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August 1, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Embracing Dialogue, Advancing the Commonweal

ConvocationFor the first time in 100 years, Catholic bishops in the United States hosted a national convocation of lay, religious and ordained leaders to explore and celebrate new and effective ways to promote the joy of the Gospel and form missionary disciples. More than 80% of dioceses participated formally by sending delegates accompanied by their bishop, and hundreds of leaders representing national Catholic organizations and ministries were included. In total, 3,500 people attended over four days in July in Orlando, Florida.

My colleagues and I, representing Leadership Roundtable which promotes best managerial practices in the church, were grateful for the invitation to be present, to serve on panels, to staff an informational booth and to interact with the many delegates from across the country.

Personally, it felt like a large family reunion – with people I have long loved and admired, people to whom I quizzically marvel about being related, and not a few eccentric relatives.

What was most striking, most laudable and most encouraging was the diversity.

The diversity was immediately evident in gender, age, ethnicity, and ability. All 50 states were represented. There were women religious; deacons; single, married, separated, divorced and widowed lay leaders; parents; seminarians; novitiates; cardinals; brothers; and bishops. Myriad ministries and apostolates were represented. Impressively, the women and men gathered represented the full theological and political spectrum. What was most remarkable, however, was how pronounced in civility, basic human kindness, genuine curiosity, decency, and respect the delegates and their interactions were – on panels, in break-out sessions, over meals, and in the informal moments of the convocation.

Of course, for people of faith who are called to be Christ-like, decency and respect should not be notable, but defining. And yet it has appeared these days that there is no place immune to our political atmosphere of divisiveness and acrimony. To the dismay of many, our own church has found itself polarized and its members quick to judge and categorize, eager to condemn and eschew dialogue. At times, we are no better as members of our faith family than we are as citizens of our country.

It could not have been an easy commitment on the part of the USCCB and the planning committee to host such an ambitious convocation at such an acrimonious political time in our country. But I am glad they did. It was a step in the right direction, for our church and, however unintended, for our body politic.

The convocation was a reminder that people who have vastly different experiences, formation, expressions of piety, ministries, pastoral and leadership roles, and priorities can enter into civil, respectful dialogue about the health and vitality of the church. It was a reminder that all of us, always, have more to learn. And it was an education in how truly wide the net can be – must be – cast; how expansive the tent can be – must be – pitched. And what a beautiful blessing this is.

There is no doubt it was frustrating and perplexing at times, for all of us who find ourselves on one side of the theological or political spectrum, despite often resisting such banal and unimaginative categorization. But discouragement, dismay, and enmity did not triumph.

Perhaps it was the emphasis on joy. Perhaps it was Pope Francis’s injunction to encounter people different than oneself and accompany them. Perhaps it was the daily celebration of the Eucharist, the commitment to prayer, the invitation to the sacrament of reconciliation. Grace was evident in dialogue and active listening. And the effect was an inchoate but palpable hope for our church and, by extension, for our country and for our world.

We left the Convocation of Catholic Leaders: The Joy of the Gospel in America with the conviction that character matters. Humility matters. Extending the benefit of the doubt to people one disagrees with matters. Marveling in God’s diversity matters. And if there is anything sacrosanct and urgent about what it means to be Catholic in the world today it is that we are all – every single living person on the planet – made in the image and likeness of God. Treating everyone, without exception, with a little awe, respect, and even reverence might be just what the church and world needs.

This column was written for and published in Chicago Catholic.

 

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June 26, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Laity, Leadership, Justice and Joy

rome pic for nalm

Sunset over St Peter’s Basilica

To the hard working members of the board of the National Association for Lay Ministry (NALM) and particularly to board chair Mark Erdosy, thank you for the invitation to be with you. I have a particular love for this important association supporting lay ministry. I hold the role of the laity in the life and vitality of the church in a preeminent place. Your mission is crucial. There is also a nostalgic reason I care deeply about NALM. Forty years ago when NALM was created, our family’s foundation, the Raskob Foundation for Catholic Activities, had the great privilege of being one of your earliest donor partners. NALM was founded within a year of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities). I have literally grown up post-Vatican II with both of these important networks informing my life, vocation, ministry and service to the church. I thank you deeply for your important influence.

Full disclosure: For as long as I have been aware, I have passionately loved the church and held its potential in the highest esteem. Its explicitly religious mission has formed the person I am today. That it is the largest humanitarian network in the world renders me forever committed to its health and vitality.

This is neither blind love nor infatuation, but love borne of time and gratitude and possibility. The more I am engaged in the life of the church, the more I become aware of its history, its mission, its ministries and its capacity. The church has ennobled me, and at times broken my heart.

Seventy-two years ago, our great grandparents, John and Helena Raskob, established a private family foundation with two intentions. They wanted all of the foundation’s resources to be used exclusively to support the Catholic Church throughout the world and they wanted their children and descendants to be stewards of the foundation’s resources. All participation is voluntary, non-remunerative and understood to be a serious commitment of time, focus and engagement in the life of the church.

Today there are nearly 100 members, all descendants of John and Helena, actively engaged in the work of the Raskob Foundation. It has been an uncommon privilege to serve the church in this way, with the unanticipated, beneficial consequence of evangelization for our family.

Our faith lives are stronger because we have had the opportunity to meet, learn from and support some of the most inspiring, generous, effective people the global church has to offer. We have seen the very best of the church through the lens of your ministries.

Parenthetically, as a child I was drawn to women and men like you – lay, religious and ordained – who had dedicated their lives to ministry and pastoral care and social justice. I observed that while these childhood heroines and heroes often bore witness to the worst of what humankind does to one another and to our planet, there was a palpable sense of joy about them. They knew who they were, and whose they were. Their lives were imbued with purpose and meaning. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to be like you.

At the Raskob Foundation we have also seen tremendous challenges facing the church and have been brought up to believe that we have an obligation to help solve those challenges, regardless of how difficult or seemingly insurmountable they may be.

A beloved professor, spiritual director and Sister of Mercy, once advised, “Remember what it is you most love about the church and membership in it. Name what you love. Claim what you love. It will provide ballast to allow you to navigate with fidelity and focus when you are disappointed and discouraged.”

I have taken this advice to heart and highly recommend the discipline.

