October 2009

The Butterfly Circus

I’m not sure where my Mom found this or heard about it, but I’m glad she did and I’m glad she passed it along to me.

I can’t believe I haven’t watched it before now; she sent it to me way back in September and told me it would be the most inspiring 20 minutes of my day.  I was about to go to sleep when I opened the email, and twenty minutes seemed like a long time, so I just saved the email as new.

I didn’t go back to it for a few days, always thinking that 20 minutes was a big chunk of time.  How ridiculous!  It’s like the daily Rosary — we don’t take the time to stop and pray because “we don’t have time,” but then how often do we spend 20 minutes (or more!) wandering aimless through the internet, not realizing the time we’ve wasted until we glance down at the computer clock to see we traveled through a time-warp?

Then the email got lost in my inbox, and I just saw it again. This time, I realized 20 minutes was nothing.

Sorry… all of this is unnecessary rambling to come to my main point:

Watch this movie. I’m not going to say anything about it.  Just watch it.

It’s twenty minutes.  But it’ll be the most inspiring 20 minutes of your day.

The Butterfly Circus


Archbishop Timothy Dolan has an excellent piece in his diocesan newspaper.  Too excellent for the New York Times, who wouldn’t publish it as an op-ed piece.


October 29, 2009

The following article was submitted in a slightly shorter form to the New York Times as an op-ed article. The Times declined to publish it. I thought you might be interested in reading it.

By Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan
Archbishop of New York

October is the month we relish the highpoint of our national pastime, especially when one of our own New York teams is in the World Series!

Sadly, America has another national pastime, this one not pleasant at all: anti-catholicism.

It is not hyperbole to call prejudice against the Catholic Church a national pastime. Scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. referred to it as “the deepest bias in the history of the American people,” while John Higham described it as “the most luxuriant, tenacious tradition of paranoiac agitation in American history.” “The anti-semitism of the left,” is how Paul Viereck reads it, and Professor Philip Jenkins sub-titles his book on the topic “the last acceptable prejudice.”

If you want recent evidence of this unfairness against the Catholic Church, look no further than a few of these following examples of occurrences over the last couple weeks:

  • On October 14, in the pages of the New York Times, reporter Paul Vitello exposed the sad extent of child sexual abuse in Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish community. According to the article, there were forty cases of such abuse in this tiny community last year alone. Yet the Times did not demand what it has called for incessantly when addressing the same kind of abuse by a tiny minority of priests: release of names of abusers, rollback of statute of limitations, external investigations, release of all records, and total transparency. Instead, an attorney is quoted urging law enforcement officials to recognize “religious sensitivities,” and no criticism was offered of the DA’s office for allowing Orthodox rabbis to settle these cases “internally.” Given the Catholic Church’s own recent horrible experience, I am hardly in any position to criticize our Orthodox Jewish neighbors, and have no wish to do so . . . but I can criticize this kind of “selective outrage.”

Of course, this selective outrage probably should not surprise us at all, as we have seen many other examples of the phenomenon in recent years when it comes to the issue of sexual abuse. To cite but two: In 2004, Professor Carol Shakeshaft documented the wide-spread problem of sexual abuse of minors in our nation’s public schools (the study can be found here). In 2007, the Associated Press issued a series of investigative reports that also showed the numerous examples of sexual abuse by educators against public school students. Both the Shakeshaft study and the AP reports were essentially ignored, as papers such as the New York Times only seem to have priests in their crosshairs.

