Sunday, December 01, 2019

Is Jesus coming? He is here now! (Sunday homily)

In the first reading we hear a prophecy of Isaiah: 
all nations shall stream toward “the mountain of the Lord’s house.” 
And perhaps you’re wondering to what that refers.

Well, let’s figure it out.

It refers to the “Lord’s House” – that means the temple,
In Jerusalem, built on Mount Zion.
That of course is where Jesus gathered with his Apostles 
on the night before he died; and the next day, he completed his “Mass” 
with his suffering and death on the Cross.

So if you’re wondering how that prophecy is to be fulfilled: 
the answer is in the Holy Mass – what we are doing right now!

Isaiah said that the Word of the Lord would go forth from Zion – 
and it did, especially after the Day of Pentecost;
And that all the nations would stream to the Lord’s House –
And that, too, has happened; 
the Holy Mass is offered throughout the world, 
in every language and nation and tongue, 
even when it is very risky for people to take part.

So it is wonderful to consider that this passage has been, 
and is being, fulfilled, even as we gather here for Holy Mass!

The emphasis in the Gospel – and in Advent generally –
is on watchfulness for the coming of Jesus.
In a word, Advent is about eternity.
You might say, but I thought it is about Christmas?
But you see, Christmas, too, is about eternity, about heaven,
Because with Christmas, heaven bursts forth on earth,
And we begin to see heaven among us.

So when you and I talk about Jesus’ coming,
It’s not as if he’s now absent from the world. 
People will say, “he’s coming back – as if, he’s not here.
I think the reason many people talk that way
Is because they don’t realize Jesus is here, right now:
He never left!

They don’t know what the sacraments are:
That the Holy Spirit enters us in baptism and confirmation;
That Jesus stands with us, in suffering and pain, 
in the anointing of the sick; 
that marriage makes real, in a flesh-and-blood way, 
the love of Jesus for his people.

People don’t realize that Christ truly acts through the priesthood;
And they simply don’t know the truth of what the Holy Mass is, 
Of what the Eucharist is: Jesus is here!

It’s really easy for us as Catholics to take all this for granted;
But we must not! These are astounding gifts! Jesus is with us!

So our task as Catholics isn’t to talk about Jesus coming as if he isn't here now – 
because he is here now! – but rather, Jesus coming to reign reigning.* 
He is king now, yet he is among us with the greatest patience.
He has the right to command, and yet he continues to invite.

There will come a time when he will take his throne at last,
And the time for his people to hear, and repent, and receive him,
Will finally come to an end. 

This is our opportunity: to get our own hearts and lives ready.
The witness of our own readiness – our own seriousness and urgency – 
is what will help others to wake up and get serious, too.

I think of the whole issue of global warming and climate change.
Whatever you think about that subject, consider this:
We have movie stars and celebrities who talk about how urgent it is, 
and everyone should live simply – but what do they do?
They live like kings and fly all over the world on private jets.
They aren’t very convincing witnesses.

Well: we have lots of people around us who don’t take Jesus seriously.
They don’t know that Jesus is here, now.
Well: are you and I convincing witnesses?

* I made these changes at all Masses for clarity.

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Houston Brewery goes all in for Satan

This is pretty stunning. According to LifeSite News, there was a "Black Mass" in Houston last Saturday evening. I have been pretty busy lately, so I was only vaguely aware of this story last week. But today I was scanning Facebook and I saw something posted from the "Satanic Temple" in Houston bragging about desecrating the Blessed Sacrament -- and here is the part that caught my eye -- the event was "hosted" by Brash Brewing Company.

Of course all this business is repulsive on so many levels. But I'm going to save my commentary for a moment while I unravel this a bit. What interested me was the involvement of the business. Was the brewery unaware of this? How had they reacted to being involved in this.

And this what stuns me: Brash Brewing seems to have been perfectly fine with it, and fine with treating Jesus and those who believe in him with contempt. How do I know? I went to their Facebook page and read their posts for myself.

PAUSE AND READ CAREFULLY: If you visit their site, please do not be obnoxious or offensive. Why would you do such a thing? I'm not sure that any comments at all will be helpful, but I can't fault you if you want to ask questions or offer kind words. But don't be a jerk, please? That's not why I am writing this; and as you'll see right away, it just confirms what the folks there seem to think about all Christians.

So here are some of the things I thought about this:

- I am truly horrified that any business (really, anyone, anywhere) would welcome a Satanic ritual into its facilities. I suppose if you are absolutely convinced there is nothing supernatural, you might think it's all a joke. But if you do believe in the supernatural, wouldn't you wonder about what sort of forces you're inviting in with such activities?

- And then there's this: why in the world would you want to go out of your way to offend a significant portion of your possible customer base? Catholics most of all, but surely a lot of other people are likely to be offended; and not a few people simply uncomfortable.

- Although I'm not expecting to be in Houston anytime soon, if I am ever there, I can tell you I won't go near that place. No, not because I "hate" them as some of the juvenile comments on their Facebook page describe the reactions of Catholics. I certainly don't hate them; if I did, the most hateful thing I could do, as a Catholic, would be to consign them to hell. On the contrary, I am deeply concerned for their welfare, both in this life and the next; and I would have no problem telling the folks that in person if the opportunity arose. Plus, I like beer, and it might be I would have enjoyed their beer.

But no way I'm even entering a building that has, more or less, been dedicated to Satan. Even as a priest -- indeed, you might say, precisely because I am a priest -- I would not go into such an encounter rashly. There are priests who are properly delegated to deal with such things and I am not one of them. If there were some true necessity? That's different. But without any lack of charity toward the folks who own that business: there's no way I'd put myself in that situation. That's not a "boycott"; that's just prudence.

- It's really hard to understand the thought process that leads to aligning yourself with a Black Mass in this way, unless you are a Satanist, or there is some serious hatred at work. Why? Because the key to a Black Mass is precisely about attacking and denigrating Jesus and the Holy Eucharist. Even if you believe the Holy Mass is nothing but a ritual, and the Eucharist is nothing but bread, then why would you go out of your way to mock it? It seems to me you do this, either because you believe there's something real here -- and you want to attack that reality; or else you want to express contempt and cause deliberate offense to those who believe in it.

- So it sure seems like Brash Brewing has adopted this position: "We hate you Catholics." If you dispute my characterization, I would invite you to look over the Facebook page and see what I saw: lots of pretty anti-Catholic tropes and images; also the company proudly has a "Black Mass" beer; and it is offering some cups with Satanic symbols. And if Brash Brewing wants to come back and dispute my characterization, then all I can say is, you chose to offend Catholics -- of all stripes -- in the most blatant way possible. Even those Catholics who agree with Brash Brewery's various political and ideological views on abortion and marriage aren't going to feel a lot of love from a "Black Mass."

- Meanwhile, I noticed some of the comments on Brash Brewing's Facebook play coy: well, how do you know it was a consecrated host? Of course, I don't. Of course, I hope it wasn't. But those who organized the event said it was. Are they lying? Even so, it's still a deliberate offense -- and if it was a consecrated host, it also means someone likely committed what may not be prosecuted as a crime, but morally is one: going into a place of worship and stealing a sacred object from that place of worship under false pretenses. Put this in the context of any non-Christian religion, and the matter would be crystal-clear to everyone.

- In the course of reading about this, there are a couple of things I noticed about those who defended this Black Mass or who dismissed the concerns about it. There was a lot of pain and anger, along the lines of, you hurt me so we'll hurt you back. Also, I couldn't help getting the sense that for some people, it's all just a joke. Not just the Black Mass; everything.

- My last thought is this: is this just a weird aberration, or is this a sign of things to come? It's bad enough to see so many businesses get on board the "gay marriage" train and the "transgender" train; but so far, I think such decisions are being made in the misguided belief that only a few eccentrics will be offended. (And, in a sense, they may have calculated correctly: large numbers of Christians who ought to be offended, aren't; and lots more feel powerless.) But this is, as I said, a deliberate offense. Are more businesses really going to go down that road?

In a way, this doesn't surprise me. Back when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the Obergefell decision imposing a radical redefinition of marriage on the entire country, I predicted that we would come to a point where to deem homosexual behavior immoral, and to oppose redefining marriage, would not merely be a point of disagreement, but would make you evil -- in the same category as the KKK. The comments on Brash Brewing's page -- not necessarily by the company -- take that view.

