Friday, January 31, 2014

'Early in the morning, while it was still dark'

Today was a grand adventure in Jerusalem. I lack time to do the day justice.

At 5:30 am we walked over to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which stands over both the rock of Calvary, and the tomb where he was buried.

As I mentioned in a prior post, the holy sites are governed by a set of rules called the "status quo"--and last night, we were briefed on what was expected. The main thing was: we were not to enter the Greek area while wearing liturgical garb (street clothing, even clerical attire, was not a problem).

So, to borrow a passage of Scripture, early in the morning, while it was still dark,* we came to Calvary for the Holy Mass.

The great church was built at the time of the Crusaders, on top of structures that date to the 4th century. As we enter, we walk by a large slab on the floor--over which hang many large oil lamps--which is said to be the place where our Lord's body was anointed after being removed from the Cross.

This is as good a place to say this: we  have many, many places in Jerusalem in particular, and the Holy Land generally, that have been identified with our Lord and his associates. It is important to realize that we cannot be as certain about some as about others. Nevertheless, this realization doesn't call into question our Faith--because while our Faith stands or falls on certain facts, that is not to say every single fact ever asserted in connection with Christianity, even the life of the Lord, is essential to the Faith. So we know very certainly that our Lord was arrested and punished cruelly until death. But did his meetings with Caiaphas and Pilate happen here? Or over here? So when you come here, as I encourage you to do, have peace of mind about the places you visit; nevertheless, understand that with so many layers of history between then and now (and most of those layers are, quite literally, now rubble), on some matters we can only make surmises.

So, for example, when--after Holy Mass, we toured various sites along the Via Dolorosa, we came to a place traditionally associated with Pilate's condemnation of our Lord. It's a great story, but time won't allow me to do it justice; but in sum, some years back, down under a convent--situated very close to the Antonio Fortress, a pavement was discovered. Upon close examination, it seemed to match the place described in Scripture.

And yet, upon later, and even closer examination, it seems the pavement is simply not old enough: it dates from AD 135, a mere hundred years later; nevertheless, too late.

That doesn't mean the Lord wasn't condemned there; but it does mean those particular pavement stones aren't the very ones. But could the spot be somewhere close by? Yet to be discovered? Certainly! And, as I said to one of the priests--an amiable and hardworking Irishman--this pavement likely was built very similarly to what existed before; so if this isn't the very pavement, the actual pavement probably looked very much like this.

But I am getting ahead of my story; and it's almost time for a "conference" with the other priests (it's a bit after 6 pm local time--the Sabbath has just begun for God's Chosen). Let's see how much more I can describe before it's time to go...

The Church of the Sepulcher is hard to describe; like the Church of the Nativity, it's rather a mess of a building in some ways, and it has to be shared by many different groups; yet there's a good metaphor for the living stones of which Christ's Church is being built, isn't there?

We vested, and then found our way to the place for Mass; the steps up are exceedingly steep; the altar where we had Mass was just to the right of...well, Calvary! That most holy of places is in the care of the Greeks. Wedged in between is an altar bearing an image of Mary. We had enough room, just enough, for our group of twenty-plus priests, plus several other pilgrims who, even at such an early hour, chanced upon Holy Mass. Those of us lined up closer to the Greek altar were careful not to step too close, and no problems; but I confess I sought every opportunity to glance over my shoulder at the place where salvation was obtained for the world.

As we concluded Mass, another group of Catholic pilgrims began to arrive, to have Mass on the Marian altar I mentioned; and while we had a few minutes to stay and pray, I decided to head back to the Notre Dame Center (where we're staying) for breakfast, as we had a full day ahead of us, beginning at 8 am. If time allows later tonight--after our conference and dinner, I'll tell you more. It was a very exciting day!

* John 20:1

Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Bethlehem adventure, continued...

OK, I found a plug and I have more juice. So here’s what came next.

Several of us were craving some more coffee and something to eat. One of the priests--from Florida as it happens--had been here before, and he led us to a café just off Manger Square. He ordered some falafel, another priest ordered some hummus, and we all ordered something to drink. When time came to pay, it was fairly cheap--but it was all very tasty.

Now we headed back to the basilica. What was this procession that was planned? We didn’t know; but we dutifully assembled in the newer church (of Saint Catharine, if I recall correctly); a priest was passing out candles and booklets. I managed to score a candle; some women seemed determined to acquire two, for reasons that remain mysterious to this very day.

The Franciscans emerge, now wearing surplices over their habits, led by one of their number brandishing incense, down the center aisle. We all file out. Father A., our leader (whom several of us have dubbed El Jefe), prods me to line up with the monks because I am wearing my cassock; so I do. No one whacks me with anything so I am good to go. But where are we going? To my surprise, we don’t go down into the crypt where we were before; oh no! We’re marching over into the main church! Watch out, you Greeks and Armenians! Here come the Latins! With incense! And we’re chanting! In Latin, of course!

