A Conversation on Hope: Michael O’Connell

March 4, 2018
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Michael O’Connell

Psalm 62:1-5; Romans 5:1-5

Hart-Andersen: This morning we continue our Lenten exploration of hope. We have been exploring this topic with a number of good friends and I’m pleased to welcome back to Westminster Michael O’Connell. Michael is a good friend of mine and of this congregation – for many years now, from his time as the Pastor of the Basilica of St. Mary to his retirement and now his life as a married man. But he still can preach!

Michael, welcome back. Two years ago you were vested as a priest, last year you were in the process of “laicization,” moving from ordained clergy to faithful church member. Where are you in that process of moving from priesthood to lay person?

O’Connell: I went from Father to Mister.

Hart-Andersen: Was this an easy process or did you need some hope along the way?

O’Connell: I needed hope alright. I got hope, too. I had 50 years of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church and I wouldn’t take any of it back. It was an incredible blessing. Our Jewish friends have that wonderful Hebrew word bashert which means meant to be. Sue and I were meant to be… so we are.

Hart-Andersen: Presbyterians would call that providence. The providence of God. You were predestined.

O’Connell: Excellent, thank you. Remember that.

Hart-Andersen: Michael, you and I have been around the church a long time. You longer than I…I’ll catch up to you one day. We’ve seen what people go through – with terrible tragedies, health issues, unwelcome transitions, grief – and we have watched as people in terrible circumstances somehow manage to hold onto hope. And hope has drawn them through those circumstances.

I remember one family whose 20-something son became ill, terminally ill, and was facing what medical science said was certain death. The family never gave up hope. Through terrible suffering and pain over many months, they worked tirelessly with the medical team. The months became years. The doctors and nurses were carried along by the hope of the family. No one would give up. No one would give in. Their hope compelled that family to do everything they could. They created a kind of hopeful aura around their son. The medical community was drawn into that circle of hope, and family friends and others of us were enfolded into what became a community of hope around that young man as he went through trials and terrible pain and suffering, and then hope would suggest a cure and then he would be back into the illness. Eventually he died. But along the way hope was born in that community. The hope didn’t die. The hope continues to be very real in the life of the family as they continue to help look for cures for the disease. He left a legacy of hope.

The Apostle Paul shows confidence in hope that is admirable. He sees it as the end-stage along a continuum of human experience. Suffering, he says, produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character, in the end, produces hope. And hope, as Paul says, does not disappoint.  There is a move from the tangible hardship of suffering to the intangible of hope. The tangibles may conclude, the intangibles carry on. When all else fails, he is saying, when there’s nothing left to do, hope persists, and offers a way forward.

I think of the Roman Catholic tradition and the place of suffering in your theology and your architecture and I think of the presence of the mother of Jesus, like the mother in the family I described, seeing her son suffering and then seeing the son die too early. How does Mary play into the Catholic understanding of Christian hope?

O’Connell: I’d like to start trying to answer that by saying the prayer that I…if I’ve said this prayer once I’ve said it 50,000 times. I am not exaggerating. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us, sinners. Now, and at the hour of our death. Amen.”

So what does she really mean in the Catholic world? Well I’d like to begin with this piece of art. I’m sorry it is so small, I’d like to project it. But essentially what you have here is a Palestinian Jewish woman. You can tell by the color of her skin and his skin that we don’t look like them. The portrayal here is of the mother going to the well. This is the water jug here and over here on her right is her little boy. They are going to the well as they would do every morning. As did the mothers of Nazareth go every morning. How many of you have been to Nazareth? Quite a few of you. In those days, there were probably 200. That wasn’t the end of end of the earth, but you could see the end of the earth from there. It was a pretty wretched place, very poor. I grew up in Catholicism and I don’t know how you grew up, but I grew up believing that even when he was that age he was really walking about three feet off the ground. He could do no wrong. He was not the spoiled child. He grew up needing to know how to function in the world and especially how to love and especially how to be loved. I think the scripture leads us to believe that the father was a lot older. This woman had everything to do with raising that child. Trying to teach him the reality of the world that he was coming into. And the world that he was coming into was vicious. Every one of these people had the boot of Rome on their neck all the time. Whether it was taxes, or unfair judgements, the poverty that they lived in, the persecution. And she had to tell him about that and explain it. And then she had to apply her Jewish faith to it. She had to be able to teach him about how to navigate this world. And she taught him, we think, mostly through the Psalms. If there is a place where we are taught that it is in God we trust. That’s it. Ironic isn’t it? On our money…

Hart-Andersen: Well we heard that in the Psalm this morning:

“For God alone my soul waits, for all my hope comes from God.”