Still, it's hard to see how this wasn't a catastrophic business decision.

I really don't wish these folks any ill. My preferred outcome would be that the perpetrators of this offense would have a change of heart and apologize; and that those who were offended would generously forgive. How wonderful if they invited the bishop to send someone to exorcise the building. But barring such an outcome, I must say candidly that I will be interested to see what becomes of this business. Will it pay a price for such a bizarre course of action, or will it be rewarded?

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Christ is King everywhere. Make him King in your life (Sunday homily)

Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King of the Universe.
The title may seem grandiose, but it makes the point:
Jesus is king of everything, everyone, everywhere: no limits!

This feast was established in 1925 by Pope Pius XI.
It was a time of “isms” – that is, causes demanding total allegiance, 
and seeking a total reordering of society:
Fascism, communism, socialism and Nazism among them.

Alas, we have new “isms” being added to the old ones.
Caring for the environment is a good and necessary thing, 
but for some it becomes a kind of religion, worshipping Nature
while human beings are treated as the enemy.

For others, the object of worship is the self; our own will.
So all the confusion today about sex 
and man and woman and marriage and identity? 
That’s us saying to God: MY will be done, not yours!

In the end, it’s all variations on the same theme:
People who will not have God as God; they want to be their own god.

This feast is when you and I as Christians must bear witness:
Without God, humanity loses himself. 

There is a second point to make on this feast, and it is this:
Bearing this witness means helping to reflect Christ and his Truth 
in our society and yes in our laws.

Yes, we live in a pluralistic society, and we have religious freedom.
But that doesn’t silence our own voices or our votes;
That doesn’t mean our consciences must be locked away!

It does mean, however, that you and I must reach out to our neighbors, 
who don’t share our faith, but who may share common values.
You don’t have to be Catholic or Christian to value human life,
To know that men are made for women and vice-versa,
And to see that the family is the foundation of human society.

Let me make a third point that isn’t about larger forces in society, 
or about a future that you and I can only glimpse darkly.
This is about something each of us can do, here and now, 
to make Christ king in our own lives, and show him as such to others.

When the weather is calm, a fence can be put up pretty loosely;
it doesn’t need much to stay standing. 
But when the winds start raging, 
that fence will be knocked flat, fast,
if it isn’t dug deep and well anchored.

That’s what we are facing today as Christians:
Headwinds that are becoming more ferocious daily.
That means the time is now to strengthen our foundation, dig it deep.

This is why Sunday Mass matters. 
It’s our weekly reminder of who we really are: citizens of heaven.
And when our culture is forgetting God more and more,
It’s all the more necessary to make a conscious effort to remember.
To be all the more deliberate and focused.
As a priest, I will readily admit Mass can become routine – 
Am I the only one? I suspect not.
Each time we come into this church, we enter King Jesus’ presence!
Each Mass, we witness the renewal of our salvation!

When you and I take advantage of confession,
That is the most powerful tool for re-ordering our lives 
so that Christ is at the center, 
not work, not sports, not ego, not pleasure.
The tug-of-war is always there for everyone one of us.

Our reading project for Advent and Christmas – 
reading our way through the Gospel of Matthew – is a great tool.
The brown books are the Gospel of Matthew itself;
The white folders are study guides if you want it.
The cards in the pews are so you can sign up for a discussion group.

At the end of this Mass, as we do every year,
We will pray together a prayer enthroning Jesus as our king.
How about we pray for each other that what we say in that prayer, 
each of us can find ways to make happen 
in our daily lives for the coming year?

Individually, and as a parish, you and I can be part of larger efforts
to make a difference in society;
In our own lives, in our daily choices,
you and I can enthrone Jesus more and more as King.
We don’t have to wait to get started.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Turkey Dinner for the Over-70s

Every month in Russia St. Remy hosts a luncheon for our over-70 members of the community. Last month at my suggestion we had Oktoberfest (but no beer!), with brats and metts and saurkraut. This month, we had an early Thanksgiving, which was my fault. It started last month with me recalling how, when I was a kid, the school cafeteria would have turkey and dressing a few days before Thanksgiving, and before you know it, I'd talked myself into preparing a turkey for everyone. The plan was that I would make a turkey and stuff it, and make gravy; the staffmember who organizes these lunches would organize the rest.

Well, the turkey was a smash hit; probably the best I've ever made. There were many comments, so I'll publish here what I did. Very little is original; I have no shame in using recipes of others. In this case, I started with a fresh turkey from Kuck Turkey Farm up the road in New Knoxville; expecting a good crowd and not wanting to run out, I ordered a 32-pound bird. As soon as I got it home last Thursday, I brined it using Martha Stewart's recipe. This really is the key. At Martha's suggestion, I brined it for 24 hours; earlier I was thinking another 12 hours or so would have been a good idea.

I should also acknowledge that I modified Martha's recipe: I didn't find juniper berries nearby so I threw in a good slug of Tanqueray Gin; the whole garlic I had on hand was pretty dessicated, so instead I used a combination of garlic paste and powder from what I had on hand. Finally, she called for a bunch of fresh thyme; Krogers didn't have that (it usually does), but it did have a package of thyme mixed with rosemary and sage, so I figured that would have to do. Martha also suggests turning the bird over half-way through, which I thought ludicrous given the size of the turkey; instead, I just stirred the thing around. Finally, in the interest of full disclosure, I almost forgot the fresh herbs, and so didn't include them at the very beginning, but tossed them in an hour later. I say all that to say, had I followed the recipe precisely, I'm sure it would have been even better.

Thankfully it was cold enough to keep the bird in its bath outside; I put it in my garage and used a couple of packages of Coke Zero to weigh down the lid. At first I worried about it freezing, but then remembered it had lots of salt in the brine, so rested easily.

After the turkey came out of the brine, I put it in a baking pan and set it, naked, in the fridge. After soaking it, I was now drying it out -- that is, the skin. As good as brining is overall, it does work against the interest of crispy skin; so this drying process helps. The turkey sat in the fridge for two days before being put in the oven last night around 7:30 pm. I rubbed it all over with olive oil and sprinkled it generously with cracked black pepper and kosher salt. Several times I basted it with melted butter.

I cooked it for about 14 hours; but because I didn't trust my timing, so after starting it at 350 degrees for an hour or so, I turned it down to about 270, and then lowered it to 170 overnight. I didn't want it to overcook while I snoozed. At six A.M., it was almost to the temperature I wanted; I cranked up the temp to around 220, and checked it again after Mass; it was ready.

My original desire was to stuff it, but cooking it long and slow made that risky. Also, to keep the breast meat juicy, I like to cook a bird breast-side down, and then for the last few hours flip it breast-side up. But I realized flipping this 32-lb monster was a ludicrous idea so I cooked it breast up from the beginning, covering the breast with some foil until this morning.

Since the meal was at a building a short distance away, I had to figure out how to get it there without problems. One of my staff -- who helped me get the bird out of the oven -- suggested a cooler, which I put in the back of my car, and drove very slowly to the site of the meal.

Meanwhile, let me tell you about the stuffing dressing. I had a recipe for Southern-style cornbread dressing that I'd used before, but I couldn't find it, so I opted for this one.

Some readers may know that there is a kind of tug-of-war about this particular dish: should it be drier or wetter; and should it ever be stuffed in the bird, or prepared as a casserole (i.e., dressing)? I like the cornbread, but I also like it a little drier, and I like it in the bird if possible. This recipe worked well, and I actually followed it pretty closely. I had some Paul Prudhomme's Poultry Magic I hadn't opened, so I used that, and I added a little more celery. I also added the optional sausage. I omitted the gravy, opting for a drier. Several days earlier I bought some days-old bread, and made some Jiffy cornpone, both of which I staled in my cut up into cubes and staled in my kitchen.

I prepped everything for the "stuffing" last night, putting it all together with the wet ingredients this morning after Mass. While the never-stuffed stuffing was baking, I fixed the gravy. I took the pan drippings -- half of which I poured into the stuffing dressing to make up for it not having actually been in the bird -- and added some turkey stock. I made a roux with flour and some fat I skimmed off the drippings and added that back into the liquid, and simmered that. It tasted pretty good, but I think it would have been better on the heat a mite longer.

As I said, I think this was my best turkey and the dressing was very good. Best of all? Leftovers and a carcass I can use to make stock!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Judgment Day -- and how not to be worried about it (Sunday homily)

If this Gospel reading scares you…
If you are worried about Judgment Day…
Then come to confession!

