Sursum Corda
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Topical musings from a Catholic perspective

Saturday, May 18, 2002
HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Today is the birthday of Pope John Paul II. He turns 82. Please remember him in your prayers. If you've never read anything written by him before, I'd recommend the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. It's very good and free of the baroque prose that official papal documents are generally written in. Not that you shouldn't read a few of those too, but I wouldn't start there.

posted by Peter Nixon 3:57 PM
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Friday, May 17, 2002
MAILBAG: Well I’ve certainly learned my lesson. One-thousand words on the Church and the labor movement? One letter. A 1500 word essay on sexual ethics. No letters. But raise the issue of women’s ordination, and suddenly the mailbag is filled to overflowing! I will do my best to respond to everyone personally, but it will take some time and the responses are likely to be fairly short. My apologies in advance.

Initially, the letters were running quite heavily in favor of the position I took in my commentary. Some were measured in their comments…

Thank you for the essay about women and the priesthood; you and I have followed the same thought process to the same conclusion. I have three daughters in Catholic grade school, and the "conversation" you are dreading is as awkward as you imagine. Remember that you are not alone, however--your wife provides the most powerful, important witness to your daughter of what it means to be a woman in the Church.
…while others were slightly more militant:

I think it is sin for the institutional hierarchy to be so blind as to refuse to at least test if the Holy Spirit is not acting in the lives of those married men and single/married women who put themselves forward as candidates for study for the priesthood. The arguments against even considering this change are purely self-serving bunk and not worth of serious consideration any more.
I also got a letter from a priest who took a more theological approach:

Despite the fact that we have been told…that we are not to discuss this issue, the discussion will, of course, go on. The issue of in persona Christi especially interests me. We are all baptized into Christ. There are all those references to this in various places in St. Paul's writings. We are to put on Christ. "I no longer live now, but Christ lives in me." This would be for a woman as well as a man, as far as I can understand, in becoming a Christian through Baptism. Becoming Christ ought to supercede our biological makeup and deal with things of the Spirit, where there are "neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female."
Theology was also on the mind of this correspondent:

I share your questions and concerns over this issue. In fact, my concerns are very much bound up in the famous dictum by St. Athanasius: that which Christ did not assume, he did not redeem. I guess I find the idea that, as a theological truth, a female in her essence cannot fully image Christ (but a male can) conflicts with this greater theological truth.
There was also an interesting letter from an Episcopalian reader:

Your thoughts on women in the priesthood are quite close to my own, so I found today's musings helpful. Although I'm an Episcopalian, I have strong Roman leanings and find the Catholic perspective congenial in almost every way with this one major exception. Having worked with two female Episcopal priests, I'm impressed with what they bring to the church, and I sympathize with your difficulties in explaining the Roman position to your daughter.
Some Bloggers (although not many) also weighed in on the issue (to be fair, Bloggers like
Emily Stimpson have made their position on this issue extraordinarily clear and further comment might be superfluous) Anthony Marquis at Veni Santce Spiritus suggested that cultural bias was a factor in the opposition to women’s ordination:

I notice in the detractors' stance an aesthetical displeasure rather than a serious regard for Apostolic tradition. Using the word "priestesses" in the perjorative is a transparent ploy to cover a dislike for seeing women in vestments. While some may sincerely rely on the argument from authority, I think that most of the knee jerking against women's ordination stems from the same source for the glass ceiling in corporations: men and women have trouble with women in authority positions.
After I posted my invitation to those who disagreed with me to weigh in, I received another flood of mail. A friend of mine who is a priest disagreed with my position, but admits that he wrestles with the question as well:

I have always asked: why didn't Jesus call even one female? It seems to me that He set the framework with 12 males before the word CHURCH was ever used. And after the confusion with answering that, I ask the EASTER question: why was the Resurrection first revealed to a female? And a prior question of the Annunciation... All other argument and discussion lend toward rights and that leads nowhere.
For some, the issue was quite simple:

