Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Our kind of nation

News from inside the Department of Education:

A senior official of the Department of Education expressed regret today for an incident that happened when he was a young teacher in the late 1980s, saying he should have handled it differently, but that society could benefit from his error.

Kevin Jennings, director of the Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools and founder of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), has been criticized by social conservatives for a passage in his 1994 book “One Teacher In Ten.” At the time, only a few people knew that Jennings, then a 24-year-old teacher at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, was gay. In the Spring of 1988, a young woman who knew Jennings was gay, brought to his office a high school sophomore whom Jennings called “Brewster” in the book.

As Jennings wrote:

“’Brewster has something he needs to talk with you about,’ she intoned ominously. Brewster squirmed at the prospect of telling, and we sat silently for a short while. On a hunch, I suddenly asked ‘What’s his name?’ Brewster’s eyes widened briefly, and then out spilled a story about his involvement with an older man he had met in Boston. I listened, sympathized, and offered advice. He left my office with a smile on his face that I would see every time I saw him on the campus for the next two years, until he graduated.”

Jennings in 2000 told a GLSEN conference that Brewster told him he “’met someone in the bus station bathroom and I went home with him.’ High school sophomore, 15 years old. That was the only way he knew how to meet gay people. I was a closeted gay teacher, 24 years old, didn’t know what to say, knew I should say something quickly. So I finally, my best friend had just died of AIDS the week before, I looked at Brewster and said, ‘You know, I hope you knew to use a condom.’ He said to me something I will never forget, He said ‘Why should I, my life isn’t worth saving anyway.’”

That Jennings knew of a sexually active 15-year-old, of any gender, involved with “an older man” and didn’t take steps to report that relationship to the student’s parents or to authorities has made him a target for criticism -- long before he was put in charge of the Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. [...]

Administration officials point out that Jennings has received accolades from the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National Association of Independent Schools, the National Education Association, and the Massachusetts Counselors Association, and he has been named to a commission by former Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld.

And people think it would be a good idea for children to go to school for more days and longer hours? Really?

Let's get this straight: a "safe" school is, apparently, one where a 15-year-old can be counseled on his gay relationship with an older stranger he met in a public bathroom, a 14-year-old can get a ride to Planned Parenthood so her parents won't find out about her abortion, a 13-year-old can get free condoms--but nobody can hear a passage from the Bible, not even at a graduation ceremony, lest they be scarred for life by hearing a religious message on secular ground.

What kind of nation enables kids in their premature sexual endeavors but shields them from anything smacking of religion or morality? Sadly, our kind of nation.

Gloves off, gauntlet down

If you've been following the news today, you know that efforts to make sure the health care bill would be pro-life have been defeated:

WASHINGTON — Senators writing a health care overhaul bill on Wednesday rejected a bid to strengthen anti-abortion provisions already in the legislation, in a vote that could have far-reaching repercussions.

The 13-10 vote by the Senate Finance Committee could threaten support for health care overhaul from some Catholics who back its broad goal of expanding coverage.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, argued that provisions already in the bill to restrict federal funding for abortions needed to be tightened to guarantee they would be ironclad.

But his argument failed to carry the day. One Republican — Olympia Snowe of Maine — voted with the majority. One Democrat — Kent Conrad of North Dakota — supported Hatch.

Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., argued that his bill already incorporates federal law that bars abortion funding, except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. It would require health plans to keep federal subsidies separate from any funds used to pay for abortions in all other cases.

The concern from abortion opponents — including Catholic bishops — is that those underlying restrictions have to be renewed every year. If Congress fails to renew the ban one year, plans funded through the health care overhaul would be allowed to cover the procedure, abortion opponents contend. [...]

The committee also rejected, 13-10, a Hatch conscience amendment that would have strengthened provisions to protect health care workers who refuse to perform abortions and other procedures because of religious or moral objections. [Emphasis added-E.M.]

The excellent blogger Jack Smith of The Catholic Key points out something particularly shameful about this:

Bottom line: Both conscience protection and a ban of federal funding would have passed but for the Catholic Senators.

News came out earlier today, that the Senate Finance Committee led by Senator Max Baucus refused to accept an amendment proposed by Senator Orrin Hatch specifically excluding federal funding of abortion in that committee’s version of health care reform. The vote was 10-13 against the Hatch Amendment. All Democrats on the committee, except Kent Conrad, opposed the amendment. All Republicans, except Olympia Snowe, supported it.

There is nothing surprising about the vote. Far more disturbing was a later vote by the same margin denying conscience protection to doctors, health care facilities and hospitals which refuse to perform abortions. Thirteen Senators, including Catholics John Kerry, Maria Cantwell and Robert Menendez, voted against a second Hatch Amendment which would have protected Catholics and other conscientious objectors to abortion from discrimination by the Federal Government. [...]

None of the Senators who voted for both amendments are Catholic. The margin was three votes – the same number of Catholic members of the committee who voted against both amendments – proving once again that on balance, it would be better for the unborn and for the interests of the Catholic Church if Catholics were barred from public office.

Think about that sentence: that it would be better for the unborn and for the Church if Catholics were barred from public office. That is our shame, as Catholics in America today. That is something our bishops should be decrying in homily after homily--that Catholics are so unfaithful to the teachings of the Church on the dignity and sanctity of human life. Instead, some of our bishops seem more inclined to honor the enemies of life--provided they walk among the rich and powerful, that is.

And the rich and powerful love abortion. So committed are they to its practice that they refuse even to vote to protect the conscience rights of those of us who know abortion is murder and will not participate in it. That is an ominous sign of what is to come; will a national health-care bill destroy, once and for all, the rights of doctors and nurses to be pro-life while continuing to practice medicine?

Jack Smith provides the names of the three Catholic Senators whose votes were key in defeating the conscience protection amendment. They are: John Kerry of Massachusetts, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Maria Cantwell of Washington State. All are Catholic. John Kerry's support for abortion needs no detailing, but Maria Cantwell proudly calls herself "100% pro-choice" (sic) and voted against the Unborn Victims of Violence act (so apparently it's fine with her if someone murders an unborn infant during the commission of a crime). Like Maria Cantwell, Robert Menendez has a 100% 'pro-choice' rating from NARAL, voted against the Partial Birth Abortion ban (so I guess a partially delivered human child is only 3/4ths of a person, to him) and supports all forms of embryonic stem cell research.

I think it's time for us Catholics in the pews to take the gloves off, as far as these wretches are concerned. It's time to stop falling for the, "Well, but except for abortion this person is the most Catholic choice" nonsense. It's time to quit putting up with these moral midgets showing up in Catholic churches and Catholic schools to be lauded and applauded, while we ignore the pools of blood that drip from their incarnadine hands. It's time to stop letting them get away with calling themselves good Catholics, or even, outrageously, "devout Catholics," as if it were possible even for a moment to support the vile murders of millions of unborn humans while remaining even remotely Catholic in anything but the most trivial cultural context. The only kind of Catholic who can support abortion is a faithless one, who doesn't give a damn about the eternal consequences of his support for the egregious butchery and savage slaughter of the ones who are truly the least of his brothers and sisters.

It's time for us pro-life Catholics to throw down the gauntlet. When pro-abortion Catholics show up to receive accolades in any Catholic venue, we should be there--with our picket signs and protest banners (hey, the one thing we did learn over the last 40 years of Catholic life was how to make banners, right?). When our bishops welcome pro-abort Catholics to special Masses or meetings, we should be there, too, kneeling outside in solidarity with our murdered unborn brothers and sisters. If a bishop who is quiet about abortion wants money to fund some social justice initiative, we should contribute the money instead to a pro-life charity, and then write to the bishop explaining our choice to do so.

The only reason pro-abort "Catholics" get away with promoting the murder of the unborn with one hand while crossing themselves with the other is because we don't stand up and call them out for this monstrous inconsistency. It's time we all started doing exactly that.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

40 Days for Life

I can't believe I missed the start of this!

40 Days for Life is underway again, and so far this year 56 babies have been saved from abortion. Please visit their website to find out ways you can be involved in the prayers and actions of this wonderful group.

Last year I wrote a pro-life post every day for the 40 days; I was unable to make that committment this year because, to be honest, I'm having trouble keeping up with the blog so far this school year, and school has to come first. But I will be praying for the success of this wonderful effort to save mothers and their children from the horror of abortion.

On this feast of the Archangels, I ask St. Michael's intercession for the intention of ending abortion in America.

A feast day custom for the non-crafty

Happy Michaelmas Day! Did you sleep late?

Well, okay, technically it's the feast of the Archangels Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. As for the sleeping late thing, I found it at this charming site:
There is a lovely old English tradition that one celebrates Michaelmas by sleeping as late as one wants. Here is an eighteenth-century verse commenting on this tradition:

Nature requires five,
Custom requires seven;
Laziness takes nine,
And Michaelmas eleven.
Alas, I didn't get to sleep late this morning. Our power went out during the night last night, and was out for about five hours. Just as we sleepily called the power company to see what was going on, all the lights came back on. But by then everyone was up, and we took advantage of the situation and got started on our school day early (well, early for us).

