On Race

I started writing this on Tuesday, June 2, in the aftermath of the brutal, astonishing death of Mr. George Floyd. Yesterday was a very emotional day, watching news, visiting some areas of Milwaukee, talking to friends about the situation we are all experiencing. In the middle of the day I received a text from Fr. Bryan Massingale, the Catholic priest who directed my thesis at the seminary, with a link to the article he had written for the National Catholic Reporter. My thesis was on Malcolm X, and this was 2003. I do not think many Catholic seminarians have written a thesis on Malcolm X. That race and racism is an issue in our society was evident to me when I first came to the United States, my country of adoption. One of the things I heard yesterday was New York Times op-ed columnist Charles Blow saying that Dr. Martin Luther King was able to be Martin Luther King because there was a Malcolm X.

I hope you do not feel like I am just trying to show my credentials on race. I am only saying that it is a topic that has always interested me. I am who I am, and I believe my biography places me in an interesting position to reflect about this: I definitely look white. But I am a Hispanic. But I am not from Latin America. But I do have a huge accent. I have experienced countless incidents of racial micro-aggressions over the years (I did not even know there were called this way): Americanizing my last name; calling me Ricky Ricardo or Ricky Martin, both destroying my name and my last name at once—which is my family identity, by the way; telling me, “Don’t worry, you speak better English than my Spanish…” only to find out when I innocently ask that the person does not know ANY Spanish! But let us be honest, I have never felt that my life was at risk the times that I have been stopped by a law enforcement agent. Many do not feel that way.

Let me tell you a bit more about my day, because, well, I am also a priest. In the evening, I realized that I had to prepare for Mass for the next day, so I went to read the readings. Leaving Pentecost behind, what would Ordinary Time have in store for us? Part of the day had been discussing with some what is the Catholic Church supposed to do, what could the parish that I shepherd do. So, with that in mind, not feeling really hopeful that I would find much to work with, I turned to the scriptures selected by who knows who, in some pristine office in the Vatican sometime in the 1960s… I started with the Gospel because that is what I normally read first and what I have preached on in 95% of my homilies over the last 17 years. It is a famous one – the enemies of Jesus try to catch him with a question about taxes. My first thought: Would some Christians be cynical enough to think that this gospel text supports the idea that the Church, any church, should keep herself from discussions on politics or race? Most of our people are watching Mass these days on-line. If I preach about racism, will they be “bothered”? Have I disturbed the only place where they could find “peace” and calm? This gospel could be a temptation for us, a community of the Spirit, to fall into our “country club” ways, when church just becomes a socialite experience. Even more hopeless, I went to the first reading. And it was a missile to the gut.

Read it or read it again: “Beloved: Wait for and hasten the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise we await new heavens and a new earth in which justice dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you await these things, be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. And consider the patience of our Lord as salvation. Therefore, beloved, since you are forewarned, be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled and to fall from your own stability. But grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and savior Jesus Christ.” (First Reading for June 2nd, Tuesday of the 9th Week in Ordinary Time, 2nd Letter of Saint Peter 3:12-15A, 17-18.)

Now, apply this reading to the news of the day. Written 2,000 years ago and chosen some 50 years ago, this reading shows the power of sacred scripture, that breaks through any convention at any given time: Most of us, Christians of good will, want a new heaven and a new earth, but we cannot just will  it to happen. Suffering, disturbance, destruction of old way needs to happen. Years of frustration make that poetic destruction actually take place. And we do not understand the destruction because we do not understand the anger that comes from the constant experience of injustice (the aforementioned Charles Blow wrote this article, in case you want to understand looting, which does not mean agreeing with it.)

The peace of Christ will be, not wishful thinking but a peace borne of God’s justice, “a new earth in which justice dwells.” There is no other way. We can wish that we could wake up in a better world, or we can fall into believing in conspiracy theories (which are often false and a few times just very partial descriptions of reality.) Or we can embrace the suffering and come out of this better disciples of Jesus.

