Monday, March 16, 2020

Faith in a Pandemic

I had a sore throat last week. I felt it coming on the weekend before, but it came and went the same night. By Tuesday it had returned with a vengeance and by Wednesday I was getting a bit preoccupied, to put it mildly. Paranoid might be a more apt description of my emotional state. I saw my regular doctor. All she could tell me was that it wasn't strep throat. Since I didn't have other symptoms of Covid 19, like shortness of breath or fever, she sent me home with the usual advise: gargle with warm salt water to relieve the throat, wash hands, avoid crowds, drink fluids and get rest. 

I was worried because I know my body, and I know how colds and minor ailments like that usually develop. A sore throat like that one usually passes in 48 hours. It may also be the precursor to a cold, that either moves up into my sinuses or goes down into my chest, but this was doing neither. It was just lingering. Anyway, its passed now, and I'm feeling a lot less anxious. 

I'm not in the active ministry right now. I'm back to being a full time student. I didn't have to struggle over closing the parish or canceling Masses. I've seen the debates going back and forth, mainly on social media, over the wisdom of canceling public liturgies. The motivation for the restrictions is to cooperate with civil authorities in limiting large crowds where the virus may be easily spread. The opposite view is that the people need the grace of the sacraments even more during a crisis like this. If we believe that the Mass offers graces the world needs, why deny the people this essential spiritual aide? 

While I'm not indifferent, I still haven't formed an opinion. I see both sides. And there are two sides here, or maybe even three. There are those who say that they are willing to risk infection because participating in the Eucharist is so important to them. On the other hand there are those who ask, while I may be willing to risk infection, do I risk being a carrier who could potentially infect others, even unknowingly? There is a third group who would argue that if you have faith then nothing bad will happen to you. I respectfully reject that position, and will get into why below. Pastors have to weigh both the spiritual and temporal good of their people. I remember a pastor gently admonishing an elderly parishioner who came to a daily Mass on an extremely cold day, with he sidewalks covered with ice. She was not the most robust person, to put it mildly. I can admire her faith, and her hunger for the Eucharist, but can you blame the pastor for being concerned for the woman's physical well being?

My religious community celebrates daily Eucharist at our high school, so students and teachers can participate as well. I made a conscious decision not to go over. During an ordinary cold and flu season I probably would have. But since the school was in a state of heightened awareness, debating whether to stay open or not, and I didn't know exactly what was ailing me, I stayed home. I felt the responsibility not to spread whatever it was that had made me sick to others. I missed participating in the Eucharist. I prayed the Rosary and the Office, but they are no substitutes for the Bread of Life. Starting today the school is closed for two weeks, so we are celebrating the Eucharist at home now. I'm grateful that I can once again participate in the Mass. I understand how those being denied the sacrament feel right now. 

Some diocese have closed parishes, others have dispensed the faithful from the Sunday obligation. The bishops who went for the full closure are coming under fire from some quarters for making this call. I've seen people call them cowards and faithless for doing this. They'll speak of saints who served plague victims and were protected from infection. In the Salesian Family we have the case of young people form Don Bosco's Oratory who accompanied him in assisting victims of a cholera outbreak in Turin in 1854. The epidemic took many lives, but none of Don Bosco's volunteers were infected.  

There are many such stories of miraculous protection granted to those assisting the sick and endangered during an epidemic. At the same time it needs to be remembered that St. Damien dedicated his life to easing the suffering of lepers. He eventually contracted the illness and died from it. St. Aloysius Gonzaga died of complications from the plague he contracted while working at a Roman hospital during an outbreak in that city. My point is that it isn't for us to presume God's will for us. Because someone dies in an epidemic, or in some other tragedy, doesn't mean that they were somehow out of favor with God or lacked faith. Just because we say that we have faith doesn't mean that God will necessarily put a bubble of protection around us. Faith doesn't mean that we believe God will automatically protect us from physical harm in times of danger. It means that we understand the risks but go out anyway because we believe sharing Christ with others is so important. We fear not that which can harm the body, but can not destroy the soul.

As I mentioned above, the responsibility runs both ways. We may not worry about getting infected, but we need to understand the responsibility to not infect others. This illness is difficult because a person might be infected and contagious for at least two weeks before they even show symptoms themselves. We could be infecting each other and not even know it (this is where the paranoia kicks in). So let's be charitable in judging intentions, just in our decisions to stay home or go out, as well as being sensible all around. 

If I'm pressed to offer an opinion, I would have gone with dispensing from the obligation to attend Mass, but still offered public liturgies. Again, I'm not criticizing the bishops who decided to opt for the full shutdown. These are tough decisions, and only time will tell who was right and who was wrong. My preferred solution puts the pressure on the individual to judge if going out is the right thing to do or not. Catholics do need to be better educated on when missing Mass on Sunday or a Holy Day does not incur sin. I offer a post from Fr. Dwight Longenecker that does a good job of it. It's a couple of years old, so isn't specific to this situation, but is still useful. 

Other than that, stay close to the Lord in the ways that you can. Make whatever inconveniences, large or small a part of your Lenten sacrifices. Let's lookout for one another and pray for one another. 

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Dr. Brant Pitre: Understand the Sunday Mass Readings during Lent

Dr. Pitre has a Ph.D in New Testament and ancient Judaism from the University of Notre Dame, has been a professor at the major seminary in New Orleans and is currently a distinguished research professor at the Augustine Institute in Colorado. He's a solid scholar who is able to make the scholarship accessible to a wider audience. Here he gives a brief video on how the Mass readings for Lent are organized.  

