Justin Sengstock

"…the questions, in the end, are what define us." –Chris Hedges

Resurrecturis

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Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!P04-12-14_18.09

Exult, all creation around God’s throne!

Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!

Sound the trumpet of salvation!

In high school, we took a theology class called “Jesus of History, Christ of Faith.” Early in the semester, we had to write a paragraph about who we thought Jesus was and what we thought he came to do.

I wrote a few sentences. It was something standard, boilerplate. Jesus was sent by the Father. He saved us from our sins by his blood. He won our place in heaven for us.

I finished the exercise. I passed it up to the front of the row. As I did, I remember thinking ever so briefly: “Wait. Do I even know what any of this actually means? Why did it feel so dull and flat when I wrote it?”

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Quotable Quotes: Easter Vigil

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P07-09-13_11.15Eventually, the two people being baptized are called up to the altar. One of them is the gregarious, chatty woman who brings the huge posse each week, and the other is Theresa’s six-year-old son. They have to lie prostrate on the altar throughout the incantation of the Litany of the Saints, which goes on and on, and the six-year-old, with his mom kneeling and holding his hand, lies right down with a thud. The sheer weirdness of seeing someone lying face down in public without being drunk is jarring enough until I realize that they must really want to do this if they’re willing to put their faces on the dirty stone. (In the six-year-old’s case, I recognize that he’s just being a good kid, but I can’t imagine my own six-year-old niece lying still for anything.) As we all chant along, incanting the names of the ancient saints, the martyrs, the Desert Fathers, and all the makers of the early church–Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Ambrose, Damian, Bartholomew, and so many others–I silently add my own names to the list: Harvey Milk; my colleague recently gone from breast cancer; my friend Tom, dead from AIDS years ago; and my grandparents, mother-in-law, dad. Catholics often pray to God through the intercession of the saints, and I figure I need as many of them on my side as possible, so I add the names of people I love who have died. If one of my saints was a Radical Faerie who walked around handing out AIDS testing brochures while wearing sparkly wings and a kilt and holding a joint in one hand, all the better.

From Radical Reinvention: An Unlikely Return to the Catholic Church by Kaya Oakes

Quotable Quotes: “a whole galaxy of horrors”

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Passion graphicCrucifixion was the cruelest possible act of a generally cruel regime–Cicero called it “the extremest penalty” (summum supplicium). As such, it topped an ascending order of deaths by torture. The least savage was beheading. Above that came lethal exposure to beasts in the circus. Then burning a man alive. And finally crucifixion. The utter shamefulness of crucifixion was such that Roman citizens were normally not subject to it. The tradition that Nero crucified Saint Peter but only beheaded Saint Paul probably comes from the fact that Luke calls Paul a Roman citizen (Ac 16.37-38, 23.27).

Crucifixion involved a whole galaxy of horrors. I wonder if young people consider that when they wear gold or jeweled crucifixes as earrings or necklace pendants.

From What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills

Written by Justin Sengstock

April 18, 2014 at 2:39 pm

The Fireside Chats: In any language. (A Catholic triptych.)

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0808-0710-1617-3417I.

We are in Chicago. We arrive at the funeral home just as the mourners file out. We merge in alongside them. We follow the pinkish-silver casket to the towering red-brick Catholic church across the street.

“We” are my parents, my grandmother, and I. The body in the casket is what is left of Danuta, the wife of my mother’s godfather, Jan. The church is St. Hyacinth’s Basilica, the crown jewel of the Polish community in Chicago. John Paul II visited it before he became pope.

This November morning is the first time I ever have been inside a basilica. It is chilly inside. I need my jacket. The funeral Mass is all in Polish, as is the committal at the Polish cemetery in a northern suburb.

I tap into that innate talent we Catholics still retain, despite Vatican II and the disappearance of Latin: the ability to follow rituals and gestures without understanding any of the words.

On this day, I feel Catholic, but I do not feel Polish, even though I am Polish and all these people are Poles. I do not belong among the formal, stern men in their suits. I do not belong among the women with their black mantillas and heavy perfume.

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Paris at night. Again.

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Paris at night. Again.

Paris. At night. Again. I took this picture because A) I wanted something with the Seine in it and B) one of my companions told me, “See that? That’s the most expensive neighborhood in the world.” So this is possibly a picture of the most expensive neighborhood in the world. May 2006. (Photo by Justin Sengstock.)

Written by Justin Sengstock

April 14, 2014 at 12:57 am

Posted in Life, Photo

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Our book was reviewed for NCR!

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9780879464912As per an email from my publisher, Jocelyn Collen did a “wonderful major review” of Hungering and Thirsting for Justice in the Apr. 11-24 edition of National Catholic Reporter. I am told she wrote: “Each story reads like a prayer.”

That, alas, is all I know. It looks like the article is only available in the print edition, to which I do not subscribe, or by Kindle, which I gave away to my mother.

But I’m going to try to get my hands on a copy of the paper. You should, too. You should also buy the book if you haven’t already.

Hungering and Thirsting for Justice: Real-Life Stories by Young Adult Catholics was released by Chicago’s ACTA Publications in 2012. From the back cover:

Here are ten real-life stories by young adult Catholics trying to discover how to carry out their faith in their daily lives. You may not agree with everything they think, say, or do, but you will admire and be challenged by their passion, dedication, courage, and love for God and others.

