Archive for October, 2014

Jack 2014Happy Halloween, all!

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NOTE: If you have not read part one, please do so.  If you would prefer to just read this post for now, I would ask that you bookmark part one and read it afterwards.  The two posts cannot be properly appreciated except when read as a whole, which is why I really wanted to confine the subject matter of both to one post.  Alas, it got too long for that.

Pope Paul VI

Let’s not even think about Humane Vitae without first understanding that this document does not exhaust Pope Paul VI’s legacy.  There was much to him that we have, by and large, forgotten, and I’ll name just a few things here:

1. He brought the use of the vernacular in the liturgy into the normal practice of the Church;

2.He was the first pope to address the United Nations, pleading for peace during the Vietnam War era;

3. He continued his predecessor’s legacy of fostering positive relationships of dialogue with non-Catholics, non-Christians, and all nations;

Papal Tiara4. In many ways, he prepared the way for Pope Francis in his “simplification” of the papacy…most notably by relinquishing the papal tiara, thereby expressing solidarity with the poor.

On that note, I am convinced that he also paved the way for Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body with Humanae Vitae.

For those who are unfamiliar with the document, Humanae Vitae deals with the topic of artificial contraception — birth control, in the vernacular.  Here we have a concrete example of how Paul VI stood up against the tides of modern times whilst knowing it would make him unpopular.  Contraception was, at that time, beginning to receive wider acceptance in Western culture.  And when Humanae Vitae was released, its teaching was widely dissented from and ignored…even by some bishops.

But I would challenge anyone who has not read the encyclical to sit down sometime and give it a careful, open-minded read.  Whatever one’s position on the use of birth control might be, s/he will not be able to read Humanae Vitae without being forced to admit something:

Just about all of the blesséd pontiff’s predictions regarding the effects of contraception have come true — most notably the breakdown of the family and the devaluation of women and their bodies.

He saw at the root of the problem an emerging cultural philosophy that viewed sexuality not as something sacred and beautiful, not as a generous act (in terms of being both a gift of self to another and a procreative activity), but as a vehicle for selfish pleasure.

I will conclude with the blesséd pontiff’s own words in order to reaffirm the point I made about him near the beginning of part one:

It is to be anticipated that perhaps not everyone will easily accept this particular teaching. (…) But it comes as no surprise to the Church that she, no less than her divine Founder, is destined to be a “sign of contradiction.” [Lk 2:34] She does not, because of this, evade the duty imposed on her of proclaiming humbly but firmly the entire moral law, both natural and evangelical.

Since the Church did not make either of these laws, she cannot be their arbiter—only their guardian and interpreter. It could never be right for her to declare lawful what is in fact unlawful, since that, by its very nature, is always opposed to the true good of man.

In preserving intact the whole moral law of marriage, the Church is convinced that she is contributing to the creation of a truly human civilization. She urges man not to betray his personal responsibilities by putting all his faith in technical expedients. In this way she defends the dignity of husband and wife. This course of action shows that the Church, loyal to the example and teaching of the divine Savior, is sincere and unselfish in her regard for men whom she strives to help even now during this earthly pilgrimage “to share God’s life as sons of the living God, the Father of all men.”

(Humanae Vitae, para. 18)

Paolo VI

Ora pro nobis, Beate Paulus Sixtus!

Images from Wikipedia

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Pope Paul VI“Oh, that pernicious pontiff, Pope Paul VI…that crotchety old man sitting on his comfy papal throne in Rome, with no family or romantic involvement, trying to tell us all how we should live our lives and what we should and shouldn’t do with our own bodies (perish the thought!). 

And to think: He had been present at the Second Vatican Council!  And yet there he was fighting to keep the Church in the dark ages!!!

“Sure, Pope Francis did beatify him last week…but I’m sure he was just trying to be nice.”