So here we go, back down that corridor, and now we’re marching up toward the sanctuary; and now I see one of the mysterious passageways is actually a stone staircase, down underneath the Greek altar. Down, down we go--you know where! Yes, there. And there it is! The very spot, marked by a 14-point silver star, under another altar, over which hang even more ancient oil lamps. But we don’t stop there, as there is a large assembly of the faithful behind us; so the monks work their way toward the back of a narrow corridor, I’d guess 12 or so feet wide; and thanks to the advice of El Jefe, I’m now way in the back, not up front where all the action is!

But who cares? (Whacking myself!) I’m in the place--the very place--where Jesus Christ was born: hic.

The fellow with the incense found his way toward the front, and the sacred place was incensed; then someone worked his way back through the throng, to where the surpliced monks and I were. And lo! There was a door behind us, which was now opened to us; and thence we processed. Winding our way through--perhaps another ten or fifteen feet--and we were right back where our group had had holy Mass a couple of hours before. Now I could see how close we’d been to the place our Lord had consecrated by his birth.

Now, a question naturally comes to mind. How does anyone know this is the place? It is a reasonable question; and in many of the places we are visiting, it is hard to muster any sort of certitude.

But in the case of the birth of our Lord, this place had always been venerated. Jesus died and rose before reaching his fortieth birthday; so not much time elapsed before believers would have reason to begin taking note of places associated with him. Even if you discount the veracity of the accounts of the visiting magi and the slaughter of the innocents by King Herod (which I do not), it wouldn’t have been so hard to find the place--a cave, near an inn in Bethlehem, where animals were kept.

What’s more, people then would also have known just where Joseph and Mary would have been headed. They’d come to town, as you’ll recall, to register in the census; and it would have been easy enough to recall just where the census-takers had set up shop.

We moderns tend to underestimate the importance of memory, because we have so many other ways to recall things. We write them down, we take pictures and make videos, and so forth. But they didn’t have cameras then; and the written word isn’t necessarily more reliable than memory. And, more to the point, when you have no other way to remember things, you make the most of it.

Before drawing this account of my visit to Bethlehem to a close, let me offer something else. When you travel around this land, you will find quite a lot of caves; and people often lived in them. Scripture makes mention of it. It was a cave where Joseph brought Mary that night--not so much because the innkeeper was heartless; but more because inns in those days didn’t have any privacy, which a woman about to give birth would desire. In Nazareth--at that time a small, no-account village in Galilee--Mary’s home was a cave. Elijah took refuge in a cave on Mount Carmel, and the home of Zechariah and Elizabeth might also have been partly a cave. We might wonder if, indeed, all these events occurred in caves, but when you traverse this land, there are plenty to see.

Suppose it is true. Our Lord was conceived in a cave; born in a cave; and, in a manner of speaking, buried in a cave. What reflection does this invite?

"Through him was life, and this life was the light of the human race; the light shines in the darkness,
and the darkness has not overcome it" (John 1:4-5).

In the 'Land of Perpetual Christmas'

Now I'll go back and recount some of the adventures up till now.

Last Wednesday our international group of priests piled onto the autobus and made our way down to Bethlehem. Recall, however, that this involves crossing an international boundary--from Israeli territory to that controlled by the Palestinian Authority. As it happened, the guards waived us through. 

While most of the trip was downhill, as we got into the environs of Bethlehem, we began climbing again. The city of Bethlehem is part of a cluster of several communities--all Arab, and mostly Muslim. (You do realize, dear reader, that "Arab" and "Muslim" are not synonyms? This is not well understood by many Americans.) Bethlehem itself has traditionally been majority Christian; however, in recent years, the Christians have become a minority. Somewhere, however, I saw that the law requires the mayor to be Christian.

We stayed at a lovely guest house run by Christians. Although no one said so explicitly, it seems all the employees are Christians. Other than Bethlehem University across the street, and orphanage next door, our guest house was the nicest building I saw. The more modern commercial district--a couple of blocks away--was kind of shabby, and a lot of the housing looked pretty humble. I suppose there are wealthy Palestinians (apart from the politicians, who are always well fed), but we haven't seen many of them. But our quarters, while not fancy, were quite clean and comfortable. 

We made a visit right away to the Church of the Nativity, which faces Manger Square. Towering over the square was...a Christmas Tree. In many places, we saw Christmas decorations, even though it was the third week of January. Even if we Latins were finished with Christmas, not all Christians are. So I call this the Land of Perpetual Christmas.

If you come here, dear pilgrim, fortify yourself for endless attention from the street vendors. There will never be a Rosary shortage, judging by what I saw--nor is there any shortage of olive wood from which to make them. I don't like to be rude, especially in a foreign setting, yet one must be very firm. Be careful that you don't have an open hand, or else someone will "give" you something. So: aiming at firmness yet with courtesy, I kept my free hand over my heart (while carrying my satchel--with my alb and stole for Mass), and kept repeating, "no thank you." And I kept moving. One little boy, trying to sell me--what else?--rosaries, responded in a loud sing-song, "no tha-a-ank you!" It might have been meant to be rude, but it just made me laugh.

