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.

The Color Purple

Mar 5, 2014 / 00:00 am

The color purple has a regal history, rich in symbolism. In our own country, the Purple Heart carries significance beyond the present, for it is awarded to those men and women in the Military who have been wounded or killed in battle. Their courage was ‘grace under fire.’ Since the first award given in 1932, almost 2 million service men and women have been honored with the Purple Heart. As Lent begins, the color purple, rich in symbolism, assumes center stage in the Church’s liturgical life. Purple Dye Becomes Royal Purple The color purple was first discovered on walls of caves in prehistoric art dating from between 16,000 and 25,000 B.C. From around 1,500 B.C. in the region of Tyre and Sidon (present-day Lebanon), mollusks and in particular the sea snail, were the source of the dye, named Tyrian purple. The color gave off a deep, rich luster whose sheen was resistant to weather events. Because it was rare, valuable, and costly, the color became the symbol of royalty. Thus, royal purple, as it came to be known, was identified with the wardrobe and furnishings of kings and queens. Just how rare, valuable, and costly was purple dye? It was made from a juice found in minute quantities in shellfish. It took thousands of crustaceans to make the dye for a yard or two of purple cloth. About 10 years ago, it was determined that 12,000 mollusks are needed to make 1.4 ounces of dye, just enough to dye a handkerchief. And it takes 40,000 mollusks to make 1 teaspoon of Tyrian purple-dye, the cost of which is approximately $8,000. When Empresses gave birth in their Purple Chamber, the infant-Emperors born there were “born to the purple” to distinguish them from those rulers who has won or seized power through intrigue or force.  In the official portrait of King George VI (1896-1952), the color purple is prominently featured, as it was in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.  A few weeks ago at the Westminster Dog Show, when the final judge, Betty Regina Leininger entered the arena to greet the dogs and their owners, she stole the show for a few moments. She was wearing a luxurious velvet outfit in deep purple. Royalty, thy name is purple. Like owning a Gucci handbag or wearing a Rolex watch today, donning a purple garment was and still remains a status symbol. Royalty, thy name is purple.The Royal Purple in the Hebrew ScripturesIt should not be surprising to read that royal purple is found throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Moses is told to make the tabernacle with 10 curtains of fine twisted linen and blue, purple, and crimson yarns (Ex 26:1). In Numbers 4:13, a purple cloth was spread over the altar . . . .” In Proverbs 3:22, “the ideal woman makes bed coverings for herself, and her clothing is fine linen and purple.”  King Solomon ordered purple fabrics to decorate the Temple of Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 3:14). Praying the Royal PsalmsThe Royal Psalms present the image of Israel’s king, the image of the ruler chosen and blessed by God. They anticipate the royal lineage of Jesus from the House of David. Some of these Royal Psalms are:  Psalms 2, 20, 21, 45, 72, 144. In his book, Praying the Psalms, the Protestant Old Testament scholar, Walter Bruggermann places before the Christian a twofold approach in praying the psalms: What does the psalm say in itself? And, what does the individual Christian bring to the psalms out of one’s lived experience? How does the Christian respond to what a psalm says in itself?The Royal Purple in the New TestamentThe royal purple was worn by prominent figures mentioned in the Gospels. One such person is the rich man Lazarus “who used to dress in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” (Lk 16-19). St. Paul praises the devout woman, Lydia, a Gentile and a rich merchant, who engaged in the purple-dye trade and was sold purple-dye, purple cloth, and purple robes. She came from Thyatira, a town well-known for making purple cloth. The Church considers her the patron saint of fine fabrics (Acts 16:14-15). The Royal Purple MockedAll these preliminary anecdotes lead up to the Gospel events of Jesus standing trial. He was being ridiculed by the Roman leaders. Herod has Jesus stripped and dressed up in a purple cloak with thorns twisted into a crown and placed on his head. The imperial robe was Herod’s jibe at Jesus’ royal claim (Mt 27:29; Mk 15:17; Jn 19:1-2). Jesus, the Lord of All, was ridiculed as another one of those kings of the Jews. In Jesus’ case, the purple was a metaphor for royalty: Here the King of kings would be made to suffer. The royal purple and redemptive love went hand in hand. Lent: a Time to Wear the Royal PurpleLent summons the disciples of Jesus to don the color purple and walk with him along the royal road to the Cross. Why call it the royal road when on the natural plane, suffering bears little resemblance to royalty. It must be avoided, or masochism is near. Of itself, the cross wears us down, does violence to the person, as it did for Jesus.  But when love accompanies suffering, the burden is lighter. The dark road is transformed into a light whose path leads to resurrection. The suffering Christ is always near to our brothers and sisters who suffer simply because of their faith. On Good Friday, the most solemn day of the liturgical year, a hushed Christian world ponders Christ’s death expressed in many texts, one of which proclaims: “Behold the wood of the cross on which hung the salvation of the world. Come, let us adore.” As the verse is chanted three times, this cross, shrouded in purple, is then uncovered for all to see and venerate.Human logic recoils at this proclamation. Yet, despite setbacks and in the face of despair, it gives us hope, a Christian hope that is possible only in the light of redemptive love. For Jesus suffers with us. The great Spanish mystic theologian and poet, St. John of the Cross (d 1591), couches the mystery of the redemption in the language of love, beauty, and life:“Now that the time had comewhen it would be good  to ransom the brideserving under the hard yokeof that lawwhich Moses had given her,the Father, with tender love,spoke in this way:‘Now you see, Son, that your bridewas made in your image,and so far as she is like youshe will suit you well;yet she is different, in her flesh,which your simple being does not have.’In perfect lovethis law holds:that the lover becomelike the one he loves; for the greater their likenessthe greater their delight.Surely your bride’s delight would greatly increasewere she to see you like her,in her own flesh.‘My will is yours,’the Son replied,“and my glory is that you will be mine.I will go and tell the world,spreading the wordof your beauty and sweetnessand of your sovereigntyI will go and seek my BrideAnd take upon MyselfHer weariness and laborsIn which she suffers so;And that she may have lifeI will die for her,And, lifting her out of that deep,I will restore her to You.’” (St. John of the Cross, “Romanza #7, The Incarnation, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, revised edition, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, 66-7.)The royal purple that Christ wore led to the cross, and the cross, to redemptive healing and resurrection glory. To be a faithful Catholic is to don the purple robe, wear ‘the purple heart,’ and trek along the royal road to Calvary and to resurrection glory. 

And the Oscar Goes to . . . .

Feb 26, 2014 / 00:00 am

Oscar mania is in the air.  TCM has been showcasing the “The 31 Days of Oscar” featuring those films which, in the past eighty-five years, have merited Hollywood acclaim.Power of Social Media  Today the motion picture, television, and the Internet are the most powerful of all social media, powerful for influencing masses of people at any one given moment.  They have become the chief means of entertainment after the day’s work.  Quick and attractive ways of delivering experiential knowledge, they reach all continents and draw in the viewer both consciously and subconsciously.  With a decline in reading, there are fewer consumers of fine literature, biographies, popular books, newspapers and magazines.  Radio focuses on breaking news, religious topics, politics, foreign languages, and last but not least, classical music.  But it is the visual media that claim the attention.  On weekends, young adults worship in the temple of the movie theater rather than in churches.  Social media can have a good or bad moral effect on its consumers.  They can inform, entertain, and elevate the mind and affections.  Or, they can debase by presenting immoral or objectionable material painting the human person as un-graced. The motion picture is popular entertainment and considers itself an expression of art.  Over the years, it has molded customs, promoted culture, and has exported propaganda.  It can be an educational aid.  Compared to opera or the theater, the motion picture remains relatively inexpensive, escapist entertainment. The Church and the Motion PictureThe Church is always solicitous about the well-being of the human person, the family, and the culture; cinema deals with the human condition.  Thus, the first observation by the Church is a positive one: acknowledging the gift of the cinema for society.  The question follows: What is the relationship between the rights of the artistic world and the norms of morality?From the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878-1903) to the present day, the Church has shown a keen interest in motion pictures. In 1896 when cinematography was still young, it was brought to the Vatican by the Lumières’ Italian agents to photograph the elderly Leo XIII.  The first actual showing of motion picture in the Vatican took place in 1913 during the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14) with a documentary on the reconstructed bell tower of the Piazza San Marco in Venice.  From the pontificate of Pius X (1903-14) to Vatican II (1961-63), at least 130 documents have been issued by the Holy See on the motion picture and other media of social communication. Statements from bishops number more than 1,000. Since the papacy of Pius XI (1914-39), the Church has pressed more insistently on the motion picture industry to espouse moral standards in the realm of natural ethics and revealed morality. Two Codes Are Born: the Production Code and the Legion of Decency From the 1920s to the 1970s, the Catholic Church exercised enormous influence over the quality of motion pictures.By the 1920s, the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI) pursued a code of self-censoring. In 1929, Martin Quigley, a prominent Catholic, and Father Daniel A. Lord, S.J., Jesuit editor of “The Queen’s Work,” created a code of standards which was divided into two parts: “general principles” about morality and “particular applications,” an exacting list of “don’ts” and “be carefuls” regarding films.  The captions dealt with sex (“The sanctity of the institution of marriage and the home shall be upheld.  Pictures shall not infer that low forms of sex relationship are the accepted or common thing.”), treatment of crimes against the law, vulgarity, obscenity, profanity, costume, dance, repellent subjects requiring good taste, and religion (“No film or episode may throw ridicule on any religious faith.”)The Productions Code asserted that film, as an art form, can be helpful or harmful to the human race; hence, its moral importance and obligations to the public. It also noted that art forms appeal primarily to the mature audience.The Productions Code was clearly Catholic in sensibility.  It was being presented to a largely Jewish group of Hollywood producers and directors, for a predominantly Protestant America.  In 1930, enforcing the Code fell to the individual studios. The NAMPI worked within the constraints of the Productions Code until the late 1950s when home entertainment, i.e., television, offered stiff competition to Hollywood and the Code.  Moreover, the foreign film began to compete with American films.  By the late 1960s, enforcing the Productions Code became impossible and was abandoned entirely. Around the same time, in the 1930s, the Catholic-sponsored National Legion of Decency was formed to combat those films which the Church deemed immoral.  Spearheaded by the American hierarchy and advanced by Daniel A. Lord, S.J, the Legion of Decency boycotted brazen indecency in films. The American Church became a powerful protest group, Hollywood’s bête noire. Other faith-traditions joined in a concerted protest against morally objectionable movies and those theaters that showed these films.  The “Pledge,” as it was known, succeeded in giving notice to Hollywood that religious groups were closely monitoring the moral quality of its output. The Church’s guidance had a marked effect in discouraging Hollywood from making movies that would earn the disapproval of the Legion of Decency, for obvious reasons.  In many cases, film directors cut several minutes of a movie to win the approval of the Legion, or to avoid earning its disapproval.  The pledge reads in part:  “I condemn all indecent and immoral motion pictures and those which glorify crime or criminals.  I promise to do all that I can to strengthen public opinion against the production of indecent and immoral films . . . .  I acknowledge my obligation to form a right conscience about pictures that are dangerous to my moral life.  I pledge myself to remain away from them . . . and to stay away altogether from places of amusement which show them as a matter of policy.”  The American bishops requested that the Pledge of the Legion of Decency be taken by the faithful each year on the feast of the Immaculate Conception, December 8th. The Church and the Post-Vatican II Attitude toward the Motion PictureWith the advent of Vatican II and the Church’s decision to note the positive rather the negative aspects of the media, two documents were issued, Inter mirifica (1963) and Communio et progressio (1971) were issued.  Both acknowledge the gift that social media offer for the advancing the culture with little said about their ill-effects even as Hollywood took license with sex and violence. The Legion of Decency was replaced by a new rating system.  The following schema provides the current ratings of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) together with those of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which gives a more lenient evaluation. The Catholic News Service, an arm of the USCCB, provides the movie reviews.The USCCB and MPAA Ratings1.    USCCB  A-I       General Patronage           MPAA  G            General Audiences, all ages admitted  2.    USCCB  A-II       Adults and adolescence         MPAA  PG           Parental guidance suggested; some material may not be suitable for children3.    USCCB  A-III      Adults            MPAA  PG-13      Parents are strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 134.    USCCB  A-IV      Adults, with reservations. While not morally offensive in themselves, these films are not for casual viewing because they require some analysis and explanation in order to avoid false impression and interpretations.       MPAA  R             Restricted, under 17 requires accompanying adult5.    USCCB L            Limited adult audiences; replaced A-1V6.    USCCB  O           Morally offensive       MPAA  NC-17     No one 17 and under admitted (age limit may vary in certain areas)7.    MPAA  NR          Not rated.The rating system of the USCCB avoids the harsh category of “Condemned” (C).  Instead, it moderates its critique with the rating, “Objectionable” (O).  It is entirely up to the individual and the family whether or not to follow the guide.  The elimination of the strict but effective code of the Legion of Decency marked the split between the Church and the motion picture industry.  Thus, the Church’s influence on the industry has been diminished, and the industry, extricated from overt meddling by the Church.  Pope Paul VI lamented that “the split between the Gospel and culture is undoubtedly the tragedy of our time.”  John Paul II agrees: “And the field of communication fully confirms this judgment.”   Motions Pictures Nominated for Oscars in 2014This year, several films have been nominated for Oscar awards: “12 Years a Slave,”  (L) “American Hustle,” (O), “August Osage County,” (O), “Blue Jasmine,” (L), “Captain Phillips,” (A-III), “Dallas Buyers Club,” (O), “Gravity,” (A-III), “Her,” (L), “Nebraska,” (L), “Philomena,” (L), “Robocop,” (A-III), “Winter’s Tale,” (A-III), “The Wolf of Wall Street,” (O).Of the acclaimed films, not one has received a G, A-I, or A-II rating.  Four have received an O rating and five an L rating.  Readers of this column, who are interested in the reasons for these ratings, may consult An alternate website to consult is a subset of Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization that supports socially conservative policies:  On both these links, one can find information about sexual content, the presence of violence, gratuitous profanity and blasphemy, spiritual content, objectionable ideologies such as hostility toward a religion, and overall artistic value. Kinds of FilmsThere are many genres of films: instructional and documentary films, action and suspense films, biblical films, films dealing with history, literature, biographies, comedy, and dramas depicting evil and how it is treated by the writers and directors.The Ideal FilmIdeal films have beauty, integrity, and goodness of form. Woven within their fabric are values that respect, rather than debase, the human person.  Through plots and characters, they uplift and refresh. To this end, they inspire self-discipline, compassion, responsibility, friendship, courage, perseverance, honesty, loyalty and yes, faith.  In the long run, the motion picture should convey the truth that men and women are sinners but redeemed sinners—good at heart.  God’s grace is at work always and everywhere, available for the asking.  And God’s grace bears another name:  Providence at work in history.  The world has meaning with a destiny beyond the present. The divine is in present, and the temporal points to the transcendent. In a nihilistic world, the present and the future have no meaning.  Nihilism is an ideology in which life has no meaning. The present is all we have, and this too has no meaning.  Suffering has no meaning. Life is absurd because we are condemned to be free.  Some Ideal Films: Non-Religious, Religious, Christian, and Catholic   Of the hundreds acclaimed motion pictures, several deserve mention: “Adam’s Rib,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “All about Eve” “Around the World in Eighty Days,” “The Assisi Underground,” “Auntie Mame,” “Au Revoir, Les Enfants,” “Babette’s Feast,” “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” ”Ben-Hur,” “Blossoms in the Dust,” “Boys’ Town,” “Casablanca,” “Chariots of Fire,” “Dead Men Walking,” “The Exodus,” “Forest Gump,”  “The Four Feathers,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Gandhi,” “Going My Way,”  “Goodbye, Mr. Chips,”  “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” “Holiday Inn,” “In the Good Old Summertime,” “It Happened One Night,” It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Ivanhoe,”  “Life with Father,” “The Keys of the Kingdom,”  “Les Misérables,”  “A Man for All Seasons,” “The House on Ninety-Second Street,” “Lincoln,” “The Little Shop around the Corner,” “Madame Curie,” “The Mission,”  “The Miracle Worker,” “My Fair Lady,” “National Velvet,” “North by Northwest,” “Notorious,” “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” “Pride and Prejudice,” “Pride of the Yankees,” “Random Harvest,” “The Scarlet and the Black,” “The  Shoes of the Fisherman,” “The Sound of Music,” “Spellbound,” “The Scarlet Pimpernel,” “Singin’ in the Rain,” “Top Hat,” “The Trouble with Angels,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy” “1776,” “Watch on the Rhine.”The Catholic FilmA film need not be explicitly Catholic to be considered a Catholic film. In fact, those poorly-made films containing bad theology, bloated with sentimentality, make them odious to Hollywood and to an agnostic public. Barbara Nicolosi, a practicing and influential Catholic and founder of Act One, has noted more than once, that Hollywood isn’t anti-Christian as much as it is anti-bad art.  And, there have been too many religious films worthy of being tagged bad art.In addition to beauty, truth, and goodness of form, a Catholic motion picture is inspired by faith.  It has imbedded within its fabric principles that are specifically Catholic. One is the ironic juxtaposition of joy and sorrow.  Good Friday, though the saddest day in history, leads to the most glorious Resurrection.  Suffering does not have the last word.  Catholic films proclaim that all life is sacred.  Men and women are created in the image of God and are called to become “works of art.”  Life on earth does not belong to us but to God. Thirdly, the sacraments or sacramentals are often part of a film.  Motion pictures are replete with scenes that depict the celebration of the sacraments.  Finally, the Catholic sensibility is one of inclusiveness, the doctrine of the Church as the Body of Christ.  We all love a good story.  We love harmonious endings, one that has meaning.  As with the parables—all good stories, I am drawn in to the characters and want to imitate them.   “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s” Hollywood acclaimed two explicitly Catholic films, “Going My Way” and “The Bells of St. Mary’s,” made in 1944 and 1945. They were heart-warming stories, directed by Leo McCarey, with superb actors.  One portrayed differences between an ‘old school’ priest, Father Fitzgibbon and a younger, progressive priest, Father O’Malley (Barry Fitzgerald and Bing Crosby, respectively). Father Chuck is sent to the parish to stabilize the parish’s finances.  The other film portrays a good-natured rivalry between the same Father Chuck O’Malley, a priest newly-assigned to St. Mary’s and the principal and Superior of the school, Sr. Benedict (Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman, respectively).  “Going My Way” was nominated ten times and won seven Oscars.  It grossed $6.5 million in profits.  According to The New York Times, this was Bing Crosby’s finest film:  “It says a lot for a performer who has been one of the steadfast joys of the screen.” After World War II, McCarey and Crosby went to the Vatican and presented a copy of the film to Pope Pius XII.“The Bells of St. Mary’s” was released in December 1945 just in time for Christmas, earning eight nominations.  Everyone agreed that Ingrid Bergman deserved an Oscar for her portrayal of Sister Benedict, but she had won an Oscar the previous year for best actress in “Gaslight.” Hollywood thought it awkward to award her an Oscar two years in a row. The film grossed almost $4 million in profits.As Hollywood recalls these two universally-beloved films, one wonders if, with the passing years, we haven’t lost something of their sensibility.Papal Treatment of the Motion Picture    Readers interested in papal documents on the motion picture or on the media in general may consult Pius XII’s apostolic exhortations (1955) and the encyclical letter, Miranda prorsus (1957).  Taken together, these documents are a treatise on motion-picture morality “that finds few equals even in secular writings for richness of content with insight that is psychological, aesthetic, and sociological” (F. Baragli, “The Motion Picture,” The New Catholic Encyclopedia: 9:553-56). Pius XII provided the Church with its most systematic and complete teaching on the motion picture.  His two documents, with their doctrinal richness and precision, made possible the document, Inter mirifica, of Vatican II, and those that have followed in the succeeding years, most of which stress cooperation between the media and the Church.     In his encyclical, Redemptoris missio (1990) and again in 2005, John Paul II and re-emphasizes the words of Pius XII while adding that it is also necessary to integrate that message into the “new culture” created by modern communications, a complex issue” because the “new culture” originates not just from whatever content is eventually expressed but from the very fact that there exist new ways of communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology.” “The problem of art and morals is usually stated in terms such as the following: If a genuine work of art is truly beautiful and attains perfection in its own order, how can it be considered immoral? Or, conversely, if a work of art is immoral, how can it be considered beautiful, and consequently, how can it be perfect in its own order?”  This twofold question is raised by Thomas Merton in his piece, “Art and Morality,” (The New Catholic Encyclopedia 1: 864-67.)  The question continues to be thought-provoking.   (To be continued)

