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Advent Anxiety

The Advent season, the beginning of the liturgical year, presents us with scripture readings that lead us to reflect on the possibility of finding new life in unexpected places. An ending brings about a beginning; horrific apocalyptic imagery is a place for new hope; words of wisdom are heard in the desert; an elderly woman and a virgin are pregnant; and we are promised that salvation will be found in a helpless newborn.

We reflect on these dichotomies and impossibilities within the context of the ending of the calendar year. Our New Year’s resolutions of eleven months ago, whatever they were, are now a distant memory, and what’s left of this year is planned out and booked, leaving little room for last-minute changes. Everything around us reminds us of endings. In some cases, we are satisfied with our accomplishments, choices, and experiences, and in others we’re left with the sting of disappointment. Disappointments have a long staying power; a disappointment feels like an incomplete project. You envisioned a different outcome and your inability to let go is, in a way, a desperate search for a new path to get to the ending you had hoped for. Advent prepares us to see our unexpected endings as the sacred ground where God’s grace propels us to new courage and resolve.

Jesus isn’t telling us not to be anxious. He is telling us not to allow ourselves to become despondent.

There are many things to be disappointed about this year. I’m disappointed that so many of our American bishops have adopted political rhetoric that deeply wounds the hearts of faith-filled social-justice leaders who work tirelessly for the good of humanity, and the hearts of all Catholics who support these movements and institutions. I’m disappointed that it didn’t take long for Pope Francis’s Synod on Synodality to reveal that the institutional U.S. Church is structurally unprepared to listen to the needs and hopes of the people of God. I’m disappointed in President Biden’s failure to address the urgent needs of immigrants and refugees at our borders. I’m disappointed in the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, a verdict that essentially gives civilian vigilantes the green light to police civil-rights protests, and that gives the gun culture even greater sway in American public life—and power over human life. I’m disappointed that we’re almost two years into this global pandemic and we’re still debating the science behind masks and vaccinations. All these disappointments, among others not mentioned, can fill us with despair and leave us wondering how we got here, and doubting whether we can get out of it.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus instructs his disciples, “stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand” amid the cosmic and earthly turmoil that will precede his second coming (Luke 21:28). He also warns against our hearts becoming weighed down with the anxieties of daily life (Luke 21:34). The disappointments I listed above, not to mention my own personal misfortunes, have become a strong source of anxiety for me and for many Catholics I work with. It’s important to note that Jesus isn’t telling us not to be anxious. He is telling us not to allow ourselves to become despondent about it. These apocalyptic readings, read through the lens of the Advent season and the Incarnation, affirm human experience. Disappointment and anxiety are valid. It is in our human experience, in this one life, where our faith is enacted, where we, to the best of our ability, are called to be conscientious of our Gospel values in our daily decisions including how we decide to respond to our disappointments.

The greatest temptation when I list my disappointments is to give up. Chronic anxiety has the potential to paralyze us. So much of what we have experienced and continue to experience can be disheartening, so Jesus’s exhortation to “stand erect and raise [our] heads” is an encouraging word in a time when the problems of the institutional Church and the nation may seem too big and beyond our grasp. The last verse that is proclaimed this first Sunday of Advent is an invitation to pray for strength, and this prayer is efficacious. This Advent grace is needed to keep hope and to keep going.

This is the first in a series of 2021 Advent reflections. A new reflection will be posted every Sunday in Advent.

Everything you need to know about the Advent wreath

Advent wreath / Shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Nov 27, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).

During the holidays, nativity scenes and Christmas trees decorate most Catholic homes, but what about Advent wreaths? 

Advent wreaths are traditionally made from evergreen branches and have four candles. The four candles represent the four weeks of Advent—three candles are purple, and one is a rose color. 

The purple represents prayer, penance, and preparation for the coming of Christ. Historically, Advent was known as a “little Lent,” which is why the penitential color of purple is used. During Lent, we prepare for the resurrection of Christ on Easter. Similarly, during Advent, we prepare for the coming of Christ, both on Christmas and at the second coming. 

The rose candle is illuminated on the third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday. At Mass on the third Sunday, the priest will also wear rose colored vestments. Gaudete Sunday is a day for rejoicing and joy as the faithful draw near to the birth of Jesus, and it marks the midpoint of Advent. 

“The progressive lighting of the candles represents the expectation and hope surrounding our Lord’s coming into the world and the anticipation of his second coming to judge the living and the dead,” says the USCCB.

During the Advent season, the faithful will also notice a common theme in the Gospel readings. The readings focus on preparation or “making straight the path of the Lord,” penance, and fasting. All of these things remind us of the importance of preparing our hearts for the Lord and making room for his presence in our lives. 

Did you know?

The Advent wreath originated from a pagan European tradition, which consisted of lighting candles during the winter to ask the sun god to return with his light and warmth.

The first missionaries took advantage of this tradition to evangelize to people and taught them that they should use the Advent wreath as a way of preparing for Christ’s birth, and to celebrate his nativity and beg Jesus to infuse his light in their souls.

The circle of the Advent wreath is a geometric figure that has neither a beginning nor an end. It reminds us that God does not have a beginning or an end either, which reflects his unity and eternity. It is a sign of the unending love that the faithful should show the Lord and their neighbors, which must be constantly renewed and never stop.

The green color of the wreath represents hope and life. The Advent wreath reminds us that Christ is alive among us, and that we must cultivate a life of grace, spiritual growth, and hope during Advent. 

Bless your Advent wreath

The blessing of an Advent wreath takes place on the First Sunday of Advent or on the evening before the First Sunday of Advent.

When the blessing of the Advent wreath is celebrated in the home, it is appropriate that it be blessed by a parent or another member of the family.
To bless your Advent wreath at home, follow our guide, “How to bless your Advent wreath at home.

