Over the next year and two I hope to blog a bit about my experiences at Boston College and how my intellectual formation is influenced by and shapes my identity as a Capuchin friar. Meanwhile, as I ponder my return to formal theological studies, I post for your consideration the personal statement I submitted to the School of Theology and Ministry board of admissions in May.
In the course of my wanderings all I have wanted is to be a person, a Christian, a follower of Jesus, one who loves God and all people. I have been an editor in New York, a teacher in Baltimore, and a community organizer in Boston. Now I am a brother on pilgrimage with the Capuchin Franciscans. Over the last two years I have migrated from New York to Kansas to California with the friars. In a little while I will return to Boston as a vowed religious.
The path of initial formation with the Capuchins brings me to Boston College School of Theology and Ministry for continuing education. I earned a Master of Divinity degree five years ago. By learning theology, I learned how I wanted to live—by the Gospel. By resuming theological studies, I seek to live the Gospel better.
My spiritual awakening began at Cornell University, where I learned how to think and to see the world with my own senses. I collided with different realities, and in the cracking of my worldview I came to realize how desperate I was to believe. My soul yearned for the spirit of God. And God began to whisper a new word and a new story to teach me living truth. God whispered to me that there are things more important than work, family, nation, and self. God whispered doubts about the American Dream my parents and educators told me about and gave me a new story—the story of the people of God.
God did this not so I would condemn my elders, who never told me about the Gospel, but to love them more in their spiritual poverty and mine. God did this not so I would turn my back on a world that seems built to thwart all possibility of an encounter with the living God, but to be in the world more and love in it so that God’s presence might shine more brightly. My spiritual awakening was an awakening into relationship and into community.
By the time I began theological studies at Boston University in 2005, I had long shaken my stupor. I was confirmed in the Catholic faith on Pentecost in 2000. I believe my felt experience of the sacrament of confirmation was a Spirit-filled encounter with the God of Jesus Christ. I felt free; I felt loved. I moved to Boston to learn better how to love this God who loved me and set me free. (Because of this love, I previously spent two years grinding through the privations of urban mission in Baltimore, including one year teaching grammar and math at a GED center and one year teaching religion to inner-city youth at a Catholic school.) God began to show me what to do. If I wanted to know and love this God, I would work for the transformation of broken relationships. What began as an intellectual assent to the truth of Catholic social teaching became a personal concern for workers and the employers who do them wrong; immigrants and their hostile U.S. neighbors; prisoners and a scorning society; and the homeless and the housed who shun them. The God who rescued me from isolation shattered my indifference to others.
For three years I practiced public discipleship, working for the conversion of society as an organizer mobilizing churches. Then in 2011, I joined the Capuchins to renew my own conversion, on the level of my personal relationship with God and my interpersonal relationships. As novitiate ends and post-novitiate draws near, I am eager to integrate being and doing and practice the Gospel on both personal and social levels.
Why theological studies now? The people of God in the United States today live among neighbors who classify themselves as “spiritual, not religious” and, increasingly, “neither spiritual nor religious.” Many in the Church neither desire nor know how to speak to them. In our own house, we live with sisters and brothers who have faith in Jesus but no confidence in the Church of Christ. We struggle to live the Gospel together. Conversely, among Church loyalists, both lay and clerical, I sense a strain of anti-elitism: a distrust of well-educated laypersons who are exploring and expanding the Catholic intellectual tradition in its breadth, depth, plurality, and ambiguity. If a “spiritual, not religious” Christian imperils a living, life-giving tradition by severing the person of Christ from the community of believers, then an “intellectual, not academic” believer does the same by taking the name of Jesus but not the language our most thoughtful Christians use to approach him. Among Catholics, the “spiritual, not religious” and “intellectual, not academic” are falling into opposite camps, with the lay “renegades” in the former and the loyalists in the latter.
I wish to bridge the divide between these groups. I wish to study the nature of the Church, understanding the much-contested Second Vatican Council; the nature of Christ, understood from mainstream (magisterial) and marginal (liberation and feminist) perspectives; our social doctrine in its theological and philosophical foundations; and the prophetic tradition, woven like a golden thread into Scripture from the Hebrew prophets to the Gospels. I would do this as a Franciscan developing a vernacular theology, a practical personalism leading to a program of social action in covenant with all Catholics, all Christians, people of all faiths, and people of good will.
As a Capuchin, I am called to a life of continual transformation, conforming myself to the life of Jesus Christ by living the Gospel after the example of Francis of Assisi. As a lay religious minister, it is my work to make a space where the justice and compassion of Christ becomes real. Those who can name reality make reality. I want to speak and act in Christ in such a way as to encompass different realities: not to annihilate them or assimilate them into my own, but to describe them, criticize them, and draw them closer together, within the ultimate reality of God, into a new shared reality. This is the project I bring to the School of Theology and Ministry.