'The winter of our discontent'

Feb 19, 2014 / 00:00 am

For most of the country, it’s been cold enough, icy, snowy, and dry enough to give a literal meaning to Shakespeare’s metaphor, “Now is the winter of our discontent,” from “Richard III.” Judging from the reportage on radio, television, and the Internet, the weather is not just one of many news stories.  It’s the only news story that has overshadowed virtually all others.  Extremes of weather patterns, whether of drought in the western part of the country, or of sub-zero temperatures in the Midwest, or of snow in the South, East, and the Midwest – all have disrupted daily schedules, both personal and officially. Mother Nature’s harsh designs have stretched our patience, but they have also brought out the best in human nature.  Public officials at all levels, reporters and camera men have helped us cope with the severe weather.Humor HelpsWhen it is impossible to change the unchangeable, laughing at the incongruous can help restore our perspective on life. The following anecdotes from the “Dear Diary” section of the New York Times are intended to do just that. 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.). . . . .Dear Diary,Working at the information desk of the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, we received requests for information not only about the aircraft carrier and other exhibitions in the museum complex but also about the city itself.One day a young couple approached and asked me how to get to Greenwich Village.  Using both subway and bus maps, I gave detailed instruction, adding that not only was the Village a charming place for an evening walk, but that it also had a wide variety of wonderful, inexpensive restaurants.They listened attentively and then asked if there was anything else they should see while they were downtown.I asked if they had been to Chinatown, and they said that they had not.  Again using the maps, I encouraged them to go, again assuring them that they would love the sights and the abundance of excellent and inexpensive Chinese food.They thanked me, and as they turned to go, I asked, “So where are you from?”Their response: “Staten Island.”  (Marjorie Miller). . . . .Dear Diary,Upon entering the Brice Marden exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, I was taken aback by the rectangular canvases painted separately in hues of battleship gray, mud, and olive green.  I walked over to the security guard and asked his impression of the art.  He replied, “I don’t look at the art.  I look at the expressions on the faces of the people.  Most of them look as though they have been dropped into a Home Depot.”  (Susan Birnbryer Madon). . . . .Dear 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. 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). . . . .Dear Diary,I am a lyricist. My husband is a writer.  And we’re both big musical theater fans.  So you can imagine our surprise and delight when we overheard the following at our Seder table some years back when we lived in New York, about 30 minutes from Broadway:Neighbor’s son: (seeing the empty chair and extra glass of wine): “Who are those for?”Nick, my 8-year old (proudly): “Don’t you know?  It’s for Elijah Doolittle.”  (Susan Di Lallo). . . . . Dear Diary,On a trip to the post office in early December, I asked the clerk, a young Asian woman with a fairly heavy accent, what she had other than holiday stamps. She replied that she had flags, John Wayne, and Mozart.Surprised but delighted, I asked for two sheets of Mozart and paid my bill.  She slipped the stamps into an envelope and slid them to my side of the window.On my way out, I decided to see if I could discern why the United States Postal Service had decided to honor the Austrian composer with a stamp.A peek in the envelope revealed that I had purchased two sheets of stamps dedicated to Moss Hart. (Susan Moors). . . . .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). . . . .Dear Diary,There I was on the subway and diagonally across the car was one of those women who needed to be examined.Clearly well into her 70s, may 80s, but fighting it tenaciously if not graciously with a screamingly conspicuous jet-black wig restrained from complete disorder by an almost iridescent blue headband.  Her face was gray as her real hair must be, drawn in grooves of gravity and gravitas, eyes dulled to nondescript, and when she cracked a small smile to the blind (really) person next to her, her teeth bore witness to a long acquaintance with Liggett & Myers.A casual hint of makeup just didn’t deny the sadness of her futile fight with time.  I was wondering how some of us somehow keep our balance while others stumble down the slope of eventuality.And just as I was wondering this, she looked up, caught my eye and, with a gesture, offered me her seat. The real beauty is within.  (James Matthews)Finally, Two Poems . . .When we cannot change the unchangeable, savoring poetry can lift up the human spirit. “Roses in Winter”Winter roses waitUnder white shroud of snowfallFor resurrection.  (Mr. or Ms. Fox). . . . .“Weather” Whether the weather be fineOr whether the weather be not,Or whether the weather be hot,We’ll weather the weatherWhatever the weather,Whether we like it or not.  (Anonymous)

The Olympic Games

Feb 12, 2014 / 00:00 am

You may be surprised to read that the Olympiads began in the Far East dating from 776 BC.  The game of organized sports is credited to Buddhist monks in China. Jujitsu, boxing, and wrestling developed with them. Ball games, jumping, acrobatics, weight lifting, hoop rolling, and bull fighting were cultivated in Persia and India, throughout Asia Minor, Greece, Egypt, and Rome. The Games Move WestGreek schools incorporated physical training in a systematic way, and the veneration of athletes appears in sculptures as well as in decoration of vases, coins, and gems. Their main purpose was to show the physical prowess of youth, but the first Olympiads were closely linked to the cult of the Greek god Zeus. Thus the Olympic Games owe their purity and high moral aspirations to ancient religions. From first to last, the Olympic Games celebrate character in action.  In large measure, this means self-denial with a disciplined will that refuses to quit.  Such idealism urges that the Olympic Games be played with honesty, grace, and intensity. Cheating in its various forms contradicts the high moral tone that summons us to them. Each year, the Olympic community remembers in prayer the eleven Israelis who were murdered in the 1972 Munich Massacre.Pierre de Coubertin, Father of the Modern Olympic GamesPierre de Coubertin professed his philosophy of the competition with these words: “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”  Born in 1863 in Normandy, France, Pierre de Coubertin received a classical education at the Jesuit College of St. Ignatius in Paris and went on to study law.  He reserved his passion however for education.  After having visited England to compare the British and French educational systems, he embarked on his life’s vocation, that of reforming education through sports. Beginning in 1890, de Courbertin was wholly engaged in restoring the high standards that had marked the Olympics of Ancient Greece. After the first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896, he assumed the role of President and held this post until 1925 when he became Honorary President for life. He died in 1937.Pierre de Coubertin Seeks Help from Pope Pius XIn 1905, de Courbertin told “The New York Tribune” that he sought and received financial support from Pius X for the Olympic Games.  The pontiff said that the Church throughout the world ought to take eager interest in athletic culture and help in promoting physical progress among boys and girls of the rising generation. He opined that healthful open-air sport was the surest means of compensating for the ever-increasing strenuous mental work required of all who take an intelligent share in the everyday task of contemporary civilization (“The Dawn Patrol”, July 27, 2012).At the time, Pius X saw international sports as a way to approach young people and to bring them together while following certain rules and showing respect for adversaries . . . that it was possible to bring people together without any problems of race, religion, or differing political ideas. Saints Clement of Alexandria and Thomas Aquinas on Physical FitnessThe Early Fathers linked physical and spiritual fitness to keep healthy and become holy, a twofold ideal. St. Clement of Alexandria (d 215) also taught that physical exercise is effective in maintaining a pleasing physical appearance, but of the two, the spiritual fitness takes priority. This view was strongly held by St. Thomas Aquinas (d 1274) who said that exercise increases the blood supply into the brain, and this oxygen in the brain helps people to think more clearly and more deeply.The Gospel through KayakingJohn Paul II, who was a fine athlete even into his papacy, never ceased to remind the faithful, and particularly our youth, that the human body has a specific meaning and role to play in God’s creative plan (Theology of the Body 1-129, 1982-84). In his biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, George Weigel writes that as a young priest, Father Karol “took single and married couple hiking, skiing, and kayaking. As a veteran hiker from his youth in Wadowice, the future pontiff was thoroughly at home in nature. And so he created the pastoral method of accompanying his young friends to Poland’s mountains and lakes.” Weigel continues: “The annual kayak trips were a vacation plus, and they were always the occasion for conversation or for spiritual direction. Mass was celebrated using an overturned kayak as an altar, with two paddles tied together to form the altar cross. He made it a point to take a meal with a different family every day of the vacation, working his way around the entire group. Soccer games were organized between the married team and the youth team. Wujek, his nickname, “played for whichever team was shorthanded. Around the campfire in the evening, the adults would discuss significant books or church documents.”“The future pontiff’s essential point was that the priest’s duty to help make God present in the world was not satisfied by his daily celebration of Mass. In addition, “the duty of a priest is to live with people, everywhere they are, to be with them in everything but sin. That was the context for looking at vacations as a pastoral opportunity. Daily Mass took on a special texture on a vacation trek: nature, not only human art, participates in the sacrifice of the Son of God. At Mass, a thought for the day could be proposed and reflected on during evening prayer.”“An excursion had to be a well-prepared improvisation in which the priest was ready and willing to talk about everything: “about movies, about books, about one’s own work, about scientific research, and about jazz bands. Was this kind of pastoral work, built around vacations with young men and women, a compromise of the priesthood?” This form of ministry had to be discerned by the individual priest, but it was certainly a way of leading others to Christ. The excursions helped the young people look at their problems from a different look at all things in the spirit of the Gospel” (103ff). These excursions created the sense of a Christian community. Symbolism of the Five Rings The Olympic symbol, the five intertwined rings, represents the unity of the five continents. The rings of blue, yellow, black, green and red over a white field form the Olympic flag. The Games always begin with the raising of the flag and majestic displays of music, singing, dance, and theater representative of the host nation. With their closing, three national flags are hoisted with the corresponding national anthems of the flag: that of Greece to honor the birthplace of the Olympiads, the flag of the current country, and the flag of the country hosting the next summer or winter games. The next host nation briefly introduces itself with artistic displays representative of its culture. Regardless of activity, regardless of sport, all activity is intended to give God our praise and glory.

Lombardi’s Trophy

Feb 5, 2014 / 00:00 am

Last week, the Super Bowl; tomorrow, the Winter Olympics.  Last week, the Lombardi Trophy; soon the Gold.  Always, running the race.The Trophy Is Conceived at Fordham UniversityIn his biography, When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss details Vince Lombardi’s family life to his football days.  Raised in a devout, Catholic Italian family, Lombardi drew his strength on the field from attending daily Mass, a practice begun in his youth. At Fordham University in the 1930's, Lombardi found his lodestar in the teaching of Fr. Ignatius Wiley Cox, S.J.“Cox was not just another Jesuit,” writes Maraniss, “but the most renowned teacher at Fordham and an important figure in American Catholic thought. He embodied a philosophy whose every point was meticulously and clearly explained.” In class, Cox would call on the future coach, “Is that clear to you, Mr. Lombardi?” Cox pressed: “As clear as a mountain lake in springtime?” (64)  For Cox, the Ignatian Exercises formed the core of his teaching.  For Lombardi, the Ignatian Exercises would form his philosophy of football.    Cox on CharacterFr. Cox’s, students learned the meaning of character:  Character integrates habits of conduct with temperament.  Character is the will exercised on disposition, through emotion and action.It is a person’s obligation to use his/her will to elicit right and good free actions and refrain from wrong and evil actions.  While men and women are blessed with intellect and free will, they are ennobled only when they sublimate individual desires to join others in the pursuit of the common good. “The modern world is turning away from this notion,” lamented Cox.  “Liberty, which is to make us free, has resulted in a more galling servitude to man’s lower nature.” The Exercises Brought to FootballVince Lombardi shaped the Ignatian Exercises for football. The coach does not just tell the players what is so. He repeats and repeats until the team is convinced that it knows the challenge at hand. Repetition instills confidence and passion.  It is said that “the difference in men is energy, in the strong will, in the settled purpose and in invincible determination,” but in contrast, “the Lombardi leadership lies in sacrifice, in humility and in the perfectly disciplined will—the formation of character. This, gentlemen,” he would orate, “is the distinction between great and little men” (406).  Today, coaches still refer to Vince Lombardi’s winning philosophy inspired by basic Ignatian principles:1.  Life is ordered in a properly ordered hierarchy. What takes priority over all? The answer determines whether a life is balanced or disordered, whether one oscillates from one extreme to the other. Man’s liberty to choose between action and inaction, good and evil applies both to coaches of sports and to their players. 2. Freedom comes through discipline and simplicity. These lead to perfection.3. The mundane is important to serve the higher ideal. 4. There is no tolerance for the halfhearted. 5. Strict attention to detail, spiritual discipline, and precision are essential. 6. Daily examination show one’s progress or regress. (213) Lombardi Nuggets: On Truth:“The object is to win fairly, by the rules—but to win.” “Morally, the life of the organization must be of exemplary nature. This is one phase where the organization must not have criticism.”On Discipline: “Perfection is not attainable. But if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.” “The good Lord gave you a body that can stand most anything. It’s your mind you have to convince.”“Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.”On Commitment:“Winning is not a sometime thing, it is an all-the-time thing. You don’t do things right once in a while…you do them right all the time.”“It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up.” On Success and Sacrifice:“Football is a great deal like life.  It teaches that work, sacrifice, perseverance, competitive drive, selflessness, and respect for authority are the price everyone must pay to achieve any worthwhile goal.”On Passion:“It is essential to understand that battles are primarily won in the heart. Men and women respond to leadership in a most remarkable way.  Win their hearts, and they will follow you anywhere.”  “If you aren’t fired up with enthusiasm, you’ll be fired with enthusiasm.”On Results and Winning:“The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather in a lack of will.”“Running a football team is no different from running any other kind of organization.”“Winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is.”“Success demands singleness of purpose.”“If it doesn’t matter who wins or loses, then why do they keep score?”This, in a nutshell, is Lombardi’s Trophy.Running the Race: the Christian VocationSt. Paul describes his own vocation in athletic terms. He writes of the dignity and harmony of the body, the temple of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 9:24ff, Paul compares running for an earthly prize to the ultimate run and prize of eternal life: “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it. And everyone who competes for the prize goes into strict training and is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a perishable crown, but we for an imperishable crown. This is how I run, intent on winning. This is how I fight, not beating the air. But I discipline my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after I have preached to others, I myself should become disqualified.”In Philippians 3:14, Paul again refers to athletics: “I press on with the goal in view, eager for the prize, God’s heavenly summons in Christ Jesus.” At the end of his life, Paul writes with confidence: “I have fought the good fight. I finished the race. I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4:6). (One note of interest:  Vince Lombardi and my father were boyhood friends in that idyllic and closely-knit Brooklyn community, Sheepshead Bay.)

