Father James Martin

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

Is there still room for pro-life Democrats in their own political party?

On the subject of abortion rights, the 2016 Democratic Party platform language prepared for candidates was as firm as ever.

"Democrats are committed to protecting and advancing reproductive health, rights, and justice," it noted. "We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion -- regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured."

Most of the party's candidates agreed on other implications of that statement, from legal third-trimester abortions, taxpayer funded abortions and gender-selection abortions, which usually means aborting unborn females.

Most Democratic candidates backed that platform -- but not all.

Thus, it stunned some Democrats, especially in heartland and Bible Belt states, when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez drew another bright line defining who participates in the work of his party.

"Every Democrat, like every American," he said, "should support a woman's right to make her own choices about her body and her health. This is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state." In fact, he added, "every candidate who runs as a Democrat" should affirm abortion rights.

Needless to say, these were fighting words for Kristen Day, executive director of Democrats for Life of America.

"I am glad this conversation is taking place," she said, in a telephone interview earlier this week. It would help if the party's chairman "sat down and talked with us, because we are obviously feeling left out.

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Explaining St. Teresa of Kolkata's dark night of the soul -- to children

Like most illustrations in children's books, the image of Mother Teresa is quite simple, showing her kneeling in prayer beside her bed in a dark room, facing a bare cross and a single candle.

The tiny nun's eyes are open and her expression is hard to read. The text on the opposite page is candid.

"Mother Teresa experienced a great sorrow. Ever since she had moved to the slums, she no longer felt the presence of Jesus as she had before. She felt as though abandoned, rejected by him," according to "Mother Teresa: The Smile of Calcutta," a storybook for young children. "In her heart, she felt darkness and emptiness. She experienced the suffering of the poor who did not feel loved. She shared in the loneliness Christ suffered on the Cross."

Only the priests who worked with her knew about this "dark night of the soul," an experience seen in the lives of some other saints.

Working with text by Charlotte Grossetete, originally written in French, Ignatius Press editor Vivian Dudro said she "spent lots of time working on how to phrase that part. … You picture a young child reading about this pain in a saint's life or having this story read to them. How do you explain something like this in a few simple words?"

This dark night is clearly a crucial part of the life of the Albanian nun who was canonized this past weekend as St. Teresa of Kolkata. The formal petition to Pope Francis concluded: "Despite a painful experience of inner darkness, Mother Teresa travelled everywhere, concerned … to spread the love of Jesus throughout the world. She thus became an icon of God's tender and merciful love for all, especially for those who are unloved, unwanted and uncared for."

St. Teresa's sense of spiritual loss was the mirror image of the intense spiritual visions that, in 1946, inspired her to plunge deep into the slums of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) to serve the poorest of the poor.

Mother Teresa's private battles on the long path to sainthood

While no one knew it at the time, 1951 was a pivotal year for Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the start of a private battle for the tiny nun millions hailed as a living saint.

"When we talk about Mother Teresa we celebrate her victories and all the good works she accomplished in her life. But what did this victor have to overcome? That's an important question," said journalist Kenneth Woodward, author of "Making Saints: How The Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes A Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why."

"We often miss this spiritual warfare component in the lives of the saints, that whole element of struggle and grace. … With Mother Teresa, this just has to be there or her story is not complete."

It was in 1928 that 18-year-old Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu left her family in Macedonia to join the Sisters of Our Lady of Loreto, first working as a teacher in Calcutta.

Then, on Sept. 10, 1946, Sister Mary Teresa experienced a vision of Jesus calling her to move into the slums while serving the poorest of the poor. After this "call within a call" she created the Missionaries of Charity, beginning the work that produced waves of support for the Vatican to proclaim her a saint -- which will occur in rites on Sept. 4, the eve of the anniversary of her death on Sept. 5, 1997.

But another story was unfolding that remained a secret for decades.

It was in 1951 that Mother Teresa prayed that she be allowed to share the pain and loneliness that Jesus suffered on the cross. Her private letters made it stunningly clear that this prayer was granted. Her visions stopped, replaced by silence.

