Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Doing versus Being

Friday, July 18th, 2014

One of my very favorite stories from the four Gospels is the one recounted in the 10th Chapter of Luke where Jesus – during his public ministry when passing through town of Bethany – stops in to visit his good friends Lazarus, Mary and Martha. A familiar story to most Christians, Luke records in the Gospel not only Jesus’ visit to his friend’s home, but more particularly the activities that the two women of the household engaged in while Jesus is there to visit. Martha – whose last name was not “Stewart” but may as well have been – was busy rushing about the house preparing to entertain the Lord and his disciples, while her sister Mary sat quietly at Jesus’ feet listening to what the Lord had to say…that is of course until Martha – doubtlessly exasperated by what she I’m sure thought was her sister’s lack of consideration if not downright laziness – approached the Lord asking him to admonish her sister and encourage her to help in the preparations. In response, Jesus – whom never ceased or for that matter ceases to surprise us with his answers – instead flips the situation around and points out to Martha how her preoccupations had blinded her to that which was really important, chiding her by saying: “Martha…Martha…you are worried and upset about many thing ….Mary has chosen what is better…”

I love the humanity that Jesus shows to Martha in his gentle chastisement regarding her complaints about her sister – even Luke’s sequential usage of Martha’s name twice in a row by Jesus demonstrates – I think – how very fond Jesus was of Martha and her whole family (remember that it was upon the death of Mary and Martha’s brother Lazarus that John in his Gospel records that Jesus himself wept so that the people witnessing it responded by saying: “See how he loved him”). In his gentle chastisement of his friend Martha, Jesus is reminding her that as we live our lives our responsibilities are numerous, but that when evaluated in the light of comparison to eternal thing, those things that once seemed so important begin to pale.

To be honest, another reason that I am fond of the story of Martha and Mary – and the gentleness of Jesus’ admonishment of his friend – is that I can absolutely see myself in both characters: sometimes I am Mary – choosing the “better way”, but I am as often as not Martha – keeping busy “about many things” but totally missing the boat!

Now I’m just about certain that neither Martha nor Mary were bloggers back in early 1st Century Palestine (although what they are up to in Heaven right now I cannot say!)…I am , however, a blogger… and sadly over the past few months I have been “busy about many things” and have not kept up with my postings on here the way I should, and for this I apologize. Like Martha, some of those things that I have been busy with were pretty important, and some, not so much…although in retrospect, the stuff we think is important going forward often turns out to not be so essential, while some of what we thought was not so important turns out – in that light of comparison to eternal things – to be pretty darn essential. Such as it was, some of what I spent my time on these past few months – at least on the weekends – was going to the movies: a  pretty frivolous pastime if you could ever think of one.. but a pastime that in retrospect is not engaged in without gaining some insights. So it was with several of the movies that I had the pleasure of seeing these past few months, and most particularly one I’d like to share some insights gained with you today, that being the live-action Disney re-boot of their animated classic Sleeping Beauty as told from the perspective of that stories villainess: Maleficent.

Spoiler Alert Ahead: I’m going to be discussing some details of the film Maleficent, so if you have not seen it yet but are intending too, please stop here – go see the film – and finish reading after…

Wonderfully acted by the beautiful and talented Angelina Jolie, the film is a re-casting of the cinematic life of a character that had previously been seen as the most-wicked of the plethora of villains in all the Disney cannon. In this re-cast, Maleficent is portrayed not as being wicked through and through, but instead as a person shaped by the circumstance of her own life and history: beginning as an innocent and orphaned child, she is betrayed and physically violated by one whom she trusts and loves, and in response becomes embittered and vengeful, seeking to overpower and vanquish her victimizer by any means necessary – even if those means entail the suffering of the innocent. It is only later in the story – when she is touched by true love and responds in kind – that Maleficent is restored to the person she was at the beginning of her journey: one who loves and, in turn, is loved back.

The film came out to great fan-fare; it was seen by some as a feminist retelling of the classic Disney fairy tale: portraying a powerful woman, strong in her own right, who fights back against the men that have violated her and those whom she cares for, and wins. Still others lamented this retelling as an “un-doing” of the classic villain of yesteryear – vicious, sadistic, elemental, unrelenting and irredeemably wicked.

There is perhaps something to be said for both these perspectives I suppose… I myself must confess that as a younger person I too liked that “good guy / bad guy” dichotomy:  a big fan of the original Star Wars trilogy, I liked knowing “who was who” – good guys wore white, and the bad guys wore black.. you knew who to root for, and at the end of the day you knew intuitively that the good guys would prevail. It was all very clear, very satisfying, very simple.

Today my view of things is a bit more nuanced…I don’t like the good guys versus bad guys dichotomy so much anymore…and that’s not because I don’t think that there is real evil in the world. As even a cursory examination of the day’s news will demonstrate, evil lies all around us: on the borders between the Ukraine and Russia, Israel and Gaza, our own southwest and Mexico, and we are no more immune from evil’s effects within our borders as evidenced by the tragedy of hatred between religions, ethnicities social classes, and neighbors, believers and unbelievers, and even within our own families  …sadly, evil is very real.

But as I have grown older and – hopefully – wiser, I have come to see evil less as something that people ARE, and more as something that people DO. Jesus of course knew this: with His vision for the eternal He saw beyond people’s immediate acts into their souls; He was able to offer forgiveness to others – even to His persecutors and crucifiers – recognizing their dignity as children of God despite their terrible acts. I think that Pope Francis recognizes this to, with his beautiful metaphor for the Church as a “field hospital”, dispensing those powerful antidotes for hate:  mercy towards all, and forgiveness for all those who seek it.

Perhaps this is why Maleficent resonated so strongly with me, telling a fairy tale where victory consists not so much in lopping off the monster’s head as much as “getting into it” with the curative power of love  – opening up the monster’s heart, rather than cutting it out.

 

Pollyannaish? …maybe….naive?…perhaps… But in an ever diversifying world where our differences from one another become more pronounced by the day we need to learn new ways of communicating across our varieties, a new way of seeing one another not as enemies or opponents, but as brothers and sisters and all children of God. This does not mean that some of us will not “Do” evil – we know that this side of the Second Coming we are all capable of evil acts, but we must try to remember that no one of us is beyond the redeeming power of forgiveness, or the converting power of mercy.

I’d like to close as I began, with reflection on a movie: a powerful one – one of my all-time favorites – Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 classic “Gandhi about the life of the father of modern India,   Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Near the films ending, Gandhi – great practitioner of non-violence that he was and no stranger to violence and confrontation himself – cautions those to whom he is speaking that the only place in the world where “evil” was running about was “is in our own hearts”, concluding that it was there – in our own hearts – where all our battles against evil ought to be fought. This might have been an apocryphal statement on the film-maker’s part attributed to the Mahatma… I am not sure. But to me – even if it was – it provides sage advice still.

 

A Quandary at Christmastime: So what did Jesus really look like?

Monday, December 30th, 2013

 

Depending upon your opinion of – or comfort with – online communications, Facebook can either be heralded as a new-fangled version of the old double-hung door where acquaintances can electronically visit with one another and keep up, or it functions more like a harbinger of the upcoming zombie apocalypse: mesmerizing vast swaths us into a digitalized stupor which passes for today’s version of the proverbial bread and circuses which preceded the fall of the Roman Empire. For me, the social utility serves more as the former than a launch pad for Armageddon – it’s a great way to keep up with far away friends, to share photos as well as a few laughs along the way. I have also come to find it a pretty accurate social barometer of the mood of the particular moment, doing a far better job at predicting things to come in the cultural sphere then the folks on television and radio do as regards the upcoming weather (apologies to all my meteorologist friends out there).