We, the Gifted: A Case Study

Jan 29, 2014 / 00:00 am

Each of us is a unique person, willed into this world to fulfill a mission, one that is entirely ours.  The life of Mozart, whose commemoration has just passed, affords many insights into the mystery of the human person.“Amadeus:” a Parable of InequalityThere will never be another Mozart.  Like a comet, he streaked across the horizon all too briefly and then burned himself out.  He had neither predecessors nor followers.   His gift has brought happiness to the world fulfilling his mission “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (Jn 15:16). In his play, “Amadeus,” Peter Shaffer poses a gripping parable underscored by a metaphysical question: How can a just God bestow the gift of genius to a foulmouthed buffoon like Mozart while giving a devout man like Antonio Salieri just enough talent to recognize his mediocrity?  In the play, Salieri is portrayed as the patron saint of mediocrity.  He speaks for all mediocrity in the world.  He is their champion.  Is this not a mystery of gross inequality?Alpha and OmegaHe was born in Salzburg on January 27th, 1756 and died in Vienna on December 5th, 1791 before reaching his thirty-sixth birthday.  A man of rare talent and extraordinary fame gained in his lifetime, Mozart composed 626 full-length works.  He died a pauper of a complete nervous collapse brought on by overwork and tension; he was buried in a common unmarked pauper’s grave. He left behind a wife and two young sons.Mozart’s Early YearsMozart began composing music at the age of four and never stopped.  It was his natural language; he had a photographic memory. When Mozart’s father Leopold, himself an accomplished violinist and pedagogue, detected Wolfgang’s genius, he decided to publicize the boy’s talents in order to win an appointment at the court commensurate with his gifts.  It would bring honor to the Mozart family.    At nine, Mozart composed his first symphony, and three years later, his first comic opera.  Between his seventh and seventeenth birthdays, he and his father went on tour to France, Holland, and England.  He sat on the lap of Marie Antoinette, played duets with Johann Sebastian Bach’s youngest son, Johann Christian, and on the first hearing of Allegri’s Miserere in the Sistine Chapel on Good Friday, he was able to notate it completely and correctly from memory.  Mozart’s Creative ProcessAs mentioned above, Mozart was never not composing.  He composed while traveling, while walking and riding in a coach, while playing billiards.  He composed in his sleep.  In fact at his bedside he kept a music notebook should he wake up in the middle of the night with musical ideas.   Recording his ideas was purely a mechanical task and one which he postponed until the last minute.  Few were the erasures on the final manuscript that rarely differed on paper from his original ideas. His music is a continuous, logical, and mysterious flow of effortless perfection.At the end of a long description of his creative process, Mozart wrote:“What has thus been produced [the music in his mind] I do not easily forget, and this is perhaps the best gift I have my Divine Maker to thank for.”  Only Mozart’s inner life is reflected in his music. External events had no effect on his artistic genius.  Outwardly he was full of fun with a saucy, off-color, sense of humor.  In fact, he never outgrew his adolescence.Mozart at TwentyLeopold, who was educated by the Jesuits and Benedictines, taught and tutored his son.  At twenty years of age, Wolfgang was a highly skilled performed and composer, at home in every branch of composition.  His music is never cute, trite, or folksy; it is deceptively simple, graceful, and elegant.  His slow movements however reveal an intense and complicated cosmos. The “Elvira Madigan” send movement exemplifies this. His musical jokes had bite. He mocked poor instrumentalists in Ein musikalischer Spass, (A Musical Joke) in which he intentionally composed into the music many wrong notes that mediocre musicians were prone to make.At twenty, Mozart had been protected from all influences that would or could prevent him for total concentration in music.  He had few intimate friends at this time, and most of them, professional.As a twenty-year old, Mozart needed a permanent position.  He was hired by the Archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo, but they mixed like oil and vinegar.  Leopold, also employed at the court, had taken several absences to concertize with his son.  Second, Mozart proved to be insubordinate.  When the Archbishop ordered Mozart to compose a Short Mass (Missa Brevis), he was served a short Short Mass.  He wanted complete control over his music—its style, its length, and its content.  In a sarcastic letter to his father, he wrote, “The two valets sit at the head of the table; I, at least, have the honor of sitting above the cooks.” Eventually, he was dismissed, though he swore that he had quit with the final words: “I hate the Archbishop to madness.”  He wanted his freedom, and he got his freedom but paid a high price for it.  He was a jobless genius, the first freelance composer in music history.  Meanwhile, he had fallen in love with Constanze Weber.  Disgusted at the lack of musical appreciation among the rich, he saw through people but was continuously taken in by them. He suffered from his tenuous status.  The more he suffered, the deeper he entered into his soul.  It has been said that his growth as a creator was like that of a precious and rare plant whose inner secret remains a mystery.Mozart observed people, knew them well, but did not mingle with them.  In his operas, he lampooned the high and mighty aristocracy.  They saw themselves in his sarcasm when his music mocked them, though the names had changed.  Irate, they ostracized him.  This black-listing meant fewer concerts, fewer students, less money for the support of his family.  Life began to close in on him. Mozart’s Dark SideWhen Mozart and Constanze were married in 1781, they settled in to a bohemian lifestyle. His irresponsibility in practical matters prompted Leopold to interfere and manage his business affairs.Mozart was a musical thoroughbred. But genius can sap one of those personal qualities essential in a competitive world, filled with cunning and conniving.  Not one to compromise, he lacked discretion and tact, respect for the Office of the archbishop or for those of the aristocracy.  He sought to do things his own way and tolerated no criticism of his music.  When Emperor Joseph II, a fairly benevolent ruler, noted that “The Marriage of Figaro” contained too many notes which strained the ear, Mozart bristled, then corrected him: ‘Sire, the opera is perfect as it is.’ At the end, with his integrity intact, his music awaited immortality.We, the GiftedToo often children and young adults denigrate themselves as merely ordinary and with no special talents.  This self-image needs to be corrected. Every child is gifted in one way or another, a fact which every parent and educator ought to affirm and hold sacred. Today’s child is tomorrow’s adult who will shape our culture and pass on that culture to the next generation.  Among our youth are those who display artistic talent, whether in writing literature or poetry. How can they develop their gifts if they are not encouraged to do so?  Promoting guitars and Rap is not the answer.And what of adults and their talents?  So often, they discover their gifts later in life, perhaps after raising their families.  They too should be encouraged to pursue their talents.  Graduate and professional schools can boast of older students who pursue a second profession or discipline.  After a business career, they often turn to artistic pursuits. The American Church needs Catholic writers, Catholic composers, musicians, dancers, painters, and sculptors who are also practicing Catholics.  We desperately need church leaders with educated taste to foster and support their pursuits, leaders who will acclaim these artists. How sad, that the secular artistic world is convinced that the Church is not a valid artistic identity; therefore, Catholics in the arts are not worth mentioning.   The few Catholic writers and poets, for example, who have been recognized have done so entirely in the secular artist world—with no support from within the Church. ConclusionThe words of Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus” convey a caveat:  at all costs, avoid mediocrity; embrace excellence.  The life of Mozart is also a warning about talent, about molding and managing it in an otherwise indifferent and coarse culture. One, two, or five talents—all should be developed to build up the culture and the kingdom of God, as Mozart did.The music historian Richard Taruskin notes that “celebrating Mozart means celebrating ourselves.  In him, we see our species transcendent, effortlessly bring forth with George Bernard Shaw called ‘the only music yet written that would not sound out of place in the mouth of God’” (NY Times, 9 September, 1990).

Who Am I?

Jan 22, 2014 / 00:00 am

A recent article in the science section of the NY Times reveals the mystery of the human person.  The opening sentence of James Gorman’s “A Search for Self in a Brain Scan,” begins with: “I knew I wouldn’t find myself in a brain scan” (Jan 6, 2014).  The inscrutable question, who am I, remains a constant, even if it is lodged deep within the psyche.From the Paleolithic period (15,000 B.C.), human beings have explored their relationships with others and from one culture to another. Most striking is a) the attempt to discover the purpose of existence in the face of certain death, and b) the desire for self-expression which bequeaths new discoveries and works of art to the next generation. The Western mind has searched for the answer to self-identity primarily through rational means and intellectual inquiry rather than through faith.“The unexamined life is a life not worth living,” the sages of Classical Greece were fond of repeating (480-146 BC).  Who of us would challenge this dictum? Yet, the daily grind claims our attention and saps our energies. There is so little time to look inward.Growing UpInfants do not start off in full self-consciousness. Still, at an early age, children begin asking some metaphysical questions, such as where did I come from.  Often in adolescence, the quest for self-identity is acted out because the boy and girl are stepping out of one stage into another, from childhood into young adulthood.  It’s not difficult to understand a mother’s rolling eyes on hearing her excited twelve-year daughter blurt out: “Mom, I’m almost a teenager!”Peeling off the OnionEventually, essential questions rise to the surface.  Is the present all there is?  Isn’t there something more? Why do I want more than rocks, flowers, and animals?  Who am I? How do I feel about who I am? Why am I precisely I?  Why do you love me?  Why do I love you?  If you really knew me, you would love me. “If I am already a riddle, someone owes me a solution,” notes Hans Urs von Balthasar.Life has a way of weaving certain patterns by reason of personal gifts, circumstances, and personal decisions, wise and foolish.  For some, life has been straightforward, perhaps rocky and rugged, but linear.  Such is the case with prodigies like Mozart, whose musical life began at the age of four and continued until his death at age thirty-six.  For others, life has been cyclical. In a forty-year reign ending with his death in 1547, Henry VIII changed his wives six times, perhaps thinking: “I shall not keep you long.” Two he had beheaded for adultery. In 1521, Leo X had declared Henry, “Defender of the Faith.” What, if anything, did he later learn about himself as one queen after the other was whisked away to make room for the next?For still others, life is punctuated by circumstances, often quite negative, that stretch the individual’s ability to grow beyond the present into a better human being. Many have graduated from the ‘school of hard knocks.’ Consider the life and career of Carol Burnett, both of whose parents were alcoholics. Often dramatic events shape one’s future. Historians note that the hemophiliac condition of the Tsarevich Alexis, born to Tsar Nicholas II and the Empress Alexandra, changed the history of Russia and the world. It was a deciding factor that brought about the Russian Revolution in 1917.  Linked to this unseen family tragedy was a series of events that spiraled out of control and inexorably led to the execution of the entire Romanov royal family.  Despite a blissful young married life, Nicholas and Alexandra could not have imagined the dissolution of the Russian monarchy. Who can say if, at the end, they were the same persons as they were at the beginning of their married lives?The direction of Charles Krauthammer’s life was suddenly and irrevocably changed when he severed his spinal cord diving into a pool while studying medicine at Harvard.  He graduated with honors in a wheel chair and began specializing in psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital in a wheel chair. But he changed course. Today, Krauthammer is a leading syndicated columnist whose psychiatrist’s hat serves him well in the nation’s capital.In the television series, “Downton Abbey,” the life of Lady Mary Crawley is turned on its head with the tragic death of her husband Matthew. She must build a new life out of this great loss. Matthew had changed her from a haughty cold person into one of compassion and depth. Lady Mary the widow is a different person from Lady Mary the wife of Matthew Crawley.Life can dish up patterns of rejection.  This is often the lot of creative people.  Artists wait years for that “break” that will bring their gifts to light.  Mozart died a pauper. Having insulted Salzburg’s Archbishop Colloredo and the Viennese aristocracy, he was black-listed. And Franz Schubert sold his lieder for pennies to put food on his table.On a Journey to Happiness  After spending years hammering out a philosophy of the human person, the late and great Father W. Norris Clarke, S.J. offers us valuable insights into the question: who am I. They are summarized below.First of all, the fact that I exist means not a state but the act of all acts.  To be is to be an energy, a dynamic impulse, a restless driving force carrying me forward from within my depths to my full self-achievement. I am an embodied spirit distinct from all others, with memory and imagination, with intellect and will and yet interconnected to the cosmos and to one another.  I am actively present.  Action follows being. (Agere sequitur esse).Second, I am a unified and dynamic center of choice, of free self-conscious action on two levels – material and spiritual, in search of the Infinite toward my final trans-worldly goal. In happy amazement, I can experience heart, imagination, feeling, emotion, mood, and eros deep down in my mysterious center.Third, I am on a journey from potential self-possession to actuality.  Each of us lives most intensely within the self.  What I say to myself is often more important than what I say to others.  Nonetheless, I have the urge to share our own goodness with others and grasp the universe.  I am introverted and extroverted.Fourth, I want to make or do something beautiful, something worthwhile to leave in the world as an expression of who I am.Fifth, I am limited, poor and rich at the same time. Sixth, the root of all my being – my perfection, is self-communicating love with its unity of beauty, truth, and goodness. Finally, I am a self-possessing person:  in-myself through self-consciousness or self-awareness; as self-consciousness that is first touched and loved by another;  as I-Thou, going out to another and then returning to in-myself; as self-determining and self-governing that involves freedom, responsibility, accountability and  morality;as a person with principles and values. as a person who graciously receives from others. (W. Norris Clarke, S.J.: Person and Being)Do I live to impress or please others, or do I live as my real self – the one inside of me? Fr. Clarke gives us food for reflection and prayer. Two scriptural passages summarize his thoughts: 1. (God’s beauty is what we reflect.) 2 Cor 3:18f  “We, with our unveiled faces reflecting like a mirror the brightness of the Lord, all grow brighter and brighter, from one glory to the other, as we are turned into the image that we reflect; this is the work of the Lord who is Spirit.”   (We are transformed from one glory to another and are made into a godly kind of beauty.)2.  (Live, so that your beauty shines through.) Eph 2:10 “We are God’s work of art created in Christ Jesus to live the good life as from the beginning He meant us to live it.” The truth is that we live in relationship with God and with self, with others and with circumstances unique to each of us. They are the source and raw material of self-knowledge. Integrating our responses to all four tells us who we are. In prayer and in practice, we gain self-knowledge.