Pope Francis offers preaching 101 tip -- don't bore the sheep

It was another ordination rite in St. Peter's Basilica and the pope was expected to stay close to the ritual book during the homily.

Then again, Pope Francis has a way of expanding the script. Off the cuff, he offered the new shepherds some blunt advice about preaching -- do not bore the sheep.

"Let this be the nourishment of the People of God, that your sermons are not boring, that your homilies reach people's hearts because they come from your heart, because what you say to them is what you carry in your heart," he said, in one translation of remarks on the World Day of Prayer for Vocations.

But if priests share from their own experiences, added Francis, their actions must match their words, because "examples edify, but words without examples are empty words, they are just ideas that never reach the heart and, in fact, they can harm. They are no good!"

Pope Francis has, on a number of occasions, discussed how Catholic priests can become more effective communicators. Before becoming pope, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglia of Argentina was already concerned about the effectiveness of his priests -- during an era in which charismatic evangelical preachers radically changed Latin America.

Dueling saints from the Second Vatican Council?

History will show St. John XXIII was a pastor with an "exquisite openness to the Holy Spirit," while St. John Paul II will be known "as the pope of the family." That was as close as Pope Francis came to providing the sound bite all the so-called Vatican experts were waiting to hear during the historic St. Peter's Square rites in which he -- with the retired Pope Benedict XVI looking on -- elevated to sainthood two popes who did so much to shape modern Catholicism.

The media mantra called the humble Pope John XXIII the patron saint of the left, while Pope John Paul II was the courageous general for the right. Clearly, Pope Francis' goal was to broker peace between these warring Catholic camps.

Francis stayed the course.

"St. John XXIII and St. John Paul II were ... priests, bishops and popes of the 20th century," he said. "They lived through the tragic events of that century, but they were not overwhelmed by them. For them, God was more powerful; faith was more powerful -- faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer of man and the Lord of history."

Francis then linked both saints to the Second Vatican Council, the seismic event that defined their era: "John XXIII and John Paul II cooperated with the Holy Spirit in renewing and updating the Church in keeping with her pristine features, those features which the saints have given her throughout the centuries."

So both popes sought renewal, but also to guard the faith's foundations. After all, in his October 11, 1962 address that opened the Council, Pope John XXIII declared: "The greatest concern of the ecumenical council is this -- that the sacred deposit of Christian doctrine should be guarded and taught more efficaciously."

The young Bishop Karol Wojtyla of Poland was an active participant at Vatican II. The future Pope John Paul II was known for his contribution to the epic constitution "The Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes)," which he loved to quote, along with various other Vatican II texts.

In fact, during his "heroically long pontificate" -- almost 27 years -- John Paul offered detailed written and verbal commentary on "virtually every controversial or disputed point in the Council documents and on the event of the Council itself," noted Father John Zuhlsdorf, at his popular "What does the Prayer Really Say?" weblog.

The future St. John Paul the Great, as many are already calling him, "may not have solved, settled, definitively pronounced, on every controversial issue, but he offers commentary and insight on them. ... I think Francis was steering us to John Paul II as an additional interpretive lens, for a proper hermeneutic of reform."

Meanwhile, it's also important to remember that "conventional political labels" like "liberal" and "conservative" are simply inadequate when discussing the work of saints, said Father James Martin, a Jesuit best known as The Colbert Report chaplain and through books such as "My Life with the Saints" and "Jesus: A Pilgrimage."

In terms of the substance of his life and work, both liturgical and doctrinal, Pope John XXIII is "probably best thought of as a 'conservative.' I think that on moral and sexual issues ... he probably would have implemented the Council's work in the same way as John Paul."

Meanwhile, John Paul II did so much to push forward on issues such as economic justice, world peace, ecumenism, mass communications and a host of other subjects. It's impossible to look at the sweep of his remarkable life and conclude, as some critics have, that his pontificate was dedicated to "trying to slam the lid back on" after the Second Vatican Council. "That's just too simplistic to argue that," he said.