 A recent example on Facebook serves as a pretty good case in point for this: a few weeks ago, I was scrolling through comments on my Facebook newsfeed, when I noticed that a friend of mine had put something on his personal page regarding the physical appearance of the historical Jesus. On his post, my friend – who was born in New Jersey but is of South Asian descent – had typed the statement: “Yay- Jesus looked exactly like me!” beneath the visage of a strongly built, dark-eyed man with thick features, short dark, wavy hair and a heavy black moustache and beard. The image my friend was commenting upon is a relatively famous one which was created now over a decade ago by Richard Neave, a retired medical artist from Manchester, England, who used his professional skills in forensic medicine – as well as cultural and archeological data – to develop an artistic representation of what a typical 30 year old Galilean Semitic male would have looked like at the beginning of the Christian era 2,000 years ago. What emerges from Neave’s interpretation – which he readily admits is not a “re-creation” of Jesus’ actual face as much as it’s a re-creation of what a young male face might look like for those who were born and lived in the same time and region as Jesus himself – is decidedly darker and swarthier then the standard version of what is possibly the most famous image in human history with its long, flowing light brown hair, fair skin and Caribbean blue eyes.     

Beneath the photo and my friend’s statement, many of his Facebook friends had jumped onto the band-wagon, echoing their delight that the Jesus of history had “looked like them” too – darker complexioned like my friend – many of them being South Asian, Middle Eastern or Latino. Now, I am not one of those people who feel the need to compulsively comment on all of my friends’ Facebook posts, and while I do make it a habit to generally keep abreast of what my friends put up on-line, I try as best I can not to add my own two-cents unless I have something substantive to say. And while I was aware that the originator of the photograph never intended his work to be taken as a literal depiction of the actual face of Christ, as a “justice and peace guy” it is my practice to never unnecessarily create a controversy if I can help it…especially if – please pardon the very bad pun here – I have no skin in the game. So when it came time to add my contribution to my friend’s online conversation, I took note that while I could not vouch for what the historical Jesus actually looked like as a grown man, I could venture a guess that most probably, as a child, He – much I’m sure to the chagrin of my Irish Catholic grandmothers – almost certainly DID NOT have the blond hair, fair skin and blue eyes that I had as a child, regardless of how he is depicted on the many store-bought Christmas cards exchanged at this time of year.

I would have completely forgotten about this internet exchange on my friend’s Facebook wall we’re it not for the fact that no more than one week later, the cable-news networks and  blogsphere experienced a near nuclear meltdown when media personality Megyn Kelly – on the December 10th episode of her nightly news program “The Kelly Report” - made a remark in response to an article in Slate magazine regarding the desirability of a more racially diverse depiction of Santa Claus in the popular culture. Addressing this suggestion, Kelly asserted that not only was Santa Claus “just white” – but that Jesus Christ was too! Predictably, both the internet and the late-night talk shows exploded in response, the discussion running the gamut from ridicule to condemnation. For her part – in response – Kelly acknowledged that since the controversy took hold, she had learned that the question of Jesus’ actual skin color was “far from settled”, and went on to claim that the segment itself was “tongue-in-cheek” and just an attempt at humor, and that the entire episode “would be funny if it were not so telling about our society”, ending her comments by casting herself as the most recent casualty in this proxy battle of the ongoing “war on Christmas – the irony that this entire affair was occasioned by preparation for the birth of a child that we have come to refer to as the “Prince of Peace” seemingly having been lost on just about everyone on both sides of this “battle-line”.

So much has already been written about Kelly’s unfortunate comments as well as the responses to them that I feel I have little myself to add except to say that I do wish that she had not felt the need to conscript Our Lord and Savior into her defense of a particular ethnography for Santa Claus. That stated, I do think that in her defense of her comments, Kelly was onto something when she said that the entire affair was very “telling about our society” – although I suspect that the insights I have gleaned from these events differ significantly from those that Kelly might hold. What strikes me as particularly interesting – incredible in fact – is that from Facebook to the cable-news networks this entire controversy was premised on the actual, physical appearance of Jesus (and for that matter, Santa too): his skin color, his eye color, the texture of his hair, all attributes that the original sources of our information about Jesus – the Gospels, the Letters of Saint Paul -are conspicuously silent on. Having – to our present day knowledge – never sat for a physical portrait during His lifetime and based on the original texts and sources, the best that we can EVER get at what Jesus (and in fact, most of the figures of the Bible for that matter) looked like when He walked the Earth is an interpretation through the eyes of artists – from the baby in the manger up through His Resurrection.

I don’t think that this silence on the part of the Gospel text as to Jesus’ physical appearance was an oversight on the Evangelists part: no, in fact, I think this was a way to show that Jesus did not come just to redeem a particular people, but instead that His redeeming mission was for the benefit of all human-kind.  In fact, I’m sure of this: my certainty based in the words of Jesus Himself in the Gospel of Saint Matthew. While the Gospels themselves are silent as to WHAT Jesus physically looked like, they are equally clear about WHOM Jesus looks like. In response to the question of: “When did we see you Lord?”, Jesus reminds us that He is made visible in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the ill and the imprisoned. If we want to see Jesus – to really see Jesus – we need not only look at the figurines of the precious child in the manger in the beautiful Nativities that sit beneath the Christmas trees in our homes and the alters of our Churches, but also at the often confused, unwashed and unkempt men and women whom we encounter on the streets on our way to and from those places.

This kind of active “seeing” is never easy, as most residents of major metropolises will tell you – the goal of navigating a city street is to arrive quickly at your appointed rounds and avoid eye contact, limiting your vision to notice only those things essential to the accomplishment of your purposes. In advocating that we embrace a more engaged kind of “seeing”, I put myself first on the list of those who need to do a better job; for you see – right before Christmas this year – I am pretty sure that I did encounter Jesus Himself, although I am not particularly proud of my response to Him. I was busy running one of the million errands which we all do on the run-up to Christmas Day, and I was rushing to the post office right before it closed. As I scurried to slip into the entrance before staff locked it, a short, stocky figure who looked to be in her mid-thirties appeared in my path. It was a particularly cold day, and I remember that she was inappropriately dressed in wearing just a beat-up looking spring jacket over a stained velour jogging suit, as she turned her large, dark eyes towards me and began to speak:  Excuse me sir…” In response, I quickly apologized that I had no change on me, and rushed past her into the revolving doors, but not before hearing her pleading response to my pre-emptive:  “That’s not what I was going to ask you…”

Her words stayed with me as I strode up the escalator, proceeded to the Post Office window, mailed my parcels, and got some cash out of the ATM machine. Once downstairs and back outside, I searched for her up and down the block, eager to share with her some of the cash that I had just taken out of the machine so she could get something to eat, something better to wear against the cold, to find out what it was that she wanted to ask me – but she was gone. Giving up my search, I closed my eyes and asked for forgiveness, hoping that when my time on Earth is done, and when I meet that woman again at the Gates of Heaven as I am sure I will, that she takes the time that I did not to hear my requests, and have mercy upon me.

It’s funny, but while we all may want a Jesus who looks like us – acts like us - IS like us, perhaps WE NEED a Jesus who is none of those things, a Jesus who will challenge us to do better both at Christmastime and throughout the coming year as we strive to help build His Kingdom here on Earth as it is in Heaven…

A Blessed Season of Christmas to you all, and God’s Blessings in the New Year.                                                                  

Pace e Bene ..e Grazie!

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

 

As a very occasional blogger, it has occurred to me that I have at times used this space as a sort of rant: a veritable digital soapbox where I can electronically shake my fist at “the powers that be” over the injustices that still too often plague our globe. While I still I do think that it is the duty of concerned Catholics to raise our voices – digital and otherwise – out of concern for the unfairness of this world – and especially for those on the margins – at this particular time of year I also believe that we should recall, and be grateful for, the many good things that we have in our lives. One particular perk that I’d like to give special thanks for is one I enjoy as a benefit of working in for the Justice and Peace ministry here at Catholic Charities: all of the great invitations I receive to some pretty wonderful events. There is one in particular I’d love to share a bit about that was held this past Monday evening.

