“Never give up.”

The community of Perquin, capital of the FMLN during the war.

Our final day in El Salvador found us waking up in Perquin to head to Mass led by Padre Rogelio Poncel, the Priest we had met the day before over breakfast. Padre Rogelio preached about John the Baptist, calling particular attention to the differences between the messages of John and Jesus. For the Baptist, Rogelio claimed, the stress was “on the rights of God” and therefore of the need for all humans to cherish God and follow his demands. For Jesus, the focus was on “the rights of human beings.”  For Jesus we can respond to God only if we are responding to our fellow human beings. He concluded that it is in loving our neighbor that we love God and that in cherishingthe rights of our neighbors that we respect the rights of God. There is no going to God without going to our neighbor.

The mass was also punctuated with lively singing, in the popular style, further reflecting an impulse we had experienced time and time again in our travels: the impulse of the Salvadoran people to make their worship responsive to their community’s historical and present context. From the community of Romero’s crypt, to the Christian Base Communities and their formation schools, to now the parish mass in Perquin, Salvadoran religious leaders and lay people had a strong confidence in their own assessment of their liturgical needs, and a willingness to carry on as they needed to, even in opposition to the ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Following mass we loaded onto the bus and Daniel drove us to a short way to the community of Agua Blanca in Cacaopera, Morazán, where we met with Acción y Vida, an organization of youth leaders seeking to improve quality of life through sustained social and political engagement. We heard from a new generation of leaders who, while inspired by their formation in communities of resistance, feel unrepresented of the language and models of their parents. They are engaged in inspiring work to offer sexuality education to their communities, educate people about HIV/AIDS, and continue to insist that the voice of rural youth be a part of the formation of El Salvador’s future. Still, like many of the groups we have met with, their voices are on the distant margins of the national conversation, out of the boundaries of the hierarchical Roman Catholic Church, and maybe even not central to the discourse in their local communities, still they continue their work with impressive energy and a gentle but persistent spirit.

Finally, after a 5 hour ride back to San Salvador, we gathered for dinner with Fr. Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit, who taught at the Catholic University. He is alive today only because he was out of the country, at a conference in Thailand, the night that is colleagues and their two housekeepers were murdered by the death squads. Sobrino’s talk captured the spirit of so many groups and individuals we had met. His theological affirmations were rooted in the reality of the lived experience of the people of El Salvador, and he was insistent that all true theology must be grounded in experience.

The people of El Salvador call Romero a Saint. While it may take generations for the Catholic Church to agree, Sobrino told us “reality makes things obvious.” Those who are grounded in reality know that “in Romero, God walked with us in El Salvador.” Sobrino spoke beautifully, clearly, and succinctly, without straying into complex reasoning or cloudy questions of ontology and metaphysics. He insisted that we all keep our eyes squarely on the suffering of the world, and act to end it, drawing on the stories and teachings of Christianity to reflect on and frame that action. Finally, he offered a perfect closing mantra for the fullness of what we met in El Salvador. Quoting from Micah he reminded us that our task is to walk humbly with God. Like Madre Alicia who walked into the teeth of an empire for the sake of truth, sustained by the potent power of a mother’s anguish; walk. Like the women who carry on a weekly mass in Romero’s crypt despite pressure from the Archbishop to stop; walk. Like the 6 year-old Children in formation schools in the countryside, learning the tragedy of their history and the hope of their parents struggle; walk. “The one thing we have learned here” Sobrino said, “is never to give up.”

The Union delegation with Fr. Jon Sobrino (front center).

A Post-Christian Hindu Yogi In Communion


James Memorial Chapel at Union Theological Seminary

The James Memorial Chapel is a truly sacred space within the sacred space that is Union Theological Seminary.  During the week, we gather in the Chapel to pray, exult, meditate, and commune together in expressions of worship which are resonant for Christians and for peoples of all spiritual traditions.

Chapel has been a remarkable experience for me so far, as I come to be reunited with the sacrament of communion.  Communion was something that, as a Catholic child, I never thought about too deeply, and which I took for granted along with the whole experience of worship.  I was usually more eager to get home and watch Barry Sanders juke-and-jive his way for a touchdown for my beloved Detroit Lions.  Returning to communion for me is a chance to reclaim a part of my spiritual identity, to fully form and own an understanding of my development as a seeker and servant of God.

This reunion has opened up emotions and contemplations both deeply moving and challenging.  My experience in Chapel, in communion, has first of all made me realize how disconnected I am with the mood and meaning of worship in general.  Even though I would worship everyday during my time as a monk in the bhakti-yoga tradition, often I would not be there mentally or emotionally even though I was present physically.

