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WELCOME! Do you find contemporary life a challenge? Are you a confused Catholic, or even just someone seeking to understand faith? Since 2003, CrossCurrents has appeared 40 times each year. My aim: to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! Find information about my pastoral consulting at http://www.crosscurrents.us/ NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

#424: All in the Francis Family?

The 2014 Synod on the Family offered echoes of the past and hopeful clues to the future.


Last month’s Synod on the Family in Rome is still fresh news for two reasons.  First, its work will not really be done until the end of another Synod, to take place in the fall of 2015.  Second, the work the Synod has accomplished already provides significant pointers for the direction of Catholic life.

The Synod is shaping up, in fact, as the most promising transformative event in Catholicism since Vatican Council II (1962-1965).  For me, the Synod so far is notable for four things: (1) the leadership of Pope Francis; (2) the echoes of dynamics and themes from Vatican II; (3) the echoes of Vatican II documents; (4) the struggle to accept the truth about civil marriage.

1. The Leadership of Pope Francis.  It is obvious by now that the phenomenal worldwide popularity of Francis is due more than anything else to his personal manner.  In organizing the Synod, his style once again has reminded many of us of Pope John XXIII (who convened Vatican II). 

For one thing, Francis appears decisive, and unafraid of criticism.  For another, he stresses the pastoral dimensions of church life over the doctrinal requirements:  he speaks much more of God’s mercy than of “truth” or rules.  Francis showed this in his choice last spring of Cardinal Walter Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart (Germany) to deliver an address to prepare for the Synod.
Kasper
Kasper, true to his progressive reputation, suggested the possibility of changes in the Church’s pastoral approach to divorced and remarried couples.  Francis’ style also showed September 14 at Saint Peter’s Basilica, when he presided over the weddings of 20 couples, some of whom were living together.

It showed again in his decision to have real live married couples address the Synod fathers, including one couple who spoke of their friends’ decision to accept their daughter’s same-sex partner. 

We have had many Synods since Vatican II, but none directed by a pope who acts like St. John XXIII.
Saint John XXIII in 1963
2. Echoes of Vatican II. Francis is, after all, the first pope since John XXIII who was not a bishop at Vatican II. He experienced it like the rest of us—he received its work as a challenge. He knows its history, and clearly he feels that its potential has not been fully realized.  No surprise, then, that his style reflects an attempt to complete John XXIII’s work.

Francis’ final address to the Synod reminds us of the addresses both John XXIII and Paul VI gave at Vatican II. He speaks of reading the signs of the times, of learning how to respond to contemporary challenges, of learning how to rethink the tradition in contemporary terms rather than reacting negatively to simply avoid reform. 

This stress on how best to reach out to the world around us, to focus on helping people rather than protecting doctrine, harkens back to the dynamics and climate of Vatican II, which Paul VI described as pervaded by a tone of “profound optimism.”
Pope Paul VI
 One Vatican spokesperson express the same outlook when he suggested that talking of unmarried couples “living in sin” or of gay people’s “disordered orientation”  is not the kind of language that attracts people to the Catholic Church.
Of course, there was a great deal of polarization among the hierarchy at Vatican II, and the same has been true of the Synod, to the point where some bishops have quietly talked about the danger of schism. This recalls Cardinal Ottaviani, the most conservative bishop at Vatican II, publicly hoping to die before Vatican II’s end.  “That way,” he said, “I will still be dying in the Catholic Church.” So too the Synod has begun to surface the misgivings of many conservative bishops about the direction Francis is taking, while also exposing them as minority voices--just as happened at Vatican II.

3. The Documents of the Synod also recall the documents of Vatican II.  When studying the Council, it is usually instructive to compare early drafts with final drafts, because they often showed movement as texts underwent debate, discussion, and finally votes.  The same thing happened in 2014.  Why?  First, because when the majority drafts documents reflecting the majority view, drafts have a reformist, progressive tone that is surprising, even radical.  Second, because the final drafts often step back from such progressive proposals.

This is not because the majority changes its mind, but because the ethos of hierarchical decision-making constantly seeks consensus. 
Synod Session
The documents are voted on, but no one wants a close vote.  Everyone wants each document to receive overwhelming approval (as did the documents of Vatican II).  But getting a “supermajority” requires that final drafts incorporate words and tone which attract the votes of conservative (minority) bishops.

