The Scandal of the Separation

It’s a terrible juxtaposition: Mt. 18:1-5, read in Catholic churches August 14, and the treatment of refugee children on US borders. In the former, Jesus says the Kingdom belongs to children: “whoever receives one child…in my name receives me.” It hasn’t been in the press much lately: all the more reason to remember that this administration tore approximately 3,000 children away from their parents, their only buffer/security in a strange country with another language. What happened to them next?

In an editorial August 5, the Washington Post reported horrific treatment like refusing water. In “a detention center for migrant minors in Virginia — children as young as 14 stripped naked, shackled, strapped to chairs, their heads encased in bags, left for days or longer in solitary confinement, and in some cases beaten and bruised.” And that’s only one report.

The courage and persistence of U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw forced the government to return some children, but it’s unclear how many remain alone and frightened. “The reality is that for every parent that is not located, there will be a permanently orphaned child and that is 100 percent the responsibility of the administration,” the judge said. Not only did the Trump government fail to meet the reunification deadline, it failed on its vow to notify the ACLU (which brought the original lawsuit on behalf of separated families) of the time and place of each reunification, so the organization could verify them.

Record-keeping was spotty; the judge recently said he was impressed by the efforts, but who can believe the testimony of the callous, cruel people who instigated this heartbreak? They now say some parents are “ineligible” and others deported. That leaves a child lonely, vulnerable, the Christ in our midst abandoned.

Another contrast: the film “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about Mr. Rogers’ t.v. show. I must admit that when my children were young, I rarely saw it, but I overheard a lot. A half-hour of it and a half-hour of “Sesame Street” kept the darlings entertained while I cooked dinner. I didn’t realize that he treated controversial topics like integration, assassination and self-doubt in ways that children could understand. Later accused that his emphasis on every child as special may have made a whole generation feel entitled, the response was: If every child ISN’T special, that undermines the very foundations of Christianity. Which brings us back to the beginning, Matthew’s gospel, and the abusive ways that’s been violated.

De-Sanitizing the Saints

For some reason, we want to prettify our holy ones, make them antiseptic and perfect: a great dis-service which places them on a distant, unattainable pedestal. (And easily gets us off the hook of becoming like them!) Since St. Clare’s Feast is Aug. 11, let’s look at how it happened to her.

One of the most famous images of Clare was her holding the monstrance high, so that Saracens invading Assisi shrank back in fear and left her monastery alone. It’s true that soldiers did enter her home, San Damiano, but they were European mercenaries hired by Frederick II. The monstrance didn’t exist then—in 1240.

What Clare actually DID, confronting the genuine threat of invasion far outside the city walls where she and her sisters lived unprotected, was take “her usual posture for prayer,” lying prostrate.  It seems the exact opposite to a demonstration of power or strength, and yet it was effective. The invaders retreated, causing no harm.

Her strategy fits perfectly into what Richard Rohr describes in Eager to Love as a topsy-turvy insistence on living without privilege or guarantee. Totally dependent on God, spending 40 years in one small house and garden, she discovered freedom and joy. The process of letting go her ego and learning to mirror God is far more dramatic and transformative than the phony images we use to beef up the saints. So why not focus on the true story?

Transfiguration Aug. 6: Prayer in Another Key


“Try it in G,” the musician suggests and we hear the same song in a different key. So Jesus models a transition from his glorious mountaintop experience to a frustrating one that follows today’s gospel. Descending, he scolds a “faithless and perverse generation,” then rebukes a demon, curing an epileptic boy.

“Will the real Jesus please stand up?” We’re inclined to believe in the one whose face dazzles and whose clothes shine, affirmed by the Father’s voice. Clearly Peter is stunned into babbling an elaborate plan for building tents, so Jesus can converse with the prophets in peace.

Yet it is no less Jesus who repeats, “how much longer must I put up with you?” in exasperation with the disciples’ lack of faith and inability to cure the boy. He heals him “instantly,” so his power is still intact; his compassion still overflows.