You have to use your imagination now, because this will be hard to describe. Everything about this picture: the great -- and ancient -- church, positioned over the site where our Lord was born, facing a public square, with a giant Christmas tree, plus shops and restaurants as you might imagine; cobblestone streets; people milling about, with a great variety of attire; and across the square, a prominent minaret rising above a boxy building I assumed was a mosque; and narrow streets going off in various directions.

You have the picture? And no doubt, you are imagining the great basilica as an imposing, elegant edifice? You would be mistaken.

It is certainly large; yet  it wasn't particularly elegant. A hulking, old building, clearly a product of various stages of construction; it seemed hard to discern a "front." In fact, the door by which we entered--more or less the front--was actually a rather small square. According to our guide, this entrance was once much grander--you could see the outline of a traditional Gothic arch--but the Muslim overlords had a habit of riding into the church on horseback. So whoever had the church at that time blocked up most of the entrance to stop that. And so it remains.

In fact, in this and other holy places, many things remain almost completely unchanged since 1852. It was that year when the Ottoman Sultan laid down a "status quo"--i.e., a set of regulations about how the quarrelsome Christians in the Holy Land were to work with each other at the various holy sites. With the Sultan long gone, there is no one to revise the "status quo"--so the patchwork of rules and privileges stands as it was then.

This is both sad and comic. From time to time fights will break out between monks of competing Christian groups; a recent contretemps came when a monk -- in the Holy Sepulcher -- was cleaning outside his section. Why does this matter? Because if I clean a section, it might imply that section belongs to me. So it goes.

So in the case of this shrine where our Lord was born, there was no agreement about repairing the roof for quite awhile. Apparently, however, the situation become intolerable, and the Palestinian government was in the process of repairing it when we arrived.

I won't describe all I might about the church -- you can find that on your own -- except to say that it wasn't as attractive as one might hope. The interior walls were mostly bare, the ancient mosaics having mostly come down. The great  columns were covered, and scaffolding was overhead.  The sanctuary and altar area were unobstructed.

The sanctuary of the church was laid out in proper Greek style. Remember, dear Romans, all this was part of the Greek Church, not Latin! So the altar itself was behind an ancient iconostasis, out of our sight. Several Greek clerics--I'm guessing monks, but who knows?--were seated in this area, and I didn't dare to approach. But I nodded with a smile and they nodded back. Ecumenism scores a point!

Above this part of the sanctuary were an amazing collection of very old, and very dusty oil lamps. To put it plainly: it was a mess. For all my fellow Catholics who lament churches being stripped bare, this is an example of what the other extreme can look like.

Perhaps you are impatient with me by now. I understand completely. "What's wrong with you, Father? You're in the very place where Jesus was born, and this is what you notice?" Quite right. I repent in dust and ashes! However, you must understand that we were waiting quite awhile before we could find our way to the place where we were to offer Mass.

The reason we were waiting was various bits of activity--unrelated I think--both on the right and on the left. To the right was a kind of chapel where a very large group was assembled for the liturgy. They might have been Armenian, but they weren't Latin. On the left there was another sort of chapel, where there was a fair amount of coming and going, both by monks sweeping and moving things about, while others seemed to be engaged in more sacred rituals. There were several doors, up and down, where people were going. Some of us wandered about, ever so tentatively. No one whacked me with a broom, so count that a success!

Finally it was our time to find our way to where we'd have Holy Mass. We walked around to the left and up a mysterious corridor. In fact, we emerged into a whole other church next door! Except where the ancient basilica dated way back--some sections to the time of Constantine--the newer church was built in the 20th century. And, boy, did it look like it! My appreciation for the crazy-quilt Greek church I'd just been looking at grew. Don't get me wrong. This newer section wasn't bad. For a parish church, it'd be pretty good (although no parish priest in the U.S. would get away with what I saw a worker do late that afternoon: putting out the votive candles to throw them away!); but for this place? Not to my taste.

At any rate, we made our way back to the sacristy; we vested, and then our group of 26 or so made our way back through the church, and down an old stone staircase with very low thresholds. I whacked my head once. This was getting interesting.

We had Mass in an ancient crypt under the church; marred somewhat by some fairly newish liturgical appointments--by which I mean not very pleasing to the eye. This was called Saint Joseph's cave, and tradition holds that this spot was where the Lord was placed after being born several feet away, around behind a wall. As often happens when you visit holy sites, you don't always get to have Mass right there, but somewhere nearby. The luck of the draw. There were several other grottoes nearby, one of which was where Saint Jerome spent many years translating the Bible into Latin. In fact, we had Mass in that very grotto the next day.

What Mass did we have here? Why Christmas Mass! Midnight Mass, in fact! That's how it is when you visit certain holy sites; with perhaps a few exceptions, whatever day it  is, you observe the feast associated with that place. So when we went to the Mount of Transfiguration, we had that Mass; and thus in the place where Gabriel asked Mary to be the Mother of God, and so forth.

