Monday, May 23, 2016

Mary Help of Christians and Saint John Bosco

May 24 is the Feast of Mary Help of Christians, the Madonna of St. John Bosco. Here is an explanation of the devotion and the image that hangs in the basilica dedicated to her in Turin, which was built by Don Bosco in the 1860's. The video is put together by a Salesian from the Philippine's, featuring a commentary by Cardinal Joseph Zen, SDB.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Rules For Radical Chic

Most of my analysis of the 2016 election has been focused on the Republican side of the battle, but now I do want to change my focus to the Democrats.

In the last few days the MSM has begun to pay more attention to the divisions within the Democratic Party. In the public mind Bernie Sanders is a latter-day Don Quixote: an idiosyncratic but dedicated social justice warrior who's refusing to concede defeat, even though his chances of beating Hillary Clinton are only possible mathematically. In the world of probabilities he has a greater chance of being struck by lightning in a coal mine than surpassing Clinton in delegates, and has only slightly better odds at forcing a contested convention in July. But he's persistent, saying he's going to stay in the race until every vote is counted, though his campaign says he will not pursue a third party run. His persistence is generally applauded, but that he feels embolden to continue his impossible dream is  a sign that not all Democrats are on the same page.

More than his persistence, it's the persistence of his followers that is drawing concern as opposed to admiration. There's been much made of the violence at Donald Trump rallies, but people are now noting that Sanders' supporters can be disruptive themselves. The reported disruptions at the Nevada State Democratic Convention were, in part, directed toward Senator Barbara Boxer, a Clinton supporter who is far from a conservative. Similar to the GOP, the Democrats are facing their own anti-establishment insurgency. Not long ago Boxer would have been called a progressive, but Sanders' open espousal of social democracy has left conventional liberals looking a bit staid. There are now serious questions if the establishment and the insurgents will be able to coalesce to insure a November victory. Worse yet are concerns that things could turn ugly at the convention.

In this vein California's other senator, Diane Feinstein, has raised worries that Philadelphia 2016 might be the new Chicago 1968, where the Democrat's national convention was marred by riots in the streets and turmoil in the hall. Her reference to a possible 1968 redux, and specifically the negative effects it could have on the electorate is a veiled reference to the election results of that year: a fractured Democratic Party didn't unite sufficiently around the establishment candidate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, allowing former V.P. Richard Nixon to win a narrow victory. In spite of Nixon's disgraced exit from the presidency in 1974, the Democrats would hold the White House for only four of the next 24 years.

The irony here is that many Democratic establishment figures today were the radicals of 1968, or their heirs. That year Hillary Clinton, a college senior, worked on the failed campaign of Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war outsider who in a loose way is analogous to Sanders this time around. She, and others of that generation would be familiar with the thought of Saul Alinsky, the groundbreaking community organizer who's confrontational style shaped generations of left wing activists that followed. Though his supporters down play the influence, it's hard to imagine that President Obama was a community organizer in Chicago and wasn't acquainted with Alinsky's tactics, as well as experienced in their implementation. The irony now is that those who fought the power way back when, and carried the mantle later on, are now the power, and are getting a dose of their own medicine.

The Democrats, as I see it, are caught in a dilemma. They have positioned themselves as the progressive party, though some of them are more progressive than others. But the progressive movement needs to be constantly moving forward, and can't tolerate any drag on the forward momentum. Even if progress really isn't as complete as we would like, there's a time to say we won, and move on to the next issue lest the faithful lose interest. In spite of the progress that still needs to be made in terms of race relations for instance, the general feeling is that sufficient strides were made that we can turn our attention to the area of sexual politics, embodied in the gay rights movement, framing the issue in the same way the precious struggle was. Now that gay marriage is the law of the land, we have to move to transgender rights. Once there is a perceived victory on that front, whatever that will represent, we will have to move on to the next issue, and the next and the next. We are never at the point where we can be satisfied, because human and social progress, by it's very nature, never stop. The only good status quo is the one we just upended in the name of equality and social justice. We believe that Utopia is just around the corner, just on the other side of the mountain, across the sea, but when we arrive we'll realize that there are still more obstacles to overcome, and overcome them we will. In the end we are Sisyphus rolling the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down, which means the there really is no end - in part because none of the problems are ever really solved. So new issues are brought to the fore are old ones, left half completed, are kept in reserve for the time when there seems to be a lull in the storm and another cause is needed quickly to rally the troops. In that case any cause will do, as long as it keeps the engine of progress fueled. There is no rest, only grinding, sleepless progress.

