By Gordon Nary
Gordon: Interviewing someone with a profile on Wikipedia makes the interview much easier. As a Visiting Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the Catholic Theological Union, could ypu explain to our readers who may not know, what Systemic Theology is?
Father Dan: Ha, yeah, the Wikipedia page has always cracked me up. I don’t know where it came from, but once I discovered it, I check it out now and then to make sure that whoever’s contributing to it is doing so accurately. I’ve made a few corrections and updates myself, so I think it’s generally accurate. As for “systematic theology,” this is simply a fancy term to describe the field of theology that most people think of when they think of “theology.” Some parts of the world might refer to the same field of study as “doctrinal theology” or “dogmatic theology” (those titles are pretty common in Europe). The term “systematic theology” is most common in the British and North American academic context and refers to the notion that the discrete foci of study, the particular doctrines of the Christian tradition, can never truly be understood as independent subjects, but instead are always already connected to one another. For example, you cannot talk about “theological anthropology” (the view of the human person from the Christian tradition) apart from talking about “Christology” (the study of Jesus Christ) or “fundamental theology” (the study of revelation, grace, etc.). They are all interconnected. Many systematic theologians specialize in a particular subfield, such as “ecclesiology” (the study of the Church) or “pneumatology” (the study of the Holy Spirit)—I like to think of myself as a generalist who is interested in many of the subfields of systematics, but I tend to research, write, and teach about creation, anthropology, fundamental theology, and Christology the most.
Gordon: What initially interested you in the work of Thomas Merton?
Father Dan: My interest in Thomas Merton actually began as a personal, spiritual interest. I was drawn to his personal story, his spiritual writings, and then his commitment to the church’s work in social justice. I was introduced to him while I was in High School. I was given two Merton books as gifts, one from my great aunt and uncle and the other from the pastor of my home parish. The first book was an old first edition of Merton’s spiritual autobiography The Seven Storey Mountain, the second was a single volume of journal selections. Both of these books were given to me because I was preparing to go to college at St. Bonaventure University, a Franciscan college in Western New York State where Merton has actually taught for three semesters before entering the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani. While Merton was a figure whose memory was very present on the campus of SBU, it wasn’t until a few years later when I became a Franciscan friar that I became extraordinarily interested in his writings. Very quickly, my interest in Merton became a “hobby that grew out of control,” as I like to say. I was asked to give talks and retreats about Merton, I soon was doing a lot of scholarly research on Merton—publishing articles, giving academic papers, writing a book about him. In short order, I was elected to three consecutive terms on the Board of Directors of the International Thomas Merton Society (ITMS), so he and his legacy became and remain a significant part of my personal and professional life.
Gordon: Could you provide an overview why The International Thomas Merton Society was organized and, why and how they promote the study of Thomas Merton?
Father Dan: The ITMS was organized about twenty-five-years ago by a small group if Merton scholars who recognized the importance of Merton’s life, work, and legacy and felt that an organization dedicated to promoting research, study, and interest in Merton would be a great gift to the church, academy, and world at large. One of the greatest things about the ITMS—in addition to the resources, financing, and networking that promotes the scholarly research on Merton and his writings—is that it is an organization that is also open to non-scholars as well. The international conference, which is held every two years (the next conference is June 2017 at St. Bonaventure University, info at www.Merton.org), welcomes those who may not be Merton scholars per se but are enthusiasts who are interested in learning more about Merton, connecting with others who are attracted to his impressive collection of writing, and who may enjoy hearing the best Merton scholars from around the world share the latest research. It’s an extraordinary event. One of my colleagues, a theologian who isn’t actually a Merton scholar, came to the 2015 conference and described it as one of the best experiences she’s had in part because it felt to her like “part academic conference and part retreat.” Not a bad combination!
Gordon: We have several of your videos and article in our Library including the powerful video "A Franciscan Response to Racism & Fear of the ‘Other’ in Today’s World"
Based on recent events, are we becoming a more aggressive racist society, and if so, what can our parishes do to address this challenge?
