Here’s what I think: It’s a spiritual problem

Westside Middle School, Jonesboro, Arkansas.

James Parker Middle School, Edinboro, Pennsylvania.

Thurston High School, Springfield, Oregon.

Columbine High School, Littleton, Colorado.

Lake Worth Middle School, Lake Worth, Florida.

Santana High School, Santee, California.

Red Lion Area Senior High School, Red Lion, Pennsylvania.

Ricori High School, Cold Spring, Minnesota.

Red Lake Senior High School, Red Lake, Minnesota.

Campbell County Comprehensive High School, Jacksboro, Tennessee.

Platte Canyon High School, Bailey, Colorado.

Amish School, Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

Central High School, Knoxville, Tennessee.

Discovery Middle School, Madison, Alabama.

Millard South High School, Omaha, Nebraska.

Chardon High School, Chardon, Ohio.

Sandy Hook Elementary, Newtown, Connecticut.

Sparks Middle School, Sparks, Nevada.

Arapahoe High School, Centennial, Colorado.

Reynolds High School, Troutdale, Oregon.

Marysville Pilchuck High School, Marysville, Washington.

Townville Elementary School, Townville, South Carolina.

North Park Elementary School, San Bernardino, California.

Freeman High School, Rockford, Washington.

Aztec High School, Aztec, New Mexico.

Marshall County High School, Benton, Kentucky.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida.

27 school shootings in the last 20 years. And this does not include suicides, gang related violence or deaths that resulted from interpersonal troubles.  Let that number sink in for a moment.  27 school shootings in 20 years.  An average of a little more than a school shooting a year.  Nowhere else in the world is there this level of violence in schools.  Nowhere.  Whatever is happening here in the United States simply does not have any other countries to compare to in terms of this issue. 

And this is just schools.  This does not include the Las Vegas shooting, the Pulse nightclub shooting or the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado.  Just schools. And the pace of these school shootings is escalating.  Fifteen have occurred in the last ten years. Ten have occurred in the last five years.  That is two a year.    

We have a school shooting problem.  We have a shooting problem.  We have an incarceration problem.  And, once again, little is likely to come from this latest school shooting.  There will be no honest discussion about a complex problem, because we will cling to our tired clichés.  There will be people who will pray, and while spiritually beneficial, all too soon there will be another incident where we will be called to pray again.  We will hear again that guns don’t kill people, people kill people.  We will hear again that simply banning automatic weapons will solve the problem, when the gun responsible for the most deaths is the handgun. And once again, no meaningful search for a solution to a problem will happen.

Why? Because before we discuss solutions, we must admit the problem.  It is not just a gun problem. We have a spiritual problem.  I am not simply discussing a problem related to going to church or belonging to a religion.  We have a spiritual problem because in too many instances we sell our values for short term gain.  And it is not just Republicans.  And it is not just Democrats.  It is what arises from politics that have become tribal. It is what arises when people stop using words like evil and sin. 

When we do not believe every human being has a right to be born, we create the seeds of violence.  When we refer to immigrants as criminals, rapists and murderers, we sow the seeds of violence. When we become comfortable when almost 1 in 5 children live in poverty, we sow the seeds of violence.  When we allow schools in high poverty areas to languish, we sow the seeds of violence.  When we are comfortable with children not have equity and access to the type of education that would provide them the opportunity to succeed, we sow the seeds of violence. When we are ok with the culture that makes it possible for men to sexually harass, assault and abuse women, we sow the seeds of violence.  When we objectify people through pornography, and sexualize human beings in the interest of selling a product (I am pointing out your World Series ads a few years ago, Hardees) we sow the seeds of violence.

Bottom line.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We must see Jesus in every other human being, without exception. (This means doing the corporal and spiritual works of mercy.) We must welcome the stranger. We must care when people do not have access to basic needs.  We must fight for the right of every human being to be born and cared for after birth.  We must fight for a country that seeks to provide opportunity for all, regardless of income.  We must fight for an end to human trafficking, pornography and the sexual exploitation of women.  Put simply, I must emulate Jesus, in whose image I and everyone else is made.

We need to admit our spiritual problem.  A problem with the spirit.  We need to be kind to each other.  We need to be responsible for our own sins.  We need to be responsible and admit that we choose not to help others when we could.  We need to admit that we are responsible, each one of us, for sins of justice that perpetuate, and even make worse, the imbalance of opportunity among peoples in this world.  We need to understand that when we think of ourselves as over and against other human beings, and we do little to understand people who disagree with us, we make it even more likely that people will be left out and ostracized.

Saint James reminds us of this in his letter.  “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,” but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:14-17)

Respect for human dignity cannot be limited to certain human beings.  Respect for human dignity cannot be limited to respecting only people who look like us. It cannot be limited only to people who agree with us, or see the world like us. We must stop referring to people with whom we disagree as crazy or evil.  We must stop using belittling nicknames for our political opponents.  I have never referred to another politician with a derogatory nickname.  This is not because I am better than anyone else.  It is because I know I must respect people to have any influence on making things better.