Without a doubt, some version of just such a diatribe is in the back of many people’s minds — even Catholics — when they hear the name of Pope Paul VI.  But now, we have a wonderful opportunity to reexamine the man and his legacy.

First of all, it is important to understand that he was a deeply compassionate man.  Far from being removed from the times, he made a point of becoming intimately familiar with the “signs of the times” and with the hopes, hurts, dreams, fears, and desires of the modern world…so much so that he traveled all around the world and became the first pope to visit all six populated continents, making him the most traveled pontiff in history up to that time.

We also need to remember that Blessed Paul VI came to the papacy at a time in which it was excruciatingly difficult to be pope.  The world and the Church were in turmoil.  Longstanding societal traditions and mores were being quickly and violently overturned.  Technological development was accelerating at an increasingly rapid pace, and the world was getting smaller as it took increasing steps toward globalization.  Western society, which had long sustained itself by an emphasis on family life and values, was now quickly shifting toward individual satisfaction (“If it feels good, do it”).

Pope John XXIII

Not to mention the fact that he succeeded the immensely popular and beloved Pope John XXIII, whose shoes it would be impossible to fill.


And yet he lovingly took upon himself the duties of the office and the unique challenges that faced his pontificate, entrusting himself always to the grace of God.  He saw the Barque of Peter (that is, the Catholic Church) going through a tempest, and he knew it was his responsibility to steer it safely through the stormy waters of the modern world.  So seriously did he take this duty that he laid down his life — a deed which can be done in more ways than one — for the People of God and for the whole world.

Whatever this meant for him personally, he knew this was a cross he had to bear.  The sufferings of the Church and of the modern world were to be his own sufferings, in the spirit of Christ.

Out of this came his most famous encyclical — one of the most hated, feared, and maligned documents of recent history: Humanae Vitae (Latin for “Of Human Life”).

We’ll explore this a little — as well as briefly glance at other important (if overlooked) aspects of Pope Paul VI’s legacy — in part two (which will be the final part).

Images from Wikipedia

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I’ve toyed with the idea of offering some explanations and reflections on the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which concluded earlier this week.  I’m glad I waited, though, because I think Fr. Barron does a better job 🙂

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Not a new film, but probably sufficiently little-known that it can stand a “spot.”


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For part one, click here

We took a look at E.T. as a healer, as well as at how he must suffer in order to heal others, in part one.  Now let’s take that a step further by pointing out that his stay on earth involves, at one and the same time, suffering and identification.

It is particularly in the case of Elliott that we see the latter.  By way of some strange psychic connection that develops between them, Elliott feels what E.T. feels, experiences what he experiences.  And we may reasonably suppose that the reverse is also true, though this is never made explicit in the film.

Christ_cleans_leper_manAnother vital aspect of Jesus and His mission now comes into the purview of our exploration.  Jesus became a human being, like us in all things except sin.  He didn’t just “put on a body;” He became one of us, identifying Himself with each and every person.

For that reason, I think it is very important that E.T.’s suffering and identification coincide.  After all, Christ’s identification with us includes identification with our sufferings — physical, psychological, emotional, and even spiritual (though again, without sin or its attendant disorders).

E.T. phone homeThen there is the film’s most famous phrase: “E.T. phone home” (I apologize that I could not find a picture of the phone scene).  E.T.’s yearning to contact the kin who left him behind, to return to his home planet, forms the central dramatic drive of the film.

Here we see yet another Christ-analogy.  While Jesus never gave any hint of wanting to “escape” this world or betrayed any “homesickness,” He did constantly make reference to His Father in Heaven, in Whose Bosom He had rested in perfect bliss from all eternity.  At various points throughout the Gospels, you can see Him seeking solitude and spending long periods of time in prayer, communing with the Father.