Here's a link to his Amazon page.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Jean Vanier and the Fall of Heroes

I don't know much about Jean Vanier. When I was doing my novitiate in the last century we were shown a documentary on his work founding L'Arche, an organization dedicated to assisting people with intellectual disabilities. It was, obviously, a very positive presentation of the work he and his followers were doing. I forgot about Vanier and L'Arche soon after I saw the program. I must confess, we saw a documentary on the Taizé movement (very different) around the same time, and for a while I often got them confused in my mind. For many around the world though the work he did, and the personal example he projected made a lasting impression that impacted their lives profoundly. 

When he died last year Vanier, a layman, was hailed as a prophet and a saint. This week an investigative report was released claiming that he had sexually abused 6 adult, non disabled women. The abuse was in the form of using spiritual direction as a ruse to groom his victims into having sexual intercourse. He was assisted (practically mentored) in this by his own priest-spiritual director.

There is much to contemplate here. Even though I had no personal devotion to Vanier, it was heartbreaking to see the responses of those who looked up to this man, in some cases to the point of naming their children after him. There were feelings of bewilderment, betrayal and shame. I get it. I was confirmed as a boy by Theodore McCarrick, and a number of my confreres were ordained either deacons or priests by the now disgraced, laicized bishop. What were very special events in our lives have been tainted, and it can be hard to think about it. 

My standard response in situations like this is to remind people that there is one savior, Jesus Christ. We put our faith in Him, and no one else. Even canonized saints fell short sometimes during their lives. Think of Peter denying the Lord three times.  

The difference is that true saints get up, with God's grace, and continues on the journey. Through suffering they allowed the Lord to purify their intentions so that their will eventually conformed perfectly to that of God's. By suffering I mean that they accepted the daily crosses, big or small that come their way with patience, courage and, most of all, love. 

It isn't that they became incapable of sinning, or that what is sinful for the rest of humanity somehow became permissible for them, as Vanier tried to persuade his victims. It's that choosing to do the right thing became a deep seated habit, what we call virtue. True love, which at its core is sacrificial, dominated their actions. To paraphrase St. Paul, the saints no longer lived for themselves, but it was Christ who lived in them (Gal 2:19-20). 

What are to we make of Vanier and his like? I can't say in this particular case: as I wrote before, I'm not familiar enough with his life. What we can say in general is some times people begin serving the poor, for instance, with good intentions. They begin to make a name for themselves and start believing their own publicity. Slowly the desire for money, power or sex creeps into their lives. In making sacrifices for the Lord, they convince themselves that they deserve this or that pleasure, since the promise of Heaven isn't enough. 

Others start sincerely in the spiritual life, but don't experience the quick "pay off" they expected. There are no visions, no ecstasies, just the unbearable silence of the chapel. So either cynically or sincerely, they seek their consolation in other ways. They abandon a regular prayer life, making material or emotional desires the center of their lives. I knew a bishop who spent his final years in penance for his sins (I'm convinced the man died a saint). He warned us that those who impatiently seek spiritual ecstasy run the danger of falling into alcohol or drug abuse, and those frustrated with their efforts for union with God run the danger of falling into sexual sins.

There is nothing wrong with profound religious experience (though I would argue it shouldn't be sought so much as gratefully received)  or seeking union with God - the latter is what the spiritual life is all about. What we have to remember is that the spiritual journey is run by God's clock not our own. God sometimes denies us these experiences for a time, maybe for an extremely long time, to make sure we are motivated in all we do by love, and not what we're "going to get out of it."

Of course there are also those who had bad intentions all a long, using religion as a means of getting what they want. In many places in the world becoming a priest, or working in the Church in some other capacity, is still a way to climb the social ladder. Vows are made, but not taken very seriously. 

The answer is not that we shouldn't have heroes. Yes, we're taking a risk. A reason the canonization process usually takes a long time is that the Church wants to make sure beyond any doubt that the candidate died united with God, freed from all attachment to sin. We wait for a miracle attributed to the saint's intercession as a Heavenly confirmation that he or she actually is enjoying the beatific vision. 

As for heroes of the un-canonized variety, I always advise caution. Even satan can disguise himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). But don't grow cynical. Continue to look for good examples. Continue to strive to be that good example yourself. In everything remember that whatever good we do begins with God's inspiration, is guided by His grace, and ends with the fulfillment of His will, for His greater glory. 

Is Fake Meat Still Meat - As Far as the Lenten Regulations are Concerned?

A few news outlets are running stories asking if plant based meat substitutes fulfill the Lenten requirement to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. 

The short answer is YES, they fulfill the requirement, if they are truly vegetarian or vegan products. The director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Archdiocese of Chicago agrees, adding the caveat that it may not fulfill the "SPIRIT" of the regulation in question.

The reason we abstain from meat is predicated on the idea that meat is more expensive than other protein sources. We are supposed to eat more simply during Lent, taking the money we save and giving it to the poor. There are other reasons as well, but to focus on this one aspect - economic solidarity with the poor - the question I would ask is, are the plant based meat substitutes less expensive than the real thing? It's not a rhetorical question: I've never had then or priced them. In the same way, lobster is permitted under the current rules, but does it really fulfill the spirit of what the Lenten abstinence is for?