Did I mention that our group of priests is made up largely of English and Spanish speakers? On the first night together, we had a lottery to decide who would be the celebrant at each place, and who would be the homilist. We are doing the readings in English and Spanish, while the Mass can be in either of those languages, or in Latin. As it is, not all priests are really able to offer Mass in Latin (que lastima), but we have been trying. 

After Mass, and after unvesting, we had some free time; but we were asked to return for "a procession" at noon. But my battery is running down, so I'll save that for my next entry.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Back in Jerusalem

Sorry for the "radio silence." Here's the story.

Last Wednesday our merry band of priests headed down to Bethlehem. To make things a bit easier, I left my laptop in Jerusalem, and took only my iPad. However, it seems Blogger/Google--the company that provides me a free platform for this blog, did not believe my iPad was in Palestine and Israel. So when I attempted to sign on and post about my wonderful experiences in the birthplace of our savior--and then the same thing happened in Nazareth and Galilee, where he grew up and had so much of his ministry. But Blogger (pbui) does recognize this laptop. Now that I have my laptop back, I'll try to fill in some posts about my adventures for the past few days.

But I can't do much tonight, however. You see, my laptop needed charging when I left it behind, and I didn't charge it while gone--because I didn't have a converter. (They don't use the same sort of electrical outlets here as we have at home.) I bought one in Bethlehem, however, so now I have one and I'll charge it later. So I have only a few minutes before the battery goes into a coma.

One observation on my excellent adventure (so far). One of the priests who is leading this project--I dubbed him El Jefe--gave an excellent talk last week about the specialness of the Holy Land. And he made the point that the key word is "hic"--Latin for here. That is to say: all the things we profess in our Catholic Faith? Happened here. Indeed, as we have visited so many places where the God-Man walked on earth, the Mass prayers include hic. The birth of Christ here; the incarnation here (in a cave in Nazareth), and so forth.

Tomorrow we go to the hill country of Judea, where our Lady went to visit Elizabeth and Zachariah after she consented to the Incarnation. More reports to come.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

First day (and a half) in Holy Land

I left Cincinnati around 6 pm Sunday, and arrived at the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem around 5:30 pm Monday. No sleep to speak of on the flight over, so I was pretty tired. I met some of the other priests and got some information for today's outing.

We were up early today and on the road at 7 am. First stop? The Temple Mount, also known as Mount Moriah, where Abraham was prepared to offer his son Isaac. This is where Solomon erected his temple, which the Babylonians destroyed; and then the temple of Ezra, substantially rebuilt by King Herod, which was finally completed in AD 65, only to be destroyed with fury by the Romans five years later. 

As our bus ascended the hill, we could see all the graves buried nearby, facing east in anticipation of the Messiah's coming. We "de-couched" (a word our driver coined) and passed through the "Dung Gate, and then climbed further by foot. As you approach the security checkpoint, you see lots of things reminding you the Israelis are in charge; then when you go across a kind of bridge, with people praying at the Western ("Wailing") Wall below, and then reach the summit, you pass into a Muslim area. A sign warns observant Jews that, according to the chief rabbinical authority, they must not go up to the top. Why? Because certain areas of the temple were off limits to any but the priests; and now, no one knows for sure where the dividing line is. So while nothing legally prevents Jews from coming here, I saw no yamulkes or prayer shawls. 

What we did see were the two mosques built when the Muslims gained  control in the 7th centuries. Their doors were shut. As we the Dome of the Rock--which is pretty much where the Holy of Holies was--to our right was the Kidron Valley, and beyond that, the Mount of Olives, where our Lord prayed the night before he died. We could see several churches built there, one with brilliant gold onion domes typical of Eastern churches. To our left, the guide pointed out where Calvary was. If indeed the spot, it was a good choice for the Romans: a high point, where crucified enemies of the state would provide a warning to any who might resist Rome.

There was a lovely fountain, with a pool, but with very little water. Around the base of it were a series of spigots. I meant to ask if that was for Muslims to wash their feet before entering the mosques. 

From there, we passed down into a cramped, old neighborhood, and found our way to the Western Wall. Here again, as far as I know, anyone can come here to pray. Yet, while there were many Jews, the priests I was traveling with--about 30--and some other pilgrims I can't classify--our guide told us he didn't think Muslims came here. "They will go up to the top."

Of the many Jews praying there, many were Hasidic--they are the ones who wear a hat on top of their skullcaps. Here's why (according to our guide). To wear no hat is a sign of freedom--hence a passage of the Old Testament speaks of God's People leaving Egypt with their heads uncovered. So for Jewish men to cover their heads is a sign of their commitment to God. That's the reason for the yamulke. So why a second hat? Because in Eastern Europe--where many of the Hasidic Jews originated--they would be required to tip their hats to dignitaries. So to honor the secular power and the Divinity, they have two hats.

I confess, one of my overriding thoughts since arriving here was, "don't say or do the wrong thing" toward the Muslims and the Jews. All I needed--all the Archbishop needed!--was for a phone call home about my causing some inter-religious, international incident! So what do you avoid saying, or doing, if you don't know what the wrong thing might be? You don't say anything; and you don't go near people! Still, I had some questions.