Agony in the GardenWe may not see anything of E.T.’s plight in these examples; but the closer Our Lord gets to Calvary, the greater the resemblance grows.  A key moment occurs in the Garden of Gethsemane (see Matthew 26: 36-46, Luke 22: 39-46), where the Author of Life begins to experience the desolation, pain, and darkness of death.  He Who had known only infinite goodness and life from all eternity was about to be plunged into our deepest darkness, our deepest pain, our deepest fear.  He Who was from all eternity the Only-Begotten was about to experience alienation from the Father on Calvary.

Not to knock E.T., but he doesn’t hold a candle to Christ on this one.  What is more, it is worth considering that E.T. gets stuck on this planet by accident, with no specific intentions with regard to humanity.  Jesus Christ knew what He was doing, and He did it for us — that’s how much, how profoundly, how unreservedly He loves each one of us.

And I think this is a good place for another break.  Thanks for reading.

Image from Wikipedia

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E_t_the_extra_terrestrial_ver3It is never a bad time to talk about the classics.  But especially around Halloween, it seems appropriate to touch on Steven Spielberg’s moving and timeless alien/family tale, “E.T. — The Extraterrestrial.”

It would not be fair to call “E.T.” a Christian parable.  It came, after all, from the imaginations of a Jewish director and a screenwriter (Melissa Mathison) who, if I’m not mistaken, leans more toward Buddhist spirituality (someone please correct me if I’m wrong about that).  But I think the very solid analogies you can find nonetheless demonstrate two things, both of which are far more interesting and significant than any explicit allegory:

  1. Jesus Christ has insinuated Himself irreversibly into the thoughts and imaginations of Western culture, so that even the secularist age in which we are living cannot entirely expunge His influence;
  2. Jesus is the Eternal Word, who speaks to the depths of all men’s hearts and, at times, even causes them to say something of Him in spite of themselves.

Okay, so let’s get started:

eliottsaygoodbye.jpgFirst, what do we think of when we hear any variant of the phrase “aliens come to earth?”

We think of an attack.  We think of monstrous or tyrannical beings who far surpass us in power and come to take over our lives and our world.

And yet when Elliott (Henry Thomas) and his family meet E.T., what do they find?  A gentle, vulnerable creature no bigger than a child, and with an abundantly kind heart.

Three MagiIn just such a way, the Divine came into the world.  Many of the pagan cultures of the ancient world generally believed that the gods were fierce, capricious, and cruel.  Even many Jewish people were expecting God’s Messiah to come as a mighty, avenging warrior who would destroy the enemies of Israel.

But when the Messiah — who was none other than God in the flesh — finally did come into the world, it was as a little baby — too weak even to lift His own head, and born into obscurity and poverty.  And ultimately, He was to reveal Himself as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

ET-flowerFrom there, we’ll go a step further and look at E.T. in his role as healer.  At numerous points throughout the film, we see him applying strange healing powers to things such as cuts and bruises, and even reviving a dying plant at one point.

What we notice, however, is that this seems to take something out of E.T. each time he does it.  He becomes weaker, sicker…almost as if he were drawing from the store of his own life to restore the health of other creatures.

AGN35544If we read the Gospels carefully, we will notice something similar in Christ’s healing ministry.  When we read of Him performing healing miracles, we also read that “the power went out of Him” (cf. Luke 8:46).  This indicates that when He cured illnesses, gave sight to the blind, drove demons out of people, etc., it cost Him something.  We can well imagine His disciples seeing this become more and more apparent as His ministry progressed, just as Elliott and his siblings see it progressively take hold of E.T.

Let’s take a break, and return to this exploration shortly.

Movie stills obtained through a Google image search; movie poster and other images obtained from Wikipedia

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For parts one through four, click here

Here it is at last.  Sorry it took so long, but I really wanted to post the reflections on my monastic retreat before concluding the “Boyhood” commentary.  In some ways it is fitting, since these reflections bear on what I want to say here.

boyhood_girlfriendRichard Linklater’s “Boyhood” ends on a hopeful, joyful note.  Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is settling in as a college freshman, and he meets a young lady named Nicole (Jessi Mechler) — who, presumably, is to become his girlfriend.