When you make regular use of the sacrament of confession,
you will have nothing to worry about on Judgment Day.

If you aren’t sure you know Jesus very well,
that is the easiest thing to fix.
Jesus already knows you better than you know yourself;
And he wants you and me to know him, to be close to him.
Jesus invites each of us 
to the best and deepest friendship we will ever have.

How do we become friends with Jesus?

One way is to read his own words.
For Advent this year, we have a copy of 
the Gospel of Matthew available to all parishioners.
That is this brown book, and it’s in the vestibule right now.
It is the very text of the Gospel, along with excellent notes.

Of course, you might want a little more help with it,
So that’s why we have these white folders;
Inside is a easy-to-use study guide to walk you through.
This is from Scott Hahn, who is always solid.

And, for those who would like it, 
we are organizing some study groups 
that will meet for several weeks, 
so you can discuss this and sort it out with others.

And if you want to take advantage of that, 
fill out and return this card which is in the pews.
Only when we hear back from you 
that you want to be part of a study group, 
will our staff be able to match you up – 
so don’t delay turning in that card, please.

Some people would rather listen than read; 
So we have that option as well. 
In the brown books are cards 
that explain how you can go online to 
and listen to Matthew’s Gospel and the other information., by the way, is FREE and a great resource 
for lots and lots and lots of Catholic information.
Lots and lots! And did I mention it’s FREE?

Why Matthew? Because during 2020, 
that’s the Gospel we’ll hear at Mass nearly every Sunday.
In the Gospel today, Jesus said: 
“I myself will give you a wisdom” that others cannot refute.
His own words are surely that wisdom.

Just to review, you have four options!

1. Just read Matthew’s Gospel by itself. 
That’s the brown book.

2. Take advantage of Scott Hahn’s Study Guide.
That’s the white folder.

3. Be part of a group study. 
Turn in this card in the pew to sign up for that.

4. Listen for free to these materials online.
That’s on, and how to access it 
is on the card in the book.

To return to my main theme: Jesus wants to be friends.
Knowing his own words obviously helps.

But there’s no substitute for simply talking with Jesus.
If you have a good friend, you talk to your friend; 
you spend time together. You open your hearts.

Jesus warned us that times would get bad 
and everything would fall apart. 
I’m not looking forward to that; but if it happens, 
I want to be by Jesus’ side when it happens. Don’t you?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

'There are only two possibilities...' (Sunday homily)

Click on image to go to site from which I "borrowed" this.

The first reading shows us incredible courage on the part of 
seven brothers on trial for their fidelity to the Lord God. 
But don’t miss one key ingredient in their fortitude: 
they are supremely confident of the Resurrection. 

They know they, and their persecutors, will face a Judgment Day, 
and they are certain God will give them 
a share in the Resurrection to Life.

Somewhere recently I saw someone ask this question: 
Can you name three things for which 
you would be willing to give your life? 
How many of us know the answer to that question? 
And is our Catholic Faith one of them?

Of course, it makes all the difference whether or not
you believe that there is life after this one; 
that you and I will get our bodies back, and – 
if we place our faith in Jesus Christ and cooperate with his grace
and live as he teaches us, repenting of our sins
– we will have a share in the Resurrection to Life.

That changes everything. There are only two possibilities: 
either this is all we get, and therefore, when we die, that’s the end; 
or, this is a prelude to something more. 

And all of us live according to one belief-system or the other, 
even if we don’t think about it very much. 

So, you can say, “Oh, I’m not very religious” or, 
“I don’t have time to work all that out”;
But in any case, how you live day-by-day tells the true story.
Is this world my true home? Or am I just passing through?

So that brings us to our annual celebration 
of Forty Hours of adoration of Jesus on the altar. 

We began our time of exposition 
of the Most Holy Eucharist Friday morning, 
and it will continue till 9 pm on Saturday, 
and conclude at 4 pm on Sunday afternoon. 

This devotion began in the 1500s 
with the blessing of Pope Paul III, with the purpose of 
“appeas[ing] the anger of God provoked by the offences of Christians,” 
and to seek God’s help against those 
“pressing forward to the destruction of Christendom…” 

That sounds about right! 
Boy are there a lot of offenses by Christians before God,
while our foes press hard on every side.

The anchor of our hope is Jesus Christ, and his Resurrection. 
Once again, the choice is binary. Either he really lived, or it’s all a fake. 
Either he really rose from the dead, or it’s all a lie. 
Jesus said, “This is my Body…this is my Blood”: 
those are HIS words, and so either he truly gives us 
his Body and Blood in the Holy Eucharist – 
and therefore, the Eucharist is our Lord Jesus, our Lord God! – 
Or else it’s all nothing. 

You and must decide: what do we believe? What do we live for?
It gets harder to be a faithful Christian every day. 
We think we’re isolated and protected in Russia, 
and we are to some extent, but don’t kid yourself.

The ground is shifting under our feet even as we speak. 
Sooner or later, each one of us will face a moment 
when we must take a stand; 
it will probably be a small thing, at our place of work, 
or at a party with friends, or a family situation;
hardly a life-or-death situation. 

Yet in that moment, we will face a cost, a consequence, 
perhaps a lost business deal or a better job;
maybe embarrassment, or ridicule, 
if we stand up for the Catholic Faith.
And the thing is, it’s not just once, but over and over.
Either we learn the habit of cheerfully paying the price; 
or we learn the habit of shrinking back, again and again.

And the only solid ground, the only thing that is secure, is Jesus Christ. 
Forty Hours and this Mass, right now, are a good time 
to ask yourself what you believe, and what price you will pay for it. 
And further: ask Him, ask Jesus, to strengthen you.
Hear him say to you what he said to Peter: “Be not afraid!”

One day all this world will melt away, and either there we be nothing;
Or there will be Jesus Christ.

Friday, November 08, 2019

Senor Jesus SI! Pachamama? Al infierno con eso!

Here are my summary reactions to the “Amazon Synod,” which appeared in the parish's bulletin last week:

Recently Pope Francis concluded a special meeting in Rome with selected bishops from around the world, as well as selected representatives from the Amazon region of South America. Even though the focus of the gathering was supposed to be on local issues, the event was held, not in South America, but in the “capital” of the Catholic Church, that is, Rome. Presumably Pope Francis wanted to make this as high profile as possible.

What did it do?

Mainly a lot of talking and more talking, culminating in a series of recommendations, which Pope Francis himself will evaluate and respond to. He has no obligation to do anything with the recommendations, but insofar as he promotes this process, it seems likely he will want to advance at least some of the synod’s proposals.

Nevertheless, there were three things that came out of the synod that deeply concern me. I will summarize them this week, and say more in a future column. While the synod had some good things to say about caring for the environment and respecting diverse peoples, especially those who are poor and powerless, it advocated two changes I think would be harmful: allowing married men to be ordained as priests, and creating female deacons of some sort.

What in the world is a 'pachamama'? 

Meanwhile, some people showed up with carved wooden figures of a naked, pregnant woman, and these were paraded around and finally brought into several of the churches. At one point, someone absurdly claimed it was meant to be an image of our Lady; others said it didn’t mean anything at all (so why parade around with something meaningless?). But with further research, it seems clear it was a non-Christian (i.e., pagan) symbol representing “Mother Earth,” which the Incas – and perhaps people today, pray to. This last is the key fact: in traditional religions of the region, people pray to Pachamama. Let that sink in!

How did this happen?

The most charitable explanation I can offer is that the people in Rome were clueless and didn’t want to be overbearing, but rather be “inclusive” and welcoming. Then, when controversy blew up, they circled the wagons as so often happens. Those preparing for this event ought to have headed this off, and such a symbol – regardless of intentions – ought not to have been displayed in a place of Christian worship! Of course, you’re thinking, how could Pope Francis let this happen? Remember, we believe God will prevent the pope from teaching error; that doesn’t mean he won’t ever make a bad decision, or fail to make a good one when needed.

