Kerry A. Robinson, "A Radical Disposition of Other-Centeredness"| Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello, I’m Karen Pascal. I’m the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. Welcome to a new episode of Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Our goal at the Society is to extend the rich, spiritual legacy of Henri Nouwen to audiences around the world. We invite you to share these podcasts with your friends and family. Because we’re new to the world of Podcasts, taking time to give us a review or a thumbs up will mean a great deal to us and will help us extend our reach to more people.
This week my guest is Kerry Robinson. Kerry is the Executive Partner for Global and National Initiatives of Leadership Roundtable. This is an organization dedicated to promote excellence and best practices in management, finances, and human resource development for the Catholic Church in the United States. Kerry Robinson is considered one of the great women in the Catholic Church today. She’s a very articulate, informed and thoughtful commentator on our times. So I wanted to talk with Kerry and get her perspective on what is happening in the Church and in the world today for 2022. Kerry, welcome to Henri Nouwen: Now and Then.
Kerry Robinson: It’s wonderful to be with you, Karen.
Karen: It’s lovely to have you, we’ve had you before. And you’re a favorite guest of mine, to be honest. Let’s start with the pandemic, Kerry. This pandemic has affected everyone, not just in North America, but right across the globe. What lessons does the pandemic and our global syncronistic experience of it have for us?
Kerry: Well, it’s remarkable that no one has been spared the experience of the pandemic; that this affected everyone all across the globe at the same time. So we have a sense that we’re really in this together. Now, one person’s experience of it may have been much more catastrophic than another’s, but we were bound together very intentionally as a global family. And I think that it has, particularly the way it has so disrupted our normal lives, halted travel. Many countries went into lockdown. People lost members of their family. People were not able to be with those who were ill and dying; were not able to say goodbye in person. Funerals were not attended by all of those who loved the one who had passed. People suffered the loss of employment. There was tremendous economic anxiety and distress.
And yet all of the normal challenges that we experienced before the pandemic continued unabated. Hunger, different weather patterns that caused great flooding or fires or hurricanes. And so as a consequence, it forced us, I think, into a deeply reflective posture and called us to ask the important life questions about meaning. And I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for us now, as we are slowly emerging, hopefully slowly emerging from this pandemic to imagine a different way of relating to one another and to caring intentionally for one another connected as we are as a global family.
Karen: It’s interesting because I think for people of faith, there is a fresh question before us. How are we going to, how shall we then live in relationship to our brothers and sisters in the world? I mean, clearly the inequities of the globe have been emphasized. The absence of enough, shall we say, vaccines where it’s perhaps needed most in some of the poorer countries of the world, that in itself has been a real challenge. But let me hear from you, what do you think is happening for us as people of faith? How do you feel we respond to that?
Kerry: Well, I love in your question that you point to the fact that there really was more than one pandemic that we were enduring, and particularly from the vantage point of the United States, where I live. It was not just the COVID 19 pandemic, but also in this period, we had a pandemic of racial injustice. We had a pandemic of growth inequity. And we saw, as you pointed out, the disparity between those who had much, and those who had little and this health crisis just widened the gap, if you will. We also in the United States continue to have an epidemic of gun violence. So these serious communal challenges to life and wellbeing and health are before us. And I don’t think it’s an accident that they’re all coming to the surface at once. But it gives us as people of faith, an opportunity again to ask, what do these pandemics, what does this experience of injustice, what does this experience of inequality mean for us as people of faith? And I take a great cue from Pope Francis. He, in this period, published a book called Let Us Dream the Path to a Better Future. And if you will permit me, I want to read just this tiny passage from it which I think encapsulates the opportunity before us as people of faith. Pope Francis writes, “Now more than ever, what is revealed is the fallacy of making individualism the organizing principle of society. What will be our new principle? We need a movement of people who know we need each other, who have a sense of responsibility to others and to the world. We need to proclaim that being kind, having faith, and working for the common good are great life goals that need courage and vigor. While glib superficiality, and the mockery of ethics have done us no good. The modern era, which has developed equality and liberty with such determination, now needs to focus on fraternity with the same drive and tenacity to confront the challenges ahead. Fraternity will enable freedom and equality to take its rightful place in the symphony.”