Happily, there was a boy I'd guess around 13 (the men and women pray in separate sections) was talking to some tourists I guessed from China, even letting them take pictures with his hat! So I surmised no offense would be given if I asked him a question. I'd noticed how the Jewish men would tie a band around their arm, to hold a box with a verse of scripture inside against their skin; and while most of them did it on their left arm, a few did it on their right. Why? The young man explained that it was supposed to go on one's weaker arm: so a leftie wrapped it on his right arm.

A nice custom you may have heard of is that anyone can write a prayer and insert the paper between the stones. As you face the wall, you can see quite a lot of little wads of paper wedged into various crevices. I wonder what happens to them? I had come with my own paper, and I stepped up and found a place.

We'd been told not to bring Rosaries or prayer books, so I didn't have my breviary with me. Too bad! As I stood there, I thought of several psalms to pray. I have several I've memorized, including Psalm 24, which I thought was a good one. Yet, even though I've prayed that psalm by memory for many years, at the moment, I couldn't bring it to mind. Later, when I had my breviary, I looked it up to remind me of the words that escaped me:

"Who can climb the mountain of the Lord? Who can stand in his holy place? The man with clean hands and pure heart, who desires not worthless things, who has not sworn so as to deceive his neighbor."

After this, we toured some of the excavations around the temple area, finding our way down to one spot where we were at what was street level in our Lord's time. In fact, a section of the street had been cleared. It was a fine street--narrow by our standards, made with the same white stone that was quarried from the hills on which we stood, and which built the temple walls that towered over us. Yet the street was not flat, but caved in. What could explain this? "That's the result of these stones being hurled down from above by the Romans" in AD 70, our guide explained--when, after crushing the Jewish rebellion, destroyed the temple. And just a bit further was a huge mound of these stones, exactly where they'd fallen. I sat awhile to contemplate that scene, predicted by our Lord.

Then we walked around to what was a monumental staircase coming up from the south. A section of it is still there, in quite good condition. Part of it, however, is covered up by what was a palace of one of the sultans. Our guide explained that in this area, in the era of the temple, there were a number of pools built. These were for ritual bathing, before Jewish pilgrims would ascend to pray in the temple. And he reminded us that when the Apostles received the Holy Spirit, Peter preached to many of the pilgrims, and 3,000 were baptized that day. They must have been baptized in those pools, he said, because there was no where else for that to have happened. Which means, we were standing where Peter and the Apostles stood that first Pentecost.

Back to the bus and off to the Church of Saint Ann, situated hard by the pool of Bethesda, where our Lord healed a paralyzed man. The pools are still there, but not much water. The church, built by the Crusaders and used as a Muslim school for a time, was reconsecrated after the French helped the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean War--hence the French flag flying over it. There, our group of priests, from three continents, concelebrated Mass almost entirely in Latin (the readings were English or Spanish).

After lunch, we had a siesta (we needed it!), then a visit with the auxiliary bishop for the Latin Patriarchate (you'll have to look that one up--I'm using my laptop battery to write this), after which prayer, dinner, and a talk about our plans for the next few days. Tomorrow it's Bethlehem; then Galilee for several days.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

How long before you travel do you pack?

Tomorrow I'm jetting off to the Holy Land, and for a three-month sabbatical--which will include time in Rome, Turkey, and probably Germany. I expect to post when I can; I figure I'll post at least as often as before. Perhaps more? Who can say?

For about two weeks, folks have been asking me, "are you packed?" And they are surprised when I've said no, even this afternoon. How far ahead of a trip do you pack? Let me know in the comments.

As it happens, I came over after Mass, and took a few minutes. I'm mostly packed. I have a few more things to pack and off we go, tomorrow afternoon.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

'U.S. News' goes all in for bigot audience

When I posted something a couple of days ago about a column at U.S. News and World Report trotting out many of the classic anti-Catholic tropes of yesteryear, I expected it wouldn't be long before someone at U.S. News came out and said, we goofed--or else leaned on the columnist to issue at least a half-hearted apology.

To my surprise, U.S. News has decided to go all-in on reviving Know Nothingism of the 1850s. Here's what the editor, Brian Kelly, said on Friday:

Perceived bias on the court is a legitimate issue that U.S. News & World Report has covered for many years, from many perspectives. Our Opinion section has published pieces on the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive coverage from all sides of the debate and, just this week, included pieces from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of New York and Concerned Women for America. We are committed to publishing a diversity of views on a variety of topics. Jamie Stiehm's piece is within the bounds of fair commentary. We have run letters rebutting the piece and will continue to feature a diversity of opinions on this topic and others.

As I said Wednesday, U.S. News is free to publish whatever they wish, including bigotry. But why Mr. Kelly decided to defend this particular column fascinates me. It's not only anti-Catholic; it's not particularly a creative expression of it. And it's hobbled, further, but some laughable errors of fact.

Let's take a look.