If you travel around the blogs you'll find lots of creative ways to celebrate this feast day. Being a totally non-crafty sort of mom, I made use of Charlotte's coloring pages for today, and am cooking baked chicken breasts with sage and onions instead of a roast goose with sage and onions; goose might be traditional, but I've never cooked one, and really don't want to start a "St. Michael's Day Grease Fire" sort of tradition.

But I am going to remember the custom of sleeping in late on his feast day for next year! :)

Monday, September 28, 2009

The joy of motherhood

At first glance, there's nothing wrong with this advice from our First Lady:

WASHINGTON — First lady Michelle Obama says women should do what makes them happy, a lesson she says she learned after realizing her two children, her husband and her physical health feed off of her good moods.

In an interview appearing in the November issue of Prevention magazine, Mrs. Obama discusses the meaning of good health, aging and her exercise, diet and beauty routines. She sat for the interview at the White House in late July.

Like I said, nothing wrong with that, right? Pretty innocuous, puff-piece fodder. But then it gets a little interesting:

Mrs. Obama says she learned "what not to do" from her mother, Marian Robinson, who now lives at the White House.

"She'd say being a good mother isn't all about sacrificing. It's really investing and putting yourself higher on your priority list," Mrs. Obama said. She said Robinson put her own two children first, sometimes to the detriment of herself.

"She encouraged me not to do that," Mrs. Obama said.

The first lady said there are many facets to good health — physical, internal, emotional, diet — and all are intertwined.

"Throughout my life, I've learned to make choices that make me happy and make sense for me. Even my husband is happier when I'm happy," Mrs. Obama said in her first interview with the women's health monthly. "So I have freed myself to put me on the priority list and say, yes, I can make choices that make me happy, and it will ripple and benefit my kids, my husband and my physical health."

"That's hard for women to own. We're not taught to do that," she added. "It's a lesson that I want to teach my girls."

Now, I'm not trying to focus unnecessarily on Mrs. Obama. Lots of women are saying this sort of thing these days; it's a relatively new trend for moms to schedule time for themselves, or, in Mrs. Obama's parlance, put themselves higher on the priority list. Last year (and maybe before), the buzz phrase was "me time," and that was something moms didn't have enough of, and needed to make sure they got. And certainly, there's nothing wrong with the idea that moms need some time for "mom care," which in an ideal world is something that dad should be providing on occasion.

But I sometimes wonder what the women of a harder time period would have thought of these phrases. "Me time?" "Priority list?" "Scheduling time for mom?" Sure, except that the laundry, even with the minimal amounts of clothing of the past, takes two days to wash and iron, and then there's the baking and the cooking and the gardening--not frivolous flowers, but serious food--and housework that involves hauling the rugs outside and beating them, and...but you get the picture. Nobody had time for "me time" except the wealthiest people, and it never seemed to do them much good.

True, mothers really do need some time, though. Any of us knows what it's like to have the kind of day where we seem to be at the beck and call of others from early in the morning to fairly late at night. So what, if anything, bothers me about the way Mrs. Obama--and others--sometimes put it?

I think it's not so much the idea that moms need some time to themselves, as it is the concurrent idea that all those old notions about motherhood meaning sacrifice are just so much hooey. Granted, not everybody says that, and those who do often qualify the statement; but underneath, I get the sense that the connection between motherhood and sacrifice, or motherhood and vocation, is weakening under the strain of modern ideas.

And that's too bad, because I think it sets young women up with a highly unrealistic notion of just what motherhood really is. They see motherhood through the rosy glow of baby-products advertising, where Mom is always perfectly dressed, baby is always cooing charmingly, and the household purrs along so smoothly that Mom can drop baby off at a grandmotherly sitter's house, work a full day at a fulfilling job in an exciting career field, break for a soothing lunch at a trendy restaurant, swing by the grocery store or the dry cleaner's on the way back to the sitters, and still have time to play educationally relevant games with a smiling and happy infant while a healthy, well-balanced meal is cooking in her spotless kitchen. Priority list? Check! Me time? Check!

But motherhood isn't at all like that, as moms know. Whether the baby never goes to a sitter (or, more likely, a depressing and institutional-looking daycare center) because somewhere between the sleep deprivation and the hormones kicking in mom decides that she just can't, ever, trust anyone but herself to look after her child, or whether mom crawls back to work and spends the next two years falling asleep intermittently during staff meetings; whether lunch is a spatter-pattern of pureed vegetables or a greasy drive-thru stop on the way back from a diaper run; whether errands on the way home become errands with baby on the way home, which take three times as long and always involve something being forgotten somewhere; whether the "educational games" devolve into a session with a big purple dinosaur followed by a big purple wave of mommy guilt; whether the healthy, well-balanced meal cooking in a far-from-spotless kitchen is the sort that's made by the Healthy Frozen Food Company and flung willy-nilly into the microwave while the baby ramps up for Day 87 of full-voiced colic--motherhood just isn't motherhood if it isn't about sacrifice.

And that's why, I think, the Church talks about the vocation of wife and mother, understanding motherhood to be a call to service, a service that sometimes calls for the mother to dig even deeper than she ever thought possible into her reserves of patience, strength, cheerfulness, and wisdom. If motherhood is truly a vocation, though, as I believe it is, then true happiness for each woman living that call will always be found amidst living that vocation to the fullest, not in escaping from it. This doesn't mean that mother is an automaton who never needs a break; but it does make me question the approach that apparently puts mom's happiness ahead of her family. There are all kinds of happiness, after all. We might sometimes choose things that are somewhat shallow and oriented more toward our own comfort than our true happiness, given the choice; worse, we might define those things as happiness, and miss out on the best path for happiness we can have in this vocation to motherhood.

I think we need to be honest with the young women of the next generation: motherhood is sacrifice, much of the time. So is fatherhood, and so is the vocation to the priesthood or religious life; we take up our crosses, not our priority lists. But in embracing the sacrificial way of life to which God has called us for our salvation and His greater glory, we will, paradoxically, go beyond mere happiness, and find joy.

Education and culture

Lots of people are already talking about this one:

WASHINGTON — Students beware: The summer vacation you just enjoyed could be sharply curtailed if President Barack Obama gets his way.

Obama says American kids spend too little time in school, putting them at a disadvantage with other students around the globe.

"Now, I know longer school days and school years are not wildly popular ideas," the president said earlier this year. "Not with Malia and Sasha, not in my family, and probably not in yours. But the challenges of a new century demand more time in the classroom."

The president, who has a sixth-grader and a third-grader, wants schools to add time to classes, to stay open late and to let kids in on weekends so they have a safe place to go.

"Our school calendar is based upon the agrarian economy and not too many of our kids are working the fields today," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in a recent interview with The Associated Press.

How much time does the president think should be added to the school day? It's unclear, but this quote from the article provides a hint:

Aside from improving academic performance, Education Secretary Duncan has a vision of schools as the heart of the community. Duncan, who was Chicago's schools chief, grew up studying alongside poor kids on the city's South Side as part of the tutoring program his mother still runs.

"Those hours from 3 o'clock to 7 o'clock are times of high anxiety for parents," Duncan said. "They want their children safe. Families are working one and two and three jobs now to make ends meet and to keep food on the table."

3 o'clock to 7 o'clock?? Schools to be open weekends? Get away from the "agrarian" model (e.g., promote year-round schooling)?

What an unholy trio of bad ideas.

Let's face it: what the president is promoting here is the "daycare" model of education. We've been moving that way, in terms of our public schools, for a number of years now, with such things as school-provided breakfasts and after-school programs designed to keep kids after hours. Trouble is, all that has been targeted at only some students, mainly underprivileged ones. I think the goal here is to have these things available--and even mandatory--for all students. I wouldn't be surprised if the end-game of the liberal educators is to have children arrive on the school campuses before breakfast and return home after dinner, and to be constantly in the care of teachers and other government employees for the whole day.


I think the reasons can be traced to a few of the bedrocks of liberal philosophy: the notion that women must work outside the home to fulfill themselves; the notion that professional educators are much better than parents at raising and educating children, and the notion that the only reason our public schools aren't churning out geniuses by the truckload is that they don't have enough money--which they'll certainly get if the schools become de facto round-the-clock daycare centers instead of places of instruction. Add to this the number of social programs and politically-correct "education" units which can be added in longer and more numerous school days, and you can almost sense the salivation going on amongst the members of the U.S. Department of Education over the prospect of more school days, more school hours, and much, much more money.

I can't think of any other business--and, yes, education is a business--in which a failing model which consistently did not produce the required measurable objectives would essentially claim that all they needed was a lot more time and a lot more money, and that this claim would be taken seriously for the square root of one divided by 2 plus negative one fourth of a second. And yet this has always been public education's claim--they need more time, and they need more money, if they're going to be able to produce the kind of scholars who can compete on a global level, particularly in math and science.

