MY GRANDFATHER MIGHT not have liked being called a contrarian. But sometimes he was, and almost always with good reason.

A self-taught man, my grandfather was a design engineer for the Bell Telephone Co., an original thinker. Maybe that’s why he never shied away from unpopular positions.

He would have appreciated the contrarian Gospel message threaded through the issues on which the church has stood against popular culture.

The list of "top stories" Catholic News Service compiles each year is pretty much a smorgasbord. There’s the Tridentine Mass and the newest clutch of cardinals. There’s the reorganization of the U.S. bishops’ conference and even the church’s struggle to recover from the tragedy of sexual abuse.

While hardly unimportant, these are "internal" subjects. Rather, it’s where faith intersects with the world that the church becomes, with good reason, contrarian – life issues such as abortion and the death penalty, immigration, war, health care, the environment and others.

Contrarians are rarely appreciated. Critics ask what right the church has to enter these debates. Why can’t the church content itself with holy things and leave the ways of the world to the worldly?

The answer reminds me of what a homiletics professor told us budding preachers about the Gospel: "You’ve got to comfort the afflicted ... and afflict the comfortable."

The church began its life afflicting the comfortable. No reading of the Gospel could possibly conclude that it is anything but contrarian. Jesus gave the kingdom of God a here-and-now dimension, as well as an everlasting one. He challenged contemporary attitudes on poverty, sin, charity and even the role of women.

It’s nice to know the church still does. Consider:

Immigration: While some angry Americans (and people in many other countries) look to higher fences and more punitive measures, the church takes a more measured view that recalls the Gospel invocation to "welcome the stranger". The church’s view is neither myopic nor Pollyannaish as it presses for a just and compassionate response – legislation that will protect national interests without criminalizing and victimizing immigrants.

Capital punishment: After decades of near-overwhelming support – including support by some Catholics – the death penalty is losing favour. The Catholic Church’s position (bolstered by the words of Pope John Paul II and the recognition of the death penalty’s link to other life issues such as abortion and euthanasia) has slowly eroded that support. Indeed, in December New Jersey became the first state in decades to ban the death penalty.

Health care: Because too many people have limited or no access to health care, the church has championed efforts to reduce the number of uninsured Americans.

Environment: Despite wrangling over humanity’s role in global warming, the Vatican looks to the heavens – and installs solar panels – and church leaders back efforts to reduce problematic emissions.

War: A church that follows the lead of the Prince of Peace cannot easily support calls to war. Many American Catholics ignored the church’s initial opposition to the war in Iraq only to recognize its validity today. The church continues to seek a just and peaceful end to hostilities and decries the threats of armed violence elsewhere.

My grandfather enjoyed challenging the status quo and making people think. While he might have bristled at being called "contrary", he would have reluctantly agreed. On the other hand, if the Gospel is any guide – and it surely is – Jesus would have embraced its "afflict the comfortable" role. Thankfully, so does his church.


Tom Sheridan is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has inspired Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp to write songs and helped her find beauty and God in the least expected places. Watching Suzanne Vega live in Los Angeles recently was for Sister Wendy "an awesome experience because she gives her whole heart and soul to her performance". Here, Sister Wendy shares how she has grown in contemplation with Suzanne Vega.

IN THE EARLY centuries of Christianity, hermits and monks shunned the “world” and lived on mountain tops and in deserts to encounter God and grow in contemplation. In the 16th century, St. Ignatius advised people to find God in everything. Today, 500 years after Ignatius, we can apply his teaching to include the media culture as a place to find God.

Movies, books, and songs – they all tell stories about life, people, and events. When we pay closer attention to them, we may be able to discover something deeper about ourselves, or be uplifted by them spiritually.

Through the media, we might be touched by God, deepen our life in the Spirit and be inspired to view ourselves, other people and the world more compassionately, and, perhaps, even be roused to make the world a better place.

While secular films and books have been extensively used to uplift people or help them grow spiritually, contemporary secular music has not been explored to the same degree. But it is one media that we can profitably tap into. The stories and reflections in the songs of singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega have been inspirational to my own spiritual journey and contemplative life.

