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Every Day Catholic - May 2011

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Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable—and Should!
By: Kathy Coffey

It may be a shift to read the Gospels and find the opposite of comfort. While the words and actions of Jesus shed light, they’re no escape hatch. Conflict, tension and frustration still plague believers. We may respond with the puzzlement of the father who cried, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).

We read the Gospels for one purpose: to know Jesus better and increase our intimacy with him. We don’t read for warm fuzzies, easy answers or reinforcement of our prejudices. Nor will we always encounter “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild.”

He who threatened the cozy assumptions of his contemporaries may have the same effect on us. If we rely on the “wrong” supports, like wealth (Luke 6:20, 24), family connections (Matthew 12:48-50), prestige (Mark 12:38-40) or strict religious ritual (Mark 2:27-28; Luke 18:10-14), he’ll challenge us, too.

Jesus questioned many of the religious and social customs of his time—such as the subservient role of women and the authority of the Pharisees. Nathan Mitchell writes in Real Presence: The Work of Eucharist, “It is hard to believe [Jesus] was simply an early flower-child who traipsed through sunlit fields talking about lilies and love! Who would seek to arrest and execute such a sap?”
The perils of storytelling

We may be uncomfortable with the Gospels’ storytelling style if we want “just the facts, please.” We might prefer a precise architectural drawing or accounting spreadsheet to what seems rambling or inconsistent. But if we compare the Bible with our own life stories, we grow more comfortable with its mixed genres. For example...

—The early years of my parents’ marriage were interrupted by my father’s Navy service during World War II.

—My college years were filled with news of the Vietnam War—and protests against it.

—My son began graduate school at Georgetown just as the dean of his school, along with her family, was killed in the 9/11 flight that struck the Pentagon.

—My friend missed his daughter’s birth because he’s a Marine serving in Afghanistan.

Those are a few examples of the stories that nest within stories like a set of Russian dolls. The hinges between levels connect them: my story—our story—The Story. We search for links where the larger Story of God intersects with our personal ones.

So we reflect not only on Jesus’ and the Hebrews’ experience in the desert, but also on our own desert times. Wandering in the wilderness brings valuable insights we don’t learn in secure kitchens. We find God in the spaces between certainties.

Much as we enjoy the intriguing connections, storytelling has its problems. It’s not scientific, it’s subject to personal interpretation, and sometimes it’s wildly inaccurate. Two people who attended the same party Saturday might tell radically different accounts.

So, too, each Gospel writer has a different emphasis. Even within the Gospel of John, there are apparent contradictions: “Jesus was troubled in spirit” (13:21), but in the next chapter Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” (14:1).

Those who enjoy stories listen beneath the words, because their primary interest is the meaning stories give our experience. We don’t read the Gospels primarily for scientific accuracy or historical fact, but to follow Jesus better.

We read through the lens of a human author, one who will sometimes shade, condense or exaggerate. Sometimes we also need to read biblical interpretation or commentary, but most important is our response. It’s an old saying: The Gospel gives the chapter headings; we write the texts in our lives.
Too good to be true?

The Gospels have been misused to incite guilt. Some people may need that stern correction to overspending or luxuriating while others starve. But many hardworking people are simply trying to survive the recession, raise their families and do their jobs, while being as generous as they can with time and treasure. They don’t need another guilt trip!

What we may find harder than guilt is the Gospels’ insistence on how splendid we are. Jesus walked among people who were diseased, smelly and sweaty and assured them that, even in poverty, mourning or persecution, they were “blessed”—the Kingdom of heaven is theirs. Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle with good news?

Admittedly, the central message is hard to absorb. We, limited and flawed, are made in the image of the divine. Furthermore, God continues to dwell and act in us.

Throughout the Gospels, the message recurs: You are not a slave, but a friend, an adopted child with an eternal inheritance—not condemned to futility or the finality of death. Jesus has sanctified everything human, making us indeed “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9).

The implications could be unsettling. God chose each of us for a unique purpose and equips us to get it done. So, no whining or stalling—get on with it!

The problem of Jesus’ humanity

We want Jesus to act like a powerful Messiah, and he overturns that expectation. He’s born as a helpless infant—not a military general, popular hero or political leader. He avoids people who want to crown him king. He’s accused of being a glutton and drunkard, and annoys both religious and state authorities.

One way Scripture scholars know a passage is authentic is the “embarrassment criterion.” Early authors wouldn’t invent an action that casts Jesus in a bad light. (Only the secure parent tells the story of a son’s night in jail or a daughter’s unfortunate maroon hair coloring.)

So if Jesus unnerves us, he’s right on target—the natural consequence of his radical call: Forgive as you’ve been forgiven. Much will be asked of those to whom much has been given. If we’re not squirming, we should be.

