Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Because of The Old-Fashioned, Round-Faced, Foreign-Looking Nun in the Picture at My Grandmother’s House (Guest Post)

Now and then I'll publish guest posts from friends of this blog around the globe. This lovely piece was written by a long-lost schoolmate of mine who prefers to remain anonymous. I've already written about Thérèse of the Child Jesus (Thérèse of Lisieux) in recent days, so I'll let my old chum observe her feast day here.

Catholic tradition is something I happily left behind as a teenager in the 1960s. Back then, Sacred Heart of Jesus portraits, scapulars, the Legion of Mary, the picture of an old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun at my grandmother's house in New Jersey, no hamburgers at Friday-night cookouts, calendars with fish symbols, the word Mass itself, and that other "Catholic stuff" embarrassed me. Most of my friends were Protestant. Catholic devotions were uncool and kind of un-American too. I was happy to be free of them.

But being free of Catholicism led to being free of God, which did not work out so well. By age thirty, I was asking Him for help and got it. I have been back in the Catholic Church, more or less, for twenty years now—done some reading and made some retreats along the way. But this year, I awakened. I now consciously attune myself to the liturgical calendar. I go to confession frequently and Mass as often as three times a week. This summer, a week-long silent retreat using St. Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises had a huge impact. The retreat included a one-on-one general confession with the retreat master. I attend Latin Mass at least once a week. I even bought a secondhand Sacred Heart of Jesus print for ten dollars, frame and all. Then I spent way too much getting it framed with olive wood from Italy.

This year, I have discovered that the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture I used to see at my grandmother's house wasn't so old-fashioned after all. In 1887, fourteen-year-old Thérèse Martin of Lisieux, France, "code-pinked" a Pope. Thérèse sought to enter a Carmelite convent at age fifteen, years before the normal age of twenty. She had already confronted her French bishop at his home and been told no. During a papal audience in Rome, Thérèse—who had been instructed not to speak to the Pope—grabbed Pope Leo XIII's hand and begged a "great favor." When the Pope diplomatically suggested that she do whatever French authorities decided, her response was to put her clasped hands on his knee and pretty much tell him his answer was not good enough. Thérèse needed a yes. All she got was Pope Leo's finger on her lips and a blessing as the Swiss Guards pulled her away. It is said that the old Pope followed her with his eyes for a long time.

Three months after her fifteenth birthday, Thérèse Martin did enter the Carmel at Lisieux. Inside, she took the name Thérèse of the Child Jesus. Less than ten years later, at age twenty-four, ravaged by tuberculosis, Thérèse died an obscure nun. In the months before her death, she had said, "After my death, I will let fall a shower of roses." She also said, "I will spend my heaven in doing good upon earth." On October 4, 1897, the door to Lisieux Carmel, a door that can only be opened from inside, swung open. Thérèse Martin's simple coffin was carried out past three of her biological sisters who, as Carmelites themselves, did not leave the convent, even for the burial of their own sister. A priest and a handful of relations and friends walked the simple coffin to the cemetery.

As was customary, the Carmel at Lisieux sent out a written account of Thérèse's life to other Carmels. In part because she died so young and was not well known, the Carmel decided to send Thérèse's own account of her life, known now as Story of a Soul. In the three years before her death, while very sick, she had written the account in a copybook using a pencil during the little spare time she had. The book went out to other Carmels in October 1898. Within a few weeks, letters arrived at Lisieux asking for more copies. Then came the first letters describing miraculous physical healings and spiritual conversions connected with Thérèse's book. Such letters have never stopped coming. They come from all over the world.

On March 26, 1923, the door at Carmel Lisieux that can only be opened from inside swung open again for Thérèse Martin's coffin. Just as they did twenty-six years before, her three biological sisters stood inside the threshold as Thérèse came past. Only this time, instead of one priest and a handful of mourners outside, there were two hundred priests and fifty thousand faithful who had escorted the coffin from the cemetery. When the coffin was lifted from the grave, the scent of roses filled the air. As the solemn procession from the cemetery to Carmel passed by him, a paralyzed soldier regained the use of his legs. At the gate to Carmel, a blind girl regained her sight.

On May 17, 1925, only twenty-eight years after her death and thirty-eight years after code-pinking gentle old Pope Leo, Thérèse Martin returned to the Vatican. Over two hundred thousand people from all over the world jammed St. Peter's and the square outside as Pope Pius XI canonized Thérèse of Lisieux. The bells in every church in Rome pealed. She is officially known as St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus because that was her name inside Carmel. But Thérèse Martin is known everywhere as Thérèse of Lisieux.

So the old-fashioned, round-faced, foreign-looking nun in the picture at my grandmother's house was not so old-fashioned after all. St. Thérèse was only eight years older than my grandmother. My grandmother was six when Thérèse met the Pope and told him to change his answer.

Most of what I know about St. Thérèse's life comes from this thirty-four-page summary of her life by Msgr. Vernon Johnson, an Englishman: In 1924, Johnson was a pious, highly regarded Anglican pastor, very happy in his faith and ministry. He had already looked into Story of a Soul and knew it to be a "sentimental," "artificial," and "un-English" "Roman Catholic scheme." Even when he finally picked up the book to read it, the first two chapters "did not appeal" to him and were "difficult to get through."

St. Thérèse apparently did not view all that as much of an obstacle. Johnson kept reading till "long after midnight. . . . All I can say is that it moved my whole being as no other piece of writing has ever done," he wrote. Johnson entered Catholic seminary at age forty-three, and Thérèse had her greatest English-language champion. The quotes above come from the first few pages of Msgr. Johnson's classic work of apologetics, One Lord, One Faith (Ignatius Press).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Survey #1: Because of What Poem?

The positive comments on this blog have been astonishing since I began posting just six weeks ago. Few comments have touched me more than one from "Mary" this afternoon. In Catholic-land, "Mary" is almost as anonymous as "Anonymous," so I have no idea who Mary is. But she picked up on my post about Julian's baptism and urged me on. You can find Mary's comment beneath Julian's story. It's her P.S. that sparks this post:

When days arrive, as they will, that you need a break, be sure, we will understand. Just ask us to lift you up, throw out a topic and we'll all help.

Mary, I'm taking you up on your offer . . . NOW! There's not a moment to waste. So let's turn this post into a survey, and let anyone and everyone answer with comments.

In my previous post, I wrote about W. H. Auden's poem "The Ballad of Barnaby," explaining how it inspired me. Auden was a High Anglican, with a clear devotion to the Blessed Mother, and the idea of Barnaby tumbling before a statue of Mary is touching to me, for reasons I try to explain.

Now, over to you, gentle reader. Mary, here's my topic: What poem has inspired you in your religious life? It doesn't have to be a "Catholic" poem. For example, you could cite:

Anything by Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, about whom I wrote in a previous post, or . . .

John Milton, "On His Blindness"—In just fourteen lines this sonnet moves Job-like from suffering over life's injustice to a resplendent acceptance of God's will. The final line is a rebuke to each of us who would win God's favor with doing, doing, and more doing: "They also serve who only stand and wait."

Walt Whitman, "Song of the Open Road"—As the first American poet celebrated by the gay community, Whitman is not exactly a Catholic icon. But this poem was an anthem for me for many years, especially in its final evocation of friendship, something I've found most truly only now within the Catholic Church: "Mon enfant, I give you my hand! I give you my love, more precious than money! I give you myself, before preaching or law! Will you give me yourself? will you come travel with me? Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?"

Dylan Thomas, "A Refusal to Mourn the Death by Fire of a Child in London"—I have no idea what Thomas's religious orientation was, if any. He seems to have known more about spirits than about the Holy Spirit. But the final line of this elegy for a girl killed by fire, though ambiguous, has always made me think of the death and resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ: "After the first death, there is no other."

