Agency and choice

In a world of change that defines and defies generations, agency as a person has opened up new stages for individuals, given life to ideas and thoughts that would have dwelt quietly in marble notebooks and handwritten journals just decades ago. But now, curtains drawn back and spotlights aglow, new venues abound. Influencers yeild power; youtubers win fame. The compulsion to share words and message exists as it always has in the human story. To be heard is to be recognized, to be known and perhaps to be understood or provide deeper understanding. Personal integrity and collective good seek voice as well as consistency.

At the root of all this lies the esential nature of choice: agency. More than ever, what we do and how we do it matters. There are competing forces at work: self-gratification, noble ideals, murky realities, visible and implicit bias, even contradictory interpretations. There are perceived truths, subjective stories and blinding judgements ciruclating in dialogue. How to choose? How to act? What to believe? What to dismiss? Is it possible to explore or investigate, to genuinely dialogue and learn to contextualize experiences? Does communication dare us to choose for the good for self and others? Is doing the right thing a possibility?

In the tide of the pandemic and all that 2020 has brought, it is tempting to believe that this is the most unique of turning points, that human beings have not grappled with such questions or controversies before. That would belie a deeper reality: our challneges are showcased in 21st century dressing, but every generation before this has struggled with so much. That is where the Matthew 16 Gospel comes in: it is about choice, about what we do and how we do it and the agency we exercise in making those decisions. The Gospel invites deliberate choice, not simply drifting with the tide. The Gospel demands commitment in choice and advises that the complexity of life presents the pain of choosing.  Matthew 12 shows Jesus inviting the apostles to make a choice. In that ancient parable lies a simple truth about humanity: choice belongs to each of us. Owning it makes a difference.

The second reading from Romans 12:2 carries it even further: “Do not model your behaviour on the contemporary world, but let the renewing of your minds transform you, so that you may discern for yourselves what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and mature.” “Renewing our minds” occurs in each generation of history: mistakes are made, and adaptations are necessary, but the process was as essential then as it is now. Fear has no place in either the choice or the process. For a Catholic, living out the idea of discernment implies a deep and personal connection with God and an acknowledgment of the divine. What we believe comes alive in every ineraction, every decsions, every moment. We are free to choose. We can trust that mistakes will be made, and we can trust that forgiveness is possible. It is literally all about choice.

Catholicism has suffered insitutional scandals, financial failures and deep divisions. The collective and personal failures of the clergy have become reasons for choices and decsions to reject the very concept of religion. And yet, there is that persistent whisper that calls us beyond the brokenness of humanity to the something more. The choices, the exploration, the discernment, all that belongs to this moment. What are the messages, the stories we will share during this time? What will be given life? How will we define our purpose, our identity? How will agency be exercised? Influencers or influenced? Or simply the quiet voices away from the fray sustaining possibilities?

Courage to Ask

As the world wrestles with natural disasters, COVID, elections and the clash of social movements, an uncertain anxiety reigns in even the calmest of hearts. But then comes an invitaiton, a question, and a revelation about identity. Identity, after all, is not confined to ethnicity, race, gender or sexuality. It is also about who we are as persons, emissaries, servants, and human beings. That is made clear in the Gospel of Matthew: Jesus claims his identity as the Christ, but he also invites the disciples to become co-collaborators in His mission. In that, a new identity is formed. It is a call to mission, to become something more in the midst of complicated times. That invitation laid out for Peter comes right after he names Jesus as the Son of the living God. The statement was profound, life-changing.

In many ways, Jesus lays the same question before each of us. “Who do you say I am?” Taking the time to consider that, to wonder for a moment at such dialogue, is a validation of the idea that each person, each life, is precious. Each matters to God. Each issued multiple opportunities for that interaction, that exchange, with God. Taking the time to listen to that questions amid the cacophony of crises in the world and in personal lives makes a dramatic difference. It reframes the priorities, the concerns and even the choices that matter. “Who do you say that I am?” means that a multitude of responses can be made; some will be insightful, some awkward and others entirely inaccurate. And some will resonate with a keen honesty and truthfulness, a sense of deep recognition.