So, be sensible. We also deny ourselves during Lent to unify our sufferings with those of Christ who died on the Cross. Paul writes of his own sufferings as making up for what is "laking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body...the church." (Col. 1:24).  This is not to say the Jesus' sufferings weren't enough, but that He allows us, by our sufferings, to share in the spiritual good that His passion brought about. We are all part of the Body of Christ, so that the prayers, fasting and alms giving of one part of the Body has positive effects, both practically and spiritually, for other members of the Church, and the world. 

So, if eating a fake hamburger helps you in that, go for it. If it doesn't, then avoid it.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

A Brief Ash Wednesday Reflection

In my experience, not all Lents are equally intense. They usually begin the same, with a lot of good intentions. Once it gets going the observance either deepens, helping to form good habits that endure after the Holy Season has ended, or things dissipate, and I'm simply holding on to the bare minimum the Church asks of us. Once Easter arrives, in that case, I'm pretty much in the same place I was when the ashes were smeared on my forehead.

This year I feel a special pull make this Lent "count." The Lord has made me aware of deeply imbedded attachments that are harmful to me. It's not that I was unaware of these disordered attachments before, but that I feel a particular frustration with them, and with my self for allowing them to remain in my life for so long. 

The first thing to remember always is that God is the one doing the work. The fasting, the extra prayers, the almsgiving and other works of charity and justice are meant to open the way for the Lord to mold our hearts. They are meant to take us out of ourselves and our self-centeredness to hear the voice of God within, as well as Him speaking through others. 

The other thing is that Lent is 40 days. I have no illusion that this project will be done by Easter Sunday. Can it be? Sure, if that's what God wants. What's more to the point is planting seeds that will continue to grow beyond the liturgical time, forming habits that will become a regular part of our life. So, the only advice I'll offer is that whatever you choose to as a Lenten penance, make it a good habit that will continue after Lent ends, not only a deprivation that will stop after the Easter Vigil. Giving up soda pop, for instance, is good - I don't want to discourage anyone from doing something like that, especially children. But making a positive changes in your life like forming better eating habits or volunteering at a soup kitchen will instill virtues that remain all year long.

I'm not going to broadcast my Lenten penance; that will be between the Lord and me. What I will say is that I'm not giving up social media. Many people do, and I'm not knocking it. But part of my resolution is to use social media more as an evangelizing tool. It takes time to write these posts, even stream of consciousness pieces like this. I waste a lot of time. I know I need to use my time better to get the things done I have to. Also, I want to use what spare time I have in some productive pursuit. Thus what I'm doing right now, writing these words for you. 

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Querida Amazonia / Pete Rose and the HOF

Querida Amazonia_____________________________________
The not so long awaited post synodal exhortation reflecting on last October's Amazon Synod was just released (Francis wastes no time in publishing these reports). As has been the case with many documents issued during Pope Francis' tenure, commentators and critics weren't really interested in the main point, but the perceived agenda behind the agenda. The synod was supposed to be about the Church's ministry in Amazonia, exploring how we can foster an integrated vision of evangelization, respect for local cultures and environmental protection of the region. All most people want to know though is if the Pope would allow married priests and women deacons to help alleviate the clergy shortage in the Amazon. The answer was no, on both counts, with the first question not even mentioned in the text.

The official presenters of the document stated that this exhortation doesn't represent the final word on these matters

While not the central issues tackled by the synod, they were among the topics that caused the most controversy on social media (I know, what about Pachamama? Maybe I'll get to that some other time). Traditionalist critics were afraid the synod was going to be used as an excuse to introduce changes in practice, not just in Amazonia, but in the Church universal.

The bottom line is, if we listen closely to what Pope Francis has said over the years about the possibility of married priests and, especially, ordaining women, his words or absence of words, should not surprise you. He speaks of clericalism, but he means more than just clergy who act as if they are a higher class of Christian who crave power rather submit to a life of service. He also connects clericalism with priests who try to act like lay people and laity who try to assume the role of a cleric. For Francis clericalism is more than about power, but the role each person plays and gifts they have to offer. The upshot being that clerics and laity both need to cherish and respect the gifts of the other. 

Sadly there are two extreme groups in the Church right now: those, who tend to be progressive, who support the Pope no matter what, and those, mainly traditionalist, who feel he can do nothing right. What's sad is that one side forgets that many progressives never seemed afraid to criticize St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI (Cardinal Ratzinger) back in the day. I should know: I had them as professors in various Catholic colleges in the '80's and '90's. The traditionalist side is a bit more complex, because they run the gamut from sedevacantists (those who believe Francis and his predecessors going back to at least John XXIII aren't valid popes) to those who acknowledge the legitimacy of the pope but believe him guilty of grave errors. This presents a bit of a mixed bag, because some were critical of JPII and BXVI as well. But for the most part more conservative minded Catholics would have defended either of Francis' predecessors vigorously, and the idea of publicly calling out the pope would cause the vapors. 

To end this overly long segment, both sides need to take a breath. Papal infallibility does not mean that everything that proceeds from the mouth of the Roman Pontiff is necessarily without error. It certainly doesn't mean that those manning the Vatican dicasteries can't make mistakes. He does enjoy the charism of infallibility when teaching on matters of faith and morals, to the universal Church, in his role as the successor of Peter. This charism is not about making new doctrines but better defining, developing and formalizing teachings that have been a part of the deposit of faith all along. He teaches infallibly also when he reiterates established doctrines of the Church when he preaches or writes. To wonder about the direction the Church is taking under Francis's leadership isn't a mortal sin. But to be overly panicked by it may show a need for renewed faith. Those who get upset with people with questions may need to grow in charity, as well as examine their own intellectual past.

