Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books
John Christman, SSS
Meaningful objects can help get us through difficult times. A photograph of a loved one, a keepsake from a meaningful relationship, a prized possession that speaks to one’s identity, all of these can provide strength during difficulty. Ponder for a moment if your life were reduced to a handful of items. What would they be? Amidst the necessities there would no doubt be one or two personal belongings that spoke to your heart, to your identity, to the life you’ve lived.
Photographer Tom Kiefer has amassed a collection of just such objects. For eleven years he worked part-time as a janitor at a Border Patrol facility in Arizona. As people were detained crossing the US-Mexico border almost all of their belongs were deemed inessential. These belongings were confiscated and thrown away. “Deeply personal belongings,” Kiefer said, “a Bible, a rosary, a family photograph. And I just, you know, instantly knew that this was not right.”1 He lamented, “The whole point is just to dehumanize and strip people of their — any scintilla of hope and humanity.”2 Faced with the injustice he perceived Kiefer responded in two ways. First, he retrieved the discarded items from the trash and saved them in the hopes that they could one day be returned to their rightful owners. Second, he photographed these items in an ongoing series entitled, El Sueño Americano (The American Dream).
The photographs are subtle and poignant. Each displays everyday objects, sometimes contrasted with a vibrant background color. The viewer sees water bottles, children’s stuffed animals, rings, clothing and more. A documentary film, Los Amulets Migran (The Amulets Migrate), that accompanied Keifer’s exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles features a woman named Dora Rodriguez perusing through Keifer’s gallery and explaining the significance of the items she sees. She had crossed the border in dangerous circumstances in the 1980’s and her memories inform her descriptions. At one moment she pauses and picks up a small container of women’s make-up. She then tells a story of a woman who crossed the desert with her. This woman had brought make-up because she wanted to look nice when she was finally reunited with her husband in the US… but she died before she could be with him again.3 So many stories contained within each object.
Our eyes might instantly be drawn to a photograph entitled Nuevos Testamentos (front cover), a picture of worn well-read bibles, lying on a yellow bandana. Or perhaps we are drawn to a photograph of a large pile of rosaries, or even a picture of small statues of Our Lady of Guadalupe. All of these provided strength, grace and hope along an arduous journey. And all were then deemed “inessential.”
Nevertheless, whether a personal bible in which someone wrote their own notes and spiritual thoughts or a small case of make-up, each offers an encounter with another soul. Each photo is a very real call to a genuine encounter with another human being. As Kiefer has written, “My intent is to explore the humanity of the migrants who risk their lives crossing through the desert and to create a personal connection for the viewer to a migrant and their hope for a better life.”4 Theologian Leonardo Boff might call these objects “human sacraments” because of the meaning and communion they offer.5 Whatever we wish to name them, they point to something sacred: another human being made in the image and likeness of God.
1 https://www.npr.org/2020/03/04/812246866/photographer-documents-the-personal-items-confiscated-by-border-patrol accessed March 19, 2020
3 https://www.skirball.org/exhibitions/el-sueno-americano-american-dream-photographs-tom-kiefer accessed March, 31, 2020
4 https://www.tomkiefer.com/2016/7/26/re1w3x3bxrzdaivd5y9nsfsdlfvrhc accessed March 26, 2020
5 Leonardo Boff, Sacraments of Life, Life of the Sacraments. (Portland, Oregon: Pastoral Press, 1987) pg 29.
The Fattened Calf
Feasts or starvation
are at the center
of this parable of the prodigal
a third of his father’s estate
going off to a distant
country where, famished
from lust, he worked as a pig tender
longing for the pods they were fed.
His older brother complained that
their father did not give him a goat
to celebrate what — greedy self-righteousness?
Yet their merciful father probably raised
temple sheep and kept a stable full
of cattle, though none like the calf
who was fattened on a special,
holy diet so he could be sacrificed
for one who once was lost
but now found. Hungering for forgiveness,
the prodigal was welcomed at a feast
of fattened calf, bread, and rich dark wine.
In 2015, I wrote a very positive review of Ivereigh’s first book on Pope Francis, The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope. I was enthusiastic about the book and told many of my friends and colleagues that if they really wanted to understand this pope, what shaped his pastoral plan; what impact his formation and life as a Jesuit had on the man who now wears the white cassock; what were the influences of his South American heritage and Aparecida on his concept of leadership and synodality, they should read this book. Many of them did and came away with the same enthusiastic and positive hope for him and his “reform.”
