Surprised by Pope Francis: Day and Merton

Surprised by Pope Francis: Day and Merton

Close up of Dorothy Day

First published in The Catholic Times, October 11, 2015 issue


I stayed home from work the morning that Pope Francis spoke to the United States Congress. I wanted to watch his face and the faces of those gathered to hear him: A congress mired in partisan politics, hopelessly polarized. What would Pope Francis say to them? To the country? How would our elected officials receive his words? It was a moment I wanted to witness as it unfolded.

The pope did not disappoint. Just a couple of weeks ago, at a gathering of citizens concerned about issues of social justice and a stalled political system, a gentleman expressed dismay that the concept of the common good was no longer a topic in public discourse. Pope Francis took care of that.

He had barely spoken a hundred words when he directed attention to our solemn responsibility for the common good. “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens,” he said to the lawmakers, “in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

By now, most who read this column will have read (or heard) various commentaries on the address and what the pope did and did not say. But, what surprised me was how he said it: He used the example of four great Americans who gave their lives to service and to the betterment of society. Two, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr., often serve as inspirational examples, fittingly so.

The other two are the ones I didn’t expect: Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. In my late teens I read a number of their books. They influenced my faith and spirituality. Still, I wondered, how many of the government officials sitting in the room knew those names? How many watching and listening around the country wondered who they were and searched for them on mobile phones and tablets?

They’d find Dorothy Day, born in 1897, was a radical who advocated for women’s suffrage, a pacifist who opposed all wars, and a tireless worker for social justice who saw the need not only to serve the poor she encountered in daily life, but also to change the system that created such poverty and injustice. She was a writer and journalist who gave voice to marginalized people and causes.

A convert to the Catholic faith that fed and sustained her, Dorothy attended daily Mass, read scripture, and wove prayer throughout her days. As a friend who once heard her speak said, “She was prayer.

Dorothy, along with close friend Peter Maurin, founded “The Catholic Worker” newspaper and the movement of the same name. Catholic Worker Houses continue to welcome the poor and are places where the corporal works of mercy are lived out. As Pope Francis encourages, they are places of encounter.

The pope spoke a second name that I didn’t expect to hear: Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk at the monastery of Gethsemani, in Kentucky. We celebrated the 100th anniversary of his birth this year. Pope Francis singled him out for his openness to dialog with others of all faiths, seeing them as pilgrims on the same search for ultimate truth. His last journey was to Bangkok where he attended an international conference on monasticism, organized by Buddhist monks. Like Day, he calls us to deep encounter with those unlike ourselves.

Thomas Merton standing outside Pope Francis also recommended Merton’s openness to God in a contemplative style of prayer. Merton in the midst of a world immersed in “noise” of all types—digital, visual, aural—pouring out of players, electronics, out of the depths of our souls, calls us to quiet presence. For those who fill up every moment with activity and distraction, he says, “Be still. Listen.”

Like Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton was a writer and a convert. His books addressed spirituality and political topics. He was an outspoken critic of the Viet Nam War and the arms race.

Two people of deep faith and prayer: One active in the world, the other a monk responding to world issues with his pen; both social activists who pointedly challenged the status quo and whose words speak to us today. Immigration, poverty, climate change, racism, and violence require bold responses from all of us, not only governments.

If you’re not familiar with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, consider reading some of their work or finding out more about their lives and spiritual journeys. Pope Francis’ choices challenge us all.

© 2015 Mary van Balen

Pope Francis and the Common Good

Close up of Pope Francis addressing US Congress 9 24 2015






This past Sunday, while spending an evening with the Nuns on the Bus, I heard one man say that the words “the common good” had all but disappeared from public discourse. Today, Pope Francis put it back—front and center. He stood before Congress and in the first minutes of his speech, reminded those legislators: “You are called to defend and preserve the dignity of your fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good, for this is the chief aim of all politics.”

I hope they were listening.

The organization of the Pope’s speech was masterful. He reminded us of values and struggles for liberty, freedom for all, social justice, and openness to dialogue and prayer by holding up four Americans: Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, and Thomas Merton. Many of his listeners may not have heard of Dorothy Day or Thomas Merton. Their lives and writings were integral to the development of my own values and spirituality in my late teens and early twenties. Thomas Merton’s books have a place in my study, and his quote from his theophany at Walnut and 42nd in Louisville, Kentucky hangs on my wall.

Pope Francis highlighted the need to address poverty and climate change. To welcome refugees and those seeking a better life. He warned against reducing complex issues of violence done in the name of religion to labels of “righteous” and “sinners.”  When speaking of the need to  respect life in all its stages, he called for an international ban on the death penalty. Throughout the fifty-some minutes that he spoke, he emphasized the imperative of working not for wealth or personal power, but for the good of all.

And, in a place where it has been tragically lacking, he called for cooperation:  “We must move forward

together, as one, in a renewed spirit of fraternity and solidarity, cooperating generously for the common good. The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States.”