Award-winning artist David Troncoso on life in a camper van, the Renaissance, and learning from the masters

David Troncoso stands in his art studio with an altarpiece he recently completed. / Courtesy of David Troncoso.

Kingston, New York, Nov 27, 2021 / 07:42 am (CNA).

Sacred artist David Troncoso paints in the Renaissance style with DaVinci, Michelangelo, and Rafael as his guides. His art, he says, draws him closer to God and has deepened his prayer life. 

Troncoso, 35, a some-time resident of Long Island, produces large oil paintings with gesso and frames he makes by hand. When not at his physical studio in Kingston, N.Y., he travels and works from a camper van, which he renovated during the pandemic.  

His dedication to the daily craft of producing art led recently to a 2nd place award in the Catholic Art Institute’s Sacred Art Competition. The winning piece? A dramatic depiction of St. Michael slaying the devil on a golden background in a frame he built from scratch.  

Troncoso was featured on BYUtv’s series artFUL earlier this year, a series, which according to their website, is “about the inner workings of the creative spirit and how personal faith influences artists and their art.” 

CNA had a chance to talk with Troncoso about his art, his faith, and his plans for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you discover art? Is it something you’ve always done or did you find it later in life?

I’ve always been drawing, ever since I was a little kid. I loved drawing Looney Tunes, and from there, I went to superheroes and comic book characters. I was constantly drawing portraits and making comic books. Then, as I got older, I learned more and more about artists of the past, and eventually what it means to be a renaissance artist. I wanted to learn from the best.

What has been the most meaningful experience in terms of your training as an artist? 

The most meaningful was that I studied at the Grand Central Atelier in New York City and that’s where I really learned how to refine my drawing technique to be more realistic. When I left there, I started going to all the museums in the city, especially the MET. I would spend every day copying and sketching old master paintings and drawings, and then do an exact replica of the paintings from the museum. 

What do you find beautiful or intriguing about Renaissance art?  

There’s many things; I look at it from so many aspects. First, there’s the craftsmanship involved, and how long it takes to make these great works of art. I know all the time that the artists put into it to learn anatomy, and how to draw correctly, how to paint forms. They studied for years and years under their masters, so there's just so much craft and technical knowledge that I love about it. 

Then, there’s the colors that I love that you maybe don't see in contemporary work. Then, what the paintings are actually made of — like the wood — all these paintings start from freshly dried wood and glue to make a panel. Then, you make the gesso out of rabbit skin and powdered pigment. You’re making it from scratch, you even make your paint. I like the idea that everything you are doing, you are making it yourself. 

Then, also, it's the spiritual aspects of it. I find, in these paintings, they're searching or they speak about higher things that contemporary work or modern work doesn't really do.

That actually leads into my next question: Would you mind telling us a little bit about your personal faith journey and what that means to you?

It goes along the same lines as I discovered Renaissance work. I became obsessed with wanting to make Madonnas, and at some point, I had to question, “Why do I want to make these beautiful paintings of Mary or Christ?” and it just led me down the path of questioning my spirituality and religion. I learned more and more about being a Catholic. 

The more I learned about Renaissance work and these Christian symbols, I began to pray more and pray to be able to paint beautiful things or to have beautiful ideas. It led me to, in the morning before I start, I would pray and ask God to guide me to make something beautiful for him.

My artwork and my faith is so wrapped up into each other, and it's this very personal experience. I have this feeling that your creativity, your imagination, it comes from the divine. It doesn't come from this world. It comes from the heavens. So, as an artist, it's like God speaking through you as a medium, and that's how I like to think about it.

Have you ever faced any kind of resistance or misunderstanding when you tell somebody that you enjoy painting religious art?

In the art world, I never feel like I really fit in. I never wanted to be an artist where I’m talking about myself or my ego. I never wanted to be that artist or “this show is about me.” I always wanted to make work for beauty, for God, for higher aspirations. 

The art world today, I don’t understand it. I can’t connect with it. Medieval Renaissance all the way up until the 19th century were, for me, the best painters, and they were all producing work about and for the Church. You had beautiful narrative paintings about biblical subjects. At some point, society turned away from history, religious narratives, and beautifying spaces. It’s moved away from trying to talk about the divine God, our spirituality, and our place in this world.     

What does a typical day look like for you in your line of work? 

I like to wake up early, have my coffee, and get into the studio early. My studio is in this old building from 1742 — it predates the Revolutionary War — and it has beautiful Gothic windows. It almost feels like I’m in a monastery. It's so quiet. As soon as I go there, I feel like it’s this very sacred sort of space. I like to say a prayer, focus, and get into my zone. 

Every day for the last seven or eight years, I’ve listened to the same music, these classical composers. I start the day, every day, with John Field’s “Nocturnes,” and then it eventually leads into baroque and medieval music. 

I’ll work on a painting for a few hours, and then I’ll have to put it aside so I don’t overdo it. Then, I might work on a new idea or finish up some old ones. I’m also a woodworker, so I build and carve all the frames that I have for my artwork. So, some days will be spent in my wood shop, carving and building elaborate frames that I gesso and guild myself as well. 

Beyond your studio, what does home look like for you? 

Well, I’ve been living in a camper since the beginning of COVID. My fiancé and I renovated a 24-foot camper and have been living in it and traveling in it. I have a mini studio for when I’m on the road. It’s so much fun, it just felt like the time was right. There’s so much of the country we want to see. We got it [the camper] from our aunt, gutted the inside and rebuilt everything, so it’s very homey inside. 

We park it at campsites or at family’s property if we’re in upstate New York. If we go down to Long Island, we park it at my parents’ house. We spent the whole summer at the beach. I can bring portable tools with me while I’m doing that, and I use hand tools as well, so I don’t need any power for that.  

