20 Years Later

To honor those who died or were directly impacted by the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, I’ve started reading The Only Plane in the Sky, an oral history of the day compiled by Garrett Graff.

The events of that day changed our country (and the world, but I’m less familiar with that) forever, but what I like to focus on when reflecting on 9/11 isn’t the global political ramifications or how that day changed the Bush administration or raised up Rudy Giuliani’s name awareness, but the actions of regular people.

First responders noted that civilians were directing traffic in lower Manhattan to help clear the roads for them to get to the Towers.

Another was the story of the evacuation of John Abruzzo. John is a quadriplegic who uses an electric wheelchair. A number of men—I think I read eight or so—took shifts in four-man teams to help carry John down in his evacuation chair from the 69th floor. It took 90 minutes. Those men could have ran away, leaving John to fend for himself or only with one or two people to help (the chair was designed to only need one person to assist). They didn’t. They stayed and worked to ensure he could reach safety despite putting themselves at risk longer.

The passengers on Flight 93 are well-known. When they realized that they were the fourth plane hijacked, the other three had hit the WTC and Pentagon, and they were heading back toward Washington DC, they fought back forcing the terrorists to crash into an empty field, aborting their attack on the Capitol.

There are countless other stories like this. Regular folks in various ways stepped up to help. Not because they were trained to do it nor paid to do it. But because we’re people and people help each other. We take care of each other.

2020 and 2021 have been hard years, not in a small part because it feels like we’ve lost some (a lot?) of that willingness to subject ourselves to each other, to be in service.

Happy Birthday, O!

My eldest turns 12 years old today. I don’t feel like I’m old enough to be married almost 13 years with a 12-year-old, but here we are.

As she continues her path toward more independence, I find new joys in parenthood. As much fun as having my two-year-old wanting to play “tackle Daddy” for an hour straight where, as you can guess, I sit on the ground, then she runs and tackles me. Over and over and over. Having a 12-year-old where we sneak a stop at Starbucks for a coffee and a hot chocolate is a special experience too. Though, I sneak stops into Starbucks with my two-year-old, though she calls it Starbooks and I just get her an empty venti hot cup since her water cup fits perfectly inside of it.

I digress.

Happy birthday, O. 12 years ago today, you transformed a newlywed couple into a family. Thanks for keeping life interesting and for forgiving us for figuring everything out on you.

Juneteenth

As a white person, I’m so glad that Juneteenth is now a federal holiday. I want to address one of the only 14 members of the House (all GOP) who opposed it.

This is not at all replacing the Fourth of July. Not in the slightest. Juneteenth is one of the brighter moments in our history because it is when we celebrate that, as a country, we are able to correct a wrong. Slavery was deep-seeded. It was (wrongly) celebrated. It was the commercial backbone of half the country. Juneteenth is us celebrating that our country is an experiment, which means we must change direction when things aren’t right.

Yes, to celebrate this moment of correction demands us to remember and recall that for hundreds of years as colonies and as a country, we captured and enslaved hundreds of the thousands of people and shipped them to our shores. This same effort captured and enslaved around 12 million people. 12 MILLION! Not all went to the United States, but their labor absolutely contributed to our economic systems. We enslaved their children resulting in millions and millions of people enslaved in the “land of the free”.

As Marco puts it, slavery isn’t a dark moment in America, slavery was a dark era in America.

How can I celebrate the Fourth of July without acknowledging that our country isn’t perfect? It’s a sham if we pretend America’s democracy somehow insulates us from being wrong. By acknowledging the evil past and transformation away from it through the celebration of Juneteenth, it enhances the celebration of the Fourth of July that our country, founded on ideals not realized then and still not fully realized today, is able to become something better than we were founded, something better than enslaving people, something better than Jim Crow laws, something better than systematic racism.

The Fourth of July and Juneteenth are not in competition with each other. Juneteenth celebrates when, for the first time, the Fourth of July applied to enslaved people. The Fourth of July celebrates that we can have our Juneteenth moments when we’re open and honest about what’s wrong in our country because We The People are this country.

The 1776 Project or the 1836 Project—these attempts to pretend that America (or Texas) are great and glorious places beyond reproach is absolutely not American. By ignoring or whitewashing our history, we are preventing ourselves from critical examination of both what works in our country and what does not work in our country. Without that critical examination, we’ll never have future Juneteenth moments of correcting wrongs because we’ll be too ignorant to accept reality.

