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“The Truth Will Make You Strange”: Appreciation of Fr. Tom McDermott, CSC and the Best of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh

I am pumped for this one.  

Obviously, Katie and I are delighted to share Sorin Starts a School.  I, honestly though, may be more excited for the book to financially support the work of the CSC in Bangladesh.

The history of the Congregation in Bangladesh includes so many contributors, serious builders.  Below is a story including a few of them.  (And while I won’t belabor the point, you can clearly see all the elements, from this week’s emails, of the CSC charism here.)

After I left Uganda in 2009, I spent a few months in Bangladesh to be close to the woman that I would later marry while she was finishing up her post-grad service term.  Once there, I looked up Fr. Tom McDermott, CSC, who had helped run our volunteer orientation in 2007, and was now working in Dhaka, the capital.  

A brief note on Dhaka.  It’s a tough place to live.  Bangladesh has half the population of the US on a land area equal to that of Illinois that seasonally floods.  So, high population density.  Dhaka is the most crowded city in the world.  And gets real hot.  Like, heat rash hot.  It is a tough place to live.

And it was tough in 1851 when Blessed Basil Moreau agreed that the Congregation would take over the mission there. And it was tough in 1947 during the conflict with India and Pakistan following the partition of “British India.”  And tough in 1971 when Bangladesh fought for its independence.  Through all these seasons, the Holy Cross has accompanied displaced persons from conflict, marginalized indigenous people in the north, and scores of students through their excellent schools in Dhaka.

One Holy Cross missionary who dedicated his life to this accompaniment was Fr. Gene Homrich, CSC.  He was born in Michigan in 1928, started at ND in 1947, was ordained a CSC priest in 1955 and later headed to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh).  He worked there for sixty-one years helping to found two parishes with the indigenous tribes in the north, Jalchatra and Pirgacha.  (He passed away only this past summer, from COVID-related complications.  Here is a peek into the scope of his life’s contribution.)   

And that summer in 2009, I found myself on the porch of the parish house in Pirgacha, after Fr. Tom invited me to tag along with him as he oriented the Bengal Bouts summer volunteers.  

The sun was setting, Tom had just acquired both of us a quarter inch of Fr. Homrich’s scotch, and I settled in for a McDermott soliloquy.  (If you’ve spent half a day with Tom, you know what I am talking about and you know that it is awesome.)  

He riffed on the extraordinary history of the church in Bangladesh (“It’s like… Micronesia in a sea of Islam!”), where the CSC fit into that history (appreciating the indigenous leadership), and the Christian vocation generally (“Just think about it!  A life of generosity is just more fun than a life of stuff!”).  He also took care to include me in it all and helped me process my two years in Uganda (“It sure was cute of the Lord to drop you by here for a few months on your way back home.”).

It was a perfect distillation of the joy he takes in his vocation, and his extraordinary ability to share this joy; that is, to include others in God’s call.  

I encountered this joy again some weeks later during what was ostensibly a silent retreat at the CSC house in Dhaka.  Tom kept finding me to make sure I didn’t get too much quiet time.  

Hey Paul – come on – let’s go visit the Missionaries of Charity house.

Hey Paul – come over here – there is someone I want you to meet.

Hey Paul – come on into the common room after dinner – I told the Bengal Bouts guys you would talk to them.  Your topic is “The Truth Will Make You Strange.”

I have thought often about the topic he assigned to me that night.  (The line is a play, by Flanery O’Connor, on the verse in John 8: “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”)  

It is a grace, I think, to be both free and strange, and this grace runs deep in Tom McDermott.  Free to contribute your life to extraordinary work, and strange only to the eyes of the world who is caught up in other stuff and, honestly, not having as much fun.

His current project is, along with a formidable team, building Notre Dame University Bangladesh in Dhaka.  It is our joy to support these CSC builders in Bangladesh with all profits from Sorin Starts a School.  Let’s pray for the flourishing of their work, and for the grace to be made strange and free.

(Pre-order Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame today! Ships to you May 2021. All proceeds support the work of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh. )

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“So, let us be builders like our brother Ed.”

Today is about Fr. Edward Sorin, CSC.  Where to start.

Fr. Dick Stout, CSC used to say this thing about folks from the US who would travel to work in a new country.  Those who stayed for a year or less, he would say with a smile, often leave and write a definitive interpretation of what they encountered.  But those who stayed, and the longer they stayed, had a deepening sense of disorientation, wonder, and love that prevented such a reductive explanation.

I feel a bit like this about Fr. Sorin.  

Katie and I read a bunch to prepare to write Sorin Starts a School, but the central text we drew from was this behemoth by former ND professor, Fr. Martin O’Connell.  Here, Fr. O’Connell exhaustively describes Sorin’s vocational journey, enigmatic character, considerable strengths, and inescapable shortcomings.