We also go through various transformations in our days. We might be praying, then cooking, gardening, paying bills, caring for children or the elderly, chatting, reading, singing, shopping, working on the computer, filling the car with gas or doing the laundry. It’s the same self, in different keys. But because of Jesus’ transfiguration, we do all these things as divine children of the Great King. It’s all prayer in different ways. The disciples who saw Jesus in dazzling light also see themselves anew.  The radiance might not be obvious, but it is there nonetheless, hiding beneath the surface.


A Gospel and a Feast Coincide

There’s a happy connection between the feast of St. Ignatius (July 31) who encouraged the use of the imagination in prayer, and the gospel Sunday July 29 (John 6:1-15). Taking the Ignatian approach to the story of Jesus feeding 5000 from a child’s fish and bread, we might ask, “who packed the lunch?”

Dads today would do it, but probably not in Jesus’ time. So we speculate how that mom felt, she who had probably experienced mostly scarcity throughout her life. Suddenly, a silvery cascade of fish and abundance of bread, smiles crumb-smudged! A lavish banquet filled those whose food had usually been rationed. Their ancestors would’ve said the desert bloomed.

Afterwards, the leftover pieces gathered “so nothing may be lost” speaks powerfully to the fragmentation many women feel. Men are regarded as single-minded and dedicated, while women, says anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, “have been regarded as unreliable because they are torn by multiple commitments….But what if we were to recognize the capacity for distraction, the divided will, as representing a higher wisdom…a vision… sensitive to complexity, to the multiple rather than the singular?”

Bringing imagination to the gospel deepens our sense of ownership and makes it more relevant to our lives today. Thanks, Ignatius!

For more of this “Midrash” approach to scripture, see HIDDEN WOMEN OF THE GOSPELS by Kathy Coffey, (Orbis Books, www., 800-258-5838) from which this excerpt comes.

Troubling Parallels

The world watches, holding its collective breath and wondering, “will the children be saved?” The answer depends on which country the crisis occurs in. If Thailand, good news. If the US, not yet sure…

The Thai SEAL rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team has been the one bit of heartening news in an otherwise dismal series recently. Details of the story make it even more dramatic: the impossible odds, careful preparations of volunteers from many nations, brave ingenuity, divers’ practice with boys of similar sizes in a school swimming pool, the heroic coach, a former Buddhist monk, who taught meditation and deep breathing techniques, and refrained from food so he emerged the most malnourished. Parents waiting endured an emotional roller coaster from the first news their sons had vanished, to their discovery, and subsequently the daring rescue many thought could never happen. The newest image of Christ as savior now is a diver holding a boy tight, as he propels the child towards light.

It’s heartbreaking that news from our own country is less jubilant. Judge Sabraw of San Diego, the hero of the refugee-children-separated-from-their-parents story ordered that those under 5 be reunited within 2 weeks. But only 57 (slightly more than half) of them were, while 2,551 other children remain in custody, according to latest government estimates. As Health and Human Services stalled, Sabraw responded to their spokesman: “It is clear from Mr. Meekins’s declaration that H.H.S. either does not understand the court’s orders or is acting in defiance of them.”

The New York Times reported, “Questions remain about the futures of children whose parents have been deported without them, which Judge Sabraw called ‘one of the disturbing realities of this situation.’ He set a deadline of seven days for returning those children to their parents once the government had secured the documents necessary for them to travel.” The few reporters allowed to visit the detention centers speak of a pervasive, “aching uncertainty” there.

Isn’t it time to give up on the government and call in the private sector? Our leaders and their lackeys seem to have forgotten that every child is precious to God, irrevocably harmed by each day away from their parents. As the world rallied to save the Thai boys, surely they would do the same to locate the refugee parents—with similar intelligence, speed and creativity. The Thai situation showed the extraordinary potential of ordinary humans. Couldn’t this be a similar chance? Those of us not immediately involved must keep up the donations to organizations like Catholic Charities Rio Grande ( Kudos to the Sisters of St. Joseph, who sent them a $10,000 check AND an associate who’s a lawyer to help.  Fierce prayers continue, deeply rooted in the belief that “nothing is impossible for God.”

Kathy Coffey won her 17th Catholic Press Award in 2018, with second place for coverage of ecumenical/interfaith issues.

