Monday, January 19, 2015

Hate to love?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a saint in ways that count, ways that encourage affection and tolerance. Every great person has detractors. Critics have thought Lincoln should have written a longer speech at Gettysburg. Others thought Gandhi was foolish to make the spinning wheel his symbol of hands at work. And you know what they did to Jesus.

They do it still, crucify, shoot, burn and bully folks who feed, house, medicate and hug the impoverished. Are lives so empty that people see others primarily as race objects? It can happen to anybody. I hear casual putdowns of white males on TV and radio and think of the white judges, presidents, lawmakers and National Guard troopers who fought to wipe out segregation and guarantee equal rights in athletics, education, employment and government.

I thought about my great uncle’s Civil War musket, which was a parlor feature when I was a kid, and my grandma’s happy duties as chaplain of the local Women’s Relief Corps chapter, supporting Union vets of the Civil War.

Not all American whites who despised slavery and the horrors of police-enforced segregation were members of abolitionist Civil War families. Many came, after the Civil War was over, from other parts of the world, and many of them joined in the struggle for racial equality. Some were clerics, some were students and other activists.

Everybody know there are lots of racists, many but not all of them white, but despite their numbers they lose one battle after another. Reconciliation is within reach, unless we screw it up.

I visited a Southern segregated black middle school in 1940, thanks to a principal who knew that even a skinny kid (yes, skinny) might really be a student reporter on an assignment. I had heard about the meanness of segregating books, and the principal led me to a library annex filled with worn-out and sometimes outdated textbooks, no longer useful in white schools, awaiting repair before being given to his students for use until desegregation of the school or disintegration of the books, whichever came first.

I remember seeing a few black tourist courts, as they were known before the word motel, coined the year I was born, was in common use, and the side-by-side separate drinking fountains, the repulsive conduct of some white cops and clerks. I remember notices at hotel entrances telling Jews that the property was “restricted.” I remember a boast from a minister that Catholic priests had been tarred and feathered; priests didn’t even have to be African American to be hated.

Segregation laws and flaws applied to churches, along with newspapers and institutions. A few organizations stand out as supporters of radial freedom and responsibility. Everybody knows about the NAACP. The words seem quaint today: National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. When I first joined Eleanor Roosevelt may have been its most prominent member.

Humanity changes slowly. It is changing in America now, and will go on changing for the better. That’s not true everywhere. Lots of us agree that God is Love. We get to choose, hate or love.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Look who's praying for you now

The everlasting engine of life is rich in names — God, Father, Father/Mother, Love, Spirit,  terms of instinct in a vocabulary almost extinct. Such are passwords, easily remembered, lifting lids and opening books, raising curtains and unlocking gates. Try Jesus, try Mary, try holy men and women from any continent or contingent, and hear the rewarding click as the doors open, and we’re in heaven. It looks familiar. It is where we were and where we are.

God is a parent who does not do our homework or rig games for us. When I was a little kid I used to visit my pal Harold Lind at his house, and sometimes his dad would haul me into a game of checkers while Harold completed his chores. Chores he set for himself ranged from writing in his diary to reading a short story published in our daily newspaper. His dad beat me time after time. He never let me win. He didn’t think his own kids or a visiting kid could learn how to live if somebody cheated on their behalf.

So, I think, with God, whose answer to a prayer may be, “I love you too much to do your exercises for you while you just watch, wither and weaken.” God’s ratings do not always measure up to expectations, and that is an odd blessing for agnosticism.

One of the first books I owned was called the Bible Story Book, and it was on my bedside table when I was six years old. I was supposed to read one story each night before turning in. I was also supposed to fill in the blanks on a Lifebuoy Soap calendar to affirm fulfillment of hygiene. I was more faithful to Lifebuoy than to the Bible Story Book, but I read some of the stories. This was before television, and there was no radio in my bedroom, and there were some stirring pictures in the book. There were David and his slingshot, Goliath and his grimace, the Egyptians being drowned, a lion’s den and a fiery furnace. What happened to Jesus was uglier than anything in a Saturday matinee serial.

The Christmas story is one that everyone knows and loves, a story that affirms the presence of God in a savage and brutal world in need of mercy, forgiveness and love. How many of us look to God for mercy, forgiveness and love? But, it is God who looks to us to practice mercy, forgiveness and love. God’s prayer is that we will confess, convert and consecrate our minds and bodies.

That’s one of the inexhaustible messages of Christmas, one that like most of the others enlivens the dream of Merry Christmases.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

So long, New Republic

I can’t remember the last time I cancelled a magazine subscription. Readers sometimes cancel because they’re angry. I cancelled a lifetime connection today when I asked The New Republic to erase my mailing label and send me a refund. I was paid up until July 2016.