Look at those who took it seriously—Francis and Clare of Assisi, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Stang. Their attention to living the gospel made them larger human beings. What matters isn’t our comfort. What matters is becoming saints like them.

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Permission to Publish received for this article, “Ways the Gospel Makes Us Uncomfortable—and Should!” by Kathy Coffey, from Rev. Joseph R. Binzer, Vicar General, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, 10-18-2010.

Kathy Coffey, the author of “Hidden Women of the Gospels” and “Women of Mercy” (Orbis Books), gives retreats and workshops nationally and internationally. She lives in Denver, Colorado, and may be contacted at

Making Connections

■ When have you been challenged by a Scripture reading or homily at Mass?

■ Look deeply into your heart. How well are you living out your discipleship? What holds you back from more authentic discipleship?

■ How can you strengthen your resolve to step out in faith, take risks and be a light for others?

Movie Moments

By: Frank Frost

Oscar Romero was generally comfortable with the gospel he preached 40 years ago as a bishop in El Salvador, and the educated elites of the country were comfortable with it, too. So they were pleased to see him elevated to archbishop of San Salvador in 1977. But thanks in large part to his friendship with Jesuit Rutilio Grande, who was assassinated a month later, Romero’s understanding of what his faith required of him matured and grew.

In light of the social conditions in which his people lived, Romero came to see himself charged by the gospel to speak up on behalf of the poor, the oppressed and the persecuted. For him, belief in the gospel came to mean the pursuit of justice, no matter what the cost.

The 1989 movie Romero tells his story. Starring Raul Julia, it faithfully and effectively portrays the conversion of Archbishop Romero from a bookish bureaucrat to a defender of the poor. His personal friendships with the wealthy and powerful created deep conflicts for him—and distress for them—as he reluctantly defended the powerless in the face of death squads that brooked no dissent.

As his understanding of the gospel unfolded, it brought him extreme discomfort, including death threats and even imprisonment, but did not stop him from denouncing injustice. From his cathedral, he addressed the army by radio broadcast: “No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the Law of God. In his name...I implore you, I beg you, I order you, ‘Stop the repressions!’” The next day at Mass, as he raised the chalice during the consecration, he was shot in the heart by a sniper.

Next time you watch Romero, ASK YOURSELF:

■ Is it realistic for the Church to “keep to the center, watchfully, in the traditional way, but seeking justice” in the face of injustice and oppression?

■ A military general declares, “The Church’s job is to preach the gospel.” The priests and bishops cannot agree what that means in a political context. What does it mean to you?

Putting Shoes on the Gospel

Zane Gates, M.D.
By: Joan McKamey

“While many blame their mothers for their adult hang-ups, Dr. Zane Gates credits his mother—her strong faith and example of caring—for inspiring him to put his own faith into action on behalf of the poor and uninsured every day. “We didn’t have anything; we were very poor. But she was extremely rich in spirit and lived a life built on service,” he says of his mother, Gloria Gates.

Growing up in the projects of Altoona, Pennsylvania, Zane dreamed of being a physi-cian, of helping people. He worked hard in school and went on to college, studying pharmacy because he thought that “coming from the projects, there was no way to become a doctor.” Yet, after he completed pharmacy school, he pursued a medical degree after all. Following his residency, he returned to Altoona to give back to the community that raised him.

Equipped with a medical degree and a passion to serve Christ through service to others, Dr. Gates started a free clinic that he operated out of a van. One year later, in 1999, he merged his clinic, now called Partnering for Health Services, with the Altoona Regional Health System. This partnership expanded his staff and provided free ancillary services (x-rays, lab tests, medications) and access to specialists. The clinic serves many who would otherwise seek care from the hospital’s Emergency Department at a much higher cost.

With the volunteer service of six or seven doctors (including Dr. Gates on Wednesday afternoons) and other health professionals, the free clinic serves 3,700 patients (approximately 7,000 visits) annually—at a per-patient cost of only $207. A nurse practitioner, other nurses and administrative staff run it like a typical doctor’s office: Patients make appointments instead of waiting in line. Dr. Gates says, “We want to get people real help. It’s what they deserve.”

Dr. Gates is a busy man, following where the Spirit leads him. He tells Every Day Catholic, “I feel like I’m jumping off a mountain every day. It takes a lot of faith. I’m fighting to save lives. I know in my heart that the people I’m helping are like my mother, a poor woman without health insurance. Empathy fuels my passion.” He’s working with State Senator Edwin Erickson to get support for free clinics like his throughout Pennsylvania.

His “real job” is as director of Altoona Community Health Center, a clinic that serves mostly patients with Medicaid health coverage. He’s also a devoted husband to Natalie and proud father of four (ages one, four, six and 13).

Ever the good son, Dr. Gates started the Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation in 1999. He honors his mother by supporting afterschool programs in three Altoona projects. The goal is to encourage school performance and help the kids build self-esteem and moral character.