Feast of Kateri Tekakwitha—July 14

How appropriate that when many North Americans seem to have forgotten that at one time, we were all immigrants to this land, we celebrate a Native American canonized in 2012, Kateri Tekakwitha. Seventeenth century French explorers came expecting savages. Instead, they found saints. Jesuit missionaries to the Mohawk community were impressed by their works of mercy to the orphaned, aged and weak. One priest painted Christian scenes on linen; another who knew the native language translated Christian songs, which the people loved. Kateri was especially drawn to the beauty of the Christmas crib, surrounded by fir boughs, and asked for baptism.

Kateri’s parents and little brother had been killed in the small pox epidemic of 1660, which left her pock-marked and half-blind. Despite her own precarious health, she nursed the sick and dying with remarkable cheerfulness. Her joy became so contagious that children were drawn to her for storytelling. (I’ve always thought the acid test of holiness is, “do people want to hang out with you?”) Her synthesis of Mohawk and Christian spiritualities reconciled the terrible hostilities between the native-born and the colonizers.

Furthermore, Kateri is patron saint of the environment, which is being so recklessly destroyed now. She had always loved the beauty of nature; this pull took on a new intensity as she learned more about the Creator. She often contemplated in green forests, watching the light rippling on leaves, or the snow mantling pines. How appalled she would be by offshore drilling or the wanton disregard for public lands.

How we need her help now!


For more about North American saints, see When the Saints Came Marching In by Kathy Coffey, Liturgical Press,, 800-858-5450.

Christ in the Humanitarian Crisis

Indianapolis church cages Holy Family in immigration protest


 This Tuesday, July 3, 2018 photo shows statues of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus in a cage of fencing topped with barbed wired on the lawn of Monument Circle’s Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis. The statues were erected to protest the Trump administration’s zero tolerance immigration policy. (Ebony Cox/The Indianapolis Star via AP) Photo Credit: AP

How many children have been returned?

I will continue to ask this haunting question until we start seeing some proofs of reunions. I ask it weekly and invite readers to join asking the Secretary for Health and Human Services, One difficulty of the current situation in refugee detention camps is the refusal to allow the press, aid workers, even some Congress people access. But knowing the narcissism of this administration, they’d trumpet a return. So far, little.

Tens of thousands of people marched around the country Saturday, protesting the criminalization of those doing what any of us would do: simply seeking to flee dreadful violence and protect their children’s lives. At the Berkeley rally I attended, Rev. Ben McBride led us in the moving chant, “Let my people go! Let the children go!” He told us how he and 400 other faith leaders marched on the Otay Mesa detention center near San Diego and called out through megaphones to refugees inside: “No estas solo” (“You are not alone”). The prisoners responded by banging on the walls, then were threatened by guards that their meals would be cut off if they continued.

It’s not a time to lose hope or place blame, but as Ignacio Ellacuria SJ said in El Salvador before his martyrdom, “When the violence increases, we must pray harder.” I’ve been trying to pray the Buddhist “tonglen” for the children and their parents, inhaling their pain, anxiety, and anguish, exhaling, peace, joy and hope. It’s harder, too, but I also pray for those with decision-making power, that they might move quickly and efficiently towards resolution, before the psychic damage to the children worsens. My mantras have been:

Christ in the crying children

God of detention centers

I read with new understanding Fr. Richard Rohr’s words, “The cross was Jesus’ voluntary acceptance of undeserved suffering as an act of total solidarity with all the pain of the world.” There in the caged and frightened child, Christ. There in the parent who tried to protect but only endangered, Christ. There, even in the guards enforcing a policy they never designed, Christ. In the Beatitudes, Jesus praised those who weep. They hold the sadness, don’t try to escape or deny it.

Meanwhile, we keep up unrelenting pressure on our elected officials. We refuse cynicism and hold onto hope. Some escaped Egypt; some will be reunited. As I looked around at the ragtag band of protesters, powerless but committed, I remembered the hobbits, those small heroes who never intended to make dramatic change, but were catapaulted into a war against evil. A description of them, and perhaps us:

“Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world: small hands do then because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere.” J.R.R. Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring, p. 283