As a result of the generosity of the Archdiocesan Office of Black Ministries, and the Pierre Toussaint Scholarship Fund here at the Archdiocese, as well as the group Allied Faith and Family and the Weinstein Group- – I had the opportunity to attend a private screening of the new movie: “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, which is not scheduled for general release until this coming Friday. The film itself was extraordinary, detailing the events from the equally extraordinary life of President Nelson Mandela of South Africa, from roughly the beginning of his public life up through his long imprisonment by South African authorities for his work in opposition to that government’s Apartheid system of racial discrimination, to his release and eventual election to the presidency of that country after its first multi-racial free election. The picture, adapted from Mandela’s own autobiography, is beautifully filmed with wonderful vistas of the African countryside featured prominently, and the subject matters that the movie touches upon – from repression to liberation to imprisonment and eventually to triumph – are profound enough to, I think, eventually have it regarded as an epic film. It is the personal portrait that it paints of President Mandela and his struggles with the leadership of the African National Congress and the Anti-Apartheid movement, however that I think are particularly noteworthy. Often times at the conclusion of a particularly great leader’s life, accounts of their deeds are recalled in a haliographic fashion, where these great men – and of course women – seem to trod among ordinary mortals, ever assured of their convictions and ever triumphant in their efforts.  This movie suffers from little of that: growing out of a hatred of the way that native South African people were treated in their own country, it shows Mandela early on as a man of justice who – despite his flaws and very human defects – undertakes a lifelong crusade to end the racially discriminatory practices of his country by using any means necessary, up to and including violence.  It is only later on -during and after his 27 year imprisonment for his anti-apartheid politics where he loses just about everything meaningful in his life: his possessions, his family, even his limited freedom – that we witness President Mandela begin to change. Never giving up on the belief in the his own dignity and the dignity of his own people, Mandela  gradually comes to realize that for all their power, his white oppressors lived in perpetual fear of their own minority status – their own ultimate powerlessness – and that it was from that fear that all of their actions were twisted into the atrocity that was Apartheid. It was during this period that Mandela’s struggle became about more than just opposing white rule, and grew to be about affirming the human dignity of all. So much so that after his release from prison – when the country was on the brink of violent revolution – Mandela risked his reputation and leadership of the anti-apartheid cause, and the respect of his own wife, to appear on television to address his nation, declaring his forgiveness of those who had imprisoned and taken so much from him. His actions that night have been credited by many for helping South Africa to avoid a violent, racially polarized civil war, and to helping that wounded nation move toward a racially integrated healing.  It is through such actions that President Mandela became more than just a man of justice for his people, but became equally a man of forgiveness and, ultimately – a man of peace. Thankfully despite recent illnesses, President Mandela’s long life and example on this Earth is – as of this writing – not yet completed, but certainly the people of South Africa – and the entire world – should be grateful for the extraordinary example that his life is to all of us.

On the ride home in the cab that night – contemplating the movie that I just saw – I began to reflect on the incredible leadership President Mandela has given the world, and how lucky we are to still have him with us. I recalled many conversations I’ve had over the past couple years about Nelson Mandela, and what his life and example have meant for the world, and how often those same conversations had ended in lamentation over the dearth of world leaders today who demonstrate the moral courage, growth and gravitas that a President Mandela did. Smiling to myself, I recalled that I often would join in that same lamentation too – but no more! I strongly believe – as the old cliché goes –that “there’s a new sheriff in town”  -  or,  in this case, on the world stage – who possesses some of the self-same “gravitas” that Mandela does, and – just as the old cliché goes as well – he too wears a white outfit…but it is there the analogy stops. The person I am thinking of definitely does not carry – or even possess I’m sure – a Colt 45 and a round of silver bullets, and he is not a fictional hero come on the scene to save the day. Instead, he is a very flesh and blood septuagenarian who goes by the name of Francis.

There has already been plenty of ink spilled across newsprint – and bytes expended on the blogosphere – about our Pope Francis: about what kind of Pope he is, and about what his Papacy will mean to the Church and the world. I don’t intend to render my opinion here regarding these matters. Instead would like to share with you just a bit of why Pope Francis moves me as a leader, and why I count his leadership of our Church as one of the particular things I am most grateful for in this season of thanksgiving.

A man of justice, from the very beginning of his papacy less than one year ago – when he announced the choice of his new name as the same as the “little poor man of Assisi” – Pope Francis has bound together the work of the Church with particular care and concern for the poor and suffering of this world, to the point that – in the birthplace of Saint Francis on his Feast Day this past October – he stated his desire that the Church truly be a “Church of the Poor”. A man of forgiveness, Pope Francis just concluded the Year of Faith this past weekend on the Feast of Christ the King by recalling the passage in Luke’s Gospel, where Jesus – hanging on the cross – addresses the Good Thief with words of forgiveness and not condemnation. Pope Francis reminds listeners that: “whenever anyone finds the courage to ask forgiveness, the Lord does not let such a petition go unheard.” A man of peace, it should be remembered that back in early September, in the wake of the atrocity of the Syrian government’s almost certain use of chemical weapons against its own people – when a military intervention by the United States in the civil war there was almost certain – it was Pope Francis who – while denouncing Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons – was almost alone among the world’s leaders who drew attention to the question of whether military intervention would have a plausible chance of improving the lives of those in peril,  as well as advancing the security of those who would “go to war in the name of peace”. In response to the proposed military intervention, it was Francis who called the world to a day of fasting and prayer for peace in Syria and the Middle East. While it is scientifically difficult to measure the efficacy of prayer, we should recall that it was only AFTER that day of prayer and fasting – as well as AFTER Secretary of State John Kerry’s off the cuff remark that a U.S. military response could be avoided if Syria agreed to open its chemical weapons program to international to oversight and eventful destruction – that a diplomatic solution to the crisis was considered and ultimately pursued. If as they say, the “devil is in the details” in this case – on this particular occasion – it seems that the Holy Spirit was in the gaff!             

One a politician, the other a pastor: yet both men of justice, of forgiveness of peace. There is much in our world that we have to be grateful for, and certainly such witness to our Gospel values should be included among those things. During his lifetime, Saint Francis of Assisi was known for greeting all he encountered with the expression “Pace e Bene!” or – in English – “Peace and all Good!”. Now I am not one to try to “one-up” great Saints, but on this one occasion if you will allow me permission, I’d like offer up “Pace e Bene e Grazie” – peace and good and thanks – for these two great men, and wish you and yours every blessing for a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Not such strange bedfellows after all…

Thursday, February 7th, 2013

Recently while having a conversation with a friend over dinner – where I had asked my friend what the topic of discussion was at a cocktail party he had recently attended – we both began to bemoan the perfunctory “first question” that gets thrown at everyone once initial introductions are through: the ubiquitous “What do you DO”…my friend went on to detail that he found such talk both uninteresting and honestly invasive; while I, on the other hand, find these questions challenging and difficult to answer. You would too if your official job title was both as expansive and non-descript as “Justice and Peace Coordinator”, and – upon giving your answer – you often find yourself met with either quizzical gazes or looks of complete non-comprehension! I have learned over the years that rather than go through an exhaustive recitation of my job description only to watch my conversation partner’s eyes gloss over and approach a R.E.M. stage of consciousness, I concentrate instead on talking about one or several particular “hats” that I wear as part on my job responsibilities. In an effort to retain the listeners’ interest – and not bore them completely out of their skulls – I often begin with one of what could arguably be called the “cooler” (“cool” as in “neato,” not in temperature!) aspects of my job, that of Producer of Msgr. Kevin Sullivan’s satellite radio showJustLove on the social mission of the Church, which airs weekly on Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. Eastern standard time on Sirius/ XM’s “The Catholic Channel” 129. Because we record the show live at the Sirius/XM studios in midtown Manhattan, during our comings and goings – in the elevators, lobbies and hallways – we frequently have official and would-be “celebrity sightings”: a “who’s who “of musicians, singers, television, radio and motion picture personalities – a veritable smorgasbord of the famous, and in some cases infamous, which makes great fodder for cocktail party talk – certainly more conventionally interesting then some of the teaching, convening and public policy aspects of my job might be for many.

