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

 

Do You Duomo? Crowdfunding a Cathedral

I haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting the city of Milan, let alone seeing its famous Gothic Cathedral (called a “duomo” in Italian) of Santa Maria Nascente in person.  Yet I was impressed to read that the Archdiocese is taking advantage of social media for something which Europeans, and particularly the Church, often lag behind on when it comes to the digital age, and that is turning to crowdfunding to achieve a fundraising goal.  In this case, a charitable organization called The International Patrons of the Duomo di Milano is mounting an effort to restore the Cathedral, and part of that effort has a special significance for Americans.

The Milanese Duomo has been compared to many things, with its masses of spires pointing up into the sky, but perhaps one of the most apt descriptions is that it looks rather like an ornate wedding cake, full of spun sugar confectionery decorations.  Because the church took over 600 years to complete, the range of saints depicted in its exterior ornamental statuary is quite vast, covering centuries of Church history.  One of the saints featured is St. Frances Xavier Cabrini (1850-1917), who played an important part in the establishment of the education system of this country, and is the first American citizen to be canonized a saint.

Born in Lombardy, the region of Italy dominated by Milan, Mother Cabrini arrived in New York in 1889 as a missionary.  She spent the rest of her life founding schools, orphanages, and hospitals across the country, and became an American citizen in 1909.  As a result, she is not only popular with many Italian-Americans, whom she and her sisters ministered to when they began arriving in huge waves of immigration at Ellis Island and elsewhere, but also back in her native Italy, where her devotion to her fellow Italians who had to leave for America due to extreme poverty is well-remembered.  It made sense then, that the largest cathedral in her native region of Lombardy would honor her with a statue on its facade.

The gourmet Italian food purveyors Eataly have come on board with the effort to restore the Duomo, and have just opened an exhibit at their New York flagship store featuring actual architectural elements from the Duomo itself, including gargoyles, statues, and other carvings.  Those of my readers in the New York area should take advantage of the opportunity to drop in and see these works, since many of them are placed so high on the Cathedral that normally they are only for the eyes of birds – and God, of course.  The exhibition is free, and will remain open until May 2015.

In the case of the St. Frances Xavier Cabrini spire of the Duomo, the hope is to raise the $188,000 restoration cost by December 22nd, the anniversary of her death.  So many Italian-Americans owe their very lives to the fact that Mother Cabrini and her sisters took care of their ancestors when they arrived in this country a century or more ago, I hope that those among my readers of Italian heritage will consider contributing to this effort, and sharing it with those whom you think might be interested.

Moreover, even if you are neither Italian nor Catholic, but happen to love great art and architecture, the Duomo di Milano is simply one of the finest buildings in the world.  It is not only the symbol of the city of Milan, it is a stunning example of the flowering of Gothic architecture and, I would argue, the most sumptuous, important Gothic building in all of Italy.  The effort to preserve and restore this ornate and glorious building for future generations is something that anyone who appreciates history and Western culture can surely appreciate.

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Duomo, Milan

Detail of the Spire of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini
Duomo, Milan

 

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