We keep reading: “Be eager to be found without spot or blemish” in our own participation in racial injustice—and since we are at it, on any injustice. In Catholic morals, the best way to be found without blemish is by doing a very good examination of conscience, which helps us to acknowledge and ask for forgiveness for our sins. When we do the examination of conscience, we have to ask ourselves: When did we start to get horrified, when we saw the riots and the looting or when we saw a white knee over a black neck for more than eight minutes? What part of the white woman’s call to the police in Central Park offended you? The examination of conscience is a prayer. However, unlike other prayers, is one that looks first at ourselves, and makes us into part of the solution for the problem we pray for.

Still, do not fall into despair, but be hopeful, as we keep reading: “Consider the patience of our Lord as salvation.” God will be patient with us, especially when we at least attempt to walk the path to truth and justice. If you do your own examination well, do not feel shame. Feel guilt. Shame does not take you anywhere, whereas guilt takes us to a place of forgiveness and reparation.

We keep reading, another hook to the jaw: “Be on your guard not to be led into the error of the unprincipled.” Educate yourself. Read Malcolm X, read James Baldwin. Read Dr. Martin Luther King well, instead of just turning him into a meme or some slogan that really does not capture what he wrote. Do you really think Dr. King was murdered because he preached non-violence? We have done to Dr. King what we have done with Jesus. We have diluted them, so we can consume them as we consume everything else. We just want to make them easier to approach.

And since we are at it, perhaps stop posting sweet stuff and wishful thinking on social media: “The heavens will be dissolved in flames and the elements melted by fire”—nothing sweet in the way the Apostle conveys how God tells us that the world’s transformation needs to happen. Educate yourself, so we can find ourselves without blemish when our day comes. And fall from your own stability: Let faith shake your foundations, like we prayed for during Pentecost.

I am being asked these days: What do we do? I think I have explained where I think we can start, which is by being very honest with ourselves and do a very good examination of conscience. We also need to educate ourselves, there is so much we can read, and watch…but we especially need to listen to other people’s experience. We will need to quiet ourselves, really, when someone with an experience we do not have or with a knowledge we did not acquire tells us something. We always react, we listen thinking about what we are going to answer… We have a right to an opinion, but we also have a right obligation not to answer and simply learn.

We can take what we learn in this area to continue “growing in grace” in other areas, as race is not our only problem. But it is especially pervasive, it is deadly, and our complacency steals our souls. Let us be courageous to discover that we are more racist, classist, and sexist than we thought we were. Let us be courageous to admit that at the basis of many of these behaviors, there is fear. Hiding fear has very dangerous consequences.

We need to admit that we are where we are and we all want to get to that new heaven and new earth, but this is no way to take a shortcut. But where is the Good News? That is the good news, actually. Instead of avoiding it, let us submerge ourselves in the ocean of this problem. I believe we can come out of it as much better disciples of Jesus, as much better human beings indeed.

No Justice No Peace


The Pandemic Brought Me Back

Dear Friends,

It has been a long time since you last received a post on this blog. Three years ago, I stopped writing here because I embarked on a new project, a podcast produced by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee called Two Guys and a Gospel. At that point, I thought that in order to be able to do the podcast, I had to stop doing something else, and I decided to stop the blog.

We are experiencing difficult and uncertain times due to the CoVID-19 pandemic. I do not know about you, but if this situation has any silver lining it is that it’s making me think a lot. But I did not want these thoughts to stay only in my mind. Instead, I wanted to write them down, which is how I work through my thoughts so they may become somewhat more useful to me. I also thought that maybe this could be something that would perhaps benefit others—so, here we are.

Now, some of these thoughts are theological. Some are philosophical. Some are very practical. Some are about human relationships. Some are about the economy. Some are about how I am managing my parish (pastorally and practically). Some are a mix of these things. Today I wanted to tell you about the few silver linings that may come along with this difficult situation.

In a podcast I was listening to last week, I heard the following statement: A crisis brings clarity. A great truth. The essence of things seems to jump to the surface. These days in which we are all experiencing a global crisis, we are also going to see many things much clearer than we used to. This new clarity will help us make better decisions as individuals deciding for ourselves or as members of families, communities and businesses.