  • On October 16, Laurie Goodstein of the Times offered a front page, above-the-fold story on the sad episode of a Franciscan priest who had fathered a child. Even taking into account that the relationship with the mother was consensual and between two adults, and that the Franciscans have attempted to deal justly with the errant priest’s responsibilities to his son, this action is still sinful, scandalous, and indefensible. However, one still has to wonder why a quarter-century old story of a sin by a priest is now suddenly more pressing and newsworthy than the war in Afghanistan, health care, and starvation–genocide in Sudan. No other cleric from religions other than Catholic ever seems to merit such attention.
  • Five days later, October 21, the Times gave its major headline to the decision by the Vatican to welcome Anglicans who had requested union with Rome. Fair enough. Unfair, though, was the article’s observation that the Holy See lured and bid for the Anglicans. Of course, the reality is simply that for years thousands of Anglicans have been asking Rome to be accepted into the Catholic Church with a special sensitivity for their own tradition. As Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s chief ecumenist, observed, “We are not fishing in the Anglican pond.” Not enough for the Times; for them, this was another case of the conniving Vatican luring and bidding unsuspecting, good people, greedily capitalizing on the current internal tensions in Anglicanism.
  • Finally, the most combustible example of all came Sunday with an intemperate and scurrilous piece by Maureen Dowd on the opinion pages of the Times. In a diatribe that rightly never would have passed muster with the editors had it so criticized an Islamic, Jewish, or African-American religious issue, she digs deep into the nativist handbook to use every anti-Catholic caricature possible, from the Inquisition to the Holocaust, condoms, obsession with sex, pedophile priests, and oppression of women, all the while slashing Pope Benedict XVI for his shoes, his forced conscription — along with every other German teenage boy — into the German army, his outreach to former Catholics, and his recent welcome to Anglicans.

True enough, the matter that triggered her spasm — the current visitation of women religious by Vatican representatives — is well-worth discussing, and hardly exempt from legitimate questioning. But her prejudice, while maybe appropriate for the Know-Nothing newspaper of the 1850’s, the Menace, has no place in a major publication today.

I do not mean to suggest that anti-catholicism is confined to the pages New York Times. Unfortunately, abundant examples can be found in many different venues. I will not even begin to try and list the many cases of anti-catholicism in the so-called entertainment media, as they are so prevalent they sometimes seem almost routine and obligatory. Elsewhere, last week, Representative Patrick Kennedy made some incredibly inaccurate and uncalled-for remarks concerning the Catholic bishops, as mentioned in this blog on Monday. Also, the New York State Legislature has levied a special payroll tax to help the Metropolitan Transportation Authority fund its deficit. This legislation calls for the public schools to be reimbursed the cost of the tax; Catholic schools, and other private schools, will not receive the reimbursement, costing each of the schools thousands – in some cases tens of thousands – of dollars, money that the parents and schools can hardly afford. (Nor can the archdiocese, which already underwrites the schools by $30 million annually.) Is it not an issue of basic fairness for ALL school-children and their parents to be treated equally?

The Catholic Church is not above criticism. We Catholics do a fair amount of it ourselves. We welcome and expect it. All we ask is that such critique be fair, rational, and accurate, what we would expect for anybody. The suspicion and bias against the Church is a national pastime that should be “rained out” for good.

I guess my own background in American history should caution me not to hold my breath.

Then again, yesterday was the Feast of Saint Jude, the patron saint of impossible causes.

He always makes me smile.

It’s hard for me to put into words the feelings I have for Pope Benedict.  When I left Rome after the Spring of 2008, I felt like I was leaving a friend behind.   That man so far away in his window, waving down to his flock, the man driving by me, my face one of hundreds of thousands in the crowd… he seemed so close.  Part of this is the nature of the papacy, and part of it the holiness of our dear Papa.  But a large part is due to the fact that I had just finished a semester of studying his writings.   Spending my evenings pouring over a bookcase of books written by him and reading articles and speeches as if I was parsing them for English class, I was delving into the biblical theology of Pope Benedict.  In the meantime, it was impossible not to get to know the man behind the theology.

So when I stood in St. Peter’s Square and saw his library light on late at night, I couldn’t help but smile, knowing he was working on one more beautiful contribution to the Church’s theology.  When I heard his German voice speaking Italian to the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, I looked forward to going back to my room and sifting through the dense homilies.   He was speaking to me.  He was giving me more food for thought, more fruit for prayer.