It is now 2020 and Ivereigh offers us a new book, a kind of evaluation of Pope Francis’ efforts at reform and renewal after serving as pope for six years. The “Great Reformer” had become the “Wounded Shepherd.” Iverleigh remarks several times that Pope Francis gets high grades from the people, those who fill St. Peter’s Square regularly and those who turn out in the hundreds of thousands to greet him at his apostolic visits throughout the globe (where in several countries Catholics were in the minority) and from millions who admire him from across the globe. People like the way he talks, his down-to-earth language and metaphors. They admire his humility and his closeness to the poor and marginalized. He speaks to their hearts. His focus is not on peoples’ failings and sinfulness, but on the great mercy of God who waits with open arms for them.
But there is a flip side. There is a small but powerful anti-Francis lobby (much of which is centered here in the US) which is uncomfortable with Francis’ pastoral approach, his critique of unchecked capitalism and the horrible impact of globalization on the poor, his “unrealistic” support for immigrants and demands that countries open their borders. Some attack his theology which they believe is almost heretical. Others are at odds with his concept and implementation of synodality. There are those who bristle at his selections of cardinals from peripheral countries where Catholics are in the minority and passing over large metropolitan sees who have traditionally had a cardinal.
Ivereigh had a meeting with Francis as he was completing this new book. The Pope’s comment to him regarding the author’s first book was, “You’re too kind to me.” He wanted the next book to be more “critical.” Pope Francis had laid out a challenging reform agenda in the early years of his papacy. Ivereigh charts his successes, his roadblocks and his failures. His encyclicals and apostolic letters brought joy to some and horror to others. His record on sexual abuse of minors is checkered. His attempt to introduce a radically new vision of synodality which, unlike his predecessors, did not have a prepared agenda, a list of topics that were off the table, with very little opportunity for discussion. He made it clear that at the synods people should talk openly and speak from their experience. He invited young people, lay people and women to be involved in the synods. Of course, this new vision created conflict. His desire that the topic of the possibility of full participation in the Eucharist by those who were divorced and remarried be openly reflected upon caused great consternation among those whose preoccupation is with the law rather than the lived experience of the people.
These and many other issues and situations that the Holy Father addressed are thoroughly examined by the author. As in his first book, Ivereigh uses a variety of sources including many conversations he had with members of the Curia as well as bishops, theologians, journalists and commentators throughout the world. He also relies on the pope’s writings, homilies, allocutions and his off-the-cuff comments to journalists on his plane trips back from apostolic visits.
Ivereigh offers the readers a solid report on the accomplishments of the Holy Father in his attempts to reform the Church. I highly recommend it and I do look forward to another book by this author as he continues to chart this pope’s ministry in his Petrine Office.
Patrick J. Riley, D.Min
Book Review Editor
This is the eighth volume in the series that treats relevant and often-neglected issues under the commodious umbrella of Catholic Theological Ethics in a World Church. It is a collection of essays focused on the moral issue of homelessness. Like the other books in the series, it goes beyond a parochial approach, say, of people without housing that are on the streets and shelters in New York. Essays include perspectives from Africa to Asia, Cameroon to Jamaica. The representative voices are not only those of recognized theologians but of those who work with the homeless and/or have themselves experienced living without permanent shelter.
The first section of the book lays out in detail the situation throughout today’s world, often through the stories of real people and their experience. Many of the articles are starkly depressing. Yet they contain also a grain of Christian hope. The comment, “None of us is home until all of us are home” (p.8) says it well. The threads that weave through each narrative include the dignity of all persons, the equal status of those who are homeless with those who strive to help them, and the ubiquitous reality of homelessness in many layers of society as well as in different cultures. Nevertheless, words like “burden,” “indifference,” and “socially unacceptable” continue to knot those threads and make it difficult to create adequate solutions for this vast moral problem.
The second section considers strategies to end homelessness, including the lacunae in optimistic plans. From papal proclamations to global initiatives, what is said does not translate into adequate iterations of change. Some articles highlight theological analysis and biblical paradigms. There are proposed solutions from above — organizational intervention — and from below — micro-inventiveness such as welcoming shelters and compassionate listening and presence.