A crisis will also push us to a place where we are going to do things that we never found time to do before. You know what they say: We let urgent things take over important things. Now, many of the important things have become the urgent things. Already I could give you a number of examples in my own parish—the reality I know more about, but I am sure you see it happening in your lives, also.

This clarity also helped me to see something theological that I had not understood so clearly before. It sounds so simple, so obvious, but so truthful. It was last Friday, while I was preaching at Mass. We read the first reading from Wisdom, an amazing prophecy about what is going to happen to Jesus, hundreds of years later:
“The wicked said among themselves, thinking not aright: Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;
he sets himself against our doings, reproaches us for transgressions of the law and charges us with violations of our training. He professes to have knowledge of God and styles himself a child of the LORD. To us he is the censure of our thoughts;
merely to see him is a hardship for us… Let us condemn him to a shameful death; for according to his own words, God will take care of him.”

God, indeed took care of him… but not by sparing him the suffering of the Cross. Clarity. God rescued Jesus, but not by avoiding death on the Cross. It does force us to think about how God is rescuing us from what we are experiencing these days. Our ways to look even at this may be different than God’s ways.




Jesus and the Alter Ego Effect

Both Matthew and Luke have their own account of the Beatitudes. In both cases the Beatitudes are the beginning of a longer “sermon” (one on the Mount, the other on the Plain.) The second part of the sermon goes into what sounds like directions. I always thought it was direction about how to be a disciple of Jesus, only to realize there is nothing strictly religious about the advice Jesus gives: it really is about “good living.” Jesus tells us how to live in peace with the universe—it is advice that even people of no faith should follow.

Distilling the gospel, this is what Jesus says:

  1. Love your enemy—and do not take revenge.
  2. Give—without expecting anything in return.
  3. Do to others what you would like them to do to you (treat people with the decency with which you would like to be treated.)
  4. Stop judging/condemning.
  5.  Forgive.

While I believe our salvation is at stake in the area of how we treat others, there is nothing particularly religious in this advice. Even the one which sounds more “churchy,” forgiveness, is really about letting go of negative feelings about those who hurt us. Nothing religious about that. Forgiveness, like the rest of this life-advice, is “good for you.” It may make life better for others around you, but it surely makes life better for you.

Before we go any further, let me say a bit about all of these pieces. When we discuss the “enemy” people often tell me they do not have any. At the very least, I believe that if we take our vocations seriously, it is difficult not to have enemies. If you stand for justice in any issue at all, some will become our enemies. We cannot stand for something and keep all those around us happy and nice. Jesus says, do not let your enemies get to you. Let go of negative feelings that only have a negative effect on you. Like forgiveness: if you do not forgive, it is you who gets the negative effect, not the other person. To hold grudges and not let go is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. And stop judging because really, you often do not know what the other person is going through, and you are spending energies on something about which you have no say. Again, all these pieces of advice are really good for you.

As you may know by now, I like to incorporate into my homilies—my faith life, really—stuff that I find useful from other areas of life. This past week I stumbled upon a book called, “The Alter Ego Effect” by personal coach Todd Herman. The blurb for the book explains the concept pretty well: “A top performance expert reveals the secret behind many top athletes and executives: creating a heroic alter ego to  activate when the chips are down.” According to the author, there is only one person standing in the way of untapping your own potential: You. That person, your alter ego, is already inside us; it is already part of us, and we only need to unlock him/her. We only need to bring that better version of ourselves up to the surface.

Here we are not talking about peak performance for sure, but the idea of an alter ego who is already inside ourselves is extremely attractive to me. What about looking for that alter ego that would live according to the advice Jesus gives us in this gospel? We certainly know that we can choose to be the opposite of what Jesus advises. We all know people who hold grudges forever, who are always complaining, who are always speaking badly about others, who seem to keep track of everything the universe owes them, who require some kind of payment each time they decide to do something good—and it is not about monetary compensation: it could be a thank you note, a public recognition, etc.

But the positive alter ego is also there: a person who forgives, treats others with decency, spends no time in keeping track of everything good he or she does, etc. If I understand the concept well, I believe it is mainly about choosing to be this “alter ego,” making the decision to present ourselves like that person who is a bit more forgiving and kind that we are, and who is already within ourselves. We just need to be intentional about bringing that person out to the surface. Like any other habit, I am pretty sure it gets easier with time.

