Monday, October 5, 2015

Healing the family

The Synod on the Family has gotten underway, and if you are reading the mainstream news you will have heard that the "conservatives" are digging in and insisting that nothing much is going to change (well, duh).  This, however, comes as a great surprise to certain Trads who are certain--positive, even!--that the pope is about to toss out the indissolubility of marriage and commit apostasy among other things and usher in a new age of truly-true Catholic gloom, doom, bitterness and despair which will be nothing like the current age of truly-true Catholic gloom, doom, bitterness and despair, for reasons which aren't quite clear.

Meanwhile, at my tiny little mission church, parents with young children are probably getting tired of seeing me around, because I'm one of those annoying people who makes it a point to stop and talk to moms and dads whose little ones are having a difficult sort of Mass and encourage them and tell them that it gets better (no, really!) and just generally letting them know that I (and many others) are glad they are there.  I am always glad to see families with little ones at Mass.  I know how hard they are trying because while those days are a memory for me, they're not that distant of a memory (and I have a good memory, anyway).  I remember those frantic Church-math calculations you make: Let X equal the number of microseconds between the baby bumping her chin on the pew and the time she starts sounding like an air-raid siren, and let Y equal the amount of time it will take me to inform the oblivious older toddler that we've got to get out, now, and join Daddy who is in the back with the two-year-old, and let Z equal the intensity of the withering stares tossed in our direction while we make the quick dash of shame...And sometimes, with the best will in the world, you get the calculations wrong and think that maybe the little howler or screamer or shrieker will quiet down any second now until Father or an usher or somebody has to let you know (gently, if it's a nice parish, or coldly if it isn't) that it's a good idea to cart the extremely good vocal cords and their operator outside for a spell.  At which point that bible verse about begging the earth to swallow you or mountains or trees to fall on you starts to make a terrible kind of sense.

Pope Francis has been talking about how hostile our modern world is to families.  He's referred on several times to the loneliness and isolation that comes from creating a world where it is seemingly better to surround yourself with things than with people. And he makes it clear that the two sets of people he's most concerned about are children and the elderly: children, because they get seen as irksome responsibilities and inconveniences instead of joyful wonders, and the elderly, because they are seen as irrelevant or  frustrating instead of fonts of experience and even (sometimes) a bit of wisdom.

The elderly, in fact, sometimes point out the breathtaking speed at which our world has changed. Many of them started out in a world where divorce was a sickening tragedy that probably wasn't anything that happened to anybody you knew--certainly not anybody in your immediate family--and ended up in a world where divorce is so common that few young people getting married would be able to say, truly, that for serious Christians divorce ought not even be considered as an option (apart from serious abuse or some similar tragedy).  Young people today are starting out in a world where divorce is common, adultery had its own website, porn is ubiquitous, chastity almost unheard-of, virtue an unknown concept and vice celebrated with parades.  None of these things build up the family; none of them are meant to.

But the Holy Father is on to something else important when he (just like all the popes of the recent past) talks about global greed, consumerism and materialism, a capitalism unmoored by ethics or solidarity with the poor, and an economic system that sees people as, simultaneously, "working objects" and/or "consumer objects."  A "working object" who has the luxury--and, indeed, our world sees it that way--of coming home to a stay-at-home wife who is home with their children, a home-cooked dinner on the table, and time for real family engagement as a form of evening leisure tends to be a less effective "consumer object" than the perpetual man-child with his apartment and movies and video games and toys, and plenty of money to spend on this month's latest and greatest gadget, which is clearly superior to last month's latest and greatest (which is, alas, already obsolete).  And a "working object" who gives up remuneration to raise her family is an even greater threat to casual consumerism in most instances. (It should go without saying that the same is true if mom is the "working object" and dad the stay-at-home parent, rare though this is.)

How do we fix this sort of thing?  There are no shortcuts.  The other side has slick media campaigns to teach us that atomization is wonderful, divorce is just common sense when people live as long as we do today, sexuality is fluid and alterable, and that the highest and best goods are not odd concepts like "truth" or "beauty," but the truth of the shopping mall and the beauty that comes in some sort of bottle.  The only way to work against that is to do the work, as Pope Francis has said, of building relationships.  Of building strong families and real friendships.  Of building each other up, not as objects, but as children of God and brothers and sisters in the human family.