I don't understand why people have such a problem with the women priests issue. But then I'm of a fairly simple mind. The priesthood is a masculine thing; it should be done by men. God made it that way and He has His reasons. Why worry about it.
Others wondered whether I was applying secular criteria to a religious issue:

I am a professional and I am committed to the idea of equal opportunity in civil society; it's certainly served me well. But you should be VERY CAREFUL in applying the forces of secular logic to every aspect of your life, and that includes religious faith which -- it hardly needs to be said -- is not ruled by reason, or certainly not by reason alone.
There were some who talked about their own experience with their children:

I have two adult daughters (one is married and with two little boys), and they are both quite fine with Ordinatio Sacerdotalis…They know very well that they could "do" what a priest "does." But they can't be what he is. No woman can ever be a father. They know that holiness trumps ordination. And the holiest human person in all creation is not Peter, the first Pope, but Mary, who exercised no priestly functions whatever. She is higher than Peter by every heavenly measure. No sense of feeling "excluded" or "inferior" for them!
Some correspondents were less lighthearted, suggesting that my position puts my Catholic faith at stake. Here are a couple of excerpts from a letter I received from a Catholic seminarian:

Don't fret so much about this question. It seems to me your problem is much more serious. You are, simply put, not thinking like a Catholic. Do you honestly suppose that all doctrines that the Church holds should be demonstrable to you? That is, to put it bluntly, a Protestant impulse.

You need to ask yourself whether you can trust the Magisterium. It's not as if every other teaching in the Church is apodictically clear. How, pray tell, would you "explain" the Eucharist? As with most of the "difficult teachings," this one boils down to authority. In matters of faith and morals, we Catholics are called to obey. As in every act of assent, this is not a matter of conscience but of the will.
There was also a reply to my article posted on the Louder Fenn weblog. It takes issue with a number of my statements. Here are some excerpts (go the site for the entire post):

Fortunately, the teachings of the Church are not a collection of unrelated policies. We don't become Catholic by reaching such-and-such a level of agreement with the Catechism. Once we have accepted that the Magisterium is a whole and an expression of the one, true Church, we can know that, regardless of the pieces we don't really understand or can't seem fully to accept, the Church is right. What is our faith really worth, if we dissent even from teachings that we are told we must definitely hold?

You should never feel ashamed of the Church's teachings, whatever they are. If you feel ashamed, then something simply has not been made sufficiently clear to you. Especially when it comes to women and men, I think we have all lost a language for defending roles and differences; this loss, more than any supposed defect in any arguments, is why people feel squeamish about the prohibition of women priests. And this loss, not the Church's teaching, is what we must address.
I want to thank everyone who took the time to write in, both those who agreed and those who disagreed. Many of those who disagreed expressed sincere concern for my struggle, which I appreciate. I hope that everyone whose letters were excerpted feels that I represented their position fairly. I think some important issues have been raised here that I will want to address in some future posts, but for now I simply want to express my gratitude. And to those of you who suggested I might be happier in another church, I’m afraid you will have to put up with me for a little while longer.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:18 PM
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WHERE YOU DO NOT WANT TO GO: The gospel reading from today is taken from the last chapter of the Gospel of John. Jesus has appeared to Simon Peter and some of the other disciples, who have returned to fishing. He eats with them, again demonstrating the physicality of the His resurrection. He then asks Peter three times if he loves Him, a clear reference to the three times that Peter denied Jesus on the night of His betrayal. Immediately afterwards, Jesus offers a prophecy of Peter’s martyrdom: “when you were younger you used to dress yourself and go where you wanted; but when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”

I once had a retreat director who told us, “if you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, you have to look good on wood!” For those of us living in the affluent West, the idea of martyrdom seems rather remote, a relic of another age. But in many nations around the world, Catholics and other Christians are still risking their lives on behalf of the faith. In 2001, there were at least 33 Catholics who died while actively engaged in mission activity.

Many of these were killed during what appear to be ordinary robberies. But as an editorial by the Fides news service argues, this is also revealing: “Ten or fifteen years ago missionaries were respected and esteemed for the spiritual values they represented. Today they are seen only as defenseless prey, easy to strike: everyone knows that missionaries are unarmed, they won’t retaliate or seek revenge.”

