Category Archives: Faith

Pope Francis says it’s OK to ‘stop’ the bad guys in Iraq

Breaking with a recent trend toward the Vatican disapproving of U.S. military actions in the world, Pope Francis says it’s OK to ‘stop’ aggressors in Iraq, while being a bit vague about how he believes they should be stopped:

“In these cases, where there is an unjust aggression, I can only say that it is licit to stop the unjust aggressor,” Francis said aboard the papal plane. “I underscore the verb ‘stop.’ I’m not saying ‘bomb’ or ‘make war,’ just ‘stop.’ And the means that can be used to stop them must be evaluated.”

When he says, “bomb,” however, he seems to be questioning the one means we’ve been using to stop ISIS.

And he also requires that actions to “stop” bad guys be multilateral, and particularly mentions the U.N.

The problem with that, from this Catholic layman’s point of view, is that sometimes — such as when you have thousands of men, women and children being starved out on a mountain — you can’t really afford to wait the three or four eons that it might take the U.N. to reach consensus. Sometimes Just War has to be waged in a hurry if it’s to achieve just aims.

But in any case, I’m glad to see a pope acknowledging that there is such a thing as Just War, even if he’s adding new prerequisites atop St. Augustine’s.

I appreciate that the pontiff wants there to be a high bar. Of course, it’s hard to find a higher one than one that will induce Barack “Red Line” Obama to take military action that doesn’t involve drones….

Patrick O’Brian’s depiction of the Yazidi, a.k.a. Dasni

Y’all know, from my frequent mentions, that I am a Patrick O’Brian fanatic, reading his novels about Capt. Jack Aubrey and ship’s doctor Stephen Maturin over and over again. You know, the ones set in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. The best historical novels ever written.

Something that is much in the news the last couple of weeks rang a bell, so I went back and found the relevant passage in The Letter of Marque, the 12th novel in the series, and one of my favorites.

Here it is. It depicts a brief conversation between Maturin, a Catholic, and his good friend Nathaniel Martin, an Anglican clergyman:

Dasni1

Dasni2

 

I checked, and my hunch was right: The Dasni are the very Yazidi people whom we are trying, with our air strikes in Iraq, to protect from ISIS. Wikipedia, under its Yazidi entry, cites this description:

Yezidis (Arabic) [possibly from Persian yazdan god; or the 2nd Umayyad Caliph, Yazid (r. 680–683); or Persian city Yezd] A sect dwelling principally in Iraq, Armenia, and the Caucasus, who call themselves Dasni. Their religious beliefs take on the characteristics of their surrounding peoples, inasmuch as, openly or publicly, they regard Mohammed as a prophet, and Jesus Christ as an angel in human form. Points of resemblance are found with ancient Zoroastrian and Assyrian religion. The principal feature of their worship, however, is Satan under the name of Muluk-Taus. However, it is not the Christian Satan, nor the devil in any form; their Muluk-Taus is the hundred- or thousand-eyed cosmic wisdom, pictured as a bird (the peacock).

The boldfaced emphasis is mine.

So you see, my obsessive study of these novels is actually educational.

O’Brian was obsessive about detail, and took a certain delight in depicting interesting, little-known religious practices. You see a reference above to the Sethians, of whom I had never heard. They play a significant role in two or three of the novels, making up a significant portion of the crew of Surprise during her time as a private man of war.

But as obsessive as he was about detail in depicting real-life naval battles, such as Cochrane’s victory in the Speedy over the Gamo, or Broke’s in the Shannon over the USS Chesapeake in 1813, he would sometimes invent entirely fictional places. For instance, the Sethians (a real, though obscure, gnostic sect — the apocryphal Gospel of Judas is considered a Sethian document) who serve under Aubrey are from the fictional town of Shelmerston.

But it’s fascinating to learn that the Dasni are for real.

France isn’t anti-Muslim, just anti-religion. Feel better?

Oh, I miss my Economist subscription, which the newspaper used to pay for.

But fortunately, the magazine did allow me today to read the piece promoted by this Tweet:


And here, basically, is the answer to the question:

France adheres to a strict form of secularism, known as laïcité, which is designed to keep religion out of public life. This principle was entrenched by law in 1905, after fierce anti-clerical struggles with the Roman Catholic church. Today, the lines are in some ways blurred. The French maintain, for instance, certain Catholic public holidays, such as Ascension. But secular rules on the whole prevail. It would be unthinkable in France, for example, to hold a nativity play in a state primary school, or for a president to be sworn in on a Bible.

Over the past 30 years, in response to a growing assertiveness among the country’s 5m-6m Muslims, the focus of this effort to balance religious and secular needs has shifted to Islam. After a decade of legal uncertainty over the wearing of the headscarf in state schools, the French government in 2004 banned all “conspicuous” religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, from public institutions such as state schools or town halls. This was followed in 2010 by what the French call the “burqa ban”, outlawing the full face covering in public. Critics accuse France of illiberalism, of curbing freedom of religious expression, and of imposing a Western interpretation of female oppression. Amnesty International, for example, called the recent European court ruling “a profound retreat for the right to freedom of expression and religion”. For the French, however, it is part of an unapologetic effort to keep religious expression private, and to uphold the country’s republican secular identity. Interestingly, many moderate Muslim leaders also back the ban as a bulwark against hard-line Islam….