So I think for people of faith, we are called to imagine a new way of being in right relationship to one another, because what affects one, affects all. And that’s so clearly illustrated in the context of the COVID 19 pandemic. We will only emerge fully through this when all of the world is able to access vaccines. And we consequently vaccinate as many people as possible.
Karen: I think one of the things that you hear in that is, am I my brother’s keeper? I think people of faith have to renew their commitment to be their brother’s keeper, to care about the person who is next to them, whether in their neighborhood or next to them in the country or in the world? Really. I mean, quite frankly, it is an enormous responsibility and it can be very overwhelming. It’s so much easier to just think about my own issues and my own causes and be self-focused. But the aliveness of being part of community, part of fraternity is really important. I think it’s a moment for the Church to shake off some of the things that sadly, really reflected, I think, inequities and bad practices. But I think it’s an opportunity to say, ‘How shall we embrace the needs of the world with wholeheartedness and with a faith that God is enough?’ God can meet those needs.
Kerry: Yes, beautifully said Karen and I have a short story that just illustrates perfectly what you are getting at and speaks to the life that comes to us when we engage meaningfully in a life of service to others. When we adopt a stance, a disposition of being other-centered and attending to alleviate the suffering that is happening in our brothers and sisters, especially during a time of crisis, there is new life that is given to us. And that’s all part of what we’re called to as to be as Christians.
And the story is that my daughter is now 23 years old, and she was a member of the class of 2020 graduating from college. And of course colleges all went into lockdown and many, many students were on spring break at the time of the lockdown and were given the news, ‘don’t come back to campus’.
And they, of course, did not have the ability to finish out their senior year nor participate in any graduation or end of the year ceremonies. And of course that was sad for the class of 2020. And Sophie, our daughter, naturally fell into a kind of self-pity and sorrow about this predicament, this global crisis that she could do nothing about. And that lasted maybe a week. And she had the presence of mind to realize that this self-pity was selfish and not helpful and not productive. And so she immediately turned to her community to see where she could be of help. And what she did was she volunteered to deliver groceries in a contactless way, masked, with gloves. This was early in the pandemic, you know, in March of 2020. And she delivered groceries to newly resettled refugee families in the greater New Haven, Connecticut area.
And immediately, her perspective changed because she was focused on others and put herself in their place and thought how vulnerable and scared they must be to be new here and not familiar with New Haven or with the United States, uprooted away from their family, away from their homeland and hungry. And I think that simple act on her part made a critical difference for her certainly. And is reflective of what so many people of faith were doing in this time of crisis. I like to remember that there was great lamentation when everything went into lockdown and parishes and churches were closed. They no longer could be gathered to celebrate the Eucharist or to have prayer services. Everybody was locked down, you know, in their own homes. And the only way to celebrate was virtually, you know, by viewing Mass online. I’m grateful for technology, but there was great lamentation about our churches are closed and a kind of indignation about that too.
And I liked to say at the time, our churches are not empty. They have been deployed. Because it was so many people of faith who were frontline, essential workers, providing healthcare, providing food, feeding the hungry, providing all of the public goods that the Catholic Church is so properly known for. It is always the Church at the vanguard of human suffering, particularly in times of crisis and, you know, often at great personal risk in these times of crisis. But that’s one measure of comfort and inspiration that I drew from this experience over the last almost two years now.
Karen: It’s interesting that you say that because I know how, in a sense, traditionally and vital, it’s been for Catholics to attend Mass to be able to be present and to have the Eucharist. And of course, that has been interrupted by what’s gone on. There’s a big question: Do you think that the numbers that were present in the Church before the pandemic will be coming back into the Church? What do you envision coming into the future or is it kind of wait and see?
Kerry: Well one thing that was very interesting was because everything was converted to an online experience it allowed for people all over the world to access the Mass anywhere in the world, essentially. And I saw that a lot of people who had fallen away from the church or who were nominally practicing their faith, were given an opportunity to experience it again in an anonymous way because of the technology. And I was really encouraged by how many people came back to their faith through that experience. Now churches are open again although we are clearly not completely through this pandemic. And I think what you’re seeing is that many have come back and who have come back, have appreciated the opportunity to worship in a community in person, to receive the Eucharist in person. They have appreciated that in a way that they may not have before the pandemic. Others I think, are still waiting to be received back. But again, this places a great opportunity on church leaders. What do we want our faith communities to be post pandemic? And what is the role of hospitality and welcome in light of what we have all experienced?