Robert Frost, "Death of a Hired Man"—Again, this is not a Catholic or even a particularly Christian poem, but the charity expressed by the wife, "Mary" of course, is touching. When her husband, Warren, gives forth with the line for which the poem is best known ("Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in"), Mary responds ("I should have called it something you somehow haven't to deserve.")

e. e. cummings, "my father moved through dooms of love"—As anyone who has been reading this blog knows by now, my father moved through dooms of love. (or as cummings has it, "because my father lived his soul, love is the whole and more than all")

. . . or just about anything by Emily Dickinson.

So, what's your answer, brothers and sisters? Is there a poem of faith, hope, or charity that still sings to you? Please comment below. If I get some answers, I'll have more questions!

Because of “The Ballad of Barnaby”

At Adoration this afternoon, I thought for the first time in a long while of W. H. Auden's poem "The Ballad of Barnaby." Maybe that was because I often spend time at Adoration wondering just what I'm supposed to do down here anyway. Like "Barnaby," our Adoration Chapel is set in "the crypt."

This poem has haunted my adult life, and I think I know why. For 25 years, I was a performer in a world-famous stage magic troupe based at the Cabot Street Cinema Theatre in Beverly, Massachusetts, just two blocks from my new home, St. Mary Star of the Sea. And all the while something deep inside me was fixin' to go Catholic.

With Katie and our daughters, Martha and Marian, I was a performer in Marco the Magi's production of "Le Grand David and his own Spectacular Magic Company," a "wonder-making spectacle performed in the style and tradition of the sunrise of the century." Since the show started in 1977, the publicity materials have always referred to the sunrise of the twentieth century, although time does march on. The show was the brainchild of Cesareo Pelaez (a/k/a Marco the Magi), the archangel who first taught me about Catholicism. I don't use the term archangel loosely. Cesareo's middle name is Raphael.

This show was (and is) very successful—seven performances at the White House, major articles in Time and Smithsonian, and more awards from the international magic fraternity than you can shake a wand at. "Le Grand David" continues to this day, after 2,500 performances. But the inner story of "Le Grand David" is, to me, even more remarkable. A student in the 1960s of humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow, Cesareo conceived our theatre enterprise as a communal adventure of the spirit, in which we would create something beautiful on stage that would simultaneously give praise to God—however each of us might view Him (or Her). Ours was a nonsectarian, ecumenical adventure, wherein the performance was a form of (borrowing a Christian term now) worship. Though we never, ever used that term.

And so "Barnaby." I thought for many years of memorizing this poem and reciting it at one of the many holiday or birthday celebrations Cesareo was always organizing. The time for this seems to have passed now, as I left active involvement in the company in 2002.

But now I view "Barnaby" differently. As David B. Hart explains in a First Things review (October 2009) of "The Evolution of God" by Robert Wright:

If a truly disruptive event occurs within human affairs—a new form of thought, for instance, coming from above or below or beyond the normal course of social causality—it will of necessity determine the shape not only of the future but of the past; for, if it has any large effect on history, it becomes the filter that discriminates between those prior developments that will be preserved and those prior developments that will come to nothing.

My conversion to Catholicism was such a "disruptive event" in my own affairs, one that causes me to look back on "The Ballad of Barnaby" as another reason YIM Catholic. Here is Auden's poem in its entirety. It is entirely new to me today:

Listen, good people, and you shall hear / A story of old that will gladden your ear, / The Tale of Barnaby, who was, they say, / The finest tumbler of his day.

In every town great crowds he drew,
/ And all men marveled to see him do / The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne, / The Vault of Metz, and the Vault of Lorraine.

His eyes were blue, his figure was trim,
/ He liked the girls and the girls liked him; / For years he lived a life of vice, / Drinking in taverns and throwing the dice.

It happened one day he was riding along
/ Between two cities, whistling a song, / When he saw what then was quite common to see, / Two ravens perched on a gallows-tree.

"Barnaby," the first raven began,
/ "Will one day be as this hanging man." / "Yes," said the other, "and we know well / That when that day comes he will go to Hell."

Then Barnaby's conscience smote him sore;
/ He repented of all he had done heretofore: / "Woe is me! I will forsake / This wicked world and penance make."

The evening air was grave and still
/ When he came to a monastery built on a hill: / As its bells the Angelus did begin, / He knocked at the door and they let him in.

The monks in that place were men of parts,
/ Learned in the sciences and the arts: / The Abbot could logically define / The place of all creatures in the Scheme Divine.

Brother Maurice then wrote down all that he said
/ In a flowing script that it might be read, / And Brother Alexander adorned the book / With pictures that gave it a beautiful look.

There were brothers there who could compose /
Latin Sequences in verse and prose, / And a brother from Picardy, too, who sung / The praise of Our Lady in the vulgar tongue.

Now Barnaby had never learned to read,
/ Nor Paternoster know nor Creed: / Watching them all at work and prayer, / Barnaby's heart began to despair.

Down to the crypt at massing-time
/ He crept like a man intent on crime: / In a niche there above the altar stood / A statue of Our Lady carved in wood.

"Blessed Virgin," he cried, "enthroned on high,
/ Ignorant as a beast am I: / Tumbling is all I have learnt to do; / Mother-of-God, let me tumble for You."

Straightway he stripped off his jerkin,
/ And his tumbling acts he did begin: / So eager was he to do Her honour / That he vaulted higher than ever before.

The French Vault, the Vault of Champagne,
/ The vault of Metz and the Vault of Lorraine, / He did them all till he sank to the ground, / His body asweat and his head in a swound.

Unmarked by him, Our Lady now
/ Steps down from her niche and wipes his brow. / "Thank you, Barnaby," She said and smiled; / "Well have you tumbled for me, my child."

From then on at the Office-Hours
/ Barnaby went to pay her his devoirs. / One brother thought to himself: "Now where / Does Barnaby go at our times of prayer?"

And so next day when Barnaby slipped
/ Away he followed him down to the crypt. / When he saw how he honoured the Mother-of-God, / This brother thought: "This is very odd.

"It may be well: I believe it is,
/ But the Abbot, surely, should know of this." / To the Abbot he went with reverent mien / And told him exactly what he had seen.

The Abbot said to him: "Say no word
/ To the others of what you have seen and heard. / I will come tomorrow and watch with you / Before I decide what I ought to do."

Next day behind a pillar they hid,
/ And the Abbot marked all that Barnaby did. / Watching him leap and vault and tumble, / He thought, "This man is holy and humble."

"Lady," cried Barnaby, "I beg of Thee
/ To intercede with Thy Son for me!," / Gave one more leap, then down he dropped, / And lay dead still, for his heart had stopped.

Then grinning demons, black as coal,
/ Swarmed out of Hell to seize his soul: / "In vain shall be his pious fuss, / For every tumbler belongs to us."

But Our Lady and Her angels held them at bay,
/ With shining swords they drove them away, / And Barnaby's soul they bore aloft, / Singing with voices sweet and soft.

Because Heaven is Closer than We Think

I nearly busted a gut helping Father Barnes lug St. Michael the Archangel back and forth from the sacristy so that the great heavenly warrior could preside from the top step of the high altar at mass this morning. I always thought angels were light, airy beings, but this guy's enormous—10 stone if he's a pound.

It got me thinking, on this Feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, about just how real angels are for me. As I wrote in my very first post, I came to the Catholic Church understanding very little about it. I was drawn almost entirely by the saints, their example, and the thought, If it was right for them, how did I get to be so smart that I have a better idea? That and early grounding in the Christian faith at the side of my parents were the decisive influences in my formation.

But I didn't understand the Eucharist. I didn't "get" Mary. And I'm not sure I believed in angels. I'm still not sure I believe in angels, especially now that I know Michael's a heavy son of a gun.

Yet Father Barnes's homily this morning spoke to me, and like all of his homilies, it took off from the scripture readings, which today were about angels, of course. Our beloved pastor noted that this is a particularly beautiful time of the liturgical year as we move toward All Saints and All Souls, a period that reminds us that "heaven is closer to us than we think." Think of the joyous feasts and memorials just ahead: Thérèse of Liseux, who promised she would drop flowers from heaven after her death; The Guardian Angels; St. Jerome, who translated the Bible, bringing the Word from heaven to earth; the mystics Francis of Assisi and Teresa of Avila; Our Lady of the Rosary . . .