I’m jealous! Of all the places you’ve traveled, which has been the most inspiring for your creativity? 

I don't know if it's because I grew up by the ocean, but I'm drawn to the sea very much. We love to go up to rocky, treacherous coastlines. We spent an amazing time up in Newfoundland for a few weeks, and that was an incredible experience with its rocky coasts. Also, Iceland was incredible. It was just out of this world, it was just such a special, amazing landscape. Rocky, stormy coastlines really gets me, and I feel that power of nature. When you feel that power of nature, then you also feel the power of God in a way.

In thinking a little bit about the many years you’ve produced art, have you ever come across a mental block or a time when it was really challenging to create? If so, what was that like?

Yeah, I feel like I go through that all the time. Being an artist, it’s like one of those things you just accept. It’s like this rollercoaster — sometimes you're producing a lot of work and you feel this creative spirit. There’s new ideas coming to you. 

Then, you work on a project, but when the project is over, you can fall into a depression sometimes. It’s almost like being in a relationship; you’re in a relationship with this painting, with this idea, and then once you close the book on that, it’s done. So, you could feel empty at times. 

It happens a lot, but once you get into those lows, I think those are the moments when you question things more or you question life more. It’s a time to rethink things. It could be a daily thing, it could be monthly, but it happens all the time. 

What are some ways or techniques you have to break through those creative blocks?

I find meditation and prayer works a lot, and then sometimes I just have to do something completely different from art. I’m really into vintage motorcycles, so something like that where you get away from your art world and you go onto something different. I’ll get one, strip it apart, take the engine apart, gut it, and clean it, and it’s sort of meditative. All the parts have to go back in the right place, and all your hard work when you try to start it up, and it starts up. It’s an amazing feeling. 

Also, I play a lot of instruments, so that’s something I might do. I’ll grab a banjo, ukulele, or a guitar and strum on that.    

Of all of the different pieces of art that you've created, what is the one that stands out the most to you or that you're most proud of?

I'd say the most proud of is this one I just finished up, the altarpiece I've been working on for the last few years. That's sort of the accumulation of everything I've learned, from everything I've studied at school, classical painting, old master works, and woodworking. I put a year of planning into it, making blueprints and sketches and bigger sketches. I built the panel that you paint on. I got raw lumber from a lumberyard — I cleaned it and jointed it, and learned how to glue up a large panel and made everything from scratch. It was everything I’ve been striving for as an artist.

The large piece you mentioned was temporarily installed in a church. What was it like to have a piece like that of yours installed in a sacred space?

I didn’t even know it was going to happen. When the artFUL crew came to film, I had the piece set up in my studio. They said, “No, this really belongs in a church,” and they worked some magic. They called up the church and they said we could install it there for a bit. We got a U-Haul and carried it around the block.  

It was all set up — they had the lights on, and I went into the church to see it. I became emotional. I didn’t realize it would affect me that much. I get hard on myself about my own work, but seeing it in a church was like it was at home. It was everything that I had been working so hard for all these years. It was a very special moment.

Tell me more about artFUL. I heard they just showcased your work. Can you tell us about how you got connected with BYUtv for the episode? 

I got an email one day and they were like, “Hey, we really like your work and we’d love to see if you would be a good fit for the show.” I had a phone interview, and a couple weeks later, they said, “We’ll be there in a month.” 

It was such a fun experience. They filmed for about two and a half days, from 7 in the morning to 9 or 10 at night, some interviews and some art. They got a taste of my life and whatnot. I’m a very private person, so it was very out of my element, but it was such a cool experience. 

David Troncoso was recently featured in artFUL, a series produced by BYUtv. Courtesy of David Troncoso

What advice would you give other budding artists, or perhaps, a younger David Troncoso?

Definitely study the old masters to the fullest — see what they did and try to learn from them. Then, the biggest thing is perseverance. I failed so many times and on so many projects, and I tried to give up art many times. You are an artist and you can’t give it up. Don’t doubt yourself, keep working hard, and have faith. 

What’s next for you? What other pieces can we expect to see in the future? 

I’m working on a whole new body of work right now, so that’s pretty exciting. There's a few Virgin Mary commissions, which will be paintings and frames, and some other work that incorporates a lot of woodworking as well.

I'm also starting to work with the architects and designers to make paintings for churches and cathedrals. My main ambition is to keep connecting with people and to keep making beautiful things for the church. 

Love Means Answering the Mail

In the fall of 1943, in a world that seemed to have gone mad with war and division, Dorothy Day decided to take a year-long retreat from her duties at the Catholic Worker to reflect, pray, and write. For nearly a decade she had been working continuously to build up the fledgling Catholic Worker movement—publishing the newspaper, funding houses of hospitality, living in community with the destitute and the difficult, traveling and speaking—not to mention raising a daughter as a single parent. Everyone seemed to want or need something from her.­­­­­

The calls for help from every quarter of her life had come to feel like distractions that were interfering with what she viewed as her primary vocation: writing. Although we revere Day now for her commitment to social justice, she identified herself first as a writer. Jim Forest, Day’s biographer who worked and lived with her wrote, “Dorothy was a writer. There was always a notebook in her bag. She seemed endlessly to be taking notes and writing. Note-taking and journaling were as much a part of Dorothy as breathing.” Her output included not only spiritual masterpieces like The Long Loneliness, but also a massive catalog of diary entries and letters, published selections of which each run to six hundred pages or more. She produced her monthly column for the Catholic Worker newspaper, “On Pilgrimage,” for many decades.