The problems with public education have been discussed ad infinitum, but one of the underlying problems is one that won't be solved with more classroom hours and longer school years. That problem is cultural. Currently, children from two-parent, married, stable homes do better, not only in education, but in many other areas of life. Yet we've decided that the two-parent, stable, married household is an irrelevant lifestyle choice, no better and no worse than serial divorce and remarriage, single parenthood, or any other combination of adults and children living together.

I know that some single parents work very hard to make sure that their children don't fail. But we can't deny that it's much harder for them to be involved in their children's education than it is for the two-parent family. And what is going on at home does impact what happens at school, even if we want to pretend that adults and their self-fulfillment comes before children and what they chiefly need: their own father and mother, involved in and caring about their lives.

We can't solve the problems of the home lives of American children by taking them away from their homes for longer and longer stretches of time. But the statistics aren't getting any better: in 2007, almost 40% of American children were born to unwed parents. Roughly 12 million of America's 73.9 million children are being raised by single parents. Divorce continues to impact our nation's children.

President Obama talks about our children not spending as many hours in school as other nations' children. But our children reflect a different troubling statistic: only 63% of American children grew up with both biological parents in 2005; according to the source at the link, this is the lowest figure in the Western world.

We can't fix what's wrong with American schools without looking at what's wrong with the American family. But that means being politically incorrect. It means admitting that children do suffer disproportionately when adults play house and move on, whether through divorce/remarriage or through the simpler, less expensive (generally) method of never bothering to marry in the first place. It means recognizing that all the money in the world could be poured into schools without helping a vast swath of American children whose home lives work against them no matter how many hours of the day they spend sitting in a classroom. It means taking responsibility, as adults, for our actions and behaviors.

In the end, it means repudiating the hedonistic, "anything goes" mantra of the Sexual Revolution. But that's not something that can happen with a big government program or more funding; that's something that can only be changed with a cultural shift away from the insanity of the recent past and in favor of stability, maturity, traditional morality, and a kind of "putting our children first" that doesn't translate into a mere political slogan. That's something that can only be changed one family, one community at a time. Putting children in the hands of government educators, many of whom espouse a very different kind of morality, for longer hours and more days isn't going to help that process; it may even hurt.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Mixed signals

Observers of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi continue to watch the unfolding situation with a certain amount of uneasiness, it seems to me. The continuing revelations about Father Maciel's way of life, that we are now, apparently, talking about "children" in the plural who were fathered by Maciel, and the growing belief that at least some highly-placed Legion officials must have known all about Fr. Maciel's shortcomings have disheartened many former supporters of the Legion; in addition, some are still waiting for an unequivocal apology to the victims of Maciel and for a sign that the Legion really does intend to change things, going forward.

That's why some of the recent things to come out of the Legion have been less than helpful. I'm late to these; this first is from September 10, but I think it illustrates some of the disordered thinking that continues to go on behind the scenes in many places. From the Life-after-rc blog:
NEWSFLASH: The women in a certain [formerly thriving] section were just visited by their new priest. In addition to the other introductory information he passed along, he praised them for their fidelity, sadly noting that much of the RC leadership had defected out of sheer pride. They were there when everything was good, when the accolades were rolling in, when the limelight was on them. Once the road got a little rocky, they threw in the towel -- since they don't know how to deal with crosses.
The phenomenon called "blaming the victim" is an indication that something is pathologically wrong with the person or institution doing this. If a parent, for instance, physically abuses a child he or she may blame the child for "making" the parent lash out; this becomes a deep-seated thing, and has to be eradicated by counseling and therapy for both the victim and the warped adult who has come to believe that he or she is powerless to stop the abuse (because it's really the child's fault, etc.). Unfortunately, the tendency to blame the victim is reported by so many former Legion members that it's almost possible to suspect that the Legion sees it as a feature, not a bug; that is, the notion that anyone who leaves, criticizes, speaks or acts against, or otherwise impedes the Legion is by definition unworthy of this "great mission" is quite possibly, from inside the Legion, viewed as a strength.

How? Well, clearly God has only chosen a select few for the Legion, but sometimes unworthy people join RC or enter the seminary. How good of God, then, to reveal to all the unworthiness of the false! And such an easy revelation--anyone who does not accept, unquestioningly and at all times, the Legion way, or who criticizes it or any person in the Legion, has by that very act shown that he or she is not worthy of the Legion.

The example above, if accurately recollected by the person who heard it, shows that most unfortunately this mentality continues. Rather than looking inward and realizing that the shame and scandal caused by Maciel's own actions was driving more and more people away from the Legion, it would seem that some in the Legion are still blaming the ones who leave--this time for inordinate pride and the inability to handle suffering. Apparently the notion that those who left might be motivated by simple prudence isn't being considered.

More mixed signals from the Legion, and from a direct source, can be seen in this CNS article from September 22:
Father Jose Cardenas, the director of the Legionaries of Christ in Chile, has lamented the recent revelations about the order’s founder, Father Marcial Maciel, as well as the “pain and confusion caused in the Church and in society.” [...]

“As our general director has already done, we ask forgiveness of all those who have been affected, and likewise, we lament the pain and confusion caused in the Church and in society,” Father Cardenas continued. [...]

Father Cardenas expressed thanks for the spiritual support the order has received from the Chilean bishops, clergy and the laity, which has helped them to look towards the future with hope.

“Father Maciel was instrumental in beginning the Legion of Christ and the Regnum Christi movement in the Church, and therefore we must be thankful. But it is also evident that he cannot be an example to us in these unfortunate events,” he said.

“This does not exempt us from discerning and conserving the good we have received from him as our founder. It is a good time to confirm our conviction that Jesus Christ is our center, our guide and our model,” he added.
Let's look at that again; actually, read the whole article if you can. The beginning seems like an apology; not a really strong one, maybe, but an apology anyway. However, soon we're back in mixed-signal territory: The Legion is "thankful" for Fr. Maciel. But he can't be an example "in these unfortunate events." And yet the Legion should still be "discerning and conserving the good (they) have received from him as (their) founder." Is there any more euphemistic way to refer to their founder's proclivity for having affairs with women, fathering children, possibly abusing seminarians, all while taking money raised for his Legion to spend on his own sinful and hypocritical way of living, than calling these things "unfortunate events"?

Observers of the Legion are noting these things; hopefully, those officially investigating the Legion are noticing them as well. At the very least, they don't bode well for the Legion's future: at a time when they ought to be giving one clear message repudiating the vast evil done by Father Maciel and humbly seeking forgiveness of those inside and outside the Legion, that sort of clarity and unequivocal speaking remains elusive. Instead, we keep hearing the same mixed messages, of the sort the Legion has seemingly perfected over the years, which twist the uncomfortable truth inside out, blame the critics and naysayers, and appear to be refusing to consider that the fault lines carved by Maciel's sins run deep underneath the Legion's whole foundation, and that they remain in imminent danger of collapse.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Notes from the Choir

Alas, Thad and the girls and I won't be making choir practice this evening. Thad and I both have mild colds. They aren't slowing us down too much, but we don't want to give them to the rest of the choir, and we're hacking too much to sing anyway; so we'll go over the music at home later and (hopefully) have our singing voices back by Sunday.

One reason I'm hoping for the return of our voices is that for the communion reflection piece this week we are singing one of my favorite pieces: Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus. As the Wikipedia link points out, the hymn is attributed to Pope Innocent VI, and Wikipedia's English translation is as follows:
Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for man,
whose pierced side
flowed with water and blood:
May it be for us a foretaste
in the trial of death.
Listen to it. Read along; heck, sing along if you can:

This is sacred music. The lyrics have an ancient pedigree; the musical setting is meditative, harmonious, filled with subtle beauty. Our own Pope Benedict XVI is partial to the music of Mozart; the article linked to above quotes His Holiness as saying that Mozart's music "...contains the whole tragedy of human existence."

Sometimes you will hear people who lead Catholic choirs being dismissive of Mozart and other classical composers as being too "highbrow" for the ordinary Catholic in the pews to appreciate or enjoy. Others will lament that they can't possibly perform any of Mozart's beautiful motets or Mass music because their choirs are untrained, non-professional musicians who can't read music.

Both choirs I've had the joy of participating in these last few years were composed mainly of people who weren't professionals and couldn't read music, either, aside from the director and one or two others. I myself have only a minimal ability to sight-read, and must hear a piece once or twice before I can sing it. Yet both of these small, amateur choirs learned and have sung Mozart's Ave Verum, and sung it reasonably well.

Beautiful music like this isn't "highbrow" or inaccessible to the congregation. Rather, it's a part of our musical heritage as Catholics. Music like this fosters prayer; it doesn't compete with it or distract from it.

Now, compare it to this song: Sing of the Lord's Goodness. I actually don't have that much of a problem with most of the lyrics of this piece, but here is the music. To me, this music sounds too secular, too much like something one could hear in other settings besides church. (Warning: that link has some not-so-nice ads here and there.)

