Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is

Articles by Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J.

'Come, Rosa, we're going for our people'

Aug 8, 2012 / 00:00 am

On August 9, the Church celebrates the life of St. Edith Stein, Jewish philosopher, atheist-turned-Catholic convert, Discalced Carmelite nun, and martyr.

The Olympic Games, physical fitness, and the Catholic Church

Aug 1, 2012 / 00:00 am

From first to last, the Olympic Games focus on character in action, a combination of sacrifice and self-denial with a perfectly disciplined will that refuses to give in. It’s this state of mind that we, the Olympic world, celebrate.

St. Ignatius of Loyola and his letters to women

Jul 31, 2012 / 00:00 am

Today, men and women living the Ignatian charism celebrate the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus in 1540 as a peripatetic Order. It was commissioned to lead church reform regardless of where it would take its members. Of the 7,000 letters Ignatius wrote, some one hundred letters are addressed to women, most of whom helped him in various ways during those graced beginnings. “The Society owes its existence to many women,” writes Rogelio Garcia-Mateo (“Ignatius of Loyola and Women: Theology Digest,” 45:1:27-32). Hugo Rahner, S.J. has collected and contextualized these letters in his book, “Letters to Women.” Paralleling Rahner’s historical narrative, this short, limited essay pays tribute to some of those women who dedicated themselves to the Ignatian apostolate in those early years.Manresa (1522-23)At Manresa, where Ignatius the pilgrim composed the Spiritual Exercises, several women looked after his needs. Among them were Iñes Pascual, an influential widow, and Hieronima Claver, administrator of Santa Lucia hospital for the indigent, and Isabel Roser, perhaps his most generous supporter. In 1532, Ignatius writes to her: “...for to you I owe more than anyone I know in my life” (“Letters,” 265). At Manresa, his world-vision was born and began to take shape, and women, known as Iñigas, were the first to benefit from the graces received there because they did the Exercises. The first members of his inchoate and primitive company were women.The Narrative ContinuesIgnatius pursued studies in philosophy and theology in Barcelona, Alcalá, Salamanca, Paris, and they did pastoral work in Venice between 1524-38. In Barcelona, he attracted some noble women who did the Exercises and, with him, ministered to the poor and sick. In addition to Iñes, Heironima, and Isabel, who supplied him with food, there were other ladies of Barcelona who were drawn to his mission: Estefania de Requesens, Guiomar Gralla, and Isabel de Josa, a lady of recognized culture.In Salamanca too, Ignatius enlisted women to share his ministry, among them, Leonor Mascarenhas. Shortly before his death in 1556, he wrote to her, “How much I have had you and still have you in my inmost soul – and would do so still in the future – if possible.” (“Letters,” 430)In Paris, Ignatius continued his studies, now with his small band of companions. Financial need forced him again to request help from the ladies of Barcelona who had kept in touch with him. He shrewdly devised a plan when asking for money from each of these women, and he asked Iñes Pascual to organize the ladies’ activities: “I still think that when you tell [Doña Gralla] about me, she will certainly want to participate in the alms given to me. In this as in all other questions, I shall consider whatever you do as best, and I shall remain contented, for I am continually in your debt and for the future, I shall always be under an obligation to you.” (“Letters,” 182-3) These women provided Ignatius and his small band with care packages, and their support enabled them to pursue their studies in theology to completion. The founding of the new Order and its rapid growth would have been much more difficult, perhaps impossible, without their support.St. Martha’s HouseIn Rome, Ignatius created an organization where women could help other women. These houses of prostitution were numerous. Whenever help came to free women from prostitution, the cloister was their only option. But some felt no call to become nuns. In 1543, after receiving financial support, mostly from women, and with some ecclesiastical backing, Ignatius founded St. Martha’s, a house for young and endangered girls. These women formed an association called “La Compania della Grazia” under the patronage of Cardinal Carpi, at whose request the Society undertook its temporary spiritual direction. The wealthy lay women, associated with St. Martha’s, included Lucrezia de Bradine, Juana de Aragón, and Leonor Osorio. Donna Osorio took sixteen young prostitutes into her household to procure marriage dowries for them. The work of St. Martha’s blossomed and became a model for foundations in Italy and Spain. At the end of 1543, eighty women were seeking a new life at St. Martha’s in Rome. On one occasion, the noblewoman Margaret of Austria sent Ignatius 300 ducats for distribution among the poor. (“Letters,” 19) In 1539, Faustina de’ Jancolini bequeathed her house and lands to Ignatius, and in 1554, Donna Maria Frassoni gave 70,000 gold scudi for the construction of the Jesuit church and college in Ferrara. The largest donors were called “the most loving mothers of the Society of Jesus.” (“Letters,” 15,199, 211, 223)Women Seek Admittance into the Jesuit OrderBetween 1545-1552, several of these women, some of whom were widowed, sought admittance into the Society. Thus began a tense period between Ignatius and the very women on whom he depended to assist the Society. Many did the Exercises and were committed to the Society’s expanding mission. If admitted to the Order, they reasoned that the flexibility afforded the men would apply to them as well. Then they could continue their activities as they had as laywomen, but now as vowed and itinerant members of the Society, and not as cloistered nuns. Though logical, this inventive idea was a failure in the making.By 1545, the young Order was asked to help in the reform of convents and monasteries, a priority of the Catholic Reformation. Sr. Teresa Rejadella, a Poor Clare nun, and others sought admission into the Society because of corrupt conditions in monasteries. Of the four letters Ignatius wrote to Sr. Teresa, the first remains a model of spiritual direction. One excerpt reads as follows: “The enemy [the evil spirit] is trying to upset you in two ways: first, that he sets before you and persuades you to cultivate a false humility; the second, that he strives to instill into you an excessive fear of God with which you are too much taken up and occupied.” (“Letters,” 331)Meanwhile, other lay women attempted to imitate Isabel’s initiative: Francis Borgia’s sisters-in-law, Juana de Meneses Barreto, and the wealthy Sebastiana Exarch were ready to make a vow of obedience to their confessors after completing the Exercises – Sebastiana, without her  husband’s knowledge! That same year, the widowed and childless Isabel Roser, Lucrezia de Bradine, and Francisca Cruyllas working at St. Martha’s, asked to be admitted into the Order. The three women pronounced their vows before a reluctant Ignatius, and a female branch of the Society was temporarily established. The rule of enclosure however held sway – not exactly what they expected – and they would depend on the Society for regular spiritual direction. (“Letters,” 31-2) When Isabel embroiled Ignatius in family problems, he could anticipate conflict and asked Pope Paul III for help. In 1547, a decree, Licet debitum, freed the Society from any permanent responsibility for women. It reinforced the Society’s promise of mobility, granting its General permission to send members anywhere to teach theology and all disciplines. From 1547 onward, Ignatius instructed his men to avoid or limit, out of prudence and on principle, the permanent spiritual direction of women and nuns.Headstrong WomenIn 1552, Jacoba Pallavicino-Parma da Scipione and several women pronounced their vows in the Society and sent Ignatius the vow formula. Ignatius declined to accept their vows. More than once, the headstrong Jacoba interfered with the Society’s apostolic plans by trying to influence Ignatius’ use of his men. Even before the canonical approval of the Society, she intended to donate 500 gold pieces to Ignatius besides her dowry. All requests met with a resounding no from Ignatius despite any offering of financial assistance.In 1553, Jacoba sent another letter to Ignatius with plans to set up a college in Parma and in Cremona with her large donations. She submitted a detailed plan, with an initial payment, to found a convent of nuns under the Society’s rule and constitutions. This would make them female Jesuits. She signed the letter, “Jacoba of the Society of Jesus.” Rahner notes that this was “too much even for the patience of Ignatius”...who stated unequivocally that “such plans were against the rules of the Society.” (“Letters,” 319)There were still other women who sought admittance into the Order: Leonor Mascarenhas, Teresa Rejadella, Hieronyna Oluja, María, Queen of Austria, Countess Osorio, and Juana Requesens. They implored Ignatius to grant their requests, but in vain.Princess Juana, Regent of SpainIn 1555, by way of exception, Princess Juana, the imperious daughter of Charles V and sister of Philip II, pressed her way into the Society through her acquaintance with Francis Borgia. A request denied might have jeopardized work of the Society in Spain. Thus, after considerable consultation, shrewd and reluctant, the decision was made to accept the princess, but her membership was to be kept a strict secret lest other noblewomen might decide to join. She was referred to as ‘Mateo Sanchez.’ Juana’s courtly way of life was to remain unchanged, and she engaged in worldly affairs on behalf of the Society. Her apostolic availability was limited although she did what was possible within the parameters of her double-life as a monarchial Jesuit. She was her own boss, and she freely exercised her power. To work unencumbered in Spain, Ignatius bowed to her wishes and avoided recriminations from her brother and father, who did not like the Jesuits. She took first vows as a scholastic but never became a fully professed member of the Society.On the one hand, Juana’s power helped the Society in Spain, defending them against the attacks of some churchmen. She donated 3,000 ducats (about $750,000) toward the founding of a college at Valladolid, and she wrote a letter in favor of the foundation in Louvain.On the other hand, the Princess caused anxiety when “murmurs began to arise in Spain and especially in court circles against the ‘Jesuit government’...and against ‘jesuitical practices” in her “palatial convent.” (“Letters,” 59) In 1573, the anomalous Lady Jesuit died, outliving Ignatius by seventeen years. The experiment was never again repeated.Rahner notes that Ignatius favored the establishment of a company of women who, with missionary mobility, could devote themselves entirely to charitable and social work. This  “lightning-flash” would not be realized until the mid-seventeenth century.Some years ago, I asked a mentor, W. Norris Clarke, S.J., an internationally prominent Jesuit priest and philosopher, if he knew about the significant role women played in the development of the early Society. “They never told us anything about this,” he replied.