Thus two lessons coming out of Vatican II apply equally well here: First, the final draft of nearly all of such documents is more conservative than earlier drafts because they water down the progressives’ main positions.  Second this means that a strong current at the Synod was more progressive than the final document reveals. So we should read the document’s tone as conservative political packaging of the Synod’s progressive pastoral agenda.

4. Accepting the Truth about Civil Marriage. This conservative shift to garner votes for the final draft was particularly significant with the Synod’s references to both homosexuals in general and homosexual unions in particular.  While earlier drafts had urged the Church to “welcome” gays, the final draft simply proposes that the Church “provide for” them.  And while early drafts suggested that homosexual unions might bring benefits for the partners, the final draft offered no such positive assessment.  In fact, the final draft reflected the bishops concern to stress:

There are absolutely no grounds for considering homosexual unions to be in any way similar or even remotely analogous to God’s plan for marriage.

But even here there may be hope of reform.  For even as the bishops reject equating heterosexual marriage and homosexual unions, at least some bishops are also ready to reject equating civil marriage with the sacrament of Matrimony.  This is significant, since the confusion of civil marriage with Matrimony makes people think that “same-sex marriage” threatens Catholicism’s sacramental teachings.

So far, most bishops--especially U.S. bishops--have claimed to be defending “marriage” without making any distinction between civil marriage and Matrimony.  In short, they have pretended there is only one kind of “marriage.” But of course the reality is that there are two kinds of “marriage” which differ in many significant ways.

First, they are different legally.  Civil marriage is a legal contract, a strictly civil procedure governed by state law and the requirements of the U.S. constitution.  As such, it is a civil right that the government may not deny any citizen without compelling legal justification.  It must be available to all, without prejudice.

Matrimony, by contrast, is a sacred covenant, a sacramental bond governed by the universal canon law of the Church.  It is not a right anyone may claim; rather, the Church reserves its right to determine both who is eligible for Matrimony and whether they meet the necessary preconditions.  It is available, for example, only to Catholics and their partners. 
Weddings at St. Peter's--September 14, 2014
Second, civil marriage and Matrimony are quite different institutions.  Marriages existed everywhere through all history, in all cultures; it shows wide variations in who can get married, what it means, and how it is practiced.  So civil marriage is a much broader institution than Matrimony. That sacrament appeared only since the first century, was found only where Christians lived, and has relatively fixed rules about who can marry, how they marry, and why they marry.


But civil marriage is also a much shallower institution.  It is a simple contractual agreement which may be performed by a justice of the peace without any particular ceremony or ritual.  Matrimony is a sacred covenant performed by the couple themselves (not a justice or a priest), and requires the sacramental rite of Christian Matrimony (as well as several other requirements) to be valid.

Third, these two institutions have quite different purposes and expectations.  The church has developed a clear teaching that Matrimony has two purposes: procreation and the unified life of the couple.  Thus couples must be willing to have children (and raise them Catholic).  Any intention to remain childless nullifies the sacrament.  So does any intention to preserve divorce as an option.  Moreover, the sacrament is not consummated until and unless the couple has (unprotected) sexual intercourse.  (Couples intending to remain celibate require a dispensation.)

Civil marriage, by contrast, has no such requirements.  It is valid whether or not people intend to children or even intend to have sex.  The private life of civilly married couples is not relevant to the civil contract, whose purpose is rather to access a long list of legal and social benefits and privileges (as many as 37 in some states) that only married couples have.  Once a couple completes the civil contract, they are eligible for those benefits and privileges, regardless of their intentions about sexual intimacy or children or family life.  People often think that civil marriage aims at promoting family life, but while that may be a societal benefit of civil marriage, it is not a legal requirement. So civil marriage confers many legal benefits but does not require any family intentions.  Matrimony does require both sex and the intention to have children--but it confers no legal benefits or privileges.

In many countries, these differences are made obvious by having two different ceremonies, but they are masked in the U.S., where the priest performs the civil marriage (acting as an invisible agent of the state!) During the same ceremony when the couple performs the sacrament of Matrimony.

Why do all these differences matter?  Because they totally alter the debate about same-sex marriage.  If marriage and Matrimony were the same thing, then the campaign for same sex marriage would directly  challenge a Catholic sacrament.  If marriage and Matrimony are the same, then “redefining” marriage equates to “redefining” Matrimony.