To me, Fr. Sorin seems almost uninterpretably complex, so, tough to write an honest picture book about.  But we sifted through his life and decided to leave readers of Sorin Starts a School with the following snapshot: Despite his shortcomings, his faith in God and his desire (and capacity) to build something that nourishes others was relentless.  Utterly and magnificently relentless.

And this theme of building stuff that nourishes is one that I find so important to our contemporary church.  

Often, I wonder: “Will we be a people who comment or who contribute?”  

Some time ago, I wrote out the following to challenge myself.

Think for a moment about how you spent the last year in the life of the church.

How much commentary did you offer?  That is, your opinion about what someone else was doing or creating?

How much creation did you offer?  That is, you showing up and offering generous leadership, an educational experience, a moment of beauty, a sacred space.  

I am certain that we need more generous contribution.  I am not sure that we need more commentary.  

Fr. Edward Sorin, CSC was a serious contributor.  For years, it was unclear if Notre Dame was going to succeed.  Reading the history, it is a wonder that it did.  But Fr. Sorin and companions did the hard work of contribution, of building a place whose existence has been definitive in the course of our lives.  

So. Like Sorin, we are not perfect. And like Sorin, can still build stuff that will nourish others.

Unlike Sorin, though, we probably won’t build a university… or wait… why not?

But that is tomorrow’s post… regarding the work of the CSC in Bangladesh.

(Pre-order Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame today! Ships to you May 2021. All proceeds support the work of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh. )

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“Come, Follow me”: The “Stability Stanza”

Today, I promised to write about Jesus’ invitation to “Come, Follow me,” the line that begins and ends the CSC Constitutions.  

So many of us have been graced by the accompaniment of the women and men of Holy Cross.  Does it surprise us that their community is rooted in this invitation to accompaniment of the Master?

And now that I am sitting to write about it, I figure that I really should have started with this theme.  It is in the context of this invitation, I think, that Our Lady of Sorrows and “The Cross, Our Only Hope” reflect the fullness of the CSC charism.

Here is the story about how “Come, Follow me” worked its way into Sorin Starts a School.  

A cohort of formidable folks read early drafts and gave thoughtful feedback on the text.  Their insight made my writing far better than it would have been on its own.

I was very interested in the book feeling like Holy Cross, and so I gave it to as many CSC religious as would read it.  I begged perhaps more time than I ought to from their thoughtful, considerable talent.  And in this early round of feedback, “Come, Follow me” worked its way onto this page.  

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Then, in the final stage of revision and in generosity I can never repay, the minds of Mary Ann and Ben Wilson sifted through the text over a number of weeks.  (We would often be working on the same Google doc, 1,500 miles apart, at night after children were asleep.  It was a delightful feeling of togetherness in a year that has been considerably isolating.)

During these weeks, in a stroke of genius, MA offered the idea of a “stability stanza,” a repeating, evolving set of lines that would structure the narrative.

I considered this insight for some days, and then wrote “Come, Follow me” into three more moments of the book, for a total of four.

First, with Sorin as a young man, first discerning God’s Call for himself. (See below.)

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Second, as Sorin and companions set out on the American mission. (See ship picture a few paragraphs up.)

Third, with Sorin in desolation, praying for clarity of the call.

And on the final page of the book, in a turn toward the reader, welcoming them to listen for their own call.

Is this not how “Come, Follow me” operates, in evolution, throughout a life?  First, with clarity and single-minded passion.  Often, in community and graced consolation.  Sometimes without clarity, in loneliness or confusion.  Or in welcoming another to join us on the road. 

I am thrilled to share how the call operates in the book.  And no way would it have evolved as it did without the generous insight of the book’s feedback team.

One quick thought from the CSC Constitution 1.

There is a line that I find a bit haunting, in paragraph 8.  It is:

We wished to abandon all to follow Christ. We learned in time that we still had it within ourselves to hold back.

Right?

This is a theme I will pick up tomorrow, addressing the question of: Why a book about Edward Sorin?

(Pre-order Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame today! Ships to you May 2021. All proceeds support the work of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh. )

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“The Cross, Our Only Hope” and the Excellence of CSC Accompaniment

Today I promised to write about the CSC motto of “The Cross, Our Only Hope.”

This motto is best articulated and lived by the women and men of Holy Cross, and I feel generally inadequate to explain it here.  But I will share one related text that has meant a great deal to me as well as two stories of compassionate accompaniment that I believe to be rooted in this motto.

