Why Are We Here?
Last week I took a vacation from work. I spent it immersed in reviewing years of study and sequestered in a lovely room in my school’s library. For years a significant portion of my vacation time from ministry work has been used to give room for my studies, to read thousands of pages of theologians, and write hundreds of my own pages. I know I have had to do this because my voice is worth less in the Church and in ministry as a lay person and as a woman. I know this. I have experienced it countless times. I have witnessed other women fall victims to this.
I also know that in many ways I hold privilege in my ministry and in the Church. Over twenty-one years of ministry I have worked hard to build up trust and respect among my peers. I have the privilege that being a white woman from the middle class brings. That allows me to be received more readily by particular communities, parishes, and organizations. I have influence in determining which voices to highlight in publications, workshops, webinars, and cohort gatherings.
I work in a building that overlooks the tracks where Fr. Augustus Tolton collapsed. I work with people who are among those advocating and working for his canonization. I have the privilege of hearing Bishop Perry and others who know his life and work intimately share the reality of his whole life. Fr. August Tolton was a lifelong Catholic who was often betrayed by that very Church he devoted his whole life to ministering to and with, but in which he never lost hope or faith. No diocese in the United State would send him to seminary because of the color of his skin. When white people were attracted to his preaching and pastoral care, he had to leave his community at the words of those in the Church.
In the twentieth century, the movements for anti-war, pacifism, workers’ rights, and migrant labor rights became flashpoints in American politics and the Church. Those who espoused these perspectives were vilified in media and Congress as anti-American, communists, and representative of all that is wrong in the world. Many in the Church identified these individuals as extremists, not really Catholic, and vilified them in homilies and print. Yet Dorothy Day persevered and unwaveringly shed light through her words and presence on the injustices in the lives of migrant workers out west, the homeless in major cities, seemingly endless wars, and the evils that can come with wealth and privilege. Today she is beloved by many, a convenient touchpoint for others, and a threat to just as many.
In my studies, countless professors (both undergrad and grad school) warn about pulling a quote out of context or leaving a quotation dangling, with inadequate analysis. The Catholic understanding of how to read and reflect on Scripture is that any passage, any verse, needs to be put into conversation with the whole of the Bible, Tradition, the larger understanding of revelation, and with an understanding of the historical and literary space in which that passage was written. This same methodology should be kept in mind when we lift a quote from a saint or passage from a Church document.
Given their lives, their witness, their words, their suffering, I must ask myself where would these two have been in the summer of 2020? Would they have marched? Would they have been seated, commenting on some talk show? Would they have filled editorial pages? Both these individuals had deep, personal relationships with God that were fed and formed in the Catholic Church. Both these people were humble and emulated Christ. Both these people were unafraid to live like Christ, even when it made others uncomfortable or pushed at the very fabric of society. Both these individuals lived lives that in their own ways strove to bring forth the Reign of God more fully, often facing opposition from the Church itself.
We like to put a glossy coat over history, to remember people like Dorothy Day and Fr. August Tolton in ways that make us comfortable, that support our views on the world and the Church. They would be the first to object to that. Dorothy Day herself is often quoted as saying, “Don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” Saintliness comes with its own veneer.
When I look to Fr. Augustus Tolton and Dorothy Day, I am reminded of why I subjected myself to the years of sacrifice and exhaustion that came with juggling work and school. They remind me why I sacrifice my vacation time, why I endure the challenges. They remind me of the complexity of the call of each of us to be prophets in this world – speaking from the Spirit given to each of us in our baptisms – to proclaim truth as much in the secular world as the ecclesial world. Many in the upper echelons of the Church only value the intellectual, textbook knowledge of theology, knowledge of God. And so I learned, I studied. But I know from experience, the theology that rests deep in who I am and in whose I am, that there is truth, there the Spirit, there is something in each of us.
If we as a Church have forgotten to recognize that Spirit, God’s presence in each person, and the inherent value of each person at every stage of life, in every socio-economic, cultural, racial, and linguistic category, we have forgotten who we are. If we do not work towards a society where there are no longer injustices against the human person, we ignore the words of Paul in Galatians. If we deny that the color of a person’s skin, their accent, their immigration status, their sex affects their experience of the world and God’s Church, we deny the sacredness of their lives. We deny the unique way God is present in them and we deny ourselves the opportunity to grow in understanding of God through their unique experience as the image and likeness of God. The sins and temptations society faces are the same the Church faces – we are still a Church made of sinful humans. We just as easily value certain voices less. We just as easily fall prey to elitism, classism. We just as easily listen to the voices that fund our ministries, the voices that clamor the loudest. We just as easily situate ourselves in circles that affirm our theology, our ministry, our values without honestly engaging with those people who challenge, those theologies that are discomforting, those who hold different values.
If we as a Church forget that we are called to be the voice of hope and the bringer of justice, we are forgetting our identity. We have hope of eternal life and the peace and perfect justice of God’s eternal reign. We also are called to work ceaselessly in our world to establish that on earth. To tear down those sinful, human constructs that prevent the true dignity of each person being recognized and valued – that is what Jesus Christ taught and calls us to do as his disciples. If we forget that, we forget part of our identity as Church.
And so I come full circle. I return to why I pushed myself through school. I return to the recognition of my advantages and privilege. I return to why, even as I wrestle with comprehensive exams and soon my thesis, I began and continue to develop this site. I return to why, despite countless frustrations, disappointments, and attacks over the years, I continue to serve the imperfect Church.
A Cardinal once urged me, when I thought all I was supposed to say was the short introduction of the speaker at an event, “Tell them who you are, tell them why you are here.”
My name is Jennifer Delvaux. I am a woman of faith who love God and the Church. I am a faithful believer who sees the injustices in the world, the imperfections in her Church. I am here to help lift up other voices, to speak the truth I know and the truth I have experienced. I am a minister who serves and a minister who seeks to help the Church continue to develop, to more fully embody whose it is and all who comprise it. I am a woman who strives each day to grow closer to God and to help others to do the same.
I ask you, who are you and why are you here? I ask the Church, who are you and why are you here?