But if these are two separate institutions, one can redefine one without redefining the other.  Marriage can change while Matrimony stays the same.  This of course, has happened before, when some states prohibited mixed-race couples from marrying even when the Church accepted them for Matrimony.  Eventually these bans changed, but Matrimony stayed the same.

Thus same-sex marriage only threatens Catholic life directly if we insist on pretending that there is only one “institution” of marriage.  For more than 10 years I have been baffled watching the U.S. bishops maintain this pretense, and I’m relieved to see that some of them have finally realized that this does more harm than good. 

The best way to protect the sacrament of Matrimony is, on the contrary, to insist on the truth: Matrimony is not the same as civil marriage.  Thus the sacrament of Matrimony will remain the same no matter what happens to civil marriage.  Any changes in the sacrament would be decided in proper church channels, not by any court or government body.

When the Synod on the Family returns in 2015, we can hope that its work will advance in several ways. 

First, we can hope Pope Francis’ leadership has gathered even more followers (especially among bishops).  Second, we can hope that the optimism of Vatican II is rekindled once and for all.  Three, we can hope that people will treat the Synod documents respectfully but also realistically, so their conservative packaging does not blind us to their reformist core.  And fourth, we can hope that discussions about changes in civil marriage will not be confused with discussions about the sacrament of Matrimony.

   © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2014

Monday, November 10, 2014

#156: Our Most Generic Holiday?

It is eight years since I wrote my first lament for the loss of Armistice Day. My feelings have not changed: Veterans Day is our single vaguest national observance, and it squanders the opportunity to truly honor those whose sacrifice led to this holiday in the first place. So I reprise this piece from 2006:

This year I had special reason to notice that, of all our holidays, perhaps the holiday most diluted of all meaning arrives a couple of weeks before Thanksgiving: November 11.

For most Americans under 50, November 11 is simply “Veterans Day” –a legal holiday largely indistinguishable from “Memorial Day” in May, and generally understood as a sort of blanket remembrance of all those who have served in war. The subtle difference endures, I suppose, that while Memorial Day honors the war dead, Veterans Day focuses especially on those still surviving.

But of course the holiday’s origin is anything but generic, as Europeans know all too well. For it was on “The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month” of 1918 that the “War to End all Wars” finally ended after the signing of an Armistice. Hence the original holiday for November 11 was “Armistice day.”

For me, Armistice Day 2006 held a doubly nostalgic significance.

First, it was the first time since my junior year in college that I spent the holiday in France, where that war had largely been fought. In fact, my year there (1968) happened to be the 50th anniversary of the Armistice itself.

The lady from whom I rented my Paris room in 1968 was a war widow, and accordingly she received an invitation to attend the Armistice Day solemn high Mass and Te Deum at Notre Dame Cathedral in the presence of “Monsieur le Président de la République,” Charles de Gaulle. But she had family plans in Caen, so she offered me the invitation and I gladly accepted.

With some difficulty, I found the side entrance to which my invitation entitled me, waded through the mob to squeeze myself into a spot just next to the cathedral’s great sanctuary, and then climbed a wooden barrier propped against the wall that enabled me to stand a good 4 feet above the crowd.

It so happened my perch placed me in direct line with the prie-dieu reserved for the president. And so it was, after great fanfare and a solemn military procession, that on “The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month” of the 50th year following the signing of the Armistice, I found myself attending Mass at Notre Dame directly before the gaze of Charles de Gaulle. In a year when rioting students nearly toppled his government, he did not seem pleased to see me there.

But this year, for Armistice Day 2006, I was not at Notre Dame. Not even in Paris. I was in Chartres—and Chartres was the source of my second nostalgia.

You see, when I arrived as a student, the program I was enrolled in sent us all on a one-week field trip, which began by transporting us directly from Orly Airport to Chartres. The result: the Chartres cathedral, long considered the most beautiful of all gothic cathedrals, was the very first building I entered in France!

Sitting awe-struck near the rear, knowing full well that medieval Chartres was a modest town of 20,000 people – the same size as my own hometown—I wondered: What sort of people, what sort of culture, what sort of faith could ever have produced this marvel?

Now in 2006 I found myself seated once more beneath the famous deep blues and reds of Chartres’ glorious stained glass, but this time for the solemn chanting of the Te Deum in honor of those who died to make the peace of 11 November 1918.