Mrs. Clinton may be liberal, but she's no progressive, at least not in the mold of Mr. Sanders. She's happy with the social changes wrought in the last few years, but she didn't spearhead them, and was initially against some of them. She wants to control the system, not burn it down. The thing is, right now, even though their party has controlled the executive branch for seven and a half years, many in her party don't simply want more of the same. No, they want to dismantle the entire social, political and economic system and start over from scratch, because that's what progressivism is all about: keep people discontented, keep them focused on an enemy, keep them caught up in the process even though there are never any lasting results. A garden variety liberal like Clinton, who may be for equality and redistributing wealth, but's still in bed with Wall Street and the big banks, looks awfully passé right now. It's true the there are many Republicans who can't get themselves support Trump, but don't be surprised if many Democrats who've felt the Bern can't get themselves to pull the lever for Hillary.

What will happen in November? We need to be careful in making predictions off of the past alone. History doesn't repeat itself, but it does often rhyme, as Mark Twain may have, but probably never, said. It's true that the establishment in the Republican Party could fail to support Trump, with many GOP voters either staying home, leaving the top of the ballot blank or crossing over to Hillary (if she gets the nod). But the twist here could be that the reverse happens with the Democrats, if the establishment candidate fails to win over the progressives, who then stay home rather than vote for someone they don't believe in (somehow I doubt that any sizable number of progressives would vote Trump, but who knows?). Then what happens? It may come down to who's supporters are most enthusiastic, in which case Trump could squeak it out, in the style of Nixon. Maybe there will be enough of the electorate that's still in the mainstream to go with the known quantity, making Hillary, at last, the first woman to be president, while paradoxically maintaining the status quo.

But I'm standing by my claim that we are in new waters, and anyone's guess will be as good as anyone else's. But this analysis has stayed on the political level. Next time I want to try to observe the scene through the lens of faith.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Popes of World Youth Day – the Popes of Mercy

I'll be going to World Youth Day in Poland this July along with a group sponsored by the Salesian Eastern Province. Here's something I wrote with Fr. Dominic Tran, SDB for the WYD Salesian Facebook page.

World Youth Day 2016 and the Extraordinary Jubilee that goes until November 20 share a common focus: the Mercy of God. This convergence of themes is no coincidence and these great themes came together as the result of the work of the giant figures, the shepherds the Good Shepherds has given to the Church in recent years—Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis.

St. John Paul was the great promoter of the Divine Mercy devotion and the cause of St. Faustina. He said, early on in his pontificate, "Right from the beginning of my ministry in St. Peter’s See in Rome, I consider this message [of Divine Mercy] my special task. Providence has assigned it to me in the present situation of man, the Church and the world. It could be said that precisely this situation assigned that message to me as my task before God." He beatified and Canonized St. Faustina and established the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday. He saw mercy as the remedy for humanity after all the wars and atrocities of the 20th century: it was now the time to return to God and seek forgiveness and to turn to one another in a spirit of reconciliation and mercy.

Pope Benedict XVI, being a great theologian, gave us the theology of God’s mercy. With his very first encyclical, he emphasized, “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (1 John 4:16). These words from the First Letter of John express with remarkable clarity the heart of the Christian faith: the Christian image of God and the resulting image of mankind and its destiny. In the same verse, Saint John also offers a kind of summary of the Christian life: “We have come to know and to believe in the love God has for us”.

In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. For this reason, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others. (Deus Caritas Est, #1)

Pope Francis also has stressed mercy from the beginning of his time as the Vicar of Christ. Just a few days after his election in 2013 he said, “God's mercy can make even the driest land become a garden, can restore life to dry bones ... Let us be renewed by God's mercy, let us be loved by Jesus, let us enable the power of his love to transform our lives too; and let us become agents of this mercy, channels through which God can water the earth, protect all creation and make justice and peace flourish.” He has never ceased to call us to be a Church of mercy, both seeking out God’s forgiveness and living mercy in our lives. He has both promoted the Divine Mercy chaplet as a “powerful medicine” but also called us to go out and live mercy in our lives.

In this way St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis can be called the Popes of Mercy. As it is said, JP II introduced the what - Divine Mercy, Benedict taught us why, and Francis shows us how.

Monday, May 16, 2016

MSM: Still Not Getting It

I've long ago stopped watching the Sunday political shows like Face the Nation or Meet the Press, along with any number of the other political round tables that fill the airwaves, usually though not exclusively, on the Lord's Day. It's mainly that I don't have the time to watch them, as opposed to abandoning them because I've lost faith in their veracity, like I have the national evening news. Opinion shows are exactly that, people giving their opinions: I know what I'm getting. More and more the network's hard news shows are anything but, delivering a sedative shot of human interest, celebrity gossip and freak weather pieces to lull the audience into a stupor  so as not to alarm them with the real news happening in the world. I'm not even going to dip my toe into the whole debate as to whether the Main Stream Media (MSM) are fair and balanced. All I'll say is that hard news is not being reported on the "Big Three," making them apart of the bread and circuses or contemporary American life.