My list is long and wide. I love our church’s rich intellectual tradition, social justice teaching, the community of saints, sacramental life and imagination, mercy, the Eucharist, the primacy of conscience, prayer and transcendence, forgiveness, the preferential option for the poor, the injunction to be Christ-like. I love that where there is human suffering, the church is at the vanguard of providing relief, promoting justice and advocating for peace. I love our Pope Francis – the world’s pope. I love that he has given us Laudato Si and despite obstacles and challenges, some inexplicably heartbreaking and gratuitous, it provides people of good will a seminal roadmap to care for our common home.

Good catechesis allows for the appropriation and cultivation of a mature adult faith to live out one’s faith in the world, the better to transform it through service and mercy, generosity and grace. This responsibility also extends to the church itself. Lay participation, leadership, generosity and active engagement in the life of the church are vital for its own transformation and mission efficacy. Exercising baptismal responsibility means actively contributing one’s gifts and expertise to strengthen the church.

Taking responsibility for the church, calling it to greater levels of holiness, accountability, transparency and trust is a responsibility of baptism. This understanding inspired Geoff Boisi to create Leadership Roundtable, a network of Catholic leaders whose sole mission is to help solve temporal challenges facing the church by harnessing intellectual, problem-solving capability, entrepreneurial acumen, contemporary best practices and a profound commitment to excellence and ethics.

Baptism is our gift. Exercising responsibility to ensure the church is welcoming, accountable, effective and the very best it can be is our right and our duty.

I have many examples of lay leaders who exercise their baptismal responsibility with breathtaking and compelling efficacy. I am going to name just eight to demonstrate the breadth and depth and diversity of lay contribution to the life and vitality of our beloved church.

Carolyn Woo, past president of Catholic Relief Services

Jack DiGioia, president of Georgetown University

Donna Orsuto, founder, Lay Centre at Foyer Unitas in Rome

Frank Butler, past president of FADICA

Arturo Chavez, president, Mexican American Catholic College

Ralph McCloud, director, Catholic Campaign for Human Development

Marie Dennis, co-president, Pax Christi International

Betty Anne Donnelly, co-founder, Catholic Women Preach

Think of these important apostolates and ministries and the exemplary leadership and faith that is manifest. Our church is blessed and blessed in particular by laity.

Although quite literally these were the first eight lay leaders that sprung to mind as I prepared my remarks for you, not surprisingly they all have certain qualities in common. They serve. They collaborate. They dream. And they evince joy.

Joy is a hallmark of the Christian life and faith.

How do we in our ministry and vocation cultivate joy?

We would do well to be aware. Pay attention. Be present. Don’t rush by any part of our wild and precious lives. Remember that we cannot protect ourselves from sorrow without also protecting ourselves from joy. Cultivate a merciful heart. Encounter people who are different than you. Accompany people who are in far greater need than you. Let you heart break by this beautiful world and our common humanity. In vulnerability we find joy.

People of faith, people of good will, are instructed to bear joy and to bear witness to joy even in the midst of oppression, suffering, poverty and broken-heartedness. This is not facile joy, but joy that comes from faith, faith in God and faith in something larger than oneself. This is the joy Msgr. Bill Stumpf elucidated in our opening liturgy, joy rooted in hope.

It is a spiritual discipline to cultivate. Faith that it is possible to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Faith that it is possible to correct unjust structures. Faith that it is possible to eliminate extreme poverty and inequality. Faith that it is possible to ensure potable water and food for all people. Faith that we can protect and care for and be good stewards of our planet, our common home. Faith that peace can be achieved, that reconciliation can be effected, that forgiveness can be extended.

How in the midst of communal and personal suffering can one access joy, let alone radiate it? It seems incongruous, if not impossible.

Life does not have to be perfect for us to find reasons to be grateful. In the midst of tremendous human suffering there can be found compassion, mercy, altruism and love. Be aware of such grace and human kindness. It is everywhere, even and especially when there is concomitant human anguish and loss. Rejoice in this. Gratitude begets gratitude. Blessings multiply. And the fruit of the habit of gratitude is that soon one experiences blessing where before one experienced only lament.

When we bear witness to joy we offer hope to a broken world. And the world needs hope. This is what you – the members and constituents and beneficiaries of NALM are about. This is what you do every day in your ministry. And our Church and world are better for your witness and example.

And you don’t need to be alone in this. This is one of the great insights the founders of NALM had in creating this association and supportive community.

Hopefully you saw Pope Francis’s surprise appearance by video at the recent TED talks in Vancouver. He said, “The future [has] a name, and its name is hope. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’”

We are a paschal people for whom suffering and death is never the end of the story. In our Catholic DNA, in our marrow, in our imagination is the conviction and experience that out of suffering and death can come new life.

Fifteen years ago our church was engulfed in the sexual abuse crisis. At the time I served as director of development for Yale’s Catholic Center. It was the most profound experience of lay – clergy collaboration that I have ever had. I worked in partnership for ten years with Fr. Bob Beloin, Catholic Chaplain at Yale and a priest from the Archdiocese of Hartford.

A major point of emphasis in our effort to raise money for Catholic campus ministry at Yale was the elevation of Catholic intellectual life on campus. Proudly we revealed to alumni and prospective donors that we were elevating and celebrating Catholic intellectual discourse, taking the topics of the day, illuminating them from the perspective of faith and inviting students into a dynamic discussion about the relevance and role of faith. Halfway through the Saint Thomas More at Yale capital campaign, quite dramatically and suddenly, and most certainly devastatingly, the topic of the day was the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

Nothing in our lifetime was more damaging, discrediting, heartbreaking or shocking about the church than these revelations.

It would have been tempting to admit our lack of culpability in the crisis and do nothing. Tempting, but not faithful. We knew that to do nothing is to be complicit. Instead we hosted a three-day conference entitled Governance, Accountability and the Future of the Catholic Church to examine the underlining conditions that may have contributed to the crisis with a view to making a meaningful and positive contribution to our church. The conference was held in March of 2003. We hosted 500 people over three days, featuring 30 nationally recognized speakers including then Bishop (now Cardinal) Wuerl from Pittsburgh who opened the conference with an important keynote, followed by Peter Steinfels, religion editor at the New York Times. The subject matter was wrenching and yet everyone left hopeful. We all belonged to the church. This was our church, understanding the problems at hand was the first step, committing to being part of the solution was the second step, acting on that commitment was the third step. Participants left with the sense that it was possible, even if very difficult, to help call the church to greater levels of accountability and holiness. We could all play a role in making a positive contribution. And clearly the laity had much to offer, particularly in the areas of management of human and financial resources, contemporary best practices and solutions to complex temporal challenges facing church leaders.