Michel Pansard, Bishop of Chartres, presided over the service, and preached the homily. He wasted no time pointing out that the gospel just read was the gospel for the Mass of the day, for the feast of St. Martin—and he pointed out that Maréchal Foche, leader of the allied forces dictating the armistice terms, had chosen St. Martin's day deliberately. For St. Martin, long established as one the most beloved saints in France, began his 4th century adult life as a Roman soldier. Only later did he convert to Christianity, become a priest and then Bishop of Tours renowned for his simplicity and his devotion to all who suffer (he is, in fact, not only the patron saint of soldiers but also the patron against poverty).

Bishop Pansard used St. Martin’s conversion as the focal point of his homily. Those who died in 1914-1918 died hoping to build a lasting peace, he said, and that left but one choice for Christians who wish to honor their memory and sacrifice. “We must become Artisans of Peace and Justice,” he said, “to construct the future they hoped for.”

That challenge, as St. Martin's example shows, means devoting ourselves to the suffering, to those Jesus called “the least of these”—that is, all who suffer anywhere. In the face of their cries, the bishop said, “it cannot pass that we who have eyes do not see them, that we who have ears do not hear them.”

Peace, he observed, is not the mere absence of war. It is a thing built on virtue. In France, of course, the chief civic virtues are “Liberté, Egalité, Fratenité.” And the bishop linked those patriotic ideas to Gospel values, pointing out that liberty and equality cannot work if fraternity is lacking.

We cannot ask, like Cain after killing his own brother, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”—since Jesus has already answered the question for us. For us, all war is fratricide.

Fraternity is, of course, the opposite of fratricide—so if war is fratricide, then fraternity requires a dedication to peace. But fraternity cannot be legislated. It must be inspired.

What does it take, he asked, to become “artisans of peace and justice?” It is not an easy task, nor is it a passive thing. Above all, it requires a commitment to the common good, a good that goes beyond the good and the interests of individuals or groups or classes. This means thinking of the greatest good for all, whatever the sacrifices. It also requires a dedication to dialog that never shrinks from using civil discourse as the main instrument of peace—a dialog that never yields, no matter how grave the conflict, to the despair that leads peoples to take up arms.

For me, this Armistice Day gave renewed proof that my faith—our faith—speaks loud and clear to our age as it groans for peace amid the sad memory of those dead in war.

And while many Americans passed the generic “Veterans Day” in passive idleness, I found renewed inspiration in retrieving the original tradition of honoring the millions who fell right up until “The 11th Hour of the 11th Day of the 11th Month” in that horrendous, anything BUT generic "war to end all wars."

As I listened to Michel Pansard share the wisdom of our faith, I thought: our country could use this holiday. Our country, torn for forty years between isolationism and reckless interventions (like Iraq and Vietnam), could use the lesson I was hearing. We need not choose between a “going-it-alone” or “staying the course” of invasion and occupation. There is a third way: we can choose instead to join other peoples as “artisans of peace and justice.”

But I also thought: “Veterans Day” as we observe it will not teach us this lesson—and I regretted our national amnesia about the “Armistice” of 1918.

 © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2006

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

#423: Beware of dangerous knowledge!

A history book that is likely to become the default resource for many Catholics is full of dangers perspectives. 


We’ve all heard “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”--but wrong knowledge is even worse.  And too often that’s exactly what Catholics get about their own faith. 

Last month, during a weeklong vacation at a family-owned seaside cottage, I came across a new addition to the cottage bookshelf:  James Hitchcock’s A History Of The Catholic Church: From The Apostolic Age To The Third Millennium. After examining it for a couple of days, I realized that this is a very dangerous book. 

Hitchcock is written a 500-page, single volume history of Catholicism aimed at a broad readership of educated Catholics.  Catholics need a resource like this, since few of us have the time or energy to plow through dozens or even hundreds of history books in examining specific periods of Catholicism’s 20 centuries.  A general overview like this can be invaluable in helping Catholics grasp the “big picture” of catholic history. 

Moreover Hitchcock’s 2010 book has little competition among recent publications, so it is likely to become the “default” church history for millions of people, finding its way onto the bookshelves of parish priests, parish libraries, book discussion groups, Catholic schools, and even the hands of ordinary Catholics.

All these people need such a big picture Catholic history.  The trouble is, Hitchcock’s picture seriously distorts the reality.

Many readers may not realize how reactionary and misleading this book is.  They will not know that Hitchcock is peddling a partisan history full of ill-grounded opinions parading as established facts.  But as the saying goes: he is entitled to his own opinions, but he is not entitled to his own facts.