Jan 15, 2014 / 00:00 am

The creation of a pearl is one of Mother Nature’s miracles and one of her prized secrets.  Unlike other gems which are mined, pearls are made by live oysters (mollusks) far below the surface of the sea.  Pearls are rare, beautiful, valuable, and purchased at a high price. The life of a pearl begins as a grain of sand or external irritant which pierces an oyster’s shell and lodges itself within.  It cannot be expelled. The oyster protects itself from the irritant by secreting nacre, a smooth, hard, crystalline substance, to encase the irritant, layer upon layer.  Nacre is not just a soothing substance.  It is made up of millions of crystals, each aligned perfectly so that the light passing along the axis of one crystal is also reflected and refracted by the other crystals to produce a brilliant tapestry of light and color. The greater the pearl’s iridescence, the more precious its value.   No human effort can recreate a pearl outside this biological phenomenon. It is Mother Nature’s sheer gift to us. The Pearl in the New TestamentIt is no wonder then that a pearl is mentioned in the New Testament as a metaphor for God’s kingdom.  And faith is a precious jewel.  When a merchant in search of fine pearls finds one of great price, he goes out and sells all that he has and buys it (Mt 13:45). He must have the pearl; nothing is too costly for him.  In 1917, Morton Plant, the owner of the mansion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 52nd St. in New York City, sold the building to Pierre Cartier, a New York jeweler, for $100 and a double strand of natural pearls admired by Plant’s wife, Mae. At the time, the pearls were valued at $1 million USD. Avery Dulles (d 2008) and the Pearl of Great PriceFor centuries, men and women have paid dearly for the pearl of great price.  Avery Dulles was raised in the Presbyterian faith-tradition. His paternal grandfather and great-grandfather were prominent Presbyterian ministers. Yet, in his young adulthood, he turned to a thorough-going agnosticism.  Supernatural religion belonged to the realm of myth.  However, at Harvard University, he read Plato, Aristotle, and Etienne Gilson. They liberated him from the pragmatism, relativism, and the subjectivism of modern philosophy” (Patrick Carey, Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., 26).  Professor Paul Doolin, himself a convert to Catholicism and a committed intellectual, had a great influence on the student. A random walk along the banks of the River Charles one day, a long look at the young buds on the branches of a tree, the awareness of an intelligence behind that tree, a silent utterance of the Our Father, an inward look into self and his own acceptance of the existence of God as something more like intuition–all these began to point in one direction—toward belief in God.  After his religious experience at the River Charles, he resolved to read and meditate on at least one chapter from the New Testament every day. He could not get beyond his objection to Christ’s miracles, and most of all, his Resurrection. He also began attending Sunday services in various faith-traditions.  Disillusioned with Protestant churches he frequented, he attended Mass one day, but instead of being attracted to it, he was repulsed by the elaborate ritual and bad statuary.  Much time elapsed before he entered a Catholic Church and before he acquired an appreciation of the exceptional beauty of Catholic ceremonies.  He began attending High Mass on Sundays, the Lenten services, and the liturgies of Holy Week.  The decisive act of faith was still wanting due to the sugary sentimentalism of church art.  But his encounter with Christ and a faith based on secure theological foundations took priority over statuary.  He returned to primary sources: Sts. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure as well as to Catholic philosophers, including Jacques Maritain, Fathers D’Arcy and C.C. Martindale, and Fulton Sheen.Immediately after graduation, Avery began courses for a law degree at Harvard. For him, the act of faith still presented a stumbling block because of his firm skepticism. Because he valued intellectual honesty, he could not bring himself to surrender just yet what he valued most.   It was necessary to put away every doubt and to commit oneself without reservation.Avery had to face his family with the decision he was about to take. When he did, they registered a strong reaction.  His family was not anti-Catholic, but they considered Catholicism at a lower social and intellectual level than the Presbyterian faith-tradition.  For them, Avery was turning his back on a long family heritage and “entering a religious tradition they considered authoritarian and spiritually superficial” (Carey, 55).  Avery’s father, John Foster, a Princeton alumnus and the future Secretary of State in the Eisenhower administration, was practicing law in 1940 in the prestigious New York firm, Sullivan and Cromwell. Today, in the Princeton University Oral Archives, there is an important record of John Foster Dulles seeking advice from a colleague on a day that he describes as the worst day of his life.  His son was on the verge of becoming a Catholic.   John Foster held in his hand a letter intended for his son, telling him never to speak with him again and never to call him because this intolerable news meant that he was dead to his father.  After several hours of pleading, the law partner persuaded John Foster not to send the letter.  Though successful, John Foster never came to grips with his son’s conversion.  After Avery’s baptism, he wrote: “That I did eventually make the act of faith is attributable solely to the grace of God.  I could never have done so by my own power” (Testimonial to Grace, 60). The cost was great, but the pearl, even greater. His path to the Catholic Church was straight, but it was long and steep. Grace had built on nature, and unbelief was transformed into faith, a faith which led him to enter the Society of Jesus, to become a prominent theologian, and finally to be appointed as Cardinal, an honor which never affected his accessibility to students and faculty alike.  Catholics on the Hot SeatFor years, critics and talk show hosts have interviewed famous Catholics from Evelyn Waugh to Ross Douthat and Newt Gingrich.  Implicit in their questions:  why do you stay; why have you come in?Other OptionsConversion is the most fundamental of human options.  Some prospective converts who were on the verge of becoming Catholics, for example, have not been able to take that final step. And, many former Catholics have left with no intention of returning or of belonging to the Church. Perhaps people leave because of a “teaching which runs counter to their patterns of behavior.  It may be an intellectual or emotional difficulty which calls for resolution.”  (Avery Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped For, 250). We cannot know why people leave the Church and whether they have found other pearls of great price.Generic ChristianityToday, we hear that people are Christian-ish, but not sectarian.  Doing good to others—the horizontal relationships of society, locates transcendence for them solely in the present. The vertical relationship, the encounter with God in prayer is not considered so that prayer leads to service or others, and service leads back to prayer. Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey belong to this syncretic Christianity, civic, flexible, and easygoing.  A doctrine challenged by science can be easily abandoned. (Ross Douthat, “Ideas from a Manger,” NY Times, Dec 21, 2013).  This stance is attractive because one can claim to be a generic Christian without being affiliated with any one faith-tradition.Recently, Bill Moyers interviewed Thomas Cahill, author of the series, “The Hinges of History.” Moyers was interested in the author’s views of the Jesuit Pope Francis as well as some insights into Cahill’s latest in the series:  Heroes and Heretics.  A brilliant writer trained by the Jesuits, Cahill was himself a member of the Society of Jesus for several years. Heroes and Heretics is not popular history, as advertised, but hugely entertaining rhetoric – high-class gossip suited to a cocktail party where the author holds forth on selective historical figures. Pages on Boccaccio, a nod to Dante! For Catholic clergy, he conveys a tone of vindictiveness painting them in dark sinister colors against a backdrop of eroticism. His sharpest derision however is reserved for St. Ignatius, founder of the Jesuits, without ever mentioning how grace transforms nature and sublimates its negative qualities. Absent is Providence, expressed in the dictum that God writes straight with crooked lines. The book is diatribe. The Bill Moyers’ interview, abbreviated here, went as follows:Moyers:  Is this pope a hero or a heretic?Cahill: Well, in the book that I just wrote, most of the heretics are heroes, and most of the heroes are heretics. So it’s a little hard to tell . . . .Moyers:  It’s too soon.Cahill:  . . . I would say that the last several popes have been largely surprises.Moyers:  John Paul, Benedict?Cahill:  Well, let’s go back to John XXIII.  The people who elected him thought that he would be an interim. He was a fat, old man.  And he was very pleasant.  And they thought he would just be pleasant. Well, they made a big mistake because John XXIII changed the Catholic Church and would’ve changed it a lot more, in my opinion, had he lasted a little bit longer.  Then you got John Paul II [who] was elected because they thought he was a liberal.  . . . Benedict, to tell the truth, mostly liked to sit at his piano and play Mozart, which is a nice thing to do. But it’s not very helpful to the papacy.   . . . In his exhortation, Francis constantly speaks of Christians.  He never talks about Catholics.  He says [that] Christians have to go out and take care of the poor.  Well, he’s talking to everyone.  He’s not just talking to Catholics.  He’s passing that by.  Which is to me, extremely refreshing.Moyers:  So where do you place yourself?  Are you a believing Christian but not a practicing Catholic?  Cahill: I am a believing Christian who is equally at home and equally impatient and equally ill-at-ease in virtually every church.Moyers:  Why is that?Cahill:  I just don’t think that it matters that much.  I think that . . . in the 16th and 17th centuries, we killed one another over doctrine.  . . . Is it really necessary to kill one another?  Couldn’t we just disagree?  And then you have the beginning of a new era.  And it’s time that we got past the largely silly divisions, theological divisions which really don’t count … because people don’t care about these things anymore.Moyers: What do you think they care about?  Or what do you care about?Cahill:  Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.  That’s Christianity.  The rest of it isn’t worth a hill of beans.ConclusionThe enigmatic workings of the human heart are not ours to probe, and we can never know what is going on there.  We are all vision-impaired, and even with the eyes of faith, we see through a glass darkly (1 Cor 13:12).

'To Shine in Use'

Jan 8, 2014 / 00:00 am

The month of January is named after the Roman god, Janus, who presides over beginnings, transitions, and ends.  Janus wears two faces, the one looking back and the other, forward.  2013 is no longer within reach except through our memories and through history; the future is a blank canvas on which our stories must yet be inscribed.  We seek happiness, succinctly described by Aristotle: Happiness is the full use of one’s faculties in the pursuit of excellence.  The Book of Proverbs makes clear that “where there is no vision, the people perish; he that keepeth the law, happy is he” (Prov 29:18). So let us begin with some pearls of wisdom to inspire our comings and goings. What shall my vision be in 2014?  From Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Ring out, Wild Bells:”(. . .)“Ring out the old, ring in the new, Ring happy bells across the snow;The year is going, let him go, Ring out the false, ring in the true.*Ring out the grief that saps the mind, For those that here we see no more, Ring out the feud of rich and poor, Ring in redress to all mankind.*Ring out a slowly dying cause, And ancient forms of party strife;Ring in the nobler modes of life, With sweeter manners, purer laws.*Ring out the want, the care, the sin, The faithless coldness of the timesRing out, ring out my mournful rhymes, But ring the fuller minstrel in.*Ring out false pride in place and blood, The civic slander and the spite;Ring in the love of truth and right, Ring in the common love of good.*Ring out old shapes of foul disease, Ring out the narrowing lust of gold;Ring out the thousand wars of old, Ring in the thousand years of peace.*Ring in the valiant man and free, The larger heart, the kinder hand;Ring out the darkness of the land, Ring in the Christ that is to be.” How shall I nourish my mind in 2014? “Read and your world will grow larger.” (Aphorism)From Emily Dickinson:“There is no frigate like a BookTo take us Lands awayNor any Courses like a PageOf prancing Poetry—This Traverse may the poorest takeWithout oppress of TollHow frugal is the ChariotThat bears the Human Soul—.”  (“There Is No Frigate like a Book”)How shall I speak during 2014? “Let your speech always be gracious and seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer each person” (Colossians 4:6).Again, from the "Belle of Amherst":I fear a Man of frugal Speech—I fear a Silent Man—Haranguer—I can overtake—Or Babbler—entertain—But He who weigheth—While the Rest—Expand their further pound—Of this Man—I am wary—I fear that He is Grand—.” *    How shall I work in 2014?  From Robert Frost:  “The woods are lovely dark and deep.But I have promises to keepAnd miles to go before I sleep,And miles to go before I sleep. (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)And again, from Robert Frost:“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by,And that has made all the difference. (“The Road Not Taken”)From Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses:”  “How dull it is to pause, to make an end,To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use.”How shall I care for my body in 2014? “Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity” (Pres. John F. Kennedy).*“Whether you eat or drink, do all for the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31).And what of my prayer in 2014?  St. Augustine tells us what we already know from experience:  “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you” (Confessions 1:1-2).  From the verse of Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” (Andrea del Sarto)   From St. Paul, in his Letter to the Philippians (2:14-15): “Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, in which you shine like the stars.”   From St. Teresa of Avila: “Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing frighten you. Everything passes.  God never changes. Patience obtains all.Whoever has God wants for nothing.God alone is enough.” Finally,“When upon your face I held my gaze,I could not keep myself from wondering Where you had gone to spend your winter days,That you should be so lovely in the spring.” (Joseph Roccasalvo, “Sonata Pathétique”)

Beautiful Christmas music

Dec 18, 2013 / 00:00 am

With the arrival of Gaudete Sunday, the Church’s liturgy now focuses with intense eagerness on Christmas Day itself.  The readings cannot contain themselves, such is their exuberant joy. Down through the centuries, the Advent-Christmas narratives have been told and re-told, yet we never tire of them.  Why not?  First, because the story is open-ended with its message of Emmanuel, God-with-us. The ancient narrative always inspires, always elevates; it again prompts us to live in God’s presence. Second, each time we encounter the story, we have lived more of life, and the Advent-Christmas readings offer new graces for the new present.  The readings are for the ages. The Church bids us, gaudete, rejoice, the Lord is near.  In all parts of the universal Church, the liturgy is about to burst forth with music.  Cute secular songs are musical trinkets—in a galaxy far removed from the classics of music that soar in beauty, of music that proclaims Hope in our midst.  The carols and other Christmas music express unbounded joy.  The buoyant music lifts us up even in the midst of difficulties. The First Carols: 4th CenturyIn singing and listening to Christmas carols, we participate in a glorious history of music making. The earliest outline of the carol is found in the fourth century with Latin hymns such as Veni redemptor Gentium (Come, redeemer of men), written by St. Ambrose of Milan and Corde natus ex Parentis (Of the Father’s love begotten) by the Spanish poet, Prudentius.  This hymn is still sung in the liturgy.The Carol: 13th CenturyA carol (French: noel) is a poem made up of uniform stanzas that are easily sung. The lyrics of Christmas carols have a simple didactic character and devotional warmth. Carols are songs of joy or of praise; they have refrains, also known as burdens, which begin the carol and are repeated after each stanza.  Around the thirteenth century at the time of Franciscan fervor, the Christmas carol began to take shape and eventually found its way to England, while the lauda remained in Italy.  The Latin words to “O, Come All Ye Faithful” originated in the thirteenth century, but its current form is found in the eighteenth century.The Carol in the 15th and 16th Centuries  In sixteenth-century Protestant countries, carols fell into disfavor or were entirely banned.  They were considered frivolous, especially by the Calvinists (today’s Presbyterians) who associated carols with Roman Catholicism.  Nevertheless in Tudor England, carols became popular and survive thanks to those longsuffering English Catholics who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy to the Crown as head of the Catholic Church.  They were known as recusants who preserved the faith through these carols.  “It is not surprising then to find that the nearest literary equivalents to the medieval carol survive in collections of Recusant poetry, where the spirit of the Catholic faith is dominant” (J.E. Stevens, “Carol,” New Catholic Encyclopedia 3:130-1).  One of the earliest carols of the early Tudor period is William Byrd’s “Lullaby, my sweet little baby.”Revival of the Carol in the 19th CenturyAt Christmas time, we take delight in listening to or singing carols because they are so joyful. The words tell us what to think; the music, what to feel.   With the rediscovery of the carol in the nineteenth century, there is a plethora of carols which we sing today.  Some of these are: “Hark, the Herald Angels,” “God Rest You Merry Gentlemen,” “The First Noël,” “Joy to the World,” and “Silent Night.”  In verse, the lyrics describe the magnum mysterium of Christmas.“Stille Nacht,” “Silent Night”The story of how “Silent Night” came to be is one of those remarkable strokes of Providence.  The text was written by the Austrian priest, Joseph Mohr, the son of an unwed mother; his father, an army officer, deserted when he discovered the pregnancy.  The kindness of the rector of the Salzburg Cathedral saw to it that the boy was well educated at St. Peter’s Benedictine Monastery in Upper Austria.  In 1816, while the young Father Mohr was assigned to St. Nicholas Church at Mariapfarr, he penned the text of the famous carol.  It is said that on Christmas Eve, the organ broke down due to recent flooding.  What to do?  He improvised taking the text to a nearby village where his organist-friend Franz Gruber lived.  In a few short hours, Gruber produced the renowned hymn with an accompaniment for lyre-guitar, popular in the nineteenth century.  “Silent Night” has become one of the most beloved hymns of the Christmas repertoire.  The slightly-altered carol is today an Austrian national treasure. Traditionally it is not sung until Christmas Eve.Christmas CustomsLike Advent traditions, Christmas customs can be easily explained to children, for example, the Christmas crib: St. Francis of Assisi popularized the crèche scene.  Mistletoe was a sacred plant of the Druids and symbolized good luck and happiness. The holly branch symbolizes Mary’s heart filled with a flaming love for God.  The origin of the Christmas tree combines two medieval religious symbols: the Paradise Tree and the Christmas Light.  Christ as the Christmas light finds expression in a candle that is placed in the window to symbolize Christ the Light of the world.  The home of the poinsettia is in Central America.  It resembles the star of Bethlehem.  In Mexico, it is called the “Flower of the Night.”  Laurel wreaths are a custom of ancient Rome and symbolize a friendly greeting, victory, and joy of a celebration.  The Christmas pageant helps children to re-enact the first Christmas and to pay homage to the Infant King.                          Origin of the Carol, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”We are all familiar with the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” which appeared in England in the eighteenth century, a time when Catholic persecution was still intense.  Not until 1829, with the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act, was Catholic persecution in England officially ended.  The carol has two levels of meaning: the surface meaning plus a hidden meaning known only to Catholics of the time. Each element in the carol has a code word for a Catholic religious tenet which the children could remember.“On the first day of Christmas, my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.”   The partridge in a pear tree was Jesus Christ.“On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me two turtle doves.”  Two turtle doves were the Old and New Testaments.  The fun of the song is to repeat the previous number and its lyrics–all in one deep breath! “On the third of day of Christmas, my true love gave to me three French hens.” Three French hens stood for faith, hope and love.“On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me four calling birds.” The four calling birds were the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.“On the fifth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me five golden rings.” The five golden rings recalled the Torah or Law, the first five books of the Old Testament.“On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me six geese a-laying.”  The six geese a-laying stood for the six days of creation.“On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me seven swans a-swimming.”   Seven swans a-swimming represented the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit: wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge piety, and fear of the Lord.“On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eight maids a-milking.” The eight maids a-milking were the eight beatitudes.“On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me nine ladies dancing.”  Nine ladies dancing were the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.“On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me ten lords a-leaping.” The ten lords a-leaping were the Ten Commandments.“On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me eleven pipers piping.”  The eleven pipers piping stood for the eleven faithful disciples.“On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me twelve drummers drumming.” The twelve drummers drumming symbolized the twelve points of belief in The Apostles’ Creed.     A Suggested Discography of Beautiful Christmas MusicIf you wish to buy a lasting Christmas gift for yourself or for another, here are some suggestions of classical music:1. Festival of Lessons and Carols by Choir of King’s College, Cambridge/ Conducted by Stephen Cleobury (2009)2. Festival of Lessons and Carols by St. John’s Cathedral, Denver Colorado/Conducted by Donald Pearson (reissued from 1998)3. A Renaissance Christmas  New York’s Ensemble for Early Music/ Frederick Renz, Director4. A Renaissance Christmas Celebration with the Waverly Consort (1991)5. Christmas Music by Gloria Dei Cantores (available from Paraclete Press)6. Christmas Music by Benedictine Monks of Solesmes (available from Paraclete Press)7. A Renaissance Christmas by Joel Cohen/The Boston Camerata (2005)8. Messiah Complete, George Friedrich Händel, conducted by John Eliot Gardner9. Christmas Oratorio, Johann Sebastian Bach, conducted by John Eliot GardnerA joyful Christmas to you and your families. This column will resume in January, 2014. 