Ms. Jamie Steihm, the author of this column, claims that "The Supreme Court is now best understood as the Extreme Court. One big reason why is that six out of nine Justices are Catholic." In other words, the Catholics--by voting together--are tilting the court to an "extreme." And all this is at the behest of "the meddlesome American Roman Catholic Archbishops" and "pernicious Rome" seeking "hegemony."

Wikipedia provides a listing of all the cases decided by the Supreme Court since John Roberts became Chief Justice. His appointment represented the fourth Catholic on the court, joining Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas (we'll skip over the fact that when Thomas was named, he was an Episcopalian, like President Bush who nominated him). And for those who want to keep track of these things, Justice Roberts replaced William Rehnquist, a Lutheran. Then, when Samuel Alito--the fifth Catholic!--was named to the Court in 2006, he replaced Sandra Day O'Connor, an Episcopalian.

So let's review the cases, shall we?

It would take too long to go through every case, so let's just look for cases involving abortion and contraception, shall we?

Scanning the 2005 cases, we find Ayotte v. Planned Parenthood. Oooh! Surely this will prove Ms. Steihm's thesis, no? After all, she said "More than WASPS, Methodists, Jews, Quakers or Baptists, Catholics often try to impose their beliefs on you, me, public discourse and institutions. Especially if "you" are female." And, sure enough, this involved an abortion restriction in New Hampshire.

Sure enough: the Catholics all voted in lockstep. Except the case was unanimous.

Here's another one: Scheidler v. National Organization of Women. This involved protests outside abortion mills. Dang! Another unanimous ruling! (Wait! Maybe that just proves the Catholics are even worse than Ms. Steihm said: they're so sneaky, they are seducing everyone into voting with them! Catholic Mind Control! Eek!)

No, this isn't working. So maybe we should try something different to demonstrate Ms. Steihm's claim. Instead, let's look for cases in which all the Catholics line up on one side, and all the non-Catholics--free to vote as they wish--line up the other way.

Aha! Found one: Central Virginia Community College v. Katz. All four Catholics dissented in lockstep--as if on orders from Rome! What did they object to? From Wikipedia:

Central Virginia Community College v. Katz, 546 U.S. 356 (2006), is a United States Supreme Court case holding that the Bankruptcy Clause of the Constitution abrogates state sovereign immunity. It is significant as the only case allowing Congress to use an Article I power to authorize individuals to sue states.

Here's another one: with that notorious Catholic Alito now on the Court, the fish-eaters have a majority! And in Garcetti v. Ceballos, they ganged up together...and ruled that a work memo is not protected speech under the First Amendment.

Obscure? Sure! But clearly Rome cares about them!

Later we find a similar pattern in Hudson v. Michigan--a case regarding an improper search and whether evidence so obtained can still be used; Rapanos v. United States, a wetland case; then we have Kansas v. Marsh--this is a death penalty case, and we all know the Catholic Church has a stance against that! Trouble is, on this one, all the Catholics voted to uphold Kansas' death penalty law.

Let's try 2006...

Ayers v. Belmontes. Another death penalty case. All the Catholics line up together. Against Church teaching. Lawrence v. Florida. A sentencing case. Schriro v. Landrigan. Another obscure procedural case; involving death penalty. Catholics vote against Church teaching again!*

Here's a juicy one: Ledbetter v. Goodyear. This actually got a fair amount of media coverage, as it concerned a woman suing over wage discrimination. The majority--all Catholics!--voted for a very narrow interpretation of the law, greatly limiting her damages. And of course, we all know the Catholic Church teaches dogmatically against the "paycheck accrual rule."

More tedious procedural cases. You can look them up if you wish. But here's one: Wisconsin v. Right to Life came back to the court for a substantive ruling. And now all the Catholics ganged up against the free-thinkers again! What did they do? They struck down limits on political advertising.

Then we have Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation. Here the Catholics ruled that the Freedom from Religion foundation did not have standing to sue over the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives. "Vatican hegemony" strikes again!

In 2007, the most controversial case was Heller, greatly expanding the right to own guns. The others are more procedural cases, and yet more rulings letting the death penalty go forward.

In 2008, lots of cases where the Catholics ganged up! On matters of legal procedure, environmental protection, union rights, and so forth.

Now we come to 2009. This is when the last Protestant--John Paul Stevens--drops off the court, replaced by yet another Catholic! The notorious papist, Sonia Sotomayor, who incurred the wrath of our intrepid pursuer of popish plots, Ms. Steihm. Now just you wait and see what kind of pattern of Catholic collusion emerges!

And here they are! Between 2009 and 2012, five cases that will live in infamy: Conkright v. Frommert; Stolt-Nielsen v. Animal Feed International; Kawashimi v. Holder; Wetzel v. Lambert; and Taniguchi v. Kan Pacific Saipan. They may be obscure, but surely there is some Romish plot that knits them together?

Meanwhile, something else curious happens after Justice Sotomayor shows up. Instead of voting in lockstep with her fellow Catholics, she actually votes very frequently with the free-thinkers! Same thing in 2010, when Elana Kagan--another Jewish justice, thank goodness!--replaces Stevens. Same thing in 2011, 2012 and 2013.