If angels don't exist, then something else pretty extraordinary is managing the ladder from heaven to earth. "We only see a portion of reality," Father Barnes said, and this I do believe. Freud said the same thing, of course, when he wrote of the unconscious. I always wondered about Freud: just where are the id, the ego, and the superego located?

I don't have to wonder where Sts. Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael are located. They are in heaven, in which I do believe. And if they are only symbolic, as Freud's Latin "organs" certainly are, then I'll take the archangels any day—as far more positive, inspiring, and, yes, substantial. I learned that this morning.

For Julian DesRosiers

Why am I Catholic? As my litany of posts attests, I am Catholic because of saints, my father and mother, my pastor, books, movies, other Catholics . . . But until I attended a baptism on Sunday, I never asked why in a different way. I never asked what I am Catholic for.

Look at it this way: My blog has explained that I am a Catholic thanks to many blessed influences in my life—from Ammie to Cesareo, from Reverend Bassage to Father Barnes, from Thomas More to Thérèse of Lisieux, from Kristin Lavransdatter to "Joan of Arcadia." But who will say the same of me someday? Who will say, I am Catholic thanks to Webster Bull?

Isak Dinesen asked a similar question at the end of her memoir Out of Africa: "I sing a song of Africa, but does Africa sing a song of me?" Maybe it's an old person's question.

Julian DesRosiers is the first child of young friends of mine, Adam and Jenn DesRosiers. Fellow parishioners at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts, Jenn is a convert, Adam a revert; both are steady, kind, and devoted to our parish. Both are artists. Jenn is often a fellow communicant with me at daily mass. Adam has taken the pictures for our parish newsletter and many that appear on this site. I don't hang out with them much (they're nearly 30 years younger than I), but I love them, the way I love Ferde, the way I love Frank and Carrie. So when they invited me to Julian's baptism, I said, of course, yes.

The ongoing shock of my conversion to Catholicism, like the ongoing astonishment of writing this blog and receiving so many readers' comments, is realizing how inspiring one Catholic can be for others—in the case of this blog, me for you. I know how that sounds. It sounds strange to me too. Self-absorbed? Flattered by my own sense of self-importance? Yes, maybe, but— From the moment I began attending daily mass and sitting in the same pew every day, I saw by stages just how persuasive my presence could be there. By joyfully participating in the mass even when I could not receive the Eucharist, I saw that I was an example, a witness, an inspiration to other people.

This was in no way a recognition of my own power or importance. It came to me instead with a sense of grace, which humbled me. It was a gift I was being given, to use well.

But not until Julian's baptism did I see the connection to the central question of this blog. Why—wherefore—am I Catholic? Not because of what but for what? In witnessing Julian's baptism, I felt suddenly the responsibility of being not just a Catholic, but a good one, not just a man but a saint.

Maybe the central image in the gospel reading for Sunday helped drive this home:

Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.

I'm afraid this gospel was aimed squarely at the priesthood during the abuse scandal of recent years. But what about me, a lay Catholic, professing the Catholic faith in front of Julian and all the other children who pass me in my daily life, including but not limited to the fourth-graders in my Wednesday afternoon CCD class? Will my behavior cause them to sin, or will it help them constantly to renew the cleansing grace of their baptism?

I am preparing for CCD class with a bit more intensity this week than last. I will stand in front of those sixteen nine-year-olds with a renewed sense of responsibility.

And to you, Julian DesRosiers, all of two weeks old, I have this to say: I will do my best to be a good example for you as you grow into the Catholic faith beside your fine parents. Your baptism was an invitation to me to renew my own faith, taking another baby step toward my destiny.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Because of Martyrs, Monks, Mores, and McNiffs

With the pope in the Czech Republic and with today's memorial on the horizon, I got thinking yesterday about Good King Wenceslas, patron saint of the Czech people, wondering why he matters. I love the Christmas carol and only yesterday understood the logic: GKW went out / on the feast of Stephen. Of course, first martyr! Never thought of Wenceslas, Duke of Bohemia as a martyr, or one who made a difference in my life.

This led to a broader thought about the two-thousand-year procession of Catholics who have made it possible for me to be a Catholic today, and they fell into four broad chronological categories:

Martyrs: In the beginning was Stephen, along with all those fair souls ripped up by lions and beheaded by Roman axes. When you think about how easily the whole Christian experiment could have folded its tents under Roman pressure, you begin to understand what a deep debt we owe these courageous souls.

Monks: About the time Christianity got legalized, and the purity and evangelical fervor began to die down, along came Benedict of Nursia and the rise of monasticism. Gotta go back and read Thomas Cahill on How the Irish Saved Civilization one of these days, but his message remains with me. Without all those scribes in lonely outposts dotting the frozen north, we not only wouldn't have Catholicism, probably, we wouldn't know Plato from Aristotle.

Mores: Things get established in the High and Late Middle Ages, the Church corrupts (though the Holy Spirit keeps throwing us Aquinases and Francises and Clares), and perhaps with some justification (though it's never about reasons), Luther and the lads rebel. Catholicism could have folded again, but this was the age of Thomas More and Bishop Fisher and the heroes of the Counter-Reformation who again stood against the tide, giving lives and testimony so that Holy Mother Church would not be just another historic relic.

McNiffs: This is a tribute to my darling Katie's Irish ancestors. I want to do a longer post on them some day soon, even though I never even met her parents. But the point is, the Irish and the Italians, and in smaller earlier numbers the French, brought Catholicism to this country and sometimes took their lives in their hands to do so. And if you don't believe me, move on over to Pat McNamara's great blog of Catholic history to read the stories of literally hundreds of Catholics who brought the Church, its schools, its hospitals, its creed, and its culture to these shores.

Without any of these four M's, I probably would not be a Catholic today.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thanks to Father Barnes I

I was in turmoil all day, thinking about comments on recent posts. Two were from hostile on-line "advisors," a third from someone dear to me. All three led me to question whether I have lost my direction; instead of offering the "good news" of Catholicism, have I strayed into haughty, uncharitable criticism of those who don't agree with the Church? Has the monster taken control from Dr. Frankenstein?

Then I entered church for a 5:00 p.m. baptism, picked up the weekly bulletin, and concluded that Father Barnes's bulletin message had been written expressly for me. This is not the first time I have been struck by a comment, message, or homily by Father Barnes and how it seemed to nail squarely an issue I was thinking or worrying about—bullseye—like the guy's inside my head, or something! Though that's a scary thought, I bless the day I entered St. Mary Star of the Sea Church and found that "FB" was the pastor. Without good priests we would have no church. Without Father Barnes I probably would not be a Catholic.

The comments that I fretted over were a mixed bag. The two from "Anonymous" contained plenty of nasty vituperation with a few pointed zingers thrown in, mostly about my arrogance and pomposity. Set aside the schoolyard mud-throwing, and together they suggested that I had been far too critical of both non-Catholics and lapsed Catholics who bring trivial objections against the Church.

The third commenter, my dear friend, called me to task for being too critical of a recent dinner companion, also in a post. There were no schoolyard epithets involved, but the basic message was the same: Who do you think you are?

You don't want to hear about the soul-searching triggered by these comments. Let me just say that I didn't feel I could dismiss all of the comments out of hand. Father Barnes's message was like buried treasure discovered after a long, long search. The picture here shows our beloved Padre on the steps of the rectory on a Tuesday, "bulletin day," as he writes one of his thoughtful messages. Today's message spoke straight to my heart:

The other day, I was debating how to say something to somebody and I was reminded how important the words we speak (and write) are. They contain the power to encourage, but also the power to discourage. They can build up, but they can also destroy. . . . I think—though I'm no expert on this—as a culture, we've lost an appreciation for the seriousness of words.