There are other cases where religious or political motives seem to have been at work. Last May, three armed men affiliated with a group of ethnic separatists in north east India attacked a Salesian Novitate in the town of Imphal, killing two priests—Fr. Raphael Paliakara and Fr. Andreas Kindo—and a seminarian, Joseph Shinu. There is also the case of Sister Barbara Ann Ford, who was murdered in Guatemala City last May. The official explanation is that she was shot during an attempted carjacking, but there are many who believe her killing was politically motivated. Sister Ann was an advocate for Guatemala’s native peoples and a close associate of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was himself murdered in 1998.

These stories remind us that the age of martyrdom is not past. It remains a possibility for all who call themselves followers of Jesus Christ.

TIME FOR A BUILDING PROJECT: Saint Blogs is getting so big we may have to build a new church. Won't the debates over architecture be fun? Many of you have seen the list of Catholic Blogs at Gerald Serafin's Praise of Glory site. But you should really check out the whole site, which is just bursting at the seams with interesting Catholic stuff. My personal favorite is the Book Center, which has a great list of suggested books which you can order through Amazon by clicking on them. Also extend a welcome to Disputations and CLOG, a Blog for canon lawyers and those with an interest in Canon Law. Yes, I do plan to update the list of links at the right. It's been a crazy couple of weeks. Give me time.

posted by Peter Nixon 9:29 AM
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Thursday, May 16, 2002
CONDEMNATIONS WELCOME: I have received a fair bit of mail after posting the commentary yesterday on the issue of women's ordination. However, the vast majority of the responses have been positive and I want to make clear that I welcome negative responses as well. Those who have been reading the site for a while know that I do not yell at people. So go ahead, let me have it. Click here or on the link in the upper right hand corner of the page to send mail. Of course, those of you who agree with what I wrote are also welcome to write in...

posted by Peter Nixon 9:31 AM
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THAT THEY MIGHT BE ONE: Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is the second half of the extended prayer to the Father that Jesus makes at the conclusion of the Last Supper. The first part, which we read yesterday, asks that the Father protect the disciples whom Jesus is sending out into the world.

The second part of the prayer is made on behalf of those who will come to believe through the work of the disciples. Jesus asks that “they may all be one as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me.”

There are many ways to read this passage, but the one that first leapt out at me was the imperative of Christian unity. In contemporary society, the stumbling blocks to belief are many. But surely the fragmentation of the Christian movement must bear some of the blame. We are not one, and with hundreds of denominations and sects claiming the mantle of Christ, it is perhaps not surprising that the world does not believe that Jesus was sent by the Father.

While actual progress toward unity has been very slow, the degree of dialogue and commitment of the parties involved is a marked change after centuries of condemnations, anathemas and mutual excommunications. There have been some significant achievements in the last few years, including a joint Catholic-Lutheran statement on justification and an agreement between the Episcopalian and Lutheran churches in the United States that will allow for joint consecration of bishops and sharing of clergy.

While an important tool for evangelization, the Internet, regrettably, often seems to be a place where the ecumenical spirit is absent. One finds Catholics making derisive comments about their Protestant brethren, and Prostestants openly questioning whether Catholics are even Christian. How often have we buried the Gospel under such divisive rhetoric?

Such an attitude seems far from that expressed by John Paul II in his encyclical, Ut Unum Sint where he commits himself and his office to the project of Christian unity and calls on believers to do the same:

Indeed all the faithful are asked by the Spirit of God to do everything possible to strengthen the bonds of communion between all Christians and to increase cooperation between Christ's followers: "Concern for restoring unity pertains to the whole Church, faithful and clergy alike. It extends to everyone according to the potential of each"(101)

posted by Peter Nixon 9:01 AM
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Wednesday, May 15, 2002
IN PERSONA CHRISTI: Last week, Father Shawn O’Neal offered his weekly homework assignment to his readers. He asked them whether they could defend the Church’s teachings on the restriction of the priesthood to men against Saint Paul’s comments in Galatians 3:28 "there does not exist among you male or female"?