Leisure and entertainment

Jul 25, 2012 / 00:00 am

During these summer months, the Church shares some wisdom with the faithful concerning relaxation, leisure, and entertainment. Relaxation and leisure satisfy our need for pleasure. Yet, even as we guard leisure as a precious value, in practice it is challenged everywhere because it is often dismissed as time wasted. Leisure disengages us from the cares of life to enjoy and wonder at natural or artistic beauty. At these times, we catch our breath to renew our lives – culturally, socially, and religiously; personal and public responsibilities are also restored to balance.Despite cultural differences, leisure bears certain universal similarities. It lifts up the spirit that brings freedom from external constraint, joy, and meaning to life. Sunday worship and prayer, reading a book, outdoor activities, watching good TV programs or a suitable movie, attending a music concert or art exhibit, or taking a coffee break are in essence the same: they refresh us.Whenever we choose entertainment, we make a moral and aesthetic judgment. What are the criteria for selecting leisurely activity? "Decent entertainment has the obligation to serve the truth and support the inviolable dignity of the person and of the common good; this dignity is given by God and may not be violated or taken away by another person or government. Decent entertainment not only pleases its consumers, but also respects their intelligence and sensitivities." (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2495-99)That the culture of mass media affects us all is self-evident. As the most common form of entertainment, television daily enters our households, and in many cases, it serves as a companion. Though it is an industry, both autonomous and secularized, television opens the door of the world to its viewers. It can have a socializing effect as the lives of other people are immediately made accessible to us. Often commercial and cable television have risen to their best by offering events of universal interest in the fields of religion and politics, sports, human events, and matters of justice. Through television, we have witnessed heroic moral courage and non-violent struggle against injustice.Decent television promotes universally-held values: self-discipline, compassion and respect for others, responsibility, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty, and faith. The Bill Cosby Show of the 1990’s, better known as “The Huxtables,” embodied these virtues and enjoyed wide acclaim. Here was quality entertainment; its hallmark, standards of excellence. It was all about family, and not just an African-American family. Today, “the Huxtable Effect” is being studied in college courses as re-runs continue to be shown across the country.It is an understatement to say that television exercises enormous power on us. Frequently, programs portray the darker and demeaning sides of the human condition instead of respecting it. What do we find? Violence and vulgarity, self-absorption and personal gratification at any cost, breakdown of the family, deception, meanness, and worst of all, the sexualization of our culture.  Such programming would have us believe that whatever is base is to be realized as an ideal. Writing in the January 2008 issue of “First Things,” Jason Byassee observes that “we are so awash in pornography these days that most of us don’t recognize it any more.”  Pornography, as an aspect of ugliness, appeals mainly to the body passions. Pornography corrupts the soul. It denigrates human beings and treats them like things, the ultimate consumer product. A far cry from the psalmist who proclaims, “You have made man and woman a little lower than gods” (Ps 8:5). Pornography titillates but creates restlessness; good entertainment offers lasting satisfaction. As the sexualization of our culture accelerates, our young people, who deserve their innocence, and all of us, are at risk of being manipulated by it. Yet, at heart we are repelled by debasement and drawn to what affirms life.According to Thomas Merton, “bad art [indecent entertainment], is like “polluted air” and “constitutes a really grave spiritual problem;” it “affects us only slightly at first, but in the long run, the effect is grave.” A culture of reverence and a retrieval of our infinite dignity as persons, made in God’s image and likeness, has assumed new urgency. We gasp for beauty! We need loveliness “to prevent us from sinking into despair,” wrote Paul VI at the close of Vatican II.  What can we to do to improve the quality of television?  Here are five suggestions:1. Examine your television choices. Be aware that indecent entertainment carries with it long-range consequences. Develop discerning taste.2. Change the channel when programming offends your dignity and that of the family. Engage television producers. Write to them expressing your concerns. Many will reply and thank you for your comments and suggestions.3. Support family channels, especially Catholic television.4. Rent videotapes of family entertainment. The American musicale is America’s pride and joy. Research newspapers and web sites listed as “Family Entertainment.”5. Create your own entertainment by tapping into your talents and those of your family.Finally, in addition to papal exhortations, the documents of the Pontifical Council for Culture (especially those of 1999, 2004, and 2008) and the Pontifical Council for the Family are two important guides for engaging the media, holding on to the faith and for handing it on to others.