Three months later in Memphis, Tennessee on June 7, 2003, I met Geoff Boisi who delivered an impeccable keynote to a prominent group of Catholic philanthropists convened by FADICA on the same theme, with remarkably consistent conclusions and with the same heartfelt motivation. Geoff wanted to help our church overcome what was properly understood as a managerial crisis. I was spell bound by his presentation, the content, the delivery and the respect he commanded by his presence, leadership and obvious dedication.

The best of Vatican II is personified in Geoff Boisi. He could have done anything with his time during this period of so much challenge for the church. An extraordinary leader and visionary, world renown for his financial and investment acumen, past chair of Boston College, member of the Papal Foundation, co-founder of Mentor, wonderful husband, father and grandfather, Geoff deserved some time off. But when his church was in crisis he did everything possible to effect healing and reconciliation. Exercising baptismal responsibility—not only taking his faith to make the world better but taking his faith to make our church better, Geoff founded the National Leadership Roundtable on Church Management.

It was a grand experiment that had never been tried anywhere in the world before this moment. And it is a comprehensive example of stewardship on the part of all of the baptized to care well for what has been entrusted to the church and to recognize the enormous potential before us.

Leadership Roundtable is an exceptional network of senior level leaders from all walks of life, all of whom are Catholic and committed to making a meaningful contribution to the church. It is comprised of ordained, religious and lay leaders from a diverse composite of sectors, industries, geographical regions and experiences. Senior level executive members come from the corporate, nonprofit, philanthropic, financial, communications, executive recruiting, marketing, academic, and other sectors including the church itself. When Leadership Roundtable was first created, 24 national Catholic networks- including NALM- whose own missions had a bearing on ours were identified and the chair or executive director was invited to be a member. It was extremely important that we not duplicate efforts, that we collaborate whenever possible, and that we not reinvent what has already been created but rather analyze whether we can build on such solutions, practices and protocols.

These women and men bring with them decades of successful leadership, problem solving ability, managerial expertise, financial acumen, sophisticated command of technology, and capabilities in marketing and communications. They value the church and want it to be strengthened. They yearn to contribute to the restoration of trust that had been so painfully shattered by the sexual abuse crisis. They want to help usher in a new day of ethics, transparency, accountability, best practices and excellence. They highlight the particular skill and expertise lay people have at their disposal and the importance of recognizing and inviting such expertise to strengthen the church.

Catholics are no longer solely an immigrant population in the United States. Thanks in part to the G.I. bill and access to quality education, Catholics have risen to levels of affluence and influence and now count among the highest echelons of leadership in every sector and industry. Given such vast leadership expertise, laity have been a wholly underutilized resource in the church. If there is any grace that came from the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. it is that it roused laity out of our lethargy and enkindled a desire to act on our convictions that a better managed church, a more transparent church and more accountable church, would be more effective at its mission, more faithful to its purpose.

Ordained and religious church leaders had rarely looked to laity for more than financial contributions. To ignore their considerable command of managerial expertise and problem-solving capability, their vocations of pastoral service, ministry and leadership, when it is clear this is what the church needs and can significantly benefit from is to be a poor steward of one of the most valuable assets of all.

Geoff knew this and set about harnessing it for the good of the church.

One of our founding trustees, Fr. Don Monan, SJ who died in March of this year summed up the urgency of our mission this way:

“Poor management of school systems issues in poor education. Poor management of courts of law leads to inferior justice. Poor management of corporations results in low returns for investors. Poor management of the church leads to compromised mission.”

We have particular charisms at Leadership Roundtable. We exclusively focus on the temporal affairs of the church and do not wade into doctrinal matters. We are intentionally positive and laudatory. We emphasize our convening capability. We insist on candor and charity. We prize collaboration. We eschew competition. We imagine how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit. We believe baptism confers rights and responsibilities. We think big and we never give up.

Thanks to Geoff and women and men like Geoff, today the church in the U.S. has at its disposal a remarkable network of committed Catholic leaders from diverse sectors and industries where Catholic philanthropic capital and Catholic intellectual capital is brought together to address complex contemporary temporal challenges. Social entrepreneurial rigor is encouraged for high impact solutions. Practical, canonically compliant solutions are the result; evangelization of the participating leaders is a byproduct. All assets are utilized, not only financial. Imagination and intellect, expertise and perspective play dominant roles in deliberations. Problems are addressed. Solutions are proposed. Action is taken. Effect is measured. Everyone benefits.

Of course we have much work still to attend to and one of our particular passions is equipping young adults for active leadership in the church.

Many young adult Catholics enjoy a positive experience of the church while they are in college, either because they attend a Catholic university or because they attend a secular university that has a vibrant Catholic campus ministry. Catholic students note the exceptional liturgies, relevant homilies, student participation, opportunities for service, and attention to helping them develop a mature adult faith that is both cognitive and affective. Why does the church lose such active participants when they graduate?

The prognosis has always been the same. “College graduates drift away from the church for a period of time. They move to new cities, start new jobs, and encounter neighborhood parishes with very few single young adults. We know that the church risks losing them for a time, but they will come back when they get married, have a child or experience a personal crisis.”

I have heard this all of my life. But surely this is not a good strategic plan.

