Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013: Should auld acquaintance be forgot …

It is the usual order of things to see this day, the last of the calendar year, as a time to reflect on the twelve months that have passed. There are things to remember on the part of this writer, things that have been left unsaid up to now, for want of the time to record them.

As this is written, we're at the historic Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, an oasis of genteel southern hospitality since 1895. Whenever Sal returns from her native Philippines, we go on a vacation for a few days. This time the occasion is special, as it was ten years ago this month that we met. Sal is a woman of some refinement, with an upstanding reputation in her homeland, and who is well-versed in old world Spanish manners. People wonder how she ever ended up with a small-town midwestern hick like myself.

So do I.

She is especially devoted to her one-year old grandson, who has proven to be formidable competition for her attention. (Actually, I don't stand a chance, but I'm ready to be a grandpa anyway, even if as an honorarium.)

Anyway, we made a point of visiting the Carytown section of Richmond earlier today, where there are many interesting stores. And now, with the evening coming on, and while preparing to go out to dinner later this evening, this venue provides for an opportunity to look back ...

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This past year saw the world of Catholic new media devolve into a parody of itself. What was once known as "Saint Blog's Parish" would be better known as "Our Lady Queen of Melodrama Parish." With the Catholic Channel on Patheos having become the McDonald's of apologetics, we can now be treated to the continual smackdown of Mark Shea versus Michael Voris, of pantywaist neo-Catholics movin' to the groovin' of that rockin' Steubenville "praise and worship" sound versus the stick-up-the-arse über-traditionalists who are too orthodox to stand even the sight of themselves, of converts from the Church of Satan who are giving book-and-lecture tours as experts on the Faith when they're barely out of their baptismal robes. We can see all the usual suspects in social media taking to their respective ramparts to defend their champion. He's an enemy of tradition. She's a heretic. He's a sedevacantist. She hides little children in her basement and kills her cats.

The one bright spot at Patheos is the least expected, and the most pleasant surprise. Katrina “The Crescat” Fernandez, once little more than a gadfly in the Catholic blogosphere, has emerged as an up-and-coming writer. Following an unabashed write-in campaign which landed her an invitation to the first convocation of bloggers under the auspices of the Vatican in Rome, she returned no doubt with a sense that her craft would have to venture beyond pretty pictures and potty-mouth jokes. The result is that a woman with a degree in art history actually writes about art history, not to mention living the Faith in the wake of a failed marriage, and as a single mother of a son. It is the "slice of life" that raises the level of the conversation. Somebody has to.

And are there any other issues that have raised discourse on matters of the Faith (or lowered it, depending on which end is your vantage point) to new levels?

We know where this is going, don't we?

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Earlier this year, one pope resigned, and another was elected. There has been little said in this venue about the man once known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina, now known as the 265th successor to the Apostle Peter, who by virtue of his election as Bishop of Rome, is Supreme Pontiff and Visible Head of the Roman Catholic Church. He is the first pope from south of the equator, the first non-European pope in nearly thirteen centuries, and the first pope from among members of the Society of Jesus. Historically known as the "intellectual shock troops" and militant missionaries of the Church, the "Jesuits" are just as historically indifferent to the trappings of pomp and ceremony. So it should not have surprised anyone that such a man would be reluctant to first be seen on the balcony as Vicar of Christ on Earth, without the red-with-white-trimmed ermine mozetta and ornamented red stole, that which was seen by numerous successors in living memory. There is the habit of eschewing even the little things, whether by giving up the papal apartments for a nearby dormitory, employing simpler liturgical vesture than any of his predecessors, or even driving an old economy car rather than a papal limousine (a practice that will end with the first threat to his security). And while it would be wrong to presume what is in his heart with these choices, one is tempted to wonder whether what appears to be demonstrations of humility are more demonstrations than they are humility.

In pursuit of the spiritual life, it is a question we must first ask ourselves, before we ask it of anyone else, including a pope. There is a fine line between acts of spiritual piety and acts of spiritual pride. For those who pay little attention to matters of faith outside of the religion column of The Washington Post, hearing a pope say something along the lines of "Who am I to judge?" then running away with that line, aren't paying attention even to that much of it. How quickly they forget that this same "non-judgmental" pope was barely on the job when he excommunicated an Australian priest for preaching errors against the Faith. He has also condemned abortion as a part of a "throwaway culture," adding that: “Every child that isn’t born, but is unjustly condemned to be aborted, has the face of Jesus Christ, has the face of the Lord.” Are these the remarks of a pope who wants to stop talking about the evil of abortion?

Nah, didn't think so.