You’ve probably read about management decisions which led the editor and staff to resign. It was one of my comfort magazines for 60 or 70 years, predating the comfort food industry by a generation. Atlantic and Harper’s are still in my mailbox regularly. The New Yorker remains one of my favorites, but magazines do change with the times. When I was 10 or 11 years old The Reader’s Digest was sold in my school. the price was 15 cents and there were no ads. A few years after that the Wallaces, husband and wife founders of the Digest, invited me to lunch at their Pleasantville, N.Y., offices.  I went to work for them, but moved on before later managers added advertising and a more impersonal corporate atmosphere.

My favorite New Republic column was ascribed to a journalist with initials, T.R.B., but no name.  During my Hawaii years the writer was Richard Strout, and I felt like a lottery winner when one day he was in town and called on me for help . I wrote a Sunday column of foreign news and comment. Stout had never heard of me, but he spotted my byline and I happily provided whatever he needed. He was happy, too, and invited me to call on him next time I’d be in Washington. We were both members of the National Press Club, so it would be simple to meet.

Soon after that I became director and editor-in-chief of the National Catholic News Service, now known as CNS, just a short walk from the National Press Club. I got in touch with my pal, but when he heard about my new job he backed off. Journalists are not immune to religious concerns, and it seemed to me that Catholics were not his favorite journalists. But he had the convictions and assurance of a towering journalist whose opinions were highly valued, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize, who graduated from Harvard six years before I was born. He wrote for The Christian Science Monitor for 60 years, and for The New Republic for about 40 of those years. At age 92 he died at Georgetown University Medical Center.

He was one of my favorites, and not just because he was an FDR enthusiast. At least he was spared the apparent vaporization of much of the spirit he knew at The New Republic.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Manhood cut short

A man at 18...
Is there really anything more to say about the horror of Michael Brown’s untimely, unnecessary death?

Journalists of all ages write zillions of words datelined Ferguson, Missouri, and the handiest of those words appear to be “black teenager.” Hundreds of news accounts include those words in the opening paragraph, as though journalists don’t know what to make of an 18-year-old.

Journalists often describe a rape victim who is 19 as a girl, but they’ll call an 18-year-old Army private a young woman. A boy of 19 may fall into a lake, while a man of 18 rescues him. Nobody knows, or wants to say, why this is. When I was 17 I was a copy boy, but a year later I was the man who covered the police beat.

William “Willie” Johnson won the Medal of Honor in the Civil War when he was just a kid, and David killed Goliath when he was in his teens. A Marine named Jacklyn H. Lucas fought so hard on Iwo Jima that he was awarded the Medal of Honor. He was 17 at the time
Babe Ruth was 19 when he started with the Boston Red Sox. Bill Gates was 19 when he co-founded Microsoft.

At 18 an American is an adult and can vote. At 17 a teenager can serve in the armed forces. So why are so many journalists stuck on describing Michael Brown as a teenager in virtually every story they write about his tragic death? Reporters know three things about Michael Brown. These can be written and rewritten without even googling the victim. But Michael Brown’s birthdays are not his identity, and do not alter the injustices of his life and death.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Peace could use a birthday

Sally once asked me how I managed to remember our wedding anniversary. I told her it was easy. It was five days before the Marine Corps birthday. She smiled, I think. Our wedding was almost 60 years ago, but the Marine Corps celebrates 239 years on November 10, 2014.

The Marines once transported my rigid body over Hawaii’s Big Island. The pilot and I shared a helicopter so we could watch napalm explosions below. My blood turned to snow like the frozen cap on Mauna Kea, just to our left. (Measured from its foundation at the bottom of the Pacific, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain.) In my headphones I heard the pilot soothing me with words about how many other wimps were also paralyzed when they looked down. That’s when they discovered there was no floor under them to obscure the heights and depths below. I think we had a nifty landing. I could tell you more about it if I’d kept my eyes open. I’d been zapped-aphobia by acrophobia.

I never saw written evidence of this, but the publisher of the Big Island daily newspaper told me that in the early days of World War II a Marine officer was so angry about something in the Hilo Tribune-Herald that he ordered it closed. By the time I became editor of the paper in the late 1950s the story was thought to suggest bad taste, a social blip, on the part of that anonymous Marine, and it wasn’t in the spirit of aloha to talk about it. The closing was brief, anyway, according to the legend.

I was newspapering in Honolulu during much of the Vietnam war, and there I met Lt. Gen. Victor H. Krulak, an early advocate of using helicopters for attacks. He became commanding general of the Fleet Marine Force, Pacific. He thought he might be named commandant of the Marine Corps, but Lyndon Johnson had someone else in mind. It was said that Johnson smoldered over Vietnam issues raised by Krulak. Krulak retired in 1968 and became an executive of Copley Newspapers in San Diego. Eventually his son, Charles C. Krulak, became the USMC’s 31st commandant.