But Day wasn’t satisfied. She yearned for more time to write and for the activities that fueled her writing: prayer, reading, and reflection. Her obligations gave her precious little time for such spiritual work. Residents and visitors came and went endlessly in the Catholic Worker houses and farms, and with them came conflict and stress. Day’s growing reputation as a champion of the poor put her in frequent demand for speaking invitations. Even the squalid conditions in which she lived weighed on her mind. “In this groaning of spirit,” she wrote in a diary entry in the late 1930s, “everything is irksome to me. The dirt, the garbage heaped in the gutters, the flies, the hopelessness of the human beings around me, all oppress me.” She dreamed of space, light, and freedom from these endless distractions.

Finally, in November 1943 she made her dream a reality by moving into a Dominican convent on Long Island, near a school that her daughter Tamar was attending. She sought to immerse herself in the rhythms of religious life: daily Masses, meditative prayer and reading, recitation of the rosary, writing and study. She took long walks and tried to rest in the afternoons. She was almost always alone. She had created the conditions in which she could free her mind to write and pray to her soul’s content.

And she hated it.

Instead of peace, she discovered what all of us find when we make a concerted effort to still the mind and settle into quiet prayer or contemplation: that we don’t like doing it. “My mind like an idiot wanders,” she wrote in her retreat diary, “converses, debates, argues, flounders. If I get in 15 minutes of honest to God praying I’m doing well.” Day’s description of her active, busy brain echoes biologists who tell us how those complex organs in our skulls love novelty and stimulation. Without these things, the brain jumps into action on its own, swirling in constant motion.

“I have made up my mind,” she wrote to a correspondent only a month into her retreat, “that...such a year should be spent in hard work in a hospital, say, not off in a convent, on one’s own.” Day needed the external stimulation that she found in the Catholic Worker movement, even while she longed to escape from its many distractions. She cut the retreat short and returned to the Catholic Worker community six months into her planned year-long stay.

Day’s struggles with retreats contain a lesson for all of us who see the distractions of this world as our enemy.

The retreat wasn’t entirely a disaster. She “labored at watering the garden of my soul,” she wrote in a Catholic Worker column after she returned, and that garden produced some spiritual fruit. But her descriptions of her retreat experience make it sound as though she was awfully glad to be finished with it: “Sometimes I prayed with joy and delight. Other times each bead of my rosary was heavy as lead. My steps dragged, my lips were numb. I felt a dead weight. I could do nothing but make an act of will and sit or kneel, and sigh in an agony of boredom.” It didn’t take Day long to realize that she was not well suited to a life without distractions. She would never attempt such a long retreat again, although she did continue to take shorter ones, which she found more to her liking. She learned and grew much from those retreats, and for many years she worked in fits and starts on a planned book about retreats, tentatively entitled All Is Grace. But in perhaps another demonstration of her rocky relationship with retreats, she never completed the book.

Day’s struggles with retreats contain a lesson for all of us who see the distractions of this world as our enemy, and who long for peace and quiet to pursue our work, whatever it might be, with single-minded devotion. The distractions of the last year and a half, after all, have been particularly intense ones. We struggle to manage life under a pandemic, worrying about both our individual health and the health of the country. Our children need help in their remote schooling, our parents are ill, our homes and offices need sanitizing. Who among us hasn’t longed for a respite from such distractions?

But love “calls us to the things of this world,” as the poet Richard Wilbur wrote. In the decades following her failed retreat, Day turned the Catholic Worker movement into a force for good throughout the world, sought and obtained funds to support its work, bought and sold multiple properties, and personally touched the lives of countless individuals through advocacy and speaking engagements. She was arrested and released on multiple occasions, traveled the world, helped her adult daughter raise her children, and nursed friends and companions through terminal illnesses. Every one of these activities represented a distraction from the vocation of writing, and yet these are the works for which we revere Dorothy Day to this day. Her distractions called her to the works of mercy and love, and she never stopped heeding that call.

“Love means answering the mail that comes in,” Day wrote in another diary entry, “and there is a fearful amount of it. That person in the hospital, that person suffering a breakdown of nerves, the person lonely; far-off, watching for the mailman each day. It means loving attention to those around us, the youngest and the oldest (drunk and sober).” Day reminds us that our primary vocation in life is to love one another—and that we are most frequently called to that love by our distractions.

Issue: 

Christian-Muslim dialogue needs a foundation in everyday friendship, French Dominican says

People in Strasbourg, France, hold placards reading "Catholics, muslims, jews all are Charlie" during a unity rally on Jan. 11, 2015 following a mass shooting by Muslim terrorists at the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. / Shutterstock

Denver Newsroom, Nov 26, 2021 / 00:00 am (CNA).

Progress in Christian-Muslim dialogue ultimately must come from Catholics and others who deliberately make efforts to befriend and understand Muslims, said the French-born Father Jean Druel, O.P. 

Druel, the longtime head of a Cairo-based Dominican institute on Islam in the Arab world stresses the need to have friendships, study and self-understanding that crosses religious lines.

“Maybe I’m very naïve but I’m a scholar in the end. I believe that intelligence and studying and reason, rationality, is the best weapon against stupidity, against violence,” Druel told CNA.

“Once you know why the other person says this, once you know why you say this, where this and that rule comes from, you get more freedom,” he said. “Freedom is the opposite of fear. If you know it, you gain freedom, you lose your fear, and you begin to engage with your own tradition freely, with a free mind.”

Druel is originally from the countryside of the Anjou region in western France. As a Dominican brother, he was sent to Cairo in 1994 for his two years of military service. He returned to Egypt in 2002 and specialized in Islamic studies, especially the Arabic language. He received a doctorate in Arabic grammar in 2012 from the Netherlands’ University of Nijmegen.