It was sometimes a “familiarity breeds contempt” kind of experience.  Experiencing the power of worship through the lens of other traditions has often acted as a reminder for me of the unique gift of worship I carry with me everyday as a practitioner of bhakti-yoga Through the grace of my time in Chapel, I am already experiencing a sense of reunion in my own practice as a Hindu, as I feel distinctly at home again worshiping in the temple of Radha-Krishna at The Bhakti Center, and in my own daily mantra meditation practice, chanting the names of God.

Weekly and monthly kirtan (spiritual music) worship at The Bhakti Center

This sense of reunion is truly an upwelling from the heart.  During one of my first experiences taking communion together in Chapel, I was moved practically to tears by the combination of the intimate and vulnerable ceremony of taking the sacrament, of the stirring music that surrounded us, and of seeing very clearly a moment of unity in the intense diversity that we have here at Union. The emotions emanating from my heart were the kind of rare but exquisitely special feelings we get as gifts of grace from the Divine in our life, in which we intuitively know we are with something much deeper than ourselves.  For me, it was a sign that I had come to the right place in my life, part of the larger gift God has given me in being here, at this time, in my own way, at Union.

I come to these experiences no longer identifying as a Christian, and while being in a Christian service does not make me uncomfortable, there are aspects of the worship that I don’t literally believe anymore. My relationship with Jesus as a person, and as an ideal, is framed through my Hindu lens, where we see him as a great teacher whose example is to be emulated.  We don’t see him in any particular or exclusive theological position.

I continue to wrestle with, even more directly through my studies at Union, of the meaning of the sacrifice of Jesus which underlies the communion experience.  I do not look at the Christian experience with the literal eyes I had, more or less, as a child. Yet my upbringing identifying as a Catholic stays with me, if it is not something I particularly belong to anymore.  I can intellectually and theologically identify with critical and historical approaches towards Christianity, but there is also a strange reluctance in my heart to let go of some of the literal beliefs I have had in my life in relation to Jesus and the Christian doctrine.

Yet, I am beginning to understand that to let go of my sense of belonging as a Christian is a natural evolution of my spiritual journey here at Union, and it doesn’t preclude me from fully understanding and living and being in the natural and correct resonance I can and should have with the Christian tradition as someone who deeply identifies now with a Hindu tradition. How funny that I come to a a Christian seminary and realize that I no longer belong to Christianity!

How then am I resonating so much again with the sacrament of communion?  Is my experience with communion something has become too emotional or sentimental or nostalgic?  I brought some of these issues to the kind presence of Barbara Lundblad, who is the Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching here at Union, and who is also a pastor at Advent Lutheran Church in the Upper West Side here in New York City.  I wanted to hear from her what exactly communion meant to our community, what it meant on a deeper metaphysical and spiritual level, and what it meant to her personally.

For Prof. Lundblad, the experience of communion at Union has also re-formed her experience of the sacrament in a maturing way from her childhood experiences. In the Lutheran churches of her youth, she recalled communion as being a somewhat solemn, austere, and even alienating experience.  “The very word communion was belied by what was actually happening,” she recalled. “We tried to forget we were there with other people.”

Being part of the worship team here at Union, along with her experiences as a Lutheran pastor has helped her to become aware of communion as something that truly bonds a spiritual community together.  “This is the thing that is different for me here,” she says of being at Union.  “I experience people coming together from so many different traditions, from Catholics who believe something different about this than what I believe, and Unitarians who are welcome to come for a simple blessing if they so desire.”

In this diversity, the meaning of communion can no longer be such a fixed or static thing. Prof. Lundblad adds that “if you ask every person there what does this meal mean to you, you would get as many different answers as the people who were there.”  In our Chapel at Union, communion becomes part of the fabric of our diversity, which shines new and dynamic colors on the essential prism of our spiritual identities as individuals and as a community.

The sacrament and experience of communion is something meant “for you”, no matter where you are coming from, or how literally or symbolically you want to take it. “Here in this community, these words “for you” are very personal, but we say it surrounded by everyone else,” Prof. Lundblad shares.  “This has been the huge change for me from my childhood. The word communion for me is being recovered in my life.”

I am still learning what the sacrament of communion means for me.  I can speak of essentials, of having faith that God is present when I chant the holy names of God in my own practice as a bhakti-yogi, or when we are drawn together in our worship in Chapel.  That faith for me is the bond of communion with the Divine, a faith that draws me closer and closer to knowing and acting in the reality of my loving relationship with God.  It is also a faith that draws me closer to knowing what it means to have an active communion with God in this world, fighting for justice through courage and compassion.