O’Connell: So that’s what she taught him, those Psalms. They came into his heart. They formed his faith, his belief. Who he trusted in and why.

I had an experience back in 1996, Sue and her husband Larry at the time, were with me and 74 other people from Temple Israel and the Basilica. We went to Israel and Palestine. We went the way of the Via Cruxis, the way of the cross. We know that is one of the very true places in Israel. That road is where Jesus walked. A lot of other places are kind of whatever…not that road. And I was with half of that 74 and another priest leading the other half. We stopped at the station called “Jesus Meets His Grieving Mother.” And I explained how the mother who taught this child and who loved this child was walking with this child who was wrongly accused, unfairly accused, to go to his shameful death. To hang on that cross almost naked. She was going with him and her heart was just breaking. But she was the presence to her son of who God is to her son. We had a 75 year old woman who was going with us that day, I thought she was really old. That is how old I am.

Hart-Andersen: That is really old, Michael. Was she from Temple Israel?

O’Connell: Yes, so she was Jewish. And after I got done with my speech about how Jesus meets his grieving mother she said, “This reminds me of thousands and thousands and thousands of Jewish mothers who accompanied their innocent children to a place of incomprehensible evil. Falsely blamed, and they actually carried them into where they were killed.” She saw the connection. It was so powerful. To see these mothers who had nurtured these children, and I by no means want to obstruct the father’s role in that. But in this instance, I think she had a very powerful job of nurturance. She really was present. So the question is, how does Mary play into this? How does she show hope? I believe that she is the first disciple of all the disciples who was there, wherever there is, and we believe they are the communion of saints and she is first amongst them. And they pray for us. And when I really, really need hope I say, “Holy mother, Mother of God, pray for us sinners. Now and at the hour of our death. Amen. “

Hart-Andersen: Michael you tell us that Mary likely taught her son the Psalms and may have sung them to teach him the Psalms. You remember when he was on the cross, he quoted from the Psalms with his mother witnessing this. Psalm 22:

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

A moment of sheer hopelessness expressed by Jesus, with his mother present.

O’Connell: And in the garden I believe the night before…”Father take this cup from me.” I can’t handle this deal. And so when I confront that, “Why have you forsaken me?” That’s when I really believe he doesn’t walk three feet off the ground. He truly knew abandonment. He truly knew despair… knew sadness…maybe even anger. He took the words of Job. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away, but blessed be the name of the Lord.  I don’t know what this is about, and I kind of hate it, but somehow this path of suffering leads to you.

Hart-Andersen: It is in that moment that I think that Mary is thinking of Paul’s continuum: endurance, character, suffering, hope. Mary becomes the vessel for the hope of God’s people as her son dies. And in that moment, a kind of redemptive moment of suffering returns. The hope it gives to us, paradoxically, is born again. I think of this family of whom I spoke, who lost their son, losing a child…what worse thing could happen to us as parents? Yet to reach hope in that moment. And then Mary becomes a symbol of the church carrying hope forward.

There is a lot of cause for hopelessness in our world today. Let me count the number of causes, whether it is in our own lives or in the world around us. I think of the shootings in Parkland. I think of the young people there who are showing their character in the suffering, as they work together. I hope they have good endurance; they are going to need it to move the adults to sensible gun control. Where do you find hope in today’s context? Particularly in the global issues we see…which could bring us hopelessness pretty quick.

O’Connell: This can be really hard of course, to find that hope today. But I’ll go to David Brooks who writes for the New York Times. Somebody who I go to. There are times when he writes a column that sounds like everybody else that there is no hope. It is wallpaper of despair. But he does something different. He pushes for hope. He had a column the week before last and it was really brilliant. He talked about an organization called Better Angels. It is three people who put it together, Bill Dougherty at the University of Minnesota being one. He has spoken here, too. Let me just diverge for a moment. Better angels, as I think most of us know, comes from Lincoln’s first inaugural. This is what Lincoln was saying…we think we are in trouble today? What was it like in 1861? It is kind of good to take some perspective. And Lincoln says, “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

So this Better Angels group they go around to different towns and put together small groups of reds and blues. And they invite people to speak freely to each other. But once people have exhausted themselves, and you kind of know how we can exhaust ourselves. Then they draw us to that incredible phrase in the Prayer of St. Francis, “Lord help me to understand rather than trying to be understood. Help me to understand more than my need to be understood.” That is what they do.