The larger truth is that both of these popes, now hailed as saints, embodied the work of the Second Vatican Council, each in their own way, in their own time.

"It's true that there were clusters of issues that led Catholics in different camps to adopt one or the other as their hero," said Martin. "But those labels are so limiting, while the lives of these two men were not. ... People that insist on using political labels keep trying to turn everything into a contest about who wins and who loses. That's not the way to talk about the lives of the saints."

Serious words at funny Al Smith dinner

Political insiders know that the Alfred E. Smith Dinner strives to honor decades of civic and religious traditions. In election years, it's a tradition that the presidential candidates appear -- wearing formal, white-tie attire -- and satirize their own public images, while also aiming a few gentle shots at their opponent and the ranks of elite journalists in attendance.

Thus, Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney, with a nod to his Mormon fuddy-duddy reputation, reminded the audience of wine-sipping socialites that, "Usually when I get invited to gatherings like this, it's just to be the designated driver."

Noting that this campaign has not, journalistically speaking, unfolded on a level playing field, he added: "I've already seen early reports from tonight's dinner, headline -- 'Obama Embraced by Catholics. Romney Dines with Rich People.' "

In response, the president poked fun at his own complex and, for some, controversial religious and family background by noting that, like Romney, he has a rather unusual name. "Actually, Mitt is his middle name. I wish I could use my middle name," said Barack Hussein Obama.

But, yes, there is the issue of the Romney family's wealth. "Earlier today, I went shopping at some stores in Midtown," quipped Obama. "I understand Governor Romney went shopping FOR some stores in Midtown."

It is a tradition, of course, that the jokes grab the headlines after this unique, YouTube-friendly scene at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue.

But it is also a tradition that this dinner has, throughout its 67-year history, been a crucial fundraiser for charities linked to the Catholic Archdiocese of New York, netting about $5 million this year. Thus, the Catholic shepherd of New York City speaks last and, literally, offers his benediction on this salute to lighthearted, generous public discourse in the tense battlefield that is national politics.

The stakes were especially high this year since Cardinal Timothy Dolan faced withering criticism from Catholic conservatives for extending the traditional invitation to the president -- because Obama has repeatedly clashed with the church over issues related to abortion, same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

The cardinal joined in the humorous repartee -- at one point noting that he couldn't read the greeting sent by Pope Benedict XVI because it was written in Latin -- but turned serious in his final prayer. He reminded the audience that the dinner honored Smith as the first Catholic selected as the presidential nominee of a major party, but also as the "happy warrior" who tirelessly fought to help the poor, the powerless and other forgotten Americans.

"Here we are, in an atmosphere of civility and humor … loving a country which considers religious liberty our first and most cherished freedom, convinced that faith is not just limited to an hour of Sabbath worship, but affects everything we do and dream," said Dolan, who also serves as president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The purpose of the event, he added, was to "reverently" recall a "man of deep Catholic faith and ringing patriotism, who had a tear in his Irish eyes for what we would call, the 'uns' -- the un-employed, the un-insured, the un-wanted, the un-wed mother and her innocent, fragile un-born baby in her womb, the un-documented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the un-fed, the under-educated.

"Government, Al Smith believed, should be on the side of these 'uns,' but a government partnering with family, church, parish, neighborhood, organizations and community, never intruding or opposing, since, when all is said and done, it's in God we trust, not, ultimately, in government or politics."

While Dolan is known for his boisterous wit, this final litany was clearly the big idea he wanted to communicate to both candidates and to all who were present, said Father James Martin, author of "Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life."

"It was very moving, and very Catholic, because he refused to narrow the Gospel down to one or two issues," said Martin, who attended the dinner. "He reminded everyone of the sacred dignity of all human life, not just in the womb, but also not just in the slums. …

"There are Catholics these days, on the left and on the right, who don't want to be reminded of both sides of that equation. What the cardinal did was honor our Catholic tradition -- all of it."