In fact, you'll find another curious thing: Anthony Kennedy--another infamous papist!--strangely doesn't always seem to obey Rome's orders. Famously, in 1992, he resisted the blandishments of Rome's favorite enforcer on the court, Antonin Scalia, and upheld Roe v. Wade. Somehow, Scalia and Thomas convinced two other justices (both Protestants) to help them against Roe; and yet Kennedy double-crossed them!

He did the same thing when the issue was homosexuality; repeatedly, in fact: in Romer v. Evans, Lawrence v. Texas, U.S. v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v. Perry.

How can we explain this: that Kennedy and Sotomayor's votes don't line up with the other Catholics?

And then, to see Sotomayor vote so consistently with Breyer, Ginsberg and Kagan? I mean, they're all Jewish! Can there possibly be anything they have in common?

Can you guess an answer? Because Brian Kelly, editor of U.S. News, can't. Despite a near total lack of factual support--and an abundance of contradictory facts--he finds the claim of a Catholic conspiracy entirely plausible.

Now, what do we call a negative characterization of a particular group that both lacks actual factual support, and can be contradicted by another set of facts--yet is stubbornly clung to by the person making the statement?

That's called bigotry. And U.S. News and World Report is all-in on deeming bigotry to be "fair commentary."

* To be clear, I am not actually accusing these justices of anything nefarious when I say they voted against church teaching. All I mean to point out is that their vote--if it has any relationship to Church teaching at all, it's more against it than for.

Update (1/13/14): Apparently, the latest orders from "the rock of Rome" are for abortion laws to be upheld. This despite Ms. Steihm's confidence that "pernicious Rome" wants the Supreme Court to stop abortion. How else to explain the decision, today, by Catholic-controlled Supreme Court, not to review a lower court ruling striking down Arizona's law restricting abortions after 20 weeks?

'Stand where Jesus stands'--in line for confession (Sunday homily)

There are three things going on with this event.

First, John’s baptism was about repenting and confessing sins. 

It’s a funny thing--when we get into trouble, 
one of the temptations we face is to look around 
for someone to blame. 
“Someone else” did this to me.

Of course, that can be true; but it’s not always true. 
But notice how often that’s our first instinct?

God’s People were in trouble. 
They’d lost their country to the Romans. 
And it wasn’t just about politics--it was about survival.

So when we’re tempted to look for someone to blame,
John’s call makes sense: maybe we need to look in the mirror.

It may not even be about blame at all.
But in troubled times, that’s when we need to dig deep 
in order to stay steady in the storm, 
and not lose our head, our heart, or our faith. 

So John stood up and called everyone to repent.

In many ways, that’s what Pope Francis is doing.
Just recently he talked about how the last thing we need 
in these troubled times is “lukewarm Christians.” 
A lot of the media are taking a few words of Pope Francis 
and trying to paint him as something he’s not.
I notice they never quote him 
when he talks about the devil, 
And talks about going to confession,
and the need for our culture to convert.

The second thing happening here 
is the arrival of Jesus the Messiah.
John knows who he is. 
And when he sees Jesus step up to be baptized, he’s stunned.

It would be like me, sitting in the confessional, 
and the Lord Jesus stepped in!

If I could get out any words at all, 
they’d be something like John’s: you’re coming to me? 
I need to come to you, Lord, for absolution!

So what does it mean that Jesus gets in line with the sinners?

Well, it tells us that if we want to be close to Jesus--
and we want Jesus close to us--get in the line!

Notice--notice very carefully--
Jesus did not stand with those who said, 
I don’t need to confess my sins.

Let’s be candid here. The practice of going to confession 
has collapsed in recent decades. Why is this?

Is it because we Catholics no longer sin? 
Probably not!
Did the Church abolish the sacrament? Of course not.

Some people will say, “Well, Vatican II said…”
I wish I had a dollar for all the times 
I’ve heard people claim 
the Second Vatican Council taught 
Something it never taught!
And one of them would be, 
that there is no such thing as mortal sin,
And we no longer need frequent confession.

There are a thousand excuses for not going to confession, 
but the truth is, that’s all they are: excuses. 
And that includes me, your priest.
I don’t like it. I wonder what the priest will think.
And I often say, “oh, I’m too busy.”
I’m going to confession next week. That’s a promise.

And if you do the same, when you get in line, remember: 
that’s where Jesus chose to stand--
and not with those who said they didn’t need it.

There’s one more thing happening in this episode.
And it’s what takes place after Jesus is baptized.
Listen carefully:
The heavens are opened; 
the Holy Spirit--as a dove--comes upon him;
and the Father speaks.

What does it mean?

Jesus didn’t need heaven to open--
he came down from heaven.
He didn’t need an anointing of the Holy Spirit--
he already had that from eternity.
And he already knew the love of the Father.

He didn’t need any of those things; 
but we need all those things!
Jesus receives these things when he is standing with us;
What he receives, he receives for us!

