Thy Kingdom Come: Reflections on Syria and El Salvador

Twenty-five years ago today, in the war-torn country of El Salvador, U.S.-trained gunmen marched onto a college campus, dragged priests from their beds and shot them in the quad. Earlier this year, a masked man came to the door of the Jesuit residence in the Syrian city of Homs, asking to see the priest. When Fr. Frans van der Lugt emerged and sat down with his guest, the visitor shot him in the face.

The Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered on November 17, 1989.
The Jesuits, their housekeeper, and her daughter were murdered on November 17, 1989.

On Thursday, the Georgetown community came together to commemorate the first of these attacks. The Mass, and particularly the Gospel reading, reminded me of the victim of the second.

In Luke 17:20-25, Jesus tells his followers and critics that the “kingdom of God” would not initially be established in the way they’d expected or hoped.  The third-century Church Father, Origen of Alexandria, quotes Jesus and explains the passage in his important work, On Prayer in The Liturgy of the Hours.

The kingdom of God, in the words of our Lord and Savior, does not come for all to see; nor shall they say: Behold, here it is, or behold, there it is; but the kingdom of God is within us, for the word of God is very near, in our mouth and in our heart. Thus it is clear that he who prays for the coming of God’s kingdom prays rightly to have it within himself, that there it may grow and bear fruit and become perfect. For God reigns in each of his holy ones…”

Contrary to our expectations and to those of Jesus’ companions, God’s kingdom will not simply come in some future time, where an earthly, political authority that will enforce peace and justice. God’s kingdom is here now. It is constantly created and renewed through the self-sacrificing love of God’s people. The kingdom is found among those who share in the struggle of another; who speak truth to power; who work for justice and understanding; and who practice radical forgiveness and non-violence.

Ignacio Ellacuria speaking in San Salvador.
Ignacio Ellacuria speaking in San Salvador.

The kingdom, then, was no doubt present in the war-weary San Salvador and in the besieged Old City of Homs. There, Ignacio, Segundo, Juan, Ignacio, Joaquin, Armando and Frans lived out the self-giving love, agape, that Jesus’ life and death ask of us. Frans, originally from the Netherlands, lived alongside the Syrian population—Christian and Muslim—for fifty years. Ignacio Ellacuria, a Spaniard strongly defended the poor, angering both sides of the conflict when he said, “I am not a Communist, I am a Christian.” In both Syria and El Salvador, the Jesuits refused to join the fight, a stance that proved so threatening they had to be silenced.

Fr. Frans during an interview about the siege and starvation of Homs.
Fr. Frans during an interview about the siege and starvation of Homs. He was known for his slogan “let’s move forward.”

Like these men, who died in their pursuit of building God’s kingdom, we too will not see the kingdom fully formed. But we still work, in our own communities, to make the kingdom present in small ways. The words of a prayer dedicated to Oscar Romero, another priest who was killed during El Salvador’s war, not only reflects the outlook undoubtedly shared by these Jesuits, but also compels us to “move forward.”

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of
saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders;
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets
of a future not our own.

Fr. Frans was known for riding his bike around Homs, even after the war began.
Fr. Frans was known for riding his bike around Homs, even after the war began.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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If you are unfamiliar with the lives and deaths of these brave men and their companions, check out the following links.

 

Lessons from Good Pope John, Part 1: Humor and Humility

Today, we celebrate the life of Blessed Pope John XXIII, who opened the Second Vatican Council—arguably the most important religious event of the twentieth century—on October 11, 1962.

Much has been written about the council on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, and I hope to contribute to that body of work in the coming weeks and months.  But today, on his feast day, I’d like to reflect briefly on the life of John XXIII—the Good Pope, as he was called.

A few weeks ago, when I was preparing a presentation on John to deliver for a class on Vatican II, I was struck by his humor and humility, compassion and courage, and detachment and trust.  I’d like to share a few quotes and anecdotes about John’s attributes, in the hopes that we can carry on the mission of the Second Vatican Council by following his example.

Today’s post speaks to his humor and humility.  I’ll post about compassion and detachment on Friday and Saturday.

Humor and humility

John, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, came from a humble farming family in Northern Italy, and he used humor to remind himself of that.