It means treating people you meet even casually, even for a moment in the grocery store or once a week at Mass, like real human beings, and taking a moment or two to care, for real, about them and about what burdens they are carrying.  It means smiling at that exhausted mom or dad out in public or at church with an unruly little one, instead of patting yourself on the back that your kids never did that (which probably isn't even true, and if it is you should be thanking God on your knees instead of being harshly critical about those not similarly blessed).  It means seeing in your husband or wife, your children, your parents or in-laws, your siblings, and your neighbors, not strangers but those beloved Others for whom Christ laid down His life, and for whom we are called to do the same.

It will be the work of many generations, perhaps, to heal the family of all its modern brokenness. That doesn't mean the work isn't worth doing, or that our little efforts aren't worth making.  But it does mean that we may have to step outside our comfort zones a little and stop thinking that Pope Francis just can't wait to strike a new blow against the sanctity of family life.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Bad week for the culture of life

I've had a slight cold this week, which is one reason why I haven't been blogging (the other reasons are my usual lack of focus and the fact that one of my fiction books has been driving me crazy).

But I wanted to refer to a few things that have happened this week, because this week hasn't been a great week for the Culture of Life:

--Planned Parenthood continues to reveal that they are mass killers on a grander scale than most such killers throughout human history;

--Even Pope Francis' pleas for clemency couldn't stop the state of Georgia from executing a woman who incited her lover to kill her husband, although the actual killer got life in prison instead;

--A shooter went on a rampage at a college in Oregon, specifically targeting Christians and killing ten people;

--Brave young American men and women continue to die in the Middle East in the name of freedom, while questions about the wisdom of our even being there anymore get swept under the political rug;

--Russia began airstrikes in Syria, while the US and others condemned these actions by saying they would fuel more terrorism.

We can, and should in many cases, focus on these issues individually. Planned Parenthood should be defunded, the death penalty should be abolished wherever it is no longer needed for public safety, sensible measures to keep guns out of the hands of would-be mass killers should be debated and sound actions taken, or Middle East commitments should be scrutinized closely, we should avoid escalating war while not failing to condemn unjustly disproportionate acts of war.

But I think we're missing the underlying cause of much of this, which is that when you spend half a century or more convincing people that humans are not particularly special, that there is no eternity, that we are nothing but organic pain collectors racing toward oblivion, that shallow and fragile relationships are more self-satisfying than sacrificial and lasting ones, that children don't need mothers or fathers, and that we have no duty or obligation to anyone other than ourselves and no concerns greater than our own pleasures and entertainments, you have created a people who care so little about human life that none of these issues particularly matters anymore.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome

In an interesting move, R.R. Reno of First Things explained that the site has decided to stop hosting Maureen Mullarkey's blog:
Maureen has a sharp pen and pungent style. Her postings about Pope Francis indicate she’s very angry about this papacy, which she seems to view as (alternately) fascism and socialism disguised as Catholicism. This morning she put up a post that opens with the accusation that the Vatican is conspiring with the Obama administration to destroy the foundations of freedom and hobble the developed world. I've had my staff take it down. [...]
I’ve criticized Pope Francis and his encyclical, Laudato Si. However, Maureen’s commentary on Francis goes well beyond measured criticism. She consistently treats him as an ideological propagandist, accusing him of reducing the faith to secular political categories. This is her way of reducing him to the political terms she favors. And those terms are the ones used by radio talk-show hosts to entertain the public with mock-battles against various Empires of Evil. I don't want First Things to play that game.
I am impressed by this decision.  I became even more impressed when I read the blog post in question, which is now being hosted at another site which apparently has no problem with its intemperate language or barely-veiled insinuations that this particular Holy Father is a secret political agitator (whether Marxist of Fascist remains in question) out to destroy the Church. Here's a brief sample of it:
The road show is over. The spectacle flamed up and subsided, a Roman candle of demonic sanctimony. Think of it as pre-game warm-up for the main event: the global climate summit in Paris, November 30 to December 11. The Vatican is partnering with the Obama administration, at the U.N. and later in Paris, in magnifying state control over a free society and tightening the screws on the developed world. This, in the name of saving the planet from the production and growth of those very means by which the poor can raise themselves out of poverty. [...]
I cannot not help but wonder if this week-long showcase of misdirected sermonizing, and often ambiguous pieties, signaled the de-Christianization of the Catholic Church. Were we witnessing the descent of Catholicism into one more “ism,” an ideology using language onto which an audience could project its own meaning? After Cuba, the non-stop showboating, pageantry, and preachments in the wrong places took on the look of a Faustian bargain between the Vatican and cynical brokers of worldly prestige—an exchange of truth (including that of the gradual but ongoing diminishment of poverty) for power.
I can't recommend reading the rest of it; it's not just nonsense, but pernicious nonsense.  It is invective without substance.  It is a quintessential example of finding a button (Pope Francis' concern for the disproportionate harms done to the poor by the global economy, for instance) and sewing a whole vest of shadowy conspiracies to destroy the Church from within, shackle the Free in chains of government control instead of letting them loose to Build Businesses and Save the World through Commerce, and stop the spread of American Exceptionalism (the only thing that will truly help the world's poor) throughout the globe around that button.