While the two of them are sitting under the desert sky in the evening, Nicole makes this comment:

You know how people are always telling you to seize the moment?  I think it’s more that the moment seizes you.

This is a very good insight — and, I think, not unrelated to the point made at the end of part four.  The human heart is made for God; therefore, in St. Augustine of Hippo’s immortal words, they are without rest until they find their rest in Him.

I’m not suggesting that this was necessarily what Nicole had in mind.  But, like many things in our experience, it is at least “getting at” a fundamental principle of reality.  Being sinners, we human beings have the tendency to “seize,” or “grasp.”  We are very possessive of what we have, and this includes ideas and aspirations as well as things.

Quite probably, this is, in part, why it is so much easier for us to turn to created things than to God.  Created things — even persons, to some extent — can be grasped, whether literally or metaphorically.  God cannot.  God’s nature is such that He can never be “had;” He can only be the “have-er.”

Peace and joy are not found in self-assertion or in grasping; rather, they are found in abandonment to God and His loving providence (there is a wonderful book by an eighteenth-century Jesuit priest on that subject, if you’re interested).

boyhood_graduationLet’s agree on something: Mason’s mom, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is absolutely right to value family, career, milestones, etc.  But these are not the end-all and be-all.  If we think they are, then we are imposing too heavy a burden upon them.  We are fostering expectations that they were never meant to meet.  And in the long run, this is no better for the health and integrity of these areas of life than valuing them too little (this is especially true, I would say, of family life).

I think part of the angst that both Olivia and Mason exhibit in the face of life’s questions stems from a sense of guilt — especially in Olivia’s case.  If the things she thought would make her happy turned out not to do so, then supposedly this means she failed.  Here we have another fatal error of the sinful, “grasping” ego: The idea that we are in charge of our lives and world.


The idea of surrendering our lives to Christ sounds like slavery, in the worst sense of the word, to our modern ears.  But Jesus Christ, in truth, takes nothing away from us (except sin, of course).  Rather, He has personally taken responsibility for our happiness, so that that burden need not rest on us (and I’m not just talking about mankind in general, but each person individually…including everyone reading this post right now).  Our duty is merely to love Him — and in Him, our fellow human beings — and seek His will for our lives.

Only when individuals and families learn to rest in the One who made us, subjecting all other things (including the family) to Him as the Center of our lives, will our lives, our homes, and our societies find peace.  Forgive me if my words seem harsh, but perhaps then our culture will be able to outgrow the prolonged adolescence — “boyhood,” if you will — in which it has lingered for some time.

First and last images from Wikipedia; remaining images obtained through a Google image search

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So I spent the weekend at a Trappist monastery a couple of weeks ago.  People have asked me how it went, and I think I’ve given in each case as good an answer as I could in the context of ordinary conversation.

The trouble is that it is difficult to describe the experience in terms of the usual categories — like nice, peaceful, insightful, etc.  If you want to really know how it went, I’ll have to go a little bit deeper.

Let me start by noting the challenge of it.  Yes, it was very nice to get away to a quiet place located in the midst of many, many acres of pure nature, away from the busyness of society, surrounded my an atmosphere of holy silence.  But I was determined to use this time not merely for relaxation, but for trying to get to better know God and His will for my life.

My approach entailed resisting the temptation to do anything I would normally do (yes, even quieter activities) during my spare time and, instead, giving myself over to prayerful silence.  So, how did I feel by the end of this adventure?

In a word, sad…very, very sad.

This is not to say I was depressed.  It was more like the sadness of the first week of school, or at a new job, or in a new house or community, or of any removal from the familiar to the unfamiliar: Part of you yearns to go back, but you know you can’t.  Even if you do go back, it won’t be the same.