 

This “celebrity-centric” wrinkle in my week is entirely by happen-stance and due primarily to the function of the famous real-estate mantra “location, location, location”; it has little to do with the actual work that I do, and the two experiences seldom intersect…..however, when they do – it makes for some fascinating encounters (at least to me!). Recently in fact, while I was leaving the studio to accompany a guest downstairs, I had a particularly interesting run-in that I would like to share with you readers. As I walked down the corridor towards the lobby to meet the guest for that particular show (in the interest of honesty, I was actually coming from the restroom), I came upon our guest engaged in deep conversation with a woman whom I would describe as well- if provocatively – dressed, but for the fact that she was standing in the public area of the studio in her stocking feet. As I approached our guest and his conversation partner, it occurred to me that I had seen this particular woman before – never in person mind you, but many, many times on the television. I approached our guest and stood beside him, entering into the general sphere of their conversation – certainly close enough to hear. Prior to my approach, our guest had been discussing his appearance on the show with the woman; he explained – at her request – that he had been on the air speaking about the response that the local Catholic Charities agency in the Bridgeport Diocese had made to the families of the children whose lives were taken in that horrific episode of gun violence that had only taken place weeks earlier up in Newtown, Connecticut. Our guest’s famous conversation partner shook her head upon hearing upon this, and asked then what show and station he had been speaking on; when our guest announced “The Catholic Channel” the woman looked hard at him, leaned in close, and whispered into his ear in a manner which I was unable to hear. When she straitened up again, our guest then answered her that he personally believed that “human life began at conception”, and thought that while he could understand the concerns of a woman facing a crisis pregnancy, he himself felt that the prevalence of legalized abortion in our society was a terrible tragedy just the same. The woman then pondered a moment, and said that she felt very much the same way; she then stated that – although not Catholic – prior to her current career in entertainment she had been a registered nurse, and it was this experience in the medical field that had helped her to form her positions on the morality of abortion. It was at this point that I suppose she became aware of my presence, for she quickly turned to face me and asked quite curtly “who” I was; I answered that I was the producer of the show that our guest had appeared on. At this point, she then addressed both our guest and myself, and asked us to please not share her identity or opinion on abortion publically, lest it effect her popularity – that her agent, label and publicity managers would scream at her if they ever found out; we both in response stated that we would respect her request. It was then that her entourage – coat and boots and bags in hand – quickly whisk her out of the studio and onto a waiting elevator, which our guest and I also entered. On the ride down to the lobby – while our famous fellow elevator passenger was busy putting on her coat and boots with the assistance of three of her handlers – I undertook a quiet conversation with our guest about his performance during the show. Immediately, our famous friend turned and loudly inquired in an angry tone whether we were “talking about her”, to which our guest replied with a smile, “No – but we will later”….the tension was then only broken when he and I began to laugh in a mischievous way, and she – relieved – laughed too.

 

This certainly was one of the more unusual “celebrity close encounters” I have ever had over at the studio – as much for the seriousness of the conversation as for the intimacy of the encounter. But what stayed with me the most I think from the discussion was both this woman’s fear – paranoia almost – of disclosure of her opinion regarding abortion. In reflection, I suppose that the fact that her work is now located within the entertainment industry, any disclosure of an opinion that may be out of line with what could arguably be called the “liberal” cannon – legal abortion without restriction included – might indeed be met with severe repercussions which could affect her career and lifestyle. I guess there really in something to that saying “location, location, location”…in a similar way, later that day, another insight struck me in contemplation of the topic of the day’s radio program: efforts at addressing the epidemic of gun violence in our country. During the show, while recounting some of the week’s “Catholic news”, I had reported that Bishop Stephen Blaire – Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development had signed onto a letter – with almost 50 other religious leaders from both Catholic, and other Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faith traditions – asking that Congress take action against the sale and use of assault weapons through such measures as mandating criminal background checks prior to gun purchases and making gun trafficking a Federal crime; measures which – according to most opinion polls – the public supports, and to which the National Rifle Association – a gun-rights organization considered by many to be the most powerful lobbying group in the country – had just that week given testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee opposing. Because of the NRA’s perceived power – as well as the its famous ability to deliver single-issue anti-gun control voters in an election – many legislators are fearful to speak up in favor of gun-control legislation even if they may personally support such measures out of a concern that disclosing an opinion which might be out of line with what could arguably be called the “conservative cannon” could have severe consequences for their careers, and the lifestyles that it affords.

 

There are two things that I find particularly interesting about all of this – the first is that – despite the fact that each of the positions described above seem to originate at diametrically opposite ends of the political/ cultural spectrum -there are, to my mind, several fascinating parallels between the gun rights lobby and the supporters of legalized abortion – and I am not the only one to notice this. Both groups are organized to support the individual rights upheld by the United States Supreme Court – the freedom to own a gun, and the freedom to have an abortion. Both are concerned that the Supreme Court rulings that underlie their positions – the Heller decision for gun rights advocates, and for abortion supporters Roe v Wade  -though expansive are inadequate to protect their positions, and both will brook no dissent to their maximalist approach to gun rights or abortion: to the NRA, any ban on a certain type of gun immediately translates to Federal forces coming to your home to confiscate your guns, to abortion supporters – despite the once stated goal of making abortion safe, legal and rare – any restriction on abortion is seen as an “evisceration”. Even more so, what is needed is an expansion of abortion rights; this in a state where almost four out of every ten pregnancies ends in abortion.

The other thing that I find particularly interesting – although I am certainly not surprised by it – is the Church’s response to both guns and abortion. Instead of concentrating primarily on the “individual rights” involved in either owning a gun or obtaining an abortion, Catholic social teaching starts off instead by asking what kind of a society we want to live in and create: one in which autonomous individuals – often out of fright or perceived lack of alternatives – use their “rights” to protect their lives – as they see it – against “strangers” whom they perceived as potential threats, or instead one where such fear is met with alternatives – a net of social support which seeks to ratchet down potential violence before it erupts. In Catholic social teaching, such an approach – one where both the “lives” that people live, as well as human “life” itself matter immeasurably – is called pursuing a “Culture of Life”, and it is what we as Catholics are called to do.

Now, of course, according to classical moral analysis in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, support for gun-rights– even the right to own an assault weapon – must be looked at very differently from obtaining an abortion: abortion in Catholic teaching is the intentional taking of an innocent human life and therefore always intrinsically evil, whereas simple gun ownership is not. As it is often said:  guns don’t kill people, people kill people. But this statement – while true – ignores the fact that with gun violence, people can’t kill people with guns unless they can get them. Will measures like these prevent every incidence of gun violence? The answer to this is of course no, but even if such measures prevent a few deaths like the ones experienced in the terrible tragedies this year in Aurora, Colorado and Newtown , Connecticut, they will be well worth the effort of pursuing…and while the numbers killed in gun violence – over 31,000 in America in 2010 – does pale in comparison to the 55 million lost to abortion since 1973, it is clear – at least to this Christian conscience – that something can and must be done to address both of these tragic figures.

It has been said that “politics makes strange bedfellows”…it’s my hope that in the pursuit of an authentic “culture of life”, we as a nation can begin to address every threat to human life and dignity across the board, and make such a stance not that strange after all.