So!  In September of 2007, four ‘07 ND grads and I moved to Uganda to work alongside the Holy Cross as lay volunteers.  For me, it was a tough transition.  It took me about a month to share these difficulties with our volunteer community.  The perceptive and generous Joe Wysocki (the recipient of Dick Stout’s white mug from yesterday’s post) listened to what I was saying, disappeared into his room for a moment, returned with his copy of the CSC Constitutions, and offered me the book opened to the final chapter: “Constitution 8: The Cross, Our Only Hope.”

Joe lived at Old College for a time, and knew Constitution 8 from his formation there. He offered it to me then, without presumption or interpretation.  His care in that moment was one of the finest gifts I received during those years.

And so I offer it to you now.  Here is an online version of Constitution 8.  (And here is an index of all eight sections of the CSC Constitutions.  I find them to be extraordinarily well-written, and a window to understand, in a partial way, the gift and challenge of religious life for those of us living the lay vocation.)  

Modeling the wisdom of Joe, I will not over-interpret them here.  I will, though, offer brief context about something I feel rather strongly.

I realize that the themes of today and yesterday (loss, sorrow, the Cross) are some pretty high octane stuff.  There is much power there within one’s soul and psyche and I believe the particularities of these themes are best worked out with perceptive, loving friends, in spiritual direction, and, often, in counselling.  (One of my favorite stories of my favorite saint, Oscar Romero, is that a crucial part of his conversion was working through tough stuff in therapy.  We don’t tell this type of story enough, I think.)

So, for example, I recall talking about Constitution 8 with a Holy Cross spiritual director, and being reminded: “It is possible to carry more than God requires, and love less than God desires.”  While infuriatingly vague, it gestures to the point I am trying to make… namely, that interpretation of “the Cross” is subtle, depends a great deal on one’s personality, and is best done with trusted, skilled interlocutors.

Two more observations, then I’ll wrap this up.

First.  Read paragraphs 115 – 117 with me here.

115. To struggle for justice and meet only stubbornness, to try to rally those who have despaired, to stand by the side of misery we cannot relieve, to preach the Lord to those who have little faith or do not wish to hear of him … our ministry will hint to us of Jesus’ suffering for us.

116. To spend ourselves and be spent for the needs of neighbors; to be available and cheerful as a friend in Holy Cross and to give witness while others hesitate; to stand by duty when it has become all burden and no delight … community too can draw us nearer Calvary.

117. Whether it be unfair treatment, fatigue or frustration at work, a lapse of health, tasks beyond talents, seasons of loneliness, bleakness in prayer, the aloofness of friends; or whether it be the sadness of our having inflicted any of this on others … there will be dying to do on our way to the Father.

Often, when I experience the above, I tell myself the lie that I am alone in it.  Lies have that pesky disadvantage of being untrue, and those paragraphs reveal the merciful truth that I am not at all alone in these things.

The words of Sorin Starts a School that resonate these ideas were the hardest to write, I suppose because they mean a great deal to me.   Here is the page where they will appear.

Sorin Starts a School Page 22 and 23
Sorin writes to Moreau in Sorin Starts a School

Second, and finally.  Over the thirteen years I have read Constitution 8, one bit returns to me repeatedly.  It is this line from paragraph 118:

If we, like [Jesus] encounter and accept suffering in our discipleship, we will move without awkwardness among others who suffer.

I think of this a great deal when I give thanks for the quality of accompaniment that I have received from CSC folks, particularly from a sister of the Holy Cross, Sr. Judith Anne Beattie, CSC.  Judith Anne is an extraordinary spiritual director and was a faithful companion to me as I travelled through my 20s.  

Often, in direction, I would share deep sadness, and I am at a loss to describe the remarkable quality of presence with which my stories were received.  She communicated composure, care, patience, trust, and a startling clarity of perception.  Judith Anne is my model for one who is able to “move without awkwardness” in the presence of suffering, and I think it must be the grace of a vocation lived with “The Cross, Our Hope” as the motto, in sincere discipleship, and in the presence of Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows.

(Pre-order Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame today! Ships to you May 2021. All proceeds support the work of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh. )

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Our Lady of Sorrows, a Timely Teacher

Sorin Prayer page from Sorin Starts a School

Today I promised to write about Our Lady of Sorrows, the special partoness of the Congregation of Holy Cross.

You may rightly say – Paul. Look, man. You are not CSC and have not had the experience of praying with that feast year after year in community.  How could you really know what it means?

Too true!  So here is what I can do.  I can share the texts from the CSC folks that have most formed me and Sorin Starts a School.  Then, I can tell a few stories about the generous accompaniment I have received from CSC folks that I believe to be fruits of this spirituality.  

Okay.  So here are the texts I most appreciate on the topic, in case you want to dive into some excellent CSC writing.  