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The long and short of it

I enjoyed reading the comments to the post below this one about Sunday dress. If anything, the one thing that surprises me the most is that people over the age of five actually wear shorts to Mass. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that shorts at Mass, as well as other inappropriate clothing choices, reflects something about our culture, not just about Mass-goers and the clothing choices they make.

I live in a place where triple-digit temperatures are expected during the summer. It gets hot here, no doubt about it. But I own exactly two pairs of shorts, and I wear them around the house on the hottest days. I never wear them out in public at all.

Why? Is it because I'm short and a little on the round side, and have pale skin which freckles or burns but never tans, so that my legs in shorts are a less-than-edifying sight to behold? A little; I try never to ascribe to virtue what can be explained by vice, and vanity is a vice.

But there's another reason, one which became clear to me when I watched a fragment of a program about fashion once. I can't remember exactly what was said, but the take-away was this: shorts are beachwear. They are also okay for poolside wear, for lounging at home, for exercise (including bicycling), and for a handful of people who must wear them as part of a uniform (e.g., mail carriers, delivery truck drivers, bicycle police officers, etc.). And that's it.***

Wait! you cry. It's hot where I live, too--maybe hotter than where you are. My legs are fine (long, tan, in good shape). I can't possibly wear long slacks or skirts to the grocery store or to run errands! I have to wear shorts out in public or I'll roast. And what if I need to stop somewhere on the way home from the beach/pool/gym?

This is part of the problem with our culture. We've gotten so used to an "anything goes" standard of dress that we no longer think anything of stopping by the grocery store in shorts and a swimsuit top (perhaps lightly draped, giving us the false illusion that we look like we're merely wearing a stylish tank top and shrug, when everyone can see we've just come from the beach/pool). Heck, we're used to seeing people shop in pajama bottoms and flip-flops; what's wrong with shorts, when people obviously don't care?

The thing is, people do care. If you don't think so, imagine wearing shorts over a swimsuit at the grocery store, only to run into a) your mother's best friend, b) your pastor, c) the biggest gossip in your homeschool group, d) your husband's boss, or e) all of the above, in that order. Then imagine inviting that group of people into your home, and greeting them in that outfit. You wouldn't do it, right?

Some, here, would object that they never go out in just a swimsuit top with shorts, or that the shorts they own are nice and dressy, knee-length, etc. I have no doubt this is true for some, but the fact remains that shorts are an inherently casual item of clothing. The dressiest pair of shorts doesn't look as dressy as the plainest just-below-knee length skirt (provided, of course, that we're talking about a skirt that doesn't aspire to be a mini and isn't quarter-outline tight; sadly, those are all too prevalent in our culture, too).

Now, I know that most people, especially most moms, who run into the store clad in a decent pair of shorts and a tee aren't really pushing any social or cultural envelopes. They're dressing that way because everybody, or nearly everybody, else does. The lines between appropriate and inappropriate clothing vanished somewhere between the time when hats and gloves began to go out of style and when the day-glo mini-dress appeared.  But that's part of the problem: when we're too much in tune to dubious fashion trends of the age, we forget to take an objective step back, look at the trend, and evaluate it on its merits. Will it ever be seen as a good thing that people in the year 2009 were comfortable dressing like the children of previous eras: e.g., short pants, sleeveless tops, exercise clothes, spaghetti-strap sundresses and other child-like garments being worn in public by adults of both genders?

And another part of the problem is that when people accept dubious fashion trends as de rigueur, these trends are going to show up at Mass. As ugly as it can be to see shorts-clad adults in church on Sunday, I can only imagine what it was like to live through the "abbreviated mini-dress" age, when women who weren't comfortable showing off their legs two or three inches above the knee had almost no clothing to choose from, and despaired of finding anything decent to wear.

So how do those of us who agree with the idea that shorts should return to their previous category of beachwear or lounge-wear work to encourage that use?

First, we can absolutely refuse to wear them to Mass, no matter how hot it is, and not even for daily Mass. We should also get out of the habit of wearing them to a holy hour or Confession or anytime we have to enter the church building.

Second, we can try a little harder not to wear them out in public except to the beach or pool or gym. If necessary, we can bring a just-below-knee skirt in a wrinkle-free knit or some light capri pants tucked into our beach bag or gym bag so that if we must run errands on our way home, we can change into something other than shorts.

Third, we can encourage our older children to wear shorts less frequently when they are going to be out in public. Young children can wear shorts--they've always been appropriate on children under five, and I think five to ten is also fine, especially for boys, so long as the long pants begin to appear at Mass. But if you have older children, and they know ahead of time you'll be going out (say, for some prolonged shopping or dinner or some such thing) they should be encouraged to choose something other than shorts whenever this is feasible.

Fourth, we can--we must!--be charitable when we see adults wearing shorts at Mass. There are probably ten adults in America who actually look good in shorts, and I've certainly never seen any of the ten in church. When someone dresses in such a way that he or she looks terrible, we can only assume he or she has no idea of the fact, and no one to tell him or her that this is the case. Let's face it, though: shorts reveal more flaws than they conceal. On men they emphasize the waist, usually in a bad way; they cling a bit more than they should to the rear end, especially to any fatty tissue which has accumulated in the posterior; they reveal just how hirsute the gentleman in question may be; and if his legs are less than trim or less than muscular these deficiencies will be highlighted. On women, they are just as bad, revealing not only the waist but also the hips, and any disproportion between the two; they add at least ten pounds to the figure, especially if the woman has tucked her shirt in tightly so that its rolls look like extra weight; they are extremely good at revealing the undergarment lines, since women's shorts are often constructed of lighter-weight materials than men's shorts are; and unless the woman's legs are perfect, which they usually are not, they reveal everything from spider veins and varicose veins to fatty deposits and stretch marks.

In charity, then, we should assume that the shorts-wearer has not ever really seen himself or herself in a full-length mirror, especially from behind, or he or she would never, ever, EVER wear such an unflattering garment to Mass--and probably not in public at all. So trying to discuss the issue with him or her is likely to be unproductive, unless you are a close relative, in which case a little candor may go a long way, provided it is tactfully administered.

Fifth, we can encourage our pastors to do what only they can do: remind the congregation of the minimal standards of dress at Mass. This has to be done with sensitivity and kindness, but it should be done. Some churches have placed plaques or notices in the back of the church to remind people to dress appropriately; others have invited some parish participation in the discussion of the question; others have simply cranked the a/c down so low that shorts, halter tops, and spaghetti-strap dresses are supremely uncomfortable to wear, even on the hottest days.

I sometimes think that since the late 60s our nation has been going through a sort of long adolescence. Like adolescents, we've clung to childish things (such as dress) while insisting on adult behaviors without adult responsibility or adult consequences (see: sexual revolution). I hope that we'll be past that age soon, and that Catholics who wear shorts to Mass on Sunday may start looking in the mirror and thinking, "Why the heck am I dressed like a kindergartner?"

***Some would include backyard barbecues or neighborhood block parties. I think it depends on the backyard--or the neighbors.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ramblings on the notion of Sunday best

Deacon Greg Kandra asks, on his blog, whether anyone dresses up for Sunday Mass anymore:
What do you think? Has the idea of "Sunday best" gone out of fashion? From what I see in the pews, I'm starting to think so (though I am still charmed by the number of ladies I see at Easter wearing hats, though nothing else covers their heads the rest of the year.)
He links to this post at Googling God which discusses the matter a little differently. Alas, in this post we see the usual defensiveness of what people wear, the "thank goodness they're here," mentality, and the admonition against becoming liturgical fashion police all jumbled up with a defense of someone wearing shorts and the notion that a tank top and flip flops (beach wear) isn't so bad if this is one's only opportunity for Mass during vacation, etc.

Now, I have some sympathies with both points of view, and if you'll indulge me, I'd like to think out loud about this whole concept of Sunday best. Maybe you'd like to add some thoughts in the comments, too. These thoughts are in no particular order, but are what comes to mind when I consider the issue of dress and Sunday Mass:

There is a difference between "modest" and "appropriate" when we are talking about what to wear to Mass. Often, the debate focuses in on modesty, which is sometimes a good thing given that people have, in many cases, lost that natural sense of modesty which tells them ahead of time which garments are unacceptable; then, too, there is the problem that, for example, the v-neck blouse which is perfectly modest on Patricia Pancake is tight and revealing on Brenda Buxom. Once upon a time women in general had a better notion of such matters, but today we see, in addition to purposeful immodesty, the unfortunate situation of the would-be modest woman dressed in something which on her is too tight, too short, too clingy, or too revealing. One reason I dislike zeroing in too much on the modesty question is that, while I think the secular world is rife with examples of purposeful immodest dressing, I really do think that more of the immodesty at Mass arises from the two categories mentioned above, and that the person in question has either adopted cultural ideas of what is fashionable without considering modesty, or that he/she is honestly unaware that the clothes he/she is wearing are too revealing for his/her body type. None of this is to say that modest dressing is unimportant at Mass, of course. But I think that when we focus on modesty exclusively we forget the question of "appropriateness," which is a different matter entirely.