Beauty – the Church’s Greatest Power

Dec 11, 2013 / 00:00 am

In this month’s issue of First Things, Dana Gioia’s superb article, “The Catholic Writer Today,” sums up the diminished state of the fine arts in the American Catholic Church. While the Church registers the largest religious and cultural group in the country, Gioia writes that, paradoxically we “currently enjoy almost no positive presence in the American fine arts—not in literature, music, sculpture, or painting.”  Dana Gioia is well known to the literary world.  A poet and critic, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently the Judge Widney Professor of Poetry and Public Culture at the University of Southern California.  Gioia is a practicing Catholic and a very concerned Catholic. He worries about the future not only of the Catholic writer but also of other expressions of artistic beauty in the American Church.  Past Influence of the Church and the ArtsUntil sixty years ago, the Church had earned a lasting place in history for inspiring Christian culture through the literary, visual, and musical arts, understood as beautiful. By commissioning the finest artists, the Church stood as their foremost patron. The sacred arts exerted a formative influence on the lives of the faithful and as well as on those not of the Catholic faith.  Scholars agreed that beauty was the Church’s greatest treasure, the Church’s greatest power. This is no longer true.  They have been critical of the Church for abandoning its teaching and pursuit of beauty, and with it, the ability to attract contemporary men and women beyond the mundane, to the beautiful, and to the Church itself. “If one asked an arts journalist,” Gioia writes, “to identify a major living painter or sculptor, playwright or choreographer, composer or poet, who was a practicing Catholic, the critic, I suspect would be unable to offer a single name. He could surely identify a few ex-Catholics such as Andres Serrano, Terrence McNally, or Mark Adamo, who use religious subject matter for satire, censure, or shock value.”The Church’s Fine Arts and EducationThe Church used to exercise a prominent role in education for the arts.  Non-sectarian graduate schools of fine arts respected the Church’s position on the arts as though it were the gold standard. In fact, the Church’s views formed part of their curriculum. Today, the School of Sacred Architecture at Notre Dame University, dedicated to the art of beautiful church architecture, is exerting a wide influence. Church music has not fared quite so well. After Vatican II, schools of sacred music were closed.  Today, sacred music excels most notably at St. John’s Abbey, Collegeville, MN and St. Vincent’s Archabbey, Latrobe, PA.  More choir schools are needed like the Choir School at the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City and the Boston Archdiocesan Choir School.  And the time has come to re-establish diocesan competitions of scholas and choruses, of young painters, of sculptors, and writers.Good Literature“Sixty years ago,” Gioia notes, “it was taken for granted that a significant portion of American writers were Catholics who balanced their dual identities as artists and believers.  Catholic authors were reviewed and discussed in the general press.  They were also intelligently covered in the large and varied Catholic press.” Today most Catholic publishing companies cater to explicitly religious topics leaving Catholic writers, whose caliber matches that of Flannery O’Connor or Evelyn Waugh, to fend for themselves.  Then there is the question of readership.  How many people read, and read good Catholic fiction and poetry?   Though anti-Catholicism is not new in these United States, today overt scorn and open hatred of the Church are intense. The clergy scandals have severely wounded the Church, weakening its credibility.  The media are in no mood to look kindly on the Church.  Gone is the day of “Going My Way.”The Liturgical ArtsGioia’s also has his pulse on the diminished state of the refining arts in the liturgy.  Since Vatican II, artistic decline has been most evident in the Church’s liturgy. In addition to “ill-conceived and poorly performed music, graceless architecture, formulaic painting, banal sculpture,” the author includes “the cliché-ridden and shallow homilies.The author writes that “Vatican II’s legitimate impulse to make the Church and its liturgy more modern and accessible was implemented mostly by clergy with no training in the arts.  These eager, well-intentioned reformers not only lacked artistic judgment; they also lacked respectful understanding of art itself, sacred or secular.  They saw words, music, images, and architecture as functional entities whose role was mostly intellectual and rational.  Art is holistic and incarnate—simultaneously addressing the intellect, emotions, imagination, physical sense, and memory without dividing them.”    Sacred ImagesOver the years, several prominent church leaders have criticized defective sacred images. Among them are Romano Guardini, Avery Dulles, Thomas Merton, and the popes. Writes Merton: “Some of us would instinctively be ashamed to let a non-Catholic friend see some of the statues or stained glass windows that are found in our churches. The deplorable quality and lack of restraint of art, and the sentimental, feminine character of the picture of the Sacred Heart, a handsome Jesus with azure blue eyes, statues of Our Lady, dolled up with lipstick and mascara and who looks like a lovely society lady.  All these pervert the truth.  Bad so-called religious art is like rotten food; there is a healthy reaction to bad food: you throw it out” (Merton, Disputed Questions, 157, 159).Impoverishment and Disfigurement of Catholic Sacred MusicIn the 1960s, many of our church leaders were seminarians.  It was a time when Gregorian chant was forcibly submerged below the surface, and the songs of the St. Louis Jesuits with other colleagues were all the rage. These amateurs did not simply lack training in the classical tradition; they refused instruction in composition.  Their songs, found in flimsy, unattractive missalettes that also print the word of God, are an embarrassment to the Church’s classical tradition. Is this our faith?When prominent churches, even a cathedral or two, endorse noisy instruments, when leaders choose music that is defective, even by the lowest musical standards, when cantors consistently sing off-pitch, when they croon, swoon, and sway like torch singers in a cocktail lounge, when the liturgy is permeated with operatic and theatrical music, this is a disfigurement of the liturgy. Conversion to the Faith through MusicThe French poet, dramatist and former atheist, Paul Claudel (d 1955) recounts his conversion when he heard the Magnificat sung during Vespers on Christmas Eve at the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris: “In an instant, my heart was touched and I believed. I believed with such force, with such relief of all my being, a conviction so powerful, so certain and without any room for doubt, that ever since, all the books and arguments, all the hazards of my agitated life have never shaken my faith, nor, to tell the truth, have they even touched it” (“Ma conversion” in Contacts et circonstances, Gallimard, 1940).  Organists Driven from the ChurchThe plight of talented organists is grave.  Many have been forced out of their positions by church leaders who lack musical training and respect for the Church’s tradition of artistic beauty. In forsaking the pipe organ and church organists, the Church has further diminished its influence and position as a Church of beauty.  These drastic, tragic changes have deprived the faithful of experiencing a rich organ repertory, despite official documents singling out the pipe organ as adding “a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies, powerfully lift[ing] up men’s hearts and minds to God and to higher things.”Beauty—an Attitude of Mind, a Way of LivingBeauty is a power.  It lifts us up above the mundane, above the ugly.  Beauty inspires us, breathes new life into us; it refreshes. The appearance of beauty makes us happy, giving enjoyment and deep satisfaction.  Beauty makes us feel like gods; it can bring us to our knees.  Even before a word was spoken at the beginning of time, God breathed beauty into all of creation. “The Lord will dawn on you in radiant beauty,” the Advent liturgy sings.  All beauty derives from God’s glory, and for this reason, it causes us to break out in wonder, joy, and prayer.  “The schism between Christianity and the arts has had two profound consequences,” Gioia observes, “two vast impoverishments—one for the arts world, the other for the Church. First, for the art world, the loss of a transcendent religious vision, a refined and rigorous sense of the sacred . . . . The shallow novelty, the low-cost nihilism, and the vague and sentimental spiritual medium—are the legacy of this schism . . . not that art needs to be religious . . . just something more subtle and complex. The second consequence of this cultural schism affects the Church.  The loss of the aesthetic sensibility in the Church has weakened its ability to make its call heard in the world.  Whenever the Church has abandoned the notion of beauty, it has lost precisely the power that it hoped to cultivate—its ability to reach souls in the modern world.”Beauty, Truth, and GoodnessThe Church proclaims the truths of salvation. It is a great charitable organization, if not the greatest in the world, but no longer considered the most beautiful.  Many in the Church are deeply troubled by the realization that beauty has been banished from Catholic theology and catechesis.  Not just minimized, trivialized, or ignored, beauty has virtually been dismissed as critical to proclaiming dogmas and to celebrating the Eucharistic liturgy which should enrapture Catholics. One church where all the particulars conspire toward beautiful liturgy is St. Joseph Church in Greenwich Village.  The Dominican Fathers serve this university church, located near New York University.Beauty is an essential part of Catholic faith, not an ornament, not a decoration. Discipleship is fundamentally that dynamic movement from self to the beauty of Christ.  Weren’t the disciples first transported by what they heard and touch—by everything that Christ manifested in his very presence (1 Jn:1)?  A lively faith moves the heart in a transport beyond the self to the Beloved who is beauty.  Without this movement, faith remains woefully incomplete.  A lively faith consists not just in creed bolstered by the intellect and then believed.  Without beauty—this dynamic movement toward Christ, faith remains a bundle of truths that are formalistic, dry, and without spiritual unction.Nor is faith simply a matter of performing good deeds.  Without the dynamic movement to Christ, one questions why such charitable works should be done.  In fact, their interest may be so functional, so grafted to the natural plane that there is no transcendent overreach.  Beauty is not simply a matter of aesthetics but a matter of faith.  It guards truth and goodness to complete a faith, crowned with love. Hans Urs von Balthasar warns: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at [beauty] as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love” (The Glory of the Lord, I:18).Beauty is proper to the sacred arts that serve the liturgy.  With the sacramental signs, they are the primary way in which the mystery of the Incarnation continues to be effective in the Church.  Great liturgy, great art, great music have the power to transform our lives, as it did Paul Claudel’s.  If our churches were temples of beauty, they would be filled again.  Then, we could proclaim, ‘See here is our treasure; here is our faith!’

Advent beauty

Dec 4, 2013 / 00:00 am

There is no time quite like Advent. This liturgical season is rich in symbol and exalted in sacred poetry and music. Advent signals “a new journey of the People of God with Jesus, our Shepherd, who guides us through history toward the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. Through Advent, we experience a profound sense of the meaning of history” (Pope Francis, Homily, First Sunday of Advent).  The period from December 1st to December 16th recalls Christ’s historic coming at the Incarnation and at the Parousia to fulfill the divine plan. December 17th to December 24th celebrates the prophecies of the Lord’s coming and his birth of the Virgin-Mother. During the Advent season, purple vestments are worn by the priest, and the color rose, on the Third Sunday (Gaudete [Rejoice] Sunday). Throughout these day, “Come, Lord Jesus, come” is the phrase on the Church’s lips. The short four-week season is filled with hope that satisfied by the advent of the Lord.Advent BeautyThe fall season is about to end. The trees are bare. As the days grow shorter and the darkness of the long winter nights set in, Advent prompts reflection on the Light who graced the darkness. During Advent, “we rediscover the beauty of all being on a journey: the Church, with her vocation and mission, and the whole of humanity, nations, civilizations, cultures, all on a journey along the paths of time” (Pope Francis). Christ is the Light in the tunnel and at the end of the tunnel. Awaiting the Incarnate birth—this single, solitary event calls for silent wonder.Liturgical Life in the Middle AgesIn medieval times, the Church year guided the lives of the faithful. Living the Church’s year together united them in a spiritual bond.  From Baptism to the Eucharist to the Last Anointing, from processions and pious devotions to blessings of crops, animals, and boats, the Church provided the liturgical and devotional framework that sacralized their lives. The liturgical year “shaped their perception of the world and their place in it,” and these “central moments gave Catholics the key to the meaning and purpose of their lives” (Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars, 11). As a way of making sacred the French countryside, churches and cathedrals, dedicated to the Mother of God, were built in strategic locations to resemble the constellation Virga. Liturgical Life in Nineteenth-Century American ParishesWith the arrival of immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth century, new American citizens sought the familiar religious atmosphere in their parish churches which became part of family life. Parish activities lightened the immigrants’ encounter with anti-Catholicism and cultural bias. Liturgical feasts comforted the faithful living and working in deplorable conditions and served as magnets that drew families together. And the beauty of these feasts lifted their spirits, otherwise marked by misery. Anticipating one feast after the other, families lived within a liturgical frame of reference. Receiving the sacraments was a joyful occasion for the neighborhood, as were feast days of the Mother of God, St. Joseph, and the saints. In living the year of grace, their faith was handed down to be lived and cherished by the next generation.The Parish Church TodayWith the influx of new citizens, the American Church today faces new challenges to universalize the Church in the particular. The parish supports not just a program of religious education; it has become the nerve center for the religious education of the family. In John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, “Catechesi Tradendae,” catechesis is intimately bound up with the whole of the Church’s life. Nothing in the life remains outside the Church’s catechesis. The Church has a pastoral concern in all that is human: from sports to politics to social justice, from science to the arts to care of the environment.  Moral questions about human sexuality and that of marriage and the family call for special attention. The Church is committed to strengthen the family, and where public morality has broken down, the parish assumes virtually all aspects of Christian formation. Comprehensive religious education begins with externals, from well-cared churches and attractive bulletins, to the care with which the sacraments are celebrated, to the concern for our children and the most vulnerable.Today, religious faith in the western world is one of many options, and even Catholics have opted for a secular humanism. Our culture, secularized and sexualized, surrounds the family and even engulfs it.  As societal forces virulently press for privatized religion, the public celebration of the liturgical year in the parish has assumed a new urgency. Moral erosion has eaten into the very fabric of living.  Moral relativism has been elevated to a civil religion and a public philosophy. There is even a concerted push underway to limit freedom of religion to mere freedom of worship which would relegate the free practice of religion to the home and church and away from the public domain. Parishes that promote a strong liturgical life serve as oases in the midst of a cultural desert hostile not only to the Judeo-Christian moorings of western culture but to virtue itself.  In the words of Cardinal Jean Daniélou, S.J.: “We have got to be always transforming ourselves into Christ, taking on the dispositions of His heart, the judgments of His mind” (The Advent of Salvation, 118-19). The whole meaning of being a Christian is to become transformed, gradually, into Jesus Christ and “to put on Christ” (Gal 3:27; Rom 13:14). Our model during Advent is the Theotokos, the one who carried the Messiah-God in her womb.

You can never say thank-you enough

Nov 27, 2013 / 00:00 am

On the eve of Thanksgiving Day and the season of Advent, a few thoughts ...The Jews Say ‘Blessing’ and ‘Thank You.’The Jews learned from their Exodus experience that they could never thank God enough for their deliverance. The Passover meal, celebrated in a hurry, was filled with praise and thanksgiving for the wonders God did in rescuing them from slavery in Egypt.  The Jews pray psalms of blessing and thanksgiving every day, but in the Passover banquet, these psalms held a special significance.   As the Chosen People, the Jews accepted the Covenant which encompassed the whole life of the nation and the individual, every aspect of prayer, observation, and work.  Every thought, activity, and deed was an act of fidelity, thanksgiving, and love. God’s gift of Self to the Jews awaited their response of thanksgiving and love.  To be a Jew has always meant to pray with joy, praise, and thanksgiving.The Last Passover MealThe Passover, celebrated by Jesus and the Twelve, memorialized the glorious history of the Jews, and it has continued to this day.  In the celebration of the Eucharist, we Catholics thank the Father for having given us his sacrificial son for our food and nourishment. The word Eucharist of itself, means thanks. Since that Last Supper, like the Orthodox Christian Churches, Catholics have celebrated the mandate of the Lord, “Do this . . . .”   Whenever we “do this,” we can never say thank-you enough.“Where are the other nine?”In the Lucan gospel (17:11ff), we see a very human Jesus, a Jesus who expresses hurt at ingratitude. He has cured ten lepers who have gone off to show themselves to the priest.  When one of them, a Samaritan, returns to thank Jesus, quite naturally he asks: “Weren’t ten made clean? Where are the other nine?”TalentsIt may be a cliché, but it is still true that every person born into this world is a singular and unique creation. With this bestowal of life comes a spectrum of gifts given outright.  In the Matthean gospel (25:14ff), the master entrusts three servants gold pieces—talents of different amounts. Two invest them and reap twice the amount. The one servant buries his one talent; he is called “wicked and lazy.” The lesson cannot be missed.  Psychologists tell us that most people fail to develop their talents to the full.  Instead they moan about the talents they have not received. Psalms of ThanksgivingFor the Jews the psalms of thanksgiving were prayed typically after psalms of lament, and of distress. In 2013, there are countless things for which Americans can give thanks. Among the psalms of thanksgiving are: Psalms:  9, 10, 22, 30, 31, 40, 41, 66, 73, 89, 92, 103, 114, 115, 116, and 138.   We can never say thank-you enough . . .• For the gift of life. “For so many marvels I thank you; a wonder am I, and all your works are wonders” (Ps 139:14).• For talents received.  “For the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (Lk 1:49).• For the ability to think, to reason and to read, to remember and imagine, and to decide for ourselves.  With these gifts, we participate in God’s very own being. “You have given all to me. I now return it to you to be used simply as you wish” (Prayer of St. Ignatius, “Take, Lord, receive”).   • For the precious gift of faith. So many Catholics have abandoned their faith, while others are searching for the riches within the Church. Still others have suffered martyrdom for the faith. During this first week of Advent, the Church celebrates the lives of two Jesuit priests and saints, Edmund Campion on December 1st and Francis Xavier on December 3rd.   • Campion (d 1581) was a bright rising star during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and is today revered in England and Wales. He was determined to restore Protestant Tudor England to its original Catholic unity. At Oxford, his learning, refinement, charisma and charm, endeared him to Elizabeth, but he would not acknowledge her as the head of the Church in England.  The charge for this crime? He was a Catholic (Papist). Campion was sentenced to death, like thousands of Papists before him, but not before he was racked several times and subsequently hanged, drawn, quartered, and dragged through the streets.  For him, faith was that precious pearl for which he was willing to suffer martyrdom. “Campion’s Brag,” defends his mission and purpose in England, and this oration became a source of strength and encouragement to those who might waiver in their defense of the faith.• Francis Xavier (1552) was one of the early Jesuits and, next to St. Paul, he is the greatest missionary the Church has known. At the College of Sainte-Barbe in Paris, Francis the extrovert cut a handsome figure in his stylish clothes, and his personality won him friends. He lived with panache. Once Xavier committed himself to the Company of Jesus, he accepted the task Ignatius of Loyola entrusted to him. He traveled thousands of miles to bring the Gospel to the Orient. First in India (1542-1551) and then in Japan (1549-51), there were reports of miracles and the gift of tongues. He died alone on the island of Sancian after a life filled with zeal for souls. The Power of One Campion and Xavier are our antidotes against mediocrity.  In each, we see the power of one.  Each had an almost divine extravagance about his person, ‘giving all and not counting the cost.’ In both, there grew a beauty of holiness more thrilling than any natural beauty or work of art. For them, we give thanks. And for all our blessings, we cannot say thank-you enough.