So now you see. The French aren’t anti-Muslim. Just anti-religion. Sorta.

That will make some of you feel better, and some worse…

‘Nuns on the Bus’ organization to hold meeting here on Saturday — I think

This item came in over the transom, in PDF form, late this afternoon:

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I pass it on in case it is actually legit, since it’s tomorrow morning. I failed to check it out in the most direct manner — calling the number provided, and sending an email. No one answered at the phone number, and honestly I just this minute sent the email — but then, I had only received this notice minutes before that.

So, if you want to check it out — and I find the Nuns on the Bus to be an intriguing outfit — you might want to show up at the library. I may, but only if I can rejuggle some other stuff I had planned for in the morning.

On the somewhat retro topic of Tebowing

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I almost never read Cal Thomas’ columns. I find they tend to have a certain sourness about them, whatever the point. Or maybe the expression on his mugshot just inclines me to perceive a sourness.

Whatever the case, I was drawn in to his column in The State this morning by the image of Tim Tebow kneeling.

The main point of the column didn’t interest me much — it was of a certain type, which we see written from the perspective of an ideologue complaining that ideologues of the opposite camp have a double standard, and criticize people of the writer’s camp for doing a certain thing, but don’t criticize people of their camp when they do the same thing. You know what I mean. You’ve read this one a million times.

In this case, he was angry that people who vehemently defend a guy named Michael Sam — apparently someone who people who follow football know all about — did not equally defend Tim Tebow when he was playing the game and taking a lot of flak.

The part of that that interested me was the Tim Tebow part.

And here, I’m going to have to ask you to bear with me as I propose an anachronistic topic. I realize that everybody who follows football, or is really into Culture War stuff, thoroughly hashed and rehashed everything there is to say about Tebow years ago. Well, I didn’t. I get interested in stuff when I get interested in it. Like “The West Wing,” which I will continue trying to interest y’all in discussing until I run out of episodes to watch on Netflix… and probably far beyond.

The advantage to you of a topic like this is that y’all have already thought it out and have wonderfully well-honed, nuanced positions on it. So you’re ahead of me. Assuming you can still remember your positions after all this time.

While everyone who followed football was really, really into taking strong stances on Tebow, I was peripherally aware of him. And what I was aware of was the kneeling thing. The “Tebowing.” Because it was kind of hard to miss, permeating visual media the way it did.

And each time I saw the image, as this morning, I wondered what to think of it. And I was always of two minds, at least.

On the one hand, it’s great that a guy isn’t embarrassed about his faith, and willing to witness to it in public — and in his case, in a considerable spotlight. On the other hand, it was awfully showy and “look at me,” seemingly a textbook example of what Jesus spoke against in Matthew 6:5.

And I find myself wondering whether Jesus’ judgment on this topic was culture-specific. He was speaking in a time and place when public prayer was a way of raising yourself in public esteem. Whereas, as Tebow himself can attest, doing so now subjects you to considerable abuse and ridicule. Especially when you play for a New York team.

Finally, on the third hand (yes, I know this metaphor is no longer working), I like the Tebowing gesture totally apart from theological questions. I’m a big fan of Arthurian legend — I may have mentioned that before — and Tebow’s gesture evokes the kneeling knight, his sword held before him like a cross. Which, to a geek like me who thinks pre-Raphaelite paintings are cool and not at all trite or corny, is appealing.

Thoughts? Or is this just too anachronistic for y’all? If so, I won’t try yet again to get a thread going on the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars…

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Way to go, John Paul. John, too…

Our pastor, Leigh Lehocky, welcomes Pope John Paul II to St. Peter's on Sept. 11, 1987.

Our pastor, Leigh Lehocky, welcomes Pope John Paul II to St. Peter’s on Sept. 11, 1987.

At Mass yesterday, I got to thinking about it being Pope John Paul II’s big day, after which he will henceforth be called SAINT John Paul.

I have a lot more memories of him than I do John XXIII. In fact, as important as he was, I really have no memories of John XXIII. I didn’t grow up Catholic, and my earliest memory of being aware of a pope at all have to do with Paul VI.

We particularly remember John Paul because he stopped by our church, St. Peter’s, when he was in Columbia on Sept. 11, 1987. I missed the ceremony because I was one of the editors responsible for our coverage of the papal visit, and couldn’t leave the office. I did get to see the Popemobile arrive at Williams-Brice Stadium, though — some of us climbed up on the roof of the old newspaper building (which now belongs to ETV) to watch the motorcade arrive — then went back to work.

But the visit is commemorated with a huge marble plaque (below), and various photos on the walls from the day. So I feel like, as a parishioner, I was a part of his visit to our church.

Of everything written about yesterday’s double canonization, I was most impressed by this piece, which explained how meaningless it is to speak of John as a “liberal,” and John Paul as a “conservative:”

Here’s the shorthand narrative about the canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II on Sunday that you’re bound to hear this weekend (or may have already heard). Ready? The first was a liberal, and the second was a conservative.

As with most black-and-white descriptions, this one falls short. To begin with, the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” as commonly understood in the modern political sphere, fail when applied to the church, which has always transcended such categories. The terms also limp when it comes to describing the former Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla.