In all he does, Dr. Gates gives tribute to the wisdom and faith of his mother, a single parent with an eighth-grade education who told him, “The only true happiness you will ever find is in the lives you change, not the wealth you accumulate.”

Passing On the Faith

Instruments of God's Light
By: Jeanne Hunt


Caroline and Dan were raised in a middle-class neighborhood that began to decline when the couple left for college. After marriage and the birth of their daughter, they had to decide where to buy a home and put down roots. Their home parish had declined in membership. The area was experiencing more crime. Did they dare choose to be a presence of faith and light in this place?

After much prayer, Dan and Caroline bought a house just down the street from St. Veronica’s. While their friends settled in the suburbs, they trusted God to give them a safe harbor in the storm.

A response

Living our faith is meant to be radical. Watered-down faith is comfortable, safe and convenient, but not what Jesus has in mind for his disciples. We’re called to take a stand in the places and circumstances where God puts us. We’re called to see with the eyes of faith: standing up for an abused child, defending the rights of seniors, serving on the parish council, reporting drug crimes and addressing hundreds of other needs. This is where God calls his disciples to serve.

We are called to do the next loving thing—a brand of radical faith that’s uncomfortable and often dangerous. This, however, is what strong faith is all about. Choosing to stay out of the line of fire preserves our security, yet is far from authentic Christianity.

Once we’ve made the choice to get out of our comfort zones and be instruments of faith and justice, God takes over. We must learn to discern—to listen in prayer to the Spirit’s instructions. When we walk hand in hand with the Holy Spirit, we quickly realize that we have nothing to fear. God’s protection and success provide a “peace that surpasses all understanding.”

Caroline and Dan got a great deal on their fixer-upper. The neighborhood kids started hanging out with Dan as he repaired the old Victorian. He became a witness of a better way than drugs and violence. Caroline started a young mothers’ group at St. Veronica’s. Most of the women were poor, single moms. Then an amazing grace occurred: Other Catholic couples started settling in the neighborhood. St. Veronica soon became a center of vitality and justice—in large part because one faith-filled couple saw things differently and took a stand for the Light.


A Prayer for Courage
By: Jeanne Hunt

(for praying alone or with others)

Preparation: Place a small bowl of water, a towel, a Bible and a lighted candle on a prayer table.

“The Servant Song” (or similar hymn)

Good and gracious God, help us to be your servants.
Help us to risk the unfamiliar and the frightening.
Guide us to bring your light to the darkest places. Amen.

John 13:1-9,12-17

Let us spend a few moments in silence. Think of a place or time when you were called to have the courage to step out in faith, a moment when you spoke or acted for Christ.
Now, I invite each of you to come to the bowl to have your hands washed and, in turn, wash another’s hands. As your hands are being dried by the person before you, tell us of your moment of courage.

May Almighty God keep us safe from harm, courageous in faith and in the palm of his hand. Amen.

Peter of Alcantara: Peter was a contemporary of well-known 16th-century Spanish saints, including Ignatius of Loyola and John of the Cross. He served as confessor to St. Teresa of Avila. Church reform was a major issue in Peter’s day, and he directed most of his energies toward that end. His death came one year before the Council of Trent ended. 
<p>Born into a noble family (his father was the governor of Alcantara in Spain), Peter studied law at Salamanca University and, at 16, joined the so-called Observant Franciscans (also known as the discalced, or barefoot, friars). While he practiced many penances, he also demonstrated abilities which were soon recognized. He was named the superior of a new house even before his ordination as a priest; at the age of 39, he was elected provincial; he was a very successful preacher. Still, he was not above washing dishes and cutting wood for the friars. He did not seek attention; indeed, he preferred solitude.</p><p>Peter’s penitential side was evident when it came to food and clothing. It is said that he slept only 90 minutes each night. While others talked about Church reform, Peter’s reform began with himself. His patience was so great that a proverb arose: "To bear such an insult one must have the patience of Peter of Alcantara."</p><p>In 1554, Peter, having received permission, formed a group of Franciscans who followed the Rule of St. Francis with even greater rigor. These friars were known as Alcantarines. Some of the Spanish friars who came to North and South America in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were members of this group. At the end of the 19th century, the Alcantarines were joined with other Observant friars to form the Order of Friars Minor.</p><p>As spiritual director to St. Teresa, Peter encouraged her in promoting the Carmelite reform. His preaching brought many people to religious life, especially to the Secular Franciscan Order, the friars and the Poor Clares.</p><p>He was canonized in 1669.</p> American Catholic Blog Remember the widow’s mite. She threw into the treasury of the temple only two small coins, but with them, all her great love…. It is, above all, the interior value of the gift that counts: the readiness to share everything, the readiness to give oneself. —Pope John Paul II

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