Monday, September 15, 2014

News Flash: Pope Francis Makes News for Doing the Ordinary, First in a Series

Pope Francis made news this weekend by doing what thousands of priests around the world do all the time; he regularized the marriages of 20 couples at the Vatican. Some of the couples were in traditional situations, meaning that they were attempting marriage for the first time and weren't cohabitating ahead of the ceremony. Others were married civilly, had had annulments or were living with their partner before approaching the altar. This may come as a shock to many none Catholics, and to even a few of the baptized, but normalizing these types of irregular arrangements is what the Church does. We do it on the parish level all the time. I would say that a healthy percentage of the weddings that I've done fall into these categories. This is yet another case of the Pope making news for doing the routine.

I will not deny the symbolic nature of the Holy Father's actions. The pope, in his day to day duties, doesn't do things like weddings and baptisms. He is not a "super" parish priest. His roles are primarily those of teaching and governance. So when he does go out of his way to perform these "mundane" tasks they become a teaching opportunity for the Church and the world. Are there still local pastors who would turn away such irregular cases, especially those couples who are living with each other out of wedlock? Sure: so a clear message is being sent that the pastoral approach, not the legal approach, should be the default. 

But it doesn't change the fact that what Pope Francis did over the weekend is very much in line with the standard practice of the Church, especially in Latin America where he comes from; a region in which many countries demand that a separate civil ceremony take place before the religious one. There can be a lag time of weeks, months and quite often years between civil and Church weddings, for various reasons. So, these are not new waters for our Argentine pontiff.

I'm not sure how the Holy Father approached the situation, but I can tell you how many priests handle cohabitating couples. Some priests might refuse to do the wedding unless they separate, most encourage them to move apart but don't make it a prerequisite for getting married. We encourage abstinence before the wedding. When they go to confession before the wedding, as all couples should no matter their situation, I always make abstinence a part of the penance. I understand; telling people that they shouldn't sin isn't really a proper penance, but by incorporating into the Sacrament of Reconciliation it stresses the importance of what they are entering into. I've never had anyone object, and I'm often thanked. Are there priests who ask no questions and give tacit approval to people living in sin (let's not be afraid to call it what it is): again, sure. But they're really not helping the couple reconcile properly with he community or grow in their personal relationship with Christ.

As for the couples who were divorced, either after a sacramental or civil marriage, I'm sure the proper canonical processes were observed to make sure that they were free to marry in the Church.

In spite of the fact that what the Pope did was so ordinary, there were still reactions from secular news sources proclaiming the novelty of it all, exemplified by this snippet from a Reuters report:

"Francis, who is the first non-European pope in 1,300 years, has expressed tolerance regarding other topics that are traditionally taboo in the Church, asking 'who am I to judge?' a gay person 'who seeks God and has good will'.

His approach contrasts with that of his predecessor, the German Pope Benedict, who said that threats to the traditional family undermined the future of humanity itself."

The now famous line, "Who am I to judge," really deserves it's own post because it's been so misinterpreted, in part because it's been removed from the context of the question Francis was asked and the relatively lengthy answer he gave, and the willful ignorance of the media in reporting it. But following the line, yet again trying to contrast Francis with the Pope Emeritus, is particularly shameful, and I will address it here now.

To suggest that the actions of Pope Francis over the weekend, or in his papacy up to now, are some sort of repudiation of his predecessor is absurd. Can we see a change of style or of emphasis?; without a doubt. But before we get too ahead of ourselves let's remember that in June it was reported that the Holy Father, while addressing a charismatic convention, said that:

"'Married couples are sinners just like everyone else, but they want to continue with love, in all its fecundity. They continue in the faith, bearing children.' ... 'Let us pray to the Lord and ask him to protect the family in the crisis with which the devil wants to destroy it,” the Pope said. 'Families are the domestic church where Jesus grows in the love of a married couple, in the lives of their children. This is why the devil attacks the family so much,' Francis explained. 'The devil doesn’t want it and tries to destroy it. The devil tries to make love disappear from there.”'

Wow, the Devil is trying to destroy the family? Bearing children is central to married love? Doesn't sound like someone trying to redefine marriage, or who believes that recent social changes effecting the family represent an unqualified good.

There has been much debate in recent months about Francis' position on gay marriage, with some suggesting that he supports or could tolerate gay civil unions. But as Archbishop of Buenos Aires his opposition to gay marriage was called "medieval" by that county's president, and he's been quoted as saying that the idea of gay marriage represents an "anthropological regression." Again, a far cry from the feel good message disseminated by the main stream press.