There is a saying in Rome: "Those who know, don't talk, and those who talk, don't know." An order of Franciscans recently came under investigation, on the basis of the malcontent of a few, and the cost was the right to celebrate the Traditional Latin Mass. Those who believe that Pope Francis is moving to suppress the ancient rite need to keep a few things in mind; 1) outside the members of the order and those doing the investigating, nobody has the whole story (that goes ditto for the gossip-mongers at Rorate Caeli), 2) the terms of the motu proprio liberating the "Old Mass" makes provision for a religious community requiring the permission of its superior, as conditions within community life demand, by definition, unity of spiritual life through uniformity of spiritual practice, 3) this is not a move by Pope Francis against a form of the Roman Mass which he personally does not prefer, but a specific move against a specific religious community over a specific set of concerns, and while admittedly heavy-handed in its implementation, is neither a guarantee of permanence, nor applicable to the motu proprio as a whole, so everybody with a TLM in their parish can relax, and finally, 4) this investigation, judging only by what is known, had to have begun under the tenure of the previous pope.

Francis has a mandate to reform the Roman Curia, the bureaucracy within the Vatican that manages the affairs of the Church. Cleaning out a rat's nest that has had its heels dug in for centuries will eventually reap benefits for the faithful as a whole. It is where the legacy of the man from Argentina begins and ends, not the trifling symbolic gestures which could be matched by nearly every pope of the last century, but for the amount of attention given to this one. Pray for him.

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In the fall of 1960, I was in kindergarten, and going on six years old. I looked out the door of the classroom one day, to see my mother walking from the cafeteria, which back then was the polling place for our precinct. I asked who she voted for. She said she voted for Nixon. But how could this be, since Kennedy was a Catholic, and we had to stick to our own? My father made the same choice, and I gave him the same reply later that day. They only said, we don't agree with his policies. But, hey, he's Catholic, isn't he? I can still remember, in a town founded and basically dominated by Masons and Methodists, some of us being known as "Catlickers," and not being allowed to attend YMCA day camp at the edge of the town where I grew up. After all, they had prayer services, and we weren't allowed to pray with ... Protestants!

On the 22nd of November last, America remembered the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Much has been said about his legacy, and the magic of his appeal that was known as "Camelot." Many who claim him for inspiration would do well to know him better. A president who was portrayed as a vision of health and vigor suffered for most of his life from a back injury sustained while a Naval officer in World War II, in addition to having been afflicted with Addison's disease. The man given credit for inspiring a generation of liberal activism was actually quite the conservative, not only in his economic policy, but in his fight against communism. His two successors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, were both blamed for the war in Vietnam, but it was Kennedy who got us involved there in the first place. We castigate the clandestine activities of presidents today, but the Kennedy administration made the biggest mess of all of them at a place in Cuba known as "Bahía de Cochinos" (the "Bay of Pigs").

Thirty years later, in the early 1990s, my marriage had fallen apart, and I was living in Georgetown. My landlady, Marilyn Southwell Bell, was a grande dame of the neighborhood, and many colorful characters were entertained over the years in the parlor at 3114 N Street. One of them was a veteran operative of the American clandestine services known only as "The Rainmaker." It was likely from this acquaintance that I learned a story out of the Kennedy years that is little known but to a few.

It was either the summer of 1962 or 1963, and President Kennedy was attending a baseball game. He accompanied his usual entourage through one row of bleachers, and as security was not as tight then as it was now, they had to pass by a group of Cuban expatriates already in their seats. Each man he passed is said to have murmured the following under his breath: “Voy a vengar la muerte de mi hermano.” It would not have occurred to anyone, least of all the men sitting there with their utterances, that at least one of the Secret Service detail was conversant in Spanish, and knew what he heard: “I will avenge the death of my brother.” No conclusions were drawn for me in the hearing of this tale, and one could never be sure whether his untimely death was the work of disgruntled Cubans or the deans of organized crime whose plans were foiled by his brother as Attorney General. Perhaps it really was only the singular mission of a lone gunman, with Communist sympathies and a high-powered rifle, in an unsecured warehouse near the parade route. We will also never know whether a man known for his charisma and charm, and a stunning, sophisticated wife, would have stemmed the tide of discontent, and kept his popularity on the rise, had he lived during a time of societal change. We only know what happened after he was taken from us, and for this our nation would never be the same.

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The day of Kennedy's death is also remembered for the passing of two other men of note; the Anglican writer and Christian apologist Clive Staples “Jack” Lewis, and the dystopian science-fiction writer Audous Huxley. The three men were together the subject of a stage play written by Boston College professor Dr Peter Kreeft, entitled "Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialog Somewhere Beyond Death."

Kennedy: Someone else is coming. Can you make out who it is?