Pope Francis in front of assembled US Congress.

Pope Francis addressing US Congress 9 24 2015

Life the man himself, Pope Francis’s speech was also full of hope and optimisim. Of joy and love.

And then, when he finished, he left the halls of Congress and the assembly of rich and powerful to share lunch with homeless of Washington.



The Nuns on the Bus Come to Columbus

The Nuns on the Bus Come to Columbus

A vertical banner reading: The Nuns on the Bus, Bridge the Divides:  Transform Politics

Photo: Mary van Balen

Sunday, Sept. 20, Lutheran Pastor Gary Sandberg warmly welcomed the Nuns on the Bus at the Kerns Religious Life Center on the campus of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio. The space, made available for the town hall meeting,  was filled with people of all ages and religious backgrounds. I was pleased to be part of the diverse group that shared one thing in common: concern for social issues and the failure of current political structures to deal with them. As one man said, the term “The Common Good” seems to have disappeared from public discourse.

Sr. Simone Campbell and six other nuns from across the country weren’t interested in presenting a lecture. They wanted participation, and from the start, had small groups of people talking with each other about local challenges and divides and how we could move forward to address them.

The list was long and included human trafficking (I didn’t know that Columbus ranked 7th in the country), Gerrymandering (There’s an issue on the ballot…Issue #1… Vote.) payday lenders, lack of affordable housing, ethnic and racial divides, LGBT issues, polarization, school-to-prison pipeline, lack of shelters for the homeless, especially homeless families, infant mortality (Again, Columbus ranks near the top of the list of US cities with this problem.)

You get the idea. People had suggestions: Join B.R.E.A.D., vote, take time to listen to those who have views that differ from your own, put a face on the problem by sharing stories with those in positions of power, publicize things that are working (because some things are working), and the list went on.

Sister Simone Campbell PHOTO: Mary van Balen

Sister Simone Campbell PHOTO: Mary van Balen

This meeting energized people. It broadened knowledge of issues and solutions right where we are. It was hopeful. It pointed to prayer and action and the difference one person can make. It articulated Catholic social teachings in a way that encouraged participation.

A piece of wisdom: Find one thing that you are passionate about, and become involved. Every one needs to do something. And when we do, we make a difference. We can bridge the divides. We can change politics.

I stand with The Nuns on the Bus!


The Synod on the Family

The Synod on the Family

Posted on

Posted on

The Synod on the Family, called by Pope Francis, is into week two. The first document has been released. It is really a summary of what has been discussed thus far. The rest of the week will be spent with the bishops in small groups, refining the document that then will be released. As noted in NCR’s article, the document speaks in new tones of listening and recognition of the dignity of persons, and with mercy.

Still, I find myself bristling at the continued use of the word “failure” or “failed” in discussion of divorced people. Yes, truly listening to the concerns and realities of ordinary people is a step forward and perhaps heralds a coming openness to change in policies that do not reflect the love and mercy of Jesus. Still, as one who is divorced and who has worked with women in abusive situations, I must say that many times, leaving a marriage is not a “failure,” but a success. To stay in a relationship that has become oppressive, that no longer is life-giving, or that has become abusive simply to “obey the rules” is not something to encourage.

In some of these situations, if the spouses (or spouse) would pursue an annulment, the church might say the sacramental marriage was invalid, it never happened….But many do not pursue such a course. The church should respect the persons involved, not calling them failures, but supporting them as they move on.

A topic completely missing from the discussion is that of the transgender community. (Read entire document here.) Often overlooked, the “T” in “LGBT” needs to be considered. Many transgendered people have left the Catholic church after enduring humiliating experiences including the suggestion that they be exorcised for the demon within. The lack of understanding of current medical and psychological knowledge about this reality is a glaring omission.

Today, the issues of the transgender community are becoming more and more visible in the media and social consciousness of the reality has grown. The Roman Catholic Church needs to follow that lead.

The current movement is hopeful. We’ll see how far the Spirit leads and how far the Church follows.

A Quiet Priest

A Quiet Priest

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

PHOTO: Mary van Balen

As is her custom, a friend of mine invited some women friends to her home for a Holy Thursday prayer and dinner. This year, four of us gathered around her table, sang, read a reflection, and shared food. During the evening, she told us each was invited because of the ministries we have been living for years. One woman was the first (and surprising to me) the only Black American principal in her diocesan school system. She remembered flaming crosses lit along the street the day she was appointed. She continues to work with young people and is active in the Ladies of Peter Claver association. Another woman has been organizing her parish’s religious education for years. Our hostess particularly noted her work with the teens and how she has been able to encourage and inspire them, not easy task as anyone who works with young people know.

Our friend chose to focus on my ministry of writing columns, articles, and books, which has spanned decades. At the moment, waiting is a big part of my “work,” waiting for an agent to find a home for my latest book. And our hostess is well-known in the area for her work with women, often poor and marginalized. The list of her work would take a post of its own, but her prophetic voice has always spoken clearly for the truth she knows, no matter how her message is received.