In all this mangling of the Pope's words and actions we lose the fact that he really is doing something new. But it has nothing to do with changing doctrines or disciplines. It has to do with getting back to the heart of the Gospel, and understanding that policies and disciplines are there to help us live as more faithful disciples of Jesus; they are not to be simply followed for their own sake. He has said that we can't be afraid of change, and that we should have the courage to change structures, policies, and even disciplines if they no longer help us in following Christ faithfully, and in spreading the Gospel to the nations.

This last part is the key. If there is a change the Pope is trying to effect it is to move the Church from maintenance mode to mission mode. The Church doesn't exist to be a self sustaining institution but to be the herald of the Good News. What that means I'll get into in the next post.

Francis represents a change of tone from his predecessors, to be sure, but not a change of doctrine. If we look at the words of both Benedict and Francis we will see convergence in mind while a difference in tone. One is a theologian, the other is a pastor. One teaches what we believe the other shows us how it's lived in practice. Unfortunately there are many reporting the news who can't, or refuse, to see the difference.

Part two of this post will cover the famous "Who am I to judge?" quote, and the mission of the Church to reach out to the peripheries.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Wars and Rumors of War, Part 1


Take heed that no one leads you astray. For many will come in my name, saying, `I am the Christ,' and they will lead many astray. And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not alarmed; for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: all this is but the beginning of the birth-pangs. Matthew 24:4-8 (RSV)

The name of this blog was inspired by the words of John the Baptist as recorded by the Evangelist St. Matthew. In this passage from Matthew 3 where he warns those who came to him for the baptism of repentance that he offered that a judgement was coming, and so their repentance needed to be sincere. Jesus was the embodiment of that judgment that John spoke of, but rather than with fire and wrath, Our Lord came with a gentler approach. John the prophet wants to spur people to follow the right path, Jesus wants to assure them that they will find a loving, merciful God when they get there and, yes, he will wait patiently for the return of the sinner.
Nonetheless a time of definitive judgement will come; it's simply a matter of when. As we move more into the autumn, closer to the end of the liturgical year the readings will reflect this reality. The Church has a funny way of teaching us along with the seasons; so as nature seems to be experiencing a death of sorts by way of the trees losing their leaves and the hours of daylight running short we are reminded that death, judgement and the End Times are realities that cannot be avoided. 

Trying to discern the when and how this will take place is as old as the Church herself. But this is foolishness. It's enough to know that it will happen to keep us awake and ready, or at least it should. 

People ask me now, considering all the tumult in the world, if these are the end times. Bear in mind I've been asked this question for the last twenty-five years, which tells me that people are always shocked that world and national events are, by nature, unpredictable and unstable. I will admit that the upheaval we are passing through now does seem to be more intense than we have experienced in recent history. All the same, since no one knows the day of the hour I feel foolish trying to answer the question at all. But my gut answer is no. We are not witnessing the end of the world, or even the beginning of the end. 

But this doesn't mean that I don't think that we are at crossroads, and that something is ending, with something new, that we probably can't even imagine, beginning.

The Venerable Fulton Sheen promoted a theory of historical development that cut world history into roughly five hundred year epochs. At the dawn of the Christian Era was the birth of Christ. Five hundred years later the Roman Empire fell and a new Western Civilization began to take shape. In 1054 we have the schism between Rome and Constantinople, that split the Church in two. In 1519 the Protestant Reformation begins, causing divisions in the Church as well as political divides in Europe. This coincided with the age of exploration, and revolutions in science and industry. When he spoke in the 1970's he saw that another five-hundred year period was coming to an end. A unified Christian culture in the West was on its last legs, the Arab-Muslim world was on the rise after centuries of European domination, and the culture in general was splintering. He saw the century ahead, the beginning of the Third Millennium as marking the end of one epoch and the beginning of another. 

In light of this theory I think we need to look soberly at what's going on right now in the world. Al Qaeda has morphed into ISIS (or ISIL or IS, depending on the acronym you prefer) and is engaging in terrorism of the most barbaric fashion imaginable. And yes, I do believe that their organization is present in some form here in the U.S. waiting for an opportunity to strike. 

Russia is resuming their expansionist goals that were suspended at the end of the Cold War. I personally think Vladamir Putin's objectives are more Czarist than Soviet, but either way it's foolish to dismiss him as a 19th century throwback who's on the wrong side of history. Hitler had Napoleonic ambitions out of step with the Brave New World people were envisioning after the disaster of World War I, and look at the havoc he caused along the way to personal and national destruction. 