From an Islamic perspective, Druel noted, Arabic is a theological topic that belongs to religious studies. From 2014 to 2020, the priest served as the director of the Cairo-based Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies. The institute, also called by its French acronym IDEO, studies Arab Islam and cultivates academic and interreligious dialogue.

“There are a lot of misunderstandings about what dialogue is, with lots of very, very high expectations from everybody. There is a lot of frustration because of those very high expectations and misunderstandings,” he said.

In Druel’s view, high-level meetings between popes, other churchmen, and leading Muslim clergy are significant in importance, but only in a symbolic or diplomatic sense. For him, the basis for progress must include more Christians who actively seek out Muslims as friends and collaborators.

“You can never talk together, work together, if you’re not friends. That’s very basic,” he said. “If you put a Christian and Muslim in a room who don’t know another and you ask them to talk, nothing would happen.”

“If you don’t have a Muslim friend, you can talk about Islam for hours and hours but it does nothing. It’s a theoretical question. It’s absolutely pointless,” said the priest.

When Druel teaches a classroom of Christians, he sometimes deflects questions about Islam back on his students.

“You should ask your Muslim friends,” he likes to answer. “This results in silence, because no one has Muslim friends.”

“The day every Christian has a real Muslim friend, and the day every single Muslim has a real Christian friend, will be a big step forward,” said Druel.

“Usually people would wait for the pope to meet with an imam, but don’t do anything on their own level,” he said. “You can complain over and over that Christians are being persecuted in Pakistan. OK, but what are you doing with your neighbors? Are you visiting a mosque?” he asked.

Father Jean Druel (second from left) says friendship is the best foundation for inter-religious dialogue. Courtesy of Father Jean Druel
Father Jean Druel (second from left) says friendship is the best foundation for inter-religious dialogue. Courtesy of Father Jean Druel

'Do you think we are like that?'

For Druel, one of his most moving experiences with Muslims came in the wake of the horrific atrocities of the Islamic State group in Iraq, Syria, and other countries in the mid-2010s. Students from Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, one of the most prominent in the Muslim world, came to him and the other Dominicans of his community to ask their thoughts about ordinary Muslims and Muslim extremists.

“They came out and talked to us,” he recounted. They asked questions such as “Do you see us like that? Do you think we are like that?”

Another question they asked, he said, was this: “How do you do it? How can you at the same time be so religious, priests and monks, and so open-minded at the same time, and liberal?”

“For them it was a contradiction,” Drool said. “What they see in the media about Islam, just like everybody does, is you have to choose between jihad and atheism. And they said ‘we refuse to choose between the Islamic state and atheism. We want to be faithful Muslims and open-minded.’”

Druel’s advice for them? To study, to engage with religious traditions, texts, and interpretations, and to deepen one’s religion beyond the level of mere “identity.”

“Once you enter into this discussion, you become part of the discussion. You’re not at an identity level anymore. You gain some freedom and some empowerment in the discussion itself,” he said.

Christians, too, could follow this advice to get past the false dichotomies of their societies, Druel believes.

Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, sign a joint declaration on human fraternity during an interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Feb. 4, 2019. .  Vatican Media.
Pope Francis and Ahmed el-Tayeb, grand imam of al-Azhar, sign a joint declaration on human fraternity during an interreligious meeting in Abu Dhabi, UAE, Feb. 4, 2019. . Vatican Media.

Druel has his own analysis of prominent Christian-Muslim dialogue, such as when the pope meets a high-level Muslim leader, or a priest and an imam take pictures together, or a Christian woman and a Muslim woman appear on stage for a joint talk.

“This is very much symbolic. To be honest, there is no content. You can’t expect any content from these meetings,” he said. “For many people it’s the only thing they see of inter-religious dialogue, and they don’t understand why there is no progress, because that’s not the point.”

Pope Francis’ own recent collaboration with Muslims includes the February 2019 joint signing of a document on human fraternity, world peace, and coexistence with Sheik Ahmad el-Tayeb, Grand Imam of al-Azhar. The grand imam heads the mosque linked to the university of the same name and is considered a major leader of Sunni Islam.

Such encounters are “diplomatic,” in Druel’s view.

“When the pope and Sheik el-Tayeb sign a document in common, the biggest thing they can say is ‘we are brothers,’” he said.

“We have not waited until 2019 to discover that we are brothers,” Druel said. While people can find this frustrating because they have such high expectations, these meetings are nonetheless very important.

“It is great progress in itself that most Christian and Muslim leaders are willing to meet,” Druel said. “This level of dialogue is extremely important, extremely needed. But it only brings symbolic results. If you don’t accept this you feel extremely frustrated.”

Scholarly interaction also key

For Druel, academic dialogue between Christian and Muslim scholars is “an extremely important part of interreligious dialogue.” This dialogue is not very visible, but these scholars deal with specific topics and benefit from not needing to serve as representatives of their religion. This work is “extremely rich in terms of content,” but “invisible,” he noted.

These efforts aim to reach agreement on definitions and history. They seek to answer questions like “Can we describe together the same events? Can we talk, on an academic level, about the history of the Quran and the history of Mohammed?”

Druel lamented that some academics, especially in France, show “a very anti-religious tendency” and have reservations about religious or theological studies. Only private French universities have theology departments. The German academic situation is somewhat better, where some academies have Christian or Muslim specialties.

Another way to think about Christian-Muslim dialogue is how to undertake common endeavors such as Druel’s institute, which employs people of both religions.

“We have to run a library. We have to publish a journal,” he said. “We don’t talk of religion, because nobody is a specialist. It would be dangerous to deal with religious topics. But we have actions in common. We learn about one another through doing things.”

He referred to the young adult association in France called Coexister, dedicated to bringing Jews, Muslims, Christians, and atheists to take community action together. One of its principles is not to talk about religion.