If I Were A Bishop During COVID

In a pretend world, if I was the abbot of the territorial abbey of Krafton (known by the locals as Krafton Abbey) and had the responsibility for a group of the faithful, as a bishop does for his diocese, I would write a letter like this to them.

Pʀᴀɪsᴇ ʙᴇ ᴛᴏ Jᴇsᴜs Cʜʀɪsᴛ…

Dear sisters and brothers!

When Our Savior walked amongst us, He healed the sick and instructed us to care for the sick as well. During the last 14 months, we have not only been asked to care for the sick but to help take care of the healthy, to ensure that we nor those amongst us get sick as well.

It has been a long road.

This has been a difficult and trying time for our Diocese, our Church, our cities, counties, state, country, and the world. I, first, wish to thank you for the extraordinary efforts we have seen since the beginning of this pandemic. We have completely transformed our day-to-day life with no person exempted. We have foregone worship, recreation, work. We have lost jobs and struggled to make ends meet. We have gone out of our way to help our neighbors through direct assistance, donations, patronizing local businesses, and more. Our health care workers have stepped up in a way I never hope is needed again. Our community has volunteered with public health officials to support increased testing, vaccination sites, and outreach efforts.

This is no small feat and we should take a moment to reflect that we are living in a time where we, as a community, must work together in ways not seen for a long time.

While we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, we are still in the tunnel.

As much as I pray for the end of this pandemic, we are still in the midst of it. We have made progress through refined understanding of the virus, how to mitigate and reduce the risks of transmission and infection, how to better treat those who are infected, and how to vaccinate against it.

This progress is a challenge, too. I am tired of the pandemic. I know many of you are and have been for awhile. As we learn more and are better able to resume the activities of life, there is the feeling that “we’re done” or “we’re past that now”.

Sadly, my sisters and brothers, that is not true. Yes, we’re further along the road than we have ever been before during this pandemic, but we’re still on the journey. We still have new cases daily in Austin higher than we saw a year ago. While Texas is doing better right now, we’re still seeing other states having upswings. And, of course, we must continue to pray and grieve with our Indian brothers and sisters who are currently in a horrific situation in their own country with almost 400,000 averaged new cases a day when a month ago it had never been above 100,000 averaged new cases a day.

While, here in Texas, we can continue to take steps forward, we cannot act as if the pandemic never existed or is over.

We are the Church of faith and reason.

St. Pope John Paul II wrote in the opening of his encyclical Fides et Ratio that:

Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves

As a Church, we know that faith and reason are intimately related!

“The Church remains profoundly convinced that faith and reason ‘mutually support each other’; each influences the other, as they offer to each other a purifying critique and a stimulus to pursue the search for deeper understanding.” (Fides et Ratio, 100)

Even renowned atheist Stephen Hawking was a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences! Why? Because to better understand the Creator—God—and the creation—our universe all the way down to us individually, we must seek out and explore new knowledge. Trusting science to reveal what science reveals while using our faith to guide that pursuit aligned with what science can not reveal.

In today’s context, we have to embrace the scientific and medical communities working tirelessly to better understand this virus, what it does, how to mitigate it, and how to stop it. The Church joins with public health officials to help the world navigate these uncertain waters.

In other words, we must work with hand-in-hand with the best experts to get through this pandemic.

How do we continue to mitigate?

We have learned a lot in the last year when all public Masses were suspended. We are not in a position to even consider that. The Church also affirms that the manifestation of the spiritual life is an essential human right. We are part of the local community and do need to heed public health demands.

One of the many ways to explain the mitigation approach is the “swiss cheese” idea. Every single type of mitigation has gaps, or holes, like swiss cheese. But, if we layer various forms of mitigation, we substantially reduce the transmission risks to where we can return to normal or near-normal activities.

Again, the point of all these mitigation efforts is to restore normalcy.

To that end, I will decree that all Catholic institutions implement protocols and policies that align with the spirit of guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and from public health officials.

I will address broad themes here. More particular details, that will be updated as this pandemic continues to evolve, will in an accompanying decree.