I say this as a way of setting up a clip I stumbled on to as I was surfing YouTube. I'm not sure what algorithm suggested this clip for me, but it's from a PBS News Hour broadcast that aired last week, after Donald Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee. The New Hour runs during the week, and is a hybrid of the evening news and a round table program. The clip below is of a regular segment featuring commentary from Mark Shields, a liberal columnist, and David Brooks, a moderate conservative who writes for The Times. In fairness, both are pretty moderate, or at least present them selves as such, in offering their perspective. Shields has been around forever, being a veteran of CNN's Capital Gang and The McLaughlin Group, among other shows. David Brooks has risen in prominence by positioning himself to be the thinking man's conservative in the mold of a William Safire. Both are canny, but conventional in their thinking, as is demonstrated by by their commentary here.

They are reasoned, reasonable, and stuck in 2004. They admit that they misread Trump, didn't think he would get the nomination, and underestimated the mood of discontent in the nation. They still don't believe he can win in November though: Trump is shallow, crude, and unprepared for the highest office in the land. For now the people, in their anger, will flirt with Trump but in the end they'll go with the safe choice: the conventional politician Hillary Clinton-or so they think.

They, and others in the MSM, can continue to think that way at their own peril. The prospect of a Trump victory is real: not certain, but very real. People understand that the political system is broke: that the republican mechanisms are jammed. The economic system might be even more impaired. If the economy falters going into the fall, and September-October seems to be the time, even in a non-recession year, when the market goes into a downward "correction," the people just might feel desperate enough to hand the nuclear code to someone who has never worked in government before.

Let me be clear, I'm not endorsing Donald Trump, or any candidate. But as one of my intellectual heroes, Marshall McLuhan, said about his otherwise detached observations on mass media: it's not that he liked it, but he wanted to know how it worked so he could figure out where the switch was and turn it off. We can criticize Mr. Trump all we want; we all know his defects. But a conventional way of approaching the issue isn't going to work at stopping him, if that's what you want to do. Hit pieces in the New York Times accusing him of misogyny or sensational, but tenuous, attempts to link him to the KKK are not going to work. Those methods worked in the past, on conventional politicians. We are beyond the conventional right now, and we'd best figure out how Trump is succeeding, not just bemoan the fact that he is.

Unfortunately Shields and Brooks, along with many of their fellow pundits are stuck on the ordinary. The ground is shifting under their feet, but have no idea what to do but wait for the shaking to stop and hope the house is still standing because it always has. They are like Bob Dylan's Mr. Jones with his pencil and pad watching the strange scene pass, but not really getting it. If this is the level of opinion being offered on the air maybe I haven't missed that much by skipping the political shows.

More on this later. But for now, enjoy:

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Fr. Robert Barron on The Holy Spirit in the Life of the Church

This video is from a couple of years ago, so some of the specific references to wild fires and tornadoes are a dated, but the overall message is timeless.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A Reflection on What a "Poor" Wounded" Church Means

I've only aspired to be a simple priest: celebrating the Eucharist, hearing confessions, teaching and preaching are about my speed. Attaining positions of leadership or hobnobbing with the higher-ups never appealed to me. Ergo, I've always kept a low profile, but all my best efforts to stay off the ecclesiastical radar have been for nought. Lately I've found myself invited to join a couple of archdiocesan committees that directly advise the Archbishop of Chicago. These responsibilities are separate from, but not completely unconnected to the role I play as a director in the Salesian Community. What I have discovered in the short time I've been participating in these local discussions is that the challenges faced by the Archdiocese and those of my religious community are not all that different. We are both trying to deal with what it means to be Church, not in an era of change, but in a change of eras, as Pope Francis put it last year. Therefore none of us can expect that we will be allowed to simply remain in our own private Idaho, impervious to the trials happening around us. 

In these meetings it's easy to look at spread sheets, graphs, demographic projections and the like and conclude that the Church is a business like any other, and we are to make decisions based on the bottom line alone. But I can say that both in the case my Salesian superiors and on the diocesan side with Archbishop Cupich, that the message is clear: what we are about is the mission of evangelization. Whatever decisions are made are not meant first and foremost to improve the financial bottom line but to make us more effective proclaimers of the Word and ministers of the Sacraments. We are being called to discernment in the Spirit.