Father B then went straight to the Catechism:

CCC #2477: Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and work likely to cause them unjust injury. . . .

CCC #2478: To avoid rash judgment, everyone should be careful to interpret insofar as possible his neighbor's thoughts, words, and deeds in a favorable way.

CCC #2479: Detraction and calumny destroy the reputation and honor of one's neighbor. Honor is the social witness given to human dignity, and everyone enjoys a natural right to the honor of his reputation and to respect. Thus, detraction and calumny offend against the virtues of justice and charity.

Father Barnes concluded:

The words we speak and write matter. Our words have the capability of doing a lot of good, but they also can do a lot of harm. Let us treat our words seriously . . . so that they are always a means of loving our neighbor.

I can't say it better. I'm still not sure which side I come down on: Were my criticisms in recent posts justified? Was my tone even-handed, or was it unfair? I can only look forward now anyway; I can only pray that from here on in, as much as possible, I adhere to the good Padre's counsel.

He has never steered me wrong yet.

Because In the End It Isn't About Reason

I had dinner last night with a cradle Catholic who holds a long-standing grudge against the Church. Years ago, she said, she heard a priest lecture his flock on dressing properly for Mass. "But the altar servers were wearing sneakers and jeans under their cassocks!" she exclaimed. "What a hypocrite!" While it was hard to follow her logic, I gather that she no longer attends Mass and that this is one of her reasons.

No doubt, every Catholic who has turned away from the Church has a "good reason" for doing so. I've heard many. They range from trivial (the dress code?) to tragic (the abuse scandal). But every reason, no matter how convincing its logic, no matter how convinced the reasoner, is only that, a reason. A reason is something we use to justify divisions between us humans. "I have left the church because . . . " means "I (one human being) have decided not to associate with the Church (more human beings) and I am justified in doing so." A reason makes us right.

There are a couple of problems with such reasoning. It leaves out God and it leaves out love.

Given the existence of God (which most of the formerly Catholic reasoners will grant) and given the historicity of Jesus Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection (which a large subset will grant, as well), there is only one reasonable set of responses: awe, gratititude, praise, and the effort to model ourselves on the commandments Christ left us. From this point forward, there is only one reasonable thing to do: find the most authentic and viable way to Jesus Christ. This way logically can be traced only to the place and time of origin: His death and resurrection and his delegation of authority to the Apostles who followed him. This in turn leads to the Holy Catholic Church, not as an oligarchy of admittedly fallible human beings but as a mystical body established by Christ himself and the only possible earthly link to Our Savior.

This search, if we are sincere about it, if our love is true, will lead us through the history of the early Church and its Fathers, and the likes of St. Augustine who, after four centuries of martyrdom and clarification, stood at the end of the Roman era and declared the unique and eternal value of this institution. We must then overlook, with humility, with gratitude, and even sometimes with humor, centuries upon centuries of human fallibility and human renewal through the grace of the Holy Spirit and the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas, until we come down to the Church as it exists in our time—headed by one of the most holy, inspiring, and just plain brilliant popes in history.

If our love for God and His Son is still intact after this trial by fire, and if we have the open-mindedness to listen to what our pope, my pope, Benedict XVI, has to say about all this, we can stand on our two feet, look anyone in the eye, and say, Yes, I embrace and wholeheartedly support the Catholic Church because . . . .

As Thomas More had it, in that heart-breaking scene in "A Man for All Seasons," wherein Paul Scofield explains to Susannah York why he will not take the oath and thereby save himself, "In the end, it is not about reason. In the end, it is about love."

And so for every reasonable person who has chosen to turn away, there are others who choose to remain, looking the same facts in the face and saying, "It is not about reason, it is about love."

I am one of those who chooses to remain. This is another "reason" why I am Catholic.

(Again, my thanks to my fellow parishionier Adam Desrosiers, a fine artist, for his photograph of our church. I will be proud to be present at 5 p.m. today, when the first child of Adam and his wife, Jenn, is baptized at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Beverly, Massachusetts.)

Friday, September 25, 2009

Because of “Joan of Arcadia” II

Another lonely day carrying a torch for a TV melodrama that was canceled five years ago after two seasons and that the rest of the world seems to have forgotten. Sorry, “Joan of Arcadia” remains one of the reasons YIM Catholic.

When we left Joan at the end of the pilot, she had heeded God's voice and landed a job at a local bookstore, a move with consequences for her wheelchair-bound brother Kevin, who was inspired to shake off his self-pity and look for a job himself. Meanwhile, Dad (Police Chief Girardi) had broken an arson case by fingering Arcadia's fire chief (only the beginning of Dad's political problems in town); Mom continued wrestling with her grief over Kevin's paralyzing accident (introducing herself to a young priest in a parking lot; he'll be back); and younger brother Luke was little more than the cute geek in the corner, quoting Michael Faraday.

There is a disconnect between the pilot and the first two episodes of season 1: Joan is not (apparently) working at the bookstore (she'll be back); and Kevin isn't looking for a job (just yet). Instead, Joan's older brother has just earned a driver's license for the handicapped and may be in the market for a car. The script of episode 1 also causes a quick switch in Joan's friends at Arcadia High. In the pilot, she was seen walking around with a couple of catty cheerleader types, whom Ammie would have characterized as B-dashes. In episode 1, God tells Joan to stretch herself academically, and to her principal's astonishment she signs up for AP chemistry. (Another disconnect: We have a new principal; a white jerk has replaced a decent African American.) AP chem will horrify and alienate the catty cheerleaders, but it will introduce Joan to two secondary characters who are anything but cheerleader/athlete types: Adam Rove (Chris Marquette), who may be a pothead; and Grace Polk (Becky Wahlstrom), who sure looks like she must be a lesbian. Or as Joan's Dad puts it, "These are Joan's new friends? A person of mysterious gender and space boy?" Grace and Adam (nice names, hunh?) will become the core of Joan's posse for the remainder of the series.

God takes many forms in the first episode: a newscaster rudely shut off by Dad, to Joan's horror; a little girl in a playground; a streetsweeper; a repair man on a utility pole. Some of these God characters will return, but many are one-scene wonders. The message is clear: God speaks to us through our fellow man, woman, and child. And God doesn't give orders; he/she gives suggestions. Human freedom is in place.

Says God, "Just because I speak doesn't mean anyone has to listen. Free will is one of my great inventions."

But God wants us to listen: "I put a lot of thought into the universe. It's better when we all abide by the rules. Miracles happen within the rules."

And so they do in these episodes. Joan gets new friends, and discoveries begin. (Adam does not take drugs, but is a highly talented artist. Grace's secrets will come out in later episodes.) Kevin gets a car and a new attitude. (Though his suffering returns the moment a girl at the drive-through hits on him and he can't respond.) And Mom begins a search for answers to the great question, Why do bad things happen to good people, in this case Kevin.

In episode 2, God tells Joan to take up chess, another intellectual stretch for this typical teen. It means going down into the basement with the chess club and hanging out with people geekier even than Luke. But as before, heeding God's advice leads to good things, though not always directly for Joan.

Episode 2 provides an interesting subplot parallel to Joan's own paranormal experiences.Chief Girardi is introduced to a psychic, who claims she can find a kidnapped child. She fails, and ordinary police methods finally succeed. (God may speak to us, but we have to play by the rules.) The psychic, meeting Kevin, leans over and whispers in his ear, "You're going to dance at your wedding." Of course, Kevin gets his hopes up, as does Mom. And I was left wondering if a third season would have shown Kevin walking again, miraculously.

But then I guess we'll never know, will we?

Next week: Season 1, episodes 3 and 4.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Because I've Tasted the Competition

On a Sunday two years ago, I began RCIA classes to be received into the Catholic Church. The class met at 10:30 and I woke up planning to attend Mass at 9:30. Then I had a second thought: Give the Episcopal Church one more chance. Try one last taste test before buying that lifetime supply of Maxwell House.