Father Dan: Well, I don’t know that our society has become more “aggressive” in its racism. I think I would rather say two things. The first is that the United States is, without any qualification, a racist society. By “racist society” I mean that there are structures and institutions in place that benefit some (typically white men and women) and disadvantage others (typically men and women of color). This reality goes back to the founding of this nation and the way that the European colonists treated the Native Peoples of this continent, effectively exterminating them for the sake of taking the land and resources. This is followed by the horrendous practice of chattel slavery in which women, children, and men were kidnapped from their native lands, families, and communities and forced into the Middle Passage. Those who didn’t die from the conditions of that unimaginable journey then faced a living nightmare of slavery. This new nation, especially its economy, was largely built on the institution of slavery and we’ve never really come to serious terms with that social sin. It continues to haunt our society and cultures, overtly as in the case of Jim Crow laws in the South or Red Lining and housing discrimination in the North, and covertly in the biases that are socialized into the collective psyches of the American people. There’s a difference between “systemic racism” as an incontrovertible reality and an individual “racist” or particular “racist action.” Most Americans only think of the latter two when they think about racism, but we are still in desperate need to come to terms with the former and acknowledge the reality of white privilege in order to begin overcoming these injustices. The second thing I’d say is that, in the wake of the 2016 United States election, I could see why racism in the U.S. appears more “aggressive.” Sadly, I don’t think what we’re witnessing in terms of the increase in hate speech, hate crimes, and overt discrimination is particularly new. Rather, it seems to me that the rhetoric and proposed policies of the incoming president has contributed to a sense of license for those who’ve already held these beliefs to do and say these things more freely now. The lesson here is that for those who identify themselves as Christian, there is a lot of work still to be done in terms of racial justice and civil rights in this country—as Christians, we are called to be at the forefront of that work because we claim to follow the Prince of Peace. This is where parishes have a tremendous opportunity. To offer educational opportunities, listening sessions, community engagement, honest preaching about the realities of our time, and workshops that dare to engage these admittedly difficult topics—these are ways local Catholic communities might begin to respond to “the signs of our times in the light of the Gospel,” as the Second Vatican Council exhorts us.
Gordon: As a Chicagoan that has seen the murder pandemic continue to escalate in our city, how can Catholic parishes and other faiths work together help address this challenge that affects so many lives?
Father Dan: I’m still new to Chicago and learning more about my new home every day. Indeed, there are parts of the in which the community experience violence on a daily basis to a degree that it could accurately be called a war zone. Still elsewhere in the city, there are, like so many cities in this country, local struggles and injustices that exist on a daily basis but don’t necessarily get the national attention that the tragic gun violence does. One thing that I’ve learned about Chicago in my short time as a Chicagoan is that it is a very neighborhood-based city. I think that the answer to your question really varies depending on which neighborhood we’re talking about in a given instance. The parish communities know—or ought to know—the needs of their respective community. As Christians living in the modern world, I think it’s incumbent on all members of a parish to avoid letting their parish church become a “Sunday morning club,” where they appear for an hour once a week and then disappear for the remaining six days and twenty-three hours. Addressing the challenge of violence, poverty, domestic abuse, or any of the other many issues facing people in our communities requires that we allow what we celebrate in the Eucharist to lead us to work together the rest of the time and in manifold creative ways. We see that done in big and little ways around the archdiocese including, for example, in the courageous leadership of Fr. Michael Pflegger the pastor of St. Sabina, as well as elsewhere.
Gordon: You are an exceptional communicator. Based on your experience, how can parishes most effectively use social media, how should it be used, and what resources would your recommend that they consider?
Father Dan: Well, that’s very kind—thank you. The first thing I would say, borrowing a line from Jesus Christ, is “do not be afraid!” For those who are not members of the Millennial generation like me (or whatever the younger generation is called behind mine), getting involved with social media can seem daunting. In truth, it is overwhelming at times for someone in his thirties, too, so I have tremendous sympathy in this regard. However, I’m reminded of what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said some years ago during an address about communication. He said that the Internet, and now social media as well, is like a “digital continent” on which so many of the un-catechized live and spend so much of their time. If we are to take seriously our missionary call as Christian disciples to preach the Gospel, then we must also go out to this new, virtual land and be present there. Many pastors are concerned about financial resources, and understandably so, but I would suggest that the resource of time is something that needs to be allocated more generously toward social-media presence and outreach. Parish websites should be updated very regularly; parish Facebook pages and Twitter handles should be active with administrators from the staff sharing both original contents about and from the parish as well as links to interesting articles, reflections, and resources. This is not an optional form of communication anymore, but the primary means of connecting women and men to one another and the church today. The catch is, however, that a fancy website and an active social media account are not enough—you have to have a vibrant real-life community to which you are inviting those out on the “digital continent.” That means someone who connects with the parish online and then shows up on the weekend will find well-researched homilies and good preaching, investment in the liturgical life of the parish and thoughtful music, a variety of offerings that include both informative ongoing formation as well as social outreach opportunities, among other characteristics that reflect a vibrant and spirit-filled worship community.