I am deeply grateful for Chapel here at Union. I yearn for it actually, even though adjusting to the rush of academic life here in my first semester makes it difficult to always be present there. There is no doubt that I need it to ground and shape my daily life here at Union, and to draw me forward through my misconceptions and aloofness towards the sacred space within my own heart, the space we all share together here.

Guest Author, Mike Swain: Short Confession of a UTS Catholic

Union MA student Mike Swain offers some reflections on being Catholic at a time when your church is in the cultural cross-hairs.

As a Catholic at Union, this past month has been a gut check – quite literally at times, as reading media accounts of the Catholic Church’s institutional negligence and cover-up of sexual abuse cases has twisted my stomach in knots.  The most recent round of public media disclosures has not arrived with a dull ache, which too often accompanies seemingly too-familiar news tragedies.  It has come rather with something of a bodily interrogation of Catholic identity – and more specifically, an interrogation of what it means to call oneself Catholic at Union.

I realize that for many who have observed the slow, painful drip of media revelations in the past decade, any strong reaction may feel delayed.  I can only write that I consider myself among the implicated laity who have taken umbrage – but too often remained privately fatalistic – in the face of these scandals over the years.  But I am less interested in offering apologies than I am in professing – inadequately, considering the limitations of space – why this recent struggle has actually brought me into a deeper confrontation with Catholic identity.

To state upfront: I do not count myself among those who dismiss the institutional Church as fundamentally unnecessary or those who disregard Pope Benedict XVI as an entirely regressive authority.  I depend on the institutional Church and those who labor within it.  I only wish it would become less of a postmodern institution (as evidenced by its recent public relations defensiveness and seeming lack of accountability) and that it would loose itself from the presumptions of its patriarchic hierarchy.  On broad theological grounds, though, I agree with the principle of Pope Benedict’s current mission – to reform a Church as one that stands in opposition to moral relativism, which exists as a real and powerful dilemma for those under the influence of postmodern late capitalist society – even as I may sharply disagree with many of his methods and ideas.

That said, as a Catholic at Union, it has been nearly impossible to ignore the sense of institutional trespass that has been evoked by the Vatican’s decision to rescind Father Roger Haight’s right to lecture and publish.  For those who do not know, Fr. Haight – our current scholar-in-residence at Union – was ordered last year by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which monitors doctrinal-moral orthodoxy for the administrative body of the Catholic Church, to stop teaching and writing formally on theology because he supposedly failed to address issues of doctrinal heterodoxy.  This was the latest measure of censorship that followed in the wake of the publishing of Jesus Symbol of God in 1999 and which has also included Fr. Haight’s forced resignation from Weston Jesuit School of Theology.

Throughout this lengthy process, Fr. Haight has, by his calm yet constitutively forceful Ignatian spirit, defended his theological arguments and maintained his position as both a Jesuit and Catholic, and in so doing, he has tried to make present the possibility of Catholic identity in conversation with postmodern currents of thought.  Fr. Haight has also continued to motivate Catholics to accept the challenge of staying within the Church – and he has done so whether or not we agree with his theological justifications.  It is for these reasons that Fr. Haight embodies the notion that Catholic identity is more possible, not less, in our communal and personal crises of undecidability – those crucibled states of unknowing we enter into when we risk, as we must, the confrontation of variable and seemingly contradictory experiences of God, and where it sometimes seems unlikely that any constructive definition of identity, truth, and authentic meaning can be discerned and professed.  We are certainly privy to these crises on a daily basis at Union.

The revoking of Fr. Haight’s professorial status was effectively used as a statement by the CDF, one that bypassed an honest consideration of Fr. Haight’s real students and colleagues in the service of conveying the Church’s mission to bear witness to doctrinal solidity.  While it is difficult to engage a fuller explication of the overlap, I see an analogous logic at work within the Church’s responses to certain cases of molestation, as well as within its current public relations strategies.  The logic: to protect the Church itself – its doctrines and faith, yes, but also its messages and its image – from either heterodoxy or scandal, and to do so too often at the expense of engaging the spiritual-material reality of those affected by its decisions and members.  Thus, the protection of the Church and the protection of children have at times constituted separate or conflicting missions.  In light of this logic and its devastating repercussions, as well as through the experience of Fr. Haight’s removal, I have been led to deeply question where I identify or disidentify with the institutional actions and proclamations of the Church – and whether or not I will choose to identify at all.

