Living Radical Forgiveness Today / Open Letter to Father Matthew Laffey
Okay, so here’s the thing. I made three New Year resolutions this year: reading John Lee’s “Introduction to Smooth Manifolds” and Allen Hatcher’s “Algebraic Topology”; writing on this blog more; and becoming more politically and socially involved in my Penn State and State College community. I’ve made some progress on the first one, I had had begun working on an entry that never got finished for the second, and I’ve been badly slacking on the third. So in a very small way, this post is me trying to chip away at becoming a little more politically involved, and it will not be the end. I tried to keep politics off this blog, even though the last post was slightly political (and that was written in… July? Holy crap…), but I’m going to make an important exception with this essay. And it probably won’t be the last time this happens.
To those of you who were hoping for a more mathematical entry, sorry. This one is purely on spirituality. Stay tuned for next time; it’ll be more mathy, I promise. (Ideas for future posts include natural vs. invented math; what mathematicians did with their degrees vs. what they do now; why calculus is unusually difficult; knot theory, Brunnian links and my math tattoo… I’m open to other ideas as well.)
As you know, I’m Catholic. I’m a strong believer, although my literal beliefs often differ from mainstream Catholicism. I’m practicing, but I’m not always present at Mass. Some may call me a “diet Catholic”. I own that. In particular, I didn’t go to Mass when I was home over Winter Break, either because I was with my non-practicing family and friends on the high holidays, or I was bedridden after recovering from oral surgery. So today I went to Mass for the first time in a while, hoping for a spiritually peaceful, fulfilling service.
Spoiler: that was not what happened.
During the priest’s homily (aka the sermon, the part he writes himself based around the day’s scriptural readings), he preached about the importance of unity. He talked about the dangers that division can bring, both between individuals and within individuals. He stressed the importance of communication. He emphasized that we must arm ourselves with radical forgiveness, which can be difficult for many people, including me. And he reminded us that we must strive to be internally consistent in our own hearts; that we naturally despise hypocrisy in others, and so must work hard to eliminate hypocrisy in ourselves.
Okay, so far so good.
For the non-Catholics who are reading this, there’s a portion of the Catholic Mass called the “Prayer of the Faithful”. After the priest delivers the homily, a member of the congregation reads off different people we’re praying for that day. There are some common themes, but they vary from week to week. Some recurring prayers are “For those who are sick, especially those in our community, we pray” and “For those who have died, especially those in our community, we pray”. Sometimes it’s based around current events: “For those who are suffering after Hurricane Sandy, we pray”, or “For our Penn State community, and their safety as they travel home for Winter Break, we pray”. Between each prayer request, the congregation responds, “Lord, hear our prayer”.
Well, today one of the prayers was, “For our new president, Donald J. Trump, that he may lead our nation with wisdom, justice and mercy, we pray”.
As soon as the congregational minister said this, a young woman behind me whispered agitatedly, “Oh Jesus Christ. Of course”.
A part of me was taken aback by her using Christ’s name as a curse during Mass, but I certainly shared her frustration. Then again, it’s pretty normal for parishes to pray for our new leaders, regardless of political affiliation. I’m sure they would have said the same prayer for Hillary Clinton had she won. I know Trump is anything but normal and we can’t normalize him, but at least for a moment I made an active effort to swallow my discomfort. I tried to keep what the priest said about unity in mind; even if I loathe Trump with every fiber of my being, we will need unity in order to preserve our democracy. For better or worse, unity will require some difficult conversations in addition to large protests.
Then the congregational minister stepped away from the microphone, and the priest returned and added, “We also pray for the safety of those traveling to Washington for the March—”
“Oh perfect”, I thought in the middle of his sentence, “I’m glad to hear that Father is also extending a prayer for those voicing their opposition to Trump, though it’s strange the prayer is for those traveling to Washington rather than from Wash—”
“—for Life, which is next Friday”, he continued.