Discussion of the appropriateness of one's Sunday clothes always seems, to me, to get off on the wrong foot. Too many times, people say things like, "How would you dress if you were going to meet a king, the president, the pope? Shouldn't you dress at least as well, if not better, to be in God's presence?"

The problem with that question is that people point out, with perfect justice, that nobody (or almost nobody) habitually wears a three-piece suit or tuxedo or a chiffon gown to such things as daily Mass, Confession, a 3 a.m. holy hour, and other times when Jesus is really present in the Blessed Sacrament. Most people don't even wear tuxedos or gowns to Sunday Mass, even though we have an idea of "Sunday best" which specifically refers to our presence at that particular Mass, not just any time we are in Christ's Presence. So if we are supposed to dress up on Sunday, but not necessarily for daily Mass, Confession, or the 3 a.m. holy hour, it's not just the Real Presence for Whom we're dressing up.

Why should we dress up, then? What are the reasons? And what is "Sunday best" these days, anyway?

I think that dressing up on Sunday is more about the character of Sunday than our assistance at Mass itself. Sunday, after all, is supposed to be a day of rest, of leisure; it made sense in many ages for one's best outfit to be saved for Sunday, and worn on that one day of all days when those clothes wouldn't get stained, ripped, or otherwise damaged. And it made sense to wear that outfit to worship God, too; the Sunday Mass is the chief liturgical celebration of the Christian assembly, the time when we come together and, with one voice, praise God, thank Him, petition Him for our needs, and enter into the sacred mystery of His sacrifice of propitiation.

So dressing up for Sunday Mass seems to me to have three good motives: to prepare for worship, to enter with the community in celebration, and to be reminded of the special character of the Lord's Day, and its designation as a day of rest.

So far so good. But then we come to a different, and perplexing question: what is "Sunday best" in the year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Nine, in the United States of America?

Here we get back to the difference between the question of modesty and the question of appropriateness for Sunday Mass. Many clothes are completely modest: loose-fitting jeans or khakis and polo shirts on men, perhaps, or comfortable, casual skirts of denim or twill paired with embellished tees on women. Neither outfit is likely (at least, not of its own) to tempt anybody to sinful thoughts. But is either really the best choice, the most appropriate, fitting attire, to wear to Mass on Sunday?

The answer to that question is going to depend on many different things--so many, in fact, that only each individual person can answer it. Just to illustrate, here are a few of the things that people may have to consider:

1. What clothes do I actually own? If my closet is full of nice clothes and I dress somewhat sloppily at Mass on Sunday, am I doing my best? On the other hand, if I don't own dry-clean only dresses (or good suits) and high heels (or wingtips) because I never need to wear them, must I purchase them in order to be dressed appropriately for Mass, or would that be materialistic and vain?

2. What can I wear? If I've gained a bit of weight and am limited in my choices, I might need to work on my appetite, health, etc.--but whether the garments I fit into right now are someone's idea of "Sunday best" or not is probably the least of my worries. If I'm on call at the hospital, nursing scrubs ought to be fine; in fact, just about anyone in uniform should be able to wear that uniform to Mass without anyone objecting, provided the uniform doesn't involve shorts.

3. What clothes meet my present needs? If I am a woman who ordinarily never wears slacks to Mass, but am a) pregnant, b) wrestling toddlers in and out of the church during Mass, c) maneuvering on crutches while recovering from a broken leg, d) other--you get the picture--then my use of slacks is designed to meet my needs, not to ruffle the feathers of those who think that slacks ought never to be worn to Mass by women (or worn by women at all, for that matter).

4. What is my reality on Sunday? If I have signed up to help set up and clean up the coffee and donuts immediately following Mass (with no time to change beforehand), this might be a good day to leave the silk shantung suit and three-inch heels at home, and opt for one of those sensible twill skirts with equally sensible footwear.

5. How are my clothes helping or hindering my attempt to celebrate Sunday and view Sunday as a day of rest? If my outfit keeps me mindful that Sunday is the Lord's Day, well and good; if my outfit makes me vain and conceited about how nice I look compared to the slobs out there, not so good.

These are just a few of the things to consider. I'll end this post with one of my own frustrations in this area, which is this: it's so hard, especially for a woman, to find or own "Sunday best" clothes anymore.

I mean that literally; sure, I have some pretty skirts, which I pair, mainly, with knit tops (we'll save the rant concerning the women's tailoring industry, blouse construction, and the ubiquity of that dreadful stretch-cotton stuff for another time). I also have one or two "business casual" type outfits purchased to wear on the handful of occasions when I've needed them, as well as a dress or two which, sadly, are too warm for Texas much of the year. But "Sunday best?" What does that even mean, for women's clothing, anymore? I've pondered that question before, and I can't really come up with a good answer. If you visit a few women's clothing stores, in person or online, you see that they have categories for "casual" clothes, "business" clothes, and "special occasion" clothes; but there's no such department as "Sunday best;" one is, apparently, supposed to find one's Sunday outfits emanating from the penumbras of these other areas.

So if you look at women at Mass and see some clothes which seem too casual, and some that seem too businesslike, and a couple, perhaps, that are almost too dressy (anything involving glitter or sequins, for example), it could be because these are our choices today. I know that when I have complimented another woman on what really looks like a Sunday best outfit, I usually hear one of two things: "This? Oh, I've had this for years!" or "This? I made this. I sew all of my Sunday dresses..."

Terrorism and torture

The recent arrest of terrorism suspects has prompted some new warnings:

Counterterrorism officials have issued security bulletins to police around the nation about terrorists' desire to attack stadiums, entertainment complexes and hotels — the latest in a flurry of such internal warnings as investigators chase a possible bomb plot in Denver and New York.

In the two bulletins — sent to police departments Monday and obtained by The Associated Press — officials said they know of no specific plots against such sites, but urged law enforcement and private companies to be vigilant. These two bulletins followed on the heels of a similar warning about the vulnerabilities of mass transit systems.

The bulletin on stadiums notes that an al-Qaida training manual specifically lists "blasting and destroying the places of amusement, immorality, and sin... and attacking vital economic centers" as desired targets of the global terror network.

A joint statement from DHS and FBI said while the agencies "have no information regarding the timing, location or target of any planned attack, we believe it is prudent to raise the security awareness of our local law enforcement partners regarding the targets and tactics of previous terrorist activity."

The article notes that such warnings happen frequently and aren't usually noticed by the public; but in light of the recent arrests of terror plot suspects people are paying attention.

In the comments below this post of mine, a mini-discussion about torture started cropping up. I think it might be a good idea to revisit the subject, especially since one poster seemed to insinuate that I was opposed to torture because my region of the country hasn't been threatened yet. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth; the principle that torture is morally wrong is not dependent upon how close the threat of terrorism is, or of how devastating that act of terror might be, or of any other such prudential concerns.

I agree with the principle that torture is intrinsically evil. Using evil means to obtain good results is still evil, regardless of the desired results. The ends do not, and never have, justified the means.

If a terror plot like the one described by Daniel J. Hill ever occurred, it would be beyond terrible, a devastating blow to our nation, and a truly horrific situation for the innocent who perished and for all those impacted by such an act of evil. If a terror plot like the ones theoretically discussed in the various security bulletins ever took place, it, too, would be a nightmare.

But if we could stop either of those things from happening by torturing a man to the breaking point of his will and obtaining information that way, we would still not have the moral right to do it. We do not have the moral right to torture, because torture is intrinsically evil.

I know this is a hard concept to understand, sometimes. Our desire to protect the innocent is strong, as it should be; our desire to root out and destroy the evil of terrorism before one more person dies from a terrorist act is also strong, and it should be. But we can't let these good desires and impulses turn into evil acts--or we risk becoming that which we seek to eradicate, the kind of people for whom the ability to use force is its own moral justification, for whom might makes right.

There are many things our law enforcement branches can do and are doing to uncover and thwart terrorist plots; they should be supported and encouraged with funding and cooperation to do what needs to be done. But the line against torture must be held; we can't condone any use of the methods of torture or the euphemistically-named "enhanced interrogation" techniques by our law enforcement against terror suspects, even if we strongly believe that some suspects might know about a terror plot and that their information is key to stopping it.

At the present time, no one (that I know of, anyway) is suggesting that we should be torturing the recently-arrested suspects to see if they know about any other planned terrorist activities in our country. But as we saw in the debate about torture in the context of Iraq and Afghanistan, we can't say confidently that such things could never happen here. The American people have already shown our officials, elected and otherwise, that we lack the will to insist that "enhanced interrogation" or torture be forbidden completely--and I wonder sometimes if we've really thought about how dangerous that lack of will really is.

Monday, September 21, 2009

We have a cat!

Some of you may remember this post from back in July, when I wrote that we were wanting to adopt* a cat, but that the shelter cat we'd seen online had turned out to be aloof and a bit aggressive--not the best with children, especially with children who desperately wanted a cat and most definitely wanted one who would enjoy a lot of loving attention.