As a side bar, in general I don't see Hitler and Putin as having all that much in common, but there is an interesting similarity in the situations that one was and the other is trying to take advantage of. It's been said that Germany was forced to sign a surrender treaty at the end of the Great War, but was never really defeated definitively on the battle field. By 1918 the war was essentially a stalemate, with the late entry of the US on the side of the Allies making victory for the Central Powers an impossible goal, even if tactical defeat wasn't eminent. The soldiers went home, Germany was forced to suffer severe "peace" conditions, but never really felt like that they had lost. What they did feel was let down by their leaders, both military and political. This made the rise of a nationalistic party like the Nazis possible. In the same way the USSR was never really defeated by the US in a military encounter. We had our Vietnam and they had Afghanistan, but we never went head to head (thank God), and so the dissolution of the Soviet Union didn't really feel like a defeat to the Russian people but was seen as a political failure. Russia has always seen itself as the protector of the Slavs, and had imperial ambitions in the region going back to the Czars, so what Putin is up to is very much in line with Russian aspirations through the ages. Like Hitler wanted to revive German national pride, so Putin is taping into Russia's recent and distant past to unify his country's resolve and sense of purpose. 

We have not heard much about Venezuela's trouble's lately, but that country is still in civil unrest, and Latin American countries like Brazil and Argentina are experiencing political, economic and social convulsions. 

Again, not much in the news about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the last couple of weeks, or about the Iranian or North Korean nuclear programs, but we know those situations can heat up on a moment's notice.

I haven't even talked about the social, political and economic crises at home, and I don't plan to. I think you get the point: there's a lot going on. Wars, rumors of war, as well as epidemics and natural disasters all seeming to be happening at once. It's easy to believe that Biblical prophesies are coming to pass and the world is coming to an end. I believe that the words of our Lord are coming to pass, but that the world is not ending. A world, if you will, is in it's final hours though. I'll leave the judgement as to whether Fulton Sheen was prophetic or lucky about his timing to others. But we are in a period of epochal change, and what this means for the faithful I'll leave for the next installment to explore.

Friday, September 5, 2014

First Impressions on the Suspension of Fulton Sheen's Cause


Venerable Fulton Sheen's cause for canonization has hit an inexplicable wall. Inexplicable because we aren't talking about some revelation of a previously unknown impropriety, or the discovery of heresy in his writings that would disqualify him being raised to the altars. No, the problem is that both the Archdiocese of New York, where Archbishop Sheen served as an auxiliary bishop, lived most of his adult life and is presently entombed in St. Patrick's Cathedral's crypt, and the Diocese of Peoria, IL., where he was born and raised and whose staff has been handling the canonization process up to now, can't agree on what to do with his remains. Peoria wants the body so it can be examined and first class relics collected. New York is saying that Archbishop Sheen's wishes, spelled out in his will, was for his final resting place to be St. Patrick's, and his family wants these wishes respected. This unexpected pause puts on hold Sheen's beatification that some were expecting could happen as early as next year.

I was ready to come out with guns blazing on this, but reading The Anchoress this morning made me take a pause and reset. But even with the cooling off period I'm seething over this development. The word that came to my mind first was "scandal." And it is scandalous that this disagreement is being handled in such a public manner. It disheartens the faithful and gives ammunition to secular critics. It gives off the impression to all that the Church is about power and politics, and is not actually interested in promoting the truth. Both Cardinal Dolan, the Archbishop of New York and Bishop Jenky, the Bishop of Peoria are honorable men, and I do have confidence, as Elizabeth Scalia does, that this is a bump in the road that will be resolved quickly.

I'm sure Peoria, which has done most of the heavy lifting up to now feels pushed around by New York, who they may perceive as trying to jump in to grab the glory at the end, and felt the need to go public with this dispute as it's only recourse. New York does have a responsibility to respect Fulton Sheen's final wishes, and the continued wishes of his surviving relatives. And while he may have been a small town boy from El Paso, Illinois, Fulton Sheen was a New Yorker through and through, and his desire to be laid to rest there was heart felt. All this is true. But we hear a lot of talk in the press these days about "optics"; that things need to look good as well as be good, that people's perceptions of reality matter almost as much as the reality itself. While both sides have a point, they really do need to think about how this all looks, sit down together and work this thing out.