I am tired of the same old stupid lines that come out after tragedies like this.  Yes, despite drug laws, people still do drugs.  So, should all drugs simply be legal? Gun control alone, in whatever form it takes, will not end violence.  Can we, for once, rise to the occasion of a tragedy, by demonstrating a willingness to admit we have a violence problem.  Can we put away the clichés and admit that for whatever reason, the United States is an outlier with gun violence.  Can we research to find out why? Can we have logical, evidence-based discussions to discover a solution? Can we admit that this is a complex problem that will not be easily or quickly solved?

Can we stop blaming the mentally ill? Yes, there are mentally ill people who are violent.  But people who are mentally ill are far more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators.  While it is estimated that one in four people will experience some sort of mental illness, 25% of people are not engaging in violent behavior.  Correlation (when something is related) is not causation (when something produces an effect). I could find correlation between being male and violence.  Does that mean then that we should pass laws to keep men from guns? Of course not. 

I do believe we need to discuss reasonable gun restrictions.  When the United States turned its attention to cars, to make them safer, cars became much safer.  I realize the Constitution does not make having and driving a car a right.  But with every right comes responsibility.  And as much as I wonder why people need an AR-15, the most problematic gun in the United States is the handgun.  We need to be able to discuss the issue of gun violence. And we need a national solution.  Yes, some cities have restrictive gun laws.  But, drive a few miles, and guns are easy to get.  We need to sit down and talk with each other about this problem, and a whole host of others.  But we won’t.  And, in fact, until we admit our spiritual problem, it will not make a difference even if we did.

Sick and Tired of Violence: Homily for November 2, 2017

Readings for Today

Violence just seems to be endless.  Again and again there are stories on the news about this mass shooting, or that violent attack.  Hardly a few days go by when it happens again.  I wonder how to make sense of it all.  Sometimes it can be hard to find the presence of God in our world.  Sometimes it feels as if sin is winning.  It feels like death has the upper hand.

And violence is only one type of challenge.  We have loved ones who die, we have diseases and illness, we have hardships of all kinds.  And if there is one thing about the Solemnity of the Commemoration of all the faithful departed, it is that God continues to give to us time and again mercy and forgiveness.  Praying for the dead is the concrete sign of that mercy.  While God hates sin, God loves us.  God gives us every single opportunity to be saved.

Why believe in God?: Homily for Thursday, October 12, 2017

Readings for Today

It seems like there has been one disaster after another.  Hurricanes. Floods. Earthquakes. Shootings. Fires. At some point, even a reasonable person might begin to ask what it all means. There can be in us a feeling that might give into despair.  And for me, that is just from someone who has not personally experienced any of these disasters but has only heard their harrowing stories.

The first reading is filled with despair.  There is no longer a hope in God because it seems like there is no good reason to believe. And yet the gospel reminds us of the value of perseverance.  Even when the homeowner does not feel like getting out of bed at night to help his neighbor, persistence causes him to do so. And when we can remain persistent in prayer, we too can become more aware of God’s grace.

Vengeance: Homily for Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Readings for Today

Isn’t it ironic that today’s reading features vengeance? The day after the Las Vegas shootings and we are face to face with the understandable human emotion. Vengeance. “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Today is a day where it might just be a little easier to understand such an emotion.

But the response of Jesus tells us everything we need to know about vengeance. No.  Jesus rebuked the disciples for their desire for vengeance.  Despite how good vengeance might seem to feel at the time, it fails to satisfy.  Why? Because it does not bring peace.  Quite the opposite.  We fall prey to the very thing we abhor. Lord, please send your peace into our hearts.

This is what I think: Can we ever solve our violence problem? Or anything else?

Yet again there has been another mass shooting in the United States.  Yet again there will be calls for more gun control or calls for more guns.  We will ask for prayers for the victims of this tragedy. There will be news stories, but then life will go on as usual.  And Las Vegas will be added to a long list of other mass shootings in the United States.  Orlando.  Blacksburg, Virginia. Newtown, Connecticut.  San Bernadino. Charleston, South Carolina.  There are many other places where mass shootings have occurred in the United States but have been forgotten.

The violence problem has no simple solutions. Rarely do we consider the complexity of questions that do not yield to answers expressed as either this or that.  We want to jump to these quick answers.  We often rely on those answers we have already come to believe are absolutely true, so that they do not allow for any other interpretation.  More gun control or more guns.  But are we more violent? How is it the United States has so many more gun deaths than other countries? And why is it likely that at the end of the day we will be no closer to a solution to the epidemic of gun violence?