Suzanne Vega's songs are not simplistic and shallow pop songs. They contain reflective vignettes painted with lyrics rich in metaphors and set to rhythmic, almost hypnotic melodies. They include songs about the harsh realties of urban life and difficult subjects like child abuse, solitude and alienation. But she also writes some of the most beautiful love songs from a parent to a child. (“World before Columbus” and “As You Are Now” were written for her daughter Ruby.)

While her roots are in contemporary folk and her main instrument is the acoustic guitar, Suzanne’s songs have evolved to defy a specific category and her albums have been produced to showcase a multi-textured and dynamic array of sounds from natural acoustic tones and bossa nova beats, to industrial rock and lush orchestra strings.

Listening to Suzanne's eclectic collection of songs – whether it is the soft-spoken “Cracking” about one on the verge of a breakdown, or the upbeat “Unbound” about freedom – can be a contemplative experience, stirring one to look beyond the obvious and superficial, to delve deeper, and to ponder more profoundly. Though the subject of her songs may be harsh, Suzanne writes with eloquence and tact, and her calm and relaxed voice soothes while rousing her listener's soul.

Suzanne's songs are rich in images and concepts, and sometimes a single line merits a long reflection. The following are just two of my favourite lines which I have contemplated upon:

– “We strangers know each other now as part of the whole design” (from “Gypsy”). For me this statement resonates with the spirituality of communion – that we are all one, regardless of race, religion or language, created by the one God and all part of his loving creation. Recognizing that we are one with all things and accepting our place in that oneness moves us (hopefully) into and beyond ourselves.

– “Between the pen and the paperwork, there must be passion in the language” (from “Big Space”). Since part of my apostolate is to write, this line reminds me that whatever I write (and, ultimately, do) must be filled with a passion or love for it to be fruitful and it warns me against being mediocre or lukewarm in my ministry.

I am especially grateful to Suzanne Vega for helping me perceive beauty in urban life. Being a nature lover, one of the struggles I have had as a Daughter of St. Paul whose ministry is mainly in the city is to find and contemplate God in the grit and humdrum of city life. Place me in the midst of tranquil mountains and lakes and I easily find myself in contemplation of God's beauty, but quite the contrary is experienced in the city full of noise, crowds, traffic, asphalt and concrete.

Yet I live in a city, and my apostolate is in the city, and Suzanne Vega's songs have not only helped me discover the beauty in urban settings, they also have enabled me to recognize God and the beauty of the Divine working in ordinary events and in unexpected places like in the seemingly ugly, repugnant, or even obnoxious situation or person.

In broadening my scope of vision beyond the material and visible, Suzanne Vega has also led me to discover the therapeutic experience of song writing, a creative outlet of a contemplative life.

Listening to Suzanne Vega can be a welcome antidote for anyone scrambling through the mad rush of modern city living. Her songs help foster mindfulness. This heightened awareness of the present moment, the self and the world around inevitably leads to the growth in contemplation.

Suzanne Vega and her band will be performing in Singapore at the Esplanade on Jan 19.

Internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega reveals insights to her soul to Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp in an exclusive interview in Los Angeles for CatholicNews.

Finding beauty in urban (and rural) life

As a child growing up (in Spanish Harlem) you learn to see moments of beauty where they exist and feel grateful for them. Even if I weren't a writer, I would still notice those things. I think everybody needs some kind of beauty in their life no matter how hard their life is or how difficult.

There's plenty of poverty and bad things that happen in rural places too. Those hardships don't only exist in the city, they exist pretty much everywhere. So I think if you're in one of those situations where you're struggling really hard, you need those moments of beauty to keep you going and so you kind of train your eye to look out for them and to notice them and to be grateful for them.

The essential message of her songs

I think it's that those exalted moments that we would hope for happen every day. There are moments every day where you either see a child or you see something growing despite all the odds. Those are sort of exalted spiritual moments that exist every day. It's not just the Sunday when you go to church or for a special time when you sit at an altar. These spiritual moments don't only happen when you want them to or when you force them. I think that there's a value in every single day that you can find and that you need to appreciate because you're not going to have it forever. So I try to startle everybody, to make you aware of the fact that you're alive and that it's temporary, that you have to appreciate it and value it while it's here because it really is something quite amazing.