For those of us who toil in the apologetics vineyard, even if only in a small corner of it like myself, Fulton Sheen is a hero. He was a pioneer in using emerging media, first radio and later more famously television, to spread the Gospel. He wrote over 60 books, and also managed to head up the U.S. office of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, a main fundraising arm for the Church's missionary efforts. During his heyday in the 1950's he had one of the most popular shows on TV, and was only surpassed by Billy Graham as the most recognized Christian figure in the U.S.. He went out of favor a bit after his death in 1979, but his stature has made a steady comeback since the 90's due to the republication of his books and videos.

I only knew the old, frail Fulton Sheen, epitomized by his encounter with Pope St. John Paul II at St. Patrick's only two months before his death. The image we usually see is of the two men embracing, Sheen with tears in his eyes. But I remember as a boy watching on television that as Archbishop Sheen approached John Paul in the sanctuary he seemed to collapse to his knees with great emotion, startling the attendants, and the Holy Father, who quickly moved to help him back up. A loyal son of the Church, as the Pope would describe him, he would have knelt for anyone wearing the shoes of the fisherman, but he knew the historical significance of this man, from the Communist Block, becoming pope at that time. He had preached vigorously against atheistic communism his whole life, could this be the one who would help turn the tide of history? It was as if he was Simeon waiting in the temple, not for the Messiah, but for confirmation that his work hadn't been in vain. With the election of John Paul II he knew that the beginning of the end of atheistic communism had begun (as some inside the Kremlin would later admit they thought themselves the day the Polish Pope first appeared on the Loggia). So while he may have knelt for the Pope simply because he was the pope, I'm not sure he would have done so with such purpose had it been another man. And yes, he was dead two months later, as if to say, your servant can go in peace; that which I have been praying for has been set in motion.

I didn't understand all that as a 12 year old boy. I only saw the devotion and the tears, and they've stuck with me all these years later. As I got older and discovered his recorded sermons and TV shows for myself it all came together. There are many great Catholic apologists around today using the internet and other new forms of social communication to get the Word out. Fr. Robert Barron, the closest thing to a Fulton Sheen we have today, has observed that the Venerable bishop would have given his right arm to take advantage of outlets like You Tube and Twitter. But whether we're out there in front, like the Word on Fire ministry, or like many of us who work the information superhighway on our spare time, we are all Fulton Sheen's children. My prayer is that whatever the disagreement is, it may be resolved soon and Archbishop Sheen's cause may carry on to a favorable end. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Living Between Dorothy Day and St. Michael: A Reflection on my First Year as Pastor of St. John Bosco, Chicago


August eighth marked my one year anniversary as pastor of St. John Bosco Parsh, Chicago. It passed without fanfare, and to be honest, without me remembering that it was the date of my arrival in 2013. Someone asked me the other day if I'd been here a year yet, thus making me do the math in my head. So, with one year under the belt, here's my perspective on life at Bosco.

To put it simply, I've seen two great realities converge in this year, realities that are usually seen as mutually exclusive, but I, increasingly, think not. One is that the material needs of the people are great. Many families are being squeezed by the present economic situation. The politicians can spin it any way they want; there are many unemployed or under employed people living from rent check to rent check, utility bill to utility bill not knowing how they'll pay them. The demands on our emergency family fund and food pantry is at an all time high, and this isn't an exaggeration.

The second is that more and more people are coming reporting problems of a preternatural nature: things moving in their house, seeing unexplainable shadows or themselves experiencing some form of demonic oppression or infestation. The common link is that these people, or someone close to them or someone living in their apartment building have dabbled or are involved in occult activities. Can some of these events be chalked up to mental illness or an overactive imagination? Sure. Just like not everyone who comes to the door looking for a handout is legit, not everyone claiming some demonic episode is on the level. And with a little experience one can learn to tell the difference, in both situations. But I just don't believe in mass hysteria, and really it's not hysteria at all. The people who come are generally very discreet, and are unsure of what's happening. In a strange way this is one sign that something probably is happening.

Like I implied at the start, issues of social justice and spiritual warfare are usually seem as preoccupations of two separate "camps" within Catholicism. People who read America or Commonweal and vote Democrat are perceived as usually being more concerned about the plight of the poor and economic justice. Those who read National Catholic Register or visit the Spirit Daily website regularly and vote Republican will wear St. Benedict metals and believe in demonic possession. But that has to change.

Pope Francis has spoken a great deal about economic issues, but has also about the reality of Satan. He has even linked the two things, implying that the concentration of economic and political power in the hands of a few is a product of both unjust systems and the machinations of the evil one (I read this a few months ago, and went back to try to find the article but couldn't. A reminder to me to bookmark more). 