In-Person Attendance

Generally, obligation to attend events in-person is dispensed. For parish ministries, including religious education, an option should exist for virtual access. This doesn’t mean one-size fits all.

For example, children should have virtual access to religious formation. I understand that this is a heavy burden for a lot of parishes if they are opting to also do in-person opportunities. Within each deanery, parishes can join together to provide a singular virtual or singular in-person option to help spread the load of dual-formats.

The Sunday Obligation and Mass

The Sunday obligation remains, but can be fulfilled broadly:

  • Attendance at Mass in-person.
  • Praying along with Mass in any form (radio, television, live stream) for that Sunday, recorded or in real-time.
  • Praying the Readings for the day and sincerely reflecting upon them.
  • A major hour of the Liturgy of the Hours: Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Office of Readings in a solemn way.

I ask everyone to worship the Lord on Sunday in a way that matches your current situation. If everyone in your household is vaccinated and you’re comfortable with a more normal life routine, please come back to Mass. If your home includes those who are not yet vaccinated, pray with your family from home.

Every time I lift my eyes to heaven, I pray for an end of this pandemic, or at least for it to evolve to where we can be “near normal” soon. We miss you. The Church loves you. I love you. As much as I want us to join together as we did before 2020, the Church realizes that, as we’ve done over our 2000-year history, we sometimes have to exist outside of the ideal. I think of the Early Christians who had to meet in secret in homes to avoid being martyred. I think of the Japanese Christians who had to go into hiding and persisted hundreds of years without a priest. What we’re asking is nothing like what our ancestors had to endure.

Virtual Mass is not ideal. Sacraments can never be conveyed virtually. They require presence. They require physical action. I admit that attending Mass, the time in which we worship the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist while we are, in fact, not present is awkward.

As the primary meeting time of the community, a time to hear and reflect on the Word of God with a homily, I ask that parishes continue to provide a virtual Mass option. That said, I also ask that parishes offer other liturgical options that exist in our faith tradition as well. I encourage Deaneries to work together to offer more ways for the faithful to pray liturgically while away without the duplication of effort or adding an undue burden on any particular parish.

For my part, I will be livestreaming Vespers I (that is, Saturday Evening Prayer as we begin our liturgical Sunday).

Masks

Wearing face coverings has been shown to be the relatively easiest way to make a sizeable reduction of transmission of Covid. As this virus is primarily transmitted via droplets, the vast majority of types of face coverings provide some benefit.

Generally speaking, masks will be required while on Church grounds. Exceptions, such as age, medical exemptions, staff working in a private office or very small meetings with all parties vaccinated, will be noted in the coming decree.

Additionally, I ask that we all act with charity. We do not know why any particular person is wearing or not wearing a mask at any particular moment. Any enforcement or questioning regarding this is for our pastors or their delegated staff members. In other words, please don’t shame each other either way.

While masks aren’t enjoyable, it is a relatively small corporal work of mercy toward our broader community. If you don’t want to wear a mask because of the inconvenience, let us join these small penances together as an offering toward the Lord who innocently suffered so much for us.

Vaccines

In accordance with announcements from the Holy Father and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), we have found it is morally acceptable to receive any available vaccine for Covid-19. The USCCB, through joint work from the Doctrine and Pro-Life Committees, have noted that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are preferable over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

In Catholic teaching, there is a concept of “cooperation in evil”. In an ideal and perfect world, we would never at all cooperate with any form of evil or sinfulness in any way anywhere. However, there are situations where we have to look at the level of cooperation between the evil act and the act we’re trying to judge.

In full transparency, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed, in part, by research done on fetal cells acquired through an abortion decades ago. The abortion was not procured for the sake of research, but, as a secondary by-product of the horrible instance of abortion, fetal cells were acquired.

For the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, fetal cells, acquired the same way, were used as part of the production process.

In both cases, that Holy Father, the Vatican, and the USCCB all agree that the connection between us and the abortion is so remote, that there is no guilt associated when there is a proportionately serious reason. Covid 19 and the severe impact it has had on our communities, our nation, and our world qualifies.

Given the above, if you have an option, aim for the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. But, all three are morally acceptable if that is the dose you’re able to get.

Vaccines are our ticket back to normalcy. Vaccines are shown to provide better immunity than natural immunity (e.g. already catching Covid), the side effects are minimal, and their effectiveness is very high.