A number of other Catholic Bloggers have answered in the affirmative, but I am afraid I cannot do so. It would have been easy to let the matter pass without comment. But after some reflection, I have decided that to do so would be intellectually dishonest. There are too many people who now read these pages and they deserve better from me than that.

This issue took on more salience for me 22 months ago when my wife gave birth to our second child, a daughter. I am proud that she will grow up in a country (unlike some others that have recently been in the news) where almost no vocation will be closed to her because of her gender. She will grow up assuming—as her grandmothers and great-grandmothers did not—that she can truly be anything she wants to be.

With one significant exception, of course. Although we will raise her as a Catholic and to revere the Mass and what it represents, she will never be allowed to preside at it. I know that someday my daughter will ask me why this is so. I do not look forward to that conversation.

It is not that I am unfamiliar with the arguments. In his 1994 letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, John Paul II argued that Jesus chose only men to serve as the Twelve Apostles and they, in turn, chose only men to succeed them in their ministry. The Pope has concluded that this is a tradition that the Church has no power to alter.

An earlier document issued in 1976 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith made some other arguments. In the celebration of the Eucharist, the priest takes on the role of Christ. He must therefore have a ‘natural resemblance’ to Christ, which apparently would not be the case if the priest was a woman. The priest also acts on behalf of the Church, the head of which is Christ, so again, the priest must have a natural resemblance to Him.

I have also heard a number of sociological arguments. Newsweek religion correspondent Kenneth Woodward, for example, has argued that, at a parish level, churches are heavily dominated by women with women holding the majority of staff positions and accounting for the lion’s share of lay volunteers. In the Protestant churches that have ordained women, women make up a majority of those studying for ordination. Woodward worries that many Christian churches are in danger of turning into “male-free zones,” as fewer and fewer men attend services or take active roles in congregational life. He fears that something similar may happen if the Catholic Church were to ordain women.

Micheal Novak has made a related, but slightly different argument. He notes that the message of Jesus—love your enemies, embrace the poor and outcast, be humble—is an archetypally feminine message. It would not have as much power coming from a woman as from a man. Like Woodward, he fears that the ordination of women would exacerbate the difficulties of keeping men in the pews.

As I said, I am familiar with the arguments. I have read them, studied them, and prayed about them. But in the end, I have yet to be convinced. I’m not sure there is much to be gained by posting a point-by-point rebuttal. Arguments on the Internet about this issue tend to quickly degenerate--on both sides--into name-calling. I certainly cannot imagine myself offering these arguments to another person—particularly my own child—as my personal convictions.

So what I am to do? At the end of Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, Pope John Paul II states that its teaching is to be held definitively by all the faithful. But I don’t know how I can ‘definitively hold’ a teaching for which I find the arguments to be seriously inadequate. Certainly I accept that it is the teaching of the Church that women cannot be ordained and that this is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. Given my position as a “rank-and-file” layman, I’m not sure I have much of a choice.

I could leave, of course, as so many others have done, taking a bold stand of conscience that is certain to be noticed by no one. The problem is that I remain convinced that the Catholic Church remains, for all its flaws, the fullest expression of the community founded by Jesus Christ. I also know that after years of wandering in a spiritual wilderness, it was to this Church, and not another, that the Lord returned me. These things cannot be lightly set aside.

But still I dread that conversation I will have one day with my daughter and perhaps with my son as well. I wonder whether they will see complexity or hypocrisy in my behavior. I pray that their encounter with the Church on this issue will not cause them to lose faith, as it has caused so many others to lose faith. There are many things that the Church teaches that make me proud to be a Catholic, things for which I am willing to risk the derision of my fellow men and perhaps, if it came to it, even martyrdom. This is not one of them.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:18 PM
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INTO THE WORLD: Chapter 17 of John’s gospel is the climax of the “farewell discourses” from the Last Supper. The entire chapter is an extended prayer to the Father. Today’s reading is from the first part of this prayer, which Jesus makes on behalf of his disciples. He implores the Father to protect them from the persecution that is to come.