Part of this process is going to mean an examination of the material possessions of the Church. What buildings and institutions help us move the mission forward? Which served us well in their time, but their time has passed and we need to let them go? Which were products of a triumphalistic age meant to demonstrate the Church's power and status in the world, and again, need to be let go of for the sake of recapturing the Church's true identity? This can be a painful process. We're talking about parishes, schools, hospitals, retreat centers and any number of other works that people identify as the places where their faith was born, fostered and nourished. These are more than buildings, for many they are home. 

But we are called to not be bound by buildings, or anything material. They are tools in the service of evangelization, and we need to be open to switching tools when they no longer meet the needs of a new age. But, as I wrote, this isn't easy. In the 25 years since I entered Salesian formation, we have parted ways with incredibly significant works: schools, parishes (including one that represented our oldest presence in the Eastern United States), even our house of formation in Newton, New Jersey where generations of Salesians were formed, both intellectually and pastorally. Each closure or transfer of administration back to the local diocese was like a cut. A few of our men literally lost their vocations over these changes. I don't judge what's in a person's heart, but I will say that those who left over these changes forgot that basic truth that the building or institution isn't the mission, but its servant. 

There are further changes coming for the Church in the U.S. We can look at mergers and closures as the death of something. But we are best served by maintaining a spirit of discernment, with our eyes fixed on Jesus and how He is best served. 

I think of Pope Francis' call to be a poor Church for the poor: one that goes to the peripheries, reaching out to the spiritually wounded. It's a Church that "thinks outside the box," not bound by convention or tradition, as opposed to being guided by the living Tradition. A Church that makes the institution the focus becomes caught up with maintenance and self preservation instead of service. It looks inward instead of outward, becoming self-referential and irrelevant to the outside world. But a Church that eschews the outward trappings of power and status becomes a true sign of contradiction to the world, and more vital than we can imagine.

I also think of Pope Emeritus Benedict who, when he was still Fr. Ratzinger, wrote of a Church smaller, but more faithful. He took some heat when he repeated these words as pope, because some thought he was envisioning the Church an exclusive club of spiritual elites. But if we look back to his original words from the late '60's, we see quite the opposite. He wrote, in part:

"It (the Church) will become small and will have to start pretty much all over again. It will no longer have use of the structures it built in its years of prosperity. The reduction in the number of faithful will lead to it losing an important part of its social privileges.” ...  "As a small society, [the Church] will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members" …. . “It will be a more spiritual Church, and will not claim a political mandate flirting with the Right one minute and the Left the next. It will be poor and will become the Church of the destitute.”

But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret."

The vision of Fr. Ratzinger is not one of a spiritual elite, but one of a concentrated yet powerful force that is the antidote to postmodern impotence. It is a spiritual communion, united by Christ, that contradicts contemporary isolation and the disjointed logic of the moment.

This process of transformation will make great demands on all of us. More is going to be asked of us all: greater flexibility, greater humility, greater patience, greater faith. There's no doubt that this is a daunting reality. But we have a choice: we can either pretend everything is alright as it is, and no change is necessary-which is to live in a fantasy land. We can acknowledge the challenges, but see the solution as a recapturing of some past glory, or use some old agenda to meet new realities, which is bound to fail. Or else we can look at this as a moment of opportunity, an adventure in the Spirit. It will call for new solutions, true, but will also mean drawing from the store house of the Church's accumulated wisdom of the past 2,000 years. It will mean bold action, as well as prudent discernment. It will mean being open to the Spirit that calls us into an ever deeper relationship with Jesus Christ, the one we are called to proclaim: never forgetting that it is He we serve, it is He who is our portion and cup. He is the only riches that we have to share with the world.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Odds and Ends on the Bread and Circuses

I just want to follow up a little on what I wrote the other day concerning the ongoing campaign for president. 

A friend of mine commented that he was a bit surprised at the little fervorino with which I concluded the piece. I didn't take it as a criticism, but an observation, one that nonetheless got me thinking. I write on many topics here, from pop culture to current events to all things Catholic. No matter the topic I certainly try to connect everything back to faith in Jesus Christ and the truth of the Catholic religion. I've also tried not to make that the sole justification for my point of view as presented here. Not that faith isn't enough; it's more than enough for me. But I'm not trying to preach to the converted: I'm hoping to reach those who either don't believe, or my accept Christ but aren't sure if the traditional beliefs held by the Church are still valid. Arguments from authority or tradition aren't effective in persuading most people because so many don't trust authority or respect traditions as still being valid. So I avoid making Scripture or Apostolic Tradition the reasons to believe (though as I've said, they're good enough for me) as much as show that these two fonts of Divine Revelation are themselves reasonable. In light of this, I rarely give the hard line pitch to accept Christ and His Gospel, preferring a more subtle approach.