After dinner and before dessert, we prayed together and blessed one another, poured water over hands that have worked hard over the years to be priest to God’s people. Of course, all are called to holiness, as Vatican II documents proclaim. All share in the common priesthood of Christ through their baptism. Still, as I sat in the presence of these women, I wondered again about the Catholic Church’s refusal to admit women to the order of priesthood.

I thought about women around the world who know the call from God, they know themselves to be “priest,” and yet they must do their work quietly. Often, their efforts meet resistance. I read that Pope Francis is open to the idea of married men being ordained. He doesn’t seem so open to ordaining women.

As I sat with these women and prayed, I gave thanks for those women who, called to priest God’s people in a special way, do so as best as they are able, faithful to their call, even if the Roman Catholic institution has yet to recognize what is being lived before their eyes.

Of Identity, Faith, and Love

Of Identity, Faith, and Love

by Sara Davis Buechner

 As difficult as it is for me to define the music I play in words, so it is with religion. The two are deeply intertwined within my soul, and the expression of both is something that takes me into a realm far different, far higher, than the ordinary experience of daily life. It’s fair to say that my life would, indeed, have no meaning without music, and thus I may say also of a life without God, without spirit, without a daily soulful prayer to the Creator. Since earliest memory I have had the need within, to make a joyful noise unto the Lord.

As a young child, the most joyful times in my life circled around the music played on our home piano, the Mozart Symphonies that came into our living room on the radio, the classical records my mother bought for our RCA turntable, and most of all the piano lessons taken on the lap of one of the most spiritual and loving human beings I know, a then-young Hungarian refugee named Veronika Wolf.  [Read more…]

“Culture of Encounter”

“Culture of Encounter”

Originally published in The Catholic Times

Pope Francis’ homily on Wednesday, May 22, received lots of press, mainly around his comments about redemption: “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the blood of Christ. All of us, not just Catholics. Everyone!” he declared. “‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone! And this blood makes us children of God of the first class! We are created children in the likeness of God and the blood of Christ has redeemed us all!”

He continued: “And we all have a duty to do good. And this commandment for everyone to do good, I think, is a beautiful path towards peace. If we, each doing our own part, if we do good to others, if we meet there, doing good, and we go slowly, gently, little by little, we will make that culture of encounter: we need that so much…”

Lost in the media flurry about whether or not atheists can be saved (or, even non-Catholics, according to some pundits) was Pope Francis’ comment about a “culture of encounter.” What does that look like?

[Read more…]

A New Look at the Ascension

A New Look at the Ascension

Originally appeared in the Catholic Times, issue: May 12, 2013

When beginning studies for a Masters Degree in theology, I was in the midst of a difficult time in other areas of my life. Perhaps it was Providence that one book assigned for a seminar was Ronald Rolheiser’s The Holy Longing. The instructor required each member of the class to prepare a presentation on a particular chapter. Mine was “The Paschal Mystery.” That was almost eight years ago, and I still find hope and wisdom in Rolheiser’s presentation of that holy mystery.

Rolheiser put a colloquial twist on the Ascension, describing its message this way: “Do not cling to the old, let it ascend and give you its blessing.” A necessary step to Pentecost, where we accept the Spirit for the moment we are living.

[Read more…]

Rituals and Reverencing Holy Presence

Rituals and Reverencing Holy Presence

Originally published in the Catholic Times, vol 62:27

“Rituals are important,” my friend said as we gathered around the dinner table on Holy Thursday evening. The four of us read prayers together, broke bread, shared wine, and then poured water from a ceramic vase over each other’s hands, praying a blessing as we did. Later we joined with others in our parish to celebrate the Mass that began the Easter Triduum, three days packed with liturgical ritual.

As the Easter season continues, I find myself pondering ritual in life outside church sanctuaries as well as within them. My friend is right. Rituals are important. They provide tangible symbols of realities we cannot see or touch, but experience interiorly. They provide a link to people or places that are part of our history. They help us step out of routine and focus on truths that guide our lives. They help us remember the Holy Presence in which we live. [Read more…]

Soul Time

Originally published in the Catholic Times March 10, 2013 vol. 62:22

The fourth Sunday of Lent already? Impossible. I’m not where I thought I’d be. Spiritually speaking, that is. Each year I think it will different. I’ll be more disciplined when it comes to food. Each morning will start quietly with undisturbed time for prayer. I won’t succumb to temptations of playing Free Cell or Sudoku on my iPad.

This year I thought I had more attainable goals. In fact, I had but one: give myself “soul time.” Time for my spirit to breathe and, as an old African story goes, catch up with my body. This goal seemed reasonably attainable four weeks ago. I have been forced to admit that some behaviors have a stronger hold on me that I thought. [Read more…]