When a little boy asked him once if he too could one day be pope, John replied: “Anybody can be pope. The proof is that I have become one.”

“It often happens that I wake up at night and begin to think about a serious problem and decide I must tell the Pope about it.  Then I wake up completely and remember that I am the Pope!” John was so concerned about helping others that he often forgot about his own prominent position.

Some other great John jokes:

Reporter: “How many people work at the Vatican?”
John XXIII: “About half.”

Head nun at the Hospital of the Holy Spirit in Rome: “Welcome, Holy Father, I’m the superior of the Holy Spirit.”
John XXIII: “You outrank me. I’m only the Vicar of Christ!”

Parts 2 and 3 will be posted in the coming days.

At a loss

When I arrived back to my apartment late on Tuesday night, the eleventh anniversary of September 11, 2001, I opened my laptop to find a burning, bright orange image of a man stoking fire and a New York Times headline reading, “Anger Over a Film Fuels Anti-American Attacks in Libya and Egypt.”

As I read on about the violent demonstrations in Cairo and in Benghazi, and as I watched the offensive, bigoted video that apparently sparked these riots, my stomach began to drop.

I was at a loss for words, didn’t know what to say or even think.

How could this be happening? And why the hell was it happening on September 11th?  And what can I do that will ever, in some way, pull us out of this cycle of bigotry and violence?

Over the past week, as I’ve thought about how to comment on these unraveling events and answer these questions, no clear explanation or response has been easy to find.  Instead, I keep coming back to the place I was just before I opened my laptop to discover this terrible news—in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

“I wish you didn’t…” said the Jesuit priest who was giving the homily at the nightly 10pm Mass.  About thirty of us, mostly students, were seated in a semi-circle in the small, arched space, where faint gold light rests on the curved walls.  The stained glass windows, depicting the martyrdoms of North American Jesuits like Jean de Brebeuf, let in only darkness from outside.

“I wish you didn’t live in this time, this era, where things are so hard and unclear. I wish you were graduating at a time like the one when I did—when walls were falling down and a man was released from jail to lead his country.” Our priest graduated from Georgetown in the nineties, optimistic that the Cold War had ended and that Nelson Mandela was free.  Things seemed to be looking up—and then 9/11 happened.

“But you are living in this new, troubled world.  And our world needs you.”  He was crying, and I began to cry, too.  On the anniversary of 9/11, I’m always reminded how much my life, my passions, and my career have been shaped by that event and what’s happened after.

Our priest then spoke of the group of us gathered there for Mass, about the difference we must make.

And it was then that I became completely overwhelmed by the good that will be done (and is already being done) by the thirty-some people sitting with me.  To my right and left sat two of my closest friends, who have dedicated their lives to address two of our generation’s most pressing issues: migration and climate change.  I thought of others in the room, and my friends who weren’t there, who are going into education and business, medicine and healthcare, just to name a few.  My eyes welled over not just with amazement at my friends’ love and self-sacrifice, but also with a heavy sadness at the challenges we face and the suffering experienced by those with whom we walk in solidarity.

The priest concluded his homily, explaining why we come to Mass.  He said that it’s not inside the academic buildings on campus where we can be transformed to make the difference our world needs.

“It’s right here, with Jesus,” he said.

The crucifix in Copley Crypt Chapel at Georgetown.

I’ve come to learn that becoming closer to God doesn’t mean becoming happier or even more at peace.  It means coming face-to-face with, and even entering, suffering.  Jesus was at his best on the cross, and in order for me to be a better, more loving human, I have to meet him there, both in nightly Mass and in the work I do during the other 23 hours of my day.

The loving Catholic community and the time of prayer that helps orient me toward a more Cross-centered life are the reasons I continue going to nightly Mass at Georgetown.  But I wouldn’t even be there in the first place were it not for the group of believers on the other side of the chapel wall—the Georgetown Muslim community.  While the Catholics are participating in the nightly 10pm Mass, the Muslim students are completing their nightly 10pm isha prayer in the musallah next door. Over the past three years, I’ve witnessed my Muslim friends’ devotion to prayer, and it’s made me want to have the same commitment to my own prayer life. That’s why I decided to become more active in my own Catholic community, and to make nightly Mass a regular part of my day during my senior year.