A Cry of Why at Christmas

Saturday, December 22nd, 2012

Earlier this week – in the midst of the rush that I think we are all feeling as we quickly approach the 25th Day of December – I received a phone message at the Office from my Mom that my cousin –my Dad’s sister’s daughter, who lives in Florida with her husband and four beautiful children – was flying in, and would be arriving in the area later that day. Ordinarily, this news would have significantly brightened my day: my Mom being an only child, while growing up our family spent a significant amount of time with my Dad’s extended family – he, his sister (my aunt), my uncles, and their respective spouses and children (my cousins). This was particularly true at holidays, and news that my cousin – whom distance prevents us from seeing each other as often as we would wish –was in from Florida would ordinarily be cause for great rejoicing! I was confused though because as I stated earlier, my cousin is married and has four children aged from the early teens on down; why would she be coming into New York to spend the holidays without her family? It was only when I returned my Mother’s call that I then learned the sad truth that lay   behind my cousin’s journey: she was flying up to attend a funeral – one which took place yesterday at Saint Rose of Lima Catholic Church in her hometown of Newtown, Connecticut, where members of that stricken community gathered to lay to rest the six year old daughter of a young man that my cousin had attended Immaculate High School with in Danbury with back in the early 1990s.

 

A week has passed since the tragic events that took place at the Sandy Hook Grammar School in Newtown – where 26 people – 20 of whom were beautiful, innocent children of the tender age of seven or under – lost their lives at the hands of deeply disturbed young man armed with several assault rifles and automatic weapons. I frankly still am having a difficult time wrapping my head around this event – particularly since it occurred in a place I am so familiar with, a place that my Aunt, and Uncle and cousins called home, a place that I associate with family and all the warm feelings that accompany that word. That it occurred in a part of our country which had already sustained an additional violent – although this time, natural – assault from an another phenomenon named “Sandy” – not even a fortnight before the celebration of Christmas – has left me in a distinctly un-holiday like mood. For me generally this time of year is almost always filled with anticipation, and wonder, warmth and joy; this year, I honestly feel something between sadness and numb…and I know from speaking with others this week that in this feeling, I am not alone.

 

I will not be putting up a tree in my apartment this year…first year that I’ve been on my own that I haven’t done so. When I go home tonight,  I will however be putting up my crèche.  It is a pretty simple one, one that I first bought when I moved here to the city.  It’s pretty heavy – made of pewter I think – and although it is made of metal it is not at all shiny. It consists of a contemporary  representation of the Holy Family – Saint Joseph standing watch over his family with his staff, a kneeling Mary cradling the infant Jesus in her arms, a tiny lamb at her side – all three gathered under an arch which is crowned with a star, and an angel a-flight. I will be putting up my crèche tonight to remind me that over 2,000 years ago – in a tiny village in a back-water part of Palestine far from the center of anything – that love entered the world and took flesh….that hope itself was born.

 

For we Christians of course, that event changed EVERYTHING: in the Incarnation the Infinite became finite in order to teach us how to live, and show us how to love. And yet despite this positive spiritual epochal change, for those living in THAT place, at THAT time – very little became demonstrably better. In fact – in the short term – it actually became considerably worse – especially for the families living in and around Bethlehem.

 

It’s funny, but often times our recollection of the Christmas story is a very sanitized version: one where the Holy Family is resting warm and comfortably enclosed in a seemingly clean stable, being given fabulous presents from well dressed kings. Gone from this retelling is the distraught young couple – she in hard labor, he panicked to find his wife a place to deliver – being turned away by harsh, uncaring faces, the filthy conditions that certainly a place animals were kept would have necessarily contained, and of course the danger – so grave that the young family has to literally flee to another nation to seek safety: a condition that today would see them meet the legal definition of refugees. We should not forget that one of the first major events to take place after Jesus’ birth, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, is not a glorious one but instead a terrible one: infuriated that he had been tricked by the Magi – whom he had instructed to return to him with the location of the Christ child in Bethlehem – Herod ordered the slaughter of every young boy in Bethlehem under the age of two in a mad attempt to defeat his own mortality and remain King of Judea forever. In this episode, I believe we come to see that the change which took place that first Christmas day was not a magical one – it did not automatically remove real evil from the world… as Herod’s heinous actions clearly show. Instead, I believe it was a transformative one: in becoming flesh, the Hope that was Jesus would go on from that stable to grow into a man who would teach us how to live, and – by his life and death on the cross – show us how to love, thereby overcoming evil with the only power on Earth that is truly greater then itself.

 

So tonight I will go home among the hustle and bustle of shoppers returning home with their packages, families choosing their trees, revelers heading off to holiday parties, and take out my little crèche; I will set it up, and then I’ll thank God … ever grateful for that most incredible event which occurred in the humblest of circumstances over two millennia ago, when Love became flesh to break the back of evil through its incredible power – and Hope for the world was born.

 

A Blessed Christmas to you all!

Thanksgiving Reflections…from a Sandy Place…

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

When I was a kid growing up in the Northwest Bronx in the 1970s, I have no recollection whatsoever of really bad weather of any kind. Some of this is perhaps because of the circumstances in which my family and I were living at the time – we rented a three room apartment in a four story walk up; if any storms did occur they certainly made no great impact on my memory; because in our urban environment the electrical wires were underground we never lost power, and when and if it snowed, it was (blessedly) the landlord’s responsibility to clear it.

In fact, the first real “weather” events that remain with me are those our family encountered once we moved to the suburbs. That move brought with it much more space for our family to live, but also – a shock to the system for this city kid – a plethora of new chores to be taken up: the raking of leaves weekend after weekend in the autumn, shoveling what seemed to be a city block of snow every time precipitation occurred during the winter, and in the later summer, the almost annual occurrence of a storm that caused a  tree to fall somewhere on our block that left us without electricity for anywhere from several hours to several days. None of these occurrences were too burdensome in and of themselves, and of course our family soldiered through – in fact, for a kid the occurrence could be almost be described as fun – imagining yourself a pioneer on the frontier and the only light you had was the lantern that lit your way before you. As far as big storms go, the first one I have vivid recollection of was one that hit the New York City area when I was in the 6th Grade; it hit on a Holy Day of Obligation – this I remember, because my friends and I were off from school that day and had taken the bus from where we lived up to the New Rochelle Mall. My friends had gone up to the Mall to hang out, but I was there on a mission: a bit of a science fiction nerd at the time (not that I have outgrown it) I had spied on an earlier reconnaissance mission in the Mall’s obligatory toy store Mattel Toy’s Space 1999 Eagle Transporter, and I was there on my day off to get it! When I purchased it, I remember that it came in an enormous box (the toy itself was pretty big). I left the Mall and went outside to wait for the bus home with my friends, and the weather by that time had become pretty inclement. We were forced to stand inside the open bus shelter for cover. The wind was tremendous, and I recall that at one point while my friends and I waited it caught hold of the big plastic bag that contained the big cardboard box and blew my toy clear across North Avenue until it hit the building across the street and fell to the sidewalk beneath. Despite the weather, I scrambled across the street to reclaim my prize, which seemed – and was – intact, although dented and a little worse for wear from the wind and the water. The bus eventually came and my friends and I boarded it, and as I rode home, I tightly clung to the box my mock spacecraft came in  – smiling inwardly that I was probably the only kid who had a model that had actually ever taken flight – and thinking to myself that this was some weather I had never experienced back home in the Bronx!