Obviously when a family comes in need of rent assistance or food I'm not suggesting that we sprinkle holy water on them and send them on their way.  We as a parish need to do what we can to meet their immediate needs, while learning how to network more effectively with state and Church agencies to facilitate long range help. Also, we need to advocate for reforms that put people and families at the heart of our nation's economic and political life.

There is too this dark spiritual undercurrent. Secularists believe that reason replaces faith, but in truth  as traditional religion fades superstition increases, as Pope Benedict once said. We are hardwired for the transcendent, and if we don't seek it through the conventional avenues people will find others. Spiritualism and occult practices are on the rise, in part, because Catholicism demands surrender to God's will and the occult promises control over spiritual forces, and by extension the natural world. But these are uncontrollable forces and the ministers of the Church are left to deal with the ramifications of playing with unholy fire.

To wrap up, my conclusion is that as a Church we shouldn't choose between social justice and spiritual warfare; we're not either devoted to Dorothy Day or St. Michael. We don't need to be doing both at the same time, but we need to be doing both. And I admit, I can't articulate where the Holy Father is coming from when he connects the two realities; I'm pretty much taking his word for it. Not just because he's the Pope, but because I've seen it with my own two eyes, even if I don't have the words to explain the reality. 

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Pius X: The Under Appreciated Pope Saint

One afternoon, when I was probably thirteen or 14 years old, I found myself hanging out around our parish school building, outside the cafeteria. This was unusual because I went to public school, and while I attended CCD classes there on Sunday mornings and, by this point, Wednesday afternoons for my entire childhood, I really didn't know the building that well. The cafeteria is in the basement, and I hardly ever went there, and had never previously exited through the outside doors. The reasons for me being in that location are lost to the fog of time, but there I was. The cafeteria, like I said, was in the basement, and this particular afternoon I decided to do some exploring, when I stumbled upon a statue of a saint that I'd never seen before. It seemed to be hidden near an outdoor staircase that lead up to street level. It was a plain, white stone statue of a bishop. The face was gentile, and the base was inscribed "Pope St. Pius X."

I was taken aback. "A pope can be a saint?", I thought. Even then I liked history, and I don't recall if the years of his reign were inscribed on the statue, or I found out later, but when I saw that he served between 1903 and 1914 I was even more astonished. I knew that the canonization process could take decades, and even centuries to work itself out, so I thought "a pope from this century, declared a saint, and we never hear about him? And why was this stature in the most inconspicuous spot on the parish property; are they trying to hide it?" I was flabbergasted. These were the days, long before the Internet, where you actually had to go to a library to get information on people, places and things. I can't say that I rushed out and began doing research, but over the years I did pick up things here and there about this saintly pope who lost favor became of changing theological fashions, and misunderstanding.

Pius X, born Giuseppe Sarto in 1835, was probably the first modern pope to have been born poor and had real pastoral experience before becoming the Successor of Peter. Most popes from roughly the Renaissance until the nineteen century came up through the aristocracy, becoming bishops at a young age due to their connections more than their sanctity. More recently, in the 20th century, many top churchmen went into the Church's diplomatic corps or curial bureaucracy soon after ordination, moving up the line because of their skills as administrators and diplomats. It doesn't mean that some of these men weren't very holy: Pope St. John XXIII, though of humble birth, went the diplomatic rout himself before becoming Patriarch of Venice and later pope. It's only to say that it wasn't uncommon to have a man ascend to the papacy without ever having served in a parish.

This cannot be said of Pius X, who went right into pastoral work after ordination, essentially serving in place of the regular pastor who was very ill. He oversaw the expansion of the parish's church building and of a hospital under his care. Don Giuseppe was a hands on priest who worked directly with cholera patients during an out break of the disease in his town. He was popular with the people, and "moved up," if you will, because of his hard work and dedication to his flock.

When he became pope in 1903 he had an understanding of how the faith was lived on the grass roots level, and set about reforms of the church bureaucracy to make things easier for both parish priests and the people they served. He reformed canon law, establishing an orderly, systematized code for the first time (this work would not be completed until after his death). He re-established Gregorian Chant as the normative musical style for the Sacred Liturgy; not just because it was traditional, but because it lent itself to congregational singing, and thus the active participation of the faithful better than the highly stylized orchestral music that had been in vogue in recent centuries. He simplified the breviary, the prayer book priests and religious use everyday, so that they could fulfill their obligation to pray for the Church more efficiently amid their busy pastoral responsibilities.

The reform that touched the people most directly was his lowering of the age for First Communion from 12 to 7. He also promoted frequent Communion, as well as confession, at a time when it was common practice to only receive Communion a few times a year. He believed firmly that the frequent reception of the Eucharist was the "shortest and safest way to Heaven."

