Phone Booth Friday: Making Heroic Choices

For the past few years I’ve had the privilege of calling Mike Gannon my friend. I had the good fortune to meet him via social media, and although we’ve only had the chance to meet in person a couple of times since, the first time we did he gave me a terrific gift: a book surveying Superman’s comic book adventures in the 1970’s.  Not everyone “gets” why I find the superhero genre fun and informative, but Mike certainly does.

During that time Mike has been trying to find his way in the world, after having faced a number of challenges in his life.  Fortunately, he seems to have hit upon the right path, as he explains in this post detailing his arrival at this next, momentous point.  For tomorrow, Mike is joining the Discalced Carmelite Friars, more popularly known as the Carmelites, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  During his initial period there, known as the “Postulancy”, he will not have access to social media, and so I wanted to take this moment while I still can, to wish him well as he takes a truly heroic step this Phone Booth Friday.

I think the perception among many non-Catholics, and perhaps among some Catholics as well, is that joining a religious order and going off to live in a monastery or convent is a decision to run away from the world.  Yet ask anyone who actually knows men and women who make this kind of choice, and you will be quickly corrected of that misconception.  To spend your days trying to draw closer to God in prayer and in a life of service to Him and others, whether that be within the walls of an enclosure or out and about in the world performing selfless acts, is to strip away all of the things that distract us from a singular fate shared by all human beings, regardless of their race or creed.

All of this “stuff”, in the material world that surrounds us, is useless if it’s not something that brings us closer to God.  Christ tells us repeatedly in the Gospels that although it is not impossible, it is very difficult for the materially rich to enter the Kingdom of God, if they are weighed down and burdened by their material possessions and concerns. No matter how successful you may become in your chosen profession, or how many awards, investments, cars, homes, and other indications of status you may have, at the end of the day you will be forced to relinquish all of it, and go and meet your Maker.  Hopefully you will do so peacefully, in your own bed at home and after a long, full life unmarked by loss, illness, or pain.  For most however, that reckoning will occur under less pleasant circumstances.

In choosing to strip away the things that could stand as obstacles in the way to his love of God and following his Faith, Mike is making a truly heroic decision, although I daresay he would not categorize it as such.  The plain and scratchy robe of the Carmelite friar does not have the sheen and protective qualities of a superhero suit.  And yet at the same time, it’s more beautiful and more real than any suit of futuristic materials that Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark could come up with.

What will happen in the coming weeks and months for Mike I do not know.  My hope is that the Carmel will be everything he wanted and more.  He will be working that out as he goes, and he needs our prayers and support as he does so.  The choice to stop living for oneself, and start living for God and others, is not easy.

Saving kittens stuck in trees or planets from annihilation is all very well in superhero fiction. These stories remind us of the virtue of heroic selflessness, and putting oneself at risk in order to help others, by saving them from material distress.  Yet through his pursuit of the religious life, Mike hopes to do something even more important, albeit in a humble, prayerful way, by trying to save souls.  I wish him Godspeed in his journey, and ask my readers to please keep him in your prayers.

With Mike Gannon (L) and Channing Dale (C) and "Superman in the '70's" book

With Mike Gannon (L) and Channing Dale (C) and “Superman in the ’70’s” book

 

The Full-Time Job of Being a Catholic

We had one of those rare moments on social media yesterday, when Catholics and non-Catholics alike came together to collectively roll our eyes at the mainstream media’s continuing efforts to deliberately misrepresent Catholicism.  In case you missed it, the touchstone was an address by Pope Francis in which His Holiness touched upon issues of science.  The breathless response of most secular media outlets was to proclaim that the Holy Father was once again challenging the establishment, changing Church doctrine, and so forth.

Except, of course, that he wasn’t doing any such thing.

I’m not going to attempt to write a blog post about the Church’s teachings on the Book of Genesis, the origin of human beings, and so on; that has already been done, by far better writers than I; you can find all kinds of information on Catholic Answers, for example.  Nor am I intending to take this brief amount of space to provide a lengthy rebuttal to the notion that the Church is somehow anti-science.  There are in fact plenty of others who are doing just that, such as my friend Ian Maxfield in Scotland, who has spent years chronicling the contributions of the Church and Catholics to all areas of science, many of which remain completely unfamiliar to most.

Instead, this is an opportunity to address something else, which I suspect many have been asking themselves over the past several years, not just under this Pope but indeed under the two previous popes as well.  Why, one may reasonably ask, are we always having to explain what the Catholic Church does and does not believe?  The answer is, I’m afraid, that it’s our full-time job. Allow me to explain.

Last evening I was watching a PBS travel show in which the host, whose anti-Catholic bent is often thinly-veiled, used the word “worship” when describing Catholics pausing to pray before a statue of the Virgin Mary at a chapel in Croatia.  As Catholics know, and indeed non-Catholics should know, we don’t worship Mary AT ALL (let alone statues.) Period.  Worship is for God alone; Mary is a creature rather than a creator, a human being and not a goddess.  To use the word “worship” in this context is either to spread anti-Catholic misinformation, or a demonstration of spectacular ignorance about one of the core beliefs of the Church, which those who are unfamiliar with Catholicism will simply accept as true, because it happens to have been broadcast on television.

Notice that I just managed to tell you, my readers, what the truth is, and it did not require a special Vatican commission to be appointed in order for me to do so.  Because you see with all the fuss and fumbling over the Church – what did the Pope say or what did that bishop remark – one thing that Catholics often forget is that the Church hierarchy is there to shepherd us, but not to fight all our battles.  We are like sheep, but we are not actual sheep; even sheep know that for the most part, they need to stick together.  Otherwise, the wolves will have a field day.