Since that time, I do recall many big storms that have made their way through our area – Hurricanes Gloria, Hugo, Floyd and Irene, all these passed through  with no particular personal memory that I could attach to any. There was one storm – 1991’s so-called “Perfect Storm” – that I do have vivid memories of: at the time I was working at a Catholic Charities sponsored Nursing Home in the South Bronx. I used to drive there from Westchester County, and as I remember, no one was anticipating a storm of such power to pass through the area. I had lived through Hurricanes before: they all had names and were big storms, but you prepared for them before they struck and you felt secure; with this one however we were all seemingly caught unawares. Expecting just a particularly blustery rainy day, we had gone to work, expecting to get a little wet but not much more. Instead, the storm caused extensive flooding – which a colleague of mine at the nursing home got caught in on the F.D.R. Drive on the East Side of Manhattan – as well as a large number of power outages from fallen trees. I remember driving home that afternoon once we were dismissed from work – up Southern Boulevard past the Bronx Zoo – and seeing the thick trunked oaks that lined that broad street almost bent double in the wind, causing me to say a Decade of the Rosary out loud to myself in the car, that Our Blessed Mother would help see me safely delivered home in one piece that day – which gratefully She did!

Despite this wake up call, I went on in happy ignorance as to the vulnerability of our area to catastrophic weather events. I would see on television the devastating effects that severe weather would have on places like Haiti, like Florida, like the Gulf Coast – and would participate in relief efforts, donating funds and saying prayers for people in these place that they would recover and pull through despite the adversity that nature had thrown at them – all the while thinking that I would never witness in my lifetime, in this area, comparable devastation to the kind that flickered across my television screen.

That happy ignorance came to a crashing halt of course on October 29th when Sandy came barreling ashore.

I will not belabor explaining to you the devastating effects that this hurricane has had on our entire tri-state area – the lives lost, homes destroyed, property damaged, neighborhoods washed away. Others have written much more eloquently than I ever could what this storm has wrought in their lives. For myself, thankfully, the apartment live in did not lose power (in fact, it became “power-charging” central to many friends in other parts of the city that were not so fortunate); and my parents home was spared as well. Since the storm first hit, I have been witness to the extraordinary efforts of my colleagues here at Catholic Charities – both in the Archdiocese and at our sister agencies across the region in the rest of coastal New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – who quickly mobilized to establish recovery centers for those impacted by the storms, providing for the people every sort of assistance – from the basics of food, and water, and clothing and care, to rental assistance, housing and counseling for those who lost close to everything that they owned.

No, instead on this evening before Thanksgiving, I would like to write a rebuttal – not of an editorial per-se, but of a headline, one that graced (and I use this term loosely) the front page of the local tabloid here in the city – The New York Post – just about two weeks ago, in the aftermath of a snowstorm that had struck our city in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. In bold stark letters, the headline declared that – in the aftermath of Sandy and the snowstorm – GOD HATES US!…

I must admit that I do not ordinarily read the Post, but walking down the street, this headline not only assaulted my eyes, but my psyche as well…. “God hates us”…. How opposite – how alien – to anything that I believe or have been taught about God – by the Church, from my parents  – so alien and jarring in fact, that the words have been echoing  within me for these past two weeks demanding a response.

While I cannot really begin to- and am neither equipped to – explain the age old perennial question of why God allows “bad things” – like natural disasters – to happen to good people (to use a MUCH, MUCH too  overused phrase: “it is above my pay grade”), one thing that I can attest and give personal witness to through my work and exposure here at Catholic Charities is that disasters sometimes present to us the opportunity to do quite “Godly” things in response to them: to reach out and assist, to try to make whole again,  to offer a prayer, a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, to share with those who have been harmed from the rich bounty that God has blessed our own lives with, to simply be present to each other.

Last week, we were blessed here in the Archdiocese to be visited by an extraordinary person: at the invitation of the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, Bishop Bernard Unabali – leader of the Diocese of Bougainville, Papua New Guinea – was in our city to speak about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands in the South Pacific, whose island home is gradually being inundated by rising sea levels. They are often referred to as the world’s first “climate refugees”, and their story is told poignantly in an Academy Award nominated short film called: “Sun Come Up, which we screened here at the Catholic Center last week. After the screening, Bishop Unabali   spoke movingly to those assembled about the plight of the people of the Carteret Islands, and the willingness of the people of his diocese to welcome and provide land and assistance for these “climate refugees”.  While certainly victims of a disaster, I am quite certain that the people from the Carteret Islands that are profiled in the film “Sun Come Up” do not believe that “God hates them”….in the film they were not despondent,  but instead joyful and hopeful – most especially because when presented with the Carteret Islander’s crisis, their  Island neighbors in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea responded  in a “Godly” act of solidarity, welcoming the community to their own island home as the Carteret Islanders started their lives anew.

In concluding, Bishop Unabali urged all present to integrate the biblical values of environmental justice into their lives, and to answer a similar call of solidarity – a call that has special resonance and new urgency for all of us here in the metropolitan New York area as we work to respond to those impacted by the rising waters Hurricane Sandy left in her wake.

God’s blessing upon you and your families this Thanksgiving and always.

Perhaps the Bloom is Off the Rose..

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

It’s sometimes said that social media – like blogs, Facebook and the like – is a good way to share your thoughts, perspectives, feelings, shortcomings, hopes and aspirations with others, in the hopes – I suppose – that such sharing might lift your own mood. I have honestly never been one for wearing my heart on my sleeve, or broadcasting my particular moods, whatever they may be, to others… whether they be in the same room or a virtual room 6,000 miles away in cyber-space. Perhaps thats a product of my “Lace-curtain” Bronx Irish Catholic upbringing which taught me those feelings are best that are kept to oneself. Although that is still the case – and despite an almost genetic predilection to privacy – these days, I am really feeling the need to share in the hopes that my current funk will lift, so I ask that you please indulge me. Although I have always been “the glass is half full” kinda guy, at this time of year I seem always to get a little down, and I think it’s because I I suffer from a kind of condition – not diagnosed officially, but I feel it its symptoms right down to my bones just the same. Clinically, the term for this  self-diagnosed malady is know in medical circles as “Seasonal  Affective Disorder – SAD for short – and it’s mostly brought on in sufferers  by  decreasing exposure to natural sunlight as we move from the summer into the winter months – resulting often times in depression. Many years ago, I attributed an onset of this autumnal melancholy to the long, bright days of Summer giving way to the dwindling twilight of Fall (especially when I was working in a windowless human resources office in the basement of a newly opened nursing home in the South Bronx sponsored by Catholic Charities!) Today however, I am quite certain that the blues I’m currently experiencing are almost certainly not caused by too little exposure to the electromagnetic spectrum: can’t possibly be…firstly: because the Office I currently work from here at the Archdiocesan Catholic Center has two big beautiful windows that face southward into the sunlight, with wonderful views of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings, and second: I always keep my blinds pulled full up. No, in recent years my “sad” state has been brought on by a gloom with a much different origin altogether – and although the cause is still very much seasonal, it is not at all natural; completely manmade its effects are evident in every corner of our country, and the cure for this depression is unfortunately not as simple or plentiful as a good dose of God’s gift of sunshine.

No, the culprit that holds me hostage in my present state is the tenor of conversation – public and private – in our country, and not on any singular issue in particular, but on almost every subject. Whether religion, or politics, or government, or business, or family, or community, justice or peace, it seems to me that in recent years it has become nearly impossible for we Americans – a people who so cherish the ability to speak to (and presumptively be heard by) one another that we placed this prerogative first in the list of enumerated rights deemed essential for a free people to govern themselves, second only to the ability to worship our Creator in the manner that our conscience dictates – to have a civil conversation on just about any issue at all.  I think that much of the cause can be attributed to the noise pollution that are the cable television political talk channels and the phenomenon of shock radio, but regardless of where you want to stick the blame, the damage has already been done. Once the calendar turns and we enter the electoral season, the arrow on the “conceivability meter” on the possibility of holding civil conversations’ on civic matters switches from borderline difficult to the “red zone” of downright impossible –  bringing on much frustration;  and in my case with a side order of depression to boot. Things have gotten so bad that I have really begun to dread the advent of Labor Day – not so much because its arrival signals the un-official end of Summer – although there is that aspect too – but mostly for the conversational toxicity that its passing has come to presage.