Gordon: We have seen reports of the exodus of more than 50% of young adults from Catholicism. What can we do to reverse this challenge?
Father Dan: I used to be more on top of the latest Pew Research polls and the data from CARA at Georgetown University than I am now, which would provide us with the most accurate demographic statistics, so I can’t say with certainty that the 50% datum is accurate, but anecdotally we know that people my age (early-30s) and younger are not very likely to identify with a particular religious affiliation including Catholicism. Furthermore, there is a noticeable decline in the typical markers of religious affectivity such as weekly mass attendance, parish registration, and the like among Millennials. I have very mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I understand the concern on the part of the older generations. Parents and grandparents and pastors are worried about the faith lives of the younger generations. Yet, on the other hand, this generation has consistently displayed extraordinarily laudable characteristics such as skyrocketing rates of post-collegiate volunteer service, a decrease in attitudes associated with materialism and a consumer culture, a willingness to prioritize values of tolerance, acceptance, and peacemaking over against individual interests and personal gain. Demographers going back to the early 2000s noticed these trends with the emerging members of the Millennial generation, and these have continued. What this signals to me is perhaps another kind of work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of young adults. Tied with these trends is a strong desire for authenticity (or at least the perception of it), and so I think that Millennials tend to be less patient with perceived inauthenticity on the part of Church leaders and local pastors who tend to be more sectarian and uninterested in the social-justice concerns of many young adults. Therefore, these young women and men would rather be something like “anonymous Christians” (to deliberately misuse an expression from the late theologian Karl Rahner) out in the everyday world than “punch the Mass clock” once a week in a parish that seems to them disconnected from the everyday reality of modern people. What does this mean for parishes? It means that bishops, priests, lay ministers, and religious need to listen and learn from their younger sisters and brothers. Instead of trying to “do things” to lure them back to church, perhaps local parishes might look into what motivates and inspires these young people. The bridge between the ostensible divide is really the Gospel of Jesus Christ in which we are told again and again that it is how we live our faith (think of Matthew 25 and the “sheep” and “goats”) rather than what we say about our faith that matters most to God. Parishes can learn from Millennials about the “joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 1) of the women and men of the modern world, while parish communities can teach Millennials about how the Catholic Christian tradition provides a spiritual, theological, and scriptural home and resources for understanding how to interpret their recognition of the Spirit’s call to service.
Gordon: Ironically, there has been a parallel increase by young adults in superhero films. If Thomas Merton was a Marvel Superhero, which one would he be, and why?
Father Dan: My youngest brother, who is a college senior double majoring in theology and journalism and is a huge film buff, would love this question! This is tough because I’ve never really been a comic-book guy nor have I seen all the movies in recent years (so forgive me if I confuse Marvel with DC characters, only a venial sin I hope). I guess I would say that Merton could be a sort of “Professor Xavier” from The X-men. This is for several reasons. First, and this is totally superficial, they both had the same hairstyle: completely bald (something I totally appreciate). Second, while the other members of the X-Men team would often go out into the world to engage in mission, Professor X often stayed back at the “School for the Gifted,” which serves as something like an analog to Merton’s monastery. Merton’s religious vows kept him in his cloister, whereas Professor X’s wheelchair kept him often back at home. Third, despite their geographical and travel limitations, both of them nevertheless could reach out and connect with people all over the globe. Professor X’s mutant power was, if I remember correctly, the ability to get to the heart and mind of people remotely through a kind of telepathy. Likewise, Merton’s power was through his writing, especially his correspondence, through which he was able to reach the hearts and minds of people all over the world including those well into the future. In a letter to Pope Saint John XXIII, Merton famously described this “power” (as I’m calling it) as an “apostolate of friendship.” I think that this is a power for good that could and should be cultivated more and more today, especially through the connectivity of social media platforms.
Gordon: I encourage our readers to visit your website for more of your articles and videos and thought that it would be great to close with your video on Thomas Merton’s prayer