I was aware of two Episcopal parishes in our town, and I already knew that I didn't want any part of one of them. An upscale Yankee parish in the "better" part of town, it would have been like alumni weekend at my prep school, a social occasion wrapped around moments of spirituality. I can hear Katie saying, That sounds pretty harsh, and it is. But I know what I'm talking about, honey. I "knew" people at that parish, and they "knew" me. I would have "seen" people there and would have been "seen" by them. No, thank you. The only person I wanted to be seen by was God.

One more thing about that upscale parish, and this may sound snobby or anti-snobby, but this is my blog and I'll say it: There aren't many Ferdes at that parish. There aren't many Franks or Carries. And I'll bet there aren't any Barbaras or Roses. My grandmother, my Ammie, converted to Catholicism after my grandfather died, and it was just because there weren't any Ferdes, Franks, Carries, Barbaras, or Roses at her upscale Episcopal church in Minnesota that she moved across town to worship with the Italians, the Irish, and all those people whose names ended in vowels.

I set out walking toward the other Episcopal church, which is within walking distance of my house and also of my ultimate destination, St. Mary Star of the Sea. I had already begun attending daily 7 a.m. Mass at St. Mary's, even before RCIA, and I was used to worshiping with 50 to 100 others at that hour. So when I arrived for 8 a.m. Sunday services at the Episcopal church near my home, I expected to find a good number already assembled. I entered . . . and thought I must have been mistaken about the hour. One woman was puttering about, moving a book or arranging flowers—but no one else there. I stepped back toward the exit only to run into the minister, who was entering. I looked baffled and muttered something; he said welcome; and I sat again.

By 8 a.m. there were 8 parishioners present. It was—sorry, Katie—it was depressing. A quiet chapel shared with a couple of friends can be a very inspiring place, I know this. But the "depression" didn't flow only from the small number in attendance. There was an emptiness about it—bare walls, bare crucifix—and even a certain hopelessness, a feeling of, We're trying really hard here, God. Why is this not working out? I do not mean to offend anyone with this post, but this is my truth as I've lived it, so . . .

I walked to St. Mary's, and I became a Catholic. After a lifetime of sporadic visits to parishes Congregationalist and Episcopalian, after many years wandering in the spiritual wilderness, I was home.

Mmm-mmm, good!

AND THIS JUST IN: Last evening, while driving to Vermont to be with my mother on the first anniversary of Dad's death, I received a text message from someone very, very dear to me. "At RCIA," the message began, surprising me (I didn't know) and bringing a great, big smile to my face. Hallelujah! Score another one for the home team.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Because of My Father III

I woke before 3 a.m. today thinking about how my father hated the Yankees. In the dream I woke up from, Dad was Tweeting with A-Rod about hitting streaks. The remarkable thing about Dad was, he could hate the Yankees but still admire A-Rod when he was going well. Me, I never found a place in my heart for "Mr. April," who never seems to go well in October.

That's the difference between Dad and me, a difference I'd like to bridge in my old age. Christ called it loving your enemies; I'd just call it an immense openness to all comers, an openness to experience—Dad's experience, his kids' and grandkids' experience, life. Dad was for life.

As Dad neared his 75th birthday, which fell eight years, three months, and 21 days before his death, he began planning a party for himself. He found a place for the function and began assembling a list of old friends, then stopped short at entertainment. What to do? He wanted his party to be fun, "not a lot of old fuddy-duddies sitting around staring at each other." So he hired a DJ who would play not only music that young people would enjoy—there were always young people in Dad's life, what with six children, assorted motley in-laws, and eleven grandchildren—but also the big band music of his war and courtship years.

With the DJ signed up Dad started to worry again. What if the old fuddy-duddies didn't tap their feet to the music, didn't sing along, didn't dance? So Dad took the next logical step: He went downtown to a health club, walked in, and struck up a conversation with the receptionist. She was a lovely young woman with the sort of Midwestern wholesomeness Dad found so attractive. He didn't care for floozies. Dad told the young woman about his party, the DJ, the kind of crowd he expected—then he asked her if she would dance at his party.

What he had in mind, he said, talking right past her incredulity, I imagine, was that she would wear a modest but attractive cocktail dress, stand in front of the DJ, and wiggle. It would be even better, he suggested, if she had a friend, a sister, a cousin who could come with her and wiggle too.

Dad loved women, always approaching them with an open but innocent appreciation that I'm sure most found endearing. The young lady agreed to wiggle, and she thought her girlfriend would make two. She and Dad agreed on a price (maybe $100 for the pair) and the deal was done.

The Wigglers were a huge success at Dad's 75th. My four sisters, Katie, and our two daughters joined the two women after dinner to form a big ol' wiggling chorus line, and to judge by the photographic evidence submitted here, Dad and I had a grand time.

My father died a year ago today, on the day when we Catholics honor St. Padre Pio. This morning's Mass at St. Mary Star of the Sea Church was dedicated to his memory. You might wonder what The Wigglers have to do with YIM Catholic. Fair question.

As Dad grew older and settled into retirement and grandfatherhood, he became a beacon of receptive kindness. He made space for each of his children (a motley crew ourselves) to follow our destinies as we saw them. For one of us that meant marrying a Jewish man and having her three sons bar mitzvahed. For another it meant a courageous life as a single woman pursuing a theatrical career in New York City. For yet another it meant Catholicism.

When I told my father I was converting to Catholicism two years ago, his first reaction was that his Methodist mother would roll over in her grave. Four months later, he was present, and proudly, at my first communion and confirmation. Six months later, to the day, he died.

I have 25 years from now until I turn 83, Dad's age at death. I hope that these years, if granted to me, will radiate the same joy, openness, and charity that my father showed in his final years. In fact, I think I will to dedicate these years to his memory, if that makes any sense at all. It seems the least I can do to honor my father, my best male friend, who is now in heaven.

Padre Pio, pray for him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Because of Thérèse of Lisieux

I know very little about St. Thérèse. I should hardly be writing about her at all. But she would understand. And she is one of the reasons YIM Catholic.

How could you not adore this picture of her dressed as Joan of Arc for a play staged at her Carmelite convent? To me, it's a sort of Holy two-fer, since I am a big fan of Joan too.

How could you not admire someone whose path to God was "The Little Way," a litany of tiny sacrifices and self-humiliations during her eight years of religious life? We make such "big" efforts—going to Mass, confession, Adoration, saying rosaries, reading the Office, performing service and giving alms . . . Meanwhile, with her tiny, imperceptible gestures of devotion and self-sacrifice, Thérèse became a saint and Doctor of the Church.

How could you not be fascinated by a female Doctor of the Church (there are only three) who would not be known to us at all if she had not written a memoir, Story of a Soul?

I have read her book only once, but my copy is heavily underlined, and several passages stand out. Here are a few small petals from "The Little Flower":

Jesus has made me feel that in obeying simply, I would be pleasing Him.

Perfection consists in doing His will, in being what He wills us to be.

I see that all is vanity and vexation of spirit under the sun, that the
only good is to love God with all one's heart and to be poor in spirit here on earth.

I felt it was far more valuable to speak to God than to speak about Him, for there is so much self-love intermingled with spiritual conversations!

And finally, one for the Catholic women who responded so generously with comments on my post about their seeming happiness:

Ah! poor women, how they are misunderstood! And yet they love God in much larger numbers than men do and during the Passion of Our Lord, women had more courage than the apostles since they braved the insults of the soldiers and dared to dry the adorable Face of Jesus. It is undoubtedly because of this that He allows misunderstanding to be their lot on earth, since He chose it for Himself. In heaven, He will show that His thoughts are not men's thoughts, for then the last will be first.

Because Pope John Paul II Was Cool

Did I tell you JPII was Bono? Yes, I did. (Though BXVI, aka Mozart, is still "my pope.") Thanks to The Deacon's Bench for this great pic.