This wasn’t always the case – with me at least. Funny enough, as a much younger man I used to relish the coming of the campaign season, even with all of the tumble and tussle of policy, personality, principle and pragmatism that our democratic electoral process guarantees. Growing up in the Northwest Bronx and later South Westchester in the 1970s and 80s,I was – like all children – influenced by my environment  potlical and otherwise,  and two of the political figures that were greatly admired in my household growing up were – paradoxically – Robert F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. From the first of these great men I grew up understanding that part of our collective responsibility is to try and “make gentle the life of this world – especially those who are less fortunate then ourselves, and from the other, coming of age as I did when it was “morning in America”, I grew up with the optimistic belief that not only were such endeavors as making life “more gentle “possible, but that such noble deeds were part and parcel of what made us a great nation. This belief was further re-enforced when as a college and law student in the late 1980s I saw how concentrated long term, social, artistic, religious and political efforts on behalf of human rights and human dignity could – for the most part non-violently – dismantle unjust, entrenched and repressive political systems from the Philippines, to South Africa, to the entire Soviet Block.

These earth-shattering and nearly miraculous changes edified my belief in the real possibility of non-violent political change, and animated my career choices for years to come. Certainly, my career here at the Archdiocese of New York was motivated by and benefited from such hopeful belief: having coordinated what is now going on 16 annual Public Policy Forums up in Albany – not to mention countless Faithful Citizenship presentations in parishes, schools and other forums – the belief in the possibility of change in support of human life and human dignity is almost a bone-fide occupational qualification for my job!

And while I still believe in the possibility of political change supportive of the vulnerable and suffering and remain overall a hopeful person by nature, I have to admit that my confidence that we are on the right path in support of such an agenda has wavered as of late. Perhaps the bloom is off the rose…as you can read, I have admittedly been at this a long time – and the recent years have harsh ones, with domestic terror attacks, two of the longest wars this country has ever fought and is still fighting, and the worst economy we have had in decades.  I am afraid that there may be something more amiss then just these things though, things which I made a brief mention of earlier. Sadly, today it has to my estimation, become significantly harder to speak of ourselves – in any meaningful sense – as a “we” – an essential requirement for a self-governing people as the first three words of our country’s foundational document indicates. Instead we are broken up into sub-groups whose zero-sum competitions are never ending: whether we are one of the so-called 99%, or the 1%, or the 47%, the 15% or the 8%…it seems to matter less where you fall in one or several of these sub-groups (many of us – or our family members – fall into several) as much as that your inclusion in that sub-group puts you on one-side of an insurmountable chasm between you and your opposite. In recent years, these political divisions have begun to infiltrate the body of the Church itself – as is evidenced this year by the unending sound byte competition between motor-coach riding Religious and members of the Ayn Rand Society at prayer – and the results of all this separating of people has been, in my view, tragic.

Election Day is just under two weeks away. On that day, votes will be cast and we Americans will decide on the leadership of our nation for next four years – and at the end of that day (unless the Electoral College goes all loopy on us….) the winners of the contests for the Presidency and Congress will become the leaders of not just 1% of us, nor 8% of us, not 15%, nor 47%, not just bus riding nuns, nor libertarian lay people – not even just 99% of us alone, but they will instead need to lead and govern 100% of “We the People”- all of us….Tough job…..it always has been, but I’m afraid it is only getting tougher. All the division that we are creating is turning us not surprisingly into a very fragmented nation. To move forward on a path together will take smarts and skill – which I know both Presidential candidates have – but it will also take a plan. I would never be so presumptuous to say that I know the best path out of this mess that we have gotten ourselves into, but there is a plan that I recently heard of that I think could be helpful to this task. Its an older plan – eighty plus years at least – but its inspiration goes back millennia. I first heard of this plan last Friday when I was reading Cardinal Dolan’s remarks at this past Thursday’s Al Smith Dinner held here in Manhattan at the Waldof-Astoria is support of various charitable efforts of the Church here in New York. In his remarks, the Cardinal spoke of some of the public policy concerns of the man for whom the prestigious charity function is named: Alfred E. Smith, the 42nd Governor of New York State and first Roman Catholic nominated for the Presidency in 1928; Smith – the Cardinal went on to explain – was a man who believed that government had a responsibility to be on the side of the “un’s” : “the unemployed, the uninsured, the unwanted, the unwed mother, the unborn, the undocumented, the un-housed, the un-healthy, the unfed and the undereducated”.  This is in a sense less a “plan” as much as it is an approach to governing – a posture to be taken which recognizes all of the “un-planned” for calamities that can befall individuals, families and entire communities. Some may say that this approach is too simplistic and lacks policy detail, but to me if put into practice it would quite literally lift all boats.

And speaking of postures, there is to my thinking another posture that we all – the Presidential Candidates, other candidates, our leaders, “We the People”…all of us – need to adopt to move forward together: not a posture of dominance or one of submissiveness, of subservience or superiority, but instead a posture of reverence – the bowed head and open hands of prayer – because it is only from that posture, and that posture alone, that we can ever hope to open one another’s hearts.

Back to the Future?

Friday, August 31st, 2012

While I would never consider myself one of those people who long to go back to the “good old days”, there are some things about “old time New York” that I definitely am nostalgic about….the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the Tree at Rockefeller Center, the Boardwalk at Coney Island…I am so grateful that in the New York of 2012, you can still see all these perennial favorites! Of course, there are some things about the “old time New York” of my childhood I wish would remain just there – back in the past: distant memories that would fade into oblivion over time. One of those things, the sight of fellow human beings – homeless men and women – sleeping on the streets is perhaps the most disturbing of these “bad memories” which I’d like to keep back in the ever thickening fog of what I have the audacity to call my “memory”. Sadly, I cannot …its impossible…. It is tragically something that I witness with my own two eyes – with increasing frequency – every single day.

The Director of our Department of Social and Community Development here at Catholic Charities George Horton – who has worked for over 30 years trying to help the homeless and hungry of this city gain the food, the shelter, the jobs and other things that they need to live a more dignified life – has penned a reflection of those “not so good old days” and the response of two particularly courageous religious women he knew who took homelessness squarely on, and tried to make a difference in the lives of their vulnerable brothers and sisters who lived on the streets. Today I’d like to share it with you:

 

In 1986, when New York City and the nation were struggling to address the crisis of homelessness, when over 25000 men, women and children were living in shelters or on the street, two religious sisters felt a call to come to New York City and help. Sr. Theresa Skehan, a Mercy from Maine, and Sr. Dorothy Galant, a Charity from Massachusetts, met while volunteering at Emmaus House, a transitional residence for homeless men and women in Harlem, and began to discuss a mission to people living in the NYC public shelter system. Last September, the fruit of their efforts, the Life Experience and Faith Sharing Association celebrated  its 25th Anniversary with friends and supporters,  

From the beginning, Sisters Theresa and Dorothy understood that something more than the traditional handout model of service was required. They knew that for their endeavor to succeed, their ministry must embody the transformative power of Jesus Gospel message of love, and Church teaching on the God given life and dignity of every human person. Scripture reflection on the lived experience of homeless people, building of community among them, empowerment for growth and change and the long term support and nurturance, as well as assistance with immediate needs were fundamental to their work. They also knew that the movement and association they created could not be run by them alone and would only be successful if the leadership of their organization came from those who heard god’s word in the shelter and responded by wanting to help others themselves. At the 25th anniversary party, the extension of this invitation was evident.