"St. Clare", the only song she recorded that was not written by her

I thought it was a beautiful melody and there was something in the lyrics that I felt spoke to my state of mind at that time. It's sort of like calling upon the saint for protection as you travel through the world.

Mother Teresa

It's amazing to think that someone who had such a vivid interior life had such a big effect on the world and that those vows that she made were very personal, very interior and that someone who had that kind of life can achieve so much in the real world because that quality is not something that we think of as being valued in our society today. (In society today) it's all about action and numbers, and how much are you selling and how much are you doing, and big sweeping gestures.

Meantime there's this woman in India who went through these experiences that were something you can't see from the outside; these experiences that she had were internal. So I've been just very impressed by that world that she lived in and how she was able to do this great work and not be corrupted by it and not be swayed.

It was surprising to me how she didn't believe in the penitent view of things. It was more like “make yourself well”, “make yourself healthy and go out and do God's work in the world” instead of always focusing on yourself and having penitence for yourself. It was like, well, don't think about that, that's not really the issue.

And she had that clear directive within herself no matter what and wasn't swayed by it and wasn't broken by it either. You can easily imagine that she'd go out into the street and contract some disease but she lived to be 87 and it's an amazing life and she wasn't corrupted by the realities of the world. I think that's amazing.

Her live performances

What I try to do when I'm on stage is to entertain and to make people laugh a little bit or to bring things down to earth a little bit, to give a little piece of the story that makes it more real because a lot of the songs are really pretty difficult. They are very dense, and they are about “weird” topics, and so a little explanation helps it and a little bit of laughter doesn't hurt.

Her philosophy in life

I have my own setbacks and disappointments but I think that you really need to find whatever positive thing you can from the day, from the situation, from the moment. No matter how dark it is or how depressed you're feeling, you must find a reason to get out of bed, even if it's just to make a cup of tea. And if you can find pleasure in that cup of tea, that's enough reason to get out of bed.

So that's what I'm always trying to find... those moments of pleasure or joy or happiness – just some reason to keep going. And I think that's really important.

The other thing I've learned over the years is that love is not just a personal thing between two people. When the Beatles sang about love and when people talked about love, they are really talking about a general kind of love, that you have to learn how to love your neighbour, love your family.

There's a part of loving that's impersonal and we don't really think about that much in this society; we are always speaking about romantic love and all that stuff. But there's really so much more to it and getting in touch with that kind of love is as important as the romantic part of it.

The use of Christian motifs, especially cathedrals, in her songs

I love cathedrals and to me they are very special places. I am always attracted to them. If I ever go to a city, there are certain images that repeat. There's the park, there's the cathedral, and the hotels (laughs). When I was a kid I just loved the cathedral because it's a special place, it's a beautiful place. I like this idea of getting dressed up and going to a special place on Sundays.

To me there's something timeless about a cathedral. And I think all of those images are very much in our culture. And even a song like “Penitent”... whereas maybe in America we don't think about penitence that much, but certainly if you go to France, Italy or Spain, which is where I was when I was thinking of that song, it is very much everywhere... it's in the images, it's in the paintings, it's in the atmosphere.

Her voice

Most of the time when I'm singing, I'm not feeling relaxed or cool. In fact most of the time I'm singing at the top of my lungs. And it's always a shock to me to go back into the control room and hear my own voice. It always sounds cool, it sounds relaxed, it sounds serene or whatever. I don't understand why that is. I sometimes wish that it would be a little rougher so that people would understand what I'm actually feeling. I think what I'm actually feeling very often does not come through in the tone of how I sing. It's all there in the words. All the turmoil and the emotion are there in the lyrics. But most people listening to me think that I'm just some sort of laid-back singer. But I'm not. I'm bellowing at the top of my lungs but it just doesn't come out that way.

Playboy Magazine

It was one of the first interviews that I was asked to do. I was doing the video for Marlene On the Wall and they wanted to know if I would do a little interview for Playboy. I felt very uncomfortable with it and I said no, and I got into a big fight with my manager about it.