To wit, the installation of the “liberal” Pope John wasn’t even an installation. Technically, it was a “coronation,” with the former cardinal-archbishop of Venice carried into St. Peter’s Basilica seated upon a grand sedia gestatoria (literally a “chair for carrying”), an ornate throne borne on the shoulders of 12 footmen, before he was crowned with a bejeweled triple tiara. John’s pronouncements used the papal “We,” and he once issued a document called “Veterum Sapientia,”recommending the use of Latin in seminary training and throughout the universal church. Indeed, one of his closest advisers and his personal secretary, the now 98-year-old Cardinal Loris Capovilla, called him a “great conservative.”

As for the “conservative” John Paul II, he issued several encyclicals that included slashing critiques of the excesses of capitalism and repeatedly called for justice for the poor; he was the first pope in history to visit a synagogue; he opposed many causes that U.S. conservatives supported (for example, the Iraq war); he tirelessly built bridges to other faiths, joining with other religious leaders for the first World Day of Prayer for Peace in Assisi, to the consternation of many in the Vatican; he issued sweeping apologies for past wrongs committed by the church (to, among others, Jews, women and those persecuted during the Inquisition); and finally, in a way no pope had ever done, he made full use of almost every form of media available to spread the Gospel….

The ways most people use “liberal” and “conservative” today are indeed nonsensical within the context of the Church. Which is one reason that I, as a Catholic, am personally uncomfortable with both labels…

The huge plaque just inside the front door of St. Peter's -- a few feet from where Msgr. Lehocky welcomed the pontiff.

The huge plaque just inside the front door of St. Peter’s — a few feet from where Msgr. Lehocky welcomed the pontiff.

‘Hosanna hey sanna, sanna, sanna, ho…’

Awaiting the distribution of the palms before Mass Sunday.

Awaiting the distribution of the palms before Mass Sunday.

Well, yesterday was Palm Sunday, so that means it’s time to listen to “Jesus Christ Superstar” over and over, at least for a week.

I don’t think that is an actual, formal, official thing in the liturgical calendar, but it’s long been a habit of mine, as you can tell from such posts as this one and this one.

Last year — or was it the year before — I finally broke down and bought the album (the original cast album of course) from iTunes. This was good because, since I no longer have a working turntable for my vinyl (I have one that connects to my computer so I can make MP3s, but no way to play straight to a speaker), and listening to my “Jesus Christ Superstar” station on Pandora meant listening to extraneous stuff as well.

So Saturday, I was working in the yard, listening to it on my iPhone, and trying to remember not to starting dancing about to the livelier parts of “This Jesus Must Die” — an appalling notion that I hesitate even to write, but the song is infectious.

“Superstar” has loomed large in my legend since the original album was out, and it has always dwelt in this confusing area where the sacred and the profane intersect. I first listened to it in a beach house at Barber’s Point in Hawaii in the spring of 1971. Or rather, I sat watching Mary Riley as she lay on her back on the floor with her head between the stereo speakers and her eyes closed, listening to it. She was transported; I was transported. All sorts of things were mixed together in the moment.

“Superstar” portrayed Jesus and his followers as a sort of itinerant hippie commune that really knew how to rock. And that made a certain sense to me. We were about long hair and faded jeans and other expressions of naturalness. (Later, I would have trouble with my kids wanting to dye their hair unnatural colors and cut it in strange ways, in part because it just seemed uncool to me.)

There was this small poster I saw one time in the early ’70s up on the top floor of the Gay Dolphin in Myrtle Beach that seemed to capture well this intersection between Jesus and the counterculture. It showed a smiling Jesus, depicted in the traditional Sunday school kind of way, with a caption that went something like, “You guys can wear your hair as long as you like. Tell them I said so.”

My hair wasn’t all that long when I acted and sang in a community production of “Superstar” in the early 80s, although it was still a good bit longer than now. And I grew out a nice, full beard for the occasion. I was an apostle. It was my first play, and the director didn’t have the confidence to put me in a larger role. But I enjoyed singing “What’s the Buzz?” and “Look at all my trials and tribulations” and so forth. If I were ever to audition for such a production again, I’d go out for Pilate. The songs are within my range, and it’s a meaty role.

Now, as a lector and Eucharistic minister in my church, the liturgy reminds me of the rock opera, and the rock opera of the liturgy. And I manage to reconcile Holy Week and Jesus Christ Superstar Week occurring at the same time every year, like Passover.

Below is a snippet from the procession with palms at Mass yesterday at my church. It’s not “Hosanna, Hey sanna,” but I like it. One of the many singable tunes our Spanish choir does at the noon Masses.

Irish priest’s take on Cohen brings the house down

As you may know, the name “Cohen” in Hebrew means “priest,” or “a member of the priestly class, having certain rights and duties in the synagogue.”

Father Ray Kelly, a priest of another tradition, took full advantage of his rights in performing his duties at a recent wedding at his parish in Meath, Ireland. He quickly went viral on YouTube. The bride and groom had no idea it was coming, but they and the rest of the congregation loved it.

Since he used my favorite Leonard Cohen tune, I thought I’d share.

By the way, according to the Irish Times, Fr. Kelly is “planning on releasing a charity album to coincide with his 25th year since being ordained.”

SC Christian Action Council’s prayer for Medicaid expansion

You may have read about the two rallies regarding health care, on opposite sides of the State House on the Legislature’s first day back.