So if you want heaven open: get in the line with Jesus!
If you want an anointing of the Holy Spirit: 
get in the line with Jesus!
If you want to hear the Father say 
he is “well pleased” with you,
Stand where Jesus stands!

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

What does anti-Catholic bigotry look like in 2014? It looks like THIS...

The Know Nothings aren't dead. They live on in one Jamie Stiehm, a writer for the Creator's Syndicate, a news service circulating a wide variety of columnists.

Here's what Ms. Stiehm wrote--and which someone else, either at the Creator's Syndicate, or U.S. News, saw fit to publish yesterday: The Catholic Supreme Court’s War on Women.

She accuses Justice Sonia Sotomayor of making a recent decision--regarding the HHS contraception mandate--because of her loyalties to her Catholic Faith, and not dispassionately and fairly on the basis of law. This is part of her characterization (witness the headline) of a "Catholic Supreme Court"--all but asserting that the "Rock of Rome" has extended its reach all the way from the Tiber to the Potomac, and is dictating outcomes on the Supreme Court.

But please don't take my word for it. Go read for yourself. It's so incredibly stupid. And I don't use the word "stupid" lightly; but what else do you call something that makes assertions of fact that are so easily contradicted?

Consider the obvious fact that the various members of this supposed Catholic cabal have all voted against each other on the very issue of abortion and whether to uphold Roe v. Wade?

Who, in his or her right mind, thinks President Obama would appoint Justice Sotomayor in order to pursue such an agenda?

To accuse anyone in public office of this sort of dishonesty and corruption is pretty serious. Most normal people would place the burden of proof on the accuser, no? 

So what proof has Ms. Stiehm of this accusation? Go find out; or stay here and guess.

Now, this isn't about a difference of opinion. This is ignorant, bigoted clap-trap, and no publication that traffics in it deserves to be taken seriously. 

Let me be clear: U.S. News, and the Creators Syndicate, are welcome to publish a modern-day Know Nothing if they wish. I'm not suggesting a boycott or anything of the sort.

But they then deserve ridicule for being publishers of something on the intellectual level of Jack Chick pamphlets.

Sunday, January 05, 2014

What is Epiphany? (Sunday homily)

Today we celebrate the Epiphany. 

What is an “epiphany”?
If we have a sudden moment of clarity, 
we’ll call it an “epiphany,” or, an “‘aha!’ moment.”

So it works like this:

Christmas: God is born a human being. But only a few learn of it.
January 1 is the eighth day; that’s when a newborn boy is circumcised;
And also when his name is given publicly for the first time.
Epiphany: now the child is revealed to the nations.
He’s not just a Messiah for the Jewish people, 
but as Isaiah said in the first reading, light for the nations.

And that’s where the Magi come in—they are a symbol of the nations.
That’s why, even though they probably came from present-day Iran,
They are often depicted as being different races.
And their arrival is the beginning of the world having it’s “aha” moment.

Notice Matthew doesn’t call them kings, but “Magi.” What are “Magi”? 
Magi were sort of like priest-philosophers
of the religion of Zoroastrianism.
And one of the things they did was to study the stars, 
expecting them to give signs and meaning. 

Now, the interesting thing is, 
the stars and planets often line up in curious ways, 
and you can have several seem to “meet” in the sky, 
making for an unusual light which—
because it might happen so rarely—
no one alive had ever seen before. 

We who live in the city never see any of this! 
But in those days, everyone saw a night sky full of light; 
and if you watched it, you saw lots of interesting things.

So while the sign might have been a miracle, 
it also might have been one of the delightful surprises 
that happen in the long course of the stars 
slowly moving through their million-year cycles;
a delight that only God—
who planned it before time began—
can fully appreciate.

For the magi to make that arduous trip—
it must have been quite a sign. 
No wonder Herod and the whole city were so troubled.

So let me sum this up with some questions to ponder.

They only saw that star because they were paying attention;
What signs might you have missed—because you weren’t looking?

Sometimes the message is troubling. It doesn’t have to be. 
Herod could have welcomed Jesus.
I don’t know how many times 
I’ve had people come to confession who came in afraid—
but left so very, very, VERY happy 
they didn’t ignore the prompting of their conscience.

I meet couples about every week who are preparing for marriage.
They are always glad they didn’t ignore 
the signs and promptings that led them to each other.

And I tell you right now, I am not sorry 
I followed the star that led me to be a priest.
But had I missed it, and at the end of my life found out that I missed it?
I think I would have reason to be sorry!

Finally, we are sometimes tempted to think 
that our particular part isn’t important. 
But great things almost always start with tiny beginnings.

A baby is born. Far away visitors come to see.
But little by little, the message spread; 
until the year of our Lord 2014 when 30-40% of the world 
calls Christ their king. 
There are still Herods, striking out in violence.
Even so, the light keeps spreading. 
The word of Isaiah is being fulfilled.

Today you are the Magi who came to visit.
What have you seen? What will you lay at his feet?
And, what will you tell others that you saw?