselves anew in his image.  Turn to the sacraments frequently.  Stop by Church to visit the Blessed Sacrament or attend Adoration on First Saturdays.  You’ll be amazed at what Jesus does for you.

Thus recreated we can be filled ever more with the presence of the bridegroom and equipped -like Dr. King’s followers- to achieve whatever our circumstances may call for.  I came back from my conference very much renewed and look forward to sharing the fruits of that experience and that prayer over time.

Frozen Time

The Frozen Tidal Basin reflecting the Washington Monument

It’s been cold in DC this week… frigid really.  Walking along the river with my dog it took me a minute to realize that something was different… and then it hit me: the Potomac was frozen!  …not just frozen, but immobile.  When a city sits astride a river, the movement of the water gives a sense of the passage of time, but today time stopped.  It was cold, not many people out, quiet without birds chirping or traffic beeping.  The whole scene was actually rather monastic… just me, Annie (my dog), and all the silent time in the world to contemplate the Lord loving us.  Winter doesn’t often feel like a time for outdoor activities, but there are gifts to be received in the frozen landscape, if we look on it with eyes of faith.

The Potomac Frozen on New Year’s Day

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden. My words echo
Thus, in your mind.

– Excerpted from T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets (#1)