Because Catholic Women Are Happy

One of the gratifying things about this blog is hearing from Catholics around the world about their mostly positive experience of the Faith.

Nothing has touched me more than the many comments from Catholic women and one Catholic man in response to my question about the happiness of Catholic women. The female respondents include a woman from India who is happy with her faith but sometimes unhappy with the Church hierarchy.

The one man was Ferde, natch.

Let me add another couple of voices to that chorus. One is Suzanne Temple, a home-schooling mother living in the US. (I'm guessing the South; she's just now planting a magnolia tree.) Suzanne has a terrific blog, not so much about Catholicism, which is her faith, but about raising (count 'em) six boys. Kristin Lavransdatter (one of her favorite books too) has almost nothing on Suzanne. Check out Suzanne's blog, "Blessed Among Men," another joyous comment on the lives of Catholic women today. The picture here is one of many on the site celebrating the lives of her very cute kids.

Then there's Sarah Reinhard, whose blog of Catholic motherhood and womanhood is always worth a look. She calls it the Snoring Scholar, aka Just Another Day of Catholic Pondering, aka Musings of Sarah Reinhard. Whatever you call it, take a look.

This just in: Still another home-schoolin', breviary-totin' Catholic woman has a blog, and she's from a part of the globe I'm partial to. After checking out Suzanne's world and Sarah's (she an Ohio State fan), move on up to the home of Gopher football and Jessie Ventura to check out Minnesota Mom.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Because Catholicism is Messy

Father Barnes recently said, quoting George Weigel, I think, that the wonderful thing about Catholicism is, it's messy. The thought hit me again yesterday afternoon as I attended Mass at St. Anthony's Shrine in Boston with Lorenzo and other friends from Communion and Liberation (CL). It was back in force this morning as I pondered a reading for the Feast of St. Matthew.

I don't know what Weigel means by messy, but this is what I mean. How could these both be "Mass"?!

Exhibit A: An improvisational Franciscan celebration with a homily by a nun, an annotated Lord's Prayer (including Francis's meditations, so that The Annotated Our Father runs 5 minutes instead of the usual 20 seconds), and loud, rhythmic music, a la The Captain and Tennille, which led Gabriele, an Italian musician and CL stalwart to smile kindly as we walked out beneath banners reading "All Are Welcome" and say, "Sort of rock, yes?"

Exhibit B: A traditional by-the-numbers Mass celebrated with no-nonsense reverence, no improvisation, and, inevitably, a thought-shaking homily at our parish church in Beverly, built a century ago by devout Italian immigrants whose grandchildren are still among the earliest arrivals at 7 a.m. daily services?

Our Cardinal Archbishop, Seán O'Malley (is that accent out of place, or is it just me?), is a Franciscan and therefore it was no surprise to hear the sister's homily start out with in-your-face provocation to anyone who took offense at the Cardinal's presiding at the Kennedy funeral. Let me just say, though, that with all due respect for the Shrine and its fine parishioners, I know several fine Catholics who might well have walked out in protest the moment the homily began. Me? I gritted my teeth while tapping my foot to The Captain and Tennille.

So what's Catholicism? Believe me, I'm not here to tell you. I testify only as a completely happy convert completely perplexed by what one commenter called the ongoing "donnybrook" within the Church. Latin Mass? Vernacular Mass? A priest who celebrates ad orientem or one who plays to the crowd? As Adam "The Stoner" Rove habitually says on "Joan of Arcadia," chah, Jane.

Perhaps you can see why this "joke," mentioned in a previous blog, sticks in my mind:

What are the three things God does not know? (1) How many orders of Franciscans there are. (2) How much money the Dominicans have. (3) What the heck the Jesuits are doing.

Not laughing at this joke, but staring slack-jawed instead, exposes me as a neophyte Catholic, I know. But someone, please, tell me: Here we have three of the most significant orders founded in the past 2000 years, and the "joke" is that they've all gone off the rails? You call that a church?

Don't get me started on politics. It took me three months as a Catholic to realize that the Register and the Reporter, both claiming to be "National" and "Catholic," were screaming at each other from opposite sides of the playground. "Did not!" "Did so!" As I approach my daily goal of 700+ words, I'm more comfortable moving right to Matthew and closing with a word from Our Lord.

No one could figure out what Jesus was doing inviting a tax collector to follow Him. The Pharisees and Saducees were scandalized, and Peter, James, John, and the rest of the gang were also puzzled, I imagine. How could a corrupt functionary of the Roman empire be allowed into the proto-Church surrounding Jesus? Pretty messy, wouldn't you say?

St. Bede's homily that provides today's second reading from the Office helps me to understand a bit better:

Jesus saw Matthew, not merely in the usual sense, but more significantly with his merciful understanding of men. He saw the tax collector and, because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: Follow me.

This is all we can do, I think: Follow Him—while all the time scratching our heads at the strange assortment of "Catholics" surrounding us and moving more or less in the same direction.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Because This is My Great Adventure

I dropped out of college at nineteen to follow Cesareo. At thirty-three I married my polar opposite, dumbfounding my friends. Four years later, I launched a business using a model I made up myself. Ten years later, I started another business, requiring skills I didn't have. I am no stranger to adventure, but none of these adventures matches my conversion to Catholicism.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Because of "Joan of Arcadia"

It's only Friday morning, fifteen hours before airtime, but already I miss "Joan of Arcadia."

It takes courage to be a priest, as I wrote on Wednesday, but it takes a special kind of courage to live in a household with three socially active women (a wife and two daughters) and repeatedly insist on staying home Friday evenings to weep openly over a TV melodrama about a high-school girl who talks to God. Whatever I know about being martyred for the faith, I learned during the two seasons of this show (2003–4, 2004–5).

And I wasn't even a Catholic yet. And, OK, you hardcore faithniks, I know, it's not even really a Catholic show. Joan's dad (Joe Mantegna) may have attended Mother Cabrini High School in Chicago, but apparently he and his family no longer attend Mass. Or at least it's never mentioned, anymore than politics is mentioned. And God (just another character in the show, "a slob like one of us") talks equally of Islam as a valid faith tradition.

But people, it's not Joan of Mecca now, is it? It's Joan of Arc—adia! And like Fr. Jim Martin, all you have to do is allude to the Patron Saint of France, the shepherd girl of Domrémy, the Maid of Orléans, and I get all verklempt.

According to Web info available from the Independent Movie Database, "Joan's" creator, Barbara Hall, wrote a list of guidelines for her writers, which she called "The Ten Commandments of Joan of Arcadia." These commandments were: 1. God cannot directly intervene in the action of the show. 2. Good and evil exist. 3. God can never identify one religion as being right. 4. The job of every human being is to fulfill his or her true nature. 5. Everyone is allowed to say "no" to God, including Joan. 6. God is not bound by time. This is a human concept. 7. God is not a person and does not possess a human personality. 8. God talks to everyone all the time in different ways. 9. God's plan is what is good for us, not what is good for him. 10. God's purpose for talking to Joan, and everyone, is to get her (us) to recognize the interconnectedness of all things. Which is to say, you cannot hurt a person without hurting yourself; all of your actions have consequences; God can be found in the smallest actions; God expects us to learn and grow from all our experiences. However, the exact nature of God is a mystery, and the mystery can never be solved.

Sounds pretty Catholic to me, except for that very PC Third Commandment. Which would probably move Ferde to declare Barbara Hall a heretic. But according to a fine interview in the St. Anthony Messenger, the show's producer is indeed a Catholic, a convert like me. And to judge by her press glossy, she's mighty pretty as well.

Catholic producer, Catholic show or not, I'll look a confessor in the eye and avow that "Joan of Arcadia" helped form me as a Catholic. Or maybe I already was one. The other night I went out to dinner with Cesareo, who has been reading this blog. In his quiet, stroke-muted voice he said to me, "I learned something about you from that thing you're writing." Thing? Thing?! His speech may be slowed, but Cesareo has not lost his rhetorical fastball. I braced for the outrageous but heard what sounded like the truth: "You were a Catholic all the time. Even when you didn't know it."