I don't know how anyone could read Laudato Si, watch the pope this past week and (especially) read what he actually said in his homilies and speeches and still come to the conclusion that he's some sort of stealth ninja operative of various anti-Catholic and anti-captialist powers hellbent on destroying the Church and (more importantly) America's Manifest Destiny to spread global multinational corporate values (complete with their unsafe factories and slave-wage jobs) all over the world as the true saviors of humankind.

It seems so strange to connect this Machiavellian figure of power with the affable and kindly pope who just visited our nation that I can only conclude that this is the manifestation of a new political disease.  We can call it "Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome," perhaps.

UPDATE: The remarkable Scott Eric Alt coined the term "Pope Francis Derangement Syndrome" back in 2013 and has used it regularly since.  I appreciate his pointing that out and apologize for my ignorance of the phrase!  

Monday, September 28, 2015

Mothers and little gestures of familial love

If you missed any of the things Pope Francis said while he was here in America, you're in luck!  You can catch up.  :)

Here are the full texts of all of the Holy Father's remarks.

I encourage you to take the time to read as many of them as you can; sadly, even among our fellow Catholics there are those who are twisting and distorting what the Holy Father said or complaining about what he allegedly didn't say in order to undermine our trust in his leadership of the Church.  And there are so many gems in these homilies and speeches and talks--just consider this, for example, from Sunday's homily:
Faith opens a “window” to the presence and working of the Spirit. It shows us that, like happiness, holiness is always tied to little gestures. “Whoever gives you a cup of water in my name will not go unrewarded,” says Jesus (cf. Mk 9:41). These little gestures are those we learn at home, in the family; they get lost amid all the other things we do, yet they do make each day different. They are the quiet things done by mothers and grandmothers, by fathers and grandfathers, by children. They are little signs of tenderness, affection and compassion. Like the warm supper we look forward to at night, the early lunch awaiting someone who gets up early to go to work. Homely gestures. Like a blessing before we go to bed, or a hug after we return from a hard day’s work. Love is shown by little things, by attention to small daily signs which make us feel at home. Faith grows when it is lived and shaped by love. That is why our families, our homes, are true domestic churches. They are the right place for faith to become life, and life to become faith.
How lovely is that?  I think of it as being especially encouraging to mothers at home, especially mothers with young children.  I remember those years well, and I remember how often it felt like each day was spent doing so many of those "little things," and having those things seemingly go unnoticed.  No, moms at home don't need applause every day, but I think it is undeniably true that a culture that turns us all into consumers and places a dollar sign value on work is increasingly hostile to the idea that a woman who works without pay, without notice, without attention or recognition to raise her children and turn her home, as best she can, into a place full of little gestures of welcome and love for her husband and children and extended family and neighbors and community is actually doing anything of value.  Better she should get a "real job," say some elements in our culture.  Better she should pay other people to look after her children, so she can provide economic value not only to the structure of her family but to society as well.  What good is she doing staying at home?

I'm not trying to stir up the mommy wars here; I know that many moms who do work outside the home are also trying as best as they can to provide those little gestures of love.  That's not my point today, though; my point today is that our consumeristic and material culture values the moms who work outside the home and doesn't really know what to say to the ones who don't.  Not long ago I saw a lament from a young mother who was talking about the pressure she faces, not from her husband but from others, to do something other than look after her children.  If she could earn a few dollars as a writer or artist or photographer or by selling crafts or babysitting other people's children or cleaning other people's houses, so she said, then people in her community would respect her, but when she says she's "just a mom" she gets all sorts of flack and negativity.  And I think this is a problem for all moms--because when the only work of ours that is valued is the work that produces some money (however tiny the amount) and not the work of raising our children, this is really a slight against motherhood in general, against the vocation of being a wife and a mother.  It would be akin to saying to one's parish priest, "Well, yes, I know you're a priest, but surely you work outside the parish to make some money, right?"  