We've kept looking, and encouraged by the advice many had given us started looking at kittens instead of older cats. Sure, older cats are more in need of adoption, but in a home where no pets live currently an older cat might find the love and attention of three young ladies a bit much to deal with.

So we kept our eyes open, and Thad, in particular, started dropping by shelters on his lunch hour and taking a look at the kittens there. We went as a family to look at a few, but there wasn't one among them we felt really drawn to--and one in particular, which my girls nicknamed "Fireball," was the most aggressive and wild cat we'd ever seen. I started wondering if we'd ever find a more placid, but still friendly, feline companion.

Then Thad went to a local vet clinic/shelter to look at some kittens that had been advertised online. He called me to tell me about another cat he'd seen, not one of the kittens at all, and I could tell from his voice that he thought he'd found the right cat for our family.

And when we got there, and passed this purring young male cat around from person to person, and marveled at the gentle way he'd put a soft paw--claws retracted--on each of us in turn, and how he didn't mind being held and absolutely loved being petted and handled, and I knew Thad was right.

The lady at the shelter had named him "Emmett." She meant to name him after Emmitt Smith, but spelled his name like Emmett Kelly, which probably works just as well. I'll be honest--I'm not crazy about the name, but we didn't have the heart to change it on the vet records, and didn't really have another name for him in mind anyway.

Emmett came to the shelter as a tiny kitten. He was found during a bad thunderstorm by a woman who kept hearing a cat crying amid the sounds of the storm; venturing outside, she found Emmett clinging to the branch of a tree. As she approached he leaped from the tree into her arms. She was allergic to cats, and so she brought Emmett to the shelter attached to the vet clinic the next day. He was with them for almost four months before we came along--and, sadly, his chances of being adopted by that point were growing slim, despite his utterly sweet personality and placid, gentle nature.

We brought him home Saturday morning, and are having a lot of fun seeing his playful side expand--after so much time in a little room at a shelter, our family room seems like a huge world to him! Soon we'll let him explore the rest of the house as well, but so far he seems content and less intimidated to be in just the one room.

And here are some pictures:

Kitten, Bookgirl, and Hatchick are very happy with their new cat!

*I know that using the word "adopt" to speak of pets is sometimes offensive to those who have adopted children; certainly the two things aren't at all the same, and a different word would be better to speak of the process of acquiring a pet. That said, unless one actually purchases a purebred animal from a breeder, one is usually not "buying" one's pet--so the linguistic dilemma remains. There should be a different word for pets than the word we use for children joining one's family; I don't wish to be insensitive to the concerns of those who find this use of "adopt" distasteful. However, at the present time it's the nearly-universal term for such an acquisition, and so I use it here.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Dissolution or re-founding?

America magazine is reporting that sources close to the Legionaries in Spain say the current visitation will end in either dissolution of the Legion or the re-founding of the order:

The result of Rome's investigation (known as an "apostolic visitation") into the Legionaries of Christ will result in either the dissolution or the re-founding of the order, according to sources close to the Legionaries in Spain. There, a Basque bishop, Ricardo Blazquez, is in charge of the visitation; in the US, it is being led by the Archbishop of Denver, Charles Chaput. Their main task, apparently, is to assess whether the order's members will be accepting of whatever Rome decides.

Dissolution would mean the houses, universities and other properties of the Legionaries would pass into the hands of the dioceses where they are located.A new institute could then be founded.

Fr Marcial Maciel founded the Legionaries of Christ in Mexico in 1941. The Legionaries have 3,250 male members, of whom 850 are priests. The order also has about 1,000 consecrated women, and some 60,000 members of Regnum Christi, the lay branch.

According to a former Legionary quoted by the Spanish religious journalist Jose Vidal, the ordinary priests and members of Regnum Christi, want a root-and-branch reform --if necessary, by means of a dissolution -- in order to give a new institute a fighting chance. But the order's leaders are fighting a defensive rearguard action, arguing that they knew nothing of the double life led by Maciel, and were therefore neither accomplices in his abuses nor did they attempt to cover them up.

While the leaders admit that Maciel had a mistress and a child, and are keen to distance themselves and the order from him, they are treading carefully, aware that no order has ever survived the repudiation of its founder.

Read the whole thing.

According to the article, the Americans in the Legion are in favor of quick action, including a change in leadership, but the Spaniards want to retain the present leaders--though at this point arguing that none of them had the slightest inkling of Maciel's double life is a pretty hard sell.

A re-founding of the order, with a new founder and new leadership, would allow the Legion to continue its work--but I still think they need to develop a much clearer articulation of a charism, and embrace some specific practical work in the Body of Christ. So much of what they do seems not to be unique and to be oriented more toward the perpetuation of the Legion than toward any specific work of charity. I could see them adopting a specific mission to educate, for instance, but they would then need to accept diocesan oversight of what they do, whether in school buildings or working as parish education facilitators.

Some former Legion members don't appear to think this will be enough; dissolution is the only possible cure for the Legion's ills, to them. It may prove that this is true--but a lot will depend on how willing the Legion is to accept Rome's decisions regarding their future with equanimity, trust, and a spirit of sorrowful penitence for the harm done in the name of their order and their once-revered founder.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Notes from the Choir

I've given up putting volume numbers on the Notes from the Choir posts, because I do this so infrequently that I keep forgetting which number I'm on, exactly.

I hate to be too negative in my posts about choir music, too, but this week I'm afraid a bit of negativity is going to surface. We've been singing a lot more of the "contemporary" music lately, if by "contemporary" we mean things that are anywhere from ten to forty years old, for the most part. Frankly, I dislike quite a lot of this music; but I know I'm not in the majority. A sweet older woman approached me after Mass last week and just gushed about how much she appreciated the music selections--not the music, you see, the selections. Another older gentleman argued vociferously with me not long ago about "all that old traditional stuff" we've been doing--the young people don't want to sing that stuff, he insisted. No offense to this gentleman, but my young years were a couple decades closer than his, most likely, and when I was young I hated the modern stuff even more than I do now, if only because we were surrounded by it and I hadn't learned to separate the wheat from the chaff, from the perspective of what ought to be the standards of sacred music. To be honest, I'm still learning to do that. In any case, the young people who are going to sing aren't turned off by "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," and the young people who won't sing wouldn't sing if you had the church equivalent of some current pop star (Heaven forbid) playing. Sadly, what the gentleman also fails to realize is that what he considers "modern" music is more like the greatest hits of ABBA than anything recorded in the recent past--which is something the young people know perfectly well.

This week's music includes two songs that I want to comment about; I consider them rather bad, and unfortunately must sing them on occasion.

The first is titled The Servant Song, and was written by Richard Gillard in 1977. It was later adapted to make it "inclusive," since the first line used to be "Brother, let me be your servant," instead of "Will you let me be your servant."

What's wrong with this piece?

Aside from the treacly music, which I haven't got the sufficient background in liturgical composition to judge intelligently but find somewhat trite, there are the lyrics. A few of them are as follows:
Will you let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you?
Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey, we are trav’lers on the road.
We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.
It goes on like this. So, what's wrong with it? Isn't it just a nice expression of Christian fellowship, the sort of sentiment we should all have for each other? Aren't expressions of Christian love and brotherhood appropriate for sacred music?

Here's where it gets a little tricky. Hymns at Mass are supposed to be a part of the act of worship. Many of them address God directly, as they should. Other hymns, even old, venerable ones, do not address God directly; that beautiful hymn Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence comes to mind. Such a hymn is more exhortation to the Christian assembly than prayer directly addressed to God, and yet its ancient origins and beautiful words make it fitting for a hymn sung at Mass. There are other hymns too, which also exhort, or encourage, or call to prayer or to action. So, again, what is wrong with The Servant Song?

A clue can be found in the original lyrics: "Brother, let me be your servant." This is a song not directed at the whole assembly, but to one specific person; and the pronoun "me" makes it clear that it is being sung by one person, as well (even though it isn't literally being sung by one person at Mass, of course). As such, it becomes what I often think of as "You and me" songs, in which the singer seems to address one other person individually. Another example of such a song would be All I Ask of You by Gregory Norbet; there are others, and perhaps you can think of some and add them to the comments.

The focus of the song, then, is neither upon God nor upon the whole Christian assembly; it is (lyrically, that is) upon two individual Christians who wish to serve each other in some way. But the Mass is a public act of worship, intended to be the assembly of all Christian faithful--so a song which seems so intimate and personal can't help, to me, but seem out of place. It is a little like singing a love song at Mass--there's nothing wrong with a good love song in its proper place, but as many wedding couples have learned to their chagrin, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is not a proper place for this sort of music.

The second piece I want to discuss is that unfortunate Bernadette Farrell piece, Bread for the World. I'll admit to being amused by the parody of that song, titled "Bread for the Squirrels," which is here, (you have to scroll down) though sadly the site is no longer maintained. First, I'll refer you to this wonderful article about what is wrong with Eucharistic hymns today, which mentions Bread for the World; the author is right that singing about becoming bread for each other is bound to be confusing from any Eucharistic standpoint.