Karen: One of the things that we can’t ignore, I mean, clearly there have been some dreadful things that have surfaced over the last decades. I think here in Canada, I look at our relationship with our indigenous communities and the part that churches played, not just the Catholic Church, but also the Anglican and the United Church in schools that were incredibly harmful to our indigenous community. And there’s just an incredible grief. We have a desire to set things right. We have a desire for restitution. We need to see it happen. But what part do you see the Catholic Church playing in some of the things now that can’t be ignored? They’re there, children that have been abused and these are tough questions. How do we go forward from this? How do you see your church going forward from this?
Kerry: Well, the first response I have is for a person of faith to do nothing is to be complicit. Twenty years ago in January we had the revelations of the sex abuse crisis coming out of Boston. That was catastrophic as lay people’s consciousness were raised about the horrors that were allowed to take place over so many decades in the name of the Catholic Church. And that horror led to the creation of Leadership Round Table. Leadership Round Table exists because of that catalyst. That was so shocking and appalling to those of us who are Catholic, who have worked tirelessly all of our lives to strengthen the Church, to philanthropically support the Church, to participate as active Catholics in the life of the Church. And when that crisis reached our consciousness, many walked away from the Church. It was the final straw, but many also stayed and said, this is my faith family. When your family is in crisis, you do everything possible to effect healing and reconciliation. In fact, to do nothing is to be complicit. And so we created Leadership Round Table to try to harness collectively all of the managerial contemporary best practices in terms of managing people, in managing finances, in managing communication so that we could bring what we do best — bring our business acumen, our financial acumen, our high degree of ethics and integrity — to strengthen the Church and to call it to greater levels of holiness, of justice for victim survivors, of transparency and of accountability. We yearned to restore trust and confidence in the Church and Church leaders. And we did this laboriously, tenaciously over these 20 years by going Bishop by Bishop, Provincial by Provincial, Chancery by Chancery, and saying, we are who we say we are. We are here to help, to exercise baptismal rights and responsibilities to bring what we do best, particularly our intellectual capital and bring that in service to the Church in partnership with you, Church leaders. We don’t want to shame or humiliate anyone, we want to effect truth and reconciliation and ensure that we put best managerial practices in place to prevent such abuse from ever happening again.
And this devastating news that you are referencing in Canada is very, very, – it chills my spine because it is so evocative of how I felt 20 years ago. But there is an opportunity to call forth truth, to effect reconciliation, to pay penance, to make amends so that the future is free of such horrific crimes and abuses.
Karen: We have a Truth and Reconciliation document with wonderful recommendations. And I want to see those recommendations acted on, and I want everyone to read them. We’ll post those on our website because I think it’s important for people to see what they were and to understand the importance, because I think they cross borders to be quite honest. I think they would be important for indigenous people within the United States and around the world as well. So I feel strongly about posting those. Can I ask you, Pope Francis has initiated a global Synod and what are the hopes that the Synod is going to achieve or process? What are your thoughts there with that?
Kerry: Well, this is a remarkable moment in time for the global universal Catholic Church. This Synod is an invitation to everyone in the Church across the globe with a particular emphasis on the voice of laity to contribute toward this dream of how we can be a more faithful, a more loving, a more welcoming, a more effective Church. And I think it is the culmination, frankly, of everything Pope Francis’s pontificate has stood for. It is predicated on the invitation which we hear him often issue to us, to encounter and accompany people different than us. It’s an invitation to deep listening, which anyone who has participated in restorative justice, in truth and reconciliation efforts knows that deep, respectful listening. It’s like listening with your entire body, your entire being that is essential, an essential element. Had we listened to victims, survivors and their families from the very beginning we could have ended these abuses much, much earlier. But so this invitation to deep listening, a prayerful stance so that we intentionally invite and recognize the presence and potency of the Holy Spirit in our midst.