When women doctors speak

Jul 18, 2012 / 00:00 am

Saints Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and Thérèse of Lisieux rank among the thirty-three Doctors of the Church. Their lives have played decisive roles in the building up of the Church, and their writings enrich for their theological content and spiritual doctrine. Who were these women.

Living with separation and divorce

Jul 11, 2012 / 00:00 am

There is nothing quite like the suffering that comes from separation or divorce.  The rupture is so deep that it radically re-arranges one’s life.  Nothing stays the same.  Each day is one of distress and tears.

America, the beautiful

Jul 4, 2012 / 00:00 am

“What is America to me? A name, a map, a flag I see; a certain word, democracy.What is America to me?The town I live in, the street, the house, the room, the pavement of the city and the garden all in bloom, the church, the school, the clubhouse, the million lights I see, but especially the people, that’s America to me.”

The blight of pornography

Jun 27, 2012 / 00:00 am

Our American culture, now well-secularized and well-sexualized, is also rife with pornography. This grave evil worries good parents, educators, and some public servants.  Mindful of its effects, the Church is ever protective of the sacred character and dignity of the whole person.  What Is Pornography?The root of the word pornography (porne or pernea), is associated with a prostitute, or with prostitution. Pornography removes sexual intimacy from the sacred domain and casts it into the gutter. Pornography perverts the beautiful meaning of the sexual act. Within the marital union, it was forever blessed by God as a sacred blessing, trust, and responsibility.Pornography depicts sexual acts in such an explicit way as to arouse immediate, intense, and titillating pleasure for its own sake. It is exploitative and corrupting to all involved in this activity. Pornography treats the human person as a toy in order to amuse and give pleasure to the abuser. Through audiovisual techniques, pornography violates the right to privacy of the human body. Such a violation reduces the human person and the human body to an object of misuse for the purposes of gratifying lust. It differs from erotica in that the latter’s intent is to use the arts to arouse sexual desire through feelings and emotions.   Why Do People Engage in Pornography?Like other addictions, pornography is a symptom of a deeper problem. Addicts of any type are rarely content with the quality of their lives. Perhaps they themselves have been scarred by abuse, by unhappy marriage or by divorce. They may be bored with themselves, with others, or with life in general. Unemployment too can trigger a loss of self-worth, and the longer the unemployment the worse the loss. Then, instead of seeking creative ways of dealing with unemployment, men and women may seek out pornography to fill a deep void and emotional hunger.As with most addictions, the lure to pornography begins gradually. Then the magnetic pull becomes so strong that soon the abuser is trapped in a swamp of quick sand, unable to extricate the self from the unyielding pull of the momentary pleasure. Like other addictions, only a motivation that is more powerful than the pull toward it can sever the addictive cord and restore the person to moral health.  Pornography/Explicit Obscenity EverywherePornography is so ubiquitous that, we no longer notice it as evil or even notice it as pornography. Today, social attitudes have become more tolerant and permissive of both soft-and hard-core pornography because of the virtual absolute right to free expression and the right to privacy. With one click on the computer, adults, youth, and even children can have easy access to provocative entertainment, also found on talk shows and prime-time dramas.Then there is late-night entertainment, euphemistically touted as adult entertainment for mature audiences. Much of it panders to profanity or language that is intended to stimulate sexual appetite, however taboo, indecent, abhorrent, or disgusting. According to the Merriam-Webster online Dictionary, “obscenity is repulsive or disgusting to the senses.” Those who regularly view these shows however, are not only not offended but also intentionally seek out this form of titillating pleasure. Others who stumble on these programs find them offensive and disturbing. The material spewed forth by some late-night hosts, fixated as they are on sexual and scatological topics, is not just harmless banter, it is smut. The Special Case of Pablo PicassoIn an article entitled “All the Picassos in the Cupboard,” Holland Cotter, art critic and Pulitzer Prize winner, revealed a shocking fact. He writes that Pablo Picasso, perhaps the most forceful and dominant artist of the contemporary scene, painted pornography on commission, with particular emphasis on the carving of female figures (NY Times April 30th, 2010, Weekend Edition, C 25). Such a fact should offend our moral and aesthetic sensibilities. It should enrage feminists. Unthinking, pseudo-art collectors are duped into acquiring meretricious so-called art for millions of dollars.  If there is no God, the dictum says, everything is permitted.Our Children and PornographyOften those who include pornography in their world view do not or cannot stop at the viewing, but must act out what they see and absorb. Most often, the victims are children. In a particular way, children exposed to pornography instinctively see it for what it is, and they recoil from it, feeling embarrassed, ashamed, and unclean. Though pornography can be a private activity, its toxic effect is so deadly that it poisons individuals as well as the family, which is accorded the title, “the Domestic Church.” Pornography creates marital discord and destroys family life. Pros and Cons Regarding PornographyNot everyone agrees that pornography is a grave moral concern to the public. If pornography is private behavior, whose business is it anyway? So goes this logic. According to Robert George, professor of law at Princeton University and co-founder of the Manhattan Institute, “many today would remove pornography from any moral category altogether and simply regard this as a First Amendment issue.”  In fact, thirty-eight percent of American adults consider pornography morally acceptable. This voice is generally expressed both through the popular culture of the entertainment and advertising media. The second voice is the strong tradition of religious and moral values, which finds expression in the private life of a large majority of ordinary adult citizens trying to hand on virtuous living to their children. These two cultural forces are locked in a struggle for dominating the soul of our families and culture.Who are the persons and agencies with obligations to defend the private sector?  They are professional communicators with moral consciences and ethical codes, parents, educators, youth, the public outcry, public authorities, the Church and religious groups who must put pressure on the public sector and legislators to enact laws for the public health and safety.     The Body, Sacred and BeautifulThe Judeo-Christian faith tradition teaches that the whole person has been endowed with an exalted vocation. We are made not only “in the image and likeness of God,” (Gen 1:26) “made a little lower than God,” (Ps 8:5) we are also “God’s works of art created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as he meant us to live it from the beginning.” (Eph 2:10)  We are called to become works of art, works of beauty.  St. Paul illuminates the sacred character of every person with a metaphor. Each of us is a temple of God, and the Spirit of God lives within us: “If anybody should destroy the temple of God, God will destroy him, because the temple of God is sacred, and you are that temple.” (1 Cor 3:16-17) We go to God in, with, and through our bodies which are entrusted to our care but belong to God.

