The Four-Letter Word We Need To Keep Saying

Figure of a man with outstretched arms surrounded by shadows and light.

I had a lovely conversation this past week with one of my favorite theology professors from my time at St. Peter’s University in New Jersey. Father Bob Kennedy is not only a noted Jesuit theologian but an internationally- recognized Zen teacher who has earned the title of roshi, master. Father Bob taught a course on the novels of Graham Greene that proved life-changing for me. Most of Greene’s principal characters are flawed people who manage somehow to be capable of great love.

The course gave me hope that even a highly imperfect person like me could still be worthy of giving and receiving love despite my vast limitations.

Father Bob had called to thank me for mentioning him by name in a commemorative poem I wrote for St. Peter’s 150th anniversary. How could I have not mentioned him? He asked me, “Do you miss us?” meaning Hudson County, New Jersey, in the shadow of New York City, where St. Peter’s is located. Though I’ve spent much of my career in Chicago, and love the Midwest, I told Father Bob I always get a warm feeling whenever I return to my Jersey roots, as though a part of me never left.

When he was ready to say goodbye, Father Bob said, “Always remember, we love you, Judy.”

His words left a deep impression. It was striking to hear the word love spoken by someone who isn’t my husband or a family member. He could have said, “Always remember how much we value you” or “we respect you.” He didn’t. He chose the word love. I thought of how often in the news we hear about “wars,” “hate,” “rage,” “split,” “rift” and “lies.” But love? It’s the one four-letter word we must never stop saying.

Father Robert Kennedy, SJ, standing in a hallway with arched doorways and a statue of the Blessed Mother in the background.

This Sunday, Christian churches celebrate Pentecost. It marks the entry into human time of the Holy Spirit. In the post-Resurrection gospels, Jesus continually refers to a creative presence that will come, bringing with it comfort and wisdom. The post-Easter gospels of St. John are among the most uplifting in Scripture. Jesus repeatedly tells his followers he will never abandon them, even if he cannot remain physically present. He prays that they might be one. He calls them friends. He consoles them with peace.

The effect is stunning. Those early followers grow from demoralized, fear-ridden doubters cowering in locked rooms after the crucifixion into powerful evangelizers willing to speak out under threat of death about the love they shared in Christ. In this post-Resurrection period, the disciples reach across the aisle, so to speak, and invite Gentiles — people with whom they wouldn’t have considered sitting at the same table — to join them as fellow believers.

I can’t help but contrast the call of the post-Easter gospels with the state of both our country and the church today. Too many of us act as excluders, rather than unifiers. As New York Times columnist David Brooks recently observed, we have become a “nation of tribes.” We tell certain groups they are out, while we are in. We shun those with whom we disagree and seek to exclude many already marginalized by society at large (immigrants, the LGBT community, transgender people, women experiencing troubled pregnancies).

As people of faith, we should know better. Monastic scholar and Benedictine Sister Judith Sutera writes, “From the beginning, ours is a story of solidarity with the alienated, the foreign, the controversial, the other.”

One of the more heartening articles I’ve read lately appeared in National Catholic Reporter. It told the story of Aaron Bianco, a civilly married gay man, invited by the Vatican to speak at a recent conference in Rome on the Pope Francis’s encyclical on married life and the family, Amoris Laetitia, “The Joy of Love.” Bianco was hounded out of his position as pastoral associate of a parish in San Diego by those offended by his ministry to gay and transgender Catholics.

A turning point for Bianco came when he entered his parish office one morning to find it spray-painted in yellow with the words, “No fags.”

Bianco said Pope Francis clasped his hands during his visit to Rome and encouraged him to “keep working with those who do not feel welcome in the church.” Bianco told National Catholic Reporter, “This is not political. I truly believe in my heart God is calling all people to feel welcome in the church.”

Aaron Bianco, standing, leans over to greet Pope Francis, who is seated in a chair at a recent meeting in Rome.

In the story of Pentecost, the early disciples, a rag-tag band of quite imperfect people — not unlike the characters of Graham Greene — somehow find the wherewithal to speak to diverse groups of people in languages they can understand. As someone who’s studied four foreign languages, I’ve often wondered how the disciples pulled this off. I like to think they communicated with the language of love, which is the language of action. Their acts of compassion spoke for them and drew others to their message of love.

Father Bob Kennedy’s choice of the word love could not have been more apt as I reflect on the wonder of Pentecost. How well do we communicate in the language of love? What are our actions saying? Good questions to keep in mind as we move from Eastertide in the liturgical calendar into Ordinary Time.

And yes, Father Bob. I do miss all of you back East in New Jersey. But like the disciples experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit, I carry your love with me.

Giselle Bauche’s rendering of the early disciples, both men and women, wearing blue or red robes, looking up at tongues of fire descending on them, the metaphoric description in the gospels on what happened to them when the Holy Spirit descended.

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Judith Valente

Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.