After studying his writings on biblical theology as Cardinal Ratzinger and embracing his approach to Scripture, then, it gave me great joy to read a short, simple address he gave today to the professors, students, and staff of the Pontifical Biblical Institute (affectionately known by certain friends of mine as “the Bib” … but don’t tell the Pope that.  I had the honor of eating dinner at the Biblicum with a former professor of mine.  We were joined for dinner with another professor of the Biblicum,  who teaches Hebrew and Ugaritic dialects.  Luckily, the dinner conversation was in English.)

In the address, he encapsulated so beautifully what we were all describing in those papers and articles we wrote on “the biblical theology of Pope Benedict.”  He was really repeating what he has said all along, most famously in his Erasmus Lecture in New York City in 1988.  But here he was stating it so simply, so clearly, on a sunny Fall day in the Eternal City.

“Scripture being only one thing starting from the one People of God, which has been its bearer throughout history, consequently to read Scripture as a unit means to read it from the Church as from its vital place, and to regard the faith of the Church as the real key to interpretation.  If exegesis also wishes to be theology, it must acknowledge that the faith of the Church is that form of “sim-patia” without which the Bible remains as a sealed book: Tradition does not close access to Scripture, but rather opens it; on the other hand, the decisive word in the interpretation of Scripture corresponds to the Church, in her institutional organizations.  It is the Church, in fact, which has been entrusted with the task of interpreting authentically the Word of God written and transmitted, exercising her authority in the name of Jesus Christ (cfr ‘Dei Verbum,’ 10).”

While the historical-critical method is nice and all, it must be used in faith.

And the primary place for reading and interpreting Scripture is in the heart of the Church.

It’s what my former boss has been saying for years, and it’s the mission of my former employer.

Thanks, Pope Benedict.  It was a nice little present to read before bed.

Over a month ago, the Holy Father traveled to the Czech Republic.  Next month, the county will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, when the Communist regime was overthrown and freedom was restored.  Not surprisingly, most of the Holy Father’s addresses and homilies drew upon the ideas of freedom, justice and the reign of truth.

The day before he departed to return to Italy, Pope Benedict addressed the academic community of the Czech Republic with a speech in Prague Castle.   It’s not a long speech, and I’d recommend reading it here.   As always, he teaches with such clarity and insight.

He focused on the idea of academic freedom.   As in his other messages during those days, he recalled the effects of totalitarian rule in the country.  He reaffirmed the importance of the universities’ autonomy — as we all know, when a totalitarian regime takes over a country, it will always take over the academy and attempt to control thought.  The Holy Father reminded the academy, however, that “the proper autonomy of a university, or indeed any educational institution, finds meaning in its accountability to the authority of truth.” (emphasis here, and in the following quotes, mine.)

He reminded his audience that academic freedom has a purpose.  It is not freedom for the sake of freedom, but freedom to pursue truth.  “The freedom that underlies the exercise of reason – be it in a university or in the Church – has a purpose: it is directed to the pursuit of truth, and as such gives expression to a tenet of Christianity which in fact gave rise to the university.”

This perhaps brings up the age old question of Pilate: What is truth?  Is it subjective or objective?  Can it be found at all?

In his address the day before to civil and political authorities, the Holy Father answered Pilate: “For Christians, truth has a name: God.”

After referring to the triumph of truth over totalitarianism that the country witnessed in 1989, the Holy Father cautioned the academy.  He first warned them against the “fragmentation of knowledge” that arises today in the face of the “massive growth in information and technology,” where education is viewed as a gathering of facts, severing reason from the pursuit of truth.  Then he warned against the relativism that comes from this weakening of reason:

“The relativism that ensues provides a dense camouflage behind which new threats to the autonomy of academic institutions can lurk.  While the period of interference from political totalitarianism has passed, is it not the case that frequently, across the globe, the exercise of reason and academic research are – subtly and not so subtly – constrained to bow to the pressures of ideological interest groups and the lure of short-term utilitarian or pragmatic goals?”

These are powerful words from our Holy Father.  Anyone with the slightest bit of contact with a public university has to find themselves nodding to that last sentence.  And let’s not just point fingers at public universities.  We all know of examples of private universities, who so proudly wave the banner of “academic freedom!!” whenever they do something to betray their founders or identity.  They too are bound in chains to public opinion, political correctness, and… money.