As I sort through and begin writing about these confusing, troubling “eleventh anniversary” events, which mark a new low in the downward spiral of Muslim-Christian tensions, I remember the good that will be done by those on both sides of the chapel wall, and the support we will provide one another as we take up our crosses.

When it seems that violence and bigotry will win out, the passionate commitment of these Catholic and Muslim communities remind me of the quiet, Arabic words that echo from the musallah into the chapel every evening: God is greater.

9/11/11: A new American anniversary

In my most recent posts, I’ve discussed the terrorist attacks in Norway, offering quite a depressing analysis of their causes and implications, many of which are related to Islamophobia in America.  Fear of Muslims existed in the American psyche before September 11, 2001, but the terrorist attacks ten years ago only amplified and cemented those feelings for many Americans.

Despite the horrible backlash we’ve seen against Muslims in the wake of 9/11, I am quite optimistic about the future of America and its relationship with its Muslim community.  The United States, unlike Europe, has an identity rooted in diversity and faith, and re-embracing these values will allow us to fight back against the Islamophobic forces in our society.

Diversity

When immigrants began coming to America 400 years ago, they sought a place that would embrace their differentness.  When they established our country decades later, America’s founders intended to make our nation a place for diversity and the mixing of cultures.  Unlike those in Europe, our identity as Americans is defined by the fact that there is no one language, ethnic background, or religious affiliation that we all share.  Ironically, our unity stems from our differences.

Some Americans want new immigrants (like Latinos and Muslims) to ‘assimilate’ into American life and culture.  But is it possible to assimilate into diversity? Participation in our society doesn’t mean conforming to arbitrary standards that the often too powerful majority would like to set.  Rather, being an American means adding one’s unique history and perspective to the already-colorful American landscape.

If we look back on our history, most minority ethnic or religious groups have experienced discrimination and marginalization, especially during periods of economic uncertainty and war.  Catholics, Japanese, blacks, and Jews were perceived to be un-American and their racial, religious, or national heritage was seen as incompatible with being a loyal American.  Today, labeling members of these groups as un-American seems laughable—these people are irreplaceable contributors to American life.

Today, we see the marginalization of Muslims in the movement to ban sharia, attempts to block the construction of Islamic centers, and hate protests and crimes directed toward Muslims and their institutions.  But looking back at our history, we see that it is possible for us to outgrow our fear of the ‘other’ as we begin to see the important contributions that minority groups make to our society.

My hope in American progress and the eventual acceptance of the ‘other’ lies in stonework that was recently erected on the Washington Mall: the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial.  Fifty years ago, the persecution and marginalization of African-Americans was rampant and deemed appropriate by many Americans, and today, an African-American prophet is honored among the founders of our country and a black man leads our nation as president.

Faith

The United States is also fortunate to be a country rooted in religion.  In a recent Pew report, over 80% of Americans identified themselves with a particular religious tradition.  This is in contrast to the increasingly secularized Europe, where most citizens say that religion does not play an important role in their lives.  The levels of religiosity in America and Europe directly correlate to the regions’ level of acceptance of Muslims.  Religious people in America have something in common with Muslims—a belief in God and a devotion to their faith life—as opposed to Europeans who lack this point of commonality.  Thus, the marginalization and discrimination of Muslims has been far less in America than in Europe.

The founding fathers wanted America to be a place of vibrant and diverse religiosity, and explicitly included Islam in their vision for the country.  Thomas Jefferson praised the Virginia commonwealth for including religious protections for all people in its constitution, saying: “[the lawmakers] meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan [Muslim].”  Proud to own a copy of the Qur’an, Jefferson was the first president to hold a Ramadan iftar at the White House.  John Locke, George Washington, and others whose ideas shaped our nation were accepting of and welcoming to Muslims in England and America.

Building unity

Recognizing and embracing America’s unique claims on diversity and faith will help us respond to the Islamophobia plaguing our country.  Thanks to these two values, America has a chance to reverse anti-Muslim sentiment before it escalates to the level it has in Europe (where we see openly Islamophobic political parties, infringements on Muslims’ religious freedom, and violent attacks, culminating the terrorism committed by Anders Brevik in July.)