Rose, Mother of John F. Kennedy

Nov 20, 2013 / 00:00 am

Toward the end of her memoir, Times to Remember, published in 1974, Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, an octogenarian, reflects on the family’s grief at the time of President Kenney’s death in 1963.  It would be neither the first tragedy nor the last in the family. Years earlier, her oldest son, Joe, Jr., and a younger daughter, Kathleen had predeceased Jack at different times and in different circumstances—but both in plane crashes.  In 1968, the assassination of son, Robert.“We in the family reacted to our common grief in our own ways,” writes Mrs. Kennedy. “But we could all be reasonably steady because of the faith, hope, and love we shared. And because we knew quite well what Jack would want from us.  He would want courage, he would want as many smiles as we could manage, and he would want his death to be an affirmation of life” (382).The Day Everything Changed.  The Week America Lost Its Innocence.Thursday, November 21st On that Thursday, November 21st, John Jr., tearfully watched his parents board Air Force One en route to several political events in Texas, but not before they promised that, on their return the following Monday, they would celebrate his third birthday . . . .Friday, November 22nd Friday began as a beautiful clear, crisp autumn day at Hyannis Port. Mrs. Kennedy attended Mass as she did each morning.  It was the feast of St. Cecilia. After breakfast, she and her husband went for a ride in the station wagon.  Later, she played some golf.  After lunch, both took a nap.  Then, the news. Mrs. Kennedy recalls: “I had trained myself through the years not to become too visibly upset at bad news, even very bad news, because I had a strong notion that if I broke down, everybody else in the household would. I spent much time in our front yard or on our beach, and walked and walked and walked, and prayed and prayed and prayed, and wondered why it had happened to Jack.  He had everything to live for: a lovely and talented wife, a perfect partner for him, and two beautiful children whom he adored.  He had made such a glorious success of his life and of his presidency, and at last, for the first time since early childhood, he had become really healthy. Everything—the culmination of all his efforts, abilities, dedication to good and to the future—lay boundlessly before him.  Everything was gone.  And I wondered why.  . . .  “It’s not fair! . . . It’s not fair! . . . It’s just not fair! . . .    I walked on the beach and I thought, “Why?”  (377, 379).  Why indeed, this epic tragedy?Lyndon Johnson phoned Mrs. Kennedy after being sworn in as President. The plane was returning to Washington with the body of her son.  She recalls:  “When I picked up the receiver and said, “Hello,” I heard his voice full of recognizable anguish, saying, ‘Mrs. Kennedy, I wish to God there was something I could do.’”  After speaking with Mrs. Johnson, Mrs. Kennedy “went back to the yard and the beach.  My reaction to grief takes in part the form of nervous activity.  I have to keep moving, walking, pulling away at things, praying to myself while I move, and making up my mind that I am not going to be defeated by tragedy because there are the living still to work for, while mourning for the dead”  (380).Music for the Fallen PresidentMeanwhile, at Boston’s Symphony Hall, Erich Leinsdorf, beloved conductor of the symphony orchestra there, was about to conduct a relaxing Friday afternoon concert for a full audience.  Radio station, WGBH, carried it live. Backstage there was panic because the announcement of the President’s death had arrived. Hurriedly, a new piece of music, with all its orchestral parts, was brought out to be distributed to the perplexed instrumentalists.After conducting the first piece by Rimsky-Korsakov, Mr. Leinsdorf turned to the audience: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a press report over the wireless. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it—that the president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.  We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.”  (James Inverne, “Listen to This Chilling Audio as Boston Symphony Learns President Kennedy Is Dead”). Beethoven had dedicated the slow movement of the “Eroica” to the memory of a war hero.Stunned, the orchestra composed itself. Stunned, the audience burst out into tears in utter disbelief.  At the mention of a funeral march, they gasped. Leinsdorf raised his arms and began conducting the music in a slower tempo than was typically called for—those fifteen minutes of Beethoven’s poignant, piercing, penetrating music.  It was well known that President Kennedy thoroughly enjoyed Judy Garland’s performances.  She had campaigned for him in Europe; she occasionally sang at the White House at special events.  The President had recently told her: “We have changed our dinner [time] at the White House so we can watch your show.” Sometimes, he would call and ask her to sing the first part of “Over the Rainbow”—over the phone.  Deeply saddened by the President’s death, Ms. Garland closed her December pre-recorded program with “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”  At first, CBS thought it out of character and too political for the variety show, but it did go on.  A producer of the program later remarked:  “[It was] one of the great performances of all time. If you didn’t cry, you were dead.”  This show is available on DVD, “Judy Garland: the Concert Years.”Saturday, November 23rd The state funeral was being planned in Washington, but Rose Kennedy had her own preparations to make: “I went to the morning devotions at the beautiful little church, St. Francis Xavier’s in Hyannis—where all four sons had served as altar boys—and stayed on for the first Mass of the day, to which Ted and Eunice came.  I had called the pastor the night before and asked him to say this Mass for Jack.  It was one of the first things I had thought to do” (380).  After Mass, Ted and Eunice told their father, a stroke victim, what had happened to his son.Monday, November 25: President Kennedy’s FuneralRose traveled to Washington while her husband remained at home with an old friend, Father John Cavanaugh, the former president of Notre Dame University, watching the ceremonies on television.What was Mrs. Kennedy’s role on that day?  “I did not walk with the others in the procession from the White House to the Cathedral because I felt queasy, quite unwell that morning.  Nor did I take Communion at the Cathedral because I had already been to an early Mass and had received [Communion] then.  I was at the graveside in Arlington, of course, for the final ceremonies.  Afterward, with the others, I went to the White House to help express our family’s appreciation to the numerous head of state, other dignitaries, and many friends who had traveled from far places to pay respects . . . .” (381).Like the funeral of Abraham Lincoln, President Kennedy’s had pomp and majesty. It was John Jr.’s third birthday.A Daughter’s Tribute to Her MotherIf “the mother’s heart is the child’s schoolroom,” [then] our mother is the finest teacher we ever had,” recalls Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the third Kennedy daughter.  “She did everything nine times for the five girls and four boys in our family, and she made our home a school-room that far surpassed any formal classroom in the exciting quest for knowledge.  She kept maps around the house to quiz us about geography.  With her intriguing games and questions, she was forever stretching our minds, teaching us to care for others, taking us on picnics an day trips to swimming holes and historical sites alike, bringing us into conversations at the dinner table, transforming the daily headlines into new and stimulating adventures in understanding.  She loved to read aloud to us, and some of our happiest memories are of her enchanting bedside stories.  She was a marvelous piano player, and we loved to gather around her in the living room to sing while she played”   (Foreword).“The Anchor of the Family, Our Rock”“She was also the quiet at the center of the storm, the anchor of the family, and the safe harbor where little ones could tow their capsized boats and set their sails again.  For each of us, she has been the rock and foundation of our lives.  She has shaped our dreams and goals, supported our public and private causes, and encouraged us in our service to others in return for the many blessings we have had.  All her life, Mother has been a shining example of the love and faith that have always sustained her and that continue to sustain her” (Foreword). The training Mrs. Kennedy instilled in her children and her unquestioning strong belief made an impression that lasted. Despite some doubts about his faith, President Kennedy held on to his mother’s religious training.  “One night when Dad was visiting the White House,” recalls Eunice, “it was late and he started into Jack’s bedroom to mention something he had just thought of.  Then he stopped short and left without being noticed—because there was the President kneeling by his bed, saying his prayers” (144).A Touch of Humor One of many examples that reveal how active Mrs. Kennedy was in her son’s presidency concerns the following anecdote:In 1961, Rose Kennedy had met Premier and Mrs. Khrushchev during a meeting in Vienna.  Photographs had been taken, and Mrs. Kennedy wanted the Premier and President Kennedy to sign them. The Premier was first to sign and returned the photographs to Mrs. Kennedy who sent them on to her son with a note about her plan.  She received the following letter from him:“Dear Mother: If you are going to contact the heads of state, it might be a good idea to consult me or the State Department first, as your gesture might lead to international complications. Love,  Jack”Quipped Mother Rose:“Dear Jack: I am so glad you warned me about contacting the heads of state, as I was just about to write to Castro. Love, Mother” (348)A Life Well-livedIf there is one theme that threads its way throughout Mrs. Kennedy’s life, it is her Catholic faith.  At the end of her book, she writes:  “If God were to take away all His blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence, and leave me but one gift, I would ask for faith—for with faith in Him, in His goodness, mercy, love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and still be happy—trustful, leaving all to His inscrutable providence.  When I start my day with a prayer of consecration to Him, with complete trust and confidence, I am perfectly relaxed and happy regardless of what accident of fate befalls me because I know it is part of His divine plan and He will take care of me and my dear ones” (444).A  Biblical Tribute to Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy:“A perfect wife—who can find her? She is far beyond the price of pearls.She is clothed in strength and dignity, she can laugh at the days to come.When she opens her mouth, she does so wisely, on her tongue is kindly instruction.Many women have done admirable things but you, [Mrs. Kennedy] surpass them all.”(Book of Proverbs 31: selected verses)“Miles to go before I sleep” . . . .President Kennedy loved poetry, and “Ulysses,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, was a favorite. Some of those verses, heroic and inspiring, made their way into his speeches:“How dull it is to pause, to make an end,To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!”. . .We are not now that strength which in old daysMoved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;One equal temper of heroic hearts;Made weak by time, but strong in willTo strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Out of darkness, light

Nov 13, 2013 / 00:00 am

On October 12, fifty years ago, a plane landed in the United States from the former USSR carrying the Jesuit priest, Walter Ciszek. It was a large media event because, for some twenty-four years, he had been imprisoned in the Soviet Union as a Vatican spy. In 1929, as a novice, he had responded to Pius XI’s plea for priests to volunteer for the Russian mission, but religious formation awaited him. On that Columbus Day in 1963, he was being exchanged for two Soviet agents, a husband and wife team, arrested for espionage in our country.  Father Ciszek was scheduled to meet with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy to debrief him on his long imprisonment. The meeting never took place because of President Kennedy’s death the following month.Father Ciszek’s life has been well documented in his own two books: With God in Russia and He Leadeth Me. Much has been narrated about his sufferings in Russia: solitary confinement, mental and physical abuse, hard labor, his remarkable witness during those years. Happily the Church has named Walter Ciszek a Servant of God, the first step in the canonization process of a saint.The Rude Awakening After the Russians invaded Poland in 1939, the young Father Ciszek was arrested by the NKVD as a Vatican spy. He had been serving as a priest and teacher in Albertyn, Poland and then had entered Russia as a missionary with Polish refugees seeking work there. He took the name Vladimir Lypinski – a widower.He soon realized that the workers around him did not want to talk about religion or even listen to anyone speak about religion. The ritual of self-pity began: “This is not the life that I thought it would be. This is not what I bargained for. I want to go back. You [God] cannot hold me to the promise I made. I never thought it would be like this. I simply cannot stand it, and I will not stay. I will not serve.” (He Leadeth Me, 40)Slowly – very slowly, Father Ciszek came to see that the mission he thought he had chosen did not belong to him. He had to fail before it dawned on him that this was God’s work, and he, a supple instrument of Providence.   The wonder of Walter Ciszek’s sojourn in Russia is not so much that he suffered persecution, though suffering forms the raw material of his amazing life. The wonder is that this little man with an iron will and a backbone of steel learned the hard way – through failure, that we do not save ourselves or others by our own wits. It is God who saves; we share in that redemptive act. Moses had to learn this lesson as did other Old Testament prophets. When all seemed lost, God stepped in to save all and make it right.    To LubiankaIn 1942, Father Ciszek was taken to the dreaded Lubianka prison, formerly a hotel in Moscow, and the feared destination of innocent victims of the Soviet regime. For five years, he was kept there in solitary confinement where he was taken apart, piece by piece, in the way a jeweler takes apart a Swiss watch. He was cooped up, isolated in a room, 6 x 10, with an iron bed in one corner, a blanket and pillow, a parasha–a toilet bucket with a lid, no table, no chair, nothing to sit on. Prisoners were permitted to lie on the bed at night but spent their days standing or slouching against the wall or pacing restlessly and endlessly back and forth, up and down, the cubicle. The silence was deafening. Guards wore special cloth shoes so prisoners couldn’t hear them coming. The Daily Schedule at LubiankaA daily schedule kept Father Ciszek sane. First, he prayed the Morning Offering, he washed up, spent one hour in prayer, ate the meager breakfast allotted to him. He said the words of the Eucharistic liturgy by heart with no bread or wine. At noon, the bells rang in the Kremlin. This was the time to pray the Angelus and make his examination of conscience. He then recited three rosaries, one in Polish, one in English, one in Russian, sang hymns and childhood songs, gave himself homilies, told himself jokes, mimicked his interrogators and the guards, exercised, and prayer for his interrogators.The Interrogations at LubiankaThe interrogations were erratic, relentless, and frightening; they included physical abuse.  Sessions would last for days at a time, going on almost without let up. Often they were all-night sessions with a dim light over him. There was a set pattern of questions: “You are an agitator, revolting against the regime; you’ve taught religion, you’re plotting against the government, holding back information.” They criticized the Catholic Church. He began to break down due to physical and mental strain. Eventually he submitted: “I picked up the pen and signed the document admitting my guilt. I was burning with shame and guilt. God had abandoned me. How could God have allowed me to sign such lies?” (77)  His own strength failed him. He had failed.  Back in his cell, shaken, defeated, and overcome with helplessness, Walter Ciszek knew that he had relied on his own efforts. Fifteen years of hard labor in Siberia was his sentence.   The Grace of Enlightenment and ElevationWithin a short period of time, Father Ciszek received the grace of his life: the grace of enlightenment. He writes what can only have been a cry from the depths of his heart:  “Now, with sudden and almost blinding clarity and simplicity, I realized I had been trying to do something with my own will and intellect that was at once too much and mostly all wrong.  God’s will was not hidden somewhere ‘out there’ in the situations in which I found myself; the situations themselves were his will for me. What he wanted was for me to accept these situations as from his hands, to let go of the reins 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 gift of self, nothing held back. It demanded absolute 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 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 hold him up and he can float motionless and totally relaxed.” (77) By renouncing, finally and completely, all control of my life and future destiny, I was relieved as a consequence of all responsibility.  I was freed from anxiety and worry, from every tension, and could float serenely upon the tide of God’s sustaining providence in perfect peace of soul.” (79-80) But first, there had to be the stage of purification, the involvement in the suffering not chosen. He had pushed through the pain and had held fast to the words of Jesus: ‘I will be with you always’– in the ups and downs of your lives, whether boring or exciting, painful or joyful.’ The sacrament of the present moment was all that was certain. Stability came out of this purification because he permitted God’s power to work in him.  Out of darkness came light.SiberiaThe enlightenment which he received at Lubianka was put into practice in the Siberian labor camps. There he experienced a total loss of freedom, deprived of all rights or possibility of recourse.  He was assigned the lowest and roughest brigade doing the dirtiest work in the mud trenches, loading and unloading with bare hands and brute strength the heavy construction materials, crawling in the damp, dark holes of new mines – all dangerous work often done in temperatures below zero. He was helpless. In a cell of 30x30, 100 prisoners were huddled together.  There was absolutely no privacy. Conditions were degrading. Cells were filthy, slop buckets served as toilets, there was no running water, little fresh air, no change of clothes, all so inhuman. He was only political prisoner, thrown in with atheists, materialists, opportunists – all  unscrupulous. But he began to see beneath the skin that they were really like other men.He began to help others: listening, comforting and encouraging them to carry on. God was asking him to be another Christ.  His situation did not improve, but his disposition in the acceptance of God’s will had returned. Along with it had come peace and a renewed confidence – not in his own ability to survive, but a total trust in God’s ability to sustain him.  He came to see that work is not degrading but ennobling, given by God to build a better world. After much prayer and trusting in Providence, the rebellion began to disappear but not the adversity. Though he felt like a crushed spirit, he walked firmly in pitch-black darkness with the light of Christ before him.  This was pure faith. The stage of elevation followed quickly. With this came a deepening of faith. Light began to glow from within, to permeate all that he did. He resolved to accept each day and every moment as from God’s hands, and to offer it back to him as best he could.For Walter Ciszek, faith is like walking down a dark alley with a flashlight. You receive the light of God’s grace one step at a time. The light is not given to see the end of the tunnel.Freedom under SurveillanceAfter having served almost fifteen years, he was sent to Norilsk. Then at Krasnoyarsk, he was summoned to pack up. He was about to come home to his Jesuit Order which had given him up for dead, and to his family.ConclusionIn the film, “Shoes of the Fisherman,” adapted from Morris West’s book by the same title, Soviet Premier Komenev (Sir Laurence Olivier) asks the political prisoner, the former Metropolitan Archbishop Kyril Lakota of Lvov (Anthony Quinn) what he has learned after twenty years of imprisonment and hard labor at Lubianka and in Siberia.  Kyril’s answer is short but profound.  “I learned that without some kind of loving, a man withers like a grape on a dying vine.”