Post Script...I wrote a friend this week that I thought this could be Francis' "Humanae Vitae" moment. (I was disappointed to see the Catholic Herald made the same observation. Disappointed because no writer wants to be second to publish an opinion). I also didn't think the negative response would  be as severe as what happened 52 years ago. 

In 1968 the expectation was that St. Pope Paul VI would modify the Church's teaching on artificial contraception, by allowing its use under at least certain conditions. The encyclical, released in July of that year, reaffirmed the traditional prohibition, causing a backlash among some theologians and bishops conferences. Those who didn't openly criticize the pope's decision did their best to ignore it. Paul, who was pope for another ten years, never wrote another encyclical (though he did issue several exhortations among other official documents), and curtailed his traveling to the point that he never made an official trip outside of Italy after 1970. Some feel that the negative reaction to HM played a large role in his relative withdrawal from public view the last decade of his life. 

Today there is a backlash to Querida Amazonia, both in Germany, where the local bishops have been trying to gain more independence in doctrinal matters the last few years, and in the United States. What the long term ramifications will be is anyone's guess.

Paul and Francis are different personalities, though their similarity in approaches to the papacy hasn't been lost on some observers. In terms of personality, Paul VI is sometimes referred to as the "Hamlet" pope. He was a man of deep personal holiness, highly intelligent, but indecisive. George Weigel saw his intelligence as a bit of a hindrance, because Paul would struggle to see every issue from every side, with he constant  analyzing keeping him from making clear decisions. 

No one is ever going to confuse Pope Francis with Hamlet. Whatever the blow back is from Querida Amazonia, I don't think the Holy Father is going to withdraw from public life or stop writing. My hope is that critics on both sides use the Holy Father's writings as a way of judging their own beliefs, and not making their opinions, no matter how well grounded and sincerely held, the standard by which they judge the pope.

Pete Rose and the Hall of Fame ___________________________
I have friends in Cincinnati from my days at Xavier who are not going to be happy with me. But I've been a pretty hard core "No" on the question of Peter Rose going into the Hall of Fame. I've softened a bit over the years, but I'm still not 100% convinced. In light of the sign stealing brouhaha Rose has applied to have his lifetime suspension lifted, which would then make his election to the Hall possible, if not certain.

On one level, I say why not? It's been three decades, and what he did wasn't worse than what many others have done. Or at least, that's the line of thought. While not unreasonable, I still have some reservations. 

He denied betting on baseball and specifically on the Reds, the team he managed, for a decade and a half after the suspension came down. He had many high profile supporters like stats guru Bill James (who actually claimed to have mathematical proof Rose didn't bet on the Reds) and elder statesman sports writer Roger Kahn. He only fessed up when it was time to sell a book, in 2004. No one likes having egg on their face, especially members of the press. He ended up losing a lot of support in his bid for reinstatement after that.

In admitting to betting on the Reds, he insisted that he never beg against them. As admirable as that might be, how do we know he is telling the truth now? He wasn't before. I also think it's naive to think his gambling interests didn't effect the way he managed a given game, even the ones he didn't place a wager on. We shouldn't kid ourselves. Pete was knee deep in the hoopla. There were reports he was scared to come to New York on a road trip because he owed money to bookies. I have no doubt the pressure to win both games and bets played into decisions he made. Because Pete is a bad man? No. Because he is a human being.

The bottom line for me is the if he had told the truth from the beginning, been contrite in taking his suspension, it would have been lifted a long time ago and he'd be in the Hall today. This entire episode has been prison of his own making, to reference Rose's confessional tome. 

So, in 2020, I'm not against Pete Rose's rehabilitation, but I'm not going to protest for it either.

Coming Attractions______________________________________
I was going to write something about my experiences at Catholic University, but the post was running too long for my taste. I'll be sure to get to it next time.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Quick Super Bowl LIV Highlight and Lowlight

Everyone is talking about the Patrick Mahomes 44 yard pass to Tyreek Hill as the big turning point of the game, and who am I to argue? But there was a play before it, I have to admit I'm not sure when exactly it was - I haven't seen it on any highlight reels - where the Niners missed an opportunity on a potential interception around the 4th quarter. At that point Mahomes looked lost and the Chiefs doomed. After the INT that wasn't he was practically unstoppable. San Fran didn't capitalize on the last period pick they did make, so who knows if it would have made a difference. It just felt like something clicked with KC after that and there was no stopping them.

As for the Halftime Show

Some people I know were surprised that I wasn't outraged by the halftime show. It's not that I think it was OK, it's more that it wasn't anything really new. 75% of what you saw would have been at home in a Mitzi Gaynor special from the '70's that your grandmother would have watched (if you don't know who Mitzi Gaynor is, that's what God invented Wikipedia and YouTube for). The other 25%, while being the crass objectification of women critics are complaining about, has been on television before. I'm not saying I like it, or wish they wouldn't tone it down, especially for the sake of families who want to watch the game together, but you're outraged about a horse that left the barn 50 years ago.

Yelling and screaming and stating the obvious isn't going to do anything. They don't care, and in fact that's what they want. They feel a strange vindication when people get uptight about things like this. It makes them feel righteous, like they're doing god's work. 