Life with and without fathers

Jun 20, 2012 / 00:00 am

Father’s Day was celebrated last Sunday, but fatherhood remains a timely topic. From the womb and early infancy, every child deserves to be reared by a mother and father (or surrogates) who put them first. The parents’ unconditional and selfless love is committed to making the lives of their children meaningful. The best clinical statistics show that young adults with a mom and dad do much better than in other arrangements. Man, woman, and children form the indispensable nucleus of society, and Catholic families have been accorded the title, “the Domestic Church.”  Father-LossThe problem of disintegrating families and that of the disappearing father have been sadly thrust into other crises that further darken the culture. Father-loss is grave, even alarming. While super-dads exceed our expectations, families increasingly suffer from derelict, absentee fathers. In more than seventy percent of its programming, television and movies consistently portrays fathers as stupid, uninvolved, incompetent, and superfluous. Or, fathers have abandoned their families. According to the weight of social sciences, nearly half of all babies born today are born out of wedlock. Nearly half of our children live without their fathers, and half of these do not see their fathers. A disposable father disrupts the family and wreaks havoc on its order. President Obama, who was raised for the most part without the presence of a father, has urged fathers to take responsibility for their vocation. In increasing numbers, boys are being raised by women. Children live with their mothers in situations with live-in but itinerant male companions. Let it be said that no woman, married or unmarried, should live with an abusive man.In families without fathers or in lesbian situations, where do the boys learn how to be men? Where do the girls learn how to relate to the opposite gender? How do both learn to bond with the father-figure? In this fatherless generation, young adults ask heart rending questions with deep and profound anger, ‘Who is my father; where is he, and why did he leave me?’ “Where are the good men, where are the fathers,” asks Bill Bennett? How can men prepare themselves to be good husbands and good fathers? A boy learns to be a man by imitating real men. Commitment is learned in early childhood from committed parents or by strong surrogate parental-types that will teach responsibility to the children.  Surely it is a tragedy when children lose their fathers through death, a fact that educators saw when teaching and counseling students who lost their fathers in the 9/11 attacks. At least in these cases, the father’s loving memory can be kept present and alive by the mother.  Confusion about What Is MaleIn his book, “The Book of Man” by William J. Bennett, the author divides the book into six aspects of a man’s life – man in war, at work, in play, sports, and leisure, man in the polis, man with women and children, and man in prayer and reflection. Like his previous book, “The Book of Virtue,” Bennett personally reflects on the making of a man. He records excerpts of writings of prominent men in history who wrote about fatherhood.What does manhood mean? Today, this is a conflicted topic. Boys and young men without fathers in their lives tend to identify maleness with aggression, often violently acted out, instead of within an ordered environment.  Boys come into contact with a wide variety of cultural male models, both good and bad, on which they will model their own lives. There are the machismo models of street gangs, many of whose members have been abandoned by their fathers.“Gay culture,” writes Bennett, “parades itself in a flamboyant display and challenges traditional masculinity. Some coaches and drill sergeants bark,‘What kind of man are you?’ but don’t explain.”  Then there are the thirty-something adolescents who refuse to grow up and take responsibility in relationships. They fear commitment, a matter of faith regardless of one’s chosen vocation. Men obsessed with sex, treat women like toys, discarding them at will. Where to turn? What to do? What must boys learn to prepare for manhood and fatherhood? Some suggestions:1.Respect self. Respect mothers, girls and young women. Bennett writes that “if a man knows how to treat his wife properly, he will know how to raise his children.2.Learn to tell the truth no matter the cost.3.Do a job that is well done. This means completing a job and not walking away expecting that another person will finish it.  4.Learn how to express feelings. It is perfectly alright to shed tears. Jesus told others how he felt.  When he was invited to a dinner party and was not given the expected Jewish courtesies, he told Simon the host right to his face. He was honest with women. He wept over the death of Lazarus in the presence of his sisters, Martha and Mary. On the cross, he showed compassion to a thief.5.Real men avoid bad language, despite its wide acceptance in the culture. Cursing, swearing, and vulgarities coarsen the culture. And, in the name of First Amendment-rights, the rest of us in the public square must put up with verbal pollution.   Good FathersA blueprint for being a good father does not exist, but good fathers are authority-figures with action-oriented hero-status. They lead, defend, and protect. Good fathers come in all different shapes, sizes, and personalities. Tim Russert’s father worked for the sanitation department a fact about which he wrote in Big Russ. In the “Cosby Show,” the family-friendly sitcom of the 1990's, the Huxtable family portrayed Cliff, a respected obstetrician, played by Bill Cosby, who was as near a perfect father as one could imagine. Who can forget the loving threat he gave to his son Theo for a misdemeanor: “I brought you into this world, and I can take you out of this world!”My cousin Peter began his architectural career teaching drafting, mechanical drawing, and industrial and architectural design at a boys’ technical high school. He became such a role model for them, especially those with no resident fathers, that he was appointed as the school’s principal. He encouraged the boys, expecting them to rise to their God-given talents. He taught them responsibility and held them accountable. In turn, they respected, and yes, loved him. Last year, “60 Minutes” featured a heart-warming story of an up-scale family of five that lost almost everything when their well-educated father lost his position. The three pre-teen children and the parents joined the homeless population. Invitations came offering to take one or other of the children. This would mean splitting up the family while the two parents sought to stabilize their financial situation.  The father refused, and his wife wholeheartedly agreed. He was committed to keep the family in tact. The situation went from bad to worse. The children continued to go to school but had no permanent living address. They ate breakfast and lunch at school. This was their status at the end of the first interview by “60 Minutes.” Months later, “60 Minutes” returned to the story. The situation had somewhat improved. The father was delivering pizza. The family now had a place to live. Through it all, the father protected his family and kept it in tact. The family that stays together through bad times is more likely to stay together in the good.Sacred ScripturesThe Book of Proverbs offers much good advice to fathers. In reality, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32.) is about a mothering father. What did the Father mean to Jesus? This is the overriding and prevailing question in the Gospel of St. John.

