Saturday, June 23, 2018

Separating families at the border

This is what appears in Saint Remy Bulletin this Sunday.

What is all this talk about immigration and families? In recent weeks, there’s been a furious back-and-forth in the media and in Washington about what the government is doing at the borders, and how this affects families with minor children. I’ve seen a lot of yelling, not a lot of clarity. So last week, I tried to dig into this to understand better, particularly as our U.S. bishops have weighed in. This won’t be an expert explanation. But here’s what I think is going on.

Millions of people come to our country every year, both legally and illegally. Most who enter illegally are seeking nothing more than a better life, but some are engaged in crime or even terrorism. The task of our government in sorting out the honest and dishonest isn’t easy; and virtually everyone admits that we as a nation need a better handle on these issues. Politicians of both parties have been promising to address the problems of illegal immigration for decades, but without consensus.

When people attempt to enter this country illegally, several things can happen. If they are met right at the border, they are turned back. But if they are found already inside the country, then that is a violation of the law. In addition, they may be found to have broken other laws as well. At this point, they are either arrested and prosecuted, as anyone else would be, or else they are sent out of the country again. In all this, some will need food and medical attention, and I’m very confident they get it. Some of these folks will ask for asylum in the U.S., which our laws will grant under various conditions. When such a request is made, there is a legal process for determining whether that person qualifies for asylum.

Here’s the first hitch: the border control agents who deal with these issues have their hands full, as do the judges who have to decide these requests; so there are waiting periods until these things can be decided. So what happens to the illegal aliens requesting asylum? Really only two things can happen: they can either be held in custody, or else they can be released on their honor, and told to report on such-and-such a date for their court hearing. It should be obvious what the problems with either approach are. If you go back 30 years or so, you’ll find both approaches tried by both Democrats and Republicans. At the moment, President Trump has opted not to release such asylum-seekers, but rather to hold them in custody.

Here’s the second hitch: sometimes – many times? – these individuals come with underage children. Maybe they are their own children, or maybe they aren’t. Again, this presents the border control agents with many issues. They have to know whether the children are actually with their own relatives, and whether there is anything improper going on. But assuming they’ve answered these questions, then the issue is, do they take the children into custody as well? Or do they only take into custody the adults? Or do they just let the folks go free? This is what the current dispute is about. (Update: as this bulletin went to press, the President signed an order aiming to prevent family separations; but this isn’t over.)

If the government only takes the adults into custody, then the children have to go elsewhere; perhaps into foster care, or perhaps with relatives. But obviously, this means separation from their parents, and we can all imagine how frightening this is.

Here’s what our bishops have said. Let me quote a June 13 statement from Houston Archbishop Daniel DiNardo, who is the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops:

At its core, asylum is an instrument to preserve the right to life. The Attorney General's recent decision elicits deep concern because it potentially strips asylum from many women who lack adequate protection. These vulnerable women will now face return to the extreme dangers of domestic violence in their home country. This decision negates decades of precedents that have provided protection to women fleeing domestic violence. Unless overturned, the decision will erode the capacity of asylum to save lives, particularly in cases that involve asylum seekers who are persecuted by private actors. We urge courts and policy makers to respect and enhance, not erode, the potential of our asylum system to preserve and protect the right to life.

Additionally, I join Bishop Joe Vásquez, Chairman of USCCB's Committee on Migration, in condemning the continued use of family separation at the U.S./Mexico border as an implementation of the Administration's zero tolerance policy. Our government has the discretion in our laws to ensure that young children are not separated from their parents and exposed to irreparable harm and trauma. Families are the foundational element of our society and they must be able to stay together. While protecting our borders is important, we can and must do better as a government, and as a society, to find other ways to ensure that safety. Separating babies from their mothers is not the answer and is immoral."

Of course, the bishops know there are many responses to their concerns. Every year, many thousands of adults who have minor children are arrested, convicted and incarcerated for various crimes; and this, too, results in “family separation.” My guess is that Archbishop DiNardo would say that he wants to minimize that as well. And then, most people would distinguish between someone who is incarcerated for a theft or a violent crime, versus people who are fleeing desperate situations, even if they do enter this country illegally in the process.

Others are saying, but shouldn’t the bishops simply be happy that this administration is doing many positive things on pro-life and religious freedom? My guess is that the bishops are, indeed, happy; but that doesn’t mean they remind silent when they have concerns. Nor should any of us.

Archbishop DiNardo and Bishop Vasquez, among others, are trying to give voice to varied points of view among their fellow bishops, and among many Catholics. I think the bishops are trying to be a voice for the right balance between border security and compassion for people who are seeking a better life.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

About the Cardinal McCarrick situation: I am angry

Over the past two days, I’ve been digesting the news about Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the retired Archbishop of Washington. What is that news? Well, it’s in two parts:

- The first part was that he has been “credibly” accused of abusing a minor about 50 years ago.
- The second part is that this has occasioned stories about many more allegations of sexual activity on his part with priests and seminarians; meaning that it involved preying on subordinates.