I was just cleaning out email, and noted that, in inviting folks to the pro-Medicaid expansion rally, the SC Christian Action Council invited everyone, whether they could make it or not, to join in the following prayer:

Eternal God, may the voices of people in South Carolina concerned for our neighbors, our families, our friends, be heard in prayer. . .

We pray
For the 200,000 South Carolinians currently without health care coverage who will have coverage when our Legislature enacts legislation expanding Medicaid in our state. Until the hearts and votes needed are changed, may their neighbors, the people of faith in their communities, their families, volunteer and free medical providers, their village walk with them as they suffer the neglect of society for their physical ailments. May we in gratitude for our lives and your generous provision for us, become even more generous and compassionate people until such time as our politicians have done what is right and Expanded Medicaid in SC.
That the loved ones who will grieve the hundreds in our state who will die unnecessarily (as a result of our failure to enact Medicaid Expansion for 2014) will be comforted. That we say “Never again!” and get legislation passed in this legislative session.
That the thousands and thousands of children in public schools who qualify for free lunch, be deemed worthy of high quality, results oriented education which can only be made available to each child when our state fully and equitably funds public education.
That South Carolina puts children first. That we decrease the cost of higher education in our state colleges and universities rather than shutting doors on dreams with excessively high tuitions and fees,
That the voice of each person eligible to vote be protected rather than silenced; be encouraged rather than discouraged, be amplified to a roar rather than softened to an unhearable whisper.
That the constitutionally held right to vote be unfettered by political shenanigans designed to silence those in opposition to the partisans pressing to make voting more difficult.
Creator God, remind we who are made in your image that you so fashion every human. Help us as as citizens of our state, work so that what is right and good for all be done.

Amen.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the capitol, Obamacare was being likened to communism. So, a difference of opinion.

Mia stirred up again, this time over what she sees as pseudo-religious hypocrisy

The latest release from the often-indignant Rep. Mia McLeod:

Must we be hypocrites about everything in this state?   I mean…since we wanna wear the “Bible Belt” like a badge of honor, shouldn’t some of our actions reflect it? As we head into the 2014 legislative session one week from today, I pray that our elected leaders will one day practice what they preach.While browsing through countless Christmas cards from my colleagues, complete with Biblical scriptures and picturesque family poses, I was reminded that God can’t be pleased when “the majority” claims to be Christians in one breath and deliberately defies His very essence in the next.
Too many legislative decisions are calculated, self-serving and hypocritical.  We wanna separate church and state, but only when it’s politically expedient…pushing God out of our schools, our workplaces, our thoughts/decisions…while hiding behind our self-righteous, self-proclaimed “Christian” labels to push our own destructive political agendas.Think about it…Your lawmakers love to protect fetuses in the womb. Why? Because the gift of life is one of God’s most precious, of course. But there’s nothing Godly about our refusal to assist or help protect that same precious life, once it is manifested outside of the womb. In South Carolina, when the umbilical cord is cut, so is the concern and compassion.  Funny how one goes from being God’s chosen to society’s forgotten by simply passing through the birth canal.

We love to flaunt our state’s sordid “heritage.”  And we’ll fiercely defend that good ole divisive, oppressive and offensive confederate flag at all costs.  Now tell me, where is God in all of that, again?

We relish our attention on the national stage. From being #1 in domestic violence homicides to being hailed as one of the most corrupt states in the nation, we’re last (or first at being last) and lovin’ it.

Add to that our newest designation as “most idiotic state” in the country because of one so-called leader’s flagrant dishonor of Nelson Mandela’s life and legacy, and it’s easy to see why we’re the laughing stock of the nation.

And when I receive legislative emails from “Christian” coalitions that spew hatred for others in His name for their own political purposes, I can’t help but wonder what “God” these people serve.

Surely not mine…

We love talking the talk.  We just hate walking the walk.  And we do our “dirty” work openly, unabashedly,…without flinching, without feeling and without fail.

But my Bible reminds me that “whatever you’ve done unto the least of these… you’ve done unto Me (Him).”  So how do we justify denying 300,000 South Carolinians access to healthcare coverage?  More proof that in our “great” state, partisan politics trumps “Christianity” not just any day, but every day.

And “you lie!” if you even think we’re interested in accepting or supporting “anything Obama.”  It just ain’t happening. No way.  No how.  Not here. Why?  Well…according to Rep. Kris Crawford, it’s not (politically) popular for the Republican Party to even try to work with the black man in the White House.

Yep, that’s good ole pure, unadulterated racism…just one of many “elephants” in the room.

So tell me…where is (your) God in all of that?

Saying we’re Christians is one thing.  Behaving like Christians is another.  Deliberately disenfranchising voters, denying healthcare, equal educational and economic opportunities to certain South Carolinians, refusing to pass tougher gun laws and failing to protect our state’s most vulnerable are just a few examples of ways in which God’s will has been preempted by power-hungry, good ole politicians who carelessly and callously hide behind His to invoke their own.

Don’t be confused.  Our Governor and lawmakers are much more adept at “playing God” than acting Godly.

I believe God is love.  And if you ask most of my colleagues, they’ll say they do too.  So why are our legislative agendas and priorities saturated with hatred, intolerance and indifference? I’m not a theologian.  But even if I weren’t acutely aware of who God is… it wouldn’t take long in the SC Legislature to figure out who He isn’t.