Leadership Roundtable in partnership with Saint Tomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale created a curriculum and framework for preparing college students for meaningful leadership in the church immediately upon graduation. Leaders from across the country whose expertise was in young adult ministry, campus ministry, human resource development, leadership development, theology, canon law, ecclesiology and sociology were convened. A young adult leadership formation program was created called ESTEEM, Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission. Piloted on twelve campuses from Stanford to Yale and now in its seventh year, campus ministers invite “the best and brightest” young adult Catholics to participate in the yearlong program. Through retreats, seminars and guest lectures, students are immersed in ecclesiology, canon law, Catholic social teaching, intellectual, sacramental and liturgical life and leadership formation. Each student is paired with a mentor, a local leader whose field of expertise most closely aligns with the professional aspirations of the student. Mentors are on hand throughout the year for informal discussion on the role of faith in professional life, in vocational discernment, and in leadership. The most significant aim of ESTEEM, however, is to equip the student participants for meaningful leadership after graduation: by being appointed to a parish pastoral council, a diocesan finance council or the board of trustees of a Catholic nonprofit. ESTEEM’s vision is two young adults in leadership in every parish, diocesan office, and Catholic charity. If young adults see other young adults in meaningful positions of leadership they know that their voice and perspective matter. Young adults serving on boards will learn from older more experienced trustees, offer their own perspective on ways to strengthen mission and attract a new generation.

I am also passionate about elevating and celebrating the role of women in the Church.

This year to mark International Women’s Day, a remarkable celebration of inspiring leaders from across the globe took place in an unlikely setting: the heart of the Vatican.

The fourth annual Voices of Faith event was standing-room only but was live-streamed and therefore available to women and men all over the world. The theme was peace, the format was storytelling and discussion, and the purpose was to demonstrate the crucial and beneficial role women play in leadership and at the tables of decision-making when it comes to peace, or any other meaningful pursuit.

A panel discussion revealed the beneficial impact of including women along with men at the highest levels of leadership across all sectors. Corporations with women on their boards have a better return for shareholders; woman doctors are less likely to be sued for malpractice; universities, the military, the judiciary — all are strengthened by the presence of women in leadership and decision-making positions. And so it is with the crucial, urgent effort of peace-building.

The organizers of Voices of Faith love and respect the church and its mission. Appreciating the church as the largest global humanitarian network in the world, they recognize the enormous potential it has to address human suffering and complex global challenges. Their concern is one of urgency: to strengthen the church’s capacity to excel at its mission. The question at the heart of the matter is: how compromised is the church by failing to include women at the highest levels of leadership and at the tables of decision-making in the Roman Curia and throughout the institutional church? Mission matters. Best practices matter. Every institution in the world has accommodated and incorporated women in leadership — often reluctantly at first — only to admit the practical, tangible value of having done so. As many noted, the church risks being left behind if this isn’t addressed.

As the newly elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal, SJ, remarked during the Voices of Faith event: “The opposite of clericalism is collaboration, working together as baptized daughters and sons of God … but if we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived. That inclusion, which would bring the gifts of resilience and collaboration even more deeply into the church, remains stymied on many fronts.”

Those who care deeply for the church’s vitality and mission must ask: Given that young women know they can achieve the highest levels of leadership in any sector and industry, do they find role models at the highest levels of leadership in the church? Are there examples in the Sunday lectionary where women are the protagonists? Are there visible signs that women are included in decision-making within the church? How welcoming are we as a church to young women and their considerable talents and abilities? And what do we lose if we lose their participation?

Let me end the way I began, with a heart full of gratitude for members of NALM, for lay leaders, for lay pastoral ministers and for religious and ordained leaders who value, support, help form and encourage the vital role of laity in our Church. Thank you for who you are and for all that you do. Thank you for calling us to be more loving, merciful, faith-filled people. As we take leave of one another, a quick checklist of useful maxims that contribute to a life of meaning, purpose and joy:

  • Be grateful.
  • Be aware and pay attention.
  • Serve others by being a beneficial presence in their lives.
  • Never add to another’s burden or take away their joy.
  • Notice and acknowledge even small details that bring you joy.
  • Laugh often and well.
  • Don’t waste one minute of your time being anything other than fully alive.
  • Think big.
  • Be generous.
  • Extend the benefit of the doubt to others.
  • Surround yourself with people who ennoble your spirit.
  • Mentor and encourage young adults.
  • Make sure the Church avails itself of the considerable talents of women, in leadership and in decision-making.
  • Celebrate collaboration and diversity everywhere, all the time. Seek it out with intention.
  • Know your priorities.
  • Remember that people of faith are confident in the future.
  • Begin each day with a little awe and enthusiasm.
  • Resist cynicism.
  • Celebrate what is right in order to find the energy to fix what is wrong.
  • Be the reason for someone’s hope each day.
  • Imagine abundance.
  • And every day, every single day, choose joy.

 

Kerry Alys Robinson, Global Ambassador, Leadership Roundtable

May 30, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Stemming the Exodus: College Graduates and the Church

esteem 2017

Close to half a million Catholics in the United States have just graduated from college, and almost as soon as they did their participation in the church plummeted.

For decades, leaders of the U.S. church have observed that many young-adult Catholics enjoy a positive experience of the church while they are in college, either because they attend a Catholic university or because they attend a secular university with a vibrant Catholic campus ministry. Catholic students note the exceptional liturgies, relevant homilies, student participation, opportunities for service and attention to helping them develop a mature faith that is both cognitive and affective. So why does the church lose these active participants when they graduate?

The prognosis has always been the same: College graduates drift away from the church for a period of time. They move to new cities, start new jobs and encounter neighborhood parishes with few single young adults. We know that the church risks losing them for a time, but they will come back when they get married, have a child or experience a personal crisis.

I have heard this all my life. Geoff Boisi, founding chair of Leadership Roundtable, and Father Bob Beloin, Catholic chaplain at Yale University, were the first to point out, “That is not a good strategic plan.” And they set about finding a solution.

Their first observation was that the prediction was no longer true, if it ever had been. Young-adult Catholics are not coming back to the church. For one thing, they are not necessarily marrying other Catholics or raising their children Catholic. The long-term impact is that the church is losing its best-educated generation.

From a leadership perspective, this is a human-resource challenge of enormous consequence. From a campus-ministry perspective, this is a disheartening reality. How can we prepare college students for active engagement in the church and ensure that the church would be welcoming to young adults once they graduated?

One answer came through harnessing the vibrancy of the Catholic center at Yale and the problem-solving capabilities of Leadership Roundtable to create a curriculum and framework for preparing college students for leadership in the church after graduation. Leaders from across the country with expertise in young adult ministry, campus ministry, human-resource development, leadership development, theology, canon law, ecclesiology and sociology were convened.