I strongly encourage all Catholics to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. For those who have any health concerns, please contact your doctor and follow their advice.

To that end, all parishes should make themselves available to the local health department to assist in any way possible in the vaccination campaign. This could include, but is not limited to, having flyers with vaccine information, host public health experts to be available following Masses, host vaccination sites at no cost to the health department (please contact me if there are any issues with this).

In short, I bind all of us to do what we can to help.

Other Mitigations

I repeat from earlier that all institutions should have a mitigation plan that implements protocols and policies that align with the spirit of guidelines from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and from public health officials.

If any institution has questions, concerns, or needs assistance in any way, please contact me directly.

As faith leaders and faithful Catholics, we are the “experts” in the spiritual life. Our public health officials are the experts in public health. Let us “lean into” that expertise and use it for the betterment of all.

We are close.

I thank God every day that the situation locally is moving forward. I pray often for those around the world who are not. As we continue to move ahead as a community of faith, let us not be “blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel”, but walk forward fully aware of the current realities with confidence that, by the will and help of God, we will complete this time of difficulty soon.

…Nᴏᴡ ᴀɴᴅ ғᴏʀᴇᴠᴇʀ.

26 Years Later

26 years ago, I was sitting in Mrs. Wilson’s 5th Grade science class when a classmate across the lab bench from me asked if I heard about the bombing in Oklahoma City.

At the time, I thought she probably didn’t know what she was talking about or, at least, it was a “small bomb”, whatever that means to a 5th grader. In 1995, I had heard about suicide bombers overseas, but they never seemed to be that big.

But, of course, she was correct. The Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, two hours away, was destroyed by a homegrown, fanatic terrorist, who was convinced that the Government was out to destroy American freedom.

Six years later, 9/11 overshadowed Oklahoma City and, I think, as a country, we’ve forgotten about it. Looking right now, none of the major cable news sites or the major national newspapers mention it on their homepage. Of the sites I search, the New York Times did share a video of AG Garland speaking at a service today. But that’s it.

After the storming of the Capitol earlier this year, the idea of homegrown terrorism being one of the top homeland security concerns is fresh in my mind.

These things are linked together. The Capitol events on January 6th were shocking, but Oklahoma City was a whole other level. If we forget what Americans can do when they fall completely into the mindset of “the government is the problem and they’re coming to take away everything”, we’re going to see something very bad.

Our government works best when we all come to the table together and legitimately work together. Yes, we have different opinions and there are different parties, but we must be able to hammer out something that we all can live with.

The Oklahoma City Memorial is beautiful and heartbreaking. There is an Empty Chair for everyone who died in the bombing, positioned roughly to show where they were when they died. 19 of the chairs are small. 19 babies and children died, as there was a day care in the building. The award-winning photograph of a firefighter carrying a dying baby out should be a sober reminder of the depths of evil we can sink to when we don’t see each other as people, but as Others that are trying to attack us.

26 years later, let’s pause and remember those who died this day and do whatever we can do ensure we are not fanning the flames for it to happen again.

The Longest Lent

Holy Saturday is perhaps one of my favorite days of the liturgical year. The cruelty of Good Friday is past us and we’re in this holding pattern. We do have faith that Easter is coming, but it isn’t here yet. Isn’t that where we are now? We have faith that Jesus will return, but not yet. The major difference is we know that the Easter Vigil will start after sundown and we’re a bit clueless on the second coming.

This year it takes another meaning for me. Yesterday, I received my second COVID-19 vaccination dose. Our communal Lent—not as a faith community, but as a global community—started for most of us around the same time as Lent 2020. While the majority of the world is still awaiting vaccinations and in the midst of surges, lockdowns of some sort, and the like, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

For me, I’m feeling pretty out of it today. It’s the most common side-effect: a day of flu-like aches and soreness for a day. While the overall road is still long ahead of us, the adults in our “quaranteam” have had both doses and just a couple weeks away from being among the fully-vaccinated. As for us, Easter is a celebration and a major milestone, but the work isn’t done. Same here. Things may be getting closer to normal, but we’re going to only be “near normal” for awhile. That’s okay because it’s what gets us to the end goal.

Lent 2020 has been effectively 402 days long so far. Looking forward to Easter.