One way to grasp how Hitchcock has skewed Catholic history is to survey his index, which supplies several clues about his priorities and prejudices.

Look up “contraception,” for example, and you find 11 references; under “birth control,” the same 11 references appear, as if Hitchcock feels the topic needs  double billing.  By contrast, “anti-Semitism” has zero (0) references.  Those familiar with  Father Edward Flannery’s classic The Anguish Of The Jews or the words of Vatican II or Saint John-Paul II on this subject will find the omission very troubling.

Look up “sin” and you find 15 references, but “God” gets only 11, and “Trinity” gets zero!  “Consecrated virgins” get 6 references, but the “just war theory” gets only 1, and “evangelization” gets only “see missionary activity.”

There are 12 references to “abortion,” but only 1 reference to “gospels,” no reference to the canon of the Bible, no reference to “fundamentalism,” no reference to the poor or poverty.

“Sexuality” rates 24 references, but “Eucharist” gets only 4, under “Eucharistic practices.”

Thus the index reveals Hitchcock’s preoccupation with certain hot button issues that raise red flags for so-called “traditionalist” Catholics--and then he turns a blind eye to several significant elements of Catholic history.  Clearly, Hitchcock is writing history with his own personal agenda.

I am no expert on church history, but if I focus my attention on things I do know, Hitchcock’s agenda becomes even clearer.

Treating Vatican Council II (1962-1965), he asserts “Why the council was summoned remains somewhat uncertain,” since “the Church at that time seemed quite healthy.”

He then describes pre-Conciliar Catholicism in glowing terms.  His nostalgia for 1950s Catholic life is no doubt genuine, but it is nostalgia for a “golden age” that never existed.  He mentions high church attendance that packed churches, for example, but avoids the fact that 85% of such mass-goers avoided Communion.  Younger Catholics might be seduced by Hitchcock’s skewed account, but millions of Catholics are old enough to remember that era’s guilt-wracked spirituality, and its reduction of Catholicism to a set of rules.  Such Catholics can simply say: “Mr. Hitchcock, I was there.  I knew that time.  It was no golden age.”

This example is high revealing, for Hitchcock’s “golden age” myth renders his entire account of Vatican II and its aftermath suspect.

He claims, for example, that the Council’s attention to church renewal was “contrary to what John apparently intended” and produced a grave crisis--even though we know that John and his successor Paul VI carefully planned the Council’s direction and managed its agenda.

He claims that Catholic life since Vatican II has pushed collegiality even though the council itself “scarcely touched…the question of how the idea…applied to other levels of the Church.”  Thus, he says national Bishops’ conferences “formed themselves,” as if filling a vacuum left by the Council.  But in fact Vatican II was quite explicit in its call to establish councils at all levels of church life:

Councils which assist the apostolic work of the Church…should be established as far as possible also on the parochial, interparochial, and interdiocesan levels. (Second Vatican Council, Decree on Apostolate of the Laity (Apostolicam Actuositatem), November 18, 1965, Art.26)

But Vatican II is not the only target of Hitchcock’s skewed history.  He derides the Latin American bishops conference for endorsing the “preferential option for the poor,” implying that its link to liberation theology reflected a lack of orthodoxy.  He wrote this in 2010, three years before the first Latin American pope confirmed the idea, in his first major teaching, by quoting John-Paul II:

Without the preferential option for the poor, “the proclamation of the Gospel, which is itself the prime form of charity, risks being misunderstood or submerged by the ocean of words which daily engulfs us in today’s society of mass communications.”

But Hitchcock also targets an important Jesuit, Bernard Lonergan, by claiming that he was the inspiration for a “new theological approach” called “aggiornamento” (updating or modernizing) that “moved in the direction of modernism,” a heresy:

Aggiornamento owed much to…Lonergan…who distinguished the “classical” from the “historical” mentality, arguing that the former…was now discredited and that theology had to operate within the historical mode.

Hitchcock is wrong twice here. 

First, “aggiornamento” was actually coined by Saint John XXIII (the pope who called Vatican II), not as a “theological approach” but as a purpose of the Council itself. So to imply we should dismiss it for bordering on heresy is simply wishful thinking, not history. 

Second, the Council ended in 1965, and Lonergan first published his paper on “historical consciousness” in 1967--two years too late to impact the Council! 