The phrase “they do not belong to the world any more than I belong to the world” is repeated twice. There have been times in the history of Christianity where phrases like this, taken out of context, have led some Christians to believe that they must radically separate themselves from non-believers and adopt a highly defensive posture with respect to “the world.”

But Jesus does not seem to envision this sort of response. He asks the Father’s protection precisely because he is sending the disciples out into the world. As we shall see tomorrow, He believes that there are others who will come to believe in Him as well. A Christian response to the evils of this world cannot be to pull up the drawbridge and hunker down behind the walls. We have a job to do.

In 1965, the Second Vatican Council issued a remarkable document entitled the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (often known by its Latin title, Gaudium et Spes). Its opening paragraph reads:

The joys and the hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well. Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo in their hearts. For theirs is a community of people united in Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit in their pilgrimage toward the Father’s kingdom, bearers of a message of salvation for all humanity. That is why they cherish a feeling of deep solidarity with the human race and its history.
Elsewhere in the Gospel of John (3:17), Jesus says that he did not come to condemn the world, but to save it. That should be the attitude of those who follow Him as well.

posted by Peter Nixon 8:06 AM
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Tuesday, May 14, 2002
CATHOLIC BLOGWATCH: Liturgy seems to be the hot topic this week. Amy Welborn started it off with some relatively minor complaints about many of the children at the mass she attended on Sunday were not adequately supervised. Poor Amy was immediately deluged with mail detailing other people’s liturgical horror stories.

Mark Shea continues his one-man campaign against the hymn “Anthem,” which I’m going to confess I’ve never heard (at least I don’t think I have—send me the lyrics Mark, since you seem to have it playing in your head over and over).

Mark’s comments about Anthem no doubt led Amy to take the risk of asking readers to submit the most atrocious pop song they’ve ever sung at mass. Amy is still digging out of the deluge of e-mail she received after that invitation.

Personally, I remember singing “This Little Light of Mine” at my first communion, which may even be considered a liturgical song, but I still dislike it. On the other hand, I am standing up for my right as an Irishman to have “Danny Boy” played at my funeral.

Catholic Light inveighs against priests who begin mass by asking visitors where they are from. One of the authors of Catholic Lite also blogs the Care and Feeding of a Catholic Church Choir where he calls for Inquisition-style punishments to be inflicted on liturgical composer Marty Haugen. Okay, it’s not quite that bad, but he clearly doesn’t like Marty very much.

Goliard Blog asks his readers what a person who hates the “folk mass” should actually do about it, especially when most of his fellow parishioners seem to have no problem with it. Although clearly no fan of holding hands during the Our Father, the author of Kairos says he will try to bear it with charity.

Last word goes to Blog Chaplain Fr. Shawn O’Neal, who suggests that we all need to take a deep breath and count to ten. With his usual common sense, he offers the following:

There are some things that are normative that should remain the norm. There are some parts within the liturgy that allow for some level of elasticity as long as the elasticity does not turn into a full rupture. That's when prudence should be the guide. Normative liturgy is good, but that does not mean that each church should be exactly the same to the most minute detail as another church. Union in the Spirit should not equal the similarity of fast food chains.
Father said it. I believe it. That settles it…er, just kidding Fr. Shawn.

posted by Peter Nixon 12:12 PM
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LOVE ONE ANOTHER: In today’s gospel, Jesus commands his disciples to “love one another as I have loved you.” We have some evidence that the early Church took this commandment quite seriously. Even the staunchest Roman critics of Christianity noted “how much these Christians love one another.”

Would they say as much today? Fr. Tom Reese, editor of America magazine once joked that “it used to be that we said they would know we are Christians by our love. Now they know we are Christians by our fights!” One of many distressing aspects of the current scandal is that it has created yet another opportunity for various factions within the Church to fire rhetorical fusillades at one another.