In normal times this strategy is perfectly fine. And there is still a place for this approach today (we're basically talking about the method used by many solid Catholic apologists). But for me, I believe the Lord is calling me in a different direction: to be more explicit, more "evangelical," for lack of a better term. We are living in a time of decision, and I'm not simply referring to the election, though the presidential campaign is a microcosm of the crisis we face. So desperate times call for clarity of purpose and the bold proclamation of the Gospel.

One reason that we (I'm speaking of practicing Catholics) are at this cross roads is that we have, either explicitly or implicitly, accepted the idea that our religion is about the here and now exclusively. Marx charged that religion is the opiate of the people, drugging them with promises of a future paradise so as to anesthetize then to the injustices of this earth. We uncritically accepted the charge, and proceeded to turn the Church into a social service agency or NGO. The Church's charitable works and advocacy initiatives are essential to Her identity, but are one ore by which the barque is moved forward. Without the proclamation of the Gospel in its completeness: the call to repentance because the Kingdom of God is at hand, we become just another political party or lobbying group, moving in circles since we have only one ore, offering temporary solutions to perennial problems.

For too long people of faith, with all good intentions, have tried to effect change through the political process. Maybe we thought that we could be a leaven that influences the system, making it more Christian. Maybe we thought that one side or the other better reflected Gospel values, or worse thought one side was the "Catholic Party." In this way some were even deceived into seeing one candidate or another as "God's Candidate," even if subconsciously so. We have gotten into bed with political movements that are flawed in the misguided notion that the very real political implications of the Gospel render our faith another political movement. Archbishop Sheen predicted this identification of religion with politics, and how destructive if would be to the faith.

Many of us clung to the Republican party because they got the life issues right, and generally defended traditional marriage. Others of us clung to the Democrats because of their record as being pro-labor and more concerned about the plight of the poor and disenfranchised. We ignored the parts of their platforms that didn't jibe by telling our selves that one part of the Gospel was more important than the other. We convinced ourselves that God doesn't care about our prudential judgments or private morality, as long as we were against abortion or for a larger social safety net.

But we were used, by both sides. But not just people of faith were duped. I believe the rise of Donald Trump and the persistence of Bernie Sanders is rooted in the fact that people of both the left and right feel betrayed by their respective parties. They know the the system is broken and corrupt. I don't believe that any of the three candidates left standing are the solution. They will either lead us into tyranny or further economic and spiritual ruin: but probably all three things. But the American people are desperate: a very dangerous atmosphere in which to select a new president.

In future posts I'll get into more details, especially about how I see things shaking out over the next six months. I'll only say now that we may see a third or even fourth party candidate run, and we may have the first election to be decided by the House of Representatives since 1824. I'm no prophet, nor the son of a prophet, I'm just riding a hunch. But my thoughts here will not be guided solely by human logic or conventional wisdom. We got in this mess because we took God out of the picture. We're only going to get out of it by inviting Him back in and seeing the world through spiritual eyes.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

21st Century Bread and Circus Democracy at Work

I vote, but I don't publicly endorse political candidates, so don't expect to find me throwing my two bits in here for anyone running for county clerk, let alone president. That's not what this is about. I just want to give a few thoughts on why we are through the political looking glass heading toward an electoral rabbit hole.

If you are one of those life long Democrats who saw the results out of Indiana Tuesday night and think the general election is a lock for your side, and the Republican Party is dead, hold off on making hotel reservations for Washington on January 20, 2017, as well as getting that Mass Card that reads RIP-GOP. I'm not saying Donald Trump is going to win. In fact I have to agree that Hillary Clinton should be considered the favorite at this point. It's just that nothing has gone the way it's supposed to this cycle, and we'd be fools to think the campaign is going to suddenly revert to business as usual now.

Add to that that Hillary Clinton hasn't been able to shake Bernie Sanders, someone who wouldn't get 5% of the vote if he wasn't a septuagenarian social democrat running on the coattails of the Occupy movement.

I'm not sure my attempt at irony worked there, but of course, in a normal election year Senator Sanders would have announced his candidacy, as he did, on April 30, 2015 and bowed out before the the trade deadline (July 31, for you non-baseball fans out there). This was Clinton's turn, and there wasn't even supposed to be completion. The Democrats were treating this as if she was an incumbent who, unless the party's not sure of his or her ability to win a second tern, normally runs for the nod uncontested. But Sanders keeps on bitting at Ms Clinton's ankles, in spite of the fact that his chances at forcing a contested convention, never mind winning the nomination outright, are beyond slim to none.