My fervent prayer for the 2014 legislative session and beyond is that the hypocrisy will end and lawmakers will decide to represent all of the people of South Carolina, in word and in deed.  If that happens, you’ll soon begin to see more of His will in our legislative decisions and actions and much less of ours.

I know who my God is.  The question is…do they?

The thing that makes Pope Francis special

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Sometime over the last few days, someone shared the above quote on Facebook, which caused me to have three thoughts:

  1. Yes, that’s a nice quote, which speaks to what the Church is supposed to be. Here’s some context.
  2. There’s nothing new in it. If you had asked Pope Benedict whether that was a sound assertion, he would have agreed. Probably. Surely John Paul II would have.
  3. Why do people post things like this as images, rather than text, so that you can’t just copy and paste them? Is this another sign that we are moving toward a post-literate society? Drives me nuts…

And then I moved on.

But I ran across it again later, and had another thought:

Yes, other popes would have agreed with it, but Pope Francis chooses, unbidden, to assert this over and over. This is his chosen message. This is what he wants you to hear, and understand, about the Church and about Christianity.

And that’s what makes him special. It’s why the world welcomes him so joyfully. It’s why the guy can’t even leave an ordinary voice message for some nuns without it going viral. People love the guy. And that’s because the message he chooses, first and foremost, is that of love…

Now that there’s a cool pope, U.S. to lower Vatican profile

Talk about your bad timing.

Somehow I had missed the plans to pull the U.S. embassy out of the Vatican, relegating its functions to our Italian embassy.

I mean, hey, we just got there — opening our embassy to the Holy See in 1984, just in time for the pope and the U.S. president to work together on taking down the Soviet Union, peacefully.

Our ambassadors from the Clinton and Bush administrations wrote a piece in the WSJ today saying what a bonehead, Know-Nothingist move this is, particularly at this time. I agree.

Some excerpts:

Since news reports of the plan emerged in recent weeks, many have seen the move as a deliberate slap at the Catholic Church and the pope; some may even detect veiled anti-Catholicism. But whatever the administration’s motivation, any such move to degrade the U.S. Embassy to the Holy See is not in America’s best interests.

Since purchasing an office building next to the U.S. Embassy to Italy 10 years ago, the State Department has made several attempts to shut down the offices of the Mission to the Holy See and move them there, often attempting to justify the effort in budgetary terms. To this penny-wise/pound-foolish approach, the Obama administration has now added alleged post-Benghazi security concerns…

The attempt to use such concerns as an excuse for downgrading the Embassy to the Holy See is shameful….

The Holy See also plays a distinctive role as a diplomatic hub where more than 175 countries are accredited, and where virtually the entire world is in constant conversation at a level of confidentiality and seriousness that is impossible anywhere else—most certainly including the United Nations….

It is ironic that just as Pope Francis‘s influence was reflected by his selection as Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” the U.S. seems intent on diminishing its relationship with a person to whom the world is now listening so closely….

Amen to all that.

 

Vatican press officer’s persistent cough replaced by laughter

I liked this passage in James Carroll‘s piece in The New Yorker about Pope Francis, headlined, “WHO AM I TO JUDGE? A radical Pope’s first year:

Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., was appointed the director of the press office of the Holy See near the start of the pontificate of Benedict XVI, so he has been explaining Vatican policies for more than seven years. Early in his papacy, Benedict gave a speech that insulted Islam. He reinstated the Holocaust-denying bishop Richard Williamson, brought back a Good Friday ritual that includes a denigrating reference to Jews, and issued a list of “more grave crimes” that seemed to equate the ordination of women with sexual abuse of children by priests. The Vatican was often having to clarify its positions.

Fr. Lombardi

Fr. Lombardi

I met Lombardi in a spartan room in a grand Mussolini-era building just outside St. Peter’s Square. Lombardi is a dark-eyed, silver-haired man of seventy-one, who looks as if he could be an Italian film director. I asked what his life had been like since Benedict stepped down. Lombardi broke into a broad smile. Then he said, “We experienced for years—and for good reason, also—that the Church said, ‘No! This is not the right way! This is against the commandments of God!’ The negative aspect of the announcement . . . this was in my personal experience one of the problems.” Father Lombardi and I are almost the same age. In his earnest good will and kindliness, he struck me as the priest I would have liked to become. He said, “The people thought I always had a negative message for them. I am very happy that, with Francis, the situation has changed.” He laughed. “Now I am at the service of a message . . . of love and mercy.” He laughed again.

A member of the press corps in Rome told me that during the Benedict years Father Lombardi, when addressing reporters, was bothered by a persistent nervous cough. The cough is no longer in evidence….

Saintly standup

One of the many Twitter feeds I follow offered this thought today:

I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish that He didn’t trust me so much. -Mother Teresa

Bada-BOOM, tchk.

Good one, even though I’ve heard it before. In the all-time greatest theologically-sound standup lines by Saints, that would come not far beyond Augustine’s classic “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”

Graham, Mulvaney: Nativity scene back up at Shaw AFB

This came in a little while ago from Sen. Graham and Rep. Mulvaney:

Nativity Scene at Shaw AFB Restored

WASHNGTON — U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham and Tim Scott, along with 5th District Congressman Mick Mulvaney, today made this statement on the Nativity scene at Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, South Carolina.