A young-adult leadership formation program was created called ESTEEM, Engaging Students to Enliven the Ecclesial Mission. Piloted on 12 campuses from Stanford to Yale, and now in its seventh year, campus ministers invite “the best and brightest” young-adult Catholics to participate in the yearlong program. Through retreats, seminars and guest lectures, students are immersed in ecclesiology, canon law, Catholic social teaching, intellectual, sacramental and liturgical life and leadership formation. The program culminates in a national capstone conference, which this year took place in Chicago.

Each student is paired with a mentor, a local leader whose field of expertise most closely aligns with the professional aspirations of the student. Mentors are on hand throughout the year for informal discussion on the role of faith in professional life, in vocational discernment and in leadership. The most significant aim of ESTEEM, however, is to equip the student participants for meaningful leadership after graduation: by being appointed to a parish pastoral council, a diocesan finance council or the board of trustees of a Catholic nonprofit.

ESTEEM’s vision is to have two young adults in leadership in every parish, diocesan office and Catholic charity, from Loyola University Chicago to the local soup kitchen. If young adults see other young adults in meaningful positions of leadership they know that their voice and perspective matter. Young adults serving on boards will learn from older, more experienced trustees, offer their own perspective on ways to strengthen mission and attract a new generation.

Young adults are ready to serve as leaders in the church. How ready are we to welcome them to such leadership?

–  Kerry Alys Robinson

This column was written for and published in Chicago Catholic.

May 10, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Imagining Abundance & Choosing Joy

Commencement Address, Emory & Henry, May 6, 2017

Kerry Alys Robinson

E & H commencment

Congratulations Class of 2017!

“Nothing is more endangered in the modern world than the powerful combination of hard work toward meaningful goals joined with an exuberant embrace of the present moment.”

You have worked very hard and deserve to heed Tom Morris’ advice. Exuberantly embrace this present moment and regard this momentous day with immense gratitude.

When you arrived on campus for the first time, did you imagine this day? Here you are at the commencement ceremonies surrounded by professors, parents, grandparents, siblings and classmates – some of who will be your close friends for the rest of your lives. Your remarkable and inspiring president, Jake Schrum and all who are assembled here are so very proud of you. And the truth is you are loved beyond measure. You have a right to be proud of your accomplishments and we celebrate you today. But no one is solely responsible for his or her success. So many people here- your family, friends, teachers and staff at Emory & Henry have positively impacted you, championed you, and contributed to your accomplishments, sometimes at great personal sacrifice. Remember to be grateful to them and for them. Remember to express that gratitude, especially to your family members who made it possible for you to be where you are today.

It might sound platitudinous, even in your early twenties, but there is no more meaningful path to a joyful life than gratitude. Its so easy to focus on what is lacking, on the imperfect, on the negative, to be tempted by cynicism, to be genuinely anxious, or resentful. In some ways we have done a very poor job with your inheritance: unprecedented political divisiveness and acrimony at home and abroad. Poor care of our common home, a growing disparity between the rich and poor, age old sicknesses of racism and sexism, forced migration and burgeoning refugee camps where some young adults your age have lived their entire lives. Famine and the risk of starvation affecting 20 million people in Sudan, Yemen, Somalia and Nigeria right now. The threat of violence and terrorism worldwide. Always being a click away from vitriol, or evidence of the pathology of a culture of indifference. But you don’t have to succumb to a despairing worldview. You don’t have to be coopted by insidious cynicism, abandon your idealism, your hope in the future, or your compassion in the face of another’s suffering.

“To whom much is given much is expected.” And you have been given much. Today you receive your diploma from college, from this college, Emory & Henry, the oldest institution of higher learning in Southwest Virginia. With Methodist roots, you have been formed in the ethos of John Wesley: “Do all the good you can. By all the means you can. In all the ways you can. In all the places you can. At all the times you can. To all the people you can. As long as ever you can.”

The truth is no one can promise you an easy life, assure you of material comfort, longevity, health, or further accomplishments, a life free of sorrow or tragedy, or hardship. Generations of philosophers, theologians and thought leaders have tried to make sense of human suffering. I have come to believe that we may never understand why bad things happen to good people, we may never understand the reason for suffering or tragedy, but we can always find profound meaning in our response to suffering- our own, the suffering of those close to us, and the suffering of a broken world.

Be aware. Pay attention. Be present. Don’t rush by any part of your one wild and precious life. Remember that you cannot protect yourself from sorrow without also protecting yourself from joy. Cultivate a merciful heart. Encounter people who are different than you. Accompany people who are in far greater need than you. Let your heart break by this beautiful world and our common humanity.

March 8th is International Women’s Day and for the past four years – as incongruous as this may sound- I have celebrated it in the heart of the Vatican. This year I moderated a panel of exceptionally wise and accomplished women leaders from three continents as part of Voices of Faith. One of the panelists, a three-time Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Dr. Scilla Elworthy, posed two simple questions: “What breaks your heart? And what are you good at?” Her advice is that knowing the answers to these questions and connecting those answers will set you on a life of meaning, purpose and fulfillment.

I can’t help but marvel that she is speaking directly to you, Emory & Henry Class of 2017. You were here when the Ampersand Institute was created and dedicated. No other college has such an institute, as its director Tracy Lauder asserts, to empower students to connect what you care about to what you are learning so you can design and implement projects that contribute to our community and our world.

In fact this very college was founded on the principles of vital faith and civic engagement. The transformative academic community at Emory & Henry allows for your education to be distinguished by advancement toward expanded potential and civic responsibility. Emory & Henry has been preparing you for the sweet spot of meaningful work: the perfect combination of what you are passionate about combined with what you are good at, coupled with being paid for it, in response to what the world needs. What a legacy and what formation you have had in your four years on this beautiful campus.

It might seem strange to think about one’s legacy at the age of 21 or 22 but it is a worthwhile exercise. At the end of your life, what would you like people to say about you? Now, what do you need to do today, and tomorrow, and next week and next year to ensure that is your legacy?

John Raskob is my great-grandfather; he died before I was born.