Tim Russert: a model for broadcast journalists

Jun 13, 2012 / 00:00 am

In this presidential year, intemperate voices of broadcast journalists recall the moderate tone of Tim Russert who died suddenly four years ago on June 13th, the feast of St. Anthony of Padua. His death stunned the world of journalism, politics, and beyond; his life was celebrated by those who knew him well and by those who admired him from afar.  President Bush described Tim Russert as “an institution in both news and politics for more than two decades.” Al Hunt, a close friend and colleague, noted that “he absolutely set the standard for moving from politics to journalism. He proved it could be done ... with extraordinary skill and integrity.”  The Washington Post reported: “Seldom has there been a more public demonstration of the oneness of those reported on with those doing the reporting. Government, money, status, power, and media appeared indissolubly united on the nation’s TV screens.” He is the gold standard of contemporary journalism. At the Mass of the Resurrection, Cardinal McCarrick called him “one of the great communicators in American society.” The liturgy resembled a state funeral.The Russert Work Ethic Between the years 1991-2008, Tim Russert rose to prominence as television’s pre-eminent journalist. He had already sharpened his political skills working for Senator Patrick Moynihan and Governor Mario Cuomo but had no experience whatsoever in television. Nevertheless, with the full confidence of NBC officials, he stepped into the limelight hosting the Sunday morning program Meet the Press, later known as Meet the Press with Tim Russert and a Saturday evening program of conversations with notables of various professions. What was the secret of his success? Why was he admired by so many public officials? There are a few reasons:1.The Russert Preparation. As moderator of Meet the Press, Mr. Russert prepared so well that he could argue a complex political issue from all sides. He read as much as possible about the positions of his guests and then argued the opposite side. The ease with which he spoke on camera belied his dogged preparation.  2.Meet the Press’s Mission. Mr. Russert’s goal was to elicit information. If a guest dodged a question, he returned to it later in the interview and posed it in a different way. Prior to facing him on Sunday mornings, his guests needed to hone their own positions. Failure to do so resulted in embarrassment on national television. He applied tough questions to all political figures regardless of party affiliation. Republicans and Democrats greatly respected him, but both feared his probing questions. 3.The Russert Style. It is said that he had better political insight than many others more experienced in the business because he made the most complex political issues understandable and compelling. He delivered the information in simple, clear sentences, simple enough for his aging father to understand. The New York Times’ obituary observed that Mr. Russert “leavened his prosecutorial style with exuberance for politics–and politicians, on both sides of the aisle.” He so loved what he did that during the 2008 presidential year, he quipped to Al Hunt and Tom Brokaw, “Can you image that they pay us for doing this!” Mr. Russert’s joviality permeated his interviews but never became part of the interview, claiming that his views did not matter. His guests took center stage. He posed the questions and allowed each guest a full and uninterrupted answer. Listening intently, he responded until the topic was treated as fully as possible within time constraints. He had no control over the answers given, and they were often discussed in the media the following day. 4.Respect for His Guests. Though he was a tough inquisitor, Mr. Russert treated each guest with respect. If they erred, he responded: “Let’s look at what you said.”  But he already knew their positions, and they knew that he knew. There was no skewering of guests with mean-spirited ‘gotcha’ questions, no questions that could be considered sarcastic, accusatory or insulting.  Mr. Russert’s Catholic Faith By nature, Mr. Russert was a gregarious person. In South Buffalo, NY, his values were born from his Irish Catholic parents, extended family, and further developed by the Sisters of Mercy and the Society of Jesus. The verse, ‘to whom much is given, much is expected’ became an integral part of his work ethic.In his early years at NBC, Mr. Russert was instrumental in arranging an appearance by Pope John Paul II on the “Today” program as he broadcast it from Rome. So seriously did he take his faith that he publicly decried the scandal brought about by clergy.   His colleagues too were affected by him. During the week following his death when NBC and its affiliates were paying tribute to his life, Howard Fineman, a close colleague mused that if he were ever to think of converting to the Catholic faith, he would want to be like Tim Russert, whose favorite prayer was St. Francis of Assisi’s, “Lord, Make Me a Channel of Your Peace.”   I wrote to Mr. Russert a few times a year, and his handwritten responses came with jovial quips. I sent him a miniature classic, The Art of Worldly Wisdom, written by the seventeenth-century Spanish Jesuit Balthasar Gracián. A book for laymen, it contains three hundred maxims replete with words of wisdom. In his thank-you note, Mr. Russert said he read a maxim a day for inspiration. Summing Up His LifeIf St. Francis de Sales is the patron saint of journalists and writers, then Mr. Russert stands beside the Bishop of Annecy as a model of broadcast journalists. Spending his life in the service of others, building a better world, this was his vocation. He lived his faith in front of public scrutiny. How would he respond or react to today’s broadcast journalism? In the four years since his death, it has become more sharply divided by ideology.Among Balthasar Gracián’s maxims, three in particular seem appropriate on this fourth anniversary of his death: 1.“Even knowledge has to be in the fashion, and where it is not, it is wise to affect ignorance.”2.“A bad manner spoils everything, even reason and justice; a good one supplies everything, gilds a No, sweetens a truth, and adds a touch of beauty to old age itself.”3.“Fortunate people often have very favorable beginnings and very tragic endings. What matters isn’t being applauded when you arrive–for that is common–but being missed when you leave.” 