Rights and Responsibilities and the Option for the Poor

This past Sunday at Sacred Heart we offered the second installment of the series on the Seven Principles of Catholic Social Teaching. The gospel we proclaimed was the second part of the scene of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth. Very early on his ministry, Jesus upsets those gathered in the synagogue. Why? He has preached about widows, lepers and foreigners. He has reminded his people that God and His prophets showed a preference for the marginalized and the foreigners, that in so many ways the Law declared impure. In modern terms, Jesus is calling the people in the synagogue, and the religious people of all times, to social responsibility. What a great gospel text to continue our series on Catholic Social Teaching.

As we reviewed last week, we believe that any human being is sacred, but also social. We believe the only way to achieve a society where anybody can grow and live up to his or her full human potential is if human rights are protected, realizing that we have a responsibility towards the rights of others. In other words, your rights become my responsibility. Rights meeting responsibilities is the only way to achieve the common good.

Numerous social doctrinal documents have provided lists of human rights. I would like to offer the list Saint John XXIII proposed in Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth, 1963): “Human beings have the right to live. They have the right to bodily integrity and to the means necessary for the proper development of life, particularly food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, rest, and, finally, the necessary social services.” The emphasis on the proper development of life is mine.

The fifth principle is the (preferential) Option for the Poor and Vulnerable. We are responsible for each other, for our families, and for society at large, but we are especially responsible for the poor and the most vulnerable in society. The test of the moral goodness of our society is not how we treat the wealthy, or even the average middle-class person, but how the poor fare in it. While we have to look with optimism at the improvement of the poverty data around the world, these figures are still very somber. As depressing as this can be, we can begin to fight poverty by being aware of its dimension. Let me share some figures:

  • More than 3 billion people in the world live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • More than 1.3 billion live in extreme poverty— less than $1.25 a day.
  • One billion children worldwide are living in poverty.
  • 22,000 children die each day due to poverty around the world.

Closer to home:

  • 12.3% of Americans live in poverty—and this percentage does not change much, regardless of whether we have a Republican or a Democrat in the White House.
  • About 15 million children in the United States – 21% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty threshold (which is calculated as income depending on number of people in a household. At this point, it is an income of $25,000 for a family of four, for instance.)
  • 32.5% of Racine residents live under poverty level.

Again, learning about these figures feels like a punch in the stomach. We have to be reminded that we do not believe in “social idealism.” We Christians believe that we can really transform society. Jesus exercises prophecy in the synagogue: he denounces the present, but he also offers a vision for a better future. I believe there is a lot we can do to change many things, and we can start by acknowledging our ability to change the world.

the spirit of the lord 16.9






Call to Family, Community and Participation

We believe the person is not only sacred but also social. Already in Genesis we learn that God did not create us to be alone (Genesis 2:18.) We obviously see this principle at work in the gospels: Jesus often preached about the common good, calling the political leaders to social responsibility, and he himself spent little time before he called his disciples, whom he called “to be with him.” (Mark 3:14)

We believe that the organization of society—in economics, politics, and law and policy—directly affects human dignity and the capacity of individuals to grow in community. Among many other implications, this is the foundation for the church’s right to intervene in the political realm—what we all know and call “lobbying.” We not only believe we have to “influence” consciences, but also influence laws and policies.

Do you remember when we warned you that some of these principles would sound conservative and others would sound progressive? One the one hand, this principle favors the progressive view of community and “common good”—in contrast with conservative “individualism”— but favors the more conservative sensitivity when stating that marriage and the family are the basic unit for the organization of society.

Accordingly, Catholic Social Teaching opposes collectivist approaches such as Communism, but at the same time it also rejects unrestricted free-market policies, which operate under the notion that free-reigned capitalism automatically produces a just society.

A more spiritual wording of this principle would be the belief that the human person can only attain his or her full potential in relationship with others. It also takes us to the saying we have often preached about, “Faith is personal, but not private.” In terms of our own sinfulness, the principle is also an invitation to move from a very individualistic, puritan sense of sin, to considering more our sinfulness in social terms: what effect our actions and beliefs (“in my words and in my thoughts”) have upon others.