Gospel choir at the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C.

Yesterday, diversity and faith were brought together at the 9/11 Unity Walk in Washington.  Teenagers in yarmulkes, mothers in hijabs, small children, and little old ladies strode down Embassy Row, visiting houses of worship, asking questions, andsharing their experiences of faith in America.  We heard from religious leaders and interfaith activists like Tony Blair, Karen Armstrong, and Arun Gandhi, Mohandis Gandhi’s grandson.  A D.C. gospel choir sang on the steps of the mosque, nuns gave out cookies at the Vatican embassy, and the Islamic call to prayer was recited at the synagogue.

I was most struck by my experience at the Islamic center as I stood in a long line of girls and older women, waiting to enter the prayer room.  As a sign of respect, women must cover their arms, legs, and hair in the mosque (traditionally men dress conservatively as well,) and girls like me, who were clad in shorts and t-shirts for the hot weather, had to wait to be offered a long jellabiyya and colorful scarf before going in.

Many American women misunderstand Islamic covering and feel that it is demeaning, and knowing this I was overwhelmed almost to tears by the enthusiasm of these non-Muslim women, who chose to cover themselves to enter the mosque.  These women chose to challenge the deep assumptions Westerners have about Islam and women, and decided to be open-minded and curious, withholding judgment until they’d had the experience.  While it was clear that all the women were not fully comfortable with covering (myself included—and I cover quite often,) that didn’t stop them from participating or asking questions respectfully.

The line of women waiting for scarves.

This attitude of openness and respect imbued the walk, and I wish that more Americans could have seen this wonderful example of how we must engage with those who are different from us.

9/11/11: A new date to remember

September 11, 2001 marked the beginning of a decade of divisions—political, religious, and social.  It will remain on our calendars and in our hearts as a day of mourning for generations.

Now, September 11, 2011 offers us an opportunity to begin a new decade, one in which we choose to foster unity through an engagement with diversity and faith.  Let’s make sure we remember this new date, too, and hopefully in ten years, we’ll look back on September 11 not only with sadness, but also with joy.

Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil. Arun Gandhi, center.

A sacrificial feast

Written  November 2010.

Today, Muslims are celebrating Eid al-Adha, the holiest holiday in the Islamic calendar. It is similar to Christians’ Easter celebrations, in that it is the most important holiday of the year, yet the worldwide festivities and preparations are less extensive than those during the month of Ramadan (which is similar to Christmastime in terms of the scope of celebration.) However, in Mecca, where over two million Muslims have traveled on pilgrimage, or hajj, the celebrations and rituals could not be grander, as I expect is also true in Jerusalem during Easter.

Muslims circle the Holy Kaba in Mecca
Orthodox Christians in Jerusalem during Easter

Eid al-Adha celebrates the sacrifice Abraham (Ibrahim) was willing to make when God asked him to slaughter his son (Ismaeel/Ishmael).  The story is quite similar to the Christian one, but with notable changes that speak to the differences between the two faiths.  In the Bible, the story focuses solely on Abraham, and his willingness to give up his son in order to serve God.  We never hear from Isaac, who, at least in my mind, is likely scared and confused.  In the Islamic story, the focus too is on Ibrahim, but we also hear from Ismaeel, who is about to be killed.  Understanding what his father is about to do, Ishmael welcomes the action, telling his father to kill him if that is God’s will.  Luckily, in the end, both boys survive thanks to a ram caught in the bushes sent by God, who is pleased by his followers’ faithfulness.

Depiction of Christian story

When I first heard the Islamic version of the story, I was struck by the emphasis on Ismaeel and his willingness to submit to the will of God.  His faithful trust in God’s plan is emblematic of the attitude that I’ve witnessed in so many of my Muslim friends and teachers.  So often I hear the phrase, “In ‘sha Allah” muttered by my friends in the place where Christians might say, “hopefully.”  The Arabic phrase translates to “God willing,” and is used when discussing anything that may happen in the future.  My friends work hard to detach themselves from their own wishes and instead try to accept whatever God places in their way.  This core quality is even expressed in the name “Islam,” which means “submission to God,” and “Muslim,” literally means “the one who submits.”