“We are pleased the Nativity scene has been restored at Shaw Air Force Base.  From the start, our offices have been in touch with Shaw officials expressing our concerns about this matter.  We appreciate the Air Force for listening to our complaint, keeping the Nativity scene on base, and moving it to the Chapel.”

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In case you had missed this issue, here’s a Fox News report.

Has there ever been a pope as popular as Francis?

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Yeah, John Paul II was kind of a rock star, but at the moment, papal stock seems to me at an all-time high.

The pontiff is having a very good day today:

  1. He was named TIME’s Man of the Year (oh, wait, they call it “person” now, don’t they?).
  2. An ABC/Washington Post poll found that among Catholics, 85 percent approve of the direction in which he’s leading the Church, while only 7 percent disapprove (so much for that conservative Catholic backlash we keep hearing about).
  3. Even Jezebel, a website that I only know about because Kathryn sends me links to it, shouts “Pope Francis Is the Princess Diana of Popes.” The same site earlier said that “the coolest pope ever” is “basically the Beyoncé of organized religion.” I’m not sure, but I think maybe Diana is even a step up from that. His stock just keeps rising, even among the unlikeliest audiences (you have to have read a few of the Jezebel links Kathryn has sent to fully appreciate what I mean).

I hope no one thinks this demeans him in anyway, but this Bishop of Rome is a public relations genius. Which is kinda what the Church needs these days.

He hasn’t changed a thing, other than perception, but that is huge. He hasn’t changed any doctrines (frankly, I’m not all that sure an individual pope can do that on his own — maybe some of y’all more conversant with canon law can shed light on that), including the kind that make smoke come out of the ears of writers at Jezebel. OK, he busted the Bishop of Bling (who was sort of this pope’s polar opposite, PR-wise). That did something. But mostly, it’s about the perception.

What he’s done is make just about everybody feel better about the Church. Which helps the Church in doing its actual job, which is to be the physical manifestation of Christ in this wicked world — spreading the message of love, healing the sick, helping the poor and outcast. It’s kind of hard to get those messages across when so much of the world is holding its hands over its ears and making loud noises to shut you out.

This pope has, in a startling brief span of time, gotten those people to take their hands from their ears and stop going “AAAUWAUWAUWA!” and start listening, because they like what he’s said so far and are eager to hear what he’ll say next.

Years from now, when the Church is contemplating whether to canonize him (which at this point seems highly likely), this should go on the scoreboard as his first miracle.

You’re a good man, Jim Hesson. Hang in there…

Jim Hesson was possibly my best friend on senior staff at The State, except for Warren Bolton. He was the paper’s IT director. Actually, we called it “I.S.,” for “information services,” and Jim lived that. He was helpful, patient, competent, and had a great sense of humor.

Jim Hesson

Jim Hesson

I still remember with embarrassment the time we were all riding up to North Carolina in a van for a senior staff retreat. He and I talked and joked back and forth so constantly that the person sitting between us finally offered to move, so that we would stop talking across her. Which made me feel bad that we’d been so rude. But I always had a good time talking with Jim.

The purpose of that trip, by the way, wasn’t to talk business. It was to go whitewater rafting. Holly Rogers, the life-loving soul who was then our human resources director, had this idea that to work together effectively, people should sometimes have fun together (another year, she dragged us all out to Frankie’s Fun Park). I would grumble and complain and pass critical remarks about these outings, and fret about the work waiting for me, but once there, I would throw myself into it and have as much fun as anybody. Those were different times.

Back to Jim Hesson. Today, Jim posted this on Facebook:

Yesterday morning I was having my quiet time on the train heading in to work. I was praying that God would give me clarity about my job and if it was time to seek another position. After I got in I was called in to a meeting where I was told my position was eliminated , along with a number of others in our IT dept. So God did answer my prayer, just not in the way I expected. God is good. And I know He can be trusted in all things.

I am so sorry, Jim. But I believe your faith is well-placed. You got an answer; it’s just not going to be an easy one to accept. May you soon see clearly the next steps on the path before. That’s the hard part — wondering whether that next opportunity will ever come. The good news is that you’ve got the right attitude about it.

I am deeply impressed by Jim’s honesty in sharing this. I wasn’t like that. Oh, I shared a lot — far, far more than most people who are laid off do. Thousands upon thousands of words, in my last columns and on the blog. On the first day I didn’t have a job to go to, I stood up in front of the Columbia Rotary Club and cracked jokes about it. And I didn’t lie about anything.

But it was superficial, stiff-upper-lip stuff. It was never gut-level. Not that I meant to mislead; I was just so busy figuring out the next step of each day that I didn’t plumb the depths of what I felt. In truth, of course, I wasn’t feeling on a deep level. I wouldn’t fully realize at the time how much I was losing. The grief of losing the job that paid me well to do what I do best is something that has unfolded itself gradually over a period of years. At the time, the bad feelings were offset by relief that I would no longer be the one laying off, and then having to figure out how to do the job going forward, without those good people. I quickly got over the rush of anger that I felt in the moment I got the news. I refused to dwell, even in my own mind, on how it felt to tell my wife and family.

And I certainly didn’t share private communications between me and the Almighty. In any case, they would have seemed rather incoherent and repetitive, not elegant and direct like what Jim shared.