No doubt, many in this country think, “big deal!” But remember, for centuries, certain Protestant sects have accused us Catholics of worshiping idols. In Latin America, such sects are converting ill-catechized Catholics by the hundreds of thousands. What a bonanza this will be for them! Meanwhile, a frequent Muslim claim is that Christians worship multiple gods. Imagine what besieged Christians in many Muslim-majority countries will have to face as a result of this episode.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Seek out more Zacchaeuses to win (Sunday homily)

This man, Zacchaeus, was someone everyone would have hated. 
He was a tax-collector for the Roman oppressors.
That also meant he was feared, 
because a word from him could bring you big trouble.

And this is who Jesus chooses to be friends with?

This reminds me of a great movie called “The Scarlet and the Black,” 
about a Catholic priest, Monsignor O’Flaherty, 
in Nazi-occupied Italy during World War II.
At great risk, the priest finds ways to save Jews from the Nazis.
The villain, Colonel Kappler, was responsible for many deaths,
and if he’d had his way, that would have included Father O’Flaherty.

But then things turn, and now the Nazi comes and begs the priest 
to help his family escape. At first, the Monsignor refuses; 
but then his heart softens, and he rescues his enemy’s family.

Kappler goes to prison for his many brutal crimes.
Every month one person visited him. It was Father O’Flaherty.
After 14 years, Kappler was baptized!

Jesus’ friendship with Zacchaeus had instant results;
But more often, it takes great patience, as with Kappler.

When you and I show kindness and mercy like this,
We will be criticized and mocked as na├»ve; 
and many times, it won’t seem to have done any good at all.

But one day you and I will stand before Jesus.
He will not mock us. We will not be embarrassed on that day!
Imagine being Monsignor O’Flaherty, appearing before Jesus, 
and saying, “Here, I brought my own Zacchaeus:
my friend, Colonel Kappler!”

Do you think he will regret that he was generous, 
that he persevered, all those years, in showing kindness and friendship?

Friday, November 01, 2019

Heaven is full; we need to be (All Saints homily)

A few years ago, there was a book and a movie 
about a boy who died for several hours 
and when he came back to life, he said he’d been in heaven. 
It’s not the only book that’s been written about heaven. 
A lot of us wonder: what might heaven be like?

Well, let’s look at what the Scriptures we heard have to say.

First, Heaven will be full of people. 
“A great multitude, which no one could count, 
from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”
That is hopeful!

Second, Heaven is full of holiness – and, therefore, joy.

The psalm we prayed tells us, to be in heaven is to have 
Hands that are sinless and a clean heart.
To be in heaven is to be pure, “as God is pure.”

How is this possible? 

We think of sin as something we have: 
we have greed, we have wrath, 
we have lust, we have bad habits.

But it would be truer to understand sin as being about what we lack. 
We lack the fullness of purity; of peace; of contentment; of truth.
We lack the fullness, finally, of God. 

Sin happens in our lives not because of what we have, 
but because of what we think we don’t have. 
Isn’t that what envy is? 
If I like my house, my car, my life – 
I have no reason to envy my neighbor.

Anger becomes sinful when we are not content 
to let someone else be the judge of things; 
and, ultimately, the final judge is God. 
The sin of wrath comes in when we don’t think 
God is doing a good job as the final judge of things. 

Heaven is free of sin, precisely because it’s full of God.
Which leads to my third point:

Just because heaven is full, don’t assume heaven is easy.

The standard way of thinking today 
is that pretty much everyone goes to heaven. 
Only really bad people, like Stalin and Hitler, go to hell.

Well, that’s not what Jesus said. Jesus said a lot about hell. 
He kept warning people about how likely it was they would go there.

If heaven were more or less automatic – 
the way lots of people think – 
there would be no point for the Bible 
to be more than five or ten pages long.
We wouldn’t need ten commandments, only one:
“Thou shalt not be really mean – like Hitler.”

And, more than that, Jesus would never have died on the cross.
Remember, he agonized about it the night before.
If heaven was easy, he could have told his Father:
“It’s not like they need this, Father – 
they’re all coming to heaven anyway.”

It is critical for each of us to understand – 
is that we will make it to heaven 
only because we surrender ourselves to the grace of God.

We profess that Mary, the Mother of God, is “full of grace”—
which is the same thing as saying, she is without sin.

But here’s the part we miss: what Mary received early, 
every one of us is destined to receive.
Every one of us is destined to be full of grace.

In other words, every single one of us is meant to be a saint.

Let me make the point even more strongly.

If you and I don’t make as saints?
Then we will be in hell.

There is no middle option.
No, not Purgatory. Purgatory isn’t a destination; 
it’s the last stop before heaven. 
And everyone who makes to Purgatory will be a saint.
Purgatory is the finishing school for saints.

So, unless you want to go to hell – 
and I don’t know anyone who really wants that – 
then you and I had better get serious about being saints.
Heaven will be full of joy – and as saints in heaven, 
We will be full of joy – because we will be full 
of the presence and knowledge, 
the love and the life, of Jesus Christ.

You and I – along with countless others – 
will be those saints, whose lives are washed clean in the blood of the Lamb.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Project 88 Complete!

Last week -- October 13-15 -- I visited the final four counties and thus completed my personal project of visiting all 88 counties in Ohio. Here is the report of this last outing.

On Sunday afternoon, I headed off for my tour of Summit, Stark, Columbiana and Carroll Counties. First stop: Summit County, and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. My original ambition was to ride a scenic railroad that makes trips through the park each weekend; but in October, the late-afternoon trip drops off the schedule; I couldn't get there for the earlier trip.

Along the way, I stopped in Boston Township, where I snapped these pictures:

The plaque above was in front of the building below:

Across the way is the G.A.R. Hall. "G.A.R." stands for the Grand Army of the Republic, which was a pretty prominent organization at one time in American society, but now gone with the wind.

The GAR Hall seems to have found a new life as a concert venue...

Looks nice!

When I got to the park, I looked for the visitor's center. I saw a building labeled "Visitor's Center," but parking was a little distant. I walked over, only to find this sign:

So then I went back to the old center, only to arrive 3 minutes after closing.

I went and got dinner, and then to my hotel, where I found this. What do you make of it?

The next morning I drove around the park. By the way, I only discovered at this point that much of the park is actually in Cuyahoga County, but some in Summit. There are lots of trails for hiking and biking. Since a lot of my tour was by car, not so many pictures. Here are two:

Here's some history of Brandywine Falls, including a village now all but vanished:

After this, I drove down to Akron, the county seat of Summit, coming into town along Riverview/Merriman Road, through a lovely part of town. I passed this building with a for sale sign outside the Temple Israel, which relocated in 2014:

Once downtown, I chanced upon St. Bernard Church. I didn't get a photo of the outside, but it is huge. When I got inside, all I could say was "wow!" Several times.

 The free-standing altar is unfortunate, but perhaps someday it will be removed. The bench on which the priest sits has absurdly been turned to face the people; it ought to face the altar. But overall, I was thrilled that very little damage was done to this church, or else has been undone.

What do you make of this? Was the altar rail always arranged this way?

This window is rather unusual. All the figures have a flame over their heads, which I take to refer to Pentecost. The Lord Jesus is not in the scene, but Mary is. If you count the figures, it adds up, if I recall correctly, to 14, which leads me to think they put Paul in, except he wasn't there. Let me know if you have a theory or more information.

This Baptistry impressed me because of its size, and its seating.

From here I headed down to Canton to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I spent about 2 hours there, but didn't take a huge number of photos. Here are some:

The Hall of Fame is just one part of a large and growing complex. Inside I saw plans for a $1 Billion' worth of construction.

Visiting the hall of fame is rather humbling for Bengals fans, as only only four people associated with the team are there, and only one whose work was primarily with the Bengals: Anthony Munoz of course. There is plenty to see, and its enjoyable and informative, but there is definitely a weird vibe about the place, as the mural above might suggest: it's almost a kind of religious shrine.

After the hall of fame, my goal was to visit the last two counties that day, so I could celebrate my project that evening; the next day I would take in any additional sights as desired on the way home. I dipped down into Carroll County, so I could legitimately count it, but with plans to return to see more the next day. I passed through Minerva, but sorry, no pictures!

I was charmed by this little Methodist church, somewhere between Canton and Robertsville, but I can't read the sign out front. Can you?

This is a post office. Again, I can't make out the sign.

This is a marker near West Point, Ohio, in Columbiana County, where Confederate General John Hunt Morgan's daring raid through Indiana and Ohio came to an end.

The is the Grange building in Robertson, Ohio. Never heard of The Grange? It's a farmers' organization, organized somewhat along the lines of the Freemasons, although I don't know how true that still is. Grange buildings can be found all over the country.