“It seems paradoxical: They do things like help the poor, distribute food in the streets, talk about citizenship, you’d expect them to talk about religion,” said Druel.

Similarly, the Dominican institute’s Christian and Muslim employees never talk religion because, in Druel’s words, “they do not have the tools, the epistemology, the experience, and knowledge to deal with this topic peacefully.”

“Any discussions would devolve into sentiments like ‘we are right, you are wrong’,” he said.

Nonetheless, their collaboration helps Christians and Muslims get to know one another.

“We go to their festivities, they come to ours,” said the priest.

From his work, Druel has learned of the need to hire both Christians and Muslims, through practicing what he called “positive discrimination,” roughly equivalent to what Americans know as affirmative action. This practice is against his first instincts.

“As a Frenchman I’m very much against it,” he said, but in the context of Egypt “one would end up in a ghetto very quick” without being intentional about seeking out religiously diverse employees. If the center only asked its Christian employees for recommended candidates for a cook or a gatekeeper position, they would only recommend other Christians.

He suggested Christians can think about this in seeking to rent an apartment to someone.

“Are you expressly going to look for a Muslim or are you going to spontaneously rent to a Christian guy?” he asked.

“How willing am I to rent my flat to a Muslim family? How willing am I to hire a Muslim employee?” he asked, adding, “Muslims should ask themselves the same about Christians.”

He suggested that those who read his remarks to CNA introduce themselves to Muslim neighbors or seek out Muslims to befriend. They should go to a mosque themselves.

“But if they are not willing to do this, then there is no point in talking about Christian-Muslim dialogue, and criticizing it. There is no point, at all,” he said. “This is a very realistic expectation, very easy to do, and it’s very rewarding. You can’t be disappointed. You will have an experience, I promise.”

Marriage between Christians and Muslims is also an area for inter-religious dialogue, and a large focus of Catholic-Muslim dialogue in France.

“Interreligious marriage is beautiful and very rich and amazing, until you have children,” the priest said. “Then when you have children it explodes. Because you have to transmit something, you have to transmit your values.

“This is where most marriages would just explode, when children come,” he said. “Are they going to be Christian? Are they going to be Muslim?” 

People should not reject a friend or family member’s fiancée for being Muslim, but they should be realistic with the engaged couple about the difficulties of religious differences about their children’s future, Druel advised. These engaged couples should know that “most of these marriages fail because of the children,” he said.

The priest warned against a “rather fake” concept of Christian-Muslim interaction, as when people claim to know about Islam because they live in an apartment or a neighborhood with Muslim neighbors.

“But you don’t talk to them. And then you draw conclusions,” he said. Whether Christians live in predominant Muslim countries or in predominantly Muslim suburbs of French cities, many claim to know Muslims and Islam and “believe they are specialists” but “they have no Muslim friends, they have never been to a mosque, they never talk to Muslims or work with them.”

Secularism and ignorance can be a barrier, too, according to Druel.

“In France we have a problem with religion, not with Islam. Because people are so ignorant of their own religion — Christians and Muslims alike, and atheists, too. There is an illiteracy about religion.”

He continued: “Everything becomes ‘identity.’ You have to dress as a Muslim, or as a Christian; it’s nothing related to faith, or understanding, or intention. People fight over crosses in school rooms or halal meat at school just for the sake of identity.”

Druel reiterated that simply visiting with Muslims is the best way to overcome obstacles and misunderstanding.

“I’ve been to mosques every week for years. I’ve been taking non-Muslim friends to mosques. They’ve been frightened, worrying that something will happen, but nothing happens,” he said. “We’ve always received very positive reactions.”

Agape Love: The Argument from Johnny Cash

There is a kind of supra-rational argument to be made for God through beauty, particularly through music. Matthew Becklo provides one such example using the music of Johnny Cash.

Parents who lost daughter in accident find joy in adoption ‘God has always been there’

Lisa, Katharine, and Bruce Alexander. / Screenshot EWTN Pro-Life Weekly

Denver Newsroom, Nov 25, 2021 / 09:00 am (CNA).

Biological parents to two daughters and two sons, Bruce and Lisa Alexander first considered adoption after their youngest was born. However, it was not until the 2012 March for Life that the Catholic couple decided to proceed. 

At the time, Lisa was thinking about adoption and decided to ask her husband about it. He was thinking the same thing. 

“From then on, the Holy Spirit was with us,” she said in a 2018 interview with EWTN Pro-Life Weekly that CNA is highlighting for National Adoption Month. 

Bruce recalled, “The fact that things lined up as quickly as they did, and what were typical … delays where the process normally drags on or gets held up — we didn’t experience that.” 

Realizing that they were older in age than most adoptive parents, the Alexanders decided to adopt an older child by making a switch from the infancy program to the early child program. On Jan. 14, 2014, they made their decision but, that same day, they received a call from the adoption agency. 

“She told me … ‘I know you’re interested in maybe switching but I’d like to tell you that we have a baby girl,’” Lisa explained. “Neither one of us needed to take any time. We knew that God had just placed this girl, even at that point, we thought that this was the child that was for our family.”

The little girl’s name was Katharine.

Holding back tears, Bruce added, “Even at the call, it was intuitively obvious we were being called.”

Throughout the adoption process, the Alexanders had been set on adopting a little boy. When they found out it was a little girl, they considered it to be a sign from above.

That sign came in the wake of tremendous heartache. In 2009, the Alexanders’ oldest daughter, Codi, was riding her bike home when she was hit by a car. Five days later, Codi died at the age of 16. 

“Our older daughter, who is with Jesus in Heaven, is who I prayed to and the Blessed Mother,” Lisa explained. “And I had a feeling that Codi had something to do with bringing this little girl to our family.”