The LEFSA team is now made up of primarily formerly homeless people who have taken to heart the invitation to “ preach good news to the poor”, who conduct sessions in NYC homeless shelters, provide a street ministry to homeless people in the Port Authority area, and hold monthly Leadership Study Days and men and women’s discussion groups. Since the team members have experienced homelessness themselves, they are a trusted resource for people living on the streets or in shelters, and able guides for the direction of their Association. While continuing to experience the daunting challenges of every day life, including recovery from addiction, family and health stresses, and living on low income, they are a source of inspiration to people whose experience they share. In addition to this wider community of homeless and formerly homeless people, who accompany them, the LEFSA team has enlisted a circle of individual, religious congregation and agency volunteer and financial support, including Catholic Charities. Further impact on the wider society has followed from social justice advocacy undertaken by the Team.

The creation of this Team, its wider community of homeless people and network of support, and the challenge of recognizing human dignity in everyone, are a sign of hope in difficult times and places. Sisters Dorothy and Theresa, strong and powerful religious women, challenged their own religious congregations, challenged public authorities to make room for their work and challenged the Church and the larger society to not only its responsibility to care for “ the least of these” but also that their voices be heard. Other religious women made the same commitment, among them Sr. Florence Speth and Sr. Barbara Lenniger, who developed transitional housing for homeless women, Sr. Ann Murray who worked at Catholic Charities, directed our Office for the Homeless and Hungry and help found an education program for homeless people, and Sr. Nancy Chiarello who founded the Dwelling Place.

Recently there has been an increase in the numbers of homeless people on the streets, in the shelters and coming to Catholic Charities food programs. The doldrums of the economy and the lessening resources of government are having an impact. However, unlike the crisis of the 80’s and 90’s, the upsurge in poverty and homelessness appears to be occurring in a much more hardhearted and less generous climate. Who will now answer the call to help as Dorothy, Theresa and other religious women have done?

 

Tearing Down the Wall

Saturday, July 28th, 2012

One of the things that I love best about New York in the summer is the many wonderful outdoor activities that the city provides. It might come as a surprise to folks – who might not equate the “concrete metropolis” with “outdoorsy” stuff – but depending on the weather, the city can indeed offer a respite to folks tired of the long, hot, dog days of summer. Whether it’s a stroll down the cool shady path of Literary Walk in Central Park, or taking in a bright orange and crimson sunset along the Hudson – the outdoor venues of the city offer a little something to suit everyone’s tastes. A particular favorite of mine is taking in the free movies shown at various sites throughout the city under the starry night sky. Whether its in the beautiful park behind the New York Public Library in midtown, or shown against a giant screen set up along the Hudson with the Palisades as a backdrop, I’ve seen several over the years: “Airplane” (still as funny as when I first saw it), “Star Wars” (quite a site on the big screen), but I think my favorite was watching Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “The Birds” last year at one of the parks along the river on the Upper West Side. The movie, of course, was as good as I had ever remembered – but let me tell you, the fear factor was ramped up exponentially by viewing it with no cover overhead…..many of us spent as much time warily eying the pigeons who sat on the fence surrounding the park awaiting eating leftover popcorn (or us!!!) as we did watching the movie on the big screen!

 

A couple of weeks ago – through the great generosity of good friend  – I had the opportunity to attend another great New York summertime activity – a rock concert in an outdoor venue. Even better – this one was held in a place that I have been dying to go to for a long time, but haven’t yet had the opportunity (or the cash on hand) to go: Yankee Stadium – the new one… if perhaps no longer literally the “House that Ruth Built”, the new “House that Jeter Sustains” is certainly impressive!  The concert was one given by former Pink Floyd founder and front man Roger Waters who performed his opus, the rock opera: “The Wall”, which originally debuted in 1979.The Wall” itself centers on the life of a character named “Pink” – who Waters molded after himself and a former band mate in “Pink Floyd” named Syd Barrett – who suffers a series of losses in childhood and early adulthood (death of a father in combat in World War II, ridicule at school, an overbearing overprotective mother, and dissolution of his marriage) that causes him to methodically, over time, build up a metaphorical “wall” – which includes drug and alcohol abuse – to keep the world out and protect his vulnerable inner self from the vicissitudes of modern life, until finally, in the end, his “Wall” is torn down and Pink is exposed for who he really is to the outside world.

 

The concert at Yankee Stadium itself was incredible – perhaps one of the best I have ever seen. Over the years since 1979, the world has changed much – and Mr. Water’s metaphor of “The Wall” has proven a durable image for projecting not only the personal loneliness and isolation experienced by many people today, but also for the many political upheavals that have rocked our world both here and abroad since before Ronald Reagan became President; and Waters – in putting on this most recent production of his opus – uses the metaphor of “The Wall” quite effectively during his stadium show. As the musical performance continues over two plus hours, brick by brick an immense white wall (similar to the 1979 album cover of my memory) was built across the expanse of the outfield of the entire stadium reaching up a height of about 40 feet. Waters then used the white expanse as a massive video screen to project stark images of people: those killed in wars, terrorism and acts of state violence as well as those suffering from extreme poverty. He also uses “The Wall” as a kind of enormous billboard to flash saying of famous writers and statesmen – like George Orwell and Dwight Eisenhower – who were suspicious of unchecked government power, as well as pithy quotations critical of predatory capitalism, ceaseless war and dire poverty. At the close of the show – as the crowd shouts out “tear down the Wall” – the massive white expanse seems to turn blood red and crumble from within from the top down – the video element showing collapsing bricks and pyrotechnic explosions – all to an incredible effect!

 

As I took in the concert, I must admit that I found myself to be very moved – while I have always enjoyed the music of Pink Floyd, and the songs of “The Wall” were familiar to me – I had never before taken in the album in its entirety – and certainly not this way! Water’s addition of adding the images of the contemporary victims of political violence, terrorism, and poverty to his the album’s main themes of personal isolation and abandonment was compelling to me; and I thought his message resonated well with both the music and the audience. This of course was not the first time that “The Wall” was staged in a political context. After the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, on July 21, 1990, Waters performed his rock opus in the vacant terrain between the Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to a crowd of almost a half million people – one of the largest and most elaborate rock concerts in history. Waters undoubtedly used much that he learned putting on that performance in the current show – and all to great effect.

 

Another element that I enjoyed were the “messages” that were projected onto the wall during the concert: some were funny – and some unprintable on this blog – but one in particular stood out to me and stayed with me throughout the concert and well beyond; it was a simple statement really – only three words, but powerful. In broad graffiti strokes – across the expanse of the wall – was projected these words: FEAR BUILDS WALLS!

 

As I sat after the concert and pondered these words, I reflected on what they meant to me – personally and professionally, as well as for my life as a Christian and Catholic. Now its funny that this concert, put on by a man who I believe is an avowed atheist, would get me thinking of subjects like this – but I am a firm believer that God writes strait on crooked lines. I thought of those words, pondered them and came to realize how true they really are…fear indeed does build walls: in our personal lives as well as our collective lives together. Walls separate us one from another – perhaps protecting, but also isolating us – and even as our world becomes more and more connected through technology and economy – the walls in our lives seem to be growing ever higher.

 

As I further contemplated this, my thoughts turned to someone who knew a little something about living behind walls – or if not walls, certainly “curtains”: the iron kind. Blessed John Paul II knew from his experiences the tremendous cost that isolation behind walls imposed on people; that’s why I think it is so compelling that upon his election to the Papacy, the first public words he uttered to an anxious world was Be not afraid!Three small words – just like “fear builds walls”…but much more powerful! If fear indeed does build walls, it seems to me that Blessed John Paul II was telling the world that he would be about the business of tearing walls down…and that’s exactly what he did. And I think those words still have a message here for us today – I think that is exactly what we should be about as well. As Catholics, we should be “tearing down the walls”: of isolation to be a friend to the lonely, of alienation to be support for the hurting, of poverty to be a help to those who lack resources, of misunderstanding to bring war and terrorism to an end, of violence to protect those who are vulnerable, of a perfectionism that leaves no room in our society for those on the margins of life.

 

We better get busy now, because I’m pretty sure in the Kingdom come there will be no walls….