He dreamed of creating the world’s tallest building and imagined how high it could be without falling over. In the late 1920s he called a press conference to announce that he would build and finance what would become the Empire State Building in New York City. Almost immediately after his bold announcement in 1929, the market crashed. No one expected John Raskob to keep his plans but it was a matter of integrity and prescience to him. The building project continued—but now thousands of people were employed to provide as much opportunity for work as possible. Multiple records were broken as the skyscraper rose.

Today it is one of the most iconic buildings in the world. But here is the little known fact: It took forty years before the building reached full occupancy. Most people scoffed at the folly of his imagination and conviction. But John Raskob was a remarkable leader of profound vision. He knew that he did not need to live to see the results of his vision and hard work for it to have value for others.

It has been said that the greater the leader, the farther out extends the leader’s vision. While many of us are looking toward the end of the week in anticipation of Friday, a great leader is looking out 40 or 50 years to anticipate a future. A necessary corollary is courage and tenacity, the ability to stick to one’s vision and conviction when everything else is conspiring to dissuade you of that vision.

I have marveled my whole life at the tenacity of visionaries who work toward a more just and charitable world. It is activity not for the faint of heart. To be committed is to be committed for the long haul. My best friend quips that “if you need to see the immediate results of your work, paint houses.”Imagine all that can be brought to fruition by leaders who possess this particular constellation of qualities: vision, courage, tenacity and a radical commitment to making this a better, more just and joyous world.

What broke John Raskob’s heart was witnessing potential being squandered usually because of the fear of failure. What he was good at was thinking big, charting a course of action, ensuring his intentions were sound, acting on his convictions and never giving up.

My beautiful friend Mary Ann Wasil was forty when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Rather than give in to the heavy weight of sorrow and anxiety that her cancer presented in her life – the worst thing that had happened to her – she was able to take the experience of her diagnosis and convert it to be a blessing for others. Mary Ann founded the Get in Touch Foundation to change the world one girl at a time and advance breast health advocacy. She had an insatiable belief in the importance of girls and women to be informed and strong. And she believed that service was the pathway to joy and purpose. She would be delighted and proud that the chair of Emory & Henry’s board – who is with us today – is Gary Reedy, CEO of the American Cancer Society.

What broke Mary Ann’s heart was knowing one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. What she was good at was offering hope to women and men affected by cancer, speaking with breathtaking passion, and advocating for women and girls.

When most of you were still in high school, preparing to come to Emory & Henry, the world was preparing for the birth of the 7 billionth person. My super creative and talented friend, Valerie Belanger, conceived of a global art installation centered on one question: “What would you say to the 7 billionth person?

The answers, in a variety of media, fell along a spectrum: alarming, anxious prognostication about the dire state of the world into which this child would be born on one end and heartfelt, hopeful joy for a child we have been waiting to welcome on the other.

Where would your response fall?

People of faith, people of good will, are instructed to bear joy and to bear witness to joy even in the midst of oppression, suffering, poverty and broken-heartedness. This is not facile joy, but joy that comes from faith, faith in God and faith in something larger than oneself. It is a spiritual discipline to cultivate. Faith that it is possible to make a meaningful difference in the lives of others. Faith that it is possible to correct unjust structures. Faith that it is possible to eliminate extreme poverty and inequality. Faith that it is possible to ensure potable water and food for all people. Faith that peace can be achieved, that reconciliation can be effected, that forgiveness can be extended.

How in the midst of communal and personal suffering can one access joy, let alone radiate it? It seems incongruous, if not impossible.

I understand, therefore, why some of the submissions for my friend’s art installation depicted scenes of violence, hunger, toxicity, human trafficking and genocide, alerting the 7 billionth person to the kind of world she or he will find.

Life does not have to be perfect for us to find reasons to be grateful. In the midst of tremendous human suffering there can be found compassion, mercy, altruism and love. Be aware of such grace and human kindness. It is everywhere, even and especially when there is concomitant human anguish and loss. Rejoice in this. Gratitude begets gratitude. Blessings multiply. And the fruit of the habit of gratitude is that soon one experiences blessing where before one experienced only lament.

When we bear witness to joy we offer hope to a broken world. And the world needs hope.

So my favorite submissions centered on welcoming the 7th billion person as a celebration of wonderful news, with open arms and love. “Welcome! You are the one we have been waiting for. We are so glad you have come.”

In a surprise appearance by video at the TED talks last month in Vancouver, Pope Francis said, “The future [has] a name, and its name is hope. A single individual is enough for hope to exist, and that individual can be you. And then there will be another ‘you,’ and another ‘you,’ and it turns into an ‘us.’

What breaks Pope Francis heart is a culture of indifference in the face of human suffering, especially the suffering of the poor, the imprisoned, refugees, and victims of violence. What he is good at is having his actions match his words, of restoring our faith in the goodness of humankind, of embodying mercy.

What breaks your heart? What are you good at? As you discover the answers to those questions, as you prepare to take leave of this beautiful campus with greater knowledge and deep friendships remember what contributes to a life of meaning, purpose and joy:

  • Be grateful.
  • Be aware.
  • Pay attention
  • Serve others by being a beneficial presence in their lives.
  • Notice and acknowledge even small details that brings you joy.
  • Laugh often and well.
  • Don’t waste one minute of your time being anything other than fully alive.
  • Think big.
  • Be generous.
  • Extend the benefit of the doubt to others.
  • Surround yourself with people who ennoble your spirit.
  • Be the biggest, best version of yourself.
  • Know your priorities.
  • Begin each day with a little awe and enthusiasm.
  • Resist cynicism.
  • Celebrate what is right in order to find the energy to fix what is wrong.
  • Tell the people you love how much you love them. Show them how much you love them.
  • Be the reason for someone’s hope each day.
  • Imagine abundance.
  • And every day, every single day, choose joy.

Congratulations Class of 2017. Thank you for the exquisite privilege of being with you to celebrate and honor you.

April 18, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

From Dread to Generosity

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I detect it among religious leaders whenever I speak to them about fundraising – theological ambivalence about money. Is wealth holy or is it sinful? If it is holy, is it so only under prescribed circumstances? Or perhaps money is neutral, and what is sinful or holy is the degree to which we are attached to it and how we use it?

Like the famous deadly sins, there are seven primary obstacles to successful faith-based fundraising and the power of generosity. Theological ambivalence about wealth is one of them.