Lewis: Why, it's Huxley! Aldous Huxley. Aldous, welcome. How did you get here?

Huxley: Same way you did, I'm sure. I just died. Oh, I say! Kennedy and Lewis! What good company to die in -- or live in, whatever we're doing. Where is this place, anyway?

Kennedy: That's what we're trying to figure out. Lewis thinks it may be some sort of limbo or purgatory. I'm just hoping it's not hell.

Huxley: Well, you're both wrong. It's heaven. It must be heaven.

Kennedy: Why?

Huxley: Because everywhere is heaven, if only you have enlightened eyes.

Lewis: Even hell?

Huxley: Oh, this is going to be fun ...

And so it goes.

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This picture was taken in 1943, seventy years ago, on a farm in Brown County, Ohio. My mother is in the first row, to the right, opposite her parents. In the second row, over her right shoulder, is her sister Mary Angela Rosselot. It has been my own experience that if a family is large enough, at least one of the siblings goes their own way, in such as manner as to set themselves apart from the others. Mary was one of those, going to live with an aunt in Arizona before finishing high school. The family folklore suggested a falling out between her and her mother which precipitated the move, a discord made more pronounced by moving to California and marrying a divorced man. True or not, at least that was the story. My parents were never ones to entertain gossip, even family gossip.

It was forty years after this picture was taken, in the summer of 1973, that I met her and her family for the first time. I had just graduated from high school. Aunt Mary walked into the house to meet us. She walked gracefully across the room to shake my hand, and I realized that this was no farmer's daughter. The children, my newfound cousins, were very personable, and very ... well, Californian. Such was noticeable to provincial midwestern sensibilities, and it was then that the boundaries of family, and that which was possible therein, were given new meaning.

With over fifty cousins on my mother's side, most of us have kept in touch over the years, aided not only by Facebook, but by a common legacy. Some of those in the picture have faded from this life, and in the past month, Aunt Mary was one of them. May she rest in peace.

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A series of weekly articles was planned late this year to discuss alternatives for Catholic families to the Boy Scouts of America. Sadly, the research required was subject to constant revision, in light of the impending decision by the BSA at the first of the year, to remove sexual orientation as a determinant of admission for youth members. The series was already well under development, but is currently being re-evaluated, and is scheduled to begin anew sometime in January. In any case, it could not have come soon enough for many young Scouts, belonging to troops whose sponsoring institutions, in a fit of self-righteousness, pulled the rug out from under them before a suitable alternative could be found. Because of such a short-sighted decision, many boys and their parents have completely lost interest in scouting over the past seven months. It is here that we grownups failed our sons. For us, six to twelve months is an interregnum. For boys before and during puberty, six to twelve months is an era. Such is one of the many unlearned (and unrepentant) lessons of this sad chapter in scouting history, matched only by the ambiguous and theologically challenged position of the National Catholic Committee on Scouting.

More on that in the very near future.

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Beverly Stevens of Regina Magazine tells us: "Okay, this is TRADITIONAL in Germany to play this clip on 'Sylvester' -- that is, New Year's Eve." The English comedian Freddie Frinton (1909-1968) is a butler in his famous "Dinner for One" scene, from the 1948 British short comedy "Trouble in the Air." This scene also features Jommy Edwards. Don't ask me why.

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As the year draws to a close, I wish I could tell you that this was a great year for man with black hat, but while last year was our best ever, this one was not up to par. It was bad enough that the day job and household responsibilities kept getting in the way, but much of the subject matter in Catholic new media was a supreme disappointment. What do you add to a conversation where no one is asking the right questions, much less coming up with the right answers? When someone wasn't trying to discern the hidden meaning in every move the new Pope was making -- “This week, the Holy Father was seen scratching himself at his usual Wednesday papal audience. What is Pope Francis trying to tell us about the virtue of humility?” -- they were spouting the usual canards about Masonic-Zionist conspiracies against the Latin Mass. He is past the age of retirement. He has two hip replacements and one working lung. His preference for living in a dormitory with others around on the basis of "psychological reasons" would seem to indicate a melancholic temperament. What kind of energy could this guy have for making too much trouble for anybody?

If hope breeds eternal, and tomorrow is another day, a new year holds a promise of hope for those who would press forward. It will be the year of this writer approaching his sixtieth birthday. They say that "sixty is the new forty," but at the end of the day, sixty is still sixty. As life goes on, we ask ourselves, what must we do to leave this world just a little better than we found it? How will our trust in the Almighty lead us to that end?

On that note, we close with Sal enjoying the giant Christmas tree that dominates the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel, looking tres chic with her newly acquired handbag by Balenciaga of Paris.

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