This is an undoubtedly necessary task.  But what this recent wave of scandals has brought home to me, quite painfully at times, is that the process of identification is not primarily within my hands.  I may identify as Catholic, but the institutional Church also identifies and implicates me, and where identity and identification consciously change, they do so in concert with something deep within me that is out of my control, something that merely is.  This is not an intellectually abstracted realization of God’s presence but a re-cognition, through an experience of corporeal illness, that I am bound to the sins of Catholic others, institutional or otherwise, as well as their ideals.  The assumption of collective moral responsibility is also an act of acceptance, even if requires thoughtful attempts at differentiating dimensions of personal culpability.

I realize that my sentiment may contain, or appear to reflect, more than a subtle note of Catholic melodramatic guilt.  But I also believe that this responsibility, far from being a matter of Catholic temperament, speaks to all of us.  Quoting and expounding on Union’s oft-memorialized theologian, Thomas Merton wrote that even “Bonhoeffer’s worldliness [was] no denial of guilt, but [an] ‘entering into the fellowship of guilt for the sake of other’” people.  In trying to reject the institutional sins of the Catholic Church, I have only found out how deeply invested I am in their failures.  And these subsequent questions of fellowship have opened me up more fully to the anguished responsibility of learning to love my Church with eyes open, where “love is not blind…love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind” (G.K. Chesterton).


Your Holiness, I hope this letter somehow reaches you.  I think it might help you find a way out of the mess you are in.

I’m referring to the accusations being made that you allowed a priest, Fr. Peter Hullermann, who had been identified as a pedophile in the diocese of Essen back in 1980, to come to your diocese in Munich, and after a brief period of therapy, he was permitted to take up his ministry without any enforced restrictions about staying away from kids.

And now the New York Times has made known that Dr. Werner Huth, the psychiatrist who treated (or tried to treat) Fr. Hullermann, reported to the Munich diocesan authorities at the time that Fr. Hullermann had refused to engage in one-on-one therapy and that he was “neither invested nor motivated” in his therapy.  Dr. Huth recommended to your diocese that Fr. Hullermann could be readmitted to priestly ministry only under the strictest conditions – namely, “that he stay away from children, not drink alcohol, and be accompanied and supervised at all times by another priest.”

Well, Fr. Hullerman was soon assigned a parish post, and Dr. Huth has stated that these conditions were “enforced only intermittently.”  It must have been very intermittently, since Hullermann was convicted in 1986 of sexually abusing minors and distributing pornographic materials.

The Vicar General for your diocese at the time has covered for you and said that you did not know that Hullermann was assigned to a parish. Also, Dr. Huth cannot prove that his stern warnings that “For God’s sake, he desperately has to be kept away from working with children,” were ever communicated to you.

Even if you can prove that you knew nothing about the reports of the psychiatrist or of the assignment of Fr. Hullermann, you cannot avoid the question that comes thundering into the mind and onto the lips of anyone reading about this:  WHY DIDN’T YOU?!  HOW COULD YOU NOT HAVE?

Your Holiness, excuse my bluntness: You are sailing down that well-known creek without a paddle.  You need to do something to clear your name and to reinstate the confidence of the Catholic church (that is, the Catholic people) in your leadership.

The legal, perhaps moral, solution would be for you to resign, as it would have been for the bishops mentioned by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s 2003 “Report on the Sexual Abuse of Children in the Boston Archdiocese.”  These were the bishops who cooperated with Cardinal Law in the cover up of pedophile priests.  All of them went on to be promoted to head other dioceses, while Law himself was removed and promoted to a plush post in the Vatican. (The Boston Bishops I’m talking about are: Thomas  Daily, Robert Banks, Alfred Hughes, William Murphy, and John McCormack.)  None of these men were really held responsible by Pope John Paul II or by you.  So we can’t really expect you to hold yourself responsible.

Therefore I’m suggesting that you can all keep your jobs and still show the Catholic people that you are serious about reforming the church and the all-male clerical caste-system that, according to many and most recently Hans Küng, is at the root of the deception and the sexual abuse.

All you have to do is drop obligatory celibacy for the priesthood and admit women to the priesthood!

Both of these moves are theologically possible, as the majority of your Roman Catholic theologians and scripture scholars will explain to you.  And, the move would enable you to have a sufficient number of priests around the world to enable the Catholic people to keep their “Sunday obligation” of going to Mass. (Right now, because you make celibacy more important than the Eucharist, there aren’t enough priests.)

So that’s the deal:  You and the offending bishops can keep your jobs, and regain the respect of your people – simply by admitting men and women to the priesthood without requiring them to deprive themselves of the intimacy of sexual love.

As easy as that!  How about it?