It's better to do something than complain. Turn turn off the television. That's the thing to do, maybe. Turn off the game. I like football too, so I'm not sure I could do that, at least not yet. But we can start by turning off the halftime show. Pray a rosary as a family, play a game of Uno, plan a meal break and talk to the people you're with. Be creative. They give you a half hour break (I think this year's intermission was even longer). The networks have their ways of knowing how many eyeballs are watching the screen at a given time. So do the sponsors. And who knows? Maybe the rosary will turn into a spiritual sharing. The Uno game will be so hot you don't want to stop. The food and conversation so enjoyable that you all will forget the game. Maybe it will make a difference in the big picture, maybe not. But it will be better for you, and your soul.

Saturday, February 1, 2020

SB LIV Trolling, Impeachment 2020, What do you do With a Problem Like Bernie, "1917" and Nationalism

Super Bowl Trolling_____________________________________
I'm writing this on Wednesday, January 29, just to make it clear if this doesn't get published before the Super Bowl. No matter if the Niners win or loose, the Pats traded the wrong QB. There, I said it.

Impeachment 2020______________________________________
In 1974 there was a clear consensus in the nation that Richard Nixon should be impeached. It never went to trial, but it's a certainty that he would have been removed after a Senate trial if he hadn't resigned first. The process had bi-partisan support in congress as well as popular approval. 

As in 1998-'99, today's process has been partisan in nature, with little real support among the people for removal. You can quote me polls, but in truth I don't trust them. Nixon's crimes were clear and easy to understand. Clinton's, while concrete (let's not forget he was disbarred in his native Arkansas and by the Supreme Court for committing perjury), the American people didn't see them as grave enough to warrant removal from office. The charges against Trump are vague and hastily prepared (It took over two years between the Watergate break-in and the drafting of impeachment articles - the Ukraine phone call only happened in August of last year and I'm not sure obstruction of congress is really a thing).   

The opponents of the president need to be careful here. It's unwise to turn a process meant to be used rarely and with great caution into just another political weapon to hurt a president you disagree with, even if those disagreements are deep and sincerely held. Such a strategy is both bad for the life of the country, and for the political future of the Democrats. 

What Do You Do With a Problem Like Bernie ?_____________
Whether you support him or not, Bernie Sanders is to be admired. At first in 2016 he reminded me of a left wing version of Ross Perot, or maybe Steve Forbes: a one issue candidate there to push a point of view. For them actually winning wasn't the thing. They were about influencing the direction of the party (for Perot disrupting might be the better word). Like Rocky Balboa, though, who didn't realize he was supposed to play patsy to Apollo Creed, Sanders actually campaigned hard against Hillary Clinton, nearly winning the nomination, as Rocky came close to defeating Creed in the first movie.

Against all odds the septuagenarian who, if elected, will turn 80 during his first year in office, is running again, and is leading in some polls (yeah, I know, I don't trust polls - just go with it). There is some talk the party is trying to "rig" the process so that someone else, anyone else, that isn't Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard or Andrew Yang, gets the nomination. 

I put rig is scare quotes because the truth is the political parties are private institutions. Contrary to popular belief primary elections aren't mandated by law, and the parties can choose their nominees anyway they want. Since the 1960's both parties have relied more on primary elections in choosing delegates for their conventions to give the impression that the process is all about democracy at work, not about backroom deal making.  In reality the parties can decide how many delegates are elected by popular vote and how may are chosen in some other way. They can even decide if the delegates are bound to vote for the candidates they were chosen to poll for or not. 

The Democrats have a dilemma. The party establishment believes  Joe Bidden or Mike Bloomberg have a better chance against Donald Trump in November than Sanders. That may be so - I'm not sure the U.S. will elect a socialist, no matter what qualifier he likes putting in from of it. 

As a self described democratic socialist, Bernie isn't a conventional Democrat, and his followers by and large have no loyalty to the party. They are ideologically motivated, caring more for doctrinal purity than adherence to a coalition platform. If it's perceived that Sanders was robbed by the Democrats he will either go third party, or sit it out. Either way the left-progressive vote is split and or stays home. I'm not sure his endorsement or active campaigning on behalf of the eventual nominee would be enough to get the more entrenched Bernie Bro's and Sis's out on election day. This makes the reelection of Donald Trump more likely, no matter who the nominee is. 

1917 and Nationalism___________________________________
I caught the World War I epic 1917 over the Christmas break. I was reminded a bit of Christopher Nolan's 2017's film Dunkirk, set in WW II, which might sound funny. The latter film is a series of flash backs and forwards that plays with the timeline, culminating in all the various threads converging at the end. 1917 is filmed in a "single shot," with a completely linear sequence of events. Dunkirk deals with a specific historical event seen from different vantage points, while 1917 constructs a single narrative out of various stories told to director Sam Medes by his grandfather, a veteran of the war. What the films have in common is the they tell very intimate stories, giving the viewer an idea of what it was like to be on the ground, in the air or in the water as war is raging around you.

Both are also very British films. Neither movie is jingoistic, but both, in their own ways, offer positive images of England at war. 1917, even more so than Dunkirk, which does make some attempts to show that the English soldiers weren't all angels, serve as tributes to the men and women who served during the two great conflicts, and saved the island nation from occupation.

1917 has come under some fire for being "irresponsibly nationalistic," as Matthew Rozca in Salon put it. He may have been uncomfortable because the movie didn't do enough to show how virulent nationalism helped cause World War I, but I was uncomfortable at how Dunkirk failed to show the horrors of Naziism that was being combatted by the allies in the later conflict. 