1) Fr. Lou DelFra, CSC’s homily on the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows – Have you heard Fr. Lou preach?  If not, please treat yourself to this characteristically outstanding homily.  Deep, accessible, excellent.  Fr. Lou was extremely helpful in gathering resources from the CSC archives as we created Sorin Starts a School.

2) Fr. Ron Raab, CSC’s reflection this year on Our Lady of Sorrows – Fr. Ron is an outstanding pastor, artist, and friend at the CSC parish in Colorado Springs.  

3) Fr. Tom Smith, CSC’s reflection some years ago on the Feast – Fr. Tom ran the Holy Cross Mission Center when my community members and I worked with the CSC in Uganda.  His thoughtfulness and love shine in this essay. 

4) Blessed Basil Moreau’s (founder of the CSC) meditation on Our Lady of Sorrows – From this book, compiled by the formidable Frs. Gawrych and Grove, CSC – who were also early readers and helpful interlocutors for Sorin Starts a School

The TL;DR is: 

-Mary lived with profound sorrow.

-She did not avoid this sorrow.

-Her knowledge of God’s love undergirded this non-avoidance.

-As we encounter sorrow, her presence is accessible to us.

These are the lessons we meant to distill in the following page of the book.

Sorin Prayer page from Sorin Starts a School
Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame, pages 20 and 21

A riff on this page and stanza comes later in the book when Sorin, Corby, and companions face the sorrow of (spoilers!) the fire that felled the main building in 1879.  

The process of creating this book has been an invitation to gratitude for the “good company” that CSC folks have been for me over the years.  The quality of this compassionate accompaniment, I believe, comes from praying with Our Lady of Sorrows.  Here are two stories that come to mind. 

In May 2009, I was coming to the end of my time as a lay volunteer with the Holy Cross in East Africa.  The week before I was to leave, I spent some time at the CSC novitiate at Lake Saaka, the formation house on a beautiful piece of earth tucked near one of Western Uganda’s crater lakes.

Lake Saaka, home of the Holy Cross Novitiate in East Africa

Here, I made a silent retreat, directed by the dear Fr. Dick Stout, CSC.  During his years as a priest, Dick worked as a counsellor, nurse, teacher, and formator.  He was generous to us lay volunteers, attentive to the difficulty of being away from home.  (Example: On Christmas Day 2008, Dick realized that our community member, the good Joe Wysocki, was without a gift.  He quickly found and wrapped a plain white coffee mug.  This silly gift, and Dick’s generosity, meant a great deal to Joe and to our community.)

One day, near the end of my retreat, I explained to Dick about how I planned to maneuver the life transitions that awaited me as I left Uganda.  Attentive and wise, he could see I was trying to game my life such that I would not have to attend to its necessary sorrow.  He handed me the following quote to read:

“All religion is concerned to overcome fear.  We can distinguish real religion from unreal by contrasting their formulae for dealing with negative motivation.  The maxim of illusory religion runs: ‘Fear not; trust in God and he will see to it that none of the things you fear will happen to you’; that of real religion, on the contrary is, “Fear not; the things that you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you but they are nothing to be afraid of.’” 

From Finding God in All Things by Fr. William Berry, SJ quoting John MacMurray

To me, the quality of Fr. Dick’s accompaniment and the wisdom of his advice showed that he was a man who had spent time with our Lady of Sorrows and had internalized her presence.  

Fr. Dick passed away during the summer of 2019.  If you loved Fr. Dick, and have a few minutes, you may cherish Fr. Tom McDermott, CSC’s homily at his funeral mass.

Okay. One more story.  

In 2005, I was, for the first time, learning how to talk about my interior life in the context of spiritual direction.  And I was – please believe me – desperately inarticulate in this attempt.  My director, the dear Fr. Paul Kollman, CSC, was patient and merciful during these first hours.  

When one conversation ground to a halt, Paul proposed that we take a walk.  We wound past the path that splits the lakes at ND and stopped at the cemetery on the road that leads to St. Mary’s.

Paul entered the cemetery, walked out into bare grass a bit, turned, gently gestured to the ground with both hands, and said with a bit of a smile, “I think I will probably be somewhere around here.”  

I think often about his gentle observation.  It is a grace to be able to hold the knowledge of our own death lightly, a reality which, for many, is the ultimate sorrow and desperately avoided.  But, like Mary, there was no avoidance of this sorrow in his words.  The grace that supports this composure is a remarkable thing to consider.

Since that day, a number of Holy Cross priests who have meant a great deal to us have been buried under that grass.  John Dunne.  Don McNeill.  Bob Pelton.  Dick Stout.  Even in death, I consider them excellent company. 

(Pre-order Sorin Starts a School: The Foundation of Notre Dame today! Ships to you May 2021. All proceeds support the work of the Holy Cross in Bangladesh. )