Of course, this analogy is a broad one.  For me, this sadness came in the form of an acute awareness of not being ready for the life of heaven, and yet also that this world can offer no lasting happiness…that all the various forms of happiness in this passing world that, consciously or unconsciously, I thought I could count on (even as a devout Catholic), are in the last analysis truly illusory — not least of all because of their impermanence.

This is something I knew beforehand.  I’ve long had an intellectual understanding of it, and I have even “felt” it at times (though this did not necessarily incur sadness, but merely entailed an attempt to keep the right priorities in mind).

But…well, I think you know what I’m talking about.  It’s like the realization that we are all going to die at some point.  We know it intellectually, but there are those few times when it really hits us.

At such times, the deeper truth I am dealing with peeps through a little bit, like sunlight through a shuttered window.  But for the most part we, as a race, remain unaware of or inattentive to it.

I also became more acutely aware of the sadness of sin, without which none of humanity would ever have fallen prey to the sad situation alluded to above.  Any encounter with the Divine Physician must produce this awareness.  Yes, a physician heals; but he also diagnoses.  And he is not liked as much for the latter as for the former.

What was the “diagnosis,” precisely?  To put it crudely, I grew in my awareness that I have an itch too deep to scratch.  We all do.  All of our troubles — personal and collective — have their roots in this.

Original SinThe Catholic tradition wisely speaks of this in terms of Original Sin, which is devastating and universal.  True, the Sacrament of Baptism frees us from Original Sin; but it does not leave us unaffected by it.  Even the baptized have to struggle with the inclination toward sin, as well as with the various physical and psychological troubles that beset humanity and have their roots in our fallen nature.  Hence, the wound of original sin is not “un-felt.”

Here is something else I became conscious of: This wound is universal, but it is a wound that is in each case one’s own.  My woundedness is just that — my woundedness, and no one else’s.  No one can share my unique woundedness any more than anyone else’s birth can become my birth, or death become my death.

And so I came back to my home and my routine life, though not exactly to the same I had left behind (a bit like Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings,” for whom the Shire was not the same nor the wound he incurred fully healed).  I have to admit, this sense has worn off more than a little since I’ve gotten back into my prior routine.  So if I don’t seem any “different,” and if it seems like I have not exactly followed the piece of advice with which I end this post perfectly, it is my own fault, and the fault of my human weakness.  But the retreat has left an impression on me, and I feel that I have even more of an impetus than before to try and stay focused on what ultimately matters.

I will keep trying.  With God’s grace, I will succeed.

Lest you think I’m trying to depress you, I want to end with a couple notes of hope.  Not false or wishful hope, but the real, solid, and incomprehensible yet sure hope that God gives to us in His Son, Jesus Christ.  It is true that we are not meant for this world (that is, not insofar as our ultimate destiny is concerned).  Our consolation and joy lie beyond.  But our loving Lord, the Good Shepherd who will readily leave the 99 behind to find the one lost sheep, the One who bleeds and weeps with us, prepares for us a joy and a bliss that we cannot possibly comprehend.

He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away.” (Rev. 21:4)

Finally, as clichéd as this might sound, let us care for one another.  Let’s not allow the little annoyances and offenses of others to trouble us.  If only we knew how deeply wounded each and every person we meet is, we would not be so tempted to think ill of our fellow human beings.  And what is more, if we understand what is ultimately at stake for us, what do these annoyances and offenses really matter?

Thank you for reading, and sorry if this was a bit long.  May God reward you for your patience.

Image from Wikipedia


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Tomorrow, For Sure…

My reflections on the monastic retreat I made a couple weeks back have been, I admit, in the works for too long.  But I can honestly say at this point that they will be ready tomorrow.  I just have a little bit of tweaking left to do, and then the post is done.

Fair warning: It is a little long-ish — about two pages on a Microsoft Word document.  But I could not really communicate the depth of the experience in less than that, so I do hope you will bear with me.

May God reward you for being patient with me 🙂

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