The Holy Father continues:   “What will happen if our culture builds itself only on fashionable arguments, with little reference to a genuine historical intellectual tradition, or on the viewpoints that are most vociferously promoted and most heavily funded?  What will happen if in its anxiety to preserve a radical secularism, it detaches itself from its life-giving roots?”

He has an interesting answer:  “Our societies will not become more reasonable or tolerant or adaptable but rather more brittle and less inclusive, and they will increasingly struggle to recognize what is true, noble and good.”

Exactly the opposite of what they all claim to be, no?

It all comes down to truth.  When you get that wrong, you get it all wrong.

“In the end, “fidelity to man requires fidelity to the truth, which alone is the guarantee of freedom” (Caritas in Veritate, 9). This confidence in the human ability to seek truth, to find truth and to live by the truth led to the foundation of the great European universities.  Surely we must reaffirm this today in order to bring courage to the intellectual forces necessary for the development of a future of authentic human flourishing, a future truly worthy of man.”

What is the goal of the university?  To become a premier research institution?  To have an acclaimed faculty that is published and esteemed?  To raise large endowments?

What is education?  Is it an accumulation of facts?  Acquiring a warehouse of skills?  Completing a certain number of requisites in order to earn that piece of paper that says “diploma” on the top of it?

In my favorite part of his address, the Holy Father reminded the professors that their mission is far greater:  “From the time of Plato, education has been not merely the accumulation of knowledge or skills, but paideia, human formation in the treasures of an intellectual tradition directed to a virtuous life.”

Wow.  Tell that to a state school.  Can you even say the word “virtue” in those halls?

He continues, “While the great universities springing up throughout Europe during the middle ages aimed with confidence at the ideal of a synthesis of all knowledge, it was always in the service of an authentic humanitas, the perfection of the individual within the unity of a well-ordered society.  And likewise today: once young people’s understanding of the fullness and unity of truth has been awakened, they relish the discovery that the question of what they can know opens up the vast adventure of how they ought to be and what they ought to do.”

Is that what is happening in our universities, who are so quick to hide behind the phrase “academic freedom”?  Do they realize that true academic freedom calls for the pursuit of truth and acquisition of virtue, not the lemming march to the politically-correct drum?  That it requires fidelity to what is true, noble, and good, not the pledge of allegiance to the latest ideological trend?

A society which allows itself to be hypnotized in the academy by the State will soon be conquered and ruled by the State.  Where are we headed?

Longer post coming in the next few days.  Until then, a quote from this morning, when Pope Benedict accepted the credentials of the new ambassador from the USA to the Holy See, Honorable Miguel Humberto Díaz. (Whole address can be found here.)

The crisis of our modern democracies calls for a renewed commitment to reasoned dialogue in the discernment of wise and just policies respectful of human nature and human dignity.  The Church in the United States contributes to this discernment particularly through the formation of consciences and her educational apostolate, by which she makes a significant and positive contribution to American civic life and public discourse. Here I think particularly of the need for a clear discernment with regard to issues touching the protection of human dignity and respect for the inalienable right to life from the moment of conception to natural death, as well as the protection of the right to conscientious objection on the part of health care workers, and indeed all citizens.  The Church insists on the unbreakable link between an ethics of life and every other aspect of social ethics, for she is convinced that, in the prophetic words of the late Pope John Paul II, ‘a society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized’ (Evangelium Vitae, 93; cf. Caritas in Veritate, 15).

Hope certain Catholic politicians – and the current Ambassador to Malta— are listening.  I think it’s pretty clear what he’s saying.

I was the lector today at Mass, and found myself facing a very long reading from Nehemiah, chapter 8.  (You can find it here.) While I usually don’t look forward to reading long passages that involve large names (like yesterday when I had to tackle Artaxerxes), I actually really enjoyed this reading.  I’m just afraid it was lost on a lot of people.

I imagine that most priests didn’t preach on Nehemiah today.  Most probably preached on St.Therese, this being her feast day. And some priests probably try to avoid addressing the Old Testament readings, especially when they involve a historical book like Nehemiah.