The big question is why. Why did the GOP nominate (presumptively) Donald Trump, a celebrity business man with no political experience? Why have the Democrats been unable coalesce fully around Clinton, a former first lady with legislative and cabinet experience who's been seen as the their sure thing candidate for 2016 since the day after election day 2008?

There are many plausible reasons we could come up with: I'll point to three possible ones:

1) Both Sides Tried to Fix the Nominating Process. 
I'm using the term fix in a very loose manner. I'm not suggesting that anyone cheated or broke rules, just that the rules were set to ensure an outcome. The reality is that the respective parties are essentially private entities that can choose their nominees any way their rules committees want. For historical reasons they've decided to make it a more open procedure, using the trappings of a democratic process. But that shouldn't blind us to the fact that there is still much maneuvering behind the scenes and both parties, this year particularly, wanted to make sure that their preferred outcome came to pass. The Democrats wanted to ensure that Clinton got the nomination, and the Republicans wanted to make sure Ted Cruz didn't. Both establishments got what they wanted, but at a price.

The suppressing of competition, an asymmetrical apportioning of pledged delegates through the primary process and early wooing of super delegates by Clinton made it hard for anyone to upend her through the voting process alone. But the truth is that she's really not that well liked, even within her own party. The solution was to limit the number of competitors, with any perceived threats, like Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren, pressured to stay on the sidelines. Bernie wasn't taken seriously, but proved to be hard to shake because of his outsider status and social democrat rhetoric that appeals to millennials, among others. But for a rigged system, the race on the Democratic side would be much tighter. I have to ask, if Clinton is having such tough time closing things out when the nomination is being all but handed to her, how is she going to fare in the fall when she's going to actually have to fight for it?

The Republicans tried to fix things in more subtle ways, behind the scenes with donors and party officials pulling the strings, but none of them saw Donald Trump coming. If there weren't enough options on the Dem side, there were too many among the GOP. Trump, the best known of the "outsider" candidates stood out among the crowd of established politicians running, captured an early plurality of popular support and never looked back.

By the end, the party was stuck. They didn't want Cruz, an ideological conservative who's disliked by many of his colleagues, but none of the establishment candidates like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio were able to garner enough popular support. The 17 original contenders didn't whittle down fast enough for support to shift to one clear challenger to Trump, and by the time it got down to Cruz v Trump it was too late. Depending on who you listen to there are just as many "Anyone But Cruz" people among the GOP establishment as there are "Anyone but Trumsters." So, they were successful in blocking the movement conservative, but now they have a nominee they can't control, who could not only lose big, but could actually cause the dissolution of the party itself.

2) The Mistrust of Institutions and Rejection of Tradition has Come to Fruition.
It's no great insight to say the the American people don't trust institutions or establishments. This has been true since at least the 1960's. From churches to the government to big corporations such institutions are seen as greedy, corrupt, uncaring and out of touch with the needs of the common person. But we have pretty much elected men and women to public office who are products of the very political-governmental establishment that we don't trust. Both Sanders and Trump represent breaks from that establishment. Sanders may be a senator, but he's served as an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, with radical bona fides that make him impossible to confuse with a party boss. Trump has never held public office, having dealt with both parties in his business life, while keeping enough of a distance so as to avoid the perception that he's in bed with either side.

Add to this mistrust of institutions a rejection of tradition. We are living through a time of rapid social change, especially on the morality front. The legal recognition of gay marriage coupled with  the wide spread rejection of the same social institution by heterosexuals represent major departures from cultural and religious attitudes that go back millennia. Because our nation is so young Americans have never had a good sense of tradition. I think there are other, even stronger reasons as well, but it would be too much of a digression to get into right here. The bottom line is, that appealing to the wisdom of the ages, or established rules of logic is not going to work in convincing their supporters  that neither Trump nor Sanders may be qualified to be president. All they know is that the professional politicians and bureaucrats have been in charge for too long, and a real change is in order. Institutions and traditions have failed us, so the thinking goes, and we must chart a new course freed from the encumbrances of the past.

3) Donald Trump is Not a Fringe Candidate in the Minds of Many Voters
David French wrote an interesting piece in National Review Online, giving his three reasons for the rise of Trump. One was that because of the divide between popular culture and political culture, presidential candidates are not well known to the general public before they actually run. They may be household names around the breakfast table in a news junkie's kitchen, but to consumers of popular culture, who increasingly are not paying attention to hard news, they are cyphers. Candidates have a relatively short time to create an image in the public's mind, and this image is fragile, easily defaced by the opposition. Often it's the negative image that sticks.