The family, as Pope Francis said many times last week, is in a time of crisis and danger.  One of the dangers I see is that people have forgotten what a family is, what it is for.  It is not primarily a resource-sharing operation.  It is not an efficiency model or a strategy to maximize income or take advantage of tax breaks.  It is, instead, a model of loving service, of a love that is incarnated by service first of husband and wife to each other, and then literally incarnated into their children who are, at first, in total and absolute need of their parents' services, but who will grow to serve each other and their parents in love as well.  In this model of the family the mother who is able to stay at home with her children, especially in their earliest years, is giving them a tremendous gift of immense value--the gift of herself.  And she gives this gift every day, in those thousand acts of little service that Pope Francis referenced in his homily.  She should not have to face pressure from our consumerist culture to go out and get a "real" job.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Helping the poor

There are, among some vocal Catholics, a distressing number of people who really don't like Pope Francis' emphasis on the poor.

I read something recently that really struck me, though: this pope is good at challenging all of us, not just those of us who think we're okay because we follow Church teachings on the big issues, oppose abortion and gay "marriage," and so on.

When Pope Francis speaks against abortion, for instance, some of us feel good about ourselves: why, we're pro-life!  We're on the right side!

But then when he speaks about abolishing the death penalty, or helping young people find work, or addressing the needs of the poor for food and shelter, or welcoming the immigrant--suddenly, some are not so comfortable.

Let's face it: except for the front-line workers who volunteer daily in crisis pregnancy centers or who pray outside abortion clinics on a daily or weekly basis (and I admire them with great gratitude), most of us can oppose abortion without having to do much.  We're against it.  We may, on occasion, send ten or twenty dollars to a pro-life ministry group.  Some of us were, for a while, suckered into thinking that "pro-life activism" meant giving time and money to wealthy politicians, but we were naive about that (alas, some still are).  It is easy to be a pro-life Christian in America.

It is less easy to be really concerned for the poor in a way that cuts into our own comfort level.  It is less easy to realize that our complaints about the material goods, most of them luxuries, we somehow think we are entitled to but don't have are a contributing factor in the poverty of our neighbors.  It is less easy to admit that we sometimes spend more on silly things like Christmas decorations or glitzy accessories (my own personal fault) than we do on relieving real suffering in our communities.  It is less easy to acknowledge that we've acquired some of the worst attitudes of materialism, attitudes like, "You should always buy the best (car, cell phone, computer) you can afford," or "It makes sense to spend a bit more to get good quality things that will last."

Pope Francis is asking us to do better than that.  And a priest I know is doing a really good job of living up to that challenge:
"He's again talked about the need to serve the poor," said the Rev. Bryan Jerabek, pastor of Holy Rosary Catholic Church. "That's been a great inspiration."
Holy Rosary church was founded in 1889, celebrated its 125th anniversary last year and has been known for decades as a focal point of Catholic outreach to the poor in Birmingham.
On Sept. 20, Bishop Robert J. Baker dedicated the new St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Learning Center at Holy Rosary Church.
"It was a happy coincidence that we had our dedication the week the pope was coming to America," Jerabek said. "I think we answered his call." [...]
Now run by the diocese, the opening of the learning center signals a commitment to continue serving the needy, Jerabek said.
"We recognized there was a need for literacy program to help the students in the area improve their reading," Jerabek said. "We had 3rd and 4th graders who had trouble reading."
The new learning center is in an updated office building. "It's a remodeled building with two rooms and bathroom, where children can do homework and receive tutoring assistance," Jerabek said.
This is a simple and practical way to help poor children.  To find out more about the St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Learning Center, you can go here.

I know that Catholics in America are capable of great generosity toward the poor.  I also know that all of us--and I am certainly no exception--have a tendency to become complacent.  Surely, we think, we're doing enough!  But are we?  That is a question we can only answer as individuals, and on a daily basis.  Perhaps what we did yesterday or last week or last year is impossible today, because the demands of our vocations to our families or our current financial status are not the same as they were then.  But on the other hand, perhaps our closets are overflowing with barely-worn clothing and shoes, our kitchens are overcrowded with gadgets and appliances, and instead of being content we are dissatisfied because someone else has a nicer house and better furniture. That is, at its heart, a spiritual problem, but it is one that has practical ramifications when it comes to our commitment to help the poor.

As Pope Francis speaks of the poor, instead of harrumphing and wishing he'd talk more about abortion or gay "marriage," perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves if we're doing all we can (as individuals and given whatever current realities we face) to relieve the sufferings of poverty.  It is not enough to see Christ in the unborn if we can ignore him in the bad neighborhoods, in the faces of the homeless, in the child who is struggling to read because his parents can barely read themselves and have no time to help him, and in all the ways in which He is present to us in the little ones of the world.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

What the pope really said

I wasn't able to watch the pope's speech to Congress today, but I did read the text, and you can too: the whole speech is here.