The third section details local responses currently in place worldwide. Not all homeless people are adults. Factors often place innocent children in this category. The plight of women is raised, particularly homelessness that is caused by flight from domestic violence. The reader is not permitted to reduce the problem to disembodied clichés.
Homelessness is complicated. Causes range from job loss to addiction, mental illness to domestic violence. Displacement can result from poverty, the scars of war, lack of environmental sustainability as climate change erodes habitable places. Simply being gay or a woman can provoke the loss of permanent shelter. These dire realities exist beneath the glamour of affluent cities and in the missing data that should count those who may have only serial places to lay their heads. Again, many of these “uncounted” are, as in the biblical story of the loaves and fishes, are women. Yet, like the “enemy” in the Pogo comic strip, all of them are “us.”
The book lifts up a kaleidoscope of voices from every continent. It is a treasure trove of data about those who experience homelessness and those who observe it by inserting themselves into the problem and attempting to address it. Key themes resonate through all parts: community, common good, respect, solidarity, empathy, listening, and accompaniment. “Do you feel me?” is a question that calls the reader to know — in a deep and responsive way — the reality of this growing problem in today’s world.
While it is impossible to evaluate adequately a book that contains nearly three dozen articles, it is important to indicate that this effort is a rich contribution to the field of an important moral question. The essays are brief; some are better than others. They can be used profitably to enrich homilies that deal with the biblical call to justice and human dignity.
For the general reader, this is an eye-opening book exposing the reality of this serious moral issue in today’s world. I offer a cautionary tale for those who might pick it up. It is hard to read without opening a door — our hearts — to our own indifference. Can this change lead us to effect satisfying solutions?
Dolores Christie, Ph.D.
At the end of March, 2020 with New York at the national epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic, coping with 44,000 infected persons and 519 deaths, the New York Times asked Jesuit Father James Martin to give some sort of religious response to the crisis. It was not the first time that the Times sought out Father Martin. In some ways he had become the go-to-priest for comments on all things Catholic. He was also a frequent visitor on the Stephen Colbert Show where his more humorous side emerged. He was also a frequent guest at CNN and other news outlets.
Many Catholics were familiar with Father Martin through his many books and articles, and his life-long presence in America Magazine. My Life with Saints, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Anything, Between Heaven and Mirth, and Jesus: A Pilgrimage were all best sellers.
Jon Sweeney offers a biography of this Wharton School graduate, successful executive at GE, who left the corporate world behind to seek a new life in the Society of Jesus. The author writes on Martin’s difficulties with the traditional Jesuit formation which combines strong intellectual formation with periods of various experiences with the poor and alienated. He became ill during a year-long stretch with immigrants in Ethiopia and, returning to the States, he was assigned for the last six months of that year to work at America.
He developed a passion for writing, and after ordination, he was assigned full time to America Magazine. There he wrote a weekly column in which he commented on cultural life, the arts, and a wide variety of topics. He eventually rose to his present title of Editor-at-large. It has been the only assignment to which Martin was posted by his Province.
But it was not only in the media that Martin exercised his priesthood. Since ordination he has served in parochial ministry at the Jesuit-administered St. Ignatius Parish on the upper East side of New York. There he celebrates Mass, hears confessions, and presides at weddings and funerals. He has also developed a following of people who seek him out for spiritual direction, and he has directed a significant number of people in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius.
Most of Martin’s books have dealt primarily with spirituality and, as noted above, they were well received, and many earned literary awards. But he was about to move into troubled waters in 2018 when he published Building A Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity. The previous year a young security guard broke into Pulse, a crowded gay bar in Orlando, Florida and killed 49 individuals and another 53 were left wounded. Martin was disturbed that too few bishops responded to this massacre and fewer yet offered any expression of condolences to the gay community. In the book he argued that both the Church and the LGBT community needed to develop a mutual sense of respect, compassion and sensitivity. The book created an uproar and Martin suffered the loss of a number of speaking engagements. While Martin focused on persons, many of those who vilified him were focused primarily on the “sin” of homosexuality. While most of the gay community were appreciative of Martin’s efforts, many outside that community had very hateful things to say. Father Martin has not backed down from what he wrote and continues to advocate for the focus of this book. Martin was received by Pope Francis in a private audience and he states that the Holy Father encouraged him in his ministry to the LGBT community.
Sweeney offers us a very fine introduction to the man who has shared so much of himself and his spiritualty with us though his writing.
Patrick J. Riley, D.Min.
Book Review Editor