Dear Diary

Jun 6, 2012 / 00:00 am

With the summer months almost upon us, New York City is sure to be swarming with tourists gazing at skyscrapers and getting caught up, if temporarily, in the frenetic pace of living that New Yorkers take for granted.  New Yorkers have been described in various ways.  Nothing fazes them; nothing surprises them.  They roll with the punches. They’re resilient, tough, non-judgmental and tolerant, and yes, sometimes pushy and rude. Their humor is tinged with sass and sarcasm–offbeat and edgy.  They’re slick, sophisticated, practical, alert, creative, quick to size up, and quick to speak.  It’s that New York state of mind.New Yorkers know a good deal about the different faith traditions that enrich the city’s communal character. Though St. Patrick’s Day brings out the Irish by the thousands, everyone is Irish on March 17th.  So it is with other nationalities and traditions. It’s that New York state of mind.It’s the city that never sleeps perhaps because it’s the most caffeinated city in the world.  Here, Starbucks is queen of caffeine.  It’s that New York state of mind.New Yorkers laugh at themselves pointing out the foibles of city life whether in Central Park or anywhere else in town.  Many write to “Dear Diary,” a regular Monday feature in the New York Times to share their experiences.  This week’s essay contains some short entries in “Dear Diary.”  Written by New Yorkers about themselves—and all with good humor and practical wisdom, they give the reader a glimpse into life in the Big Apple.States of EmotionDear Diary,On the bus: Lady enters with very small dog held in bag and stands in front of undersigned and kids.Kids: What’s the dog’s name?Lady: “Zac.”Kids: “As in Zachary?”Lady: “No, as in Prozac.  He’s my Prozac.’  (Roger Bernstein, February 5, 2007)Dear Diary,I was walking on Broadway in the lower 90's.  As I approached the corner of 93rd Street, I became aware of a slightly muffled cacophony of yelling and barking coming from around the corner.As it grew louder, I saw two very small dogs, each clad in a little knitted coat pulling an elderly woman, who was tugging at their leashes as she lurched forward, imploring her charges to slow down.  The pair scampered left and right and communicated their unease in a constant refrain of barks and yips.As she passed me, I could only make out part of a single sentence about the din: “And you,” she yelled, looking squarely at the smaller white-and-black four-pound terror on the left, “have to put that Napoleon complex behind you!”  (Michael Oliver, April 22, 2012)Dear Diary,Sometimes, when threading your way through a New York crowd, you catch a strand of conversation but never see the people conversing.  I caught this gem in the middle of a fast-moving rush-hour stampede toward Pennsylvania Station:Guy 1: “I need to get a bottle of wine.”Guy 2: “Should we get it on our way to therapy?”  (Virginia Still, October 5, 2009)Web of Deception?Dear Diary,One wonders what web of deception lay behind this cell phone conversation, overheard at Prince and Greene Streets in SoHo:“I have to go now–they’re calling my flight.”(No airplanes were observed in the vicinity).  (William Downey, February 5th, 2007)Connecting the DotsDear Diary,As I was ascending the escalator of the 63rd Street subway on my way to work, I overheard quite a funny exchange, but because I am an escalator-climber and my interlocutors were escalator-standers, I caught only a snippet of the conversation.A little girl, probably around 6 years old, exclaimed, “I’m going to get $2,000!”The woman with her, presumably her mother, replied in a calm and practical tone:“My dear, don’t be silly; if the tooth fairy gave everyone $2,000, nobody would have any teeth.” (Jane Farren, April 27, 2012)Dear Diary,My son was to be confirmed at St. Joseph’s Church in the Village. For this sacrament, he was required to choose a person of the Roman Catholic faith to be his sponsor for church membership.As time grew closer to the ceremony, I asked him whom he would like for his sponsor. His little brother had a suggestion: “How about Nike?”  (Mary Ann Orbe, May 1, 2006)Dear Diary,While walking on Atlantic Avenue near Third Avenue in Brooklyn, I came upon two creative street people with a sign that read:“Let’s Do Lunch! You Buy It!!!”   (Carol Kolins April 9, 2007)Knowledge of Other Faith TraditionsDear Diary,One recent afternoon, I was waiting in line at the silver counter at Tiffany.  A woman ahead of me had just purchased a bracelet and was filling out a gift card.  She looked up and asked the salesclerk, “How do you spell ‘bar mitzvah’?”  The salesclerk didn’t hear her.  I intervened.“Bar mitzvah?”  I asked.She smiled and nodded.“Didn’t you buy a bracelet?” I asked.“Why yes, I did,” she answered.“So it’s for a girl?”“That’s correct,” she said.I explained: “Well, bar mitzvah is for a boy.  Bas mitzvah is for a girl.  So you should say, “‘Happy bas mitzvah.’” She thanked me, and then I asked, “Do you know if they are Sephardic or Ashkenasic?”Her face dropped.  “Oh my, I have no idea.  Does it matter?” she asked.I replied: “No, not for the purpose of a gift. But if they are Ashkenasic, it’s bas mitzvah, Sephardic is bat mitzvah.”“So how do I spell it?” she asked.  I told her.  She smiled and said: “I’m visiting from Milwaukee.  Thank you for all this information, it’s so interesting.”  She looked a bit sheepish and said, “I don’t know any of this; I’m a Catholic.”I said: “So am I.”Surprised, she asked, “My goodness, how do you know all this information?”I responded matter-of-factly, “I live here.” (Brian Honan, August 16, 2004)September 11th, 2001I was in mid-town Manhattan on that clear, brisk, fateful, September day.  Within minutes of the explosions, confusion was transformed into organized chaos.  That New York state of mind took control and went into action.  Public transportation in and out of the city halted immediately.  Alert but calm city police and fire fighters and volunteers, wearing blue, red, purple, grey, or orange uniforms or vests to identify their functions, went into harm’s way to save the wounded or directed and re-directed traffic.  They guided the throngs pouring out of office buildings; these in turn clasped the hands of those less able to cope in order to form a living chain.  They led people to the bridges so that they could walk across them away from danger.  Sirens blared as emergency vehicles drove the wounded to hospitals.  The narrative is all too familiar ...On that clear, brisk, fateful September day, the world community, riveted to television sets, witnessed that New York state of mind.

