This past weekend was the 67th Annual Convention of the Catholic Theological Society of America in St. Louis Missouri. As more than one of my colleagues noted jokingly, this is what it looks like to be a professional nerd – excited and energized by lectures by both world renowned scholars and new scholars, like myself, for whom this was my 3rd CTSA. Personally, the CTSA has been an incredibly welcoming and supportive environment. And so, here are my personal reflections on the weekend, in light of my final St. Louis excursion – to see the mosaics at the new St. Louis Cathedral.
The Catholic Theological Society of America is not without disagreements. A diversity of theological perspectives were represented and the ethos it is meant to cultivate was best summed up by Fordham Professor/Chair Terrance Tilley, this year’s recipient of the John Courtney Murray Award. Tilley emphasized that we are a community – and that while we may often disagree and sometimes we should disagree – we need to remain a community of committed theologians in charity first. Thus far, this is the community I have found at CTSA. I am aware, however, that not everyone finds CTSA welcoming and supportive and the Catholic theological community can be marred by deep divisions and factions. This is why, for me, Tilley’s acceptance speech was so moving and important – we are a fairly small community (comparatively) – Catholic theologians – and we must remember what binds us as a community and not simply divisions. This was perhaps most evident to me as I stopped to absorb the beauty and power of the “Pentecost” mosaic. The pervasiveness of the Holy Spirit surrounding both the community and descending on the individuals struck me in light of Tilley’s vision of what the community of Catholic theologians should be.
Tilley went on to conclude,
““We are learners well before we are teachers. We are people who speak, but first we have to listen.”
Listening was a persistent theme in conversations and panels throughout my experience of the convention. In his plenary address, Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator (Provincial of East African Province and professor at Hekima College, Nairobi) argued that we must be a “Church with big ears.” In his lecture, “A Global Sign of Outward Growth: the Sacramentality of the World Church in the Era of Globalization,” Orobator argued for greater participation and inclusivity within the church – particularly with respect to women. Using his experiences in East Africa, his talk was emotional, powerful, and inspiring to many – despite palatable frustrations – Fr. Orobator did not simply name struggles, he ended with a note of hope and invitation:
“The multi-dimensional, multi-cultural, and multi-ethnic constitution of the community called church invites us to a feast of diversity and celebration of plurality, spread out on the table of mutuality, appreciation, and gratitude for each human being as Imago Dei.”
The mosaics of St Louis Cathedral tell the story of Catholicism in Missouri and across the United States – and in doing so – it celebrates the multi-dimensional, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic community in some beautiful artistic ways. In particular, the “Saints of North America” celebrate four who spread and fostered the spread of Catholicism. In this mosaic, St. Isaac Jogues, Jesuit Martyr and behind him Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha (behind her Auriesville, NY where she was born). Tekakwitha will be canonized by Pope Benedict XVI this October as the 2nd American born saint and the first North American indigenous saint.
Orobator’s words rang in my head as I looked at these mosaics – as was his challenging questions “where is your sister? Where is your mother?” with regard to the role of women in the church. It is no surprise that the role of women and recent controversies regarding the LCWR and Margaret Farley were often discussed throughout the weekend. And as I walked around the St. Louis Cathedral – Orobator’s statements concerning the work being done by women in the African Church (and being highlighted by those speaking out on behalf of American religious women) were front and center – caring for the poor, the sick, children and the marginalized. Across from the relief of Jogues was St. Rose Philippine Duchesne, who worked with Native American and pioneer children in St. Louis. Another of the mosaics – highlighted the actions by St Louis Diocese for Racial Justice and Integration before legal desegregation and celebration of the Vatican II Decree on Religious Liberty:
The panel, highlighting Cardinal Gibbon’s involvement in both religious liberty and racial justice – also highlights two conversations in which Catholic theology is still actively engaged. Many of these conversations were had formally and informally throughout the weekend – but as I walked around St Louis Cathedral I found myself recognizing not only the persistence of these issues but also hope progress that has been made.
As I looked around at the mixture of St Louis the King of France and the American Catholic history,
I found myself drawing strength from the perspective and from my experiences over the weekend and already looking forward to next year in Miami.