It was about three weeks ago on 60 Minutes when they had Oprah. It was very powerful. She had been commissioned by CBS to put together a group like this. She met with this group all across the summer and into the fall. The first two or three was about as painful and raw and outpouring of anger as you can imagine. Miracle of miracles, the group, once they had gotten rid of all the stuff, they sort of became a community. They started to change and wanted to understand rather than be understood. The most poignant moment in that thing was when one red said to a blue, calmly and quietly, “Do you hate me?” And the blue said, “No. I don’t hate you.” The red said, “It sure feels like you do.” And the blue said, “Really?” It is so much more important to understand than be understood.

So where do I get hope? I get hope in stuff like that. Where the better angels of ourselves can be transformed.

Hart-Andersen: And to me the church ought to be providing that better angel thrust in our community. Just by virtue of who we are, a bridge across the divide, a voice for justice and injustice. I think of another Francis, one of yours, the Pope.

O’Connell: That is hard for a Presbyterian to say.

Hart-Andersen: Actually for this Presbyterian and that Pope – no. It is very easy to say. The way Francis has approached Christian faith…if you think about it there is no other figure, political or religious, that has global reach. Except for Francis. The only figure in the world that has global reach and the power that accrues to someone in that position. And yet the way he has approached Christianity is as simple and unfettered by the stuff that can glom on to those that have power. He has repeatedly reminded me that Christianity is when you get through the layers of it, is about loving neighbor, loving God. And you may not dot all of the i’s and cross all the t’s right, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the love of God. And to bear that love and to be that love and be that hope in the world. It is such a simple and straightforward approach to Christianity. The next time you see Pope Francis, thank him from this Presbyterian, would you please?

O’Connell: I would respond to that and say fifty years of ordained ministry was a blessing and I’d have to say that the last five years of that fifty years has been redemptive for me in a way that I desperately needed in our institution. We had accumulated…it is kind of like when a ship goes into dry dock and it has so many barnacles that you have to basically cut those barnacles off the bottom of that ship, and then put it down in the water and it will sail smoothly. That is what he has done. He has basically said, we’ve got a lot of traditions and historical priorities and rules, not necessarily denigrating all of that, but he said this is a pretty simple proposition and it is wrapped around the word mercy. And the word mercy in Hebrew as Jesus understood it, as taught to him by his mother, is from a word rechem which means womb. It means what happens in the womb when the child is vulnerable, subconsciously the womb almost contracts around the child to protect it. And that is what Francis tells about what Jesus was thinking about when he was trying to teach us about God. We are surrounded, if you will, in the womb of God. More than anything else God is loving, kind, merciful, and forgiving. And so that is what has been so hopeful for me. Remember our evangelical friends used to have the little rubber bracelet? WWJD? I kind of thought that is a little facile. No. It’s helpful. What would Jesus do?

Hart-Andersen: Michael, thank you for giving to this group of Protestants the image of Mary as the progenitor of hope – the one who bears hope to the world. And in her suffering finds her way to redemptive hope and gives it to the church. Now you’ve reminded us that we are in a way the womb, the church as the womb that bears this hope to the world. We know there will be awful circumstances; we see them every day, we read about them in the paper, we know about them in our own lives. We have a number of our church members who are working toward the end of their lives. We are working with them as pastors. We see the sorrow and the anguish that comes from knowing the end is near. And yet, as we go into those situations, and yet as all of us go into those situations where suffering is real and anger is real, we can bring hope by who we are. I’m grateful to you for offering those images to us from your own tradition.

O’Connell: Just one final word if I may. I grew up three blocks from House of Hope in Saint Paul. So I had to kind of get over the fact that I wasn’t allowed to go in there. I figured that out about three years ago. It is a wonderful group of people and I know a lot of people there. I’m thinking about Westminster and you said that community of hope rose here when that very brave couple trusted that God was with them. That community of hope. You have a community of hope – that is probably more important than anything. You also say you’re a telling presence in the City. I would like to suggest that you could further say you are not just the House of Hope, you are a Home of Hope.

Hart-Andersen: Thank you for that challenge, Michael, and thank you for your presences as we come to this table. This is the table where hope is born again in the elements. We invite you to participate in that celebration of the Lord’s supper.

Thanks be to God.


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