We believe that individuals are called to participate in society, as a right and responsibility. We are called to seek together the common good and the well-being of all, but especially the poor and vulnerable. This “social responsibility” takes us to the next two principles: (3) Rights and Responsibilities and, (4) Option for the Poor and Vulnerable.

For This I Came

In the protestant tradition, the person reading in church gives the citation of the scripture. It would have been useful in church this weekend, as we read a gospel made up of two patches of the same quilt, sewn together: Luke 1:1-4 and 4:14-21. The first part is the introduction of Luke’s gospel, the one we are going to be reading from in this cycle C year. Then we skipped the annunciation and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as the Baptism of the Lord—we just celebrated that feast two weeks ago—so the gospel today has jumped to the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus.

In the synagogue and on the Sabbath, Jesus is given the scroll of Isaiah. But within Isaiah, Jesus can choose what to read and preach about. What he chooses to read from Isaiah is what today we would call his mission statement. It is really Jesus’ inaugural speech. Jesus tells the synagogue, for this I came.

Anointed by God at Baptism, Jesus states that he came to “bring glad tidings to the poor… to proclaim liberty to captives… recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year (a time, an era) acceptable to the Lord.” Now, how many times and in how many different ways can we preach in church that we cannot live our faith without embracing its social implications; that following Jesus is not just a matter of belief, but also of the actions that believing in Him inspires us to undertake?

At Sacred Heart we decided to offer a three-weekend series on the ultimate fruit of these words that mark the inauguration of Jesus’ ministry. From there and through the centuries, the Church has developed a solid body of thought we call the Catholic Social Teaching of the Catholic Church (CST.) While the roots of this teaching are certainly found in the gospel and have been developed throughout the centuries, modern Catholic Social Teaching started in 1891, when Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical Rerum novarum. Some call the Catholic Social Teaching of the Catholic Church our best kept secret.

More recently, the Church has come up with a summary of CST in the form of seven principles. The goal of these principles is to help individuals to understand our positioning on social issues, as we are called to build a more just society and to live lives of individual holiness. These principles remind us that holiness is more than being just a “nice person.” They also remind us that charity is a good thing, but that we really are called to be individuals and communities that promote justice.

Interestingly, especially in the highly charged political times we live in, some of these principles sound very Republican, some sound very Democrat. We realize once again that no partisan political platform ever embraces the whole of our social thought. These principles are not conservative or progressive, they are Catholic.

What follows is the list of these principles:

  1. Life and Dignity of the Human Person
  2. Call to Family, Community and Participation
  3. Rights and Responsibilities
  4. Option for the Poor and Vulnerable
  5. Dignity of Work and Rights of Workers
  6. Solidarity
  7. Care for God’s Creation

[We will develop these principles in the next three weeks, following the homilies preached at Sacred Heart.]

the spirit of the lord 16.9 A note about the image used for the series: the title of the painting is Dens, Bird Nests and the Morning Miracle Que Detail #2, by Daniel Bonnell. We believe the painting captures the individual call to holiness and our social nature. Two of Bonnell’s paintings hang in our church.  

Cana: A Revealing Miracle

Ordinary Time begins after the Baptism of the Lord. I love detecting anomalies and then finding the explanation behind them. I realized that for this Sunday, the 2nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, all three gospel readings for all three cycles (A, B, C—apparently we could not come up with better names to identify the cycles) have readings that are taken from John’s gospel, instead of the synoptic gospels we read through the year (Mark, Matthew and Luke, respectively.) You read the gospels in all three years and it is easy to realize that all three are about Jesus’ identity. In year A, we read John’s version of the Baptism (thus reading about the baptism of Jesus two Sundays in a row;) in year B, we find the gospel about two of John the Baptist’s disciples visiting Jesus because they want to know who he is—and Jesus tells them, “Come and see.” This Sunday we read the first of Jesus’ miracles in John’s gospels (they are called “signs”) at a wedding in Cana. If you have followed my argument, this gospel is not about marriage, but, like the other two years in the cycle, about Jesus’ identity as well.