Perhaps we must look deep within ourselves. Maybe we need to ask why, on the surface, we have more gun deaths than other countries.  Are we more violent? Is there something about Americans that makes us more likely to attack each other?  Why is it we have so many more prisoners than other countries? Do we break the law more often? Are we more anti-social than citizens of other countries? Is there something in being an American that makes us so much more violent than the rest of the developed world?  Why is it these instances of tragedy seem to be occurring more frequently?

While clearly the United States is diverse, a reason suggested by some for the greater level of violence seen in the United States, there are areas of the world that are more ethnically and culturally diverse, that at the same time do not appear to have as much violence or crime.  Canada, for example, has many fewer gun deaths while being quite diverse.

The challenges we face with gun violence and other types of violence cannot be easily solved.  Even if we could pass meaningful gun control, there is no guarantee that would solve the problem.  There are an awful lot of guns out there.  They would still be out there.  And while there are mass shooters who obtained legal guns, there remain an awful lot of guns that are available illegally.

Moreover, while automatic and semi-automatic guns gain a lot of attention, the gun of choice in the United States remains the handgun.  I am not aware of many discussing banning handguns.  Guns only seem to get our attention after a mass shooting.  Each and every day people in the United States are killed by guns. And each and every day it seems we become more polarized, more divided. So it seems there needs to be more than just a discussion about gun control or more guns.  The problem requires a much more difficult, but much more meaningful discussion about the state of our country. There needs to be a recognition that we face a problem that is neither Republican or Democrat but is rather a problem of our society that can only be solved if we work together.

It does appear that any discussion of our problems must include discussions about our society.  We are angry.  Almost every significant issue divides us.  And not only do these issues divide us, these issues cause us to insult each other, even hate each other.  We call those with opposing viewpoints idiots, crazy, and refer to them by even worse names.  We find it increasingly difficult that people who disagree with us might also want the common good.  They might also want what is best for the country.

Whether or not one agrees with Donald Trump, is it really acceptable to have a president who speaks about women the way he does? Do we really want to accept a news culture that seeks to find the dirtiest, meanest stories about people even if they are not true? Do we really want to be okay in a society where demonstrable facts can be stated to be untrue, and some will believe that what is true is, in fact, not true? Can we, just for a moment, seek to stop blaming and start listening?

It would be unwise to speculate on the motives of the latest mass shooter.  But if we are to have meaningful dialogue to solve difficult and complex issues, we must first realize that there are certain aspects that are unhelpful to such a discussion. There are certain “fundamental principles” that must be accepted.  And they all involve how we view human beings.

We cannot ever say there are good people who march with white supremacists.  White supremacy can never become acceptable.  Ever.  We cannot insult people who suffer from natural disasters.  We cannot reduce the killing of unborn babies to the euphemistic word “fetus.” We cannot objectify human beings sexually, for then it becomes easier and easier to objectify them in other ways too. We cannot describe all welfare and food stamp recipients as lazy, or moochers.  We cannot ignore that one is much more likely to suffer at the hands of poverty if they are a person of color.  We cannot equate all cops.  Most are hardworking, upstanding, courageous men and women who keep us safe every day by putting their own lives on the line.  We cannot ignore black Americans who are crying out for justice.  We must provide a reasonable answer to the question about why so many of those in prison are black, when whites and blacks commit drug crimes, as one example, in roughly the same numbers. Quite frankly, whenever we sin against the human dignity that all people possess, we open the door to the type of violent behavior that we see all over the world. Behavior we just witnessed in Las Vegas.  And the obvious answer to the question Cain asked God about whether he was his brother’s keeper, is yes.  We are our brother’s keeper.  We are our sister’s keeper.

If we cannot admit the dignity of all human beings, then finding a solution to this problem is not possible.  While the above list is by no means exhaustive, the list represents some real challenges.  At the heart of all of these issues is the question of human dignity.  As Christians, we believe every human being is made in the image of God.  In the gospel of Matthew, we are told by Jesus that the way we treat others is, in fact, the way we treat Jesus.  Think about that for a moment.  We are all held accountable for the way we treat others.  Every one of us.  Every time.

Certainly, there is evil in the world, because of Original Sin.  Despite sin, just imagine how different our world could be if we realized that every human being is made in God’s image, and must be treated this way. What if in discussing an issue like this mass shooting, we could begin from the premise that we have a violence problem? We want to be safe.  But at what cost? Hardening our hearts to those in our world in desperate need because we are afraid? Hardening our hearts because we do not want to be generous? Giving into our anger because the suffering of others can remind me of my own suffering, my own vulnerability?  Or, do we want to address this problem in a way that helps us to preserve the dignity of every human being?  What if we committed to hearing, listening, dialoguing with each other? What if we sought to imitate Jesus and were generous to not only those we care about, but also those we may not like.