The lyrics of the whole song are terrible; sadly, they aren't available online for the usual reason involving Catholic music publishers and copyrights. But the refrain goes like this:
Bread for the world, a world of hunger.
Wine for all peoples: people who thirst.
May we who eat be bread for others.
May we who drink pour out our love.
In addition to being excruciatingly bad poetry--almost Vogon poetry level--these lyrics are hideously incorrect theology. We don't receive "bread" at Holy Communion; we receive Jesus. Same for "wine," which is His Precious Blood. And eating and drinking them does not in any way make us the product of grain and liquid mixed and baked. If anything, we are supposed to draw grace from Christ to become more like Him in our dealings with each other; it would be pretty stupid for us to be bread, notwithstanding the unsuccessful attempt at poetic imagery.

Considering the rich history of the Church's great Eucharistic hymns, some of them written by great saints, it's maddening to have to sing, pardon me, utter tripe like this at the holiest and most important part of the Holy Sacrifice. But why do we?

Remember above, when I talked about the two older people who expressed in no uncertain terms their love of the musical tripe and their disdain for the Church's musical treasure?

It's not their fault. They've been taught for forty years to prefer reflexively the novel and shallow, and to choke upon the ancient and wise. They were taught to distrust their younger appreciation for the beautiful liturgy of the Church and for her music, art, architecture--they were taught that these things were wrong, from beautiful statues and venerable devotions to Mary or the saints, to, yes, the hymns their parents sang at Mass, when hymns were sung, which wasn't necessarily all of the time.

So their preference for the new ugly stuff is sincere, if misguided. And they express this preference. A lot. Which influences more choir directors than you can imagine.

Moral: if you like traditional music, ask for it. Tell the choir director you like it, and ask wistfully for your favorite pieces. Don't give up if it takes a few mentions, either.

Believe me, choir members with appreciation for traditional music will thank you.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Some lessons from the ACORN scandal

Like I said yesterday, I've been wanting to write about the ACORN videos. I'm just not entirely sure how to go about it.

At this point, four videotapes showing ACORN workers apparently ready and willing to help a self-described pimp and prostitute apply for a mortgage loan for the house they intend to use in that business have surfaced. The most outrageous one involving an ACORN worker is being called a hoax, though; there's at least some indication that the woman in question realized the pair was a sham and "played up" to them. That's actually quite plausible, in this age of reality TV--perhaps she thought at any moment that some person would appear and explain how she'd been "punk'd" or otherwise gulled, and that there might be money in it, making it in her best interest to play along with what seemed to her to be just the right sort of gag to end up on late night television.

But there's apparently no such question about the first three videos, in which ACORN workers didn't seem to mind helping a couple in the described situation fudge things a little in order to apply for a mortgage loan. And that has led to some interesting results.

The Senate has voted to deny HUD funding to ACORN. The House is asking for all federal funds to be removed from ACORN, and the Census Bureau has dropped ACORN from its list of voluntary participants in next year's census. And now, amazingly, ACORN has decided to suspend all its key operations while waiting for an investigation of this whole matter.

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from this. Clearly, a couple of citizens with a video camera have done for the mainstream news media what a handful of amateur font analysts did for Dan Rather; they've stolen a march, scooped the pants off of the mainstream press, and showed once again why the old media is losing prestige and eyeballs. Charlie Gibson can act aloof and disdainful all he likes, but the Old Guard is going to learn, perhaps painfully, that they no longer get to decide what is news and what isn't.

A bigger lesson is that at least some of the Tea Party protesters, the ones complaining about taxes, government waste, and out-of-control spending, have a real point. How much money does ACORN get from the federal government? How much of that money goes to facilitate loans which should never have been made in the first place--even if the circumstances were not as outrageous or salacious as those concocted by the actors in the videotapes? How many other agencies involved in similar kinds of work and getting similar amounts of tax money are doing the same sorts of illegal things?

A third lesson, though, is a little dispiriting. In many ways, these videos remind me of the ones put out by these courageous people--yet there hasn't been anything like the same level of public outcry or immediate Congressional action. Planned Parenthood, another organization which receives huge amounts of federal tax dollars, can be shown time and time again to have operatives who are willing to flout the mandatory reporting laws when presented with statutory rape scenarios, and yet the public is willing to ignore and overlook this. To be fair, some law enforcement officers and attorneys general have not been so willing, and there have been some actions taken--but nothing like the swift condemnation of the illegal activity we're seeing in the ACORN case.

What does that tell us? It tells me that people in general are much more willing to accept Planned Parenthood's peccadilloes than they are ACORN's. And so as encouraging as it is to see ACORN's activities held up to the light, I'm reminded that when it comes to exposing the corruption of government beneficiaries, we have a lot more work to do.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

From little ACORNS...

I've been meaning to post about the ACORN scandal, and hope to get to it tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, go read this from Rod Dreher at Crunchy Cons. He's helpfully included the latest video shocker. This thing is going to keep unraveling; you can be sure of that.

What was that phrase about little acorns becoming mighty oaks? How far do the roots of this ACORN scandal go?

Could it happen again?

Is another 9/11-style terrorist attack against America in the works? Lee Benson at the Deseret News interviews a man who predicted both the first World Trade Center bombing and the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks:

"Heart of a Soldier" tells the story of two men who, well before it happened, foretold not only of the terrorist attack of 9/11 but also the 1993 bombing in the World Trade Center parking garage that preceded it.

One of the men, Rick Rescorla, was chief of security for Morgan Stanley with an office in the World Trade Center. He died on 9/11, but not before he shepherded all but six of Morgan Stanley's 2,700 employees to safety because of a well-prepared and well-executed evacuation plan. He'd have made it out, too, had he not gone back in the building looking for those six.

The other man, Daniel J. Hill, is still alive.

With another Sept. 11 approaching I wanted to talk to The Man Who Predicted 9/11.

Although the primary focus in Stewart's book is on Rescorla — a bona fide hero for his actions on 9/11 — I found Hill to be an even more fascinating character.

It was Hill who converted to Islam as a young U.S. Army paratrooper stationed in Beirut in 1958. It was Hill who learned fluent Arabic. It was Hill who joined the Mujahedeen Freedom Fighters in Afghanistan and fought the Soviet invasion there in the 1980s. It was Hill who personally met Osama bin Laden. It was Hill who used information from Islamic extremists to warn Rescorla that terrorists would use the underground parking garage for a car bomb attack on the World Trade Center. It was Hill who asked the U.S. government to assist him in an assassination attempt on bin Laden in 1998 (the request was rejected). And it was Hill who warned the FBI just weeks before Sept. 11, 2001, that his Mideast contacts told him "something big" was about to happen in the United States, in New York, Washington, D.C., or Philadelphia — maybe all three.

And what, according to Benson's article, does Daniel J. Hill say is going to happen? More:

Hill said the next terrorist attack will involve suitcase nuclear bombs that will be detonated in small, low-flying two-seater private airplanes manned by men hanging onto the belief that, like the 9/11 hijackers, they are about to die as martyrs and enter paradise.

He is not alone in suggesting such a scenario. A 2007 book, "The Day of Islam," spells out the details, as do any number of Internet sites about a plot called "American Hiroshima."

The nukes, he said, will be detonated over New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Miami, Houston, Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

I asked Hill, "Why now?"

"Eight years from 1993 to 2001, eight years from that 9/11 to this 9/11," he said. "Symbolism. They're big on symbolism."
I certainly hope that Mr. Hill is wrong. And we can show that there have been many times since September 11, 2001, when more attacks have been predicted; fortunately, these predictions have not come to pass. Mr. Hill's nightmare scenario involving small planes and suitcase nukes sounds like something out of a spy thriller novel; let's hope that's all it is, and that our terrorist enemies remain incapable of mounting any such attack against America.

Sin Sells

Why are you reading my blog today? Go, now, and read Larry D at Acts of the Apostasy; Larry is being especially brilliant today:
As if I needed another reason to NOT watch prime time television.

Premiering on ABC this fall is a sitcom called "Modern Family" (9PM, 9/23), starring Ed O'Neill (remember "Married...With Children"?). The synopsis, from "Today's American families come in all different shapes and sizes. Shot from the perspective of an unseen documentary filmmaker, this comedy is a modern look at the complications that come with being a family in 2009." (Link and text color in Larry's post--E.M.)

Sounds innocuous enough, right?

Wrong - included in the mix is a gay couple with an adopted child. Yep. Disney Studios doing their part to propel social engineering. Or rather, social re-engineering. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what some of the "complications" will be: so-called gay marriage and gay adoptions, to name the two biggies. I'm willing to bet that one or more characters on this show will be a "religious intolerant bigot", too. To show 'balance', of course.

