All posts by Sara Knutson

Advent Deserves Its Own Spotify Playlist

With Christmas music creeping into early November and in full swing by now, I’ve managed to short-circuit some of the “When is the earliest appropriate day to listen to Christmas music” debates by breaking out my Advent playlist.

Advent is a treasured and ancient liturgical season (some Advent lyrics go back to the 9th century!). And it has some beautiful hymns to show for it.

So the next time you’re working on cookies, gifts, or decorations, give this little playlist a try (be sure to hit ‘shuffle’ as there are multiple versions of some songs).

Happy almost Advent!


It All Matters (Finding God in All Things)

Via Flickr User Arianne
Via Flickr User Arianne

By Sara Knutson

When I was a kid, being Christian meant doing right in your personal sphere.

  • Listen to mom and dad.
  • Be honest.
  • Share.
  • Go to church.

As a teenager, more guidelines emerged, but they remained firmly in the personal sphere.

  • Don’t gossip.
  • Dress modestly.
  • Don’t cheat on tests or boyfriends.
  • Get confirmed.

Something happened in college, though: that personal sphere was eclipsed by a global one. Being Christian also meant engaging the world.

  • Do service.
  • Give generously to church and charity.
  • Vote conscientiously.
  • Spend time with the poor.

I didn’t actually do much of this; I mostly stood on the sidelines and watched my more visionary friends take action instead. But as I progressed through my twenties, I gradually got there too.

Continue reading It All Matters (Finding God in All Things)

How to Vote Catholic (Or, Faithful Citizenship in 3 Bullet Points)


By Sara Knutson

With midterm elections coming up next week, most Massgoers have received a bulletin insert summarizing USCCB’s Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship. Given that the full document is a hefty 45-page PDF, the 2-page summary that showed up in most bulletins is a big help. (Both versions can be found here.)

Even so, the type is awfully small and plenty of us have enough trouble getting through the bulletin itself, let alone bonus reading. So I’ve condensed the insert further into 3 critical points. Here are my key takeaways:

  1. Get out and vote. “Participation in political life is a moral obligation,” the bishops write, which builds up the virtue of responsible citizenship. Feeling depressed about your options? Me too, enough that it’s tempting to sit this election out. The bishops address that point and respond that if this is the case, we should work toward creating better options by voicing our concerns or even running for office. Fair enough.
  1. Vote in a way that upholds life and dignity. The bishops urge Catholics to be guided by a “consistent ethic of life,” which takes into consideration the unborn, the elderly, the poor, and other marginalized people whose lives are undervalued.

One framework for thinking about a consistent ethic of life and what it includes is covered in the seven themes of Catholic Social Teaching. An explanation of these themes comprises a good portion of the insert, indicating their importance to the bishops.

  1. Abortion is a critical issue but not the only issue. Faithful Citizenship clearly states that “as Catholics we are not single-issue voters,” and Catholics are not obliged to vote for a candidate based on his or her position on any one issue, including abortion.

That said, when an issue involves an intrinsically evil act, of which abortion is one along with issues like euthanasia, torture, and racism, Catholics may legitimately not vote for a candidate who supports it on the basis of that issue alone.

Abortion is mentioned several times in the summary. It is a top issue for the bishops and the church. But they do not demand that Catholics vote according to a politician’s position on abortion alone. Abortion matters—a lot—but it’s not everything.

The bishops conclude by calling for a “renewed politics that focuses on moral principles, the defense of life, the needs of the weak, and the pursuit of the common good.” Tuesday is our next opportunity to bring that renewed politics about.

Enough is Enough

Note: the following is not an open letter, but the actual email I sent today to the staff at the online magazine Slate. I’ll miss this news source, but it has ceased to be trustworthy.
Subject: Ending my reading of Slate
Dear Slate staff,

I wanted to briefly write to express my disappointment in Slate‘s recent coverage of Christianity and particularly the Catholic Church, and to inform you that I will no longer be reading Slate.

This is unfortunate, as I have often found fascinating and unusual points of view in Slate‘s various departments. John Dickerson’s coverage has been a particular high point, along with Slate‘s consistent attention to social justice issues.

However, after reading Brian Palmer’s piece a few weeks ago, “In Medicine We Trust,” I was dismayed by his brash and almost totally unsubstantiated argument against Christian medical missionaries. I laid out my case in the blog I write for, but in essence it undermined my trust in Slate‘s ability to write about religion objectively.