The message of "Pornographer's Dream", a track from her latest album, "Beauty and Crime"

It's the deeper longing underneath it, what is it they're really longing for underneath it. The pornographer here longs for a more spiritual experience. It's a song that some people really do get and some other people don't get it at all. Some other people are like: “What are you talking about?”, “It's not true.” But I still think it is true on some level, maybe not true for each specific person, but I think that's what most people want. Most people want what's good, they don't want what's bad. They fall into having an addiction but I think ultimately what you're striving for is some kind of peace, or some kind of goodness and I can't help but believe in that.

Have you heard?

SUZANNE VEGA IS known as the “mother of the MP3” because her acapella rendition of “Tom's Diner” was the sample song used to test-improve the MP3.

Last year she was the first recording artiste to perform live in avatar form in the virtual world, Second Life.

Suzanne was born on Jul 11, 1959 in Santa Monica, California, but raised in New York City. She studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts (featured in the film “Fame”) and majored in English Literature at Barnard College.

She has been playing the guitar since the age of 11 and was writing poetry even younger. She started writing songs at 14 and performing on stage at 16. Her self-titled debut album was released to critical acclaim when she was 26. Her biggest hit, the Grammy nominated Luka, based on the theme of child abuse, continues to be a song of great comfort and inspiration to victims of child abuse.

In 1999 she released a collection of her writings in the book, “The Passionate Eye”. Her latest album, “Beauty and Crime”, a tribute to her native New York city which includes arrangements with lush strings (for the beauty) and electronic rock beats (for the crime), has received rave reviews worldwide.

Suzanne's official website is www.suzannevega.com.

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI is asking who is ready to receive the peace that Christ offers with his coming to the world.

The pope asked this question today from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica during his traditional Christmas address. Before giving his blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world) he offered a Christmas greeting in 63 languages, including, this year, Guarani, the language of an indigenous South American people.

"In the silence of that night in Bethlehem, Jesus was born and lovingly welcomed," the Holy Father proclaimed. "And now, on this Christmas Day, when the joyful news of his saving birth continues to resound, who is ready to open the doors of his heart to the holy child? Men and women of this modern age, Christ comes also to us bringing his light, he comes also to us granting peace!

"But who is watching, in the night of doubt and uncertainty, with a vigilant, praying heart? Who is waiting for the dawn of the new day, keeping alight the flame of faith? Who has time to listen to his word and to become enfolded and entranced by his love? Yes! His message of peace is for everyone; he comes to offer himself to all people as sure hope for salvation."

The pope expressed his wish that the light of Christ, "which comes to enlighten every human being", would "shine forth and bring consolation to those who live in the darkness of poverty, injustice and war; to those who are still denied their legitimate aspirations for a more secure existence, for health, education, stable employment, for fuller participation in civil and political responsibilities, free from oppression and protected from conditions that offend against human dignity".

He said, "It is the most vulnerable members of society – women, children, the elderly – who are so often the victims of brutal armed conflicts, terrorism and violence of every kind, which inflict such terrible sufferings on entire populations.

"At the same time, ethnic, religious and political tensions, instability, rivalry, disagreements, and all forms of injustice and discrimination are destroying the internal fabric of many countries and embittering international relations. Throughout the world the number of migrants, refugees and evacuees is also increasing because of frequent natural disasters, often caused by alarming environmental upheavals."

The pope mentioned particular zones of conflict, saying his "thoughts turn especially to those places where the grim sound of arms continues to reverberate".

He mentioned "the tortured regions of Darfur, Somalia, the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia; to the whole of the Middle East – especially Iraq, Lebanon and the Holy Land; to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to the Balkans and to many other crisis situations that unfortunately are frequently forgotten".

"May the Child Jesus," he prayed, "bring relief to those who are suffering and may he bestow upon political leaders the wisdom and courage to seek and find humane, just and lasting solutions. To the thirst for meaning and value so characteristic of today’s world, to the search for prosperity and peace that marks the lives of all mankind, to the hopes of the poor: Christ – true God and true Man – responds with his nativity.

"Neither individuals nor nations should be afraid to recognize and welcome him: With him ‘a shining light’ brightens the horizon of humanity; in him ‘a holy day’ dawns that knows no sunset. May this Christmas truly be for all people a day of joy, hope and peace!"