This is St. Agatha Church in West Point.

Eventually, I made my way to the mighty Ohio, which forms not only the southern, but a substantial part of the eastern, border of the state. This is East Liverpool, which -- you will discover, as I did -- has a plethora of historical markers:

Not many yards further up river from this point, the Ohio emerges from Pennsylvania:

One of the many libraries built coast to coast by Andrew Carnegie:

A marker right near the Ohio-Pennsylvania line, indicating where...well, read it for yourself:

After this, I headed to Salem, Ohio, in northwest Columbiana County, for the night. There weren't many options for hotels and restaurants in this county, but Salem seemed to have more options, so I headed there. When I went online, I was intrigued by "The Stables Inn" and headed there. It turned out to be a 1959 hotel that had closed ten years before, which some local investors had reopened and were trying to make go. It certainly has promise. The restaurant was nice, but the ribs I had weren't as good as I hoped. I'd certainly give it another try.

Alas, I got no other pictures in Salem but this house with unusual chimneys. Have you seen anything like this before?

After a enjoyable dinner at "Boneshakers," the restaurant in the hotel, and sleeping late, I got up for a little more visiting in Carroll County, and then the long drive home. My route was along State Route 9, from Salem to Carrollton, the county seat of Carroll County. My first job was to hunt down some breakfast, I think I ended up at McDonalds. Then I needed gasoline, which I got in Carrollton. I looked around the town, but honestly, I was ready to head home. Here's what I saw took pictures of on the way back:

And now, my trek is finished! What project should I tackle next?

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Get to work! (Sunday homily)

When I was a boy, all I wanted to do on Saturday mornings 
was eat big bowls of cereal and watch cartoons. 

My parents had other ideas:
Mowing the lawn, raking leaves, taking out the garbage, 
cleaning my room, helping get the house in order,
or working with my dad in the garden or with his business. 

Whether I liked it or not, I had to do my part in the family.
And our Father in heaven operates according to the same principle.

Everything I have, everything I am, was a gift.
My parents did so much for me! 
I didn’t earn what I received and I can’t pay it back;
And, again, it’s the same in the spiritual life.

None of us deserves God giving us life, 
and giving us salvation in Jesus Christ. 
None of us is worthy of having our Lord come to earth 
and live among us and giving himself for us on the Cross.

And then to have God continue to forgive us, over and over, 
in the sacrament of confession? 
To have the Lord Jesus give us his own flesh and blood, 
his own life, in the Holy Eucharist? 
To receive the help of the Holy Spirit, of the angels and saints, 
throughout our lives, all the way to heaven?
How can any of us dare to think we either deserve this, 
or can ever repay this love?

Even so, it remains that each of us has a job to do.
We’re part of a family. 
It’s only right that we contribute our part.

What is God’s work? It is redemption and conversion of hearts.
You and I are messengers, 
ambassadors for Christ in a world losing its bearings. 
Saint Paul told Timothy to pray and know the Scriptures, 
so that he could better share his faith 
and point people in the right way.

If you agree that God has been good to you, unbelievably good to you,
 maybe one of your chores is to know your Faith better?
So that when topics come up in conversation, 
you can give a helpful answer?

In the first reading, God’s People are in the thick of battle.
Moses is praying, his arms so weary that the priests are holding him up.

Jesus Christ is our Moses, who leads us, and intercedes for us.
Yet he also said: to be my disciple, “take up your cross.”
One of the most important ways you and I share in Christ’s work is with prayer.

When I was in Piqua, I had a priest visit who talked about
the power of spending time adoring the Holy Eucharist. 
And he said something surprising that I never forgot. 

He said: “we really don’t like to pray.” He’s right!
Sure, there are some of us have a gift for praying for hours.
But most of us, if we are honest, it’s a chore.
There’s always something else we’d rather do.
You and I try to pray, and we can’t keep on it – our mind wanders.
Maybe our back hurts or we get impatient.

What really wears us out is that we have to keep asking, asking, asking.
The same sins and habits every time you and I go to confession.
Don’t be surprised, and don’t be discouraged. It IS work!

What is true for our personal prayer, is true above all about Holy Mass, 
which is the supreme prayer of Jesus and of us, as his Church.

Where did people get the idea that Mass is supposed to be convenient, 
catering to our needs, and certainly not demanding too much?

Do you know what the Mass really is?

It is a lot like Moses being up on that mountain, begging God’s help;
and you and I are standing there, holding up his arms.

Because, in fact, it is not Moses, but Jesus: on the Cross, 
pleading for us and for the world, that grace will be poured out on us.
And none of us is a spectator. Jesus asks our help!

Look down on the battlefield, and tell me: how’s it going?
Does it look like our side is winning? 

Then there’s more work to do. For each one of us.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Which leper are you? (Sunday homily)

Ten lepers were on their way to the Temple. 

The first leper said to the second leper, 
“That Jesus didn’t have much time for us, did he? 
That wasn’t very pastoral!”

“I know,” said the third leper. 
"I wanted to tell him everything he needs to change! 
What about lay involvement?”

The fourth leper said to the fifth leper, 
“Why did she have to bring her kids? 
How was I supposed to talk to Jesus 
with them making all that fuss?” 

The sixth leper said to the seventh leper, 
“I could go back and thank Jesus—
but he knows I’m busy: 
I’m sure Jesus sees the value of sports,
and understands why I need to put my business first.

The seventh leper said to the eighth leper, 
“Look, we’re all OK, but what about that Samaritan! 

Did you see how sloppy his clothes were? 
And what about those tattoos and earrings—
You know he’s one of those types, 
if you know what I mean!”

The eighth leper looked around. 
“It’s not like I’m prejudiced or anything, 
but why don’t they stay with their own kind?

Then the ninth leper spoke up:
“Say . . . where’d that Samaritan go, anyway?”

And one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned,
glorifying God in a loud voice;
and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.

Ten lepers walked down the street. Which one are you?

Sunday, October 06, 2019

The vision of chastity will have its time (Sunday homily)

In the first reading, we heard the prophet cry out: “Violence! Ruin!”
With Habbakuk, we ask: Why?
Why can we never see the end of terror and conflict?
Why are people so cruel to one another?
“Write down the vision,” the Lord answers:
“The vision still has its time” to be fulfilled: “Wait for it.”

What’s the vision? Well, it’s God’s Vision—
as opposed to the alternative, which might be called,
“Doing it our way, without God.”

Part of that Vision is not only the dignity of human life,
but also that a moral life means choices that involve sacrifice.
We Catholics seem so far out of step with the world
when we insist on protecting the unborn,
and keeping intimate acts between couples open to the gift of life—
meaning no contraception.
This is a hard sell for many, including many Catholics.

But there’s Vision at work here—wait for it…

If we go out at night, and we gaze at the stars,
are we not filled with awe?
Surely God has some design and purpose in it all.
Who can doubt this?
That Divine purpose is not only written in the stars, 
but even moreso in ourselves.

One reason we Catholics cannot agree
with our culture’s values about human intimacy
is because they deny or at least muddle that higher purpose.

We are made in the image and likeness of God:
and when a man and woman come together,
they are never more like God—because in that very moment,
they do what otherwise only God can do: create new life.

The problem with artificial means of family planning
is they redesign God’s design.

God’s design is that a loving act is also a life-creating act.
Natural Family Planning respects this.
But the whole mindset of contraception and related technologies
is that the life-creating part of us as a problem to be overcome,
rather than a blessing to be embraced with reverence.

As a priest, I am entrusted with an awesome power: 
I offer the Holy Mass.
Through this sinner that I am,
Christ makes his saving sacrifice present,
and nourishes us all with his true and real Body and Blood.

That awesome power and gift is not mine to control or redesign.
I don’t even like to speak of it, but:
obviously I could misuse that power and gift.
I have to be under God’s authority in this or I can do a lot of harm.

Well, as human beings, the life-creating part of us
is likewise an awesome power and gift.
And likewise, we aren’t free to do with that gift just as we may please.

This design, as obvious as it is elegant, 
is why marriage is only a man and a woman; 
because only that union is a true “one flesh” union, 
a union that overflows into new life.

And that is why this union belongs in marriage;
When it is broken away from commitment and total self-gift,
It stops being about life, and it becomes about selfishness, 
Which is the total opposite of love.