My essay for the book is “Gaining My Moral Compass.”

UPDATE 4/16/14: Review is now online: Stories inspire hope for church’s future | National Catholic Reporter

“Dirty little secret”: Our Johannine church

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LentGraphicWe are in late Lent. The weekday Gospel readings are now all John, all the time.

And why not? We are bearing down on Holy Week, and John’s Jesus lives in a “Wanted” poster. They’re always trying to kill him, but can’t quite grab him; they seek to arrest him, but the hour hasn’t arrived. And so on. The liturgical point is that the hour will come.

I have a confession. I don’t much like John’s Jesus.

He has beautiful moments: “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25). Or: “This is my commandment: love one another as I love you” (15:12). Or: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (15:5). Or: “I pray…so that they may all be one” (17:20-21).

Or this one above all: “Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?’ She thought it was the gardener and said to him, ‘Sir, if you carried him away, tell me where you laid him, and I will take him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’” (20:15-16).

But overall, John’s Jesus can be…well…tedious and arrogant. He expounds on his oneness with God. He demands that everybody and their grandma acknowledge it. He is disappointingly prone to context-free utterances about his exalted mission. At face value, he seems the type to stride into some random diner in some random part of town, shouting “Do you not know that I am he?!” when you just want to eat your pie and pay your bill. No wonder everybody had enough.

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Written by Justin Sengstock

April 7, 2014 at 12:58 pm

Quotable Quotes: Small-town Chicago

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He grew up a small-town boy, which used to be possible even in the big city. Not anymore, because of the car, the shifting society, and the suburban sprawl. But Chicago, until as late as the 1950s, was a place where people stayed put for a while, creating tightly knit neighborhoods, as small-townish as any village in the wheat fields.

The neighborhood-towns were part of larger ethnic states. To the north of the Loop was Germany. To the northwest Poland. To the west were Italy and Israel. To the southwest were Bohemia and Lithuania. And to the south was Ireland.

It wasn’t perfectly defined because the borders shifted as newcomers moved in on the old settlers, sending them fleeing in terror and disgust. Here and there were outlying colonies, with Poles also on the South Side, and Irish up north.

But you could always tell, even with your eyes closed, which state you were in by the odors of the food stores and the open kitchen windows, the sound of the foreign or familiar language, and by whether a stranger hit you in the head with a rock.

From Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago by Mike Royko

Written by Justin Sengstock

April 5, 2014 at 12:09 am

An aside: The clergy sex abuse crisis and “knowing”

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(I’m considering publishing a version of this at Young Adult Catholics. But I may not. It has more of a razor edge than my usual.)

For Lent, I’ve been checking into Facebook less. But I’ve not actually abstained. The headline that popped up in my news feed made me wish I had:

“Italy’s bishops pass Vatican-backed rule that child molestation does not have to be reported.”

The headline accompanied a March 28 article in the UK Independent. Kashmira Gander wrote:

Italy’s bishops have adopted a policy, with backing from the Vatican, that states they are not obliged to inform police officers if they suspect a child has been molested.

The Italian Bishops’ Conference said the guidelines published on Friday reflected suggestions from the Vatican’s office that handles sex abuse investigations….

Italian guidelines cite a 1985 treaty between the Vatican and Italy stipulating that clergy aren’t obliged to tell magistrates about information obtained through their religious ministry. The guidelines remind bishops, however, they have a ”moral duty“ to contribute to the common good.

In that moment, I saw and knew.

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The Fireside Chats: Envy

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Decalogue IX: Envy. You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. (Beginning of the ninth-commandment chapter in Losing Moses on the Freeway: The 10 Commandments in America by Chris Hedges)

I imagine most professions struggle, in some way or other, with at least one of the seven deadly sins. Writers struggle with envy.

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It is natural. The writing market is a case study in the adage “many are called, but few are chosen.” And it is perhaps worse in the United States than many other places.

Hugh Downs, in his autobiography On Camera: My 10,000 Hours on Television, observed:

In this country, unfortunately, you always have to “be” what you do for a living. Which means how you make your living becomes your identity. In other countries you might ask a man what he does, and he might say, “I write poems,” or, “I climb mountains.” Then you find out he is a bank teller.

To be an American writer, you must make your living at writing. And because writing is a profession whose public face is defined not by its “ninety-nine percent,” but by its “one percent,” making a living is insufficient: you must be seen to do it.

If you are a religion commentator or a spiritual writer, it gets more perverse. Given your subject matter, you surely realize the last shall be first, and the first shall be last. Those who exalt themselves will be humbled. Those who humble themselves will be exalted.

But despite your biblical literacy, you keep a running tally. There is that friend who got her poem published in a national Catholic magazine. There is that young woman, from the shimmering edge of your social circle, who works for said Catholic magazine. She published a book. Then there is that guy you knew from college. After he was ordained, he founded another Catholic magazine, which turned into a book.

There is that young Christian writer who did well. He recently moved to New York. New York is a storied land of smoky and sexy things you are not doing. Another writer who hovers at the fringe of your network lives in New York, too. He poses for tasteful selfies in cafes. His goatee and scarf suggest one who has made it.

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Since my last confession, I have desired to body-switch with 20,000 colleagues, whose lives I enjoy summarizing in glib, one-sentence portraits.

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