This is not to say that there was ever some kind of “golden age” when the Church was free of serious disagreements. From early disputes over whether the Mosaic law was binding on Christians, to contemporary debates over sexual ethics, the Church has always struggled to define what it means to live a Christian life. And yes, there are times when the Church must set some boundaries and say “this, and not that, is what we believe.” A community that does not set some boundaries about what it believes and how it acts quickly ceases to be a community in any real sense of the term.

The question is how we engage in these kind of debates. Many of the marriage renewal movements among the Christian churches teach couples how to fight while holding hands. Perhaps the next time we feel compelled to commit our thoughts about some of our fellow believers to paper or to cyberspace, we should imagine that they are standing before us and that we are holding their hands. Maybe we’d still want to make the same points, but I suspect that many of us would try to make them a little differently.

posted by Peter Nixon 10:08 AM
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Monday, May 13, 2002
CATHOLIC PRESS UPDATE: The new America has been posted (subscription to print edition required for access). Thirty-one year old David Nantais, S.J. finds that younger Catholics are attracted to some of the devotional traditions (e.g. praying the rosary, Benediction, etc.) abandoned by many in the Vatican II generation. While many younger Catholics—both ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’— believe that they have been poorly catechized, there is a strong hunger for knowledge about their tradition. This week’s editorial notes that 14 million people die in the developing world every year of treatable infectious diseases and calls for a sustained effort to aid developing nations in providing adequate health care to their people.

For several years now, Saint Anthony Messenger Press has been publishing a series of short monthly newsletters on the Bible entitled Scripture from Scratch. The May 2002 issue has been posted and it focuses on the city of Antioch. Antioch is a city in Syria and was the locale for many important events in the New Testament. It was from Antioch that Paul set out on his first missionary journey, and it is also believed that Matthew wrote his gospel while living in Antioch.

The Priest has an article by Father William Sheridan about how some Catholics tend to view celebrations of the sacraments—particularly matrimony—as a private event that they should shape to meet their personal preferences. Rather than merely condemning this trend, Sheridan wisely counsels pastors to seize the “teachable moment” of preparation for a sacrament to convey its fundamentally ecclesial nature. With regard to matrimony, he notes that “marital preparation is a good opportunity to challenge the effects of the wedding ‘industry’ and overly personal, consumerist approaches to the sacrament.”

posted by Peter Nixon 2:17 PM
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HEAD GAMES: In today’s gospel reading from John, the disciples finally “get it.” Or so they think. Throughout the “farewell discourses” that we have been reading over the past several days, Jesus has been trying to explain the relationship between Himself, the Father and the Spirit. At various points, the disciples have misunderstood what Jesus is trying to say. But now they “realize that you know everything and that you do not need to have anyone question you. Because of this we believe that you came from God.”

You might think that Jesus would be happy that his rather thick-headed disciples had finally put the pieces together. But Jesus knows better. He knows that their intellectual understanding will not be sufficient to sustain them when they are put to the test. He knows that their faith will fail and that they will be “scattered.”

One of the wonderful things about Catholicism is how intellectually rich it is. Our tradition has produced some of the giants of Western philosophy, such as Augustine and Aquinas.

Given this tradition, it’s very easy for Catholics—particularly educated Catholics—to believe that we are growing in our faith because we are growing in our intellectual understanding of it. We throw around terms like “transubstantiation” or “hypostatic union” and we think that we finally have some kind of handle on the divine mystery.

But if that’s all our faith is built on, then it is built on sand. It won’t sustain us when a child dies or when a marriage falls apart. I've never met an alcoholic who felt that reading Aquinas kept them sober for one more day.

That’s why we need the Spirit. Tonight the disciples will tell Jesus they believe in Him, but within hours they will abandon Him and go into hiding, afraid for their lives. But on Pentecost, something happens, something so powerful that it overcomes their fear. The truth was in their heads, but now it’s in their hearts and in the way they will go on to live their lives. Can we say as much about ourselves?

posted by Peter Nixon 9:00 AM
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