That’s the Vision that our world ignores.
But, wait for it, it will have its time.
Our world’s values—how are they working out?
Are our families better off?
Are children better off when their parents never marry?
Is society better off?

I mentioned Natural Family Planning.
One of the striking things is that while it demands more sacrifice,
it also seems to strengthen intimacy.
Divorce is far less common for those who practice NFP.

Many couples in our parish embrace this path, and I commend you.
You have no idea how much you encourage me, and others around you.

Meanwhile, we cannot ignore the direction our society has taken.
After all, who is it that must be the prophet today,
calling people back from a path of ruin, to a path of life?

This is Respect Life Sunday; and we must speak up
against the destruction of the unborn
and we must cry out that we embrace both mother and child.
At the same time, our world desperately needs 
the witness of close family life.

So much of the story of poverty and social disorder 
is really the story of chaos that invades and displaces family life.
How do we combat this disorder? I’m not entirely sure, but:
If you belong to a close family, cherish what you have;
And if you know others who don’t have this gift, 
maybe invite them into your family, 
so they can learn and find courage to make a family of their own.

The world’s vision that offered freedom ends up bringing despair.
We are nothing, and the world will better off without us.

God offers us a different Vision:
We are not only his image at our best,
but even when we’re broken and marred:
God so loves us so much that he gave his only Son.
Life is worth living because even at our worst, we are his beloved.

That’s our Vision. Wait for it. It will have its time.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Do more for the poor (Sunday homily)

This Gospel is pretty clear in what it tells us 
about God’s expectations about how we respond to the needs 
of those who are poor and suffering.

The question of how we care for the poorest and neediest – 
for all the Lazaruses around us – has a pretty wide application. 

Our parish St. Vincent de Paul group 
is sponsoring a food drive, for example. Obvious application.

And in terms of those who are poor and abandoned, 
how can anyone with a conscience 
not see how this applies in the case of legal abortion? 
Of course I mean the unborn child, 
who is completely abandoned. 
So many treat the unborn child 
the way the rich man treated Lazarus – 
as if he didn’t even exist. 

But I also mean the women and others involved.
There is so much cruelty and exploitation at work!
It’s a cruel joke to use the term “choice,” 
because so often, women and girls are pressured, 
and threatened, and manipulated, into getting abortions. 

Thank God for the work of the Elizabeth New Life Center,
And for Rustic Hope, both in our community, 
providing help to women and their children. 
And there are so many more doing the same thing across the nation.

What they do is the exact opposite of what the Gospel describes. 
They are seeking out all the Lazaruses as they can, 
and binding up their wounds, and getting them back on their feet. 

But let me offer another application. Let’s talk about immigration. 
This is a big subject, 
and I’m not going to get into the details of public policy. 
I have my opinions; you have yours. Maybe we agree.
But that isn’t what a homily is for.

Rather, I just want to ask you 
to look at the immigration situation through the lens of this Gospel.
Our bishops have said, repeatedly, 
that it’s absolutely legitimate for countries 
to control their borders and for people to obey the law. 
But what’s also important is to have compassion 
and to respect every person’s dignity, 
including people who are illegal immigrants, who have broken the law.

It’s so frustrating, because obviously there are grave problems 
in the countries where these families are coming from.

Our country can’t solve the world’s problems,
but we aren’t powerless; we can do something.
It would be great if we talked more about that,
Instead of the constant yelling and finger-pointing.
Of course, politicians are going to do what they do!

Your job and mine are to be a Catholic voice; 
and since we’re citizens and we can vote, 
the politicians will listen if enough of us speak up.

Meanwhile, there are people very close to home who need help.
If you go to Sidney, Greeneville, Piqua, Troy or Dayton, 
the realities are very obvious.
But don’t kid yourself; there are people in trouble right here, 
but it may be a little less obvious. 

Once again, our St. Vincent de Paul group fields a lot of requests 
for help with utility bills and rent and groceries –
and our local group RACK does similar things – 
But it’s all mostly hidden.

Groceries, electricity, heat, these help!
Even better, however, is a human connection.
So often these needs happen in situations of chaos,
And there are children involved, and they need more than material things. 
There is a need for compassion and patience and love.
To cite something Pope Francis often talks about:
A need to accompany people in their lives.

So what are our action steps from this homily?
I invite you to support the organizations I’ve mentioned already, 
plus I think of New Choices, a shelter for women in Sidney, 
also the Holy Angels Soup Kitchen, the Bethany Center in Piqua, 
the St. Vincent shelter in Dayton – they can all use help.
Whether with money or time, if you can, think about doing more.

And you should also know, by the way, 
that when you put a contribution in the “for the needy” envelope, 
we help many of these organizations.

And, again, regarding our own community here:
Be a good neighbor. Be the friend someone in trouble can call;
So that your kitchen can be where a neighbor can come to talk.

Recently I took a trip over to Holmes County,
Where there are so many Amish, 
just like there are similar folks who live around Covington.
When they get in trouble, they don’t go to the government.
They take care of each other. 
Here in Russia, we do a lot of that, too.
Let’s do more.

In the prayer I offered near the beginning of Mass, 
we asked that God make us “heirs to the treasures of heaven.”

Don’t forget that God sees whether we go out of our way 
to bring others to share in his treasures. 
You and I aren’t going to solve all the problems; we don’t have to.
God only asks that we remember the Lazaruses around us,
And show them compassion and mercy.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Recent films: I'm 0-for-2 (Review of 'First Reformed')


Last night I watched First Reformed, a 2017 film with Ethan Hawke about a Protestant minister who pastors a dwindling congregation in a very old church in New England.

The winter is bleak and so is everything else. The world is going to hell, and it just so happens that the head of a local manufacturer, who is also a major benefactor of the congregation and everything else in town, is driving the world to hell with copious pollution. And our hero, such as he is, is 47 and apparently has never thought about pollution or climate change or any of the implications of any of it, until he meets a suicidal environmental activist, who actually prepared a "suicide vest," meaning he might well have intended to blow himself up and take something, or someone, else with him.

Our hero is writing a diary. If you look at Wikipedia, you'll see that this story is based on The Diary of a Country Priest, which is a film I'd like to see, but I can't find it anywhere to rent, only to buy. Why change it from Catholic to Protestant? It creates some odd situations. For example, instead of this sad-sack parson being sent here by the bishop, he is sent here by the pastor of a local megachurch. The idea being that First Reformed clapboard church is a wholly owned subsidiary of Abundant Life Megachurch. Possible, but a little strained. If Rev. Toller (Hawke's character) is worth hiring, why have him conduct Sunday services at First Reformed that draw about five people? Why not just use the small church for special events? By the end, the rationale for the change becomes clear, I think.

The bigger question is why Hawke is so messed up. He has serious health issues he doesn't take seriously until the end. Why? Is he depressed? If so, it would most likely be because he lost his own son in the Iraq War, and his marriage fell apart. Sound reasonable, except I have to ask: why did the pastor of the Megachurch fail to know about any of this, or take any interest? He has Hawke taking part in youth group activities; wouldn't you want to be sure this assistant pastor is emotionally healthy?

Hawke unravels through the movie -- that's a perfectly interesting story, but again, I think the way the story is told makes it implausible, as opposed to a parish priest being far, far away from the bishop. Hawke's growing obsession with environmentalism only makes sense as a manifestation of his mental collapse, which is a very interesting commentary on the environmental movement!

Eventually, Hawke has some weird and improper interactions with the activist's widow. Several people have unrealistic overreactions, which are annoying when the story depends on them. Toward the end, Hawke still has the suicide vest -- he took it from the man's house to keep him from using it, and was supposed to destroy it; instead, he finishes it and is going to use it at the big celebration orchestrated by the villain, such as he is, the industrialist. Only he's a really nice industrialist, and you have to wonder if he's even as bad as our mentally unbalanced hero thinks he is. But instead of killing everyone, Hawke wraps barbed wire around his bare torso, then dons vestments, then the widow shows up, she hugs him even though blood is seeping through -- can't she feel the barbs through his clothes? -- and they kiss madly. The End.

What's the point? Which part of Rev. Toller's life drives him mad? Is this a comment on celibacy, inasmuch as he is kind of living a celibate life -- he cruelly rejects the interest of a female coworker -- but when he surrenders to his passion for the widow, he's cured?