Today’s commandant is Gen. J. F. Dunford, Jr.

Not everyone understands the Marine Corps’ enormous contribution to world peace and American stability. A world without any need for police departments or military forces has been elusive from the beginning of history. This country celebrates Veterans Day every November 11, saluting all who wear the uniforms of distinction, Americans who have the strength to stand against Nazis of one generation and terrorists of another.

My son John, a man of many talents and a dedication to justice and peace, served aboard a Navy aircraft carrier. I met my brother-in-law, Frank Petrine, when he returned from the Korean War. Too many of my boyhood friends lost their lives in World War II, and most of the veterans I knew from those days have moved on. As a kid standing near the corner of Main and Third in Jamestown, I waved to Civil War vets in what was then called the Armistice Day parade. I’ve lost count of the wars since then. A newspaper friend once told me he had spent his entire working life covering wars. Even so, civilization is still possible.

Blessed are the peacemakers. Too bad there aren’t enough of them in civilian clothes.


Tuesday, October 28, 2014

What happened to Chicago's Catholic Church?

My genius friend Ed Upton is now retired, and living in a condo that’s an architectural dupe of the one I occupied for a dozen years. He was the founding pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church in Orland Park, leading it step by prayerful step from a storefront to memorable buildings and grounds that serve more than 3,000 families.

 One of Father Upton’s talents is churchmanship, and part of his genius is the kind of leadership you read about in the New Testament.

He’s one of six priests who met as boys attending Quigley Prep Seminary, ordained in the Class of 1969 and friends today. The different lives of those men are brought together in a book that tells about massive change in the Catholic Church and how it happened.

“Catholic Watershed: The Chicago Ordination Class of 1969 and How They Helped Change the Church” is an engrossing 394-page book by Michael P. Cahill, a history PhD from the University of Chicago who has taught at Mundelein seminary and chaired Chicago’s Archdiocesan Pastoral Council. There’s a foreword by Martin Marty. The publisher is ACTA,

The six priests who propel this eyewitness account of a large archdiocese shaken by the Second Vatican Council are Fathers Mike Ahlstrom, Larry Duris, Bob Heidenreich, Tom Libera, Ed Upton and Bill Zavaski. The Council was more revolutionary than it may seem 50 years afterward, and less revolutionary than some reformers hoped.

In some respects it is still an experiment in progress, resisted by some elderly Catholics caught in ecclesial quicksand of the past, and by some young Catholics whose unease with the present glues them to a past that didn’t happen.
These six men were ordained by Cardinal John Cody. He was secretive about his health, and about most things. He didn’t always tell the truth. He asked me to accompany him to Mundelein when he retired, to help him write his autobiography. I spent hundreds of hours talking with him at his Chicago residence, but the book was never written. Cody died in office, less liked than when he was appointed to Chicago. The thoughts about Cody in this book are accurate and interesting and probably would not have been included in Cody’s own book.

There was a different spirit when Cody’s successor, newly-appointed Archbishop Joseph Bernardin, began his homily at a Mass attended by hundreds of priests : “I am Joseph, your brother.”

“He clearly distanced himself from Cody, Ed Upton said. Cahill observed that “the contrast in tone and style to Cody could not have been more striking.” I was there, and remember the springtime atmosphere on that August evening.

I was managing editor of The Honolulu Advertiser when Bernardin asked me to become director and the first editor-in-chief of the National Catholic News Service, now known as CNS. We remained friends, and I visited him several times while he was Archbishop of Cincinnati. He slipped into my Chicago condo for dinner as anonymously as we could arrange, while Cody was still the archbishop and not a Bernardin  fan.

At the suggestion of Dan Herr, I wrote a book for Thomas More publishers. My first title was “The Mind of Cardinal Bernardin,” but it went to press (three times) as “The Spirit of  Cardinal Bernardin.”

Tom Libera spoke of Bernardin’s final years, his battle with pancreatic cancer and his death in 1996: “Bernardin wound up being a man of deep faith who met death in a way that became an incredible pastoral ministry…a priest who says by his life, ‘Things aren’t set in stone. You can change.’”

His successor, a Chicago native soon to be given a red hat, was the man we know as Cardinal  Francis George. He is on the edge of retirement. His highly regarded successor, Archbishop Blasé Cupich, is in town.

Bernardin was a tough act to follow, Cahill observes, and “many priests’ initial impressions of George were not positive. George arrived in Chicago, however, under different circumstances than did his predecessor. The profound grief Chicagoans felt at the loss of Bernardin muted George’s early days. ‘It wasn’t like after Cody,’ Upton explains, “where people were happy to get a new archbishop—people were sad.’”

