Wednesday, May 29, 2013


This past Sunday, we went to an epic Mass at the Basilica of St. Josephat.  Okay, so all Masses are epic - as the Franciscan provincial who was there so mind-blowingly reminded us, the One who placed the stars in the sky makes himself present at every Mass through the hands of the priest.  But this one was of the no-holds-barred, chant-and-polyphony, choking-on-incense variety that hits you in the face with Heaven.

It was particularly special because it was the first Mass of Thanksgiving for a newly ordained priest.  He had apparently been a Franciscan friar serving at the Basilica for many years prior to receiving the priestly calling, and the joy of his parish family at seeing him offer Mass for the first time was palpable.

The priest who gave the homily was elderly and in a wheelchair, apparently as a result of some long-term, chronic illness.  His topic was the sacrificial nature of the priesthood.  He told the story of the time when he was first struggling to accept this illness and was visited by then-Archbishop Dolan in the hospital.  The Archbishop asked him, "Will you offer this up for me?"  This personal request helped him gain perspective on his suffering, and to understand that suffering as a vital part of his vocation as a priest called to participate in a particular way in Christ's sacrifice.

I've felt for a long time a specific prompting to pray for seminarians and for an increase in holy vocations.  At this Mass, I was struck with the realization that my recent health struggles could be part of that prayer.  Archbishop Dolan asked his question on behalf of Christ, and it is the same question asked of me.

This also fits in with my call to live out my feminine vocation, as described in the work of St. Edith Stein and Blessed John Paul II, especially until God chooses to bless me with biological motherhood.  At the end of the Mass of Thanksgiving, the new priest presented his own mother with the maniturgium, the white cloth wrapped around the new priest's hands during the ordination rite to symbolize the burial cloths of Christ.  The priest's mother takes part in the priest's sacrificial self-gift, offering her son much as the Blessed Mother did.  Through the spiritual motherhood that all women are called to, I can offer my own small sacrifice in unity with the men Christ is calling to renew his Church. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Ignorance or Bliss

 The Archdiocese of Milwaukee has been going through a...let's say...challenging time in its history.  I won't dwell on why, because I don't trust myself to be charitable.  Regardless, it's hard to ignore what resulted: a confused, divided and disaffected local church. 

At this point, although we are still in the middle of bankruptcy proceedings, it would seem that the pastoral strengths of now-Cardinal Dolan followed up by the administrative strengths of Archbishop Listecki have enabled us to begin the process of healing and revitalization.  People are flocking to events like this one, which I'll write more about at some point.  There are also great signs of the Holy Spirit at work through our new Vocations Director, including a men's discernment house and an influx of new seminarians who are in love with Christ and can't wait to get into parishes to share the authentic Faith with our demoralized local flock.

But the damage has been done to a certain extent, and it's not going to be an overnight process of renewal.  I was confronted with this reality recently when my boss asked if I would give some administrative help to the pastoral council at his large suburban parish.  I knew I would probably run into some people I didn't agree with, but thought it would at least be interesting to learn a bit about the inner workings of a parish.  So I agreed.

As it turned out, it was one of the most frustrating and disheartening experiences I've ever had in my years of parish involvement. 

Through a lethal combination of misinformation and faulty ideas, the pastor and council seemed hellbent on isolating themselves and their parish from the resources, structures and community of the greater Archdiocese.  The amazing ways in which other parishes are being renewed - through the full and potent realities of the Faith - weren't even on their radar screens.  Instead, their conversation about how to keep parish membership from continuing to slip revolved around empty theological and corporate buzzwords.

One of the most discouraging things I observed involved the different generations present at the meetings. I was unsurprised by the older contingent - those who lived through Vatican II and embraced many aspects of the misinterpretation that followed.  I expected them and know their rhetoric inside-out.

What was really disappointing was the next generation down.  Many members of this group seemed genuinely interested in serving the Church in some way, and didn't have a chip on their shoulder or an axe to grind.  However, their catechesis in the faith had clearly been so saccharine, substance-less and vague that they had no firm footing to even understand, let alone engage with, the doctrinal confusion on display.