It occurred to me to keep a journal, maybe write a book, about what it was like to have reached the pinnacle of what you wanted to do for a living, and then have it all taken away in an instant, just as you’re stepping into your peak earning years. And about what happens next. It would have relevance, in that year of 2009. (And today as well. How many people out there have never regained what they had? The unemployment figures don’t tell you that.) But I thought, what a bummer that would be — I certainly wouldn’t want to read such a book, much less write one.

Now, if I wanted to go back and write something like that, I’d have trouble assembling the details. I’ve just forgotten so much of it.

In any case, what could I write that would be as powerful as what Jim did?

You’re a good man, Jim Hesson. I know God will bless you going forward…

Pope Francis reviving ideas, tone of Cardinal Bernardin

I’ve hit on these themes before, as did Massimo Faggioli when he delivered the annual Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Lecture at USC earlier this month.

But I thought this piece, which The State picked up over the weekend, further makes the case that the ideas of Columbia native Bernardin may today be more influential than ever in Rome. An excerpt:

(RNS) The election of Pope Francis in March heralded a season of surprises for the Catholic Church, but perhaps none so unexpected – and unsettling for conservatives – as the re-emergence of the late Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin as a model for the American Catholic future.

While there is no indication that Francis knows the writings of Bernardin, who died in 1996, many say the pope’s remarks repeatedly evoke Bernardin’s signature teachings on the “consistent ethic of life” – the view that church doctrine champions the poor and vulnerable from womb to tomb – and on finding “common ground” to heal divisions in the church.

Ironically, the re-emergence of Bernardin — a man who was admired by a young Chicago organizer named Barack Obama — is exposing the very rifts he sought to bridge, especially among conservatives who thought his broad view of Catholicism was buried with him in Mount Carmel Cemetery outside Chicago….

Read the whole thing here.

Pope Francis as a marketing draw

St. Thomas More

Lately, I’ve found myself stopping at the light at Gervais and Harden, heading west on Gervais, and having time to contemplate the messages on the electronic billboard that faces the intersection.

Day after day, I saw the “Come to Mass” billboard for St. Thomas More, the Catholic chapel at USC. It caught my eye because I’d heard that the current chaplain — Fr. Marcin Zahuta, a former professional soccer player from Poland with a good sense of humor — was really packing them in at multiple masses each weekend. I’d been meaning to drop by for one of the masses, but hadn’t gotten around to it.

Anyway, the billboard I was seeing originally looked like the right-hand side of the one in the photo above (sorry about the low quality; the traffic light is quite a distance from the sign, and this was just my iPhone) — all maroon (or garnet, or whatever), with white lettering. Still, it caught my eye.

But then, about a week ago, I started seeing this new version with Pope Francis taking up about 40 percent of the space, and the rest of the message squeezed into what’s left.

I guess our new pontiff is seen as a draw. I sort of doubt the sign would have been amended to include a huge photo of his predecessor…

On Pope Francis, Cardinal Bernardin, Vatican II, American politics, and the church today

Today, Massimo Faggioli brought this WashPost story to our attention via Facebook:

Conservative Catholics question Pope Francis’s approach

Rattled by Pope Francis’s admonishment to Catholics not to be “obsessed” by doctrine, his stated reluctance to judge gay priests and his apparent willingness to engage just about anyone — including atheists — many conservative Catholics are doing what only recently seemed unthinkable:

They are openly questioning the pope.

Concern among traditionalists began building soon after Francis was elected this spring. Almost immediately, the new pope told non-Catholic and atheist journalists he would bless them silently out of respect. Soon after, he eschewed Vatican practice and included women in a foot-washing ceremony.

The wary traditionalists became critical when, in an interview a few weeks ago, Francis said Catholics shouldn’t be “obsessed” with imposing doctrines, including on gay marriage and abortion….

This was particularly relevant because Dr. Faggioli was our 2013 Cardinal Joseph Bernardin lecturer last week at USC — and the topic of that news story bears upon what he spoke about in his lecture, and what we discussed in a panel discussion I moderated earlier in the day.

I’ve mentioned this lecture series in past years. (You may recall when E.J. Dionne gave the lecture a couple of years back.) I’ve been on the panel that runs it for more than a decade, along with members of the Religious Studies department at the university, some clergy (Catholic and non), some members of the Bernardin family and Patricia Moore Pastides, USC’s first lady (and my fellow parishioner at St. Peter’s). Cardinal Bernardin, for those who don’t remember him, is easily the most distinguished churchman ever to come out of Columbia. He was born here, grew up in my parish, attended USC, then went on to be come the most influential member of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in the 1980s.

Our committee’s goal is to establish the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Chair in Ethical, Moral, and Religious Studies at USC. We moved a huge step toward achieving that this past year, with a $1 million gift from former USC President John Palms and wife Norma, more than half of which goes toward the chair.

Dr. Faggioli’s topic was, “Bernardin’s Common Ground Initiative: Can it Survive Current Political Cultures?

