"Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx...."

by Michael Sean Winters

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It is the day before Thanksgiving and so my thoughts, like the thoughts of many, turn to the many, many reasons to be thankful. Gratitude, for the Christian, must become a kind of second nature, a disposition of the heart, first, and later the head, to see past the veil of tears, kindle hope in the darkness, and not a generic hope, still less an optimism, but a sure hope in God’s providence over all creation. Today, in addition to being grateful for friends and family, I should like to concentrate on the ecclesial sources of gratitude.

This year, at the top of my list of reasons to be grateful is Pope Francis. For those of us who write about religion, he is the gift that keeps on giving. But, at a deeper level, this obviously good man is so clearly trying to help us all rekindle the hope and the faith of the early Church, the sense of mission, the commitment to the poor and the deep experience of, and trust in, God’s mercy, I sometimes get impatient with those who hurl criticisms at him. Daily, he confronts obstacles within a culture that is humanly sick and devoid of the Gospel: The Curia, for all their morning Masses and daily rosaries, can be a hotbed of narcissistic viciousness. Everyone has known this for some time. Francis has had the courage to confront it.

I am grateful, too, for the leadership of bishops like Cardinal Sean O’Malley in Boston, who has turned that archdiocese around in every way a diocese can be turned around. Here in Washington, my own bishop, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, is a voice of sanity and theological knowledge that continues to serve the Church locally, nationally and throughout the world, as we saw at the recent synod. In Chicago, Archbishop Blase Cupich has, in only one year, completely refurbished the Church’s public image and begun the longer task of strengthening a local Church whose vibrancy had begun to wane. I could go on. For all my frustrations with some bishops, and with the conference as a whole, I am grateful for the leadership of these three and of others like them. (You know who you are! Best not to mention you by name lest you get into trouble!) I would also be remiss if I did not acknowledge my debt of gratitude to the many fine priests who have accompanied me through life, especially in the dark times, most especially in the self-inflicted dark times.

I am grateful to my colleagues here at NCR and at the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies. Both organizations, in different ways, serve the Church. NCR’s independence and commitment to reporting is second to none in the Catholic press: This is well known. How proud I am to have Josh McElwee as a colleague, knowing that he is on a flight to Kenya this morning with the pope, and that he will deliver the best reporting on this trip anyone can find. What would I do without the mentorship of Tom Roberts! Trading pontifical secrets with Fr. Tom Reese! All the hard work by the team in Kansas City, including those who actually understand how this whole web stuff works! At the Institute, we put together projects that help feed the intellectual life of the Church, serving as a kind of on-campus think tank, from our series of conferences against libertarianism to our exploration of the ways digitized archival material can be used in the classroom. If a Catholic university is where the Church does her thinking, I think we do some of the best thinking around at IPR. Big shout out, too, to my colleagues at Georgetown, Notre Dame, Boston College, etc.

I am grateful for my parish, the Cathedral of St. Matthew, the Apostle. Since moving to the burbs and getting rid of my car, I have not been as active as I was formerly, but each Sunday morning, I make it down to the 10 a.m. Mass and the choir and organist are always magnificent, the beauty of the Church is always conducive to prayer, the sermons are much improved since we signed up some Dominicans to preside at the Mass I attend, and I always leave there feeling nourished in faith.

I am grateful for the good work done by Catholic Charities and Catholic Relief Services, by the Catholic Climate Covenant and the Africa Faith & Justice Network, by the USCCB Committee on National Collections and the Catholic Mobilizing Network, by Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good and NETWORK, all the varied work – and it is work, hard work – to help the poor, comfort the afflicted, and reform our society and culture in ways that are protect life and promote the common good.

Joseph Brodsky died too young. Among his many brilliant poems, the last lines of a poem entitled simply “May 24, 1980” are the words closest to my own sentiments today:

 What should I say about my life? That it's long and abhors transparence.

Broken eggs make me grieve; the omelet, though, makes me vomit.

Yet until brown clay has been rammed down my larynx,

only gratitude will be gushing from it. 


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