Now, I don’t know if any of this is true. I hope none of it happened; but reading about this has made me sick in my stomach, and angry. Angry at the crimes themselves, if they happened; but even angrier at what seems to have been an “open secret” for many people for so many years.

Given what I’ve been reading, some of which was published at least eight years ago, it seems clear to me that this really was a pretty open “secret.” Which means that all the bishops – in Newark, in New York, in Metuchen, New Jersey and in Washington, D.C. – who are now issuing statements of “sadness” and “shock” – surely knew that McCarrick had been accused of misconduct before. We learned yesterday that at least two allegations, involving adults, had resulted in settlements. What else is there?

Someone might say, but this whole scandal business is old news. Where have you been, Father Fox? 

Where I’ve been is living with it. I remember where I was in 2002, when so much of this fecal matter hit the fan in the U.S. I was in the seminary, preparing for my final year. I was interviewed by the local paper for my reaction to the awful things we were all hearing about. And I remember what I said: that all I could do was strive to be a good, holy priest. Of course, there was and is more I can do; but that was my answer as a seminarian.

So why is this making me so angry, 16 years later? Because it is 16 years later, and we’re still dealing with cover-ups!

Every day – every single day – as a priest, I live with the consequences of the abominable crimes committed by a small number of priests and bishops, but which were facilitated by many bishops, either by active connivance, or by neglect, or by covering it up. This gets called a “priest” scandal, but that omits the obvious fact that there was a failure of oversight. Without excusing any priest’s crimes, I think the failure of oversight was more culpable, since it so often meant one perverted priest causing such a wide path of destruction.

Let me pause my rant here and say something about silence. If anyone wonders, I have not been silent. As a priest, I am required by law, and by Archdiocesan policy, to report any information I receive (outside the seal of confession) to proper authorities. In my 15 years as a priest, I have been given such information many times; and every single time I have reported it both to local law enforcement, and to the Archdiocese. There are ways this whole process is awkward, and I can go into that if desired. Many times the information was very sketchy, so I doubt what I passed along was much help; but I reported it.

At no time have I been aware of any priest or seminarian engaging in any misconduct – other than, of course, something I learned in the news media. Sometimes people voice suspicions, but I can’t take that seriously when there is a total absence of facts.

I mention all this simply because someone might be thinking, well, what about you, Father Fox? Have you been part of this culture of silence? This is my answer.

So back to the main theme of my rant. I’m angry about what looks like a continuing culture of silence. Look: I respect confidentiality. People need and expect a priest to be able to keep his mouth shut. People confess their sins to God, in the presence of a priest, only because they are assured we remain silent, and that is right. People come to us, outside the confessional, with troubles and embarrassing problems, and they only feel safe doing that because they count on our discretion. And they should be able to do that. I am very good at keeping secrets.

But that’s not what this is! This is something else. If I were a bishop, and this sort of information reached my ears, I would look into it. I wouldn’t wait for someone to find me; I’d find those who could give me first-hand information. It would be my job to make it easy for them to share their stories. What’s more, I would do what I could to get someone in Rome to take an interest as well.

Maybe the bishops who knew about these McCarrick stories did all these things. But very honestly, I doubt it. And if I were advising the bishops in the dioceses directly affected by all this, I would tell them: “Do you want people to believe you? You need to address whether you knew about all these stories, and how you responded to them. People are going to be very dubious that you could be utterly unaware of all these allegations.”

The whole Church suffers from these crimes and the wounds they cause. One of the wounds is that people lose trust and become cynical. Maybe I am naïve; maybe it’s just that I’ve been focusing on my parish and my ministry, and I usually don’t want to dabble in gossip and innuendo. But today, this really has me upset, and I believe our bishops, and those in Rome who are concerned with these things, absolutely must answer the concerns of the faithful about how much of this covering-up is still going on. Get all the poison out. The pope knows there are perverts in high places; he himself referred to a “gay lobby” in the Vatican. (And just to be clear, while a lot of this is homosexual corruption, not all of it is. There is heterosexual corruption too.) So it’s time to answer the question:

What are we doing about it?

There are so many other thoughts, but it will exhaust me to write them all down, and it would exhaust you to read them. It breaks my heart to think of people wondering if their priest is some sort of pervert, preying on kids. I recall the time an individual came to me, and revealed he had been abused by a priest, many years before, in that same parish. It broke my heart, and I begged him for forgiveness. Last night the seminarian staying here this summer and I took our “MC”s – that is, the older altar boys who lead the others – out for wings as a thank you for all they do. Does anyone think there was anything improper? It makes me ill to think of it.