Before I share what he said, I should explain the Common Ground initiative, which the cardinal launched as he was dying of cancer in the mid-90s. It’s founding document, “Called to be Catholic,” was written by the cardinal in the summer of 1996, and began:

Will the Catholic Church in the United States enter the new millennium as a church of promise, augmented by the faith of rising generations and able to be a leavening force in our culture? Or will it become a church on the defensive, torn by dissension and weakened in its core structures? The outcome, we believe, depends on whether American Catholicism can confront an array of challenges with honesty and imagination and whether the church can reverse the polarization that inhibits discussion and cripples leadership. American Catholics must reconstitute the conditions for addressing our differences constructively – a common ground centered on faith in Jesus, marked by accountability to the living Catholic tradition, and ruled by a renewed spirit of civility, dialogue, generosity, and broad and serious consultation…

The cardinal was trying to bridge left and right within the church, calling on Catholics of all stripes to listen respectfully to each other. He was addressing the same long-standing conflict described in today’s WashPost story:

Some Catholics feel Francis is resurfacing fights that followed the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. Conservatives felt liberal Catholics misinterpreted the Council’s intention and took “open” too far.

The last two popes seemed to agree, making a priority of establishing “Catholic identity” among people and institutions by emphasizing the importance of crystal-clear doctrine,particularly on issues around human reproduction and marriage.

“The angry screaming debates in parishes — I don’t want to go there again,” said Lawler. “Things were calming down.”…

With some Catholics thinking that Pope Francis’ recent remarks will bring back those “screaming debates,” Dr. Faggioli’s lecture was particularly timely.

Massimo Faggioli

Massimo Faggioli

A central theme in his talk that had not occurred to me before was this: In the days of Vatican II and before it, Catholicism was largely a European phenomenon. Today, the American church is so dominant that what happens here has repercussions in his home country of Italy, and everywhere else.

In reading “Called to be Catholic” and its companion document from later that year, “Faithful and Hopeful: The Catholic Common Ground Project,” I can’t help but feel that the cardinal was talking about American politics rather than internal church matters:

The problem of dissent today is not so much the voicing of serious criticism but the popularity of dismissive,demagogic, ‘cute’ commentary, dwelling on alleged motives,exploiting stereotypes, creating stock villains, employing reliable‘laugh lines’ The kind of responsible disagreement of which I speak must not include‘caricatures’ that‘undermine the Church as a community of faith’by assuming Church authorities to be ‘generally ignorant,self-serving,and narrow-minded’ It takes no more than a cursory reading of the more militant segments of the Catholic press, on both ends of the theological and ideological spectrum, to reveal how widespread, and how corrosive,such caricatures have become….

I figured that was just my bias, based on my experience.

But Dr. Faggioli sees that as highly relevant. In fact, he says the American style of political discourse, which in many ways is quite alien to the European mind, has profoundly influenced dialogue, or the lack thereof, within the church.

Well, it’s taken me a lot to get this far, because there’s so much to explain along the way — which is why I haven’t written about the lecture and panel last week before now.

So from here on, I’ll just hit a few highlights:

  • After Dr. Faggioli had indicated, during our panel discussion, that we now had a Vatican II pope after two strict doctrinalists whose appointments had reshaped the U.S. Conference into something very different from what Cardinal Bernardin knew, I asked whether Francis and the largely conservative American bishops were headed for conflict. The other two panelists — political scientist Steven Millies and Fr. Jeff Kirby of the Diocese of Charleston — said they didn’t think so, and I thought their reasoning was both strong and ironic: Their point is that because Pope Francis is less down-from-above, more collegial, more into subsidiarity, he would act more like the bishop of Rome than supreme pontiff, and leave American bishops alone to run their dioceses their way. Dr. Faggioli disagreed, saying conflict is inevitable. I think he’s right.
  • Our speaker provided insight into the interview the pope gave with Jesuit journals — the one that caused such a sensation last month. He’s almost uniquely qualified to do so, as he was one of the people who translated the interview into English, and therefore influenced what the rest of us read. Today’s WashPost story quotes a conservative activist as complaining that “now we’ve got a guy who doesn’t seem to think clear expression is important.” On the contrary, Dr. Faggioli says, the pope was very carefully controlling what he said. He saw some of the rough drafts of the pope’s remarks as well as what appeared eventually, and the pontiff was taking great care. Not only that, but in talking to the Jesuit journals, Pope Francis was deliberately bypassing the Vatican bureaucracy — which is filled with his predecessor’s people. Bottom line, the pontiff knows what he’s saying, and he’s not letting the usual filters get in the way.
  • That said, this pope has one weakness in communicating what he means: His Italian is excellent, says Dr. Faggioli, but his English? Not so much. Worse, he lacks understanding of “the Anglo-Saxon mindset.” Our speaker said the pontiff apparently didn’t fully anticipate exactly how obsessively every word he spoke would be parsed by fussy, picky Americans. (And in keeping with our speaker’s theme, if Americans interpret things a certain way, that influences the perception of the rest of the world.) If he had, there are a couple of different words he might have chosen in that interview.

There was a lot more, but it’s a miracle if any of y’all have read this far, so I’ll stop for now. Dr. Faggioli indicated that his lecture, or part of it, might be available online soon. When it is, I’ll give y’all a link…

The panel -- Fr. Kirby, Dr. Faggioli, your correspondent, and Dr. Millies. No, I don't know why my tongue is sticking out...

The panel — Fr. Kirby, Dr. Faggioli, your correspondent, and Dr. Millies. No, I don’t know why my tongue is sticking out. I meant no disrespect.