Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Apologizing for Beauty

Around the turn of the year, I was asked if I would be willing to respond to a letter submitted to the Black Hills State University Student Newspaper.  The author suggested that the Church, if she actually listened to the message of the Gospel and if she were sincere about caring for the poor, would sell all of her treasures.  The author likewise employed the tired canards about Jesus living the life of an Essene, and the Church's complicity in the Nazi atrocities toward the Jews.  I was happy to respond.  In the end, neither letter was published.  But I, luckily, have a blog.  


When the Roman Emperor Valerian ordered Deacon Lawrence to surrender the riches of the Church as tribute in A.D. 258, Lawrence arrived before the emperor at the appointed time with a parade of Rome’s poor and suffering, insisting these were the riches of the Church.  Though he was summarily roasted to death atop a metal gridiron, he was right.  The Church is rich, but not materially wealthy.  Founded by Christ and comprised of saints and sinners, nobles and paupers, scholars and knaves, pragmatists and dreamers, the Church has provided the world with advances in art, science, medicine, law, education, and nearly every facet of Western Civilization.  None of these advances is the patrimony of a single person or entity.  They belong to the human race.  It is, therefore, misguided to suggest that what belongs to humankind should be sold to anyone for the sake of providing relief to the poor and suffering.

Christians believe the poor deserve to witness the great accomplishments of human creativity.  There is no fee to see Michelangelo’s Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica.  Have the poor no right to experience such beauty?  And what of those poor who live far from the cultural treasures of Europe?  Do the poor in South America, or Africa, or Appalachia have no right to see, without cost, the handiwork of great artists in the stained glass that decorates their churches, in the vestments worn by their priests, or in the sacred vessels from which even the poor receive Holy Communion?  Do only the rich have the right to surround themselves with beautiful things?

To sell the “riches of the Church” provides only a temporary solution to the problems of hunger, poverty, and homelessness.  Surely money raised by the sale of art and such would amass a vast sum by which to provide rice and clean water for a period of time, but what happens after the money and rice have both been consumed?  What will be sold next?  Luckily, the Catholic Church is on the forefront of the effort to assist in such situations, distributing millions of dollars’ worth of aid annually to those in most need throughout the world.  Could individual Christians give more generously?  Certainly.  Does their failure to do so demand the sale of the human patrimony to individual collectors?  Certainly not.

Allegations of Church alliances with Nazis and associations between Jesus and fanatical Jewish sects always garner attention, but they bear little resemblance to fact.  It is fact, however, that the Catholic Church protected thousands of Jews during the Shoah and worked tirelessly, albeit secretly, to remove Hitler from power.  It is also true that in his entire ministry, Jesus never alleviated the material poverty of a single person.  Moreover, he went to his death wearing an expensive garment woven without a seam, and before that he allowed himself to be anointed with costly oil by a repentant woman in spite of his betrayer’s suggestion that such expensive items could be sold and the proceeds given to the poor.

It is appropriate and necessary to place the best mankind can offer at the service of the worship of God.  Art, vestments, buildings, and all manner of these “riches” give due honor to God and they acknowledge and revere the dignity of all whose eyes are permitted to fall upon them.  Christians and all people have an obligation to care for the poor, and failure to do so is a serious sin.  But to suggest that this feat is best accomplished by selling what rightly belongs to the whole human family is as misguided as were Judas, Valerian, and all those who have claimed the same from the Church’s foundation.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Christmas 2015

As Lent begins, I return to Christmas with my annual letter.

January 2016

It is uncommon to hear the voices of angels singing.  Not so rare, however, that I was not tempted to stop as I drove between Kadoka and Martin on Christmas Eve as the moon shone full on the snow covered Badlands and prairie lighting them in hues of silver and indigo.  Surely had I paused, I would have heard them celebrating the Holy Night when Christ was born.  But I hurried onward.  The Holy Mass is delayed for no one, not even melodious angels.

I arrived in my new set of parishes six months ago excited and anxious, with vigor and with trepidation, grateful for the prairie and sad to leave the hills.  A half year later, the angst has disappeared, and a routine of Mass, confessions, teaching, and driving has taken its place.  With around a thousand miles to drive for ministerial purposes each month, I am glad for the natural beauty of my new home.  I am less glad for the kamikaze deer, suicidal pheasants, and AWOL cattle.  These creatures and I are engaged in a cold war, deterred from armed engagement only by our shared acknowledgement of mutually assured annihilation.