I do not know what the solution to gun violence is.  I do not know how to solve the situation about health care in a just way.  I do not know how to create more just economic situations so that all people are given the opportunity to thrive.  But I do know that every time I set myself against another, dismissing them, either their ideas or their very persons, I am part of the problem.

Why does it become so newsworthy when Republicans and Democrats work together? I think it is because we are more concerned about our side winning, and not what is best for our country. And when winning, not what’s best for every human being becomes the goal, we all lose.

USCCB Migration Chairman Deeply Disappointed By Administration’s Decision To Terminate The Central American Minors Parole Program

August 21, 2017

WASHINGTON—Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, expresses his opposition to the Administration’s decision to end parole processing for individuals in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who apply to enter the U.S. through the Central American Minors (CAM) program. Bishop Vasquez, who is currently in El Salvador, says that the elimination of this program puts the lives of vulnerable children at risk for greater harm.

Bishop Vásquez’ full statement follows:

“My brother bishops and I are deeply disappointed by the Administration’s decision to terminate the critical parole option of the CAM program.  In terminating the parole option, the Administration has unnecessarily chosen to cut off proven and safe alternatives to irregular and dangerous migration for Central American children, including those previously approved for parole who are awaiting travel in their home countries. Pope Francis has called on us to protect migrant children, noting that “among migrants, children constitute the most vulnerable group.” We supported the CAM program, which included both refugee and parole options, precisely because it provided a legal and organized way for children to migrate to the United States and reunify with families. Terminating the parole program will neither promote safety for these children nor help our government regulate migration.

In El Salvador, we have seen first-hand the very real problems that these children face. The Church, with its global presence, learns of this violence and persecution every day, in migrant shelters and in repatriation centers. We know that children must be protected. They must be given the ability to remain in their home countries and find opportunities, but they must also be able to leave and migrate safely to find protection when there are no alternatives. The CAM parole program offered part of that solution – a legal way to migrate for the most vulnerable of children.”

Homily for Easter Sunday, April 5, 2015

Readings for Today

We have a very important story to tell. The world, weary from too much evil, sin, violence, a lack of sharing even the most basic things, selfishness and greed, is tired. The world is weary, and it needs so desperately a word to rouse it. The stories of the world are all too often the same refrain, the same sadness, and have the same inability to lead anywhere significant. Think of the world for a moment.

When we consider the world on a global scale, what do we see? We see beheadings by ISIS, those sold into sexual slavery, humans trafficked like cattle, sold and used in the most banal ways, we see young school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. There is so much blood in the Middle East is can seem impossible for the earth to hold it. Throughout too much of the world we see people die, not because of something external, but for lack of something basic — food. Syria, Nigeria, Iraq, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libia and countless other countries experience far too much in the way of violence, death, evil.

And then let us consider our own country. We too have people who are poor, suffering, and blamed for their own situation. Too many young lives, many without much to begin with, find themselves killed every day at the hand of gun violence. Far from providing opportunity that leads to a good life, in too many places we are preparing too many young people for a life in prison.

And in our own families, we can see too much suffering, sadness, disease and death. There can be too many broken relationships, too much hurt, sadness, loss. In too many families this is the case.

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Homily for Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Readings for Today

There cannot be two moves more different than today’s first reading in today’s gospel. Poor Jeremiah. Things are not going so well for him. This is not simply in a small way, but in fact in a way that is so significant Jeremiah even regrets his birth. As the prophet, he has the task of speaking words that no one wishes to hear. He is not a prophet that is popular, and he is not a prophet who appeases.  Yet in the gospel, we encounter someone who is so excited about the kingdom of God, they’re willing to give up everything for it.

How is it that both individuals who have given everything for the sake of God’s kingdom in God’s message, for the sake of God himself, to react so differently? The answer is obvious: it is easy to be joyful when the outcomes of following God are good. And, it is natural to feel sad, even tremendously depressed, and following God’s will brings nothing but difficulty.

That is why great and holy saints, like St. Teresa of Avila, or St. John of the Cross, caution us about becoming too attached to the consolation I can be hours because of the faith. This is so, because they were both well aware that there can be times in our life, even long times in our life, where we do not experience the consolation of our faith. While faith certainly can bring joy, committing ourselves completely to God can also sometimes bring sadness, and heart ache.

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Homily for Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Readings for Today

I have been fortunate in my life to witness true married love. While married love is beautiful in all its stages, there is something especially beautiful in witnessing a couple who is been married for a very long time. It becomes a concrete way to experience how two people can become one.

They do so many things where it appears they are one. They anticipate the needs of each other. They often finish the thoughts of each other. They remind me of watching my parents polka when I was a little kid. Knowing nothing about how to polka, I noted the complexity of the dance steps. Even though I was a little boy, I appreciated the difficulty in watching my mother perform all of the steps while moving backwards. But what I noticed more than anything, is how my mother and father were one on the dance floor.

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