I have boxed sets of both seasons of "Joan of Arcadia," and I recently started running through the episodes again for the second—third—well, OK, fourth time, but even now that I'm a card-carrying, Mass-going member of the Universal Catholic Church and my family is cutting me a bit more slack, Godwise, I can only watch one or two episodes at a time without a familywide outbreak of derision.

So then, but, OK, the pilot:

Joan is sleeping restlessly, apparently troubled by a dream. Meanwhile, her father, Arcadia's police chief (though that will change, stay tuned) is investigating the murder of a young woman who may have been a prostitute. Cut back to Joan, tossing and turning and hearing a voice, an insistent voice calling her name: "Joan . . . Joan . . ." She wakes up startled, afraid, and like any other teenager chased by night terrors, she pulls a headset over her ears and buries herself in her covers. As she does so, Joan Osbourne's "What If God Was One of Us" comes up on the soundtrack and we cut to commercial.

The voice turns out to have been God's voice. Like Joan of Arc in fifteenth-century France, this twenty-first-century girl hears and—when she gets over the spookiness of it—talks with God. Not hard, actually, when God takes the form of a young hottie on her bus ride to school. But later in the episode, God takes a new form, talking to Joan across the lunch line at Arcadia High as a black lady kitchen worker who ain't gonna take no sass.

Ferde would probably turn to the Red Sox game the moment Joan accuses God of being pretty mean in the Old Testament and he (the hottie this time) assures her that, "I come off a little friendlier in the New Testament and the Koran." But if I were with Ferde, I would tell him to chill, sit back, and listen.

God tells Joan to get a job at the Skylight Bookstore (a real store in LA, where scenes were filmed during the first season). And as happens whenever Joan faithfully listens to the voice of God, her first day on the job leads by a chain of circumstance to the arrest of the man who murdered the young woman in the park.

Along the way, we are introduced to the Girardi family: Mantegna as Dad; the always sympathetic Mary Steenburgen as mother Helen, a dropout from art school who will return to her art in future episodes; and most notably Michael Welch as geeky younger brother Luke and Jason Ritter, son of John, as older brother and former high-school athlete Kevin, recently confined to a wheelchair following a paralyzing auto accident. The Girardis are a real family, where the middle-aged parents are still sexually active, the teenage kids are always ready to be grossed out by that, and all of them are dealing with suffering (Kevin's paralysis). Luke's job in this episode is mostly to come out with a really cool quote from the scientist Michael Faraday, who said, "Nothing is too wonderful to be true."

The final scene shows us another positive consequence of Joan's listening to God's voice. Kevin wheels into her bedroom to admit that her getting a job at the bookstore has shamed him into shaking his self-pity and getting a job himself, something Mom has been pleading for. In other words, our peaceful, positive witness to one another as Catholics, as Christians, even as Muslims can be a powerful, salvific influence on those around us. Just look at Frank and Carrie.

Next Friday: Season 1, Episodes 1 and 2.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Because of Frank and Carrie

I introduced Katie to Frank and Carrie Kwiatkowski at Mass last Sunday and said, "Honey, get a good look. That's what I want us to be 25 years from now." She understood.

Katie and I celebrate our 25th anniversary this fall, and when we hit our 50th (GW), I'll be Frank's age. I first met Frank at Saturday morning men's group, about the time my dad was dying of melanoma. Frank and Dad were the same age, and this, plus Frank's peppery defense of the Gospel and Catholic social teaching, attracted me to him immediately.

On Sundays and many weekdays, these 80-something lovebirds sit in the pew directly in front of me. Now, wait a minute, I can hear Carrie saying. I'm nowhere near 80! Which is the truth. I think she's all of 76 or 77. And she always wears a hat. Often, it's something old-timey and sweet, but sometimes she's sporting headgear that even my fashion-savvy 21-year-old daughter, Marian, would covet.

Frank was a former Marine, a milkman, and something of "a wild Indian" by his own confession when he met the still-teenaged Carrie in upstate New York. After Carrie used a holy card of St. Therese of Lisieux to pray for a better job for him, Frank landed a position with Prudential Insurance and rose to regional sales manager. After retirement Frank was elected to five two-year terms as Amsterdam (NY) town supervisor; he also served as a county supervisor.

Nearly 60 years into their marriage, the Kwiatkowskis are the happiest couple in town. I sometimes pass them on one of my afternoon walks as they sit on a bench atop Independence Park, overlooking the Atlantic. They always, always wear these expressions of quiet, assured contentment and peace. Carrie often has a rosary in her hands, delicately passing beads, with her lips gently pursed. Frank might be reading about St. Faustina and Divine Mercy. The couple is active in the Carmel community nearby.

It's funny what happens in a Catholic church like ours. You become deeply attached to people you might not even notice otherwise. When Frank was hospitalized with a chest ailment, I went to see him. Next time he was in, I went again with Ferde, and then again. I suppose I was reminded of my last visits to Dad in the hospital, of the tenderness I felt. But I would love Frank and Carrie even without the Dad connection. Their witness, their presence in our parish is a testament to the beauty of traditional marriage and lifelong adherence to the faith. Catholics like this with whom you worship regularly become closer to you in some ways than family.

Frank and Carrie have family to spare: five children and seventeen grandchildren, including a granddaughter who graduated from West Point and has served two and a half years in Iraq. It does the old Marine proud, I'm sure. But come to our church in Beverly some day and I'll introduce you. Come 25 years from now, and I hope to show you another St. Mary's couple just like this.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Because It Takes Guts to Be a Priest

We all admire courage. We all admire heroes. What's a hero? A man who gives his life for his fellow, right? A fireman who rushes into the World Trade Center to save a life but lose his own. A soldier who walks toward enemy fire to pull his buddy behind the lines. A pilot who bails out in the Hudson River, keeping his cool and thereby saving lives.

But people, let's face it: These are moments of heroism, acts of great élan, to be sure, but performed on impulse and usually over before the "hero" has a chance to consider the consequences.

What about someone who, with years of premeditation, gives his whole life for his God, his Church, his fellow man and woman? What about someone who takes—and keeps—a vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience forever? For what personal gain? For what ulterior motive?

I'm sorry, this one's a slam dunk: It takes a special kind of courage to be a priest. And that makes me proud to be a Catholic. That's all I have to say about this issue.

* * *

Fortunately, my pope is not the hothead I am. He has some comments in the second book of interviews with Peter Seewald, God and the World, that have more than a little to do with priestly vocations, and we'll let him close out this post:

[In our culture today] we want to be able to react to new demands, and we hope, by changing jobs fast, to be able to climb the ladder as quickly and as high as possible. But I think there are still callings that demand the whole of a person. Being a doctor, for instance, or a teacher, is not something I can do just for two or three years, but is a calling that requires my whole lifetime. That is to say, even today there are tasks that are not a job that runs
alongside my life, so to speak, in order to ensure I have money to live on. For a true calling, income is not the criterion, but the practicing of some skill in the service of mankind. . . .

We all stand in a great arena of history and are dependent on each other. A man ought not, therefore, just to figure out what he would like, but to ask what he can do and how he can help. Then he will see that fulfillment does not lie in comfort, ease, and following one's inclinations, but precisely in allowing demands to be made upon you, in taking the harder path. Everything else turns out somehow boring, anyway. Only the man who "risks the fire," who recognizes a calling within himself, a vocation, an ideal he must satisfy, who takes on real responsibility, will find fulfillment. As we have said, it is not in taking, not on the path of comfort, that we become rich, but only in giving.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Because I Forget

Why would you give yourself, body and soul, to the Church? People don't ask this question usually, but it's there. And if I feel it, imagine what a priest feels, or a nun.