Cahill explains that “a presbyterate whose pride in the Chicago priesthood Bernardin had largely restored, their new archbishop’s complaints about perceived errors and abuses, mostly liturgical in nature, stung.”

While the six young men were students at St. Mary of the Lake Seminary at Mundelein, President Kennedy was assassinated, and there was non-stop coverage by newspapers, television and radio. Schools were closed. But not at Mundelein.

“It was,” Bill Zavaski says in the book, “the most historic thing that happened in this country in my life and we were not told. We weren’t allowed to watch TV. It was crazy.”

“No radio, no nothing,” said Ed Upton.

Michael Cahill spent hours interviewing each of the priests and quotes them extensively. Priests really are human. Most of them, especially these six, are exceptional humans. The anecdotes recalled by six priests with six personalities are gems, and the entire book is a treat.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Suffer fools gladly: St. Paul and Bl. Paul

My wife and I were admiring  Michelangelo’s celebration of pity and compassion, his marble sculpture of the most favored of moms caressing her dead son, just inside the doors of St. Peter’s. In an instant we were ducking back from a swaying sedia  gestatoria, man-powered predecessor of the horsepower Popemobile. Pope Paul VI was aboard this Vatican sedan chair.  It was close, but Sally and I were spared the embarrassment of being sideswiped by a chair.

Many journalists did not like Paul VI. I did like him, even though I did not like Humanae Vitae, his controversial  encyclical on human sexuality. I had served on what Lawrence Cardinal Shehan called the Abortion Committee. Other members included highly regarded experts in theology and medicine.  Our job was to explore the issues with Cardinal Shehan, who was a member of the committee appointed by the Pope to advise him before the encyclical was written.

I learned later that Cardinal Shehan had voted against the position taken by Paul VI, as had a majority of the committee. The encyclical stopped the church pendulum on its way up.

Cardinals are still stressed by human life concerns, as they revealed during  the October synod in Rome. They disagreed on matters of marriage and divorce, which none of them has experienced, and matters affecting gay life for Catholics, which if experienced would be in academic terms of celibacy, chastity and abstention.

The struggle for wisdom is constant. The cardinals and the pope certainly prayed daily for understanding, for knowing how to apply God’s mercy and justice. This was time for the beatification of Pope Paul VI, the saintly pontiff who years before had denied Italian newspaper reports that his personal views of homosexuality were inconsistent with church teaching. Popes, like presidents, are respected by many and despised by haters. “All  the world is full of suffering,” said Helen Keller. “It is also full of overcoming.”

I am eligible to place a Disabled marker on my car. The catch is that the disability that entitles me to the parking  spaces prevents me, along with my high regard for pedestrians, from driving a car. This devaluation of my driver’s license occurred in the fourth year of a progressive disease coveted only by spelling bee hosts.

“The whole Christian life,” said the progressive Thomas Merton, “is a life in which the further a person progresses, the more he has to depend directly on God. The more we progress, the less we are self-sufficient. The more we progress, the poorer we get so that the man who has progressed most, is totally poor—he has to depend directly on God. He’s got nothing left in himself.”
The same amazing Thomas Merton also said, “The very contradictions in my life are in some ways signs of God’s mercy to me.”

Suffering is one of the favorite topics in the Bible and on television shows of all sorts, hospital shows, shooting and siren shows, painful pratfall shows, sports bone-crunching shows and of course the news shows, where facts can be smashed and enriched with sound effects.

Pope John Paul II wrote about it in an apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris (On the Christian Meaning of Human Suffering).  He said, “We could say that suffering…is present in order to unleash love in the human person…”
It is easy to cause suffering, and many defy Christ by harming others on purpose, by confounding  trespasses instead of forgiving them as Someone suggests in a famous prayer. Suffering is part of every human experience, but causing it in anger or carelessness is to pound a nail into real flesh. My own sledgehammer always misses the nail and nails me in the foot.

Elsewhere in his letter John Paul II wrote, “…in suffering there is concealed a particular power that draws a person interiorly close to Christ, a special grace. To this grace many saints, such as St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and others, owe their profound conversion. A result of such a conversion is not only that the individual discovers the salvific meaning of suffering but above all that he becomes a completely new person.”

I’m a Catholic Christian, even though a fundamentalist pal says there’s no such thing, and I have many Buddhist friends who seek Nirvana. Most of my Buddhist friends are smarter than I am in one important respect. They stayed in Hawaii.

Second letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians, NRSV, Chapter 11: Verse 16 I repeat, let no one think me foolish; but even if you do, accept me as a fool, so that I too may boast a little. 17* (What I am saying I say not with the Lord's authority but as a fool, in this boastful confidence; 18 since many boast of worldly things, I too will boast.) 19* For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! 20 For you bear it if a man makes slaves of you, or preys upon you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. 21 To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that!