The film is pretty enough, if you like that sort of thing. This reminds me of so much literature that you read, you shake your head, and then supercilious people give you the sad side-eye. Could it be that it's just not that good, and you're a sucker for gorgeous mediocrity?

Feel free to defend this movie: it's very possible I really am missing something.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Brad Pitt's 'Ad Astra' -- not per aspera, but ineptia

Yesterday, instead of making another exploration of Ohio, I went to a movie. Ad Astra, with Brad Pitt, looked promising. A space flick? Brad Pitt? What could go wrong? Oh my...


Let me get this out of the way up front: after seeing the movie, I looked up what the reviews said, and many said, well, this isn't really a sci-fi pic, but about relationships. OK, fine; but that isn't why I am ragging this film.

I am trashing this film because it is ridiculous. The plot makes no sense.

If you enjoy me shredding this picture, read on. If you want a "too long, didn't read" summary, here it is:

And I am not talking about minor things. Lots of films have little errors or illogicalities, but I can overlook a certain number of these because they just serve to speed things along or tell the story in a more interesting way. So, for example, at one point the Pitt character sends a message to his father on a ship presumed to be orbiting Neptune. He speaks into a microphone, and then everyone expects an immediate answer. This is dopey, of course.

Even with the special laser referred to in the movie, the message would take four hours to travel that far, and another four hours for any response (assuming dad has the same special laser). But OK, having everyone wait all that time only makes the story a little more tedious. Similar points could be made about the gravity on Mars and our moon apparently being just like earth -- except when it's not, as in the pirates on the moon chasing Pitt and his party as they head for the far side of the moon. But I was thinking, OK, maybe they wear heavy shoes inside to compensate for low gravity, and they don't want to spend time explaining all that.

No, the problems boil down to a very simple matter: the whole story is junk. Here it is: Brad Pitt plays a highly decorated member of U.S. Space Command, who has performed exceptionally in many tasks. His age isn't spelled out in the film, but he would seem to be in his 40s. We meet him as he plummets from a orbital telescope array to earth, and manages to deploy his parachute and land safely. The fall was prompted by sudden explosions, which we learn were caused by some sort of electrical storm emanating from out near Neptune. This phenomenon keeps happening, causing grave damage all over earth, and -- of course -- if it can't be stopped, the planet is doomed.

OK, this itself seems pretty sketchy, although I didn't realize the problem; it was one of the reviewers who pointed this out: how does this ship billions of miles away cause such awful damage, and yet itself isn't wrecked? See that? That's an oops that is completely fatal to the whole story. But wait! There's more!

The higher-ups seek out Pitt because they think his dad (who is on the ship out Neptune way) has gone around the bend, and they hope Pitt can help them convince his father to stop messing with the solar system. This briefing, by the way, is when Pitt finds out his dad is actually alive! He hadn't seen him since he took off on this mission 30 years earlier, and assumed his father was dead. Which raises yet another huge problem: how, exactly, has dad survived all this time while orbiting Neptune? Let's just skip over the problem of oxygen and water, assuming they have the means to recycle all that for decades. And we'll assume the Neptune ship has shielding from radiation that we don't have now. What about food? We'll come back to this in a moment.

So here's what the higher-ups ask Pitt to do. He takes a commercial flight to the moon (that sequence, along with the opening sequence, was fun to watch, especially when we see Applebees and DHL with outlets on the moon!); there he is supposed to go to a base on the dark side, and fly to Mars. On Mars, he will access the special space laser thingabob in order to attempt contact with dad...

Only, why does he need to go to Mars to do this? They can't do this from earth? Even if the message must be sent from Mars, why can't he relay the message from earth to Mars? None of this makes any sense! Why this huge expense and risk? More than that, why the delay? It takes 17 days or so to get to Mars; a lot of catastrophes on earth can happen in that time.

Of course, cutting all that out means we don't get to see the moon pirates come out of nowhere and attempt to kill? Or kidnap? Pitt and his party. Except, Pitt was warned this might happen, so they took along a few extra space Marines. Of course they didn't send enough protection (why not?), so it was all touch-and-go, and Pitt just barely makes it safely to the base. By the way, why -- if the moon is such a dangerous place to travel, with wars and piracy here and there -- aren't people traveling in something better than open buggies? It makes no sense. Moving on...

Now Pitt is on a ship to Mars, only his mission is top secret; so when the captain of the ship slows down to answer a distress call from a ship floating somewhere between Earth and Mars -- why, by the way? Why there? We're told it is some sort of science ship; fine. But what demand of science requires that ship to be soooooo very far away from the nearest civilization? Why would anyone think this was a good idea? Stupid, stupid, stupid...

Oh, it gets worse still! Pitt doesn't want to stop -- "anyone can answer that distress call!" (Really? There's that much traffic between Earth and Mars?) But the captain insists. Then when they stop, the distress call goes away and no one is responding on the science ship. If I recall correctly, there were 20 or so people on board. Hmm, who doesn't like some mystery? So now the trip to the ship-in-distress is more perilous and the two officers on board are now worried (why? Aren't they trained for this sort of thing?) and so Pitt goes with the captain, and the second-in-command remains behind.

We get to the science ship and find...nothing. No one. Creepy. Mystery builds...then Pitt comes face to face with an enraged baboon, doing nasty things to the captain's arm and face. Pitt knocks out (or kills) the baboon, seals up the captain's damaged suit with tape, and as he starts to take him back to the other ship, another baboon -- just as ragey! -- appears! Pitt is able to close the hatch between himself and the space monkey, and decompress the chamber, and we see a sudden explosion of monkey guts all over the other side of the hatch window. (Except that wouldn't happen; the baboon would asphyxiate, not explode.)

Pitt brings the badly injured captain back aboard the original ship, where he dies. And...nothing more about the disabled science ship. Apparently the problem was the baboons getting loose, and apparently, the baboons kill everybody. And this diversion means absolutely nothing to the overall story, other than setting up the scene where they attempt a landing on Mars, only to have another power surge from Neptune mess up the automated landing gizmo, and the second-in-command loses his nerve, forcing Pitt to do the landing manually. Then Pitt tells the badly shaken second-in-command, "I won't report this to Space Command." What??? As if the others on board are all going to keep it secret? As if there won't be a debriefing about what happened? They are all going to lie? To protect this sad-sack lieutenant who lost his nerve twice on this mission? Oh, and here I might mention that Pitt undergoes repeated psychological evaluations with an automated computer program. This seems to be Standard Operating Procedure, given the stresses of service in space. This makes no sense! But I repeat myself.

Hang on, you ain't heard nothing yet...

Now on Mars, and his mission still highly secret, Pitt is greeted by the base commander, played by Ruth Negga, who unfortunately lacks sufficient security clearance; so immediately, some other guy takes over. This matters later. Now Pitt is taken to a soundproof room to send his message. This itself seems ridiculous -- why soundproof? -- but let's hasten to the next utterly absurd part. After his first try sending the pre-approved script, he makes a second attempt, but improvises the message. The folks in the control room show obvious consternation, but they send the message all the same. Their facial reactions suggest they got some sort of response, but won't confirm this for Pitt, who is mysteriously ushered from the room, and told he is no longer needed. He fails his next psych eval -- the idea being that where he had been cool and detached all this time, he feels sudden longing for his father. OK, I'll go with that. That's a nice touch, really (and obviously, this whole father-son thing is the main story here).

What happens next is galactically stupid. Remember the woman who runs the facility, but who lacks security clearance? She seeks out Pitt, who is in a "comfort" room viewing images of daisies trying to calm down, and reveals to him yet more about his father. She has a recorded distress message from the Neptune ship -- lots of garbled screaming -- followed by a yet-more-creepy dad (played by Tommy Lee Jones) explaining that some of the crew mutinied, and he was forced to cut off their life support, and in the process of killing "the guilty," some innocents also died. Then we learn that two of these dead are Negga's parents! What a coincidence!

Negga -- who, remember, lacks sufficient clearance -- reveals to Pitt that a ship is about to launch to Neptune, with the purpose of destroying the ship with Tommy Lee Jones on it. Pitt, of course, is not part of this and -- of course -- not likely to be under any circumstances, but especially now that he's deemed unreliable by Space Command. Pitt says to Negga, "get me on that ship!" (What? How?) The best I can do is get you close to the launch, which she proceeds to do.