While I love St. Therese, I think people needed to hear a homily about the first reading.  Unless the richness of the reading is unpacked, it remains some weird story about people weeping and a lot of talk about the law.

So here’s the homily I would have preached. (heh heh heh)

Some background before the story opens:  The people of Israel have been exiled from their land by the Babylonians and the Persians.  After years of exile, we had yesterday’s reading, where we heard about Nehemiah getting permission to return to Jerusalem, which was lying in ruin.  In spite of opposition, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls and once again secured the city of Zion.

So the people are physically reunited with the land of their ancestors.  But they still remain in bondage.  Why?  Because the Jewish people’s identity hinged on more than just land.  In fact, God allowed the exile of the Jewish people– indeed, He sent them into exile (Jer 29:4)– to remind them of this.  He shook them from the apathy that comes from comfort. Living in the glories of Jerusalem, they were no longer appreciating the gift of the Law of Moses– while they worshiped with their lips, their hearts were distant (Is 29:13).

The slavery of the people was not just a result of physical exile.  They were a liturgical people, a people defined by worship and the law of God.  True Freedom = freedom to obey the law & freedom to worship.  (What was Moses’ request for the enslaved people in Egypt?  To be let go from their physical enslavement?  No. That they be free to worship.  The Exodus was a liturgical event more than a physical free-ing of slaves.  And this is important for understanding the people of Israel.)

In today’s first reading, we hear of that glorious moment when the people are reunited with the Law of Moses.  With their heritage.  With their identity.  The Law is read to the people, and what is their reaction?  They weep!  After years and years of being away from the Lord, of not hearing His Word, they cannot contain themselves as they stand and listen.  The priests remind them that this was a joyous day, a day of feasting — “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our LORD. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the LORD must be your strength!”

As I read this passage, a passage that may have seemed completely esoteric to the people sitting in front of me, I almost wept with the people of Israel.  The sadness the people must have felt for their deceased relatives who never had the joy of hearing the Word of God read, yet the joy of hearing it for the first time…

Picture this with me:  A man stands and reads from the “book of the law of Moses” (most scholars agree it was a reading of the Torah) while the people listen.  He then proceeds to interpret it for them in a sermon.

Sound familiar?  This joyful scene is the liturgy of the word, an important part of Jewish synagogue worship, as well as the Catholic Mass.

When was the last time you wept at the Liturgy of the Word?

Or were moved at hearing the law?  This brings me to an interesting segue into my next post.  What is modern man’s view of law?  Because I’d hazard a guess that none of us are moved with love and joy over the law.

But Israel had a different conception of law.  Hughes Oliphant Old, a Presbyterian theologian, writes, “The Torah was Israel’s greatest treasure.  It was a gift from God that Israel was to cherish.  [can I interject something here?  How many of us look to law as a gift?  yeah, I thought so.] Our text [Nehemiah 8] makes a specific point of this: ‘and they told Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses which the Lord had given to Israel’ (Neh 8:1).  One of the essential functions of Israel, one of the functions that makes Israel what it is, is the hearing and understanding of the Law, Israel was called out from among the nations for this purpose, that she might hear the Law and live the Law.”

This is why the Psalm that followed the first reading (Ps 19) praises the precepts of the Lord, describing the law of the Lord not only as “perfect” but “refreshing” to the soul.  Refreshing? Is that how you’d describe law?  That wouldn’t be my first choice of words.  What about “purer than gold” or “sweeter than syrup”??

Do we understand what law is?

The poignant scene depicted in Nehemiah 8 depicts a liturgical act of worship by people set apart by God to be His chosen people.  Why isn’t this scene replicated in our time, when the people God has made His family through the covenant bond of Baptism worship Him at the liturgy, the source and summit of worship- the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?  When the Word of God is read and preached, and then is offered and made present on our altars?  Why aren’t we weeping?  Or why don’t our congregations “celebrate with great joy” ???

Is it because we’re comfortably apathetic?  And perhaps because we don’t understand the gift we have been given?