It was there in the comment from "Anonymous" yesterday at the bottom of one of my most heartfelt posts. He/she wrote, "I'm always bewildered by how many times Catholics use the term 'the Church' when they should be saying 'Jesus Christ.' Jesus Christ is the Saviour of all mankind. It's not a church, not sacraments, not membership in any church or organization. It's a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and with Him alone."

"Anonymous" must be far more virtuous than I am. Me, I forget. Which means I am a sinner. I do not have any problem with the old-fashioned concepts of sin and The Devil, because for me sin is when I forget the Commandments (two or ten), and the Devil is anything that leads me into forgetting. Apparently, "Anonymous" forgets far less than I do, seldom falls into sin, isn't lured away by the Devil.

This is precisely why I, as a Catholic, need the Church and, yes, love the Church. I would love to have and perhaps sometimes I even do feel a direct relationship with Jesus Christ (that's my business). But the Church is my connection with Our Savior, my daily relationship, my other marriage. Alone, I'm afraid I would not be capable of remembering.

So I wake up around 4 a.m. to the Office of Readings from the Liturgy of the Hours, prescribed by the Church in varied forms but with the persistent love of a good father for the better part of two millennia, and I read "Today, listen to the voice of the Lord." And I try again. I do some work (these days I finish a post); then dawn comes up and I move to Morning Prayer. Then I come to the Church. This is a practical gesture. I come every morning to Mass at 7 a.m. And through the grace of the liturgy I am brought again into the loving presence of Our Father, the grace and peace of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And I listen attentively to the homilies of our good pastor, Father Barnes, who inevitably will be the subject of a future post.

Very often I leave mass with my arm slung over Ferde's big shoulders, and we walk down the marble steps worn by a century of worship. And why not, when St. Mary Star of the Sea is this beautiful? Later in the morning, at his appointed hour, Ferde will return for Eucharistic Adoration. My accustomed hour is 2:30–3:30, and on days when I am out of town on business, Ferde sometimes covers for me (he is retired). He does this—we do this in a conscious act of solidarity at St. Mary's—so that Jesus will not be left alone. I often take a walk late in the afternoon, sometimes with my rosary in hand, if I haven't already said a rosary before Mass or during Adoration, and when I return home before dinner—if I remember—I read Evening Prayer.

This morning's second (pair of) readings honor Saints Cornelius and Cyprian, third-century martyrs. I was particularly touched by the love Cyprian expressed for Cornelius in his letter. ("Let us then remember one another, united in mind and heart.") And by the courage Cornelius showed in the face of violent death. (""When the executioner arrived, Cyprian told his friends to give the man twenty-five gold pieces.") The liturgy of the Church, my Church, promises me that in some way too mysterious for me to grasp completely, I am in communion with these and all the other saints who have inspired me. This is almost too much for me to bear.

Who are these saints? What is this Church? Nothing less than the direct result of words that issued from "the mouth of Our Savior, Christ Himself, whilst he lived, and was personally present here on earth," to quote Paul Scofield as St. Thomas More. It would take a far more mindful, far less forgetful, far more virtuous man than I to ignore such words, to turn my undeserving back on such love.

This is why I am not just a Catholic but a proud member of the universal and (despite so many human failings over two thousand years of forgetting) Holy Catholic Church.

(Again, my thanks to fine artist and new father Adam DesRosiers for his lovely picture of our church.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Because of Harold Bassage

We hear a lot about memories so painful they are repressed. Psychologists study them: some actually happened, some not. But what about positive memories that we forget—of mentors, say, who turned our lives in positive directions? What happens to these memories? Are we too ungrateful to harbor them? And what do we call these memories when they finally alight? I call one of them Dr. Bassage.

For the first time since I began this blog, I remembered Harold Bassage today while out for a walk. And slapped myself on the forehead. And asked myself, you ungrateful twit, why no post about Dr. B?

How could I forget Harold Bassage?

I was ten years old when my father's Minneapolis company was bought by a New York firm, and my whole world was uprooted. We moved from the bucolically named County Road Five in the ditto hamlet of Deephaven, Minnesota, to a larger house on a hill in the intimidating town of Greenwich, Connecticut. I wept bitterly when informed of the move, and I missed my friends in the old neighborhood, like David Wiper and Billy Nickerson, and at Blake School, like Phil Ahern and Art Saunders. (Full disclosure: I did not miss my first Catholic friend. I don't even remember his name.)

I'm sure my parents missed our Congregational church in Wayzata (they had been married there), but I didn't miss it much. It seemed to amount to Sunday school mostly, about which my clearest memory is that my brother got left behind one Sunday. We drove all the way back to Deephaven before my parents noticed he was missing. But then we were four on the way to being six children; David was quiet; and there are precedents (Luke 2, 41–53).

So when my parents opted out of the Congregational parish in downtown Greenwich, and decided perhaps that Christ Episcopal Church was a bit too high-hat, choosing instead to become faithful parishioners of the much smaller St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in the countryside north of town, I didn't think much of it. But by this chain of circumstance, I was brought under the influence of Dr. Harold Bassage, and I believe that he contributed to my being a Catholic today.

I do not have a picture of Dr. Bassage handy. I know there's one on the wall of my mom's winter home, and the next time I'm there I'll grab it, scan it, and post it. But there's a tidy symbolism in the picture of an interior wall of St. Barnabas that illustrates this article (courtesy of the St. Barnabas web site). Other than the stone wall itself there are two items of interest: one I had personal contact with every Sunday I served at the altar, the processional crucifix, seen here in a mounting bracket; and one I don't remember at all, the date, 1958. You see what I mean about memories? We moved to Greenwich in 1962, which means the church was only four years old when we arrived. This fact seems significant to me now, but it made no impact on my youthful consciousness then. Either that or I repressed it.

But Dr. Bassage . . . I carried the crucifix ahead of him, and proudly. He was not the rector for most of the three years I served on the altar. That would have been Reverend Bailey, who may have been a D.D. too, but I never thought of him as "Doctor." Dr. Bassage was already relatively elderly by that time, and he was the assistant pastor, on his way to full retirement, as I recall. I remember Reverend Bailey, perhaps unfairly, as a bit of a moralizer who didn't quite connect with me as a 12-year-old. He admonished me in confirmation class, I remember, for not praying at night on my knees. That didn't go down well somehow.

Why did Dr. Bassage impress me so? Perhaps there was something in the theatrical connection. When you Google Harold Bassage, the first line is a reference to his late, lamented play, "Who Shot Willie? Mom told us that he was connected with a theatrical group in New York City. Theatre was an interest of mine as I moved through my teens, and we may have connected through this common interest.

But there was something else, something in Dr. Bassage's manner, probably in his sermons (though I don't remember one), and certainly in moments when I talked with him face to face that communicated something of a genuine religious life. He had a deeply honeyed voice and a kind, kind gaze. His voice quavered when he spoke and his double chin wobbled a bit, as though the words coming through were charged with gratuitous energy. Yet he had a reserve about him that was a bit out of place in Greenwich, a distance that he maintained between his self and whatever was happening right in front of him. This was the antithesis of high-hat—not supercilious or know-it-all at all. It was rather a real presence and respect for what was before him, whether it was a wealthy parishioner or an occasionally devout 14-year-old. It was a presence that I as that 14-year-old could truly sense. In Dr. Bassage's presence, I felt accepted as an intelligent, interesting person, and I felt perhaps that it was not he alone who was accepting me. When Dr. Bassage spoke, there was another presence in the room.

When I applied to boarding school, I asked Dr. Bassage to write my personal recommendation. I had no confessor at the time, not being Catholic, but I guess I figured that if anyone knew me, it was my beloved minister.

I have reason to believe that his last years, perhaps particularly after full retirement from the ministry, were lonely years, but that's a private issue. I regret that I did not stay in touch with him but rather heard, casually, along the way from my mother, that he had passed away. I did not attend his funeral. But with this post I hope to set things straight and lay a flower at his grave. Dr. Bassage was an angel I have too often forgotten, a hovering memory, meaningful but elusive.

Did you have a mentor like that?