The Invasion of Mobile Devices

Nov 6, 2013 / 00:00 am

In 1532, Thomas More resigned his position as Lord Chancellor of England because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. In Robert Bolt’s play, “Man for All Seasons,” on hearing of her husband’s resignation, Alice scornfully asks:  “What will you do now – sit by the fire and make goslings in the ash?”  To which More replies: “Not at all, Alice, I expect I’ll write a bit. I’ll read, I’ll think. I think I’ll learn to fish! I’ll play with my grandchildren – when son Roper’s done his duty. Alice, shall I teach you to read?” What a waste of time, she thought. While in prison awaiting his execution, the future martyr-saint had a great deal of time to think.The Wonders of ElectronicsWithout electronics, the world would screech to a halt. Words fail to describe the wonders that the electronic age has wrought for communication, science and medicine, for economics, homeland security, and law enforcement. Today with cell phones, parents can monitor their children’s safety. Educators anticipate the time when every child in third world countries will own a computer and a cell phone. Every day, electronics offer new possibilities for human progress, and we are all their beneficiaries.If only . . . What if . . .In 1720, after traveling with his employer, Prince Leopold to provide music for his entourage, J.S. Bach returned home to find that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died and had been buried!  Such an unthinkable tragedy could not happen today. Had computers been available to Thomas Aquinas, he might have left us more summas than we already have. Had computers been available to Beethoven’s copyists, they would have been spared the pain of deciphering the composer’s scribble and his verbal abuse. Warnings for Our Young People  Not everything is rosy in the electronic age. Recent warnings state that mobile devices have become an addiction, especially for our young people. Moderate use is not the issue. Excessive use interferes with how they relate, or do not relate, to one another. When an individual cannot forego one hour without networking, addictive behavior is near. Parents are worried because it is so difficult to extricate their children from their hand-held gadgets. When they should be doing their homework, when they should be reading good literature, when they should be playing outdoors, they are “tethered” to their machines, always “on,” always ready to be used. Networking, not the telephone, is the communication for them. This is where our young people can connect with the world, but on their own terms. Instead of making real friends face to face, exchanging ideas through listening and responding with words, feelings, and actions, they make virtual friends with strangers. Technology makes it easy to control how and when they communicate with others or if they wish to communicate with them. Texting and tweeting require a minimum of explanation and a minimum of civility or courtesy. Networking “offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy and communication but without emotional risks” (Michiko Kakutani in “’Friends’ Without a Personal Touch” (The New York Times, February 11, 2011). Adults and ElectronicsNor are adults blameless in this regard. Children complain that their parents are preoccupied with their own electronics. It is virtually impossible to travel without someone’s private phone conversation intruding on public space.  Collective exasperation and outcry are sounding their crescendo. People in local cafes, mothers pushing baby carriages, pedestrians walking their dogs – many are using cell phones. If you have lunch with a friend, most likely the cell phone is on, and it will ring. Hand-held devices are in use at Sunday Mass, presumably because the homily is boring. “Public space isn’t what it used to be,” and “the centuries-old walls between what’s considered private and what’s considered public are crumbling” (Stephanie Rosenbloom, “Bad Manners Are in the Air,” (New York Times, November 3, 2013). What has happened to the dictum of Emily Post that etiquette, both at home or while traveling, does nothing that can annoy or offend the sensibilities of others? Personal Space and SilenceExcessive use of electronics interferes with activities of the mind and heart, and on one’s ability to be alone. Time spent alone is essential because what we say to ourselves is more important than what we say to others.  If we are tethered to electronics – and this includes radio and television, how can we listen to the voice deep inside praising, encouraging, or admonishing us?  Fear of loneliness, fear of being alone is a neurosis spreading across swaths of age groups. Loneliness is a defeat, solitude, a triumph. Silence brings its own power. But it can also be resisted. Silence can disturb. For many, it is noise. Whereas noise competes with reflection, silence invites it. Today, external silence seems to be a luxury; noise, the norm. But quiet time is still possible to find if the desire to do so is there. What little external silence exists should not be snuffed out by using mobile devices.Prayer and the Daily ExamenAddiction to electronics has made inroads into the life of prayer, as the Psalmist intones:  “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). For the person of faith, lay, religious, or clergy, time spent entirely alone with God is the most important activity of the day. All other activities should either lead up to the time of prayer or flow from it. Prayer is the power of our lives working deep within us, the energy of our activities. Time spent alone with God enables the individual to live in God’s presence during the remainder of the day. Curiously enough, far from taking time away from one’s activities, prayer seems to add time for them. Prayer affects one’s attitude toward life. The saints grasped this truth, which is why their activities were so effective.Prayer may not be the first thing one does in the morning, though many still make their morning offering while hurrying to their destinations. What counts is not necessarily the length of one’s prayer but the desire to pray. For mothers and fathers, on the run for the sake of their families, it may be possible to catch only ten or fifteen minutes for prayer, and that time may be in the shower. Some business people find a quiet place in a church at lunch time. Some take a walk and pray; others pray at their desks during their coffee breaks. Consecrated religious typically pray an hour each day, exclusive of attending the Eucharist and praying the Hours. Pope Francis tells us that he prays between 7 and 8 o’clock in the evening.  The best time for solitary prayer is entirely the decision of the individual. We pray as we can, not as we cannot. The particular examen is another type of prayer. In it, one reflects on how the day went. It evaluates whether or not the individual has found God in prayer, in oneself, in others, and in the events of that day.Perhaps we need more modern versions of Thomas More.

Saints galore: a triduum of beauty

Oct 30, 2013 / 00:00 am

In the very first days of November, the Church celebrates a triduum of saints galore, a triduum of beauty. The liturgies of November 1 and 2 commemorate more saints and virtual saints than in the entire liturgical year. Both feasts are anticipated by a vigil, All Hallows Eve. The opening antiphon for November 1st exudes unbounded joy: “Oh, how glorious is the kingdom where all the saints rejoice with Christ!  Clothed in white robes, they follow the Lamb wherever he goes!”In Medieval Europe, from the seventh or eighth century, October 31 was marked on the Church calendar as a day of preparing to venerate all those sainted men and women who had not been officially recognized by the Church. This cult had begun with the veneration of the early martyrs who shed their blood for the faith. In the early centuries, this veneration was carried out at their tombs. One famous pilgrimage site is located at Canterbury in memory of St. Thomas Becket. On December 29th, 1170, during Vespers, he was martyred by four henchmen of Henry II of England.   Soon veneration of saints who were not martyrs became as popular as those who shed their blood for the faith.  Today the Church urges the faithful to rejoice with those who have entered the heavenly realm.  The annual celebration reminds us that our earthly pilgrimage is short compared to eternity.  The eternal vision of God, our true destiny. Preparing for All Saints and All Souls DaysBy the eleventh century, the day after All Saints Day was dedicated to the commemoration of all the departed faithful, All Souls’ Day.  On this day, the familiar verse for the faithful departed is prayed: “Let perpetual light shine upon them, O Lord, with your Saints forever, for you are merciful.”The triduum of saints galore began on All Hallows Eve which served as the Church’s preparation for the two feast days of All Saints and All Souls. In Ireland and Great Britain, the end of October marked the end of the fall harvest and the beginning of the barren winter.  All Hallows Eve was celebrated by praying that one would attain sainthood like their sainted loved ones and all the saints, while at the same time, praying for the dead whose prayers they sought.  In her book, The Year and Our Children, Mary Reed Newland writes:  “Late in the evening in the country parishes, after supper was over, the housewives would spread a clean cloth on the table, set out pancakes and curds, and cider.  And after the fire was banked and chairs set round the table for the returning loved ones, the family would recite Psalm 129, the De Profundis, 'Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord' and then go to bed.”The English custom of knocking at doors began by begging for a “soul cake” in return for which the beggars promised to pray for the dead of the household. The refrain sung at the door varied. It could be as short as “a soul cake, have mercy on all Christian souls for a soul cake” to a later version: “Soul, soul, an apple or two, If you haven’t an apple, a pear will do, one for Peter, two for Paul, three for the Man who made us all” (270-78).  Advent of the DoughnutThe soul cake ushered in an ingenious variation—the doughnut. To remind people that life on earth was but a transitory reality, a hole was carved out of the middle of the cake so that those who ate the cake were reminded of eternity. Later on, charades, pantomime, and mini-dramas were developed on the reality of life after death and the means of attaining salvation.  With the remembrance of a saintly life came images of evil—goblins, witches, and cats, which were ancient symbols of the devil.  Still, the familiar and seasonal harvest fruits such as apples, cornstalks and pumpkins were given out to beggars. Christian art depicted death by skulls and bones to remind Christians of death. Thus, pagan and Christian symbols existed side by side.Nevertheless, Christendom cast its thoughts from the end of temporal life to thoughts of death, sainthood and the departed souls. The saints in heaven and those suffering in Purgatory are part of the full and complete Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints. In 1955, All Hallows Eve was stricken from the Church calendar. Many in the Church are calling for its return.The Communion of SaintsThe liturgical celebrations of November 1 and 2 bring our loved ones closer to us through the Eucharist. What better way to acknowledge that, as we age, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints becomes a deep consolation, for nothing and no one is ever finally lost.  All of us have loved ones who have died. These days are set aside to help us unite our thoughts and prayers with those who have preceded us to the other side of life. Here is the beauty of the Communion of Saints.Our Children and the Communion of SaintsIn postconciliar years, children of grade school ages have been encouraged to combine a celebration of All Saints Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day.  With the help of parents, teachers, or catechists, they find success stories from the Judeo-Christian heritage.  These stories include: kings and queens, biblical heroes, Indian and American saints, teen-aged saints, founders of religious orders, and modern-day martyrs who have suffered for their faith in persecuted lands all over the world.  Children don costumes similar to the saint of their choice, and the list is endless.  It might be King David, Queen Esther, or Ruth of the Hebrew Scriptures.  Others might include St. Kateri Tekawitha of the Mohawk Indians, those saintly Jesuits who ministered to the Indians in Upper New York State and Lower Canada; there is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini, the first Italian immigrant and American educator, St. Martin de Porres, St. Maria Goretti, or St. Thérèse of Lisieux.  They may even dress up like their own sainted grandparents.Today, though our youth admire social and sports super-stars, the Church takes pride in her own success stories. Throughout the course of the liturgical year, all of us, young and not-so-young, celebrate not only the mysteries of Jesus and the Mother of God but also the feasts of the saints in heaven—official and unofficial.  Their lives exemplify what genuine success stories really mean, and they are worthy of our admiration and imitation. St. Paul’s SaintsA cursory reading of the Pauline corpus reveals that Paul often referred to his Gentile communities as saints. Not that they had realized sainthood.  It was important for them to understand their vocation as saints-in-the-making.  Each was to become Saint _____. In our own twenty-first century, how many thousands have been martyred simply because of their profession of faith! “What are saints except geniuses–geniuses who bring to their works of virtue all the splendor, eccentricity, effort, and dedication that lesser talents bring to music or poetry or painting?” So writes Phyllis McGinley. “Like musicians, painters, poets, they are human beings, but obsessed ones. They are obsessed by goodness and by God, as Michelangelo was obsessed by line and form, as Shakespeare was bewitched by language, and Beethoven by sound. And like other geniuses, they used mortal mean to contrive masterpieces. (Phyllis McGinley, Saint-Watching, 17).Completing the Roster of SaintsEach of us may keep our own list of men and women, not officially sainted, whose feast days are celebrated on November 1. Take for example, Rose Kennedy, a valiant woman who, in her own lifetime, raised nine children, including her severely mentally disabled daughter, Rosemary. She sustained the deaths of three sons and a daughter.  In her touching memoir, Times to Remember, she writes “If God were to take away all His blessings, health, physical fitness, wealth, intelligence, and leave me but one gift, I would ask for faith—for faith in Him, in His goodness, mercy, love for me, and belief in everlasting life, I believe I could suffer the loss of my other gifts and still be happy—trustful, leaving all to His inscrutable providence.  When I start my day with a prayer of consecration to Him, with complete trust and confidence, I am perfectly relaxed and happy regardless of what accident of fate befalls me because I know it is part of His divine plan and He will take care of me and my dear ones” (444).Do our thoughts ever turn to those renowned artists who have given the world deep satisfaction through their own creative works—painters and sculptors, writers, poets, musicians, and composers?  What of scientists who have made for healthier living, and those who have expanded our awareness of the heavens?  Our many civil leaders and emancipators can also claim a place of saintly honor.What of the selfless entertainers of our time, those who gave us respite from daily cares?  With their hilarious comedic fun, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, for example, entertained thousands of troops fighting in World War II—especially during Christmas time.  Fred Astaire, himself a remarkable artist, once said of Judy Garland that “she was the greatest entertainer who ever lived.”  In her short, tragic career that was mishandled by MGM Studios, she gave her heart unstintingly, thrilling her audiences as she sang directly to each of them.  How curious, that she endeared herself to them by singing not only “Over the Rainbow,” but “Get Happy” whose lyrics point to the feasts of All Saints and All Souls:  Refrain“Forget your troubles, come on get happyYou better chase all your cares away.Shout hallelujah, come on get happyGet ready for the judgment day.The sun is shining, come on get happyThe Lord is waiting to take your handShout hallelujah, come on get happyWe’re going to the Promised Land.VerseWe’re heading across the river, wash your sins in the tideIt’s all so peaceful on the other side.  Refrain.In this triduum of beauty—October 31, November 1, and November 2, we give thanks for all those who have enriched our lives. We seek communion with them, our saints galore.