I continued to read Slate‘s pieces, though with a grain of salt, until I got to its coverage of the Vatican Synod over the past two weeks. Both pieces were distressingly uninformed, written by people without enough understanding of Catholic processes and history, and the the second in particular (“Surprise: Catholic Church is Still Homophobic“) was titled as provocatively as possible in order to attract clicks, and gave up any sense of objectivity or fairness in doing so.

I’m a fairly progressive Catholic, hardly one of the caricatures presented in these recent op-eds. But I’m also a committed and practicing one, and I’ve found these pieces so falsely simplistic and uninformed that it’s offensive — offensive that Slate wouldn’t bother to rigorously research and present each perspective fairly when it comes to the church.

I have a Master of Divinity and know enough to know when Slate is being misleading regarding church issues. But I don’t know as much about politics, science, or the other humanities. What if the same poor reporting is happening in those departments and I can’t recognize it? For that reason, I no longer feel confident in the accuracy and excellence of any of Slate‘s essays and will no longer be visiting your site.

It’s unfortunate that this is the case; I’ve been reading Slate for nearly 10 years. But I cannot afford the risk of my judgment being formed by inaccurate essays or subpar reporting.

I wish you the best and hope you are able to upgrade your coverage of this area. Please let me know if you do so and I’ll gladly return to regular reading.

Kind regards,

Sara Knutson

The Synod’s New Tone Isn’t So New

By Sara Knutson

Yesterday saw an explosion of attention toward the Catholic Church as the midway report on the proceedings of this month’s Extraordinary Synod was released.

Given the buzz regarding the report’s strikingly positive tone toward homosexuals and others, the stated reasoning behind the shift in tone has been overlooked, and that’s too bad. It’s a throwback move that may be the most important shift of all.

First, a bit of necessary history: the Second Vatican Council’s document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, is famous, among other reasons, for its affirmation that elements of truth could be found outside the Catholic Church. Rather than disparaging other denominations and religions, Lumen Gentium praised what they held in common with the Catholic faith, seeing such commonalities as a sign that God meets people where they are and gradually leads them further in faith. Continue reading The Synod’s New Tone Isn’t So New

That Moment When My News Went Anti-Christian


By Sara Knutson

I’m not an alarmist. I think that cries of a War On Religion are overblown, and I don’t hunt for prejudice.

But the prejudicial bias in one of Slate’s recent op-eds, “In Medicine We Trust,” was impossible to overlook.

Author Brian Palmer’s argument was twofold. First, given that missionary clinics in Africa are typically small and unregulated, he worries that their medical practices are not on par with those of large, secular health organizations.

Second, he is deeply uncomfortable with any intertwining of medicine and faith, convinced that proselytizing and coerced conversions are the unavoidable consequences.

If those objections were based in fact, it would be compelling reading. But facts are scarce.

Palmer fails to present any evidence that small religiously-based clinics are less organized or regulated than small secular ones. He fails to demonstrate that proselytizing occurs even occasionally. And the only people he quotes who explicitly fault missionary medicine are Donald Trump and Ann Coulter, celebrities who Palmer himself points out are hardly bastions of objective reasoning. Continue reading That Moment When My News Went Anti-Christian

Christian vs. Secular Music? These 5 Artists Don’t Make That Distinction


By Sara Knutson

Cat or dog. Blonde or brunette. Coke or Pepsi. For better or worse, we tend to create opposing categories and forget the rabbits, redheads, and Dr. Peppers of the world.

The same is true in music. “Christian or secular” has long been used to categorize artists, but the stark contrast it implies oversimplifies the musical landscape and masks the long history of religiously-informed music.

By that I mean music created by artists who are thinking about life’s biggest questions from a perspective of faith. Their music may or may not reference God and would rarely be defined as part of the praise and worship genre. They may play both religious and secular festivals. They usually avoid Christian record labels. But their themes are undeniably spiritual, often drawing from Scripture.

Continue reading Christian vs. Secular Music? These 5 Artists Don’t Make That Distinction

Reflections on an Intergenerational Church

young and old hands

By Sara Knutson

Catholics, like most people, have a tendency to sort themselves by socioeconomic status and racial/ethnic background, and I sometimes lament the homogeneity of race and income level in Catholic parishes.