While focusing on the human element of the Dunkirk story is more than valid, ignoring the bigger picture issue of fascist aggression and racial genocide is a greater sin than Mendes' failure to get into some esoteric discussion on the evils of nationalism that has nothing to do with the story.  Personally, I take both movies at face value, with Nolan's turning the Nazi's into faceless and mostly nameless shadow menaces as a minor annoyance. 

1917 is unapologetically pro-British. Yes, the two times we encounter the enemy up close they are not shown in a sympathetic light. All the same the movie doesn't bash you over the head with anti-Teutonic propaganda, either.

I'm going to stop here, and take this up again next time. Rozca is placing his argument into the wider context of "Trumpism" and, presumably, Brexit. In constructing his argument he fails to draw a distinction between nationalism and patriotism, and in that lays the fatal flaw.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Takes Hot and Cold: March for Life, DJ to the Hall, Astro's Blues, Death of Kobe Bryant

I have a clear dilemma. The reading and writing involved with my studies has made maintaining a blog problematical. At the same time, I don't want to abandon this project that I set out on ten years ago (amazing, but it has been that long). So, I'm going to take the Rolling Stones method of blogging. According to Mick Jagger, back in the day the Stones didn't really set out to make an album in the same way the Beatles did. Where as the latter tended to look at each LP as a discrete project, the Stones worked on tracks, and when they finished ten or twelve, out they went as an album. I'm sure more thought went into it than that, but it gave me an idea.

For the foreseeable future I'm going to accumulate some pithy (for me) thoughts on various topics, and when I've accumulated enough, I'll publish them. I'm shooting for at least one post a week. 

Kobe and Gianna Bryant 

As I was putting the final touches on this post news hit of the tragic death of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant. That was shocking enough. But my heart broke when later it was revealed that his 13 year old daughter Gianna perished in the same helicopter accident. All I could think of was his widow who morns a husband and a child. 

The hardest thing as a priest is to look into the eyes of a grieving mother. Only they truly know the depths of anguish that the loss of someone they gave birth to causes. It's a hopeless feeling, and few experiences shake one's faith quite like it.

I am comforted, though, to know that they had attended Mass that morning and received Holy Communion. With the Eucharist comes the pledge of everlasting life. Let us pray that the eternal Communion with the Lord that the sacrament is meant to foreshadow is being lived right now by Gianna and Kobe. We pray too for all the victims of the accident. Let us pray especially for Vanessa Laine Bryant, her children and the entire family as they grieve, that they may know the presence of Christ in their midst.

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. 

May their souls, and all the souls of the faithful departed, by the mercy of God, Rest in Peace...AMEN

March For Life, 2020
Friday was the 47th annual March for Life in Washington. Contrary to what some opponents may think, it is a very joyful event. As a participant in the past (not this year, though) I always left feeling uplifted, like a corner was being turned in the fight to protect the unborn. And how can someone not feel optimistic after participating in a peaceful demonstration with over 100k of your closest friends of all ages, genders, religions, and ethnicities, united by our common cause to protect the life of the unborn.

It's easy get discouraged, to believe that after so many marches it's delusional to keep on think things are finally changing. I do believe a change is in the air. The devil gets more vicious when his grip is being loosened, and the activities that are happening on the State level are signs of that. 

Some general observations -- Pressure needs to be applied on the state level. Once Roe is overturned the issue moves back to the states, where it should have stayed all along. As I alluded to above, New York already passed a draconian law last year, and Virginia is gearing up to pass a similar bill now. National marches are good, but flooding state capitals would be even better.

Overturning Roe may feel like a pipe dream, but even abortion supporters who understand the Constitution know that the legal reasoning behind the decision is beyond flawed. An article in The Atlantic points this out, while also arguing the both Roe and, more importantly, the 1992 Casey decisions have actually hurt women's struggle for equality.

Talking Baseball -- Jeter to the Hall, Pick Your Poison: Sign Stealing or Steroids

I'm not sure what I'm more frustrated about: that Derek Jeter fell a ballot short of a unanimous vote for the Hall, or the commentators who are obsessing over it. I don't care who the writer in question is nor am I curious as to why he or she chose not to check DJ's box. 

Last year an argument was made that Mariano Rivera was the best closer of all time, not just of his generation, helping to create the roll as we know it today. Therefore, a 100% tally was only fitting. 

An argument can be made that Jeter wasn't considered the best shortstop of his generation while we has playing (A-Rod and Nomar were usually ranked ahead of him on the league wide depth chart), and he did not revolutionize the position. A common joke during the '00's was that Jeet wasn't the best SS on the Yankees, let alone the entire MLB when Rodriguez moved over to play third in New York. 

History has a way of reversing fortunes as A-Rod's reputation was damaged by the steroid scandal and Nomar's career was shortened by injury. What Jeter brings to the table is a remarkable consistency, including clutch postseason performances, longevity at a demanding position, and the intangible quality he brought by his personal integrity. Doing it all with one team in the media crucible of New York only adds to the legend.

Is he worthy of being a first ballot unanimous choice? Of course. But you know what?  Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Tom Sever didn't get in with perfect scores either. Nothing the still anonymous writer has to say will change my mind that he or she is wrong. I'd rather just keep July 26th marked on my calendar and bask in the joy of celebrating Derek's accomplishments, along with remembering the last great Yankee dynasty that the represents -- before this one coming up, of course.

As for Sign Stealing...

Sign stealing is as old as the game. In and of itself it isn't cheating. The question is, of course, when does the line get crossed from so called gamesmanship into crooked play?