How much of a problem are we talking about? Priests are men, prone to all temptations. Greed is surely a temptation, as is unholy ambition. So is the desire for approval. I am tempted to laziness, to seeking too many comforts, to gluttony, to pride and wrath and arrogance, and to lust. The story goes around of a man in confession asking the priest, “Father, do you ever get old enough that you don’t experience lustful thoughts?” “Yes,” the priest assured him – “about 30 seconds before you die!”

Maybe I am naïve, but I do believe most priests try to be faithful. But I am sure some are living in situations that are gravely immoral, either with wealth gotten through theft or deception, or with a girl- or boyfriend on the side, or with other perversions. I can imagine the rationalizations. And I have no doubt that some number of clergy have looked the other way regarding others’ misdeeds, either because of fear, which is somewhat understandable, or because of cynicism or laziness, which is far less so. Many more priests are wrestling with sin, just as you are, and trying their best with prayer and spiritual direction and the sacraments to overcome them.

Inevitably, someone will say, “This is why I left the Catholic Church!” or, “This is why you should!” That makes no sense to me. I was raised Catholic, I left at 19 and came back at 29. I came back not because I thought the Church had especially holy bishops and priests; no, not even because I thought the ordinary person in the pew was especially holy. No, I chose to re-embrace my Catholic Faith for one very simple reason: I became convinced that Jesus Christ founded the Catholic Church, and I wanted to be in the Church that is his mystical Body.

It is not “okay” that the Church has so many wounds; but it is not a new problem. Rather, it is a very ancient problem. Jesus himself dealt with it from the very beginning. Throughout the history of the Faith, we always have individuals who cry out against the sins of Christians, clergy, religious and laity. It is almost a constant. And yes, many movements that broke away from Rome did so precisely because of immorality and corruption. Tell me: has any that made its own way conquered these problems? Show me.

While I was writing this, I heard the church bells ring three o’clock, telling me I needed to get over to lead the Divine Mercy chaplet and then hear confessions. To my surprise, there was a long line waiting for me. In between penitents, I found myself wondering why there was so many, unusual for a summer afternoon. Then a thought occurred to me: is God telling me something? I want to marinate in my anger, but perhaps caring for others is a better route.

So I come back to what I told that reporter in 2002: my best response to all this is to strive all the more for my own holiness. I am a sinful man, but I am trying to be faithful. Other priests too, many heroically. Pray for us and let us help each other in holiness. It may not seem fair, but while corruption taints other parts of the Body, the one thing no one can stop you and me from doing is to contribute that much more our own prayer and penance.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Kingdom comes, we know not how (Sunday homily)

There was a particular line in the Gospel that you could easily miss: 
A man scatters “seed on the land” and sleeps and rises,
“and through it all the seed would sprout and grow,
he knows not how.”

Did you hear that? “He knows not how.”

Perhaps you say, but we do know; we know how to prepare the ground; 
we know what kind of seed to plant, how to fertilize it and when; 
and we know when to harvest.

The point Jesus is really making 
is that the process of growth happens in its own way and own time. 
No matter what we think or want, we aren’t in control.

We plant the seed, and then we wait. 

This is one of the hardest lessons to learn in life, 
and the most necessary: 
recognizing what we can do, and what we cannot.

The farmer isn’t in control, but he is not passive. 
We have a role to play – focus on that.

There are about 200 people in this church right now, 
And if I were to ask for a show of hands, 
I think I’d see most of them go up on this question:

Have you ever thought of ways that the world – or this country – 
or our Church – or your place of work – 
would be better? If only they did what you suggested?

Of course you have. It’s what we do.
“If only the Reds would do this and this…”
“If only the Pope…” If only, if only.

How’s that working out? They never call me!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying we shouldn’t give input.
You’ve heard me ask many times for your feedback and suggestions.
I value it. And even if Congress and the President don’t want it, 
they need it, and it’s our duty as citizens to give it.

Rather, my point is that like the farmer, we can vote, we can speak up, 
we can give what we give, 
but in the end, the outcome will be beyond our control.

And the point Jesus is making is that the working out of his Kingdom – 
the salvation of souls and the transformation of society – 
Will surely and certainly come, but not as we wish or can even imagine:
We know not how.

That requires patience.
That requires humility.
And that is the challenge of hope, 
because hope isn’t about what we see, 
but on the contrary, hope is when we can’t see.

So if there’s something that has you worried:
The pope, the President, the direction of the country;
Your company, your family…

Jesus says: prepare the ground; plant the seed.
Pray; work. Sleep and rise. 
It will sprout and grow of its own accord; you know not how.

Then sometimes you and I are the seed.
God plants us. We don’t know what’s going on.