There is another application of the question: to dare to ask this of others, to ask what is seen in us. The feedback, the responses, are a revelatory mirror. It is not always about who we think we are but how we come across to others, how they see and experience who we are. That offers the chance to become who we want to be. Jesus dared to ask the disciples; the answer mattered. The courage to ask is what made the difference: Jesus showed that, and Jesus invites each of us to that very same courage.

Identity is not determined by self alone: it is a composite of factors, of experiences and moments. It is about reconciling what others see in us, what we know of self, and who we imagine ourselves to be. There is a simplicity in the truth of that, in the possibilities that represents. Being named is being known; being known is beginning to be. Both Jesus and Peter begin a whole new phase with this exchange. Asking the question leads to new pathways.

In these most challenging of times, asking the question will require courage as well. But it may also prove to be the chance to find a new path into the future.


Scaffolding surrounded the brick facade, and we entered cautiously, almost tentatively. Inside, crisp and clean colors and light awaited. The altar was centered, but the Baptismal font was on the right side, and the baby was ready. He wore an immaculate white outfit with the Cross embroidered on his socks and bib. Lips pursed and eyes sealed, he slept with the peace of the innocent. Wrapped around his chubby legs was the Christening blanket that covered his maternal grandfather 60 years before. Nearby was the paternal grandfather; the child would receive his name. There was the great grandmother and three young cousins and very attentive parents tending to that baby’s needs. And everyone wore masks. It was a pandemic christening, but the joy could not be contained.

The gathering was a testament to resilience and to faith. After months without visiting, a family gathered to welcome and celebrate the life of the next generation. He cried when anointed, and he cried with the water spilling over his forehead. “Shouting for his faith,” his great grandmother noted. There were smiles and nods everywhere, and he settled in the strength of his parent’s arms in full contentment…in spite of the missed nap time. Then there was the closing applause for this child now formally welcomed to life and to the family of Catholicism.

Baptism as a beginning allows for reflection. We all begin there, tiny treasures. And then there is becoming, growth and change: childhood, adolescence, young adulthood. . And finally, there are endings. Seated in those socially distanced pews were young adults and middle aged and senior citizens, each bringing a life perspective and the grace of lived experience. There were a variety of faith traditions and some lack thereof, but there was no shortage of the love that transcends all that. In this moment, this child gathered everyone together for the purpose of celebrating the gift of life. In this pandemic celebration, there was the promise of new beginnings, a first step forward for everyone there.

Baptism is the strongest of reminders that we are all in this together; one cannot exist without the others. There is a wisdom to generations gathered, to griefs set aside, to time spent in gracious gratitude for the breath of life. There is a glow to the Baptismal candle that persists in the darkness and the shade of uncertainty. There is a strength in godparents ready and committed to support child and the parents, a courage from previous generations to sharing lessons, a hope in the children gathered. All that stands against fear and anxiety.

Baptism is a visible testimony that with God, all things are possible. And so the sacrament of belief and beginning is the sacrament of hope and promise, the one that opens the door to the next, and is the foundation for grace received over and over. It is the awareness that we all belong to something greater than self, that we share something greater than self in each breath of life. And somehow, it is the promise that faith and life go on and thread generations of families, communities and lives into one tapestry of faith and hope.

Each of Us

There are moments of pure splendor when all the world seems right, and light seems to beam into every aspect of life. And there are the mundane, the mediocre times, barely noticed for their sameness. Then there are the times of trial, tragedy, where the real self is far more visible and the truth of who we are is no longer hidden. That is where Jesus comes walking towards us, just like He walked over the water to Peter. (Mt 14:22-33). His words are not solutions to problems or rules to be followed. Instead, he announces himself and speaks words to remember: “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” 

Fear is a paralyzing force; it is also fuel for fury, a foundation for the fight or flight response. And here, in the Gospel, long before the arrival of psychology as a discipline, here is Jesus inviting us to look at fear, at skepticism, doubt and trust. That basically is an invitation to look at who we are, how we interact with self, God and others. What matters here is the reality of being human, of recognizing who and how to trust. It is about daring to believe. But most of all, it is about the fact that Jesus is coming towards us in the midst of our greatest challenges. That sort of love knows no fear, holds no grudges, only becomes deeper over time. And He keeps on coming.

