The Courtier in Aleteia: A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land

Check out my latest for Aleteia today, reviewing Diana von Glahn’s new series, “A Papal Pilgrimage in the Holy Land”, which begins airing on Catholic television networks tomorrow. In this three-part travel documentary, Diana chronicles Pope Francis’ historic visit to the Holy Land, and in her own well-informed, enthusiastic way she introduces us to the people and places of this sacred but troubled part of the world, where Christians in particular have suffered so much in recent years. Follow the link in the article for air dates and times in your area, or visit TheFaithfulTraveler.com

My special thanks to the always gracious Elizabeth Scalia and her team at Aleteia for letting me share my thoughts with their readers once again!

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Everything Is Not Awesome: We Need Penance More Than Butterflies

As part of the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, this Tuesday the façade of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican was illuminated with a slideshow projection entitled “Fiat Lux”. Inspired by Pope Francis’ recent encyclical “Laudatio Si”, and timed to coordinate with the UN Climate Change conference taking place in Paris, the light show featured enormous images of animals, nature, and so on, put together to draw attention to the environment. You can watch a lengthy video of the display by following this link.  

It is not easy to be a commentator and cultural critic when, as in my case, you are not a particularly good one, and you happen to be a practicing but bad Catholic, besides. There are many moments when, as a writer, you are torn between being nice, and being truthful. There are also many moments as a Catholic when you know that something is wrong, but you do not want to hurt someone else’s feelings because you want to be thought of as a nice chap.

We Catholics have been playing nice, rather than actually practicing our religion, for quite a long time now, of course. This is not Pope Francis’ fault: the majority of Western Catholics had already taken the position that it was better to be nice than to be truthful long before he was elected. In fact, in many instances they were encouraged to hold to such a view by their own priests and bishops, who told them not to worry so much about their sins, because they were fundamentally nice people – as if being nice was the moral equivalent of being conceived without original sin.

As a result, this high-level espousal of what we might call a “smile and you’re saved” mentality which seems to dominate the Church in the West, has filtered from the hierarchy all the way down to the individual parishioner. Sunday after Sunday (when they actually bother to show up), Catholics are fed a kind of chicken soup theology, more appropriate for First-Graders who have not yet made their First Communion, in which the only real sin one can commit is that of not being nice to oneself or others. In essence, it seems as though we are all expected to join in a chorus proclaiming how, “Everything Is Awesome”, including ourselves.

Except that everything is NOT awesome.

The harvest of planting generations of niceness instead of orthodoxy in the Church is all too readily apparent in both Europe and the United States, which have become like the fields choked by weeds of which Christ speaks in the Gospels (see, e.g. St. Matthew 13: 3-29, 36-43). One need only consider the widespread practices among Catholics of contraception, cohabitation, and abortion; low Mass attendance; liturgical abuses; sexual abuse and promiscuity among the clergy and religious; the closure of churches, schools, and monasteries; etc. Viewed purely from a cultural aspect, Catholicism is a mess, and it has become so, at least in part, by forgetting that man is not saved from damnation by being nice. It seems bizarre, when looking at the state of the Church in the Western world, that we continue to pursue niceness as being some sort of an addition to the Seven Spiritual Works of Mercy.

I am most definitely not a theologian, nor do I pretend to be. Yet as an average, pew-sitting Catholic, a position which incidentally does not require me to hold an STL, I cannot for the life of me begin to understand when the idea of being nice came to supplant the actual duty of those in positions of knowledge and authority – priests, bishops, and yes, popes – to admonish sinners, instruct the ignorant, and counsel the doubtful. If you cannot recall the last time your parish priest or bishop preached on the nature and eternal effects of unrepentant mortal sin if one fails to seek out God’s Mercy, you are not alone. It is important, therefore, in this Year of Mercy, to understand what exactly mercy is, and what it is not.

Being nice is not synonymous with being merciful, any more than being merciful is synonymous with being compassionate. Compassion is the responsibility of all, Christian or otherwise, to aid those who are suffering. Mercy is something else entirely – and it is not about being nice to others. By definition, mercy implies the forgiveness of an underlying state of punishable sin, a forgiveness which is only possible where there is not only an understanding of what sin is, but a recognition of one’s being in a state of sin, coupled with the intent on the part of the sinner to turn away from and repudiate the sinful life they have been living. Conflating mercy with compassion, if you’ll pardon the expression, is not very nice, for the eternal consequences are far more dire.

