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Kyle T. KramerFebruary 28, 2011

The shooting of Congress-woman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., on Jan. 8 sparked a national conversation about the need for civility in our public discourse. It is a much-needed virtue in ecclesial circles as well, where polarized, shrill voices so often dominate.

The graduate lay ministry formation program I direct at St. Meinrad's in Indiana deals with these tensions in microcosm. Students span the theological spectrum, but this mix of perspectives has worked in the classroom—until recently. In one course, however, ideological fault lines became painfully apparent. The atmosphere grew increasingly hostile and tense, with plenty of “passionate intensity,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats’s “The Second Coming.”

Through some intervention by the professor, the school’s president-rector and me, however, the class was able to pull back from the brink. I worried that some of the more vocal students would either drop out or feel so shut down that they no longer would participate, and that the tension would continue to fester underground. But to my surprise, and to the great credit of the professor and the class, all the students remained. The temperature cooled, intimidated students felt more at ease to speak, and all went on to have a meaningful engagement with the course content and one another’s ideas.

I will not claim that there was a marvelous meeting and melding of minds or that all tensions faded. But civility and charity did finally carry the day, and what seemed doomed to disaster ended in détente. Many students even confided in me that, as difficult as it had been, they were grateful for the experience.

I have thought a great deal about what enabled that course to end as well as it did. I believe one reason is that it took place in a context of what I call radical hospitality.

Hospitality is a primary charism of the Benedictine monks who conduct the school. The Rule of St. Benedict, which has wisely guided Benedictine communities for 15 centuries, urges that “all guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” Hospitality is a fierce discipline; the monastery’s namesake, St. Meinrad, was a ninth-century hermit monk who became known as the martyr of hospitality because he was killed by two thieves he had invited into his cabin in the woods of the Swiss Alps. I would like to think that the students’ experience of Benedictine hospitality played a part in dampening the heated rhetoric of their class.

To welcome others as Christ is to recognize that despite vast differences, the diverse human family is part of the same God-given belonging, and we need one another to survive and thrive. Hospitality is simply a practical working out of this truth. The monks’ hospitality means not only welcoming people with their concrete needs but also making a safe space for the expression of their differing perspectives and ideas.

Such an open-minded and open-hearted stance is radical, first of all, in its fearlessness. Fear bolts the gate, hunkers down and hurls epithets over the fortress walls. Courageous hospitality, on the other hand, flings open the door and discerns Christ in the strange and the stranger—even when, as St. Meinrad learned at the cost of his life, what we admit is threatening. Welcoming others and their opinions requires facing the fear that something in us may have to die, perhaps even the certitude to which we cling.

Hospitality can be fearless when it is rooted, as the word radical denotes. Saint Meinrad Archabbey has deep roots in a rich tradition, with a thick Catholic identity that is not overtly evangelical nor encrusted with excessive trappings of traditionalism but grounded in everyday habits of prayer and community life honed by 1,500 years of practice. And it is rooted in love: the alpha and omega of the entire creation, the force that pulls everyone and everything toward a center that can hold.

Our ecclesial and popular cultures seem lately to favor strident, uncompromising voices and to dismiss moderate stances, like that of the Benedictines, as lacking strong conviction. But what I have seen of fearless, rooted Benedictine hospitality looks less like the muddle of the middle and more like the golden-mean possibility of reconciliation—in a theology classroom, within the church and amid pressing issues of the global commons. It makes me suspect that such moderation, like love, might be the most radical stance of all.

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Morris Pelzel
13 years 3 months ago
Kyle, thanks for these reflections...by the way, I didn't know you had moved to St. Cloud.
Mike Evans
13 years 3 months ago
And as soon as mass is ended, it is 'ladies and gentlemen, start your engines!' And everyone rushes away in a LeMans start re-enactment. We don't need no stinkin' community - let each worship in his/her own bubble in stilted language with emphasis on the  'I' not the 'We' - with Christ ofering himself only for the 'many' and never for the 'all.' Unless we begin to change this approach, our churches will again become just museum buildings, filled for occasional special events, but never a key part of our lives.
David Smith
13 years 3 months ago
"Our ecclesial and popular cultures seem lately to favor strident, uncompromising voices and to dismiss moderate stances, like that of the Benedictines, as lacking strong conviction."