As for the papacy itself, Pius X simplified papal ceremonies, always feeling uncomfortable with the trappings and pomp of the office. He also refused to use his office to benefit his family. His sisters continued to live in relative poverty and his nephew, a priest, remained in his small, simple parish.

Up to now, you might be wondering why Pius X fell out of favor for so long. In many ways he sounds like a lot like Pope Francis.

Pius fell out of favor with later generations because he fought modernism, a heresy, which in fairness is hard to define (the term is more of an accusation than than a name), but is connected with the integration of Enlightenment philosophy into Catholic thought, skepticism, relativism, and a rejection of the supernatural claims of Scripture. These were the early days of modern scripture study, and while some progressive scholars that fell under suspicion were later vindicated, others did deny the truth of Sacred Scripture, for instance denying the veracity of the miracle accounts, and even the divinity of Christ. Pius was ruthless, some would argue cruel, in rooting out scholars he felt were teaching doctrine contrary to the Faith. The criticism is that some wheat got pulled up with the weeds.

I can say that when I was in the minor seminary in New York many years ago Pius was not looked upon with great favor by my Church History professor, among others. His years were seen as repressive for Catholic intellectuals and scholars, and though it didn't take long for subsequent popes to step back from Pius' zealousness, it's felt that it took decades for the intellectual atmosphere in Catholic seminaries and universities to thaw.

In someways Vatican II is seen as the final triumph of the "anti-anti-modernists," where the Church finally adopted a post Enlightenment vocabulary and mindset. Pius X, the crusader for orthodoxy, who held the philosophy of Thomas Aquinas as his great weapon, just didn't fit into the narrative of updating and change that filled the post-conciliar air. I have to make it clear that those who take this point of view don't self  identify as modernists, and in fact don't believe that such a thing ever existed to begin with. While recognizing the extremes that some scholars at the turn of the 20th century engaged in, they would argue that there was no need for a systematic rooting out of dissenters. And so Pius X, saint of the Church though he is, was relegated to the back staircase near the dumpsters.

A scripture scholar I studied under at the same time put things in an interesting perspective for me. While he too did not believe that modernism was an organized heresy that needed fighting, he understood that things were moving fast in those days. There was legitimate inquiry going on, as well as those who were straying far from the faith. Pius wasn't a scholar, and had a hard time figuring out what was valid and what was heresy. So, he basically said, let's stop and give ourselves time to figure this out. Yes, some good men were hurt. Others were kept from active scholarship for a time before being permitted to go back to their work. While his methods may not have been ideal, that break is what the Church needed at that time to get whatever updating that was to happen right.

As we celebrate the Feast of Pius X today, which is also the 100th anniversary of his death, I think that we should remember a man who loved the flock he was sent to tend. He opened for them the riches of the Eucharist, knowing how powerful a means of grace the Sacrament of the Altar is. He understood what it meant to be a servant pope, much like Pope Francis today. He died as World War I was beginning, praying for peace and the reconciliation of the waring sides. He's a saint, which doesn't mean that the was perfect, but that he was faithful until the end. For this reason he should again be placed in a prominent place in our hearts, and in our churches. 

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Robin Williams, 1951-2014


I was away on retreat last week, which is a partial explanation for my lack of out put this summer. But rather than make excuses, I'll dig in and get going again.

Much of the news this week was dominated by the death of actor and comedian Robin Williams. And while I don't want to make this a critique of his career, I believe that putting the actor first is right. He was Juilliard trained, acted in plays by Shakespeare and Samuel Becket, as well as winning an Oscar for a dramatic roll, and I think he was such a great comic, at least in part because of his acting sensibilities. While I don't agree with his friend Carrie Fisher, that he ranks with Charlie Chaplin, his was a unique talent that contributed to his being a complete performer. He was the best all around comedian of of his generation, and much more than that.

But more to my point.

When anyone commits suicide the obvious question the people left behind ask is why.  In this case there was no note left, as far as I know, so we are left to guess. Unfortunately, in this 24 hour news cycle - incessant media gossip driven culture, there has been no shortage of armchair psychologists lining up to give their diagnosis. There's been a flurry of speculation over his faltering personal finances, the reputed poor state of which his business manager said was highly exaggerated. Someone, a "friend" who refused to be identified, said Williams dreaded having to do a Mrs. Doubtfire sequel, and more movies in general, because of the emotional strain getting into character was for him. Some claimed he was embarrassed about having to do television again, others said he actually preferred it. The latest theory is that his Parkinson's medication increased his depression, which possibly put him over the edge. But the one person who can tell us for sure, Williams himself, can't. That is the tragedy beyond telling.