My heart plummeted. “Oh… that was about the March for Life… okay”, I thought uncertainly. “Well… are we going to hear any prayers for the safety of our friends and family, my friends and family, who are returning from marching across the country right now?”
No, we did not.
This brings me to this moment, when I began writing this piece an hour after the service ended.
Now, I’ve never had a conversation with Father Matthew before, and I’m sure he’s done great work for the Penn State community, and people who know him describe him as a wonderfully nice man. But after his service, I can’t stay tacit. I can’t bring myself to accept such deafening silence over the largest protest in American history.
So I’d like to write an open letter to Father Matthew Laffey. There are some people I know who may feel upset by my disagreement with one of Penn State’s Catholic leaders. If I say something you find offensive, I’m happy to discuss, but I will not apologize for my frustration.
Dear Father Laffey,
As I was not present for yesterday’s 4PM Mass (1/21/17), I do not know whether a prayer was offered for the safety of the four and a half million people who marched in Washington, New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and other cities across the country and around the world in opposition to the normalization of our new president, Donald Trump. If such a prayer was offered, from the bottom of my heart, thank you sincerely for taking the time out of the service to encourage the Penn State community to pray for their safety. I know many people deeply appreciated this prayer, especially those like with friends and family participating in the protests. Please disregard the remainder of this letter. If not, or if someone reading this letter thinks such a prayer would be unimportant or unnecessary, please take the time to read on.
I belong to a very small and often uncomfortable intersection of two groups of people: Christians, and social progressives. When in the company of either of these groups, it can be difficult to admit that I also belong to the other. In particular, when another progressive friend of mine learns that I’m Catholic, the most common response is genuine perplexity (better than outright incredulity). After I tell them I joined the Catholic church of my own volition at age 9 or 10, their most frequent question is “Well why did you decide to stick with it after learning about the political views of the Church? Why not join a different religion?”
This is a difficult question to answer, and I’ve struggled to answer the question on my own several times in my adult life, but there are a few reasons. For one thing, I deeply value the Catholic sacrament of Confession. For another, I honor the amount of work and studying I did in order to become confirmed; I wouldn’t want to be a part of a religion that doesn’t require some form of careful consideration of its beliefs.
But the one thing, especially following the Holy Year of Mercy, that I can always take comfort in is Christ’s message of radical forgiveness. Different people may interpret radical forgiveness differently, but here’s what the phrase means to me: that even if I disagree with someone on a deep and fundamental issue, I will offer to dialogue with them. I will make an active effort to listen to understand, and not listen to respond (as a white cis-gendered straight man, I have a responsibility to thicken my skin when someone says something offensive towards my non-white, female, and/or queer friends and maintain civil discourse instead of verbal violence). And when their minds cannot be changed, I will continue to pray for their safety, their happiness, and their salvation in our Lord, regardless of their religion (if any).
To that end, I am grateful that you discussed the importance of unity in our Church, and in our individual hearts in your homily during today’s Mass. And despite my refusal to normalize Donald Trump as our new President, I understand why we prayed for him during the Prayer of the Faithful. However, I am profoundly disappointed and more than a little upset that no prayer was offered for the safety of those expressing the importance of preserving our democracy and demanding that the voices of marginalized people be meaningfully heard.
This would not have been an empty or trivial prayer. Within hours of arriving to Washington, I had friends participate in protests that ended in them being attacked by police officers with Tasers and pepper spray. I had family traveling hundreds of miles to march with their sisters and brothers, giving up time from their work. A limousine was set on fire on Friday night during a riot in the Capitol, and innocent people were put in danger as a result. One close friend traveled down to Washington on Friday night, and his girlfriend was legitimately concerned for his safety. I was concerned for the safety of my family and loved ones who were traveling to Washington and elsewhere. And even though everyone I know who was down there has returned home safely by now, many people were arrested during some of the protests of this past weekend.
