Fr. Ron Rolheiser

Fr. Ron Rolheiser

Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.

He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.

Fr. Rolheiser can be reached at his website, www.ronrolheiser.com.

Sometimes the simple act of naming something can be immensely helpful. Before we can put a name on something we stand more helpless before its effects, not really knowing what’s happening to us.  

Many of us, for example, are familiar with the book The Future Church: How Ten Trends are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church, by John Allen. The things he names in this book, even when they don’t affect us directly, still help shape us for the better. As a journalist who travels the world as the Vatican analyst for both CNN and the National Catholic Reporter, Allen is able to provide us with a wider, global perspective on Church issues than is generally afforded to those of us whose vision is more emotionally mired in our own local and national issues. Heartaches at home can make us blind to the wider concerns of the planet, just as seeing the concerns and pains of others first-hand can put our own concerns and pain into a healthier perspective. Allen’s global frame of reference, as outlined in the mega-trends he names in his book, helps us keep our own ecclesial concerns in a healthier perspective.

Truth finds us in different ways. Sometimes we learn what something means not in a classroom but in a hospital.

Several years ago I was visiting a man dying of cancer in a hospital room. He was dying well, though nobody dies easy. He felt a deep loneliness, even as he was surrounded by people who loved him deeply. Here’s how he described it: “I have a wonderful wife and children, and lots of family and friends. Someone is holding my hand almost every minute, but ... I’m a stone’s throw away from everyone. I’m dying and they’re not. I’m inside of something into which they can’t reach. It’s awfully lonely, dying.”

Not all fear is created equal, at least not religiously. There’s a fear that’s healthy and good, a sign of maturity and love. There’s also a fear that’s bad, that blocks maturity and love. But this needs explanation.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding about fear inside of religious circles, especially around the scriptural passage that says that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Too often texts like these, as well as religion in general, have been used to instill an unhealthy fear inside of people in the name of God.

We need to live in “holy fear” but that is a very particular kind of fear which should not be confused with fear as we normally understand it.

Theologians sometimes try to simplify the meaning of the Resurrection by packaging its essence into one sentence: In the Resurrection, God vindicated Jesus, His life, His message and His fidelity. What does that mean?

Jesus entered our world preaching faith, love and forgiveness, but the world didn’t accept that. Instead it crucified Him and, in that crucifixion, seemingly shamed His message. We see this most clearly on the cross when Jesus is taunted, mocked and challenged: If you are the son of God, come down from there! If your message is true, let God verify that right now! If your fidelity is more than plain stubbornness and human ignorance then why are you dying in shame?

We are surrounded by many voices. There’s rarely a moment within our waking lives that someone or something isn’t calling out to us and, even in our sleep, dreams and nightmares ask for our attention.

Each voice has its own particular cadence and message. Some voices invite us in, promising us life if we do this or that or buy a certain product or idea, while others threaten us. Some voices beckon us towards hatred, bitterness, and anger, while others challenge us towards love, graciousness, and forgiveness. Some voices tell us that they are playful and humorous, not to be taken seriously, even as others trumpet that they are urgent and weighty, the voice of non-negotiable truth, God’s voice.

Celebration is a paradoxical thing, created by a dynamic interplay between anticipation and fulfilment, longing and inconsummation, the ordinary and the special, work and play. Life and love must be celebrated within a certain fast-feast rhythm. Seasons of play most profitably follow seasons of work, seasons of consummation are heightened by seasons of longing, and seasons of intimacy grow out of seasons of solitude. Presence depends upon absence, intimacy upon solitude, play upon work. Even God rested only after working for six days!

We can lose our freedom for different reasons and, sometimes, for the best of reasons.

Imagine this scenario: You are on your way to a restaurant to meet a friend for dinner, a perfectly legitimate agenda, but en route you witness a car accident. Some of the people in the accident are seriously hurt and you are the first to arrive at the scene. At that moment your own agenda, dinner with a friend, is put on hold. You’ve lost your freedom and are, by circumstance and need, conscripted to remain there and help. You phone for an ambulance, you call for the police and you wait with the injured until help arrives.

A friend of mine tells this story: As a young boy in the 1950s he was struck down with pneumonia. His family lived in a small town that had neither a hospital nor a doctor. His father had a job which had taken him away from the family for that week. His mother was home alone with no phone and no car. Frightened and completely without resources, she came to his sick bed, knelt beside it, pinned a medal of St. Therese of Lisieux to his pyjamas and prayed to St. Therese in words to this effect: “I’m trusting you to make my child better. I’m going to remain kneeling here until his fever breaks.”

Both my friend and his mother eventually fell asleep, he in his sick bed, she kneeling beside it. When they woke, his fever had broken.

As a columnist, I’ve always harbored a certain paranoia about being overly personal or exhibitionistic or in thinking my own emotional ups and downs are of interest to others. I’ve tried to respect that fear. Occasionally, however, circumstance dictates that I do write something more personal. This is such an occasion.

I want to express my gratitude for all the prayers and support I have received during these past seven months while undergoing treatments for cancer. That desert-journey has finally ended, and with a good result. Just over a month ago, I finished my last chemotherapy treatment and, three weeks ago, after a battery of tests, was pronounced “cancer-free.” To God, family, friends, colleagues and to the many who have supported me in prayer: Thank you!

John Updike, in a poem entitled “Fever,” once wrote about what illness might teach us:

Henri Nouwen used to publish some of his diaries under the title On Mourning and Dancing. The title was wholly appropriate since those diaries chronicled much of his own struggle to give public expression to what was bubbling up inside of him and, at the same time, respect a highly sensitive self-consciousness and reticence that made him hesitate to publicly express those same feelings.

And so his writings are a rare expression of both inner freedom and inner fear. His thoughts and feelings are sometimes tortured, but that’s what makes them rich. It’s not always easy to find that delicate balance between healthy self-expression and unhealthy exhibitionism, even if you are Henri Nouwen — or perhaps especially if you are Henri Nouwen.