All the speculation is understandable, even if some of the coverage has been crudely sensationalized.  That Robin Williams was a famous person, and thus receives so much attention at his death, can blind us to the fact that he was a person - a human being - first. If the manner of his death helps to draw attention to the problem of clinical depression and suicide, then indeed some good will come out of this. If all it is is more fodder for the gossip page, then we've missed an opportunity. Suicide is still somewhat of a taboo subject that the surviving relatives don't like to talk about, there is so much guilt and anguish surrounding it. I've done funerals for people that I know had taken their own lives, but the family never acknowledged the fact. And I proceeded as I wasn't in the know, so as not to make a bad situation worse.

But what about suicide? What should our attitude be? From judging the public response we as a society, thankfully, still see suicide as being negative; something to be prevented. I saw one person somewhere out on the web say that Mr. Williams had made a choice so we shouldn't think ill of it. But for the most part we understand that suicide is a literal dead end that leaves no possibility of a future. There are those who support some form of euthanasia, which I don't, of course, but it was clear that what ever his physical condition he was in had not reached a point where such an action would be justifiable, even by supporters of assisted suicide.

From the Catholic stand point, suicide has always been considered a mortal sin because it is a rejection of God's most precious gift to us, life, and because it tries to seize control over life and death from from the Almighty's hands. It is a selfish act that devastates the loved ones who are left to deal with the feelings of guilt and hurt. They live the rest of their lives often times asking themselves why it happened and was their anything they could have done to prevent it.

In light of this longstanding belief that suicide is grave matter, warranting the loss of one's soul, the assumption that Catholics labored under for many centuries was that suicide meant automatic damnation to hell. Funeral services were often denied to people who took their own lives, as well as burial in Catholic cemeteries. This only added to the shame and grief of the surviving family members.

While we can judge acts, we should avoid judging individuals. We know that people who take their own lives are not in the right frame of mind, and depression and other emotional disorders can cloud the judgment, effecting people's ability to make a truly free act. For a sin to be grave in the subjective reality of life there must be grave matter, proper reflection and full consent of the will. In other words the act in question is objectively sinful, we know it's sinful and we do it anyway without any coercion. Mental illness can effect one or all of these factors.

Even before the advent of modern psychology the Church understood that you can't make blanket judgements about people who've taken their own lives. A distraught widow once came to St. Jean Vianney crying that her husband, who had jumped off a bridge, was in hell. The saint told her that she did not know that since she has no idea what went through his mind in the interval between leaping from the bridge and hitting the water. Who knows if he had sincerely repented and asked God's forgiveness or not? Only God knows. So it's for us to pray for his soul, and I would suggest we do the same for Mr. Williams. This would be far more beneficial than asking unanswerable questions and engaging in idle gossip.

Eternal rest grant unto him of Lord and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Weird Scenes Inside the Gold Mine: "Deliver Us From Evil" Movie Review


The exorcism movie, a sub genre of the supernatural thriller, which itself is a sub genre of horror films in general, is a tricky feat to pull off. The main problem is that the best of these motion pictures was the first of it's kind made, The Exorcist, back in 1973. Forty-one years on and no one has been able to top William Friedkin's adaptation of the William Peter Blatty novel. This is because, whether you believe that demonic possession is real or not, there are verifiable cases of people who have exhibited the symptoms of possession, and we have an actual rite of exorcism the Church uses to help these afflicted people. We're not dealing with a zombie apocalypse or a vampire coven, both of which no one has ever seen. There is no legend here that a writer or director can play with. We know what this looks like, and The Exorcist covered the topic almost ehaustively, even if it did go over the top in places. Since there isn't any new ground to cover, all a story teller can do is imitate the movie that started it all, or else pump up the gore and sensationalism to try and mask the lack of originality. The new entry into this sub-sub-genre of horror, Deliver Us From Evil, regrettably, does both.

Deliver us From Evil is based on the story of retired NYPD police sergeant Ralph Sarchie, who first encountered the demonic on the job as a police officer in The Bronx. I haven't read the book this movie is supposedly based on, but if it's anything like The Rite from a few years ago, another "based on true events" movie taken from a book, the two renderings of our hero's story are probably very different. The Rite, as a movie, was an improbable story of a faith challenged seminarian becoming an exorcist, where as that film's source material is the real story of a veteran priest going through a preparation program for exorcists in Rome. The truth is less sensational, but more frightening, and enlightening, than the Hollywood embellishment. This is precisely where Deliver Us From Evil breaks down: director Scott Derrickson is so busy trying to scare us in the conventional way horror movies usually do he misses the real terror, and the very angle that would have given a genuinely original spin to this otherwise pedestrian run through.