I started this blog partly with the intention of drawing attention to signs of hope and renewal among the next generation of Catholics.  But we can't fix problems that we don't acknowledge, and I think poor catechesis is one of the significant barriers standing between enthusiastic young Catholics and what their hearts are truly longing for.

People tend to think of theology as being of secondary importance.  After all, what does it really matter if we understand all those complicated doctrinal ins and outs as long as we love as Jesus loved?  But the catch is that without deep knowledge of who Jesus has revealed himself to be through his Church, we can't enter into an authentic relationship with him and encourage others to do the same.  The New Evangelization has to start within.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review in Five Bullets: From Up On Poppy Hill

In general, I don't really like cartoons.  Not sure why - as an art form, animated story-telling just doesn't speak to me much.

There are different types of cartoons, of course.  I can't sit through even forty-five seconds of an "adult" cartoon like The Simpsons or Family Guy without feeling inclined to throw a shoe at the TV and curl up in a fetal position mourning the death of Western civilization.  I do like a lot of Pixar films: the animation is clever and skillful and the stories are well-developed and often meaningful.

As for anime, I was first exposed to it in a whole series of negative contexts.  My least favorite English professor at Marquette, a self-professed deconstructionist, made us watch a well-known anime film as part of a first year honors intro to lit class.  I also had a roommate my sophomore year who watched anime on our shared TV almost ceaselessly, including at 4 in the morning when I was trying to sleep.  My dislike for it might be related to these first experiences, or it might be partly cultural - my sensibilities are pretty exclusively Western.

So, the recent Japanese animated film Up On Poppy Hill isn't something I would have anticipated seeing, let alone enjoying.  But enjoy it I did.

The story has two intertwining plot lines: one about a group of students who want to save their dilapidated but historic clubhouse from being demolished, and one about a romance that develops between two of the students against the backdrop of some complicated family history.  Both are very moving in their own right, and are woven together beautifully.

Here are five bullets, in no particular order:
  • I really ended up liking the animation itself - the backgrounds were exquisite and rich in detail and color, while the foreground figures were done in a much simpler style.  It kind of reminded me of puppets against a painted backdrop.  Like skilled puppeteers, the animators were able to convey an incredible amount of emotion and character development with simple figures.  There was an occasionally moment of cartoonish-ness, like the chorus of high school students that started weeping loudly over the possible loss of their club house, tears spouting in fountain-like jets from their eyes, or the president of the philosophy club with his gigantic head to match his larger-than-life personality. These moments seemed a little jarring and out of keeping with the overall aesthetic, but were pretty minimal.
  • The cultural and historical details of 1963 Japan were also cool - there were extended scenes just showing the central character, a young woman of high school age, going about her daily business: getting up, rolling up her sleeping mat, preparing rice and fresh fish for breakfast.  It made me kind of covetous of the clutter-free, simple and elegant functionality that seemed to be typical of a Japanese home of that period.
  • We tend to associate youthful rebellion with a throwing out of traditional values and ways of doing things.  It was interesting that in this story it was the new, post-war, pro-Western government that was looking to leave behind Japan's intellectual and historical heritage, and it was the activist students trying to retrieve and protect this heritage.
  • Despite the fact that the high school itself seemed to be co-ed, the clubhouse that formed the hub of political and intellectual life for its students was boys-only when the story opened.  The girls got involved later, but their energies were focused on getting the place cleaned up rather than participating in the student organizations that were housed there.  It was the 60s, I guess - but I sure hope things are different now. 
  • The story had a striking innocence about it, which made me realize just how rare that sort of story is in our current cultural climate.  There was no snark, no melodrama, no irony.  At one point a character quotes this from Diogenes: "Humans have complicated every simple gift of the gods."  Something to think about.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Blair on Suburbs and Other Good Stuff

At the endlessly worthwhile Patheos web forum, Peter Blair has an interesting article about my favorite hobbyhorse: The Real Case Against the Suburbs, or, How Ought Christians to Think About the Common Good?