But in the case of Donald Trump, he's been in the public eye for over 30 years. The general public "knows" him, even though they probably wouldn't know their congressional representative if he shook their hand. You can call Trump a racist, narcissistic, demagogue fascist who tortures kittens in his spare time all you want. The average guy or gal on the street has already made up their mind as to who he is, whether good or bad, and nothing the press or electronic mass media (other institutions the public increasingly mistrusts) say is going to change it.

To the political class Trump is a fringe candidate, and the Constitution does have provisions to protect us from potential despots taking power. The Electoral College, along with the "natural born citizen" clause in the Constitution, were meant to prevent some fringe, and possibly foreign, would-be dictator from sweeping upon the scene, stirring up the emotions of the people, and winning the presidency with, say, 33% of the vote in a three or four way race. In such a case where no one wins enough electors the election switches to the House where a compromise candidate is chosen. I think this is an under-appreciated constitutional mechanism that shouldn't be overthrown lightly.

But the hard truth is that Trump is only fringe to the political class. For most people he's a successful real estate developer, TV personality and author. His name is written in superhuman sized letters on buildings across the nation. He doesn't speak like a politician, in polished, well crafted speeches, but off the cuff in words that can be blunt and crude, but hard to misinterpret. In the popular culture he's not fringe; he's a very mainstream presence, and for those weary of the "party line," mistrustful of the establishment, he's just the solution to a failed system.

In Conclusion
A common thread running through all this, as far as I can see, is that there is a disconnect in American life. There is an establishment, and it has tried to keep the public distracted with music, movies, video games, role playing games, websites and apps that draw us into an inner life devoid of outside contact with the human or divine. We are fed our "rights," especially where our personal autonomy and identity are concerned, but there is no talk of corresponding responsibilities. We are kept perpetually distracted, not really meditating on the deeper meaning of reality. Better yet, we are convinced that no such meaning even exists. We should be satisfied knowing that our rights are respected, that we can be pleasured with random stimuli and sensual excitement whenever we want. Then the establishment is free to rule with the consent of the distracted, but comfortable, masses.

But it didn't work this time. It's not that people woke up, so much as the establishment's very machinations and manipulations ended up working against them. They create and destroy media personalities on a whim, but one more cunning than themselves turned the tables on them. They want a big, all encompassing government presence, but they also want their mansions and stock options. Then a true socialist came along, who doesn't see the Occupy movement as a tool but a means, and they're thanking their lucky stars that their procedural firewall has held, so far.

What we are seeing is what happens when any reference to a transcendent reality (I mean God, if you didn't catch that) is taken away. There will be a rebellion eventually, even if the rebels aren't sure what they're trying to over throw. There is a spiritual huger that human politics and culture, popular or high, alone can't fill. We know that, so we're rejecting the status quo, and trying something, anything, other than what's been done before. One side is rushing to a cult of personality created by the popular culture establishment , the only culture they know. The other is clinging to an ideology learned in a schools system controlled by the establishment left. In a way the establishment built this monster itself, and is about to get eaten by it. They try to appeal to reason, to precedent, to the founding spirit, but it's like talking Swahili to a Laplander. These concepts are meaningless in a culture mistrustful of institutions, that place more value in emotions than logic, and has no appreciation of traditions. Everything begins and ends in the individual, in the moment.

God opens us to something bigger than ourselves. The God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Apostles opens us to the idea that God is here now, but has been walking with us as well, guiding us to a destiny. We move forward into something new, with a firm sense of who we are, who we have been, and with a firm purpose that transcends the emotions of the moment. We are lacking that purpose and sense of the transcendent right now, and we are paying a steep price.

Without an outside standard rooted in God, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we are doomed to replace one failed system with another. We will replace one soulless establishment for another, get one cult figure in the White House in place of another. As long as it's all about the here and now, about the material or even emotional well being of the individual without reference to community and God, the relief will only be temporary, if at all.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

I Wish I'd Known You Better: Prince 1958-2016

I just got back from eleven days of meetings in New York. After the lunch break on the third day I checked out Drudge and saw the banner headline, the nature of which has become all too familiar in recent months: it simply read "Prince Dead." The name changes, but it seems every few weeks it's a different star from rock's golden age who's name appears before the word "Dead" on Internet news sites.

A few days later we were celebrating our annual province day. I was waiting outside the chapel of the retreat center shrine where the meetings were going on, milling around before Mass, touching base with confrere who I haven't seem in a while. One of my brothers, who has a few years on me, commented on Prince's passing, but asked what the big deal was. He knew who Prince was, and that he was popular, but for him The Artist Formerly Known as an Unpronounceable Symbol was still a new kid on the block. All I could say was that it was a generational thing. And while I wasn't a big Prince fan, his death did hit hard for that reason. He is the first major pop star of the 1980's, the era that I was in high school, to pass and it reminded me that I'm not getting any younger.