A few weeks ago, I participated in the Muslim Students Association annual Fast-a-thon, an event in which Georgetown students fasted in solidarity with their Muslim friends and classmates in order to raise money and awareness for a cause.  We fasted from sunrise to sunset, without food or water, as if it were the month of Ramadan (which took place earlier in the year.)  At the iftaar meal at the end of the day, I was fortunate enough to give a reflection on fasting and sacrifice in Islam.  The following is what shared:

Hi, my name is Jordan Denari.  I’m a member of the Muslim Students Association; I live in the Muslim Interest Living Community on campus; and I’m a Catholic.  A lot of people have asked me if I’m converting to Islam, which is not surprising given my involvement.  But no, I’m not converting.

However, learning about Islam here on campus has been crucial to my religious growth and has in many ways brought me back to my Catholicism.  Through my attendance at and participation in MSA events, I’ve seen the beauty in Islam, which helped me to find the beauty in my own faith, which I had been unable to see for a long time.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon is really where all of that learning began.  Two of the biggest things I noticed about fasting in Islam—as I hope you’ve also noticed—are the emphases on sacrifice and community.  Fasting from food, drink, and negative thoughts all day for a month is clearly a sacrifice, especially when compared to the less intense forms of fasting I’m familiar with in Catholicism.  To my surprise, I quickly realized that Muslims were excited to fast, not only because their sacrifice was giving glory to God, but also because of the sense of community at the iftaar dinners, where Muslims gather together every night to celebrate their daily sacrifices.

I was struck by the power of these themes, and wondered why I wasn’t seeing them in my own faith.  That encouraged me to take a closer look at Catholicism and find those themes—sacrifice and community—that are so prevalent in Islam.  Through a lot of exploration last year, I found those things, but it was only while reflecting for this talk that I was able to see how similarly these themes intersect in Catholicism as they do in Islam.

That intersection is found in the Eucharist, the communion meal that occurs during Mass, in which we commemorate Jesus’ sacrifice.  As Catholics, we too are called to sacrifice as Jesus did by serving the marginalized in our communities in order to bring God’s goodness into the world.  Every week, when we gather as a community for the Eucharist, we are celebrating the sacrifices we live out every day in our own way.  We may not be sacrificing food or water, but we are sacrificing our own time, our own goals, to follow the will of God.  In that way, the Eucharist is very much like the iftaar meal we are sharing in tonight.  At both meals we join in community to celebrate the sacrifices we make for God.

Finding this intersection point in the Eucharist makes the communion ritual that much more meaningful for me.

Last year’s Fast-a-thon was for me the unconscious beginning of a process of religious learning here at Georgetown.  I hope all of you make this meal a conscious start to your own growth.  I encourage you, whether you adhere to a specific faith or not, whether you believe in God or not, to take advantage of the opportunities you have here to learn from people of other faiths.  It not only fosters inter-religious and cultural understanding, but it also has the potential to increase your understanding of yourself and God.

I want to thank the Muslim community on campus for its support and for bringing us here tonight.  And especially, for helping me become a better Catholic.”

While Muslims today are slaughtering animals in remembrance of Abraham and Ishmael’s sacrifice, I am reminded of the Church’s own ritual slaughtering—the Eucharist—in which Jesus is offered up as a sacrificial animal, so that we, like Isaac and Ishmael, can be spared.  Unlike my Muslim brothers and sisters, I don’t have to wait another year to engage in my faith’s sacrificial ritual.  Fortunately, I just have to wait until Sunday.

Want to read and hear the Qur’anic passage from which the Ibrahim and Ishmael story comes? Qur’an, Chapter 37 (As-Saffaat), Verse 103

Want to learn more about Eid al-Adha and see pictures from the Hajj in Mecca?

 

 

Click here to see photos from the Washington Post.

 

 

Summary of the holy day

Al-Jazeera Special Report: Hajj 2010

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Also, today is the 21st anniversary of the murder of 6 Jesuits at the University of Central America in San Salvador.  This weekend at the Teach-In we celebrated their lives and their sacrifice.