Remember that Christ saved the soul of St. Dismas, a.k.a. “The Good Thief”, not because Jesus was nice, but because the man was a sinner who sought forgiveness. St. Dismas recognized, at the eleventh hour, that what he really needed was God’s eternal forgiveness, more than he needed man’s temporal approbation. Despite suffering in physical agony and humiliation in a public execution, he still had the faith to call out and ask Christ to forgive him and be merciful to him. And Christ gave him the promise which I hope against hope to hear when the time comes: “This day, you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Now don’t get me wrong from the title of this piece: I love butterflies. I used to chase them and study them when I was little, examining them closely before I would free them. They are wonderful creatures. The fact that pollution has grown so much worse that populations of creatures like butterflies are collapsing is a terrible thing. We can and should all agree that the abuse of God’s Creation is a sin, and Pope Francis is right to call attention to it, even if it was unfortunate that he chose to do so in such a tacky (and arguably sacrilegious) way.

Yet just imagine if the Year of Mercy had been kicked off at St. Peter’s, not with a light show to draw the attention and approbation of the international press, but rather with hundreds of priests hearing confessions, with the Holy Father giving sermons on the fatal nature of mortal sin, and conducting interviews explaining why it is important to be reconciled to God through the sacraments. Now that would have been really…nice.

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Lidia Cooks, Pope Francis Eats: The Papacy And Food

You may have missed the news – as did I – that while he was in New York, Pope Francis’ meals were prepared by celebrity chef Lidia Bastianich, famous to TV watchers from her many series on PBS over the past two decades. Lidia is a refugee immigrant to America who was born in Pola, a seaport which was once part of Italy; the city was given to Yugoslavia after the war, and is now a part of Croatia. She is what we non-Italians would imagine our Italian “nonna” (grandmother) to be, if we had one: a robust, cheerful, colorful lady, with a gusto for preparing you mountains of good food. If you have never watched one of her programs, I dare you not to grow hungry as you watch how she prepares and then REALLY enjoys tasting that plate of gnocchi or ossobuco that she’s just thrown together, in her beautiful kitchen full of copper pots and majolica platters.

“What an extraordinary honor this is,” she observed, about being asked to cook for Pope Francis. “For me, cooking for the Pope is special because, not only am I Catholic, but I came to this country in 1958 as a refugee from communist Yugoslavia and was cared for by Catholic Relief Services. They did so much to give me a start in America, so I am very proud to give back through what is most dear to me on this Earth: food and my family.”

As it happens, this is not the first time that Lidia has cooked for a pontiff. When Pope Benedict was in New York several years ago, she was asked to cook for him, as well. While Pope Francis has certain dietary restrictions based on his doctor’s advice, Pope Benedict’s own mother was a hotel chef, and so the pressure was on. After the final dinner she prepared for him, Pope Benedict praised the goulash Lidia had made that evening, saying that it was so close to that of his childhood, that “these are my mother’s flavors.” Naturally Lidia got a little teary-eyed at the compliment.

There is an interesting and bizarre history of Papal chefs down the centuries, and as one might expect some of it is quite unseemly to read. The Church hasn’t survived for 2,000 years because of uniformly good Papal behavior, but oftentimes in spite of it. If you’ve ever looked at a list of all the popes, you will see a noticeable gap of several centuries where there were hardly any saintly popes at all.

However one of my favorite tales comes from the reign of a very holy pope, Pope St. Pius V (1504-1572). The third pope to come from the Dominican Order, Pius V was an ascetic, in deliberate contrast to the excesses of many of the Renaissance popes. He fasted and prayed so much that he would forget to eat, and when he did eat it was often nothing more than a bowl of broth and some bread.

Apparently on one occasion, someone suggested to Pope Pius that his daily soup should be fortified with more ingredients. There were concerns that he was doing too much, and that he ought to be eating more to keep up his strength. In response, the Pontiff threatened to excommunicate anyone who altered his meals from exactly how he wanted them prepared.

Now while I may not want that’s the sort of thing I can raise a glass to, and I suspect Lidia would, too.

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Chef Lidia Bastianich