And there is an emphasis on the positive too, in this Synodal process. So not just to gather to provide a litany of complaints about one’s experience of one’s parish, for example, but to propose a way forward, a positive solution to what anguishes one. And I think that there is a real invitation for those who are facilitating the Synod at the local or diocesan or regional level to ask people a fundamental question: “What breaks your heart?” And then ask, “What is it, what one thing or two things about being Catholic, about belonging to this complicated complex, universal faith community, do you most love and value?” And I think that we will be blessed with so much wisdom and inspiration and insight if we heed Pope Francis’ call and participate in the Synod in such a meaningful way.
Karen: Kerry, I’m really grateful for this conversation. I’m not Catholic so you are informing somebody. You’re helping me understand where your Church is today and I’m deeply encouraged. I think the incredible divides that have existed over the centuries, I think they’ve become the very – they’ve gone down. All I can simply say is they’ve gone down. I hear in what you’re calling your Church to is something that deeply speaks to my heart, inspires me as well. And I am deeply grateful for the tremendous leadership Pope Francis gives as a moral leader in the world today and I look for people who have a larger vision. Because one of the great things about what we faced in the last two years in particular is we’ve realized that we have global issues to address. And the pandemic has made our world small in many ways. And the crisis that it has, in a sense, exposed are on everyone’s doorstep. I got a lot out of listening to what you’ve said today. Do you have any other kind of word as we head into 2022, what you would challenge us with?
Kerry: Well, I guess I would begin by saying Happy New Year! The people of faith are confident in the future. And we have, because of our communal experience of the pandemic, I think we are uniquely equipped at this moment in time in 2022 to work together on those other global challenges that bind us. Our fate is bound up in one another’s fate. Our wellbeing is bound up in one another’s wellbeing. And when I consider the challenges of protecting our common home, our earth and doing everything we can to be better stewards of our common home this is the opportunity before us right now. Because all of these things are interrelated and it really does take a radical disposition, a disposition that people of faith are naturally called to, to be other-centered, to care for other members of our human family and with a special preference for who are suffering the most, for whom these crises further exacerbate the inequities that exist between us. So a preferential option for the poorest among us is really what is being called for today. And we can do it. We can do this, especially when we consider the example of so many women and men, ordained, religious and lay, all over- the unsung heroes daily at the forefront of eliminating or addressing human suffering, of ushering in peace, of championing justice, of providing food and healthcare and shelter and hope and consolation to others. Their example is profound and we can emulate it.
Karen: You know, it’s interesting this Henri Nouwen: Now, and Then is one of the rare ones where we haven’t really talked about Henri Nouwen at all. And I would just say that Henri understood activism. That was part of his commitment as he lived. He was very much a person who cared about social justice, cared about issues of inequity and racial inequity as well. And he stood for that. And sometimes people will say, oh you know you’re being too political in all of this. This is not political. The great reality is with Henri he said, you know, if you’re going to be an activist, be grounded in a spiritual life that will hold you; that will inform you and inspire you. The two are not separate because we need to take our faith out into our community, but it takes a secret life. And it was interesting because our very first podcast in 2022 is actually Henri sharing how to live in the spirit of Jesus and that process, which is so essential.
I want to thank you Kerry so much for being with us today. It was wonderful to share the reality of where we are today, what our needs are and what our hope is for the Church to be fully the Church and for us as followers of Jesus, to be instruments of his peace and of his power in the world.
Kerry: Amen. This conversation was wonderful. Thank you, Karen. You have such a great and natural ability as an interlocutor. You’re just terrific.
Karen: Thank you so much. I really appreciated the opportunity to talk with you, Kerry. I was blessed. Thank you.
Kerry: You, you too. Karen. Thanks. Bye.
Karen: I hope you come away from this interview with Kerry Robinson inspired and challenged as we head into 2022. We’re going to post links in our notes to all the things we discussed today. If you enjoyed today’s podcast, we’d be so grateful if you’d take time to give it a stellar review or a thumbs up, or even share it with your friends and family. Be sure and take time to visit our website where you’ll find links to any content, resources or things discussed in this episode, check out the link ‘Books’ to get you started in case you’re new to the writings of Henri Nouwen. Thanks for listening. Until next time.
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