Rublev’s Trinity

May 30, 2012 / 00:00 am

This Sunday, the Church celebrates the feast of the Trinity, the central mystery of Christianity, the mystery of God who is perfect love. The Trinity “is the source of other mysteries of the faith and the light that enlightens them” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 234).

Pentecost and beyond

May 23, 2012 / 00:00 am

 Pentecost Sunday marks the Church’s birthday, and, as members of this Body of Christ,  we too celebrate our ecclesial natal day. On that first Pentecost, the Spirit came to brood over the disciples with the power of wind and the light and warmth of fiery tongues. On that day the Holy Spirit changed the direction of the disciples’ lives. Their folly gave way to wisdom, their fear, to fortitude. 

The brooding Spirit

May 16, 2012 / 00:00 am

Despite the Lord’s post-Resurrection appearances, the disciples remained clueless as to how they should proclaim the good news.  How would they go out and tell the whole world about him when they were being hunted down like criminals?  Enclosed and huddled together in the Upper Room, their fears were well founded.   On their own, they could do nothing.

The Scream

May 9, 2012 / 00:00 am

The eyes and ears of the world were on Sotheby’s New York late in the evening of May 2nd. There at the famous auction house, the 1895 version of Edvard Munch’s painting, “The Scream” was purchased by an unnamed buyer for almost $120 million dollars. It was “The Scream Heard ‘Round the World, quipped the Huffington Post” (Patricia Berman, May 4, 2012).

You are what you eat

May 2, 2012 / 00:00 am

Some years ago, I was teaching Eucharistic theology to a class of college students. A non-Catholic raised her hand with a stunning declaration: “If I believed that the bread and wine were changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, I would want to be nourished on that food every day.”

The Beauty of Jackie Robinson

Apr 25, 2012 / 00:00 am

On April 15th 2009, a new custom was established in baseball. Since then, every day on this date, all uniformed baseball personnel would wear Jackie Robinson’s number 42 in honor of this great ball player and American. 