This little girl, though, was born facing an increasingly common problem. Her birth mother was addicted to oxycodone. The adoption agency assured the Alexanders that she was weaned off, but did suggest contacting their pediatrician. 

“Their response was that there simply just isn’t enough research,” said Lisa. “We just thought that we would be provided for if Katharine needed something that later on in life that was tied with this addiction.”

Fast forward ahead and nothing is stopping little Katharine, or as she prefers being called, “Peanut.” 

Big brothers Chase and Brandon Alexander have embraced their new roles from playing baseball to tackling the playground with Katharine and welcomed the new energy that has filled their home. 

“A lot of the new creativity comes from her,” said Chase. 

While Katharine, now 7, brings a new energy into their home, there is also a sense of familiarity.

“It was the wittiness, I thought, that both Katharine and my older sister Codi had that they share,” explained Chase. “Not so much cracking a joke but more of like the comment at the right time that you wouldn’t expect from a four year old but just kind of fits in.”

“It’s not coincidence,” expressed Bruce. 

Lisa added, “I have always believed that Katharine was heavenly sent. … If you knew Codi, she definitely had her way with deciding who was going to come to our family.”

“There have been some tough times in our family, but God has always been there,” she concluded. 

Wife of Catholic radio host among those killed in Christmas Parade attack

Jackson Sparks, 8, was among those killed in the Christmas parade attack Nov. 21 in Waukesha, Wisc. / Screenshot of Twitter post

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 25, 2021 / 00:00 am (CNA).

Tributes have continued to pour in in the wake of the SUV attack at a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisc., as the death toll continues to rise, with the wife of a Catholic radio host among the victims.

On Tuesday, 8-year-old Jackson Sparks succumbed to his injuries and became the youngest fatality of the attack. The death toll now stands at six, with at least 50 injured. He was marching in the parade with his baseball team, the Waukesha Blazers.

Sparks was remembered by his baseball organization’s president Jeff Rogers as someone who was “a sweet, talented boy who was a joy to coach." 

“He was an awesome utility player and played on the Blazers Wolfpack team. Jackson was sweet and tender-hearted with a contagious smile. He was the little guy on the team that everyone supported. You couldn’t help but love him," Rogers said in a Facebook post.

The attack on Nov. 21 involved a red SUV that barreled through barricades and into a crowd marching down the main street of Waukesha just before 4:40 p.m. on Nov. 21. The driver, Darrell Brooks Jr., was arrested. 

Videos posted on social media showed the vehicle racing down the parade route, with police in pursuit, past horrified onlookers moments before marchers were struck.

A priest injured in the attack was released from the hospital on Monday, according to the Catholic Community of Waukesha. 

Father Patrick Heppe, a parish priest of the Catholic Community of Waukesha, a cluster of the four Catholic churches in the Milwaukee suburb, is recovering well.

“At the prayer service last night, Fr. Matthew informed everyone that Fr. Pat is at home and recovering from a concussion after spending Sunday night in the hospital,” said a Nov. 23 statement from Monica Cardenas, the parish’s director of stewardship and communication.

“At this time, he is resting, maintaining his sense of humor and his prognosis is good. He appreciates your prayers and is thinking of and praying for our community,” she said. 

message sent to Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki of Milwaukee said that the pope was “asking the Lord to bestow upon everyone the spiritual strength which triumphs over violence and overcomes evil with good.”

“The Holy Father asks you kindly to convey the assurance of his spiritual closeness to all affected by the tragic incident that recently took place in Waukesha,” said the telegram, released on Nov. 23 and sent on the pope’s behalf by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin.

“He commends the souls of those who died to Almighty God’s loving mercy and implores the divine gifts of healing and consolation upon the injured and bereaved.”

Four of the dead were affiliated with a popular local dancing troupe, the “Milwaukee Dancing Grannies.” The “Dancing Grannies'' perform at parades throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota. Two dancers, their choreographer, and the husband of a dancer were killed, and others were injured. 

Tamara Durand, 52, was making her debut performance as a “Dancing Granny.” Durand’s husband, Dave, is a Catholic author and the host of “The Dave Durand Show” on Relevant Radio. According to local media reports, Tamara was actively involved in her parish and hoped to one day travel to the Vatican. 

“Please pray for the repose of the soul of Tamara Durand, wife of Dave Durand, part of our Relevant Radio family,” Cale Clark, host of “The Cale Clark Show” on Relevant Radio, tweeted on Wednesday. “She lost her life in the tragedy that occurred at the Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, on Sunday.”

Another “Granny,” Virginia “Ginny” Sorenson, 79, was the “heart and soul” of the team. In an August 2021 profile of the team by CBS 58, Sorenson explained that although she was sidelined from performing due to surgery, she stayed in the group as their choreographer. 

Glencastle Irish Dancers, Inc., where Sorenson's daughters and granddaughters take dance lessons, spoke of her friendly personality. 

“She always had a smile on her face and a kind word to share,” the dance organization said in a Facebook post on Nov. 22. “Our hearts are heavy today for the family and all who knew and loved Ginny. Please keep this family and all families affected by this tragedy in your thoughts and prayers.” 

Leanna Owen, 71, was the shortest and smallest “Granny.” A Catholic, she was described by the Washington Post as “a Packers fan and an animal lover” who owned an English bulldog. She managed apartment buildings and “didn’t have a mean bone in her body.” 

10 saintly quotes to reflect on this Thanksgiving

null / Rawpixel.com/Shutterstock.

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Nov 25, 2021 / 00:00 am (CNA).

A thanksgiving should be made to God each and every day, according to the saints in heaven. In special celebration of the Thanksgiving holiday, here are 10 saintly quotes on the importance of gratitude.