Often, Peter is characterized for a lack of faith in this story, that he fails in faith. As he sinks, Jesus saves him, chides him gently, and invites him into a new phase of life as a disciple. But doubt is so very human; it finds roots in the inability to trust. Trust is the foundation for love, for relationships. Intimacy cannot take root without trust, and trust is the factor that dispels doubt. In essence, Jesus was inviting Peter to a deeper level of trust. It was no longer about being together, fishing, handing out loaves and fishes. Instead, Jesus and Peter came face to face. And he gave Peter the evidence and support that he needed to grow in trust. Jesus fully recognized Peter’s humanity in those moments. The Gospel is the promise that Jesus fully embraces our humanity, our strengths and weaknesses, our triumphs and our failures. He sees who we are, and He remains present, the God who waits for recognition.

This is a far cry from the capricious gods of the pantheons of Greek and Rome. It is a far cry from the image of an all powerful puppet master who dangles danger before us and plays with human life. This instead is about a God who cherishes and cares, who willingly waits for wonder. This is a God who practices compassion and allows for each human journey to be one of discovery and exploration. This is the God who waits. And each of us are the ones He awaits. Each of us matters to Him. Each of us is Peter. We have only to see Him.

Loaves and Fishes

Bewilderment, even despair, may devour our better selves at this time. Seeking and recognizing the goodness that is so much a part of being human is more necessary than ever as counterpoints, antidotes, to the turmoil of the past five months. Those moments are still tucked in the most ordinary of times: the Fed Ex worker who stops to persoanlly deliver a package to an elderly person, the neighbor who helps carry in the groceries, the child dancing in the store aisle. There is a strength, a goodness, that resides tin the human person and challenges so many of the images of media. There is a core to who we are as human beings that challenges the destructive and divisive social forces captured in media. There is a sameness to humanity that defies the evolution of technology and social media in our time. Hope is centered on a reality that transcends what is most visible to us.

To postulate the existence of God in a world immersed in science is hardly contradictory. Instead, the concept invites questioning, curiosity and humility, the idea that there may be more than we suspect to the realities that we define. To be able to entertain the concept dares us to carry what we have learned from science and psychology and apply it in a new and different way. It enables looking more deeply and exploring more fully the dimensions of human existence, purpose and process. Somewhat counter-cultural, it involves fully acknowledging the many facets of human existence and persons, circumstances and contexts. And yet, it is celebrating the very things that are related to what is currently known as “well-being”. To dare to explore it is to dare to be different as well as to acknowledge the nuances of being human.

Today’s Gospel of Matthew, the parable of the loaves and fishes, encourages a trust we may need for the journey. The disciples of Jesus suggested dismissing the crowds; Jesus, instead, takes the loaves and fishes and blesses them, and the disciples can feed the crowd. Mulitple interpretations exist; just now, the parable relates that was needed in the moment was actually there. And so it is in this moment of time: what we need already exists within us. The parable goes no further: there is no promise about outcome, no definition of system. It is simply that what was needed was found. It was already there, within the sacred space where the crowd was gathered. Trusting that is a chance to become curious enough to discover the divine nestled within the most human of experiences.

Paul epitomized that radical trust. He becomes the outsized hero of the New Testament with his visible and fiery conversion. But it is also Paul who demonstrates in his experience and confides in his writings that daring to seek and choosing to believe is more than life-changing. His path opens possibilities for each of us. It would be easy now to walk away, to contribute to the chaos, to believe that there is no way to emerge from this time period better than we were before. But there is so much more: we can deal with the realities of our time with the resources within us. We can trust the loaves and fishes can be found within us, and we can remember that there is nothing at all that can separate us from the reality of the divine within us.

“Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.” Romans 8