Money quote:
I should note, in closing, that the suburbs are really just a cultural symbol of the larger point we were trying to make. That point was: Bradley was right to suggest that we need more ordinary, God-loving, everyday Christianity. We don’t all have to be radically missional in the sense that some evangelicals promote. But we should not mistake the normal cultural standards of 21st century American life for “ordinary” life. By the standards of both grace and nature, ordinary American life, in many ways, falls far short of what ordinary life should look like. Of course, this gap will always be with us, courtesy of the Fall, but that doesn’t mean that certain cultural arrangements can’t make it bigger or smaller.
Blair mentions several of the points that I talked about in one of my first posts about the importance of shared public spaces in creating authentic community.  He brings up some other interesting points too, including the impact of urban/suburban structures on criminal justice policy.

Another important idea he brings up (and one with broader applications) is the tendency among Christians to have a knee-jerk reaction against theories or lines of thinking perceived as "secular" without actually subjecting them to real intellectual scrutiny.
A kind of aversion to Christian adoption of secular thinking is behind a lot of the more harmful facets of American Christian thought (e.g. continued skepticism of evolution). I am not saying Miller himself is a creationist, only that the kind of language he employs here gives comfort to that kind of thinking. All truth is one, and we shouldn’t hesitate to adopt something just because it has a secular provenance.
 I think this is important to consider, though I would snag another of the phrases that Blair uses and note that often Christians and those in the secular arena are speaking two different "cultural languages" even when they seem to be voicing support for the same theory. 

Relatedly, Blair goes on to caution evangelical Christians like himself against thinking that any position worth holding needs to be boiled down to some specific Biblical text.
An ethics grounded in proof-texting the Bible will always be thin, watered-down, and incomplete. Christians need to engage with the breadth of human learning, and an argument can be quite persuasive and intellectually binding on a Christian even if it does not once mention the Bible.
 Catholics ought in theory to find it easier to avoid this pitfall, since our faith recognizes Tradition as a key part of God's revelation to humanity.  Catholic thought has also been in dialogue with secular scientific and philosophical thought for over two thousand years now, which means we should feel confident engaging these systems on their own turf.  Of course, we can and do subject our Tradition to "proof-texting" as well. Catholics would do well to remember that we have nothing to fear from secular scientific or philosophical inquiry pursued in good faith. There's only one Truth, and any true thing pursued honestly will eventually lead there.

Monday, May 6, 2013

May Day

My husband got a call this week about an acting gig taking part in Sunday's re-enactment of the "Bay View Massacre."  Bay View is a Milwaukee neighborhood just south of downtown.  It's gradually changing into a hipster paradise of  trendy restaurants and record shops, but was historically part of the southside industrial corridor of foundries, steel mills and meat packing plants.  It actually started as a company town for workers at a rolling mill called the Milwaukee Iron Company, and became the center of the workers' rights movement in Wisconsin in the late nineteenth century.

In 1886, thousands of striking workers marched from St. Stanislaus Catholic Church to the mill in Bay View, demanding an 8-hour work day. At the governor's orders, state militia fired on the marchers, killing seven. 

A re-enactment of this event has taken place every year since 1986 at a historical marker where the mill used to be.  The theatre piece itself was highly stylized and involved two ten-foot puppets representing the governor and the labor leader.  A small ensemble of actors marched with signs, chanting:  "This is what we want, no matter what our skill:  8 hours to work, 8 hours to rest, 8 hours for what we will!"  Then each actor stepped forward to remember one of the people who died, speaking as a friend or family member, and draped a red scarf over the monument.

I'm not usually one for heavy-handed symbolism, or the over-theatrical, or puppets.  But this seemed like an appropriate use of all three.  It was very much in the tradition of street theatre in the context of social activism, and I felt connected both to local history and to struggles for fair working conditions still taking place worldwide.  It was surprisingly moving, and I am really glad that this event is being remembered.

Of course the afternoon's program then veered into the political, and I started squirming internally, because I know that many of the politicians who now claim to speak on behalf of workers support laws which are the very definition of injustice. Our political environment in the U.S. tries to force us into one of two boxes, and as Catholics we have an even more difficult time than most resisting this, because of what we know to be at stake.  But, knowing what's at stake, it's all the more important for us to maintain our "both/and" identity - we don't have to choose just one thing to fight for.

St. Joseph the Worker, pray for us.