So a cardinal, Jesuit and comedian get to chat ...

In the year 752, a priest named Stephen was elected pope, but died four days later -- before officially filling the chair of St. Peter in Rome. For centuries Catholic records included him as Pope Stephen II -- until the Second Vatican Council. At that time, Pope Stephen III officially became Pope Stephen II (III) and the other later popes named Stephen received similarly strange titles.

So Pope Stephen III kind of vanished and that title became a kind of ecclesiastical inside joke, the kind that might appeal to cardinals and Jesuits. But what about a satirical superstar from Comedy Central?

Actually, this insider joke works if the comedian is named Stephen Colbert and Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York delivers the punch line. The two faced off before 3,000 students and faculty at Fordham University in a Sept. 14 program focusing on "Humor, Joy and the Spiritual Life." The event was arranged by Father James Martin, author of the book "Between Heaven and Mirth" and for legions of fans the "Official Chaplain of the Colbert Nation."

The jocularity started early as Dolan -- who is used to having Catholics kiss his ring -- lunged to kiss Colbert's hand, first. Then, when Martin said the cardinal might become pope in a future conclave, Dolan responded, "If I am elected pope -- which is probably the greatest gag all evening -- I'll be Stephen III."

Colbert piled on: "Write that down! I want that notarized!"

Fordham officials disappointed YouTube fans by, at the last minute, declaring this much-anticipated summit a media-free zone. Still, a few journalists – starting with a New York Times scribe – slipped in as guests. Also, it's impossible to keep one-liners locked inside a hall packed with college students and Twitter-friendly smartphones.

Some of the exchanges shared via hashtag #Dolbert and #DolanColbert included:

* Colbert, who teaches Sunday school at his New Jersey parish, stressed that he never jokes about the sacraments. Instead, he skewers people he believes use and abuse faith, especially in politics. "Then I'm not talking about Christ. I'm talking about Christ as cudgel," he said.

* At one point, Cardinal Dolan introduced Evelyn Colbert, the comedian's wife, and kissed her cheek. "I can kiss your wife," he quipped. "You can't kiss mine."

* Jabbing the cardinal about recent changes in the Mass, Colbert noted one bumpy Nicene Creed edit: "Consubstantial! It's the creed! It's not the SAT prep."

* A student, via social media, asked: "I am considering the priesthood. Would it be prudent to avoid dating?" The cardinal said dating was a good idea, adding, "By the way, let me give you the phone numbers of my nieces." Colbert responded: "It's actually a great pickup line: 'I'm seriously considering the priesthood. You can change my mind.' "

* Concerning his own struggles as a believer, Colbert said: "Are there flaws in the church? Absolutely. But is there great beauty in the church? Absolutely.” And also, “The real reason I remain a Catholic is what the church gives me -- which is love."

* Dolan to Colbert: "Do you feel pressure to be funny all the time?" Colbert back to Dolan: "Do you feel pressure to be holy all the time?"

The bottom line, noted Martin, is that humor has always been part of religious life, including the lives of the saints. Take, for example, that famous prayer from the young St. Augustine: "Lord, give me chastity … but not yet."

In remarks later posted online, the Jesuit noted: "Humor serves serious purposes in the spiritual life. Joyful humor can evangelize, and draw people to God. Self-deprecating humor reminds us of our own humility. Provocative humor can also gently speak truth to power."

In his own theological reflections, the cardinal argued that the roots of Christian humor can be found in the darkest hours of Good Friday, when it appeared Jesus had been "bullied to death by undiluted evil; Love, jackbooted by hate; Mercy incarnate, smothered by revenge; Life itself, crushed by death."

But he who laughs last, stressed Dolan, laughs best.

"Lord knows there are plenty of Good Fridays in our lives. But they will not prevail. Easter will," he wrote, in his script. "As we Irish claim, 'Life is all about loving, living and laughing, not about hating, dying and moaning.' ... That's why we say, 'Joy is the infallible sign of God’s presence.' "