The sign stealing scandal that was simmering for probably two years and finally boiled over last week is a case of cheating. The league made it clear that electronic devices were not to be used by teams to decode the opponent's signals. It's pretty clear cut. The Astros got caught and the Red Sox are probably going to face sanctions for their own alleged misdeeds. Managers have lost jobs, which is probably right. Players are getting a pass, which isn't.

This is worse than steroids because I really don't think games or championships were influenced by the use of PEDs. Not everyone was juicing, but enough players were across the league, with the tacit approval of the MLB establishment that it's hard to say one team had a clear competitive advantage over another. What got cheated was the record book, which in a sport that treats the The Baseball Encyclopedia like the Torah is sacrilege. The league was right to crack down, (PEDs can be harmful in the long run for players' health and its a bad example for youth athletes) but I still never thought of it as cheating.

Here rules were broken after the league had made the policy crystal and some players and coaches still decided to go ahead and cheat. It's hard to say games and championships weren't influenced (though I'm not for "stripping" titles). 

The league needs to keep up the presure, because if buzzers and body wires are being used, the whole integrity of the game is compromised in a way not seen since 1919. MLB might as well change their initials to WWE.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Not With a Bang But With a Whimper: "Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker" Review: Spoilers

I don't give everything away, but enough that I think a spoiler alert is called for.


Consider yourself alerted.

In my usual strategy of starting things in the middle, I began wring a critique of Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, and then went back to look at my past reviews and commentaries on this latest, and presumably last, trilogy of films begun 42 years ago by George Lucas. I found that I was repeating things from previous posts, and in the spirit of wanting to break new ground, I scrapped what I had written and started over again. In a way, that's exactly what J.J. Abrams and the Disney / Lucas Films / Bad Robot braintrust should have done when they wrote the script for Rise of Skywalker (ROS).

I'm not talking about scrapping things the way 2017's The Last Jedi took a blow torch to the Star Wars legacy. It is possible to move forward while respecting what came before. So far, though, the new era Disney Star Wars is still trying to find a way to do that. 

Don't get me wrong, I actually kind of enjoyed ROS, at least the second half of it. But to get to that second half I had to sit through what seemed like more than an hour of convoluted and confusing set up that was mainly designed to erase the events and revelations of the last film. At the time I'm sitting here tapping away at the keyboard, its a little over 24 hours since I left the theater, and I'm not sure I could give you a synopsis of the film without referencing an outline - it was at once so detail laden and forgettable. So, I won't bother. Another frustration is that the misfire that was TLJ is ultimately what kept this film from being the rousing, emotionally satisfying wrap-up it could have been. 

I'm not going to rehash all the problems with trying to make a postmodern, woke Star Wars movie (or any movie for that matter), as they did with TLJ. I'll focus on one point, and how it impacts the latest installment of the franchise, even as writer director J.J. Abrams went to great lengths to distance ROS in tone and theme from its SJW predecessor.

When the starting point of the film maker's process is ideology and not story telling, let alone character development they, along with  likeminded commentators, usually respond to any negative criticism by claiming some kind of "ism" on the part of the critic. In a film like Star Wars, the characters are based on broadly drawn types to begin with, so making them real and relatable is challenge enough. Now put them into ideological straitjackets and it becomes impossible. The problem some have with Rey (Daisy Ridley), for instance, isn't that she is a woman, as some defenders have claimed. The problem is that the ideological world view that has taken over much of contemporary pop culture dictates that a woman lead can not be shown with any weaknesses. Add to that that it is not enough for a woman to be in the lead and flawless, but that the men around her must be incompetent. It's just a recipe for awkward storytelling and cardboard characters. 

But that Rey was made into a seemingly flawless creature in no need of growth or trial is only part of the problem. TLJ tried to tear down the Star Wars myth, and with it Rey's possible past. In our post modern world, or so the thinking goes, tradition is unimportant. We don't need to know where we have been to know where we are going. We are complete as we are. We are capable of creating our own meaning without reference to family, heritage or tradition.

There is a problem, from a story telling standpoint though. A major theme of The Force Awakens revolved around Rey's identity, which was a mystery to her as well as everyone else. Hints are given, and it's made clear that she is gifted with the Force, which leads her to Luke Skywalker's (Mark Hamill) old light saber. As the first film ends Rey begins her own Hero's Journey, finding Luke on a secluded planet, handing him his laser sword with outstretched arm. Finally, she will get answers. She will be trained to perfect the incredible skills she already possesses. Luke may not have all the answers, but at least he will help her move in the right direction to fulfill her destiny.

TLJ in turn opens on this exact scene. Luke takes the light saber and immediately begins to instruct the callow youth in the ways of the Jedi, revealing her personal past and pointing her to where she needs to go. With this new found skill and knowledge she goes off to face her destiny, which is now her's to fulfill of fail trying.

Just kidding.

Luke throws the light saber over his shoulder like an empty Coke can, tells her the Force is not worth getting all worked up about and spends the rest of his screen time acting like a grumpy old man complaining about his gout. Then Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) tells her that her parents were deadbeat nobodies who sold her for drinking money. Yoda burns down the Jedi library, and all the sacred texts within it, assuring Luke that it's better this way. The Jedi time has come and past and it's now the moment to move on. 