I often wonder how much different our culture would be if shows reflected traditional families, dealing with traditional issues. Couples remaining faithful to each other in marriage. Children being respectful of their parents. Parents acting like adults. Fathers not being portrayed as ignorant airheads. Immoral behavior being rejected rather than embraced and glorified. Values such as sacrifice, prudence, modesty, chastity, God and faith being honored rather than vilified. Comes down to two words, really: Sin Sells. It's a shame the American public at large have rejected many of these ideals, replacing them with cheap laughs, scatological humor and being content with settling for the lowest common denominator. Shame on us.
Do read the whole thing.

I'll admit that I watch a little bit of television. I watch almost none of it on the actual TV, though; I watch mainly through Hulu or via other online access methods. I also don't tend to watch realistic shows or "family comedy" shows or most of what used to be called "must-see TV." Even so, I also don't allow my kids to watch with me; if there's something worth showing them, their dad or I, or both of us, will have previewed it ahead of time, and that's just as true for something "educational" as for something entertainment-based.

Because, like Larry says, sin sells. So even on a seemingly innocuous history program or cooking show there might be a moment of cultural decay on parade, just so we can all get that 5 second message of social re-engineering having to do with, say, the host's extremely alternative lifestyle, subliminally reinforcing the message that our disgust with such things is somehow our fault and our problem, because "everybody else" approves.

And while such previewing and careful selection for our children is a must, I also try to reexamine the shows Thad and I watch for entertainment. Is there something valuable here? Is there a good message overall, good writing, well-developed and interesting characters? Or did the show start out reasonably good, and then slowly start pushing an agenda I can't agree with, or a level of coarse banality that has slowly risen and made the show unwatchable? Sometimes we'll agree that one of these things has happened, and will drop the program from our viewing list; it's too easy to be in the habit of tuning in to something and to be tempted to overlook rapidly increasing and potentially dangerous shortcomings.

I'm with Larry in his call for some traditional families occasionally being treated as something other than a joke on television. The great writer Flannery O'Connor always said that art (and some television might occasionally rise to that level) should reflect reality--but the reality is that there are good, decent families struggling to raise good, decent kids in a world that no longer respects their struggle or their sacrifices, and it ought to be possible to see things like that on TV once in a while. The iconic TV families of past generations were not bland uninteresting caricatures of real people (well, not all of them) and the simple struggle of daily life with jobs and homes and neighbors and children can be the foundation of a lot of interesting stories to tell.

But, quoting Larry again, sin sells. It's more amusing and provocative to show such families as repressed fundamentalist closet-cases who hate everybody but themselves, reflecting not reality, but the bigotry that lives in the minds of many of those responsible for producing this sort of "entertainment." And if we tune in and laugh along, we may be part of the problem.

Monday, September 14, 2009

It fell like rain

It rained today.

In most places that wouldn't be worth mentioning, but in Texas in early September the fact of rain is a pleasant thing to report. I recall another week in early September, not long after we moved to this state, when the temperatures were reaching 110 degrees--being outside seemed like being on an alien planet. That year the leaves were turning brown in August--not a slow, graceful, colorful transformation, but a heat-wilted sort wherein leaves that had never been much more than listless green went suddenly dark, and fell in lifeless clusters to the ground.

But this year has been different, and the life-giving rain coming so late in what is still technically summer will provide a flourish of green and blooming things, a living crescendo to an already unusual season. How strange it was over this weekend to search for sweaters, for Hatchick to don her favorite rain hat, and even to lay aside sandals in favor of closed-toe shoes so puddles wouldn't leave muddy whirls on bare feet; the temperatures, dipping into seventies territory for the first time since early spring, were more reminiscent of late fall here than late summer.

Indoors today, diligently (if not always happily) applying ourselves to our school books, we heard the weather as it changed: gentle dripping, bursts of heavier rainfall, the melting away of the rain to a mere drizzle. I wondered why the lighting inside seemed so insufficient, but this weather is so rare here that lamps, like blog commenters on many political blogs, seem to add more heat than light, especially in our brilliant summers when the sun is a constant and tangible presence no matter how we try to screen it out with blinds and shades. Our last lamp died an ignominious death caused by gravity and the very poor manufacturing of its gooseneck design; I haven't replaced it, but perhaps, if this rain is a harbinger of this year's fall or winter weather, a lamp or two ought to be purchased. There is nothing quite like a soft circle of subtle lamp light in a room blanketed with the soft gray echoes of rain falling just beyond the windowpanes.

I had intended to write something about this weekend's Tea Party protest in D.C., but somehow the pervasive softness of the drizzle kept me from the properly pugnacious spirit of political commentary. The only sort of tea that seemed at all alluring was the real sort, sending puffs of scented steam curling into the unwonted moisture of the atmosphere. I started musing instead about another sort of tea party, and imagining well-dressed ladies of a gentler age carefully protecting their tea-hats with ruffled umbrellas from the inconvenient weather as they ventured forth to Mrs. A--'s house, her genteel summons for a four o'clock gathering reposing at home in a drawer full of such gratifying communications. Did the manners of that time reflect, as some moderns think, the ugly shadows of social exclusion and moral hypocrisy? Or were they, in some sense, a protection against the coarseness, both social and moral, of an age like our own? The rain, real and imagined, blurs the answer, and makes it seem to be a little of both, contradictory though that is.

But rain tends to do that; the ordinary streets and lawns and views become dulled, softened, blunted; they glisten with what Hatchick said were like tiny diamonds, and which she not-so-secretly wished might be ice or snow, the forty-degree temperature impossibility notwithstanding. Light reflects oddly off of wet pavement or dripping buildings, and it's easy to step back and see beauty in what used to seem utilitarian and drab.

I have a feeling that the movers and shakers of the early twentieth century viewed such things as custom and tradition, social mores and public morals, through a very jaundiced eye, through white-hot light that drained them of the knowledge of the context for such things. And certainly some of the things they were reacting to, the ugly racism that still so strongly plagued our country, the hypocrisy that let the well-connected and the public figures flout the law openly while imposing it strictly against the poor and unknown, and similar injustices, demanded action and attention. There neither could be nor should be a soft gray coating over those things; they were wrong, and had to be torn down.

But in the tearing and remaking something was lost, something of manners and kindness and civility, something that screened children for much longer from the ugly rawness of so much of the adult world. It obscured their view, so that they could not see how many of the adults in their world were in the grip of some vile sin or other, so that they could not even know the names of those sins, and were protected in their innocence from the knowledge of such things. It fell like rain, this thing we now toss aside and call hypocrisy; it screened from a child's view those things a child should not see, and draped them instead with gray fog and wet-washed pavement and strands of little diamonds so they should not know the meaning of words like adultery, divorce, sex, violence, abortion, infidelity, drugs, gangs, murder, rape, child abuse. It kept them from seeing or hearing or learning about these things when they were young, these words they can now hear on a single newscast.

I don't know what to call it, this thing that fell like rain. But I sometimes think it was mercy.

Devoutly to be wished

Could Catholic-Orthodox unity come about sooner than most people think? The Catholic Archbishop of Moscow is sanguine:

The Catholic Archbishop of Moscow has given a remarkably upbeat assessment of relations with the Orthodox Church, saying unity between Catholics and Orthodox could be achieved “within a few months.”

In an interview today in Italy’s Corriere della Sera newspaper, Archbishop Paolo Pezzi said the miracle of reunification “is possible, indeed it has never been so close.” The archbishop added that Catholic-Orthodox reunification, the end of the historic schism that has divided them for a millennium, and spiritual communion between the two churches “could happen soon, within a few months.”

“Basically we were united for a thousand years,” Archbishop Pezzi said. “Then for another thousand we were divided. Now the path to rapprochement is at its peak, and the third millennium of the Church could begin as a sign of unity.” He said there were “no formal obstacles” but that “everything depends on a real desire for communion.”

On the part of the Catholic Church, he added, “the desire is very much alive.”

Archbishop Pezzi, 49, whose proper title is Metropolitan Archbishop of the Mother of God Archdiocese in Moscow, said that now there are “no real obstacles” on the path towards full communion and reunification. On issues of modernity, Catholics and Orthodox Christians feel the same way, he said: “Nothing separates us on bioethics, the family, and the protection of life.”

Also on matters of doctrine, the two churches are essentially in agreement. “There remains the question of papal primacy,” Archbishop Pezzi acknowledged, “and this will be a concern at the next meeting of the Catholic-Orthodox Commission. But to me, it doesn’t seem impossible to reach an agreement.”

It is possible that Archbishop Pezzi is being a bit too hopeful; there is, after all, the difference between how Catholics and Orthodox view divorce, for one thing, and there are also differences on the ground in terms of how some Orthodox view the issue of artificial contraception--though, to be fair, many Catholics have work to do in terms of embracing and upholding this teaching as well. Still, it's rather nice to hear this view from Moscow on the subject of Catholic-Orthodox unity.

Imagine what could happen if Catholic and Orthodox were to reunite. Imagine the sort of Christian witness that could result from such a powerful sign of unity. It's more than something we ought to wish for; it's something we should pray for, all of us, on both sides of this sad historical divide.

UPDATE: More signs to watch?