I know, what about Michael Jackson? I put Jackson is in the same category with the likes of David Bowie, Bruce Springsteen or Peter Gabriel, among others; artists of the '70's who had big commercial surges during a conservative period in the music industry (as well as the country) that was favoring known quantities over unproven talent. But Prince, though he got his start late in the previous decade at the tender age of 19, came up the slow and steady route before conquering the world with 1984's Purple Rain.

Like Bowie, who I've eulogized already, I found Prince's image a barrier to really entering into a dialogue with his music. He had a great pop-rock sense, and I loved When Doves Cry from the first listen. Raspberry Beret and Kiss were, respectively, pure psychedelic pop and minimalist funk master pieces I hated myself for loving, especially Beret. Maybe it was the hyper sexuality of his image, the cloths that made the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's period look restrained that turned me off. It could have been the shifting teams of backup singers who doubled for love interests that seemed like a publicity contrivance that was off putting to me. Maybe it's that I associated him with dance music at a I time when I was a reactionary rocker, but I let the Prince train pass me by with only a few glances now and then. When I might have given him a second chance, he decided to be known by a silent glyph instead of his name. It just confirmed that he was a little too strange for me.

After he went back to using his birth name, I figured out that he wasn't simply an eccentric pop star, but his eccentricity had a purpose: to stick it to his record label who he felt was unjustly controlling him and his art. But by that point it was the early 2000's and I became interested in what was happening now, not looking back so much to artists of the past.

Because Prince was so passionate about his work, and controlling how it was produced, marketed and distributed he kept his music and videos off streaming services and YouTube. So again, when I might have given him a second look his music wasn't in the places I go to before I purchase (the vow of poverty mitigates against impulse buys).

Since there seems to be no controlling legal authority overseeing Prince's affairs at Paisley Park now that he's dead, there's been a healthy dose of live material making it's way onto YouTube that would have otherwise been blocked if he were still alive. I'd seen the Super Bowl Half Time Show and his blazing guitar solo on While My Guitar Gently Weeps done at George Harrison's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony already, so I new he was a great guitarist.

But the other clips, mainly taken from various TV appearances over the years, show the Purple One to be a great showman, versatile in style and tirelessly dynamic in presentation. Michael Jackson could sing and dance, both exceptionally well, but Prince did those things, along with playing guitar and piano (some have reported he could play upwards of 20 instruments). He could turn from funk to rock, from raunch to sensitive to spiritual to rave on a dime. My regret is not that I didn't buy his albums, but that I never saw him perform live.

The most telling clip is a cell phone capture taken at the SNL 40th Anniversary after party. It's reputedly 4:30 AM. Prince is called to the stage by Jimmy Fallon, and with his band rips into a slowed down, yet hard rocking mid-tempo rendition of the usually frenetic Let's Go Crazy. It's a master class in how to play hard rock. That Prince channels Jimi Hendrix is no surprise, but he also throws in a dash of Edgar Winter with overtones of Black Sabbath, sometimes in the same bar. He is also tremendously generous. After tearing off a neat little solo he he puts the guitar aside and lets his young female player get not just one, but two chances to shine (which she does). He nails it better than any rocker could, and rock, arguably, wasn't his main genre (if he had one).

How his Jehovah Witness faith, come to after he was already famous, played into his music, I'm not qualified to say. I only know he stopped using profanity in his music as well as in his personal life, insisting that those in his company refrain from using foul language. While he didn't become a puritan on stage, he did try to tone down the extreme sexuality of his pre-conversion days.

Some musical artists of the last several decades have been all about the image, and without it they'd be nothing. With Prince, the image was a smoke screen hiding one of the few genuine musical geniuses in the pop world. Forget about the purple outfits. Forget about the prison like compound he lived in. Forget about the Artist Formerly Know As stunt and the salacious rumors. Focus on the music, and you'll find a funky, rocking, tender, mix delivered with enthusiastic energy. Now, I just hope once the estate issues are figured out that some live material makes it out of his legendary vault of unreleased music and hits the market.

In the appreciation of his music, we must never forget that Prince was a man with a soul. We don't know what demons, literal and figurative, were lurking behind the facade. He did express regret for his early excesses. We have to recognize that, in spite of the later day conversion, his earlier work was often sexualized to an extreme, sending the wrong messages, further coarsening an already coarse culture. So, we don't canonize, but we praise what is praise worthy and pray for his peaceful repose.

Eternal rest grant unto Prince Rogers Nelson, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May his soul, and all the souls of the faithfully departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. AMEN

Please excuse Maya Rudolph's over exuberant use of profanity. We're sure Prince didn't approve.