“What am I doing here? It’s dark! Wait, now it’s wet!
Oh, I don’t like that; I don’t want to be wet; I’m wet all over!

“Wait – what’s that? What is that? Oh, that smells really bad!
What is God doing to me?

“Oh now I’m moving; I’m going somewhere. 
And I was just getting used to that place; 
but now, I’m getting pushed up somewhere. 
Oh, it’s bright, bright, too bright, oohhhh! Ow!”

And so it goes. 

There is a plan. You and I have a part to play; 
and the difference you and I can make,
both in being the seed God plants,
and in the seeds we plant,
can be tremendous once we accept the fact 
that God’s work will happen, though we know not how.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

What a Gift! (Corpus Christi homily)

One value of today’s feast is to help us 
avoid taking the gift of Jesus’ Body and Blood for granted. 
When someone grows up in a family with lots of advantages – 
when you and I grow up in a country with so many advantages –
there’s a danger of not realizing how different life 
is without all those blessings. 

We Catholics have such riches in our Faith, in the saints, 
in our many ways to pray, 
in the teaching office held by the pope and the bishops, 
in the sacraments, and above all, 
in the real, true presence of Jesus in the Mass and the Eucharist.
And here in Saint Remy, we have the blessing of a beautiful church, 
and a tradition of reverence.

This is a good time to talk about these blessings 
and how we maintain and cultivate them. 

Let me start with our church. 
It is well designed and beautifully adorned.
That doesn’t just happen. 
We’ve all been in places where folks made bad decisions. 
Happily, people before us here made good decisions.

But what makes the most difference is you.
Your silence, your desire for reverence, is huge!

I can tell you, I’ve been in churches where this has been lost;
Where people are visiting and talking as they would anywhere else.
Nothing wrong with visiting – but it destroys prayerfulness.


Again, I admire how folks pay attention to how you dress in church. 
It’s not a matter of wearing fancy clothes, 
but of mindfulness and modesty.

This is a good time to talk about how we receive Holy Communion. 
You know that there are two options: 
receiving on the tongue, or in the hand. 

What you may not know is that receiving on the tongue 
is the norm in the whole world, outside the U.S. 
And when permission was given to receive in the hand,
It was given with some expectations. 

First, that someone has both hands free. 
So, for example, sometimes someone will come for communion, 
and will be using one hand to hold a child, or to lean on a cane. 
In those cases, if he or she puts out one hand, I’ll whisper, 
“I’ll put it on your tongue.” 

The other expectation was that in receiving communion with our hands, 
we wouldn’t lessen our reverence for the Body of Christ. 
Receiving on the tongue naturally invites reverence. 
When we receive in the hand, it is easier to slip into a casual approach. 

So to those who wish to receive the Eucharist in the hand, 
how about lifting your hands up high? Make your hand a throne. 

If I gave you a fragile crystal bowl, worth thousands of dollars,
How would you carry it?
How precious do we consider the Sacred Body of Jesus to be?

Also, lifting up your hands makes it easier 
for those who are distributing Holy Communion.
Now, let me say something to those who follow 
the traditional practice of receiving on the tongue – 
which, as I said, I believe in very strongly,
and I warmly encourage everyone to embrace.

I don’t know how to say this without making you laugh, but—
you really have to do two things to make this work: 
first, you really have to open your mouth. 
And you have to stick out your tongue. 
This is the only time that’s not rude to do.

This next item applies to many of our younger parishioners: 
when you come to communion, however you receive it, you have to stop. Be stationary. 
Parents, you know what I mean. 

And I know, parents, you have a lot to manage, 
but I’d be very grateful if you can help your children 
remember these things, 
especially in lifting up their hands and standing still.

Earlier I described someone who grows up with great advantages. 
That really is us. 

After every Mass, we pray the St. Michael Prayer. 
We are praying it for our fellow Christians who are persecuted.

The other day I saw an item about a priest, 
Father Randall Roberts, who described “his experiences 
as an Air Force chaplain in Saudi Arabia 
where any public Christian activity is punishable by imprisonment.” 

The soldiers would spread the word that the priest 
was to celebrate Mass “in a remote area – 
an abandoned recreation shack encircled by a chain-link fence.”
Somehow, a foreign worker, one of millions in the country,
Came by, and “pressed himself against the other side of the fence.”

Here’s what Father Randall saw:

He appeared to be straining his whole body – or at least his heart –
through the chain-link fence, like water through a filter…
The sheer ecstasy in his face from being present
at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass – though not able to move closer –
is an image that will be indelibly etched in my heart until I die.

I wasn’t there, but now, I will never forget that image.
And I hope you won’t, either.
Pray for that man, and the many millions like him, 
who are starving for what is so easy and available for us.

What a Gift you and I have been given!