Let's stop here: why is she doing this? She just told Pitt that her parents were murdered by his father. Shouldn't he wonder about her motives? But more than that: why in the world would she want Pitt on that ship? Remember, the point of the expedition is to go kill the bad guy. Does she want Pitt to go and save the murderer of her parents? None of this is ever explored. She seems utterly uninterested in what Pitt's plans are, and how they will affect the overall mission.

OK, so she drives him out near the launch, and lets him off near some hatch in the ground, which Pitt opens effortlessly and climbs into; that leads to a large pipe -- but not large enough to walk through easily (why? What is this pipe for? Why wasn't it's entrance locked?) Next he is swimming through dirty water (why is there all this water? On a dry planet?) and he comes up for air just beneath the rocket. We hear the countdown -- 7 minutes and some seconds to go! Pitt climbs up the silo while the rocket warms up; and as the engines fire -- massive fireball! -- Pitt is clinging to the side of the rocket, and manages to open a hatch and slip in. All this happens AFTER the rocket launches! Join me in the refrain: THIS MAKES NO SENSE!

Of course this trips an alarm aboard-ship, and the concerned crew tells ground control about the unsecured latch -- and soon they see Pitt, and they tell ground control that, and ground control tells the crew to neutralize Pitt by any and all means (i.e., they are welcome to kill him). All this is happening while the ship is rocketing out into space! Just before, gravity on Mars looked exactly like Earth's -- now, apparently, Mars has almost no gravity at all.

There are three highly trained members of U.S. Space Command aboard this valuable ship, on a top-secret mission to Neptune, only there was absolutely no security perimeter around this launch; the hatch on this ship is less secure than those on commercial airlines; and now, these highly trained space Marines are completely hapless against Pitt. They all end up dead, and Pitt now flies the ship to Neptune. Cue the refrain: you know it by heart.

There is some business about Pitt inserting a feeding tube for the long voyage, which turns out to be 79 days or something like that. Wait, what? Sure, I buy that they figured out how to travel a whole lot faster; but if Neptune is only 79 days away, why has Tommy Lee Jones and crew been out there, all alone, for 30 years? No one thought to check on him?

Of course, our boy Brad makes it out to Neptune -- no more space monkeys -- only to encounter yet another power surge as he nears dad's ship. The surge seems to do some damage, but it doesn't disable his ship (why not?). I might mention here he's bringing a nuke with him, which is meant to destroy the Neptune ship. What is never explained is how Pitt knows how to arm and detonate the nuke; apparently, there is no secret code required, which secret presumably died with the crew Pitt killed. Or else U.S. Space Command radioed the code to Pitt, because...who the h*** knows?

And, anyway, why a nuke? Wouldn't any explosive do the trick? The plan was to take this bomb aboard the renegade ship. Why? They have lasers that send messages, but they can't shoot anything at the threat? What about a guided missile, fired from thousands of miles away. We had those in the 20th century. What about a drone? I'm betting a drone could have been launched from behind one of Neptune's moons? Does it have moons? Why, yes, it has 14 of them!

Or, here's a crazy idea: why not just knock the ship into Neptune? According to,

Neptune is the third most massive planet. Like the rest of the gas giants, Neptune has no definite surface layer. Instead, the gas transits into a slushy ice and water layer. The water-ammonia ocean serves as the planet's mantle, and contains more than ten times the mass of Earth. Temperatures inside the mantle range from 3,140 degrees Fahrenheit (1,727 degrees Celsius) to 8,540 F (4,727 F). At deep enough depths, the methane may transform into diamond crystals.

Since this ship's unstable antimatter reactor is such a threat to the whole solar system, wouldn't you think blowing it up -- with a nuke! -- would create additional, perhaps unforeseeable risks? Gee, what if you could, instead, shove it into some mass that would absorb the damaging effect, and smother it? Like..."the third most massive planet"? Are you seriously telling me the ship would somehow survive plummeting into Neptune? You know the refrain...

So Pitt gets there, grabs the nuke (about the size of a backpack!), boards a little shuttle that takes him over to the other ship. He carefully pilots the shuttle around the wide rings of Neptune, which are made up of lots and lots of rocks. Remember this detail for later. Only his shuttle can't dock, because of damage to the renegade ship. So Pitt exits the shuttle, opens the hatch, and -- I am not kidding -- pushes away his shuttle! Nope, not going to need that again!

Only he does. We learn shortly that he intends to bring dad home. Whenever needed, Pitt has a tether; he uses one several times. There's no tether on the shuttle? He couldn't go back to his mother ship for one? What exactly is his plan for getting back? Wait till you find out...

He gets on board, everything is eerily silent. He finds the reactor -- apparently it is entirely safe to approach, even though it is wrecking the solar system with unpredictable bursts (yet another reason this whole plan was idiotic, but oh well...). He gets the nuke all ready to go off in three hours, but doesn't turn it on. His plan, it turns out, is to return to the nuke to flip the on switch. Apparently, in the future this can only be done manually, and no one back on Earth thought this might be a flaw in their plan. More to the point: none of the crack scriptwriters thought of it.

Dad shows up. He's calm but a little creepy. To our surprise, he doesn't fight his son, even as he prepares to blow up his life's work. We learn that dad is awfully depressed because his search for life outside the solar system -- the purpose of his mission, and which he was prepared to murder innocents to continue -- was fruitless. He has found only lifeless worlds. Brad talks him into donning a space suit and exit the ship. Brad flips the red switch, and now the bomb starts it's three-hour countdown. (Stupid, stupid.) Somehow they are going to get back to the other ship, and return to earth. Remember, stupid Brad kicked away the shuttle. Their suits do have jet propulsion, however.

Once outside the doomed ship, daddy decides to fire off his propulsion, jeopardizing his son: Brad had carefully attached a tether to both of them, and to the soon-to-be-destroyed ship. The link to the ship is now broken, and both are drifting off in space. Dad says, let me go! Brad has no choice, he cuts him loose, and Tommy Lee Jones floats off.

Questions explode: why did dad stick it out all this time? And, if he is so determined to continue, why does he meekly allow his son to destroy his ship? Or, if he just wants to die, why not pilot the ship into Neptune? I guess this pioneer of space exploration never thought of it!

So now Brad is alone, again. The bomb is ticking as we know. He aims to get back to his ship. He's tumbled through space because of his dad, but he is able to reorient himself and locate his ship; except the rings of Neptune are in his path. Drat! Didn't think of that! So our hero grabs hold of some spinning thingy on the doomed ship, climbs aboard, twiddles some screws or something in the spinning thingy, and pops off a piece of metal! (Some up-and-coming politician back on Earth should open hearings on the gross incompetence of the U.S. Space Command.) Then our hero takes this panel, and uses it as a shield, as he propels himself through the rings of Neptune back to his ship! Yes, this actually works! When he discards his shield, it's got a few pock-marks. Why did he even need a ship at all?

Then he gets back on his ship. By the way, all this in something less than three hours! Then, we learn that his ship's propulsion is somehow diminished, so...he is forced to rely on the nuclear explosion to propel him the 2 billion miles home!


Well, of course, this works! Pitt returns home, and everything is pretty summary; no inkling of any consequences for his crimes which risked a vital mission and caused the deaths of three people; but his ex-wife, who has been lurking in the background throughout the movie, appears. The End.

Now, I want you to go over either to IMBd, or to Rotten Tomatoes, or anyplace you want to scan the various reviews of this movie. When I got home, that's what I did; I wanted to see if any of the people paid to review movies picked up on any of this.

On 80% favorable critics reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, the "critics' consensus" is 83% fresh! But even the unfavorable critics frontpaged on Rotten Tomatoes ignore the plot fiascoes, complaining instead about wasted performances by almost everyone, plodding pace and the film being boring (all true). Meanwhile, all the professional film-watchers who liked it, loved it, because it was "intelligent" and "beautiful" and "magnificent," with Pitt's performance deemed Oscar-worthy. The film is pretty to look at, and Pitt does turn in a fine performance, but how can they overlook the problems? Are they stupid? Or do they think we are?

The one encouraging thing: most of the viewers' reviews are negative. Way negative, as in:

- "pile of crap"

- "slow and boring"

- "poor science"

- "script was ridiculous."

- "I should have run out of the theater screaming but I fell asleep."

At least we are not stupid. That you can rule out.

(Edited for clarity, 9/25/19)