In focusing on that homogeneity, however, I missed a key area in which parishes are nearly always diverse: age.

Parishes are visibly intergenerational. Everyone gathers together for worship, festivals, and fish fries. Everyone celebrates baptisms and first communions. Growing in Faith Together (GIFT) programs bring everyone together for faith formation.

That kind of intergenerational community is increasingly unusual amid increasing age segregation in America, where sports leagues are split into U-12s and U-14s and “Millennial” has become a defining identity.

While people of different ages do have some different desires and interests, our community suffers when different generations stop interacting with one another.

Indeed, an unexpected blessing of my parish JustFaith program last year was the fact that half of our group was in their 50s, 60s, and 70s. Maureen’s life stories were reassuring, Julianna’s sharp concern for the poor was inspiring, and Bruce’s keen desire to learn demonstrated that one’s beliefs need not harden with age.

Our parishes are not diverse in every way, but one thing we’re doing right is being intergenerational. It’s important that we remain that way, and I predict that this will become more difficult.

With society increasingly separating people by age, we need to monitor and, if needed, adjust the ratio of age-segregated to full community programs and events in our parishes.

Take young adult ministry. These programs do great outreach, but they need to ultimately draw young people into full parish life. We will serve young adults better by inviting them into parish-wide ministries than by running parallel service opportunities, socials, and liturgies just for them.

The trick, of course, is that running programs for the full parish community require more planning and care. But they also reap greater rewards.

As an example, our parish cluster celebrated the twin canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II with a “Pope Party.” A half hour of adoration was followed by a talk on the new saints and Pope Francis and then a party featuring appetizers and desserts from each pope’s home country.

And it was a party! All ages mixed together, including a sprinkling of kids who’d made it through the previous hour. The event brought together people from different regular Masses and ministries, and parishioners mingled in the festive setting for over an hour.

These are the sorts of opportunities that integrate and strengthen our church. If we keep our parishes intergenerational, we will keep them vibrant and alive.

Clothing Donations: Not as Helpful as I Thought

Credit: Barret Anspach
Credit: Barret Anspach

By Sara Knutson

We can’t handle all your clothes.

At least, not at the food pantry where I volunteer. The pantry focuses on food, of course, but also maintains a small thrift shop, and we are drowning in donations.

When I arrived on Wednesday, two weeks’ worth of clothes had accumulated due to limited Labor Day hours, and my fellow volunteers and I picked through dozens of garbage bags of clothes. The very best went to restock the shelves. Other good clothes were set aside for a fellow Catholic organization known for clothing distribution, and the older and out-of-season ones were earmarked for Goodwill.

I’d estimate we kept 5-10% of the donations. On a regular week that number is higher but always below 50%. It seemed unlikely that either of the other two sites could use everything either.

According to Elizabeth Cline, who covered the subject in Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, my hunch is right. As Cline puts it:

“Most Americans are thoroughly convinced there is another person in their direct vicinity who truly needs and wants our unwanted clothes. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Charities long ago passed the point of being able to sell all of our wearable unwanted clothes. According to John Paben, co-owner of used-clothing processer Mid- West Textile, ‘They never could.’”

(A longer excerpt can be found here.)

Pope Francis has regularly lamented our consumption-oriented society, decrying its “culture of waste.” I saw the truth of his words in a fresh way at the pantry this week. We have so much stuff that even the donated items of people conscientious enough to give them away cannot all be used. Continue reading Clothing Donations: Not as Helpful as I Thought

Homily for the 22nd Sunday: Dying to Live


By Sara Knutson

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me,” says Jesus in today’s gospel. Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously put it another way: “When Christ calls a man, he bid him come and die.”

It’s a sobering thought: our Gospel calls us to death in order to live, and our greatest temptation is to deny it.

Poor Peter, whose characteristic impulsiveness again gets him in hot water. But before judging him harshly, consider this: Peter by this point had done an enormous amount for Jesus. He had left his livelihood for the Gospel, been absent from his family, preached from town to town without so much as a walking stick.

He didn’t do it all for nothing; Peter saw something compelling in Jesus. As we heard last week, he knew Jesus was someone truly special, the Christ. And like a good Jew he envisioned this Christ as a liberator, a king, someone who would command the respect of Jews and Romans alike and triumphantly bring about a new era of freedom for his people.

Continue reading Homily for the 22nd Sunday: Dying to Live