Pope Benedict urged "brothers and sisters from every continent" to "allow the light of this day to spread everywhere: May it enter our hearts, may it brighten and warm our homes, may it bring serenity and hope to our cities, and may it give peace to the world".

In his message for World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict said the responsibilities learned and the joys and struggles shared within individual families must be mirrored on a global level because everyone is part of one human family.

VATICAN CITY – Anything that threatens the traditional family threatens peace, because the family "is the first and indispensable teacher of peace", Pope Benedict XVI said.

In his annual message for the Jan 1 celebration of the World Day of Peace, the pope also said the responsibilities learned and the joys and struggles shared within individual families must be mirrored on a global level because everyone is part of one human family.

The pope chose "The Human Family, A Community of Peace" as the theme for 2008, the 40th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s celebration of World Peace Day.

"The first form of communion between persons is that born of the love of a man and a woman who decide to enter a stable union in order to build together a new family," the pope wrote.

"But the peoples of the earth, too, are called to build relationships of solidarity and cooperation among themselves, as befits members of the one human family," he said.

War and violence, exploitation of the weak, rampant poverty and underdevelopment, destruction of the environment and the arms race are all threatening signs that individuals and nations have not learned to live together in harmony and mutual responsibility, the pope said.

"Humanity today is unfortunately experiencing great division and sharp conflicts which cast dark shadows on its future," he said.

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, presented the message to the press on Dec 11.

He said Pope Benedict’s concerns about the arms race, both nuclear and conventional, reflect the fact that global military spending reached an all-time high in 2006 and that, in many cases, countries have tried to justify their increased military spending by claiming it was necessary in order to combat terrorism.

"After the terrorist attacks against the United States of Sep 11, 2001, the international community adopted severe measures against the risk of terrorism," Cardinal Martino said. "At the same time, nations – especially the nuclear powers – began a renewal of their military apparatus and their weapons."

"On this basis," he said, "it seems correct to affirm that the current policy of state security threatens the very peace and security of the people it intends to defend."

In his message, Pope Benedict wrote, "In difficult times such as these, it is necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms."

In explaining the theme he chose for the message, the pope said the fact that a strong, healthy family is the basis of a healthy society is not simply a slogan.

"In a healthy family life we experience some of the fundamental elements of peace: justice and love between brothers and sisters; the role of authority expressed by parents; loving concern for the members who are weaker because of youth, sickness or old age; mutual help in the necessities of life; readiness to accept others and, if necessary, to forgive them," Pope Benedict said.

The pope said that anyone who weakens the institution of the family weakens "what is in effect the primary agency of peace" in society.

"Everything that serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of a man and a woman, everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of a new life, everything that obstructs its right to be primarily responsible for the education of its children, constitutes an obstacle on the road to peace," he said.

The family needs and has a right to a home, employment, education for the children and health care, the pope said.

But the whole human family has parallel needs and rights, he said, including the need for an environment that is used with care and preserved for future generations.

"Human beings, obviously, are of supreme worth vis-a-vis creation as a whole," the pope said. "Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man."

However, he said, the earth belongs to all people and to all generations and, therefore, must be used with care.

Pope Benedict said the costs and sacrifices required to protect the environment and to halt its degradation must be shared globally, but – as in a family – with an awareness of the limited resources of the poorer nations and the greater responsibility of the industrialized countries.

The pope said it might be necessary to establish a new international agency to coordinate efforts to ensure "the stewardship of this ‘home’ of ours".

Within the topic of ecology, he said, special attention must be paid to "the stewardship of the earth’s energy resources", to exaggerated levels of consumption in some countries, to the need to expand the use of renewable energy sources and to ensure that poorer countries that possess natural energy resources are not exploited.

Pope Benedict also dedicated a chapter of his message to the need for people around the world, like members of one family, to hold certain values in common.

"For the sake of peace," he wrote, "a common law is needed, one which would foster true freedom rather than blind caprice and protect the weak from oppression by the strong".

In too many situations, the pope said, "the weak must bow not to the demands of justice, but to the naked power of those stronger than themselves".


Editor’s Note: The Vatican’s English translation of the pope’s message is available online at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/peace/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20071208_xli-world-day-peace_en.html.