Hitchcock also goes after the Dutch Dominican priest Edward Schillebeeckx, citing the many times between 1979 and 1994 he was summoned by Vatican officials to justify his views. But he avoids telling readers the conclusion, as this commentator does:

Schillebeeckx behaved with civility and docility, never provoking his inquisitors, submitting to each inquiry no matter how demeaning the procedures against him became.  And the bottom line is this: no matter how threatened officials felt, and no matter how many times they cautioned him against such controversial views, he was never found guilty of heresy or even penalized, even while other theologians lost their jobs, their priesthood, or were actually silenced.

Hitchcock also attacks the Jesuit Robert Drinan, who served in the U.S. Congress from 1971 to 1981. Summarizing his legislative career, Hitchcock describes Drinan as “a passionately pro-abortion Congressman.” Hitchcock is certainly entitled to his opinion, which is shared by many.  But he presents this opinion as if it were established fact.  Yet a case can be made that Drinan, while opposing many abortion bans on legal grounds (he was previously dean of Boston College Law School) never supported abortion itself, as evidenced by his words from 1996 and 1997:

I write this as a Jesuit priest who agrees with Vatican II, which said abortion is virtually infanticide…I do not believe that every moral evil should be outlawed. I do, however, see abortion…as a grave evil and can understand why Church leaders are urging lawmakers to ban it.  I do not want anything to impede that effort. On the contrary, I join in that effort and stand ready to promote laws and public policies that aim to protect vulnerable human life from conception until natural death; I support the Catholic bishops in their efforts to exercise moral leadership in the fight against abortion.

Hitchcock even targets John F. Kennedy as “denying that his religion could or should have significant influence on public policy.” But JFK’s famous 1960 speech to the Houston ministers reveals a different position, as I wrote in CrossCurrents #305:

“I do not speak for my church on public matters,” Kennedy he said, “and the church does not speak for me.” He said that…he would always make his decisions “in accordance with what my conscience tells me…” Finally, Kennedy acknowledged the possibility of a circumstance where his Catholic conscience might conflict with his oath of office. “And if that time should ever come,” he said, “when my office would require me to either violate my conscience or violate the national interest, then I would resign the office.”

 In fact, Hitchcock’s book is laced through with rash historical judgments paraded as facts and character attacks masking his personal bias (Hitchcock was a well-known adversary, for example, of Robert Drinan).

For the most part, Hitchcock is preaching to a like-minded choir of reactionary Catholics, but objective readers with historical insight of their own will dismayed by his accounts.  His portrait of Eastern Catholic churches, for example, has drawn the sharp criticism of Eastern Catholic expert Adam DeVille:

In…treating the Christian East, we see a picture little short of disastrous. Not only are hugely important events given no mention at all, but even very basic factual matters are dead wrong.


For one thing, Hitchcock insists on calling such churches “Uniates”—a pejorative label long since banned from scholarly use. 

Such cringe-worthy mistakes and oversights appear as well when Hitchcock describes Pope Paul VI’s encyclicals, his 1965 speech to the United Nations, his work on evangelization, and his role of Vatican II.  He also misses almost entirely the point of Benedict XVI’s first encyclical, God is Love

I’ve focused on late 20th century Roman Catholicism because that is what I know best.  I can only imagine the errors that Hitchcock applies to other centuries! 

With all this in mind, dear reader, you will not be surprised if I (1) advise you to avoid this book like the plague, and (2) express my hope that some competent historian will soon write a reliable one-volume Catholic history to fill the vacuum that otherwise might suck Hitchcock’s dangerous “knowledge” into our parishes, schools, libraries, and homes. 

  © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2014

Friday, September 5, 2014

Summer's End

[Now that the official "Summer Season" has given way to school days, I reprise one of the most popular posts from previous years.]