At Leadership Roundtable, we speak to faith groups about financial best practices, including raising money for their parish communities or other ministries. These are usually faith leaders – very accomplished people, gifted practitioners, thinkers, pastoral healers. Yet on matters of money, they bring fear, ambivalence, cognitive dissonance, resistance – in short, obstacles that stand in the way.

At workshops on fundraising we often begin by posing a single question. We ask them what thought or feeling stirs when they are told, “As ministers, priests, religious and lay leaders of faith-based nonprofits you are responsible for the financial health of your community, parish, ministry, hospital, school or nonprofit organization. Even if you have the luxury of a professional director of development, you are responsible for raising money to advance the mission of your organization.”

The answers are overwhelmingly fraught with anxiety and dread. “I know I have to do it, but I regard it as a necessary evil.” “I am more of a people person, so I really don’t enjoy raising money or even discussing it.” “I feel panic, a sense of futility.” “I really hate having to ask people for money.” “I worry that I will never be able to raise enough money, fast enough, and people will be disappointed.” “It makes me feel like I am using people, people I respect and would prefer to have as friends, not donors.” “Terrified!”

If the first obstacle is theological ambivalence toward money, the second obstacle is the false belief that fundraising is not real ministry. I’ve heard many men and women confide that they did not discern a vocation to the priesthood or religious life to make people uncomfortable by bringing up the unpleasant subject of money. They discerned their vocation to bring solace to others, bring the good news to others, bring Christ to others. Intellectually they know they need to succeed at fundraising if their ministries are to thrive, but it feels like a contradiction to their real ministry.

A third obstacle is related: inadequate preparation around finance. Many otherwise skilled and influential faith leaders have received very little training in management and human resources – even less in fundraising, financial accountability, and planning. It’s hard to embrace responsibilities for which we have not been trained.

A fourth obstacle is language. Consider these familiar phrases: “Hit him up for money.” “Put the squeeze on her.” “Strong arm him.” “Target them.” This is the language of violence and violation, not ministry and service. Some people cavalierly equate fundraising with begging – the language of scarcity. This places the fund seeker in a position of seeking alms. If, on the other hand, the fund seeker grasps the potential of a financial gift – how much an investment would matter to the beneficiary and the benefactor – then the request for financial support is no longer begging or violation but a form of invitation. Eliciting generosity and responding generously deserve reverence, not disparagement.

A fifth obstacle sees fundraising as asking for a personal favor. Even though the financial donation is used to support a ministry or a parish community that touches hundreds or thousands of people, the assumption lingers that one is asking for a personal favor of the donor. It can be tremendously unsettling and uncomfortable to think you somehow now owe the donor. Hoping to avoid this, the unfortunate temptation is to frame the donation as an obligation, pushing the donor to give out of guilt, rather than regard it as an invitation to be generous.

A sixth obstacle reinforces the suspicion many people have that fundraising is slightly manipulative work, not fully transparent, somewhat deceiving or sycophantic. Treating affluent and powerful people with greater respect and dignity than those you calculate can do nothing for you is not only a poor development practice, it is unfaithful and boorish. Integrity can never be sacrificed for development efficiency.

The seventh obstacle is perhaps the most pervasive and insidious: fear, a gripping fear of rejection and failure. What if the donor says no? Is that a rejection of my ministry, my priesthood, and my leadership? Is that a rejection of me?

Fear is the antithesis of faith. “Fear not” is a central Scriptural tenant. The task of raising money—any amount of money—can seem so arduous, so impossible, that it’s rare to find a leader or development officer who is unafraid. Reflect on the nature of the fear. What specifically is feeding the anxiety? I’ve heard many answers: “I am afraid that I will offend someone by asking for too much, or not enough.” “I am afraid of the magnitude of responsibility.” “I am afraid that I will have only one chance to make the ask and if I screw it up, I will have ruined the opportunity forever.”

A crucial characteristic of a leader or development director is a palpable confidence and unshakeable faith that the potential can be brought to fruition. This joyful expectation, this determination, will be tested at every turn, definitely at the beginning, most certainly when the campaign in fact begins to be successful, and especially when the stakes get higher after so much time, effort and financial resources have been invested in the effort.

To religious leaders and other people of faith who are responsible for raising money: It will be paramount that you attend daily to prayer and reflection, examining anew the soundness of your intentions, your motivations for working so hard toward the goal and a vision of the future. Stay focused on mission. Hold the future beneficiaries – people you may never meet – in your mind’s eye. Be as other-centered and noble of purpose as possible. Reflect, pray, surrender, and ask for the grace to remain faithful to the task at hand. Hold the end – where the whole effort is heading – in mind. Think big.

And please know this: What you already possess – your particular religious formation, the spiritual disciplines you practice routinely, the desire for meaning and aspiration to be a blessing in the world – these are the very fundamentals of success in financial development. Faith, spiritual maturity, mercy, a commitment to the dignity of the human person, a zest for life and all that life has to offer, a belief in transcendence, access to hope, tenacity, humility, awe, generosity of spirit, the divine ability to imagine abundance – these are all hallmarks of your success in fundraising.

Keep an eye on your biases about money. See donors as subjects, not objects. Understand development as a ministry to donors. Believe that generosity is humankind’s birthright. Bring your faith to bear on the responsibility of fundraising. Be joyful. Be confident in the future. Invite everyone to be part of a life-giving, other-centered, faith-filled vision of all that God intends.

Kerry Alys Robinson, Published in Reflections – Yale Divinity School, Spring 2017

April 7, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

A Priest for All Seasons

Introduction of Fr. Bob Beloin, Chaplain at Saint Thomas More Catholic Chapel and Center at Yale University, honored during the Spring Fling Gala to benefit St. Martin de Porres Academy in New Haven, CT by Kerry Alys Robinson

Kerry Bob

What a spectacular evening. Wonderful setting, full house, tremendously important mission, flawless preparation over many months by the spring fling committee, our friend Michael Morand lined up to be auctioneer, generosity is in the room and in our hearts, and we have an irresistible, profoundly inspiring honoree in Fr. Bob Beloin.