No such friction exists between the bipedal residents of my parish and me.  The Lord has blessed me with kind and generous people who are eager to help me, gentle in chastising me, and willing to try new things (or at least not to complain much when I decide to try new things).  The Lord constantly catches me off guard with moments of grace as I come to know my new people more deeply.  I find myself awed at their own experiences of God’s love.  In truth, I find myself caught off guard by God’s love more often than I ought.  By now I should know that he is generous giver, and yet I was still moved nearly to tears during my annual retreat as he once again reaffirmed his love for me despite my own inadequacy.

Driving recently, I contemplated the question of when one actually becomes an adult.  Two conditions, I concluded, must be met.  One must possess an armchair of one’s own, and one must have spent Christmas Day apart from one’s family.  Early in my priesthood, I had already met the second of these conditions. It was strange, nevertheless, to come home to an empty house after sharing Christmas Dinner with Deacon Cal and his family.  My chair, however, was eager to welcome me.  

To own an armchair was something I achieved only in my second month in Martin.  It is brown, it appears to be leather, it reclines, and when I sit, it embraces me with a tenderness usually reserved to lovers.  It has become, as it were, the sign of my ascendancy.  It troubles me that I occasionally find myself speaking to it.  Even without the chair, though, I would be happy.  In spite of icy roads, snowy drives, and the lack of a stream to fly fish for trout, I find myself exceedingly content and filled with gratitude that God has entrusted the souls of this place to me.  Martin and Kadoka have become home.  

There is a great deal for which I thank God these days.  Among the gifts he has given me is you.  Thank you for your kind words and deeds, and all your generosity toward me.  Know that I am praying for you.  May all of God’s richest blessings be yours in this New Year.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Fraternitas, not Fraternities

If you have have never watched the television miniseries "Lonesome Dove," it is time to do so.  It is available for streaming subscribers of Netflix.  I have not seen it for many years, but I find that there are several scenes branded into my memory from the time when I watched it as an early adolescent.  Perhaps most poignant, however, is (Spoiler Alert) the hanging of Jake Spoon.  The playboy ex-Texas Ranger falls in with a crowd of horse thieves and murderers.  When this group is finally captured by the principled Gus McCrae and Woodrow Call, even though they are friends with Jake Spoon, justice is swift and blind.  Below is the dialogue from this scene:

Woodrow Call: Didn't you hear me? I said get your boots off
Dan Suggs: Damned if we will. I said we were horse traders
Gus McCrae: We're more persuaded by the bodies we just buried. Get your boots off
Dan Suggs: I don't know what the hell you're talkin' about
Gus McCrae: You're a black liar sir
Dan Suggs: Just ask Jake if we didn't buy them horses
Woodrow Call: 'dyou buy them three cowboys you shot? 'dyou buy them two farmers you burned? Pea, you & Newt get your ropes; tie 'em up
Jake Spoon: Oh you don't need to tie me up, Newt. Hell I ain't killed anybody. I just fell in with these boys to get me through the territory; hell I was gonna leave 'em first chance I got
Gus McCrae: I wish you'd taken that chance a little earlier, Jake; a man who'll go along with five killin's, takin' his leave a little slow. Go ahead Newt
Jake Spoon: Pea, you know me; I ain't no killer. Deets you know it too. Gus I ain't no criminal; now you know that. It was Dan that killed them two sod-busters. Hell I didn't kill nobody
Dan Suggs: You shut your damn mouth, Spoon
Woodrow Call: Put 'em on their horses
Roy Suggs: Where's he goin'?
Gus McCrae: Pick out a tree to hang you from, son
Jake Spoon: Gus, I...
Gus McCrae: You know how it works, Jake: you ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw. I'm sorry you crossed the line
Jake Spoon: I didn't see no line, Gus. I was just tryin' to get through the territory, without gettin' scalped; that's all
Gus McCrae: I'm sure that's true, Jake.

You ride with an outlaw, you die with an outlaw.

I cannot help but recall this adage as I watch young men I know go to college and join fraternities.