The scene in Cana tells us a lot about Jesus. Despite the tendency to make him into an ascetic character, he was at a wedding with his disciples—so, maybe Jesus was a bit more joyful than we have been told at times; the gospel shows also what we already knew, Jesus was someone who cared for others; the miracle produces wine in extraordinary quantity and quality. We may not be able to imitate Jesus’ power to turn water into wine, but we can learn to be joyful and care for others, and commit to quality and abundance in our care (and really, in everything we do.)

Still, what I believe tells us the most about Jesus is where the miracle comes from. You notice it often in the gospels, miracles must start with something. The miracles of the multiplication of fish and loaves began with five loaves and two fishes that someone had to present. The miracle at Cana begins with the water of the jars, which, as we are told, were there for the “Jewish ceremonial washing.” What Jesus does is to turn the water of cleansing—the point of the ritual—into the wine of celebration. Jesus was someone who would place less emphasis on the cleansing and more accent on the celebration. As John the Baptist tells us, Jesus will take us beyond the personal cleansing (the baptism of Jesus is a baptism of Holy Spirit and fire.)

But I think it tells us more. Let me put it this way: Perhaps Jesus would have liked the ceremonial washing more if it was less ceremonial and more real. Rituals are supposed to represent something real, or they become a compilation of empty gestures. What came to mind for me was the beginning of Mass, when we start with the Penitential Act. There are several ways to do it, here at Sacred Heart we often say the Confiteor (literally, the “I confess”) and we sing the Kyrie (Lord, Have Mercy.) It is a ritual, but does it respond to the a reality of us asking for forgiveness from God and others? Do we really invoke God’s mercy because we understand that we are sinful? We could refer to many other ceremonies/rituals that we celebrate and wonder if they are just rituals or if we experience them as something deeper: the Sacraments, the way we pray, when someone asks us to be a sponsor for someone, the way we participate at Mass, etc.

At Cana, Jesus’ disciples get a better glimpse of who Jesus really is, and begin to believe in him. And so we do, too.





The Baptism of the Lord

Almost two years later I am posting again on this great feast of the Baptism of the Lord—in my view, the third most important of the year, after Christmas (the Incarnation) and Easter (the Resurrection.) Christmas is a season to reflect about the humanity of Jesus. Fully human, but without sin, why does he have to be baptized by John, who had been preaching a baptism of repentance from Sin? Jesus does not need any cleansing, but created free, he has to explicitly and publicly accept his identity and mission. The same way Mary had to say yes to the message of the angel, Jesus grows in the understanding of who he is and what he is supposed to do. In the baptism, he takes a step forward and  embraces his call, his vocation as the Son of God.

This feast is an invitation to us to embrace our baptismal identity and re-activate our own baptism. Coming out of the water, God’s voice proclaims, “This is my beloved, in him I am well pleased.” Only that we would begin there, believing that despite our sins and shortcomings God loves us and we are His children.

In the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the liturgy—prayers and readings—unpacks for us the meaning of our baptismal identity. In the first reading, Isaiah invites us to be, like Jesus, people of justice and forgiveness, “a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench… a light for the nations, to open the eyes of the blind, to bring out prisoners from confinement.” In the reading from Acts, Peter invites us to be, like Jesus, people who go “about doing good and healing all those oppressed by the devil.” The Preface invites us, like Jesus, to be Servants “anointed with the oil of gladness and sent to bring the good news to the poor”—and to be bearers of good news we have to be makers of good news first.

There is even a Eucharistic Prayer, seldom used, which is especially fitting for this Feast.  In the Eucharistic Prayer IV we recite also a description of Jesus that we want to imitate as a way to embrace our baptismal identity: “He shared our human nature in all things but sin. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to prisoners, freedom, and to the sorrowful of heart, joy.”

Like Jesus, we, too, need to mark our own assent to this mission of justice, gladness and liberation. We need to re-enter the waters of baptism and please God by continuing the mission of His Son.

This powerful depiction of the Baptism of Jesus by Daniel Bonnell. Two of his paintings decorate Sacred Heart Church in Racine, WI. Used with permission.