And this morning, our new President, for whom we prayed this morning, publicly mocked those who protested.
I understand, Father Matthew, that many of the women, men, and gender-nonidentifying individuals who marched across the country were marching for their right to choose whether to terminate their pregnancies. Many Catholics, including friends of mine at Penn State, believe that valuing this right is incompatible with Catholicism. My own position on abortion rights has been shaped and reshaped over several years, reading and listening to several different opinions from religious scholars, philosophers, medical doctors, scientists, and most importantly, mothers. My position is complex and nuanced and cannot be perfectly stated in a couple sentences, but I believe the decision to carry a pregnancy through to birth is a decision too demanding for a man like me to make while preserving any shred of justice. But my position is not what’s important and not what’s at stake. I know for a fact that I am not the only Catholic, and not even the only Catholic at Penn State, who has this opinion. I heard a young woman complain after Mass today about the bitter irony of a young college-aged man asking for support for Penn State Students for Life. And I know women, many Catholic, many at Penn State, who are deeply concerned, in some cases seriously frightened, about what the future holds for them if the President follows through on several campaign promises that would be detrimental to their health and well-being.
If you wish for us to practice radical forgiveness; if you wish for us to come together as a society in spite of our differences; if you wish for us to make praying for our enemies a reality and not an empty promise to placate our Catholic sense of morality; then I insist that we make radical forgiveness and prayers for our enemies a true reality in Mass. I insist that you ask us to pray for each other’s loved ones, even when—especially when—we don’t see eye to eye. If we cannot find it in our hearts to pray to God for the safety of those engaged in an act of peace, particularly an act of peace advancing an ideal the Church does not politically support, then Christ’s message of radical forgiveness has fallen on deaf ears, and the Church’s history of praying for our enemies has become thoroughly devoid of meaning.
I did not participate in the march on Washington, or any march anywhere in the country. If I really wanted to, I could have joined one of my many friends or family who made the journey. Instead, I missed out on an opportunity to march in solidarity with my sisters and brothers in peace, to cry out in opposition to bigotry, misogyny, hatred, xenophobia, and white nationalism. I missed the opportunity to participate in what historians are calling the largest single protest in the history of the United States. I have to carry that regret with me for my entire life. But I still have an opportunity to stand before God, speak from my heart what I believe to be true, ask forgiveness if I am wrong, beg for Christ’s understanding that I am only doing what I believe in my spirit to be right, and pray for the safety of my friends, family and loved ones who are making the journey home from across the country today.
I pray that my mother and family friends made it home safely today.
I pray that my friends from Penn State, Hamilton, and other colleges and universities made it back home today.
I pray that my female friends always have access to affordable health care, that they are able to safely and securely stay safe and healthy in the coming years, and that they never stop fighting for every opportunity to surpass the world’s expectations.
I pray that we find a way to create a more economically just nation, and work together to make our country a land of meaningful opportunity for everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, gender or sexual identity, or socioeconomic status.
I pray that we are able to meaningfully address global climate change, that we not take for granted the world we’ve been given, Your Creation, God, and pay forward everything that our parents and grandparents have given us to our children and grandchildren.
I pray for those who will not agree or understand what I’ve written herein, especially my fellow Catholics, that they find peace in their lives on earth and salvation in Your World beyond this one.
I pray that my international, Black, Hispanic, Middle-Eastern, gay, queer, transgender, Jewish, and Muslim friends and colleagues are able to live safely, comfortably, and without being harassed or attacked in the coming years.
I pray that I am able to be a source of comfort, a friendly and caring ear to my female, minority, non-straight, gender-queer, non-Christian colleagues, peers and students, and that I may earn their trust to be used as an instrument of comfort and peace.
And I pray for forgiveness for those times when I have failed to do so.
Lord, hear my prayer.
Thank you, Father Matthew and others, for taking the time to read this open letter. I remain open to discussion.
With warm and respectful regards,