All Catholics are called upon to evangelize, not just the ones wearing robes and funny hats.  The Vatican isn’t going to come running to the rescue every time someone says something about Catholicism that is untrue. It may be somewhat inside baseball to remark that the press office there could be a bit more organized and consistent, but that being said, only God is omnipresent, not Father Lombardi.

Christ expects that the job of each one of us is to live out the Christian life where we are in life, whatever our station.  I may not be able to get on NBC and denounce their bad reporting, but I can sure raise a stink about it among my friends on social media, or indeed on this blog. And you can do the same, gentle reader.

These continuing opportunities to re-discover what Catholics believe, and to share that belief with those who might otherwise never hear it, is something that all of us must do, even if we’re just having a chat with the neighbors over the back fence.  The final command of Jesus before His Ascension, that His followers go do the  job of teaching all nations, should start right where we are, now.  We need to realize that it is our job to do so, whether in responding directly to a large media organization, or right in our literal back yard.

Detail of "St. Peter Preaching" by Fra Angelico (c. 1433) Museo di San Marco, Florence

Detail of “St. Peter Preaching” by Fra Angelico (c. 1433)
Museo di San Marco, Florence

 

Totus Tuus: Marian Suffering and Pope St. John Paul II

Today for the first time in the liturgical calendar, the Church celebrates the feast of Pope St. John Paul II.  For many of us as we were growing up, JPII – as we affectionately call him – was the only pope we had ever known, thanks to his long pontificate from 1978 until 2005.  There is so much that one could reflect on about the man today, but I want to focus on just one aspect of his life, thanks to a work of art I stumbled upon yesterday.

The image of JPII reproduced below is part of a huge canvas about 40 feet long and 30 feet wide.  It depicts the Coronation of the Virgin Mary following her arrival in Heaven, and was painted by contemporary Spanish artist Raúl Berzosa Fernández (born 1979).  The work covers the ceiling of the Oratory of Santa Maria Reina (Mary, Queen of Heaven) of the Hermandad de las Penas (Brotherhood of the Sorrows) in the Andalusian city of Málaga.  The painting took 6 years to completeand was just finished and dedicated a month ago.

The Brotherhood is one of the religious associations which participate in the famous Holy Week processions in Spain.  Each of these groups typically has their own church or chapel where they preserve the elaborate floats and statues used in these processions, and where members gather throughout the year for prayer, services, and to encourage the local community in their faith.  This particular group cares for two historic images used during Holy Week: one a highly-detailed sculpture of Christ on the Cross, and the other of the sorrowful Virgin Mary, weeping over the pains being suffered by her Divine Son.

Not only is Sr. Berzosa Fernández’ work magnificent, it demonstrates that the study of classical art is not yet dead, thank goodness.  Yet it also gives us an image of the late Pontiff in a wider theological context, not simply as a portrait.  As one of the figures in a piece celebrating the Blessed Mother, in the chapel of a group dedicated to meditating on the suffering which she and Her Son endured, the presence of St. John Paul II in this painting is more than simply a pious inclusion. It exemplifies the Pope’s deep understanding as a result of his own, personal suffering of how Mary’s example of suffering along with Her Son can lead us to better follow Him.

St. John Paul II’s devotion to Our Lady, particularly at her shrine of Czestochowa in Poland, and at Fátima in Portugal following the attempt on his life, is well known, of course.  His motto on his Papal coat of arms was the same which he had as Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow, “Totus Tuus” – “All Yours” – referring to the opening consecration to the Virgin Mary of St. Louis de Montfort. The coat of arms also featured an initial “M” beneath the cross, recalling the presence of the Blessed Virgin beneath the cross at the Crucifixion, witnessing the suffering of her Son and sharing in His sorrows.  And sorrow was something JPII understood all too well, under the Nazis, later under the Communists, and still later in surviving an assassination attempt and suffering the ravages of Parkinson’s disease.

Yet for JPII, while sorrow and suffering was a reality not to be shied away from, he recognized that these things were ways to bring us closer to Christ, as indeed the Mother of Christ herself understood by remaining close to her Son.  In his 1987 encyclical “Redemptoris Mater”, a complex theological document which has been studied and commented on by many far more educated than I, St. John Paul II reflected on the relationship of Mary to Christ and His Church.  I won’t even attempt to unpack it in a blog post.  Instead, I wanted to highlight one of my favorite passages in the text, which is relevant for our consideration here.

Toward the end of the encyclical, when the late pope points out Mary’s role as an example and as an intercessor in helping us to struggle against evil and do good, to carry on even though suffering, and to pick ourselves up and rise after we have fallen, he reflects on the times in which we live, when we can be so easily deluded into thinking everything is fine and dandy in the world:

Mankind has made wonderful discoveries and achieved extraordinary results in the fields of science and technology. It has made great advances along the path of progress and civilization, and in recent times one could say that it has succeeded in speeding up the pace of history. But the fundamental transformation, the one which can be called “original,” constantly accompanies man’s journey, and through all the events of history accompanies each and every individual. It is the transformation from “falling” to “rising,” from death to life. It is also a constant challenge to people’s consciences, a challenge to man’s whole historical awareness: the challenge to follow the path of “not falling” in ways that are ever old and ever new, and of “rising again” if a fall has occurred.

Just as the painting which brought about today’s post was something that took many years to complete, so too, our own lives are a constant work in progress, not something which is ever going to be perfected in this life.  Christ taught us this, His Mother understood it, and St. John Paul II certainly tried to live it and pass that reminder along to us.  As we remember him today, let us also remember that picking up our cross and soldiering on, however difficult it may be, is what all Christians are called to do.

Detail of "The Coronation of the Virgin" by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014) Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Malaga

Detail of “The Coronation of the Virgin” by Raúl Berzosa Fernández (2008-2014)
Oratory of Santa Maria Reina, Málaga