In my cursory exploration of the history of campus Greek organizations, I was somewhat astonished to discover that in their origin, they were intended to promote scholarship and virtue among collegiate men, and to foster free thought that was discouraged by ensconced university faculties.  I was not surprised to discover that they were generally racist, misogynistic, and anti-Catholic.  That part of their tradition, as best I can tell, is still alive and well in the fraternities on college campuses today.  Moreover, they traditionally have strong association with the Masons (Yes, those Masons.  The ones to which Catholics cannot belong.) and many appear to fit the description of a secret society (to which a Catholic in good conscience may not procure membership).  Like all things, fraternities have evolved through the years, but as opposed to becoming forces for the good, they are have become dens of sin.  We cannot look at fraternities through Animal House colored lenses permitting us to see only impish boys sticking it to the overbearing authorities who deserve whatever befalls them.  Fraternities are houses of formation.  They are shaping boys into men (sort of), and they are doing it badly.  No number of famous and influential members of a particular fraternity, and no amount of community service can offer satisfaction for systemic, inveterate, wanton, and obstinate promotion of drunkenness, fornication, and all manner of vices.  A young man I know, now, to my dismay, in a fraternity, often used to comment,"Show me your friends, and I will tell you who you are."  We become like those with whom we associate.  We do not excuse members of the Nazi party who claim to have joined because they support Nazi economic policy.  Nor can we excuse a fraternity brother who is a member for social benefits.

One must necessarily ask why these organizations, clearly antithetical to the values with which our sons left home, can become attractive.  To this there are a variety of responses.  First, young men, driven by an ephemeral notion of success from their first moments of self-awareness, are looking for every opportunity to get ahead.  With the prospect of jobs to be procured from older fraternity brothers, a Greek House is a powerful network.  Similarly, in spite of the negative implications of fraternity membership, a fraternity member associates himself with famous and powerful fraternity predecessors.  Likewise, membership in a fraternity can represent a cost savings for a young man already beleaguered by obscenely high college fees. Mostly, however, I think that men are attracted to fraternities for precisely the reasons the name implies.  Within the vomit-soaked and liquor-stained walls of the fraternity house lies a promise of brotherhood.  In a fraternity one can find remedy to loneliness, companionship in homesickness, support in struggle, and perhaps most importantly, affirmation that one exists.  When a young man walks onto a college campus, he is often alone and anonymous, struggling to find his identity and discover where he fits.  He desires to determine who he is as an autonomous individual while simultaneously seeking a group by which to define himself.  Fraternities are well prepared to help fill this void.  With words like honor, loyalty, and dedication ready at hand, fraternities stir a young man's passions with a desire for participation in something larger than himself.  To then present the existence of a house of men with promises of fun, challenges of initiation, the perception of a common mission, unconditional positive regard in the face of poor decisions, and no reprimand for moral shortcomings, who could fail to be interested?  It is not accidental that terrorists recruit by much the same means.  Men want brotherhood - fraternitas.  Men want to share in a common mission.  Men want to give their lives to a cause.  Men want something that motivates them to greatness.  Men want a reason to be all in.  Fraternities promise it.  And they fail, oh so miserably do they fail, to deliver it.  Evil never looks like evil when it first attracts us.  Lucifer cackles with glee for every new pledge who is deceived by the promise of an organization who assures boys of becoming men only to cause them to become more infantile than when they began.  Misery loves company, and vicious men assuage their vicious consciences by attracting new men who likewise become vicious.  They treat sin as virtue, cowardice as courage, imprudence as wisdom; they degrade what should be a gift of one's entire self offered with reverence to a spouse to the point of becoming a soul-depleting, person-using, base, Dionysian conquest.  This is brotherhood?  This is honor?  Loyalty? 

What is saddest about this reality, at least with regard to our Catholic men, is that the fraternitas they long for is to be found, if they look for it, in the Church, among men also striving for virtue.  Men united in pursuing vice and sin are not friends or brothers.  They are enemies.  Wittingly or unwittingly they are killing one another.  Moreover, words like loyalty, honor, and dedication have no real meaning except as rooted in Christ.  Only by trying to become more like Christ does one find what is good, true, and beautiful.  Goodness, Truth, and Beauty are the only things for which one might worthily die.  There is no honor in selling one's soul for sin.  There can be no loyalty to sin, because sin is necessarily untrue.  How can one be loyal to a deception?  Dedication to error makes one a fool, not a hero.  Brotherhood in, around, and through Jesus Christ is the only meaningful fraternitas.  And brothers of this variety do not encourage one another to sin.  They do not rejoice in wrongdoing.  They challenge us.  They call us higher.  They remind of of who we are in Christ.  They hold us accountable.  They remonstrate us in our complacency with our own mediocrity.  The puke-reeking vileness of the college "fraternity" is a mockery of the word.  Fraternity brothers do not have one another's backs, except to be positioned to push one another down the stairs and through the portals of Hell.

So, if a young man wants a brother, a comrade in arms, a friend, someone who really will have his back, he needs to find a virtuous man.  A college fraternity is no substitute, and no number of reasons for imperiling one's soul as a member is sufficient.  What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his soul?  If you ride with outlaws, you die with outlaws.