There's probably always been a tendency among humans to believe - to have "strong convictions" - at the drop of a hat.  In fact, we can know very little.  Most of what we decide we believe is only strong opinion, based less on fact than on personal preference.
13 years 3 months ago

Hospitality (radical hospitality) towards all? Even towards  the dirty, homeless person, on the street? If you stop there, hospitality becomes selective and is thereby incomplete, indeed I’d even say, false!

A hug can be a sign of hospitality and at times radical hospitality as happened to me one day on a NYC street - a hug by a smelly homeless man we all knew and liked. As we passed we greeted each other and I handed him a small amount of money. In hospitable gratitude he threw his arms around me in a big, lengthy hug!

My first impulse was to push him away embarrassed by his public display of affection by a street person. I glanced around to see if anybody was looking, certain that somebody on the street was having a good laugh. That's called the sin of Human Respect and I should have known better!

As he walked away I realized that the homeless man given me vastly more than I had given him, ALL that he had to give - not just his affectionate love, but also his body odor!  It was winter and my winter coat smelled like him.

With the red face of regret that I hadn’t returned his love with a hug of my own I said to myself, “This is the smell of love, of unrequited love!” And I was ashamed of the lost opportunity to be what I said I was - a Christian - “See how these Christians love one another” the ancient refrain of the pagans had failed to identify me. I promised myself, if any homeless person ever hugged me again, I would return the hug enthusiastically. It hasn’t happened yet.

This homeless man has since died. He was found one morning lying dead on the sidewalk  near the door of the parish church, in the pouring rain with both arms extended in the form of a cross!  The pastor buried him without cost at a beautiful Mass attended by hundreds of neighborhood people.

Yes, let’s all start being more hospitable, radically hospitable towards everyone always!

13 years 3 months ago
There are small ways to show hospitality,  like making eye contact with the homeless, the weird looking, etc. etc.... accompanied by a simple nod and/or smile.  a simple greeting like a hi, how are you?"  Small talk....such as "nice day huh..... how do you like this weather?"  (As you might have noticed homeless individuals never make eye contact...).  So we need to initiate the gesture of hospitality.  Just a simple gesture to demonstrate  that we value and recognize them as members of the human family.    Mother Teresa said that " the biggest disease is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted."   Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ too mentioned in his book Tattoos on the Heart that the poor's suffering is not because of their lack of material things, but rather the feeling of shame. They see themselves as nothing. Dr. Wayne Dyer suggested if you have nothing to give to a homeless you just meet,  at least  recognize his/her presence and say a silent prayer for him/her. 
Katherine Lawrence
13 years 3 months ago
Thank you for this article. it's lovely.

now, if only the catholic church were hospitable to gays. if only the church were hospitable to women in the clergy and to married alternatives in the Church hierarchy.

it's all good and well to preach hospitality, but it's another thing for those inside the church to self evaluate it's own hospitality.

anyone can smile or hug a homeless person. Who can change the unhospitablness of our Church? 
13 years 3 months ago
Effective change never starts from the top.  It begins from the grass roots...... from  a "me" of each of us. As baptized Catholics we shouldn't leave it to the higher ups (priests, bishops and pope) to start reforming the Catholic Church.  After all together with them, we are the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. If I remember Church History I think it was during the lowest period of Christianity in Europe that ordinary men and women like  Benedict,  Francis of Assissi, Peter Damian, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, etc......   saw the need and did something about it.  It was their individual charisms that revitalized the Church.  They inspired others to follow their example and joined them in their work.  That's how religious congregations started and flourished.    They were so effective that the pope approved and encouraged their formations and works.  Their way of living the Christian Faith is  known today as the Benedictine, Franciscan, Dominican, Cistersian, Ignatian spirituality, to name the most well-known  So if we want change, then we should be the change that we want to see in our Church.  In fact it's our duty.  We have to be Jesus for others, especially to the poor, the weird looking, all the unwanted, the undesirables of society.  Isn't that what mystical body of Christ means, that we are Him for others here on earth?  (By no means do I mean that now it's up to individual lay people to make the rules.   I speaking here about Catholic Christian behavior and attitude towards one another (Catholics)  and towards others (nonCatholics).

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