The beauty of a Vatican spy

Apr 18, 2012 / 00:00 am

A former Vatican spy is now a candidate for canonization. On his return to the U.S. in 1963, after a twenty-three year imprisonment in Russia, Father Walter J. Ciszek, S.J. spent the remainder of his life sharing the fruit of that experience. At the age of eighty, he died on a Marian feast, December 8, 1984 and was immediately heralded by unofficial acclamation, “a saint, soon!” Early YearsIt is hard to imagine a less likely candidate for canonization than Walter Ciszek.  A stocky, rotund, and tough bully who played hooky from school, he picked fights to prove his physical prowess and surpass the boyish pranks of his taller buddies.  His Polish-born parents were ashamed of him. At his wit’s end, Martin Ciszek sent his son to Sts. Cyril and Methodius Seminary, Orchard Lake, Michigan, a strict school run by Polish priests.  There Walter first came in contact with the Society of Jesus when a Jesuit visited the school and spoke to the boys about religious vocations to the priesthood. He applied, was accepted, and without his father’s permission, entered the Society in 1928. His father, though a devout Catholic, was incredulous at such an idea for his wayward son.Off to Russia and to “Failure”In his formation period, Walter volunteered for the Russian mission as a response to Pius XI’s plea for missionaries to serve there.  All his life, he felt that this was a direct call from God which never left him. After his ordination to the priesthood in 1938, he was sent to Albertyn, a Polish village close to the Russian border.  Soon after, he was arrested by the KGB and imprisoned in Perm. He had a new name, Vladimir Lypinski, widower. "With God in Russia" relates the spine-tingling account of his sojourn in Russia, and "He Leadeth Me" attests to God's innovative activity at work within this man who had been given up for dead by his family and fellow Jesuits.  These two books could be the raw material for a spy thriller.  Walter had desired to do great things as a missionary in Russia, but slowly he came to understand that his whole life depended on God and not on himself.  The interrogations began. Conditions were degrading.  Daily sustenance consisted of a chunk of bread and thin soup. The prisoners were stripped of self-dignity. Eventually his true identity was discovered. Later in life, he could easily say: “God leads; I follow and obey,” but not without recalling his younger years:I had always been a scrapper.  I had always wanted to outdo everyone, be the best, be the strongest.  I could take punishment and I could dish it out.  During my early years in religious life, I had even tried to outdo the legends of the saints in the fastings and penances of every sort …  I did it to prove to the world and to myself how tough I was.In Siberian work camps, in utter deprivation, in mental and physical exhaustion, he proved his mettle by sheer will, with the toughness that he knew as a boy. For failure to cooperate with interrogations, he was thrown into solitary confinement in Lubianka, a former hotel turned into a dreaded prison.  Between 1942-46, he kept up a daily schedule of prayer, said Mass without bread and wine, gave himself homilies, scrubbed his six foot by ten foot cell, told himself jokes, and sang songs.  His common sense and good humor kept him sane amidst the dark forces around him. “I loved books," he mused one day, “but when I went to Russia, God took away from me all books except one, the book of life.”  What did Father Ciszek learn from the “book of life?”  Quite simply, he learned the meaning of a living faith and the night of faith that neither sees nor feels but believes with the will alone and which clings to nothing but God.  His endurance was tested in subhuman conditions as well as in those which demanded the most delicate astuteness before KGB examiners. The interrogations were erratic, relentless, frightening, and physically abusive.   He, Walter, began to break down due to the physical and mental strain.  Eventually, he signed the document admitting to being a Vatican spy.  He, Walter, had failed.  God had abandoned him.  It was the blackest and most terrifying moment of his entire experience in Russia:The sense of guilt and shame I felt was rooted in my failure to put grace ahead of nature, my failure to trust primarily in God rather than in my own powers.  I had failed, and I was shaken to my roots. And yet the moment of failure was in itself a great grace, for it taught me a great lesson … God's will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situation in which I found myself; the situations themselves were  his will for me.  What he wanted for me was to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go and place myself entirely at his disposal.  He was asking of me an act of total trust, allowing for no interference or restless striving on my part, no reservations, no exceptions, no areas where I could set conditions or seem to hesitate.  He was asking a complete faith:  faith in God's existence, in his providence, in his concern for the minutest detail, in his power to sustain me, and in his love protecting me.  It meant losing all the last hidden doubt, the ultimate fear that God will not be there to bear you up.  It was something like that awful eternity between anxiety and belief when a child first leans back and lets go of all support whatever only to find that the water truly holds him up and he can float motionless and totally relaxed.  Once understood, it seemed so simple.  I was amazed it had taken me so long in terms of time and of suffering to learn this truth.Walter learned that faith is like walking down a dark alley with a flashlight.  One receives a little light to take a small step forward.  Another light follows, and then another step.  One does not receive the light to see to the end of the dark alley.  The Passion Is the Resurrection  The Paschal mystery was at the core of Father Ciszek's life: “The Passion is the Resurrection,” he declared.  There is no Resurrection without the Passion of Jesus.  The moment you leave the Passion, the Resurrection crumbles. The candle has to burn itself in order to give off its flame.  The flame is the Passion and the Resurrection.  You have to burn yourself in order to give light.Suffering is a threefold grace. The first and most difficult phase is purification, the phase which points up one’s inability to cope with adversity.  This period can be intense; it can evoke rebellion.  Suffering seems to take over one’s consciousness.  One is completely involved in it.  During this phase, lassitude can set in.  A sense of failure can overcome the soul; the suffering can sap it of energy. Seen from the level of faith, the soul is like a precious but rough diamond, which needs to be purified. The diamond cutter must chisel and smooth and rub the diamond in order to show its light, its radiant beauty.  It can never effect this purification by oneself. The soul is called to make itself actively receptive to the Divine Artist who will shape it into a work of art.  For God however, this is the refining process of creating a work of art:  the cutting, the drilling, the penetrating, and the refining of the rough spots. After years of suffering, Father Ciszek admitted: Every failure and licking we experience is not a defeat but an assurance of the truthfulness of our purpose, trusting and confiding in God's power, leading us to our end, in spite of how we feel or fail to how weak and unstable we prove ourselves to be.  Our weakness and instability sway us in all directions to experience the good and the bad we encounter.  This fluctuation can bring us to the point of despair, even to anger at our own helplessness, yet not to the point of sin, though close to it, because in all this interior and mental turmoil and instability and fluctuation, there is something stable and unchanging in us bringing us always to the balance point and center after the swaying and fluctuation cease temporarily.  The second phase of the grace of suffering is enlightenment.  The person begins to see.  God gives the soul consolation and desolation, both of which are God's gifts.  The soul begins to let go of its rebellion and allows God to take over.  Everything possible has been done to remove the suffering.  Though it remains, the soul accepts what cannot be changed.   It prays for energy to turn its attention to those things that make it happy.  This is one’s attempt to deal with passivity in a positive and creative way.  This creativity may be expressed when the needs of the one who suffers are superseded by the attending the needs of others; when in need, sow a seed. One is healed by helping to heal others. The soul moves in and out of light and dark until the light takes over.    The individual cooperates with God's grace, God's dynamic presence.  Finally, the elevation comes. This phase brings with it an increase of faith, deep peace, and deep joy.  All three lead to greater intimacy with the Lord.   The elevation is an experience of the Christ’s resurrection in one’s life and in the lives of others.  Each day brings with it the grace of suffering.Mysticism of Daily LifeThe word mysticism typically conjures up a state of euphoria associated with the New Age Movement. In Eastern religions, it may mean a state of heightened awareness. In Catholic ascetical theology, states of mysticism may engage a person in those intense moments of prayer when words fall silent in the close union between God and the praying person.  It is also true that mystics are practical people who can find God at any moment despite what it portends.  Mystics like Walter Ciszek were in closest touch with reality because they were at one with it.  God shone brightly through this little man, who in turn shone God’s glory outward.  For this, the beauty of his holiness will be acclaimed and celebrated by the entire Church.

Resurrection in music

Apr 11, 2012 / 00:00 am

Of all the fine arts, music is the most powerful to move the human spirit at its core.  

The week that changed the world

Apr 4, 2012 / 00:00 am

Is there a week in the year that rivals the beauty and power of Holy Week? To paraphrase the Haggadah, why is this world-wide celebration different from all other weeks of the year?