Fr. Bob’s many dear friends and colleagues present this evening will likely understand the hesitation I detected in his countenance when he realized I was being handed the mike to say a few words about him tonight. I can think of only one thing that would cause him to be more trepidatious: if this otherwise perfect evening had happened to fall on April 1st rather than April 6th. Providence is on your side, Fr. Beloin, as I am bound by the rules of April Fools to be truthful and trustworthy on all remaining days of the calendar. So no Nicole Kidman with us tonight. No call from Pope Francis to your cell phone. No sudden transfer to Harvard’s Catholic Chaplaincy. No New Haven boulevard named after you. Just the truth.

And the truth is Fr. Bob is the consummate priest, prototypical pastor and quintessential chaplain. There is never a day or hour when he is not on call to be present to someone in need – in need of encouragement, of forgiveness, of inspiration, of insight, of mercy. Conversely, he quips that he has never worked a day in his life, so fulfilling is his vocation. An exquisite homilist, he makes preaching look effortless, but dedicates hours and hours of prayer, exegesis and preparation. Why? It’s not because he has world renowned Scripture scholars and theologians in his Sunday assembly, which he does, every week. It is because the Eucharist is core to who he is and whose he is. He understands that the Eucharist matters and should be celebrated with the highest levels of care and commitment.

Fr. Bob is generous; I have never in twenty years seen him walk by a person asking for money without reaching into his pocket, handing over bills and asking, “What’s your name?” Fr. Bob is humble. He absolutely loathes being the center of attention like this. This intro is killing him!!!! Although, I believe I am doing a pretty good job of reading it exactly as he wrote it! He truly had to be talked into being the honoree tonight. And it was only because of his own personal philanthropic passion for the school and the students that he consented. Of course, even the holiest among us are complicated beings, and after agreeing to be honored, upon finding out that there was the competitive prospect of breaking all prior spring fling fundraising goals this evening, he was ALL IN. He is accomplished and prolific. Yale bestowed on him its highest honor, the Association of Yale Alumni Medal. And yet he has an innate ability to laugh at himself. Happily he has boundless opportunity to exercise that particular virtue.

We worked together for ten years immersed in a significant fundraising effort to expand Catholic life on Yale’s campus. It was my job on his behalf to call influential Yale alumni all over the country and seek appointments. On one occasion my call was to a prominent veterinarian who agreed after much persuasion on my part, despite a very demanding schedule, to see us when we were in the greater Philadelphia area. The details were arranged and before hanging up, the veterinarian said, “Oh, one more question, ‘What kind of a horse is Father Beloin?’” Trust me, it could have been a far more specific and even more ignominious question!

The ability to laugh at one’s self points to joy. And joy is a hallmark of the Christian life and faith.

Fr. Bob, we honor you tonight and give thanks for your generosity of spirit, your joy, your priesthood, your friendship, your wisdom, your life of profound prayer and pastoral acumen. Thank you for letting us support such a compelling and life-giving cause tonight in your name and in your honor. And thank you for being, wherever the Gospel takes you, a beneficial presence bringing people closer to Christ, to meaning, to service and to love.

 

 

 

 

March 29, 2017 / Kerry Alys Robinson

Women, Leadership and the Church

Grateful to Chicago Catholic for inviting me to be a columnist. This is my second column.

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On International Women’s Day, March 8, a celebration of inspiring leaders from across the globe took place in an unlikely setting: the heart of the Vatican.

The theme of the fourth annual Voices of Faith event was peace. The format was storytelling and discussion, and the purpose was to demonstrate the crucial role women play in leadership and decision-making when it comes to peace, or any other meaningful pursuit.

Among the women featured was Marguerite Barankitse, responsible for saving the lives of 20,000 children whose parents were killed in the genocide of Burundi; Dr. Mirreille Twayigira, an orphan who excelled in her studies in a refugee camp in Malawi and was accepted at medical school in China, requiring her to learn Chinese; two sisters from Syria describing their frightening travels across the sea in a rubber boat, neither able to swim; Marie Dennis, co-president with Bishop Kevin Dowling of Pax Christi International; and Flavia Agnes, founder of Majlis Legal Center in India and legal advocate for more than 50,000 women and their children who endured physical and sexual abuse. Their personal testimony was riveting, often harrowing, but what was palpable was their irrepressible joy, a joy borne of faith, conviction and the commitment to live lives dedicated to improving the world for others.

A panel discussion revealed the beneficial impact of including women along with men at the highest levels of leadership across all sectors. Corporations with women on their boards have a better return for shareholders; female doctors are less likely to be sued for malpractice; universities, the military, the judiciary — all are strengthened by the presence of women in leadership and decision-making positions.

So it is with the urgent effort of peace-building. Scilla Elworthy, three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, articulated five characteristics of feminine intelligence (accessible to men and women) that are necessary to advance peace: compassion that results in action, inclusivity, deep listening, intuition and regeneration. Sister of Social Service Simone Campbell, executive director of Network and leader of the Nuns on the Bus movement, offered four complementary virtues for our present day: joy, holy curiosity, sacred gossip and doing one’s part.

The organizers of Voices of Faith love and respect the church and its mission. Appreciating the church as the largest global humanitarian network in the world, they recognize the enormous potential it has to address human suffering and complex global challenges.

Their concern is one of urgency: to strengthen the church’s capacity to excel at its mission. The question at the heart of the matter is: how compromised is the church by failing to include women in the highest levels of leadership and in decision-making?

Mission matters. Best practices matter. Every institution in the world has accommodated and incorporated women in leadership — often reluctantly at first — only to admit the practical, tangible value of having done so. As many women noted on March 8, the church risks being left behind if this isn’t addressed.

As the newly elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, remarked during the Voices of Faith event: “The opposite of clericalism is collaboration, working together as baptized daughters and sons of God … but if we are honest, we acknowledge that the fullness of women’s participation in the church has not yet arrived. That inclusion, which would bring the gifts of resilience and collaboration even more deeply into the church, remains stymied on many fronts.”

Those who care deeply for the church’s vitality must ask: Given that young women know they can achieve the highest levels of leadership in any sector and industry, do they find role models at the highest levels of leadership in the church? Are there examples in the lectionary where women are the protagonists? Are there visible signs that women are included in decision-making within the church? How welcoming are we as a church to young women and their talents and abilities? And what do we lose if we lose them?

These are the questions our young people are asking. It’s time we started giving them some answers.