1. St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta: “The best way to show my gratitude is to accept everything, even my problems, with joy.”

2. St. Gianna Beretta Molla: “The secret of happiness is to live moment by moment and to thank God for all that He, in His goodness, sends to us day after day.”

3. Pope St. John Paul II:Duc in altum! (Put out into the deep!) These words ring out for us today, and they invite us to remember the past with gratitude, to live the present with enthusiasm and to look forward to the future with confidence.”

4: St. Thérèse of Lisieux: “Jesus does not demand great actions from us, but simply surrender and gratitude.”

5. St. Josemaría Escrivá: “Get used to lifting your heart to God, in acts of thanksgiving, many times a day. Because he gives you this and that. Because you have been despised. Because you haven’t what you need or because you have. Because he made his Mother so beautiful, his Mother who is also your Mother. Because he created the sun and the moon and this animal and that plant. Because he made that man eloquent and you he left tongue-tied … Thank him for everything, because everything is good.”

6. St. Teresa of Ávila: “In all created things discern the providence and wisdom of God, and in all things give Him thanks.” 

7. Blessed Solanus Casey: “Thank God ahead of time.” 

8. St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier: “Gratitude is the memory of the heart.” 

9. St. John Vianney: “Believe and adore. Believe that Jesus Christ is in this sacrament as truly as He was nine months in the womb of Mary, as really as He was nailed to the Cross. Adore in humility and gratitude.”

10: St. Francis, in his “Canticle of the Sun”: 

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,

especially through my lord Brother Sun,

who brings the day; and You give light through him.

And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!

Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;

in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful ...

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks, and serve Him with great humility.

‘The Great Joy’

At his inauguration two weeks after the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, President Joe Biden spoke movingly of America’s democratic ideals even as he soberly enumerated the country’s challenges: “A raging virus. Growing inequity. The sting of systemic racism. A climate in crisis.” For many who were listening, hopes were high that a new administration would bring a return to normalcy. Nearly a year later, however, the pandemic is still with us, despite the wide availability of effective vaccines. An otherwise robust economic recovery is held back by rising consumer prices and lingering supply-chain disruptions. The conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin for murdering George Floyd has not quelled racial tensions. Another summer of deadly fires and floods has underscored the inadequacy of our response to climate change. And the Republican attack on voting rights continues, while our already intensely partisan country remains more divided than ever.

Small wonder, then, that large numbers of Americans are reporting symptoms of anxiety, depression, and exhaustion. Recent surveys by NPR and data from the U.S. Census Bureau show that a third of U.S. adults are struggling with mental-health challenges; children and young people—especially LGBTQ people and people of color—are faring even worse. The spike comes even as the nation’s patchwork mental-health system, already overtaxed before the start of the pandemic, has proved incapable of accommodating the surge in demand for services. Providers’ waiting lists have grown just as more therapists, as well as more doctors and nurses in COVID wards, report increased levels of burnout. The crisis is visible not only in the record sales of books on trauma and self-care or in unruly outbursts on airplanes; unable to find or afford relief, many Americans have turned to self-medication and substance abuse.

Whether or not things are actually worse than normal, they certainly feel that way. That may be at least partly by design. Bad news and sensationalism in the media are nothing new—doom and gloom have always sold best—but the ever-more sophisticated algorithms deployed by tech and media companies, engineered to favor incendiary and divisive content in viewers’ feeds, have incentivized media outlets to produce and highlight more of these negative stories than they otherwise might. The result is that other, more positive stories are crowded out. For instance, poverty has been drastically reduced thanks to the generous provisions of the American Rescue Plan. The passage of the Infrastructure and Jobs Act has paved the way for the country to begin repairing its crumbling roadways, bridges, and transit systems. And the approval of vaccines for children and the announcement of an effective new antiviral therapy from Pfizer may finally allow society to recover from the pandemic

The Christian tradition has always insisted that the way we see things has moral, spiritual, and even cosmic stakes.

Though we don’t always realize it, we are free to choose where and how to direct our attention. As the Advent season reminds us, the Christian tradition has always insisted that the way we see things—others, ourselves, our world—has moral, spiritual, and even cosmic stakes. In a 1966 essay titled “The Time of the End Is the Time of New Room,” Thomas Merton reflects on a single detail in Luke’s infancy narrative: Mary gives birth to Jesus and lays him in a manger because “there was no room for them at the inn.” Packed with travelers rushing to register for the Roman census, the inn in Merton’s telling becomes a mirror image of modern mass society, where “each new announcement is the greatest announcement, where every day’s disaster is beyond compare.” Such a world, awash in distraction, cannot help failing to notice Christ’s nativity: “There is so much news that there is no room left for the true tidings, the ‘Good News,’ The Great Joy.”

This joy—the fact of the Incarnation, which we celebrate at Christmas—is the alternative to anxiety and despair. It announces a different kind of “end times,” marked by the fulfillment of hopes and the definitive arrival of freedom. This is what Pope Francis has spent much of his pontificate trying to get us to see. Moving forward starts with allowing ourselves to dream of a more fraternal world, one animated by solidarity rather than anxiety. The pope’s decision to inaugurate a synod in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic ought to remind us that this is not the time to turn inward or surrender to our fears.

The trials many people in America and around the world are suffering are real, and they should not be minimized. As Pope Francis noted in his global prayer intentions for November, what those in pain need from us is neither judgment nor false optimism, but a listening ear and expanded access to care. There will always be bad news. But it need not overwhelm or deter us. As Christians, we’re supposed to see things differently. Merton said it well: it’s into this grim, broken world, “this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, that Christ comes unbidden.” We just need to be ready to recognize and welcome him. 

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