The idea is that now Rey, and the franchise in general, is free to move in whatever direction she wants. She is no longer encumbered by the past. That sounds great, but in reality it doesn't really work. On a practical level it fails because the first film is now rendered irrelevant. The audience is left wondering why it invested so much time and treasure into a saga that has turned out to be a false flag from the beginning. On a deeper, instinctual level, the audience lives vicariously through the hero. We want to believe that we are special, that we have a destiny, that there is a greatness within us waiting to be unleashed. If Rey is a nobody, and everyone has the force (which was sort of what was implied by having all the stable boys and girls using mental telepathy to sweep out the barn in TLJ), then no one is really special. There is no reason to root for Rey or care much about her story. Who needs to save the universe when the power of the universe resides in me already? Why go on a journey? Why not find a secluded place and let the galaxy go to blazes? 

There is something even more fundamental going on here. That Rey has a past maters, to us as well as her. We can fool ourselves into thinking the tradition or heritage don't matter, but according to CNBC  26 million people took home DNA tests in 2018, and the total was expected to go up to as many as 100 million by 2020. Those are tens, and possibly hundreds of millions of people curious about where they came from. On an anecdotal note, I know people with knowledge of their family tree going back four or even five generations who still took one of these mail order tests and were surprised by the results. (Just as a side note, if you're of Southern Italian or Sicilian decent, you're going to have Greek ancestors, don't get freaked out). 

Rey isn't the only character who struggles with his or her identity. Finn has a poignant conversation with another storm trooper who defected, about how they were stollen from their families as children and now feel an inner emptiness at not having any idea about where they came from. Both actors, John Boyega and Naomi Ackie, are British of African decent. While not themselves descendants of slaves necessarily, the scene is meant to reflect the feelings of some African Americans who lament that they really can't trace their lineage back to Africa with any certainty. I had a friend of mine explain that while I could trace my family back to a particular village in a particular region of Italy, he can't do the same with his ancestors from West Africa. While this didn't constitute an existential crisis in this man's life, it was nonetheless a void he felt deeply. 

By giving Rey and Finn these struggles they are made more human and relatable to the audience. There is something inside of us that strives for greatness and wants to know that we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. We are looking for something that builds us up and connects us, not something that tears down and divides. 

Yes, this is a pop corn entertainment, not Shakespeare or Chekov, so why get too deep? I'm getting deep because the original trilogy was just simple entertainment as well. But it connected because George Lucas understood how mythology works, and how audiences connect with characters. I know there is a lot of debate about how much help Lucas may have received from collaborators (especially film editors) in fashioning the final product. I'll leave that to the fan boys to hash out. It's enough to point out the the first films captured the audience's imagination because it tapped into these primordial archetypes and human yearnings that had nothing to do with whatever political or ideological agenda was being pushed in 1977. Also, as fast paced and action packed as the originals were, time was given for the characters to interact and grow with each other. You really did believe that they were friends who would risk it all for one another. I just don't see that happening here. As for the general tone of the original films, Star Wars bucked the trend of the  cynical anti-hero and moral ambiguity prevalent in films of the period. Luke does struggle, but there is no doubt about what the right thing to do is. The only question is all he do it or turn bad. 

The first half of the film, as rushed as it is, is taken up with trying to erase the memory of TLJ. Rey does need training after all, but this time she receives it from Leah (the late Carrie Fisher in some awkwardly inserted outtakes from previous movies). She finds out that she's Emperor Palatine's (Ian McDiarmid) granddaughter, so she does have a past after all - and the struggle she has between dark and light has a reason. Luke tells her that he was wrong in refusing to train her, and the the Force is really is all that and an a bag of chips. We see Rey consulting some old Jedi scriptures, the ones that survived the conflagration, so they weren't so irrelevant after all.

When Rey introduces herself in this third movie, she says, "Just Rey," to indicate that she has no family name. At the end, she gets one, or more correctly appropriates one. We can debate how correct this is. I really don't care. All it does is drive home the idea that we all want an identity that comes from outside of us. We all want to feel like we belong to a family, and not just one of or own making. Rey splits the difference here. Though she knows where she comes from know, she chooses to adopt the Skywalker name. It may be her "choice," but it's not her creation. She now continues in a line rather than making her own.

All this last minute revising could have been avoided if the film makers had plotted things out from the beginning. By beginning I mean starting with Episode VII. I'm on record as being a fan of Daisy Ridley, so the fact that a woman is the successor of the Skywalker legacy is A-OK with me. Rey does end the series with incredible Force powers beyond any character that has come before. On the one hand this only reinforces the perception that she is a Mary Sue. Contrary wise it would be more acceptable if the character had been allowed a normal arc that includes self discovery, making mistakes, losing heart and needing to be encouraged to continue. We get a little of that here, but not enough to completely erase what came before.

I have other ideas about how they could have taken these stories in another direction from the start, but that's a bit beyond where I wanted to go here. The one recommendation I will offer is that Disney should take a few years off of making more Star Wars features, regroup, and start over with a fresh take that both moves things forward and respects what made the original trilogy so successful to begin with. Namely tapping into eternal archetypes, avoid putting your characters and story into the ideological straitjacket du juor, and allow them time to form real friendships and connections the audience can relate to. 

Of all the missed opportunities of this sequel trilogy the worst might be that they assembled a likable, charismatic cast of young actors and never really developed them properly. I wanted to feel something at the end of ROS, but I didn't. Not really. Because most of last movie the three heroes were pretty much kept apart on separate missions. Rey could do nothing wrong, and Finn and Poe could do nothing right. Now they are together, by and large, but they show a camaraderie that doesn't seem earned. Now that it's over we might never see this cast together again, which is a shame. 

All that's left to do is scrap this series and start over. Disney has too much invested not to. I just hope they plan things out a little better next time.