Sarchie (Eric Bana) is a police officer who's seen too much on the mean streets of the City. When he responds to a call at The Bronx Zoo, where a woman threw her baby into a safety mote outside the lions' den, he figures he's dealing with another crazy person. Back at the precinct house he encounters a mysteriously hip priest, Fr. Mendoza (Edgar Ramirez) who assures him that the mother is not insane, but possessed. There's skepticism on Sarchie's part, as one would expect, but when a connection with other bizarre cases he's dealing with emerges, he comes to believe that maybe the priest is right. Eventually Fr. Mendoza helps Sarchie to understand his own gifts, which go beyond simple intuition.

I won't continue describing the goings on, because the plot is so needlessly complicated, tying together threads in a way that seems forced. A prime example of this is including Sarchie's domestic life so prominently in the story.  It seems like it was done so we can get a frightened little girl being tormented by demons in the night, a la Linda Blair (Olivia Munn is waisted, as Sorchie's wife, though she does a good Bronx accent, which is to say she hints at it as opposed to trying to do a caricature). The Exorcist is also referenced by way of an Iraqi prologue that holds the key to understanding all the spooky happenings. But the whole thing is muddled, and what we're left with is an R rated horror movie that's not going to be gory enough for the hard core fans of the genre, and too gory for fans of psychological / supernatural thrillers, like me.

If the movie had stuck to one simple story, focusing in on Sarchie and the spiritual gifts he discovers that he has, this would have been a much clearer, subtler and truly terrifying film. Instead we get possessed people who act more like zombies and vampires, along with the needless gore that follows such a strategy.  To me, this isn't frightening, just nauseating.

The sad thing is that there was potential here for originality. Making the priest second fiddle and focusing in on the layman is not an insignificant twist to the plot. Exorcisms and prayers of liberation are not done normally by a solitary priest; there is usually a team involved. The priest has the power of his ordination working for him, but each member of the team also brings gifts, which for some involve being able to perceive spiritual realities. A key part of the exorcism process is getting the demon's name. Knowing its name gives the exorcist power over it, and it won't give that name over easily. Sometimes it is one of the "seers," for lack of a better term, that is able to get the name, along with other important information that will help the priest exorcist in his work. I compare it to forward observers who help an artillery crew direct its fire. These things are hinted at, but get drowned out by all the blood and guts.

There are other issues I had with the film as well. I think it's good the make our priest flawed and human, as they do here. But in an attempt to make Fr. Mendoza a priest with a past, they go to such an extreme that I'm not sure this guy would have ever been ordained, let alone maintain his faculties to minister publicly. I understand that it's a movie, and things need to be condensed for the sake of pacing, but exorcisms can take weeks, and often months, and here they whiz through it in an afternoon. An exorcism can't be performed without the express permission of the local bishop. Even an officially delegated exorcist needs to get permission each time he performs the rite. To make a snap decision to move from simple prayers of liberation, for which no permission is needed, to an actual ritual exorcism, as is shown here, simply wouldn't be done, at least not by a priest in good standing. Exorcisms are highly controlled events that take place in churches or some sacred space, not in the basement of a police station. It can be stressful, exhausting and, yes, terrifying, but it isn't chaotic if it's done properly. I would go on, but there's just too much wrong with this movie, and not enough time and space to cover it all. The bottom line is, if they had not tired to go to extremes they would have actually had a good movie that sheds light on an important, and misunderstood topic, instead of what we have here, which is just an unholy mess.

This isn't Derrickson's first foray into this genre, having previously directed The Exorcism of Emily Rose (which I haven't seen, but plan to now). I've heard generally positive things about that film from people who saw it, but his current work gives me no sign that he knows how to handle this sensitive material with delicacy and, dare I say, grace. Forty-one years, and Heaven knows how many attempts; the champion of the supernatural thrillers remains The Exorcist.

As a coda of sorts, I was surprised at how extensively the music of The Doors was used throughout the film, including a reference to the relatively obscure piece Celebration of the Lizard: which only only hard core Doors fans, like myself, would probably pick up on. They use the master recordings, which means someone from the band's organization had to sign off on it. I only point this out, because the message seems to be that the Evil One is a big Doors fan, something I'm not sure that the surviving members of the band would want to promote.