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven...
As Labor Day brought the “official” end to the summer season, I sensed within me that same feeling millions have at this time of year: sadness at the prospect of summer’s end.
And I don’t even like summer!
For years summer meant some menial job (usually factory work) at low pay to earn meager sums of money I would never see anyway. This was called “paying your way through school,” and it reduced my summers to debt-reduction drudgery.
Once I entered the workforce full-time, summer often meant shifting my activities from day-to-day deadlines to advance planning for the coming parish year. But then I discovered how little I like warm weather (working in heat lacked the appeal of a childhood spent camping at the lake). As I’ve aged, I gradually developed a new rhythm: as spring ends I resign myself to the heat ahead, enduring it as creatively and comfortably as possible, and I wait for the arrival of “sweater weather.”
With this outlook, why in the world does summer’s end nonetheless make me sad? The answer, I suspect, lies on several levels.
On the surface, my sadness is about lost opportunities. In a four-season climate, summer promises options unavailable the rest of the year: cookouts, picnics, outdoor concerts, lazy outdoor meals and gatherings, beach and boats and swimming and biking and reading on the deck. Inevitably the possibilities cannot be squeezed into the 8 weeks between the Fourth of July and Labor Day, so at summer’s end my hindsight focuses on all the things that happened without me. I never fail to feel that summer’s bounty has somehow slipped through my fingers.
Of course, the sense of summer’s missed opportunities naturally resonates on a deeper level—it inevitably reminds me of my life’s missed opportunities. Relationships I neglected, skills never learned, books unread, trips bypassed, careers I never explored---all these come to mind and compound the feeling of unfulfilled potential and lost time.
Our life’s time passes so swiftly, summer reminds us—especially in places like New England where summer is so brief.
And then, of course, summer’s end brings autumn. In New England as elsewhere, autumn brings bright colors that reveal another side of creation’s glory.
But autumn also brings longer nights and shorter days, colder weather and harvest time as the growing season ends. And, of course, even those brilliant leaves are merely blazing briefly before falling to earth, dead.
Summer’s end thus holds before us the prospect of a world ending its productive growth and returning to the seasons when many things die and lie dormant in the ground. It reminds us that no earthly life lasts forever. It reminds us that we all live lives that begin in spring, blossom in summer, blaze in brief glory during autumn and finally arrive at winter. It reminds us, finally, that if we have missed some of life’s opportunities, we will not get to replay our lives, and we cannot rewind them.
In short, summer’s end is sad because it reminds us of our own mortality. Summer itself may be, as Scott Turow writes, “The season of ripeness and promise”—but summer’s end is the beginning of the end, and it reminds us of our own end.
So our sadness combines regret for what might have been, and anxiety about what will come.
But this feeling is not, of course, the same for every person. It’s true, as Dick Francis wrote, that we are all dying at the same rate—one day at a time. But for each of us, those days depend on the season our life has reached.
When my mother died in April, at 91, she had clearly reached the deep winter of her life. On my last visit I raised the window blinds so she could turn her head to gaze out at the blooming dogwoods. Her eyes glowed and she smiled, grateful for one last glimpse of new life on her last full day.
Some weeks later my great-niece Nora celebrated her third birthday, blooming pink much like those dogwoods, still early in the spring of her life.
My youngest son turns 30 next month, and now all three of my children live in the full summer of their lives.
The pills on my kitchen table, the cane at my side, the white in my beard all suggest that my life passed summer’s end some years ago. Autumn has always been my favorite season, October my favorite month, Thanksgiving my favorite holiday—and now I am deep in the autumn of my life, perhaps still blazing brilliant colors but still moving to winter.

My father, at 94, has entered hospice care at home, embracing the winter solstice of his life with remarkable serenity.
As our lives pass summer, the beginning of the end comes in many forms. For many, it is forgetfulness, or stiffened joints, or the progressive loss of muscle, or deafness, or just the decision to finally invest in a pair of reading glasses. Accepting our life’s seasons with grace is one of the prime challenges of all our lives.
It is easy to overlook the simple fact: all summer long, the days are already getting shorter and the nights longer. And the summer of our lives is already moving us to our autumn.
I am reminded of the musical version of Les Miserables. The show is in two acts, and both acts end with the same rousing song “Do You Hear the People Sing?” The tune remains the same, but the lyrics and singers do not. In Act I, the song is a political battle cry sung by rebels mounting the barricades of revolution. In Act II, the song becomes the hymn of all those fallen in battle, singing not of revolution but of salvation.
The show's imagery and language is drenched in the Catholic notion of two communities linked by divine Providence. The first is the earthly communion (once called the “Church militant”) of all who struggle in faith to transform a fallen world. The second is the “Communion of Saints” (once called the “Church triumphant”) who support our earthly struggles from beyond the grave.
In Les Miserables, both communions share a common tune with different lyrics. And both march forward toward tomorrow.
As summer 2012 ends, we all march too. Regrets and fears may have their place, but we know that however sad or eager we are, however much we focus on what might have been or what may come, we know one thing is true, one thing is our constant condition: no matter what, we march into tomorrow.
  Bernard F. Swain PhD 2012