A world of beauty

Oct 23, 2013 / 00:00 am

Lately, the words beauty and beautiful have been featured in essays among Catholic writers. Perhaps they have been prompted by the document, “The Way of Beauty,” issued by the Pontifical Council for Culture (2006), urging our church leaders to promote the ways of bringing beauty into the culture, thus evangelizing the culture.  October is the month of beauty, of lovely fall colors spread across the landscape of our country. So, it is fitting to revisit the beautiful once again.Beauty is a universal need, and no one can live without some kind of beauty. A thing of beauty uplifts the entire person if the pleasure derived from it is morally sound and aesthetically honest.  Instinctively we know that beauty is a power that attracts and elevates. Gazing at a sunset, visiting a museum, listening to beautiful music, sharing a fine meal, deriving satisfaction from a mathematical or scientific project – all these experiences of beauty are designed for us to enjoy.  Beauty stirs the desire to love.  A person deprived of beauty is like a person deprived of love.    What Is Beauty?Beauty is a word whose meaning remains largely misunderstood. Of all creatures, only human beings are capable of delighting in beauty; only human beings can make things beautiful and can make beautiful things.  Common sense tells us that beauty goes deeper than mere externals; it is not synonymous with a pretty face or a finely-tuned body.  The culture would have us equate human beauty with physical appeal. Today, the media exercises enormous power by defining beauty and dictating their own standards for judging it. Companies spend billions of dollars selling cosmetics, high fashion, and weight-reducers that claim to beautify what is skin deep while theater and film equate love with romance and sex.  Beauty resides below the surface of things and cannot be externally applied like a new hairdo or icing on a cake.  Beauty is credible when it is joined with her “two sisters,” truth and goodness, and it is a fraud unless it is completed by them. Beauty, Strictly Speaking and Broadly Speaking Beauty pleases, delights, gives enjoyment and deep satisfaction, Strictly speaking, beauty is anything that simply and solely delights, gives enjoyment and deep satisfaction by the knowledge of it. This strict definition of beauty applies to a work of art like Tchaikovsky’s ballet, “The Nutcracker Ballet Suite” or to the film, “Singin’ in the Rain.”  Broadly speaking, the beautiful is “anything that both delights and causes some other disquieting emotion in the beholder’s mind” (Francis Kovach, Philosophy of Beauty, 29). The sublime delights and awes. The tragic delights and saddens, and the comic delights and evokes laughter.  In the thrilling film, “Witness for the Prosecution,” the viewer is kept in suspense until the film’s last chilling moment. Beauty and SocietyBeauty builds up society when it helps to lighten our burdens and comfort our spirits.  Every culture pursues beauty in its own way. A nation enjoys the beauty of civic, religious, and national holidays and the majestic vistas of national parks and playgrounds.  Labor Day, for example, helps us to value both work and leisure. Art exhibits together with music and literary events celebrate the human spirit. A society, long deprived of beauty, compensates with coarse, vulgar, and even offensive pleasure that debases human dignity.The Beautiful and the UglyThe beautiful and the ugly are alike in one sense. Both attract attention. Both fascinate. Both draw us in. But this is where the likeness ends. Penetrating to the psyche’s deepest levels, beauty gives meaning to life. Beauty elevates, gives us joy, makes us feel greater than we are, and consoles the spirit bringing with it an inner peace. Beauty is associated with the sacred and the godly.  Just saying the word beauty is like praying it.  The UglyIn contrast to beauty, the ugly debases; it horrifies. Its mask may fascinate, but the intention is to corrupt its onlookers who stand frozen before it, glued incredulously to the horror.  Little by little, it drags down. Without our doing, the ugly saddens the heart, agitates the spirit, and depresses the psyche.  At its sight, we cringe; we retreat from it lest we be caught in its clutches. The ugly is associated with evil, the ungodly, and even the occult, and satanic. Today, our children are being taught ugliness in all its repulsive guises from the outré of Miley Cyrus to the offensive lyrics of Rap which debase women’s dignity.  The Ugly and Grotesque: Pagan, Occult HalloweenThe lovely month of October is marred by Halloween, a sinister grotesque kind of evil; it is a day that worships paganism and the occult. Asked the meaning of Halloween festivities, most people shrug their mindless shoulders: ‘I don’t know, but it’s a lot of fun.’ In its present form, Halloween has pushed its way—no, it has steamrolled its way into October beauty. Halloween is a multi-million dollar business. Since the end of September, stores have been showcasing brassy orange and ominous black in the form of skeletons, pumpkins, ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and other creepy creatures.  At the same time, school authorities recognize the danger of vandalism and harmful pranks associated with Halloween. They warn against psychosis resulting from the bad dreams of sensitive children. In its present form, Halloween is rooted in the unholy and unhealthy regions of darkness. Some schools have banned Halloween antics, and in the process, all holidays are in danger of being abolished. Beauty, Leisure, and the SabbathTo experience beauty, one needs leisure time, time to relax, however brief or prolonged.  Yet, often a relentless work ethic dismisses it as time wasted.  Many guard leisure as a precious value, but in practice it is challenged everywhere.  Still, it is a prerequisite for the survival of every culture. Leisure is a satisfying kind of activity and not just cessation from work, not idleness, not wasting time. It disengages us from the cares of life freeing us to enjoy natural and artistic beauty. Leisure evokes creativity but varies from one person to another and from one culture to another.  Leisure for one may be work for another. Many work on the weekend so that others may relax on the weekend. Leisure is characterized by certain universal similarities, bringing with it freedom from external constraint, joy and meaning to life. Sunday worship, reading a book, taking a walk, gardening, attending or playing a ball game, enjoying sound TV programs, or taking the coffee break are qualitatively the same: they refresh and enrich a person for the return to routine of work. Leisure is self-authenticating with no need for apology, defense, or justification. Ceaseless work and overwork destroy the spirit because, in practice, they tend to view men and women as machines. Acedia and ennui, a state of listlessness and boredom, dull the sense of wonder, a thought implicit in the psalm verse: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10). Without periodic rest to restore the soul, acedia and ennui, afflict one’s overall well-being that weaken the taste for God and spiritual activities.  Loss of employment and financial crisis can provoke despair and can trigger acedia and ennui. While coping with such extreme hardship, attention to unplanned leisure can remind one that being is as important as doing. Activity follows being, which is then transformed into communication and relationship with others.  So, to be is to be a living dynamism desirous of communicating. Our bodies register the need for leisure. We work to live and not the other way round. Leisure, not work, refreshes the human spirit. Leisure activates a ripple effect: The experience of beauty evokes wonder, wonder evokes reverence for nature, for the arts, and most of all, reverence for one another as God’s images.  Collectively, Americans rank among the most driven people in the world. Our style, competition. Puritanical tendencies are resolved only by justifying leisure as earned by work or as necessary to continue our work. Moreover, Sunday worship, the highest form of human activity, can become distasteful because it is perceived as unproductive, and therefore, meaningless. Unlike business and other practical transactions, liturgy is an end in itself.Leisure remains not only the basis of culture but a preparation for divine worship. Western civilization is indebted to the Jews for keeping the Sabbath. In fact, they gave us the weekend beginning on Friday at sundown. As if to confirm the need for leisure, Jesus tells us: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). Beauty in Today’s WorldHow can we think of beauty in a world of unspeakable suffering?  How can we speak about it when truth, goodness, and love are called into question? Despite the grim news and horrific images that enter our homes daily, even relentlessly, we still yearn for beauty, truth, and goodness, all attributes of love. The human race may be flawed by limitation and sin, but at heart we do want these qualities supported in the family, in the Church, and in society at large.

Leadership in a leaderless world

Oct 16, 2013 / 00:00 am

Leadership styles affect us all. The Mideast conflict has raised questions about the inability of world leaders to resolve the crisis without violence. In this country, discussion of strong leadership has further expanded as it affects matters of debt, spending, and health care – all burning issues.Leadership styles come in different guises. Tyrants wield power and make decisions without opposition. CEOs may delegate, while others micro-manage it. Weak helmsmen fear initiative and creativity. When a political leader shows an inability or unwillingness to limit self-absorption, self-admiration, and self-praise, his style is narcissistic. He abuses his office through unyielding arrogance and an egotism that seeks power for its own sake. His drive for prestige in addition to his drive for power over others will ultimately bring him down, especially if this selfish vision overshadows the pressing needs of his country and its people. Instead of using his power with people to unite, he divides, pitting one group against another hoping to exercise power over them.The collaborative or democratic style of leadership engages as many viewpoints as possible in contributing to a final decision. Lincoln chose this form of leadership, as Doris Kearns Goodwin reveals in A Team of Rivals.Winston Churchill is still considered the greatest leader of the twentieth century. On becoming Prime Minister of Britain in 1940 during World War II, he spoke of hardship: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” It was not what his fellow countrymen wanted to hear; it was what they needed to hear. Who of us is not familiar with his “Finest Hour” speech: “Let us bear ourselves, so that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’” And who can forget his praise of his Air Force:  “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.” Churchill exercised his power with purpose and principle.Margaret Thatcher possessed an assertive self-confidence that engaged in pragmatism but was bolstered by a strong Presbyterian ethic. Her direct and charismatic leadership style won for her the title, “The Iron Lady.” And what of Aung San Sui Kyi, the Burmese dissident politician, who led a non-violent resistance against the Burmese repressive military regime?  In 1991, she received the Nobel Peace Prize.In September 2001, Rudolph Giuliani, mayor of New York City, with enormous presence of mind, exercised extraordinary leadership over a city that had been besieged by terror. He later remarked that his father had wisely counseled:  “When others are overcome by fear, remain calm.” These leaders fawned over no one. Neither did they pander to popular opinion. Although their leadership carried with it enormous power, theirs was not a power over people but rather an authority with people. Still, governments do not elect saints. The Pope’s Leadership StyleEveryone has a theory about the Pope’s leadership style. Less than one year into his papacy, virtually everyone seems to be putting a label on him. He’s too liberal. He’s too humble, too abstemious, too optimistic. He’s an iconoclast, a compulsive worker. If, in the future, he shows himself as a gourmet cook, which he is, will that also surprise us? The Pope’s leadership style is still evolving. The College of Cardinals gave him a broad mandate, the full extent of which we do not yet know. But there are intimations of his direction: Unless we let the light under the bushel basket be visible to all, our faith will be dismissed as irrelevant.Francis may be the CEO of a world organization, yet he serves it.  He may be the political leader of the world’s smallest state, yet he does politics by not practicing it. The vigil of a few weeks ago during the Syrian crisis was his way of leading the Church in a day-long prayer even as he decried the violence. Broadly educated in humanism, he speaks with ease to everyone regardless of rank or status. Yes, he stands on the stage as a media star, but he plays it down. Pope Francis, the JesuitFrancis, a son of St. Ignatius, is a man of action, but not as the head of an NGO. He sees God in created things, and he sees them in God. He prays for the sake of his ministry, and his ministry is done for the sake of prayer. God is present and at work in the universe so that nothing is merely secular or profane. Francis is at home in the world. This is Ignatian.The Ignatian way is to be on the move in the thicket of human pursuits; it is a restless way, restless for the Magis, the More. It is always eager to effect change for God’s greater honor and glory (ad maiorem Dei gloriam). The Ignatian person journeys on a road that never quite arrives.  Three questions are asked along the trek up the road: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What should I do for Christ? It is not Ignatian to do nothing. This Pope is on the move.As a well-chiseled personality, Francis has a keen awareness of self. He knows who he is – gifts and limitations (he confesses his inability to sing). This self-knowledge likely stems from doing to the daily examen, a key aspect of the Ignatian vision. He told a confrere that he does not make decisions on the spur of the moment. Every decision that will have consequences must be tested. Discernment – that process of weighing the good and the bad, the grey and the less gray in terms of a greater or lesser faith commitment – this is how he makes decisions. Here his commitment to avoid the trappings of pomp, power, prestige, and status comes into play.  Simply Catholic“The manner is ordinary” – simply Catholic – neither to the right nor to the left, but in the middle of the road – in medias res. And this way can surprise.Didn’t Jesus surprise the Twelve when he spoke to the Samaritan woman in gentle if not familiar terms? Didn’t Jesus surprise them when he told Simon to his face that his feelings were hurt?  What of Jesus’ remark of nine lepers who didn’t say ‘thank you?’ And what did Peter think and feel when the Master told him off: “Get behind me, Satan?” Was Jesus a liberal or a conservative? Wasn’t he both? He centered his teaching on what pleased his Father. Wholeness was the goal: “I have come that they may have life, life to the full,” he assured his listeners (Jn 10:10).  Our faith must be a full and complete faith – not simply a belief in creed and not simply an agency that does good. We are a Church that must sing beautifully together as a unity. We cannot be a Church that creates dissonance or who scolds like the mythological Harpies. What we see in Pope Francis is “mere Christianity” – but a papacy in a new key.We live in a time when transition is very intense. It is a time between winter and spring when the earth is bare and the plants are seemingly dead, yet underneath everything is tense with energy. This is our time, but God is in charge as the verse proclaims: “Sion, sing, break into song! For within you is the Lord with his saving power.”

Yeast in the dough

Oct 9, 2013 / 00:00 am

On her TV program, “Martha Bakes,” the talented Ms. Stewart cannot contain her delight when she makes a yeast dough. She swoons: “Look at the sheen—so soft and shiny! The aroma is bee-you-tee-ful, and the fragrance gratifies all the senses!” Her exuberance is preceded by meticulous instructions: proofing active yeast, blending it into the flour mixture, and letting it rise to double the size.  The yeast dough serves as the basis for baking a variety of baked goods from breads to sticky buns and sugar buns to monkey bread.  “Soo pretty, soo delicious,”she concludes, proudly gazing at her culinary works of art.It’s a wonderful phenomenon—yeast.  It permeates the lifeless flour and causes it to grow. The power of yeast is felt in the brewing of beer and in the making of wine.  The yeast plant is a fungus that grows with no particular limits to its borders. Only if the yeast is alive and active will it interact with the dough so that it will rise.  Recently, our Holy Father spoke of the Church as leaven. He is not the first to do so, nor will he be the last. In the Matthean parable (13:33), the reign of God is like yeast which a woman took and kneaded into three measures of flour. Eventually the entire mass of dough began to rise. The image of yeast was a favorite in the Early Church, because everyone understood the inner dynamism and power of yeast with its limitless ability to make things grow, even in small beginnings with “three measures of flour.” They grasped the comparison—that the yeast referred to the Church as an unlimited and growing reality, “destined ultimately to be present everywhere and to affect everything, though by no means to convert everything into itself” (Walter Ong, “Yeast,” America Magazine, April 7, 1990).The word catholic (from the Greek kath, through or throughout and holos, whole) finds its Latin counterpart in the word universal (from the Latin unus versus [ad] alios, literally, one turned toward others, the many). A full understanding of the word catholic implies not uniformity but a dynamic openness to all peoples and cultures with their different ways of expressing their belief, both Catholic and otherwise. Thus by definition, the Catholic Church is catholic in scope.  The word universal suggests using “a compass to make a circle around a central point.  It is an inclusive concept in the sense that the circle includes everything within it.  But by the same token, it also excludes everything outside it” (Ibid).  While “universal connotes a subtle note of negativity, katholicos does not. Accordingly, the Church is not universal but catholic in “the sense that it has always been in one place or another growing, spreading into new dough, in accord with the parable of the yeast” (Ibid).  Like yeast, the Church enters other cultures and is inculturated wherever it finds itself—today and tomorrow, nourished by Christ through his Body.Yeast from Other CulturesOther cultures also have a yeast that can permeate the Church to make it grow. The Church learned much from pagan rhetoric. Thomas Aquinas interpreted Aristotle.  In our own day, Catholic teaching has benefited not only from the personalist philosophy of Dietrich von Hildebrand and Fr. Norris Clarke, S.J. but also from that of Martin Buber.The Catholic Church does not destroy other cultures, but it interpenetrates them, and not only on its own terms, but interactively. The Oriental ChurchesDuring the Second Vatican Council, the Churches of the Christian East, both Catholic and Orthodox, served as leaven regarding several pivotal decisions in the Latin Church, thereby enriching it.  The latter made available the possibility of receiving the Eucharist under both species of bread and wine, a practice that is typical in liturgies of the Christian East. The Latin Church restored the Order of the permanent male diaconate, a decision that has renewed the ministerial dimension of laymen both during the Liturgy and in other lay ministries.  After all, ordained male deacons were an integral part of the Early Church as were ordained women deacons who also served in ministries of prayer, teaching, pastoral care, and social concern. The Oriental Churches champion the role of deaconesses, some of whom are Orthodox theologians (Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald, Women Deacons in the Orthodox Church).  The Eastern Catholic Churches, whose heritage is closely identified with the Orthodox Churches, are still grappling with their individual identities because, for years, they have suffered from what is known as Latinization. This term connotes “the modification of Eastern liturgies, customs, and modes of thought by undiscriminating adoption of foreign practices and submission to foreign influences [which] mostly come from the West” (Donald Attwater, The Christian Churches of the East, 1: 27).Latinization is rooted in the belief that the Latin Church is better than the Eastern. Many instances of Latinization have impeded the proper celebration of Eastern liturgical rites according to their sacred and longstanding customs. Latinization in liturgy and its art forms have occurred since the sixteenth century. Some examples of Latin influence include the removal of icon screens to insure architectural conformity of the Eastern Catholic Churches to the Latin Church. Some Eastern Catholic Churches have replaced the sung liturgy with the recited liturgy, a drastic change weakening the exalted atmosphere intended for the Byzantine service. Moreover, the use of pre-cut particles of bread instead of breaking the bread dilutes the meaning of the scripture verse: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10: 17). The most significant of all Latinizations concerns clerical celibacy, a twentieth-century phenomenon. As Eastern clergy from East and Central Europe immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century, the North American Latin Church would not accept the legitimate prevailing tradition of married priests in the Christian East.  In 1929, the Vatican decreed in “Cum Data Fuerit”, (“When it shall have been given”) that the secular clergy of the Byzantine Ruthenian Rite, desiring to come to the United States had to be celibate.  The following excerpt is taken from the decree: “The priests who wish to come to the United States and stay there, must be celibates” (Art. 12).  Associations of the faithful of the Greek Ruthenian Rite shall be under the vigilance of the [the local Roman Catholic] bishops” (Art. 37).  Roman Catholic bishops in this country directed married priests to return to their native lands despite the needs of newly-settled immigrants in the United States. In places other than North America, secular priests of the Eastern Churches retained their tradition of a married clergy. While papal encyclicals guaranteed the preservation of the legitimate Rites and established way of life in Eastern Catholic Churches, a satisfactory resolution of this issue has not been found. Several years ago, I had the occasion of speaking to an elderly married priest of the Byzantine-Ruthenian Rite.  He referred to himself as "the last of the Mohicans."Despite such problems, the Christian East is slowly regaining its lost heritage.  Through education, Oriental Christians do not feel culturally inferior or pressured into imitating Roman Catholics for the sake of acceptance. Theological and liturgical identities have emerged stronger than before, thus enabling Eastern Catholics to reclaim their rightful heritage. The contributions of the Oriental Churches enrich the Catholic Church as a whole. Both yeast and dough work for the good of human beings. This approach is catholic.Can Yeast Be a Corruptive Influence?The image of yeast is not always used in a favorable sense. In 1 Corinthians 5:6-8, St. Paul mentions what all Jews understood:  At the Paschal festival time, they were to destroy all yeasted products because leaven was a metaphor for the corruptive influence of evil that is, for puffing up the self, leaving no room for God. Proofing the yeast in warm water will yield bubbles around the surface, and the yeast will become puffed up if it does not interact with the flour dough—white, whole wheat, or rye. The puffed up yeast will die. In this sense, the Latin Church cannot afford to be puffed up with such pride and righteousness as though it has all the answers for the good of the entire Catholic Church.Two important questions may be asked.  First, how can Western (Latin) Catholics learn to appreciate diversity within the whole Church without surrendering their own identity? Second, how can we become one in heart and in spirit, that is, how can diversity lead to unanimity?