You would think that most Catholics would be delighted both by Pope Francis' addressing Congress at all and by the specifics of this speech.  Alas, there are some who are not.  Some of my fellow Catholics are playing the game of, "But he said/but he didn't say..."

Here are some examples (with all papal quotes from this source and all emphases added):

But Pope Francis didn't say anything about abortion!
On the other, the figure of Moses leads us directly to God and thus to the transcendent dignity of the human being. Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.
But he didn't say anything about the redefinition of marriage!
I will end my visit to your country in Philadelphia, where I will take part in the World Meeting of Families. It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.
He spends all his time talking about illegal immigrants and the poor!
Today I would like not only to address you, but through you the entire people of the United States. Here, together with their representatives, I would like to take this opportunity to dialogue with the many thousands of men and women who strive each day to do an honest day’s work, to bring home their daily bread, to save money and –one step at a time – to build a better life for their families. These are men and women who are not concerned simply with paying their taxes, but in their own quiet way sustain the life of society. They generate solidarity by their actions, and they create organizations which offer a helping hand to those most in need.
He is a political leftist!
All political activity must serve and promote the good of the human person and be based on respect for his or her dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (Declaration of Independence, 4 July 1776). If politics must truly be at the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance.
He is a Marxist who doesn't care about the unborn!
We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome. Let us remember the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Mt 7:12).
This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.
The truth is, Pope Francis isn't the caricature that some on the secular right keep making him out to be.  Read the speech for yourselves, and ponder what it is he's actually saying; it's worth it.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

He is here to preach the Gospel

The Holy Father has had a busy day today, speaking at the White House, celebrating the canonization Mass of St. Junipero Serra, and addressing the bishops of the United States as well.

His Holiness' address to the bishops is especially moving, to me.  Here is just a bit of it:
This kind of witness is a beacon whose light can reassure men and women sailing through the dark clouds of life that a sure haven awaits them, that they will not crash on the reefs or be overwhelmed by the waves. I encourage you, then, to confront the challenging issues of our time. Ever present within each of them is life as gift and responsibility. The future freedom and dignity of our societies depends on how we face these challenges.
The innocent victim of abortion, children who die of hunger or from bombings, immigrants who drown in the search for a better tomorrow, the elderly or the sick who are considered a burden, the victims of terrorism, wars, violence and drug trafficking, the environment devastated by man’s predatory relationship with nature – at stake in all of this is the gift of God, of which we are noble stewards but not masters. It is wrong, then, to look the other way or to remain silent. No less important is the Gospel of the Family, which in the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia I will emphatically proclaim together with you and the entire Church.
These essential aspects of the Church’s mission belong to the core of what we have received from the Lord. It is our duty to preserve and communicate them, even when the tenor of the times becomes resistent and even hostile to that message (Evangelii Gaudium, 34-39). I urge you to offer this witness, with the means and creativity born of love, and with the humility of truth. It needs to be preached and proclaimed to those without, but also to find room in people’s hearts and in the conscience of society.
To this end, it is important that the Church in the United States also be a humble home, a family fire which attracts men and women through the attractive light and warmth of love. As pastors, we know well how much darkness and cold there is in this world; we know the loneliness and the neglect experienced by many people, even amid great resources of communication and material wealth. We see their fear in the face of life, their despair and the many forms of escapism to which it gives rise.
Consequently, only a Church which can gather around the family fire remains able to attract others. And not any fire, but the one which blazed forth on Easter morn. The risen Lord continues to challenge the Church’s pastors through the quiet plea of so many of our brothers and sisters: “Have you something to eat?” We need to recognize the Lord’s voice, as the apostles did on the shore of the lake of Tiberius (Jn 21:4-12). It becomes even more urgent to grow in the certainty that the embers of his presence, kindled in the fire of his passion, precede us and will never die out. Whenever this certainty weakens, we end up being caretakers of ash, and not guardians and dispensers of the true light and the warmth which causes our hearts to burn within us (Lk 24:32).
Do go and read the whole thing; it is well worth your time.

As Pope Francis continues to be the target of criticisms both from the left and the right, let us remember to pray for him and for his intentions.  He is, after all, not here to be a token of any political party or a trophy of any cause or ideology; he is here to preach the Gospel.  Let us receive that preaching with joy!