Monday, May 27, 2013

St. Nicholas Pieck and Companions (d. 1572)

Reformation Europe was a boiling sea of social upheaval, and good Christians of every stripe found the shifting political scene a daunting arena in which to live out their faith. Zeal for creed was often mixed up with lust for power, and excesses of the most brutal kind were routinely rationalized on both sacred and secular grounds.

In sixteenth-century Holland, where the entanglement of faith and statecraft was particularly complex, a group of Franciscans under the leadership of St. Nicholas Pieck bravely met the challenge of sectarianism gone mad and paid the ultimate price for their fidelity to the Faith.

 Dutch Ships Ramming Spanish Galleys, by Hendrik Cornelisz Vroom (c. 1562–1640)
The affable and selfless Father Pieck was the guardian of a small friary in the coastal fishing village of Gorkum. He was from a prominent Dutch family and had received the finest education available, including studies at the famed Louvain University. At this time, the Netherlands was a possession of the Spanish King Philip II, and the Protestant revolt against all established authority was sweeping the continent. Fr. Pieck was a passionate Catholic in every respect, and when he got wind of the approaching storm of revolution, he spared no effort in exhorting both his confreres and the townspeople to adhere closely to their Catholic faith, no matter what the cost. 

In 1572, a Dutch rebellion materialized with a distinctly Calvinist flavor – in part to further distance the homeland from Catholic Spain. With the support of Holland’s Prince William of Orange, mercenary seamen called the Watergeuzen, or “Sea Beggars,” went about ravaging the coast and establishing beachheads for the new rebellion. The Protestant pirates arrived in Gorkum on June 26, 1572, and quickly took over the town. The brigands decided to underscore the newly imposed Calvinist ascendancy by rounding up the local Catholic clergy and subjecting them to intimidation and abuse.

Nineteen priests and religious comprised the band of captives – Fr. Pieck, eight other Franciscan priests, and two Franciscan brothers were joined by an Augustinian, a Dominican, two Norbertines, and four secular priests. The Sea Beggars roughly treated their captives and threw them in a filthy dungeon. The marauders singled out Fr. Nicholas for the cruelest treatment, choking him with his own cincture and then, after he survived the attack, applying a burning torch to the priest’s face, ears, and tongue. Eventually, the rebel Admiral Lumaye ordered the group moved to Brielle, a nearby Calvinist stronghold, where he compelled the priests and brothers to parade through the town reciting litanies for the amusement of the populace.

Once sated with the infliction of these indignities, the Sea Beggars invited local Calvinist ministers to come and debate the Catholic clergy on the hot issues of the day – namely, the Real Presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist and the unique authority vested in the Pope as successor of St. Peter. The Calvinist rebels no doubt expected the ministers to easily defeat the priests on every count, but to a man – including the less educated lay brothers – each of the prisoners ably defended the Church’s ancient teaching with deft argument and sound theological reasoning.

By this time, word of the kidnapping had spread abroad. The influential family of Fr. Pieck attempted to secure the guardian’s release, but the holy priest refused to leave his confinement unless all were released with him. At the same time, the local magistrates, the people of Gorkum, and even the Calvinist Prince William himself, weighed in on the side of the hostages.

Martyrs de Gorkum, by Cesare Fracassini (1838-1868)
Nevertheless, Admiral Lumaye stubbornly insisted the prisoners make some public gesture denying the Catholic Faith in exchange for their freedom. All 19 were swift to reject the offer, and were resolute in confirming their belief in the Real Presence and the authority of the Pope. Summing up his own position and that of the entire group, Fr. Pieck declaimed boldly, “I would rather endure death for the honor of God than swerve even a hair’s breadth from the Catholic Faith.”

The clerics’ refusal to yield inflamed Lumaye and his followers, and under cover of night on July 9, 1572, the Calvinist rebels led their hostages to an abandoned monastery outside of Brielle. There, in a turf shed, and assisted by an apostate priest, the Sea Beggars strung up the 19 confessors one by one and left them to hang until dead. The murderers disposed of the bodies in a makeshift common grave, and it was not until 1616 that the remains were recovered and properly enshrined in a Belgian Franciscan church.

Pope Pius XI canonized the Martyrs of Gorkum in 1867, and their glorious sacrifice is memorialized every year on July 9. 

A version of this story appeared in Franciscan Way, Franciscan University of Steubenville.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Morally Offensive Favorites

Wood chipper.
Fargo (1996)

If you’re like me, those two words are inextricably linked to the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film Fargo. Despite the violence and gore, it’s one of my favorite movies, for it contrasts good and evil in an intensely memorable and surprisingly nuanced way.

Plus, it’s a substantial “grown-ups” movie that I can recommend in good conscience because it has an acceptable rating from the bishops—an “A-IV” to be precise.

Bishops? Ratings? Conscience? Let me explain.

After I became a Catholic, I discovered the U.S. Bishops’ movie rating system. Formerly the Office for Film and Broadcasting, today it is part of the Catholic News Service. Somewhat akin to the better known MPAA ratings (G, PG, PG-13, R), the bishops’ system itself has changed little over the years: A-I films are for families and general audiences; A-II, for adults and adolescents; A-III, adults only; and A-IV, also adults only, but with reservations—today, this rating has been replaced with L, “limited adult audiences only.”

Then, there is the “O” rating—“morally offensive.” No bishop, no pope, no official church document demands that Catholics avoid “O” rated films. Nevertheless, life is short, and the list of movies we can watch is long, so years ago I decided (and then, after marrying, my wife and I decided together) to skip any movie that garnered an “O” from the bishops. We can’t watch every movie anyway, and even if the bishops got it wrong from time to time—rating something “O” when an A-IV would do—the deprivation wouldn’t represent a tremendous loss. It seemed like a pretty simple system.

But, alas, not so simple.

Heathers (1989)
I saw a lot of movies before I became a Catholic, and it turns out many of them had received “O” ratings. Some of them—the 1989 nihilistic Heathers for example, and various slasher films—deserved the “O”. I’d never want to see them again anyway, and I certainly wouldn’t want any of my kids to sit through them.

But other “O” films were, well, pretty good in my opinion, and a few even played minor roles in the development of my moral consciousness. But a deal is a deal, and we had committed ourselves to banning “O” films in our home—no matter how much I’d love to watch a few of them with my now grown kids.

So, it is with some awkwardness and chagrin that I present to you my list of favorite “O” rated films that I wish I could—but won’t—watch again with my teenagers:

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
[1] The Good, the Bad,and the Ugly (1966): Sure it’s violent, and, sure, there isn’t much difference between the bad and the ugly on one hand, and the good (Clint Eastwood) on the other. But there is a moral framework in this spaghetti-Western universe, and its ambiguities ring true—perhaps nowhere better than when the “ugly” outlaw confronts his brother-turned-priest regarding the fate of their abandoned mother. 

The Deer Hunter (1978)
[2] The Deer Hunter (1978): Another violent one, but one of the best Vietnam War films ever made—actually, one of the best war movies ever made, period. The progression from ordinary life to wartime madness, and then back again to “ordinary life” is devastating. The Deer Hunter graphically underscores the reality that killing and death are only one part of the tragedy of war—and not even always the most tragic part.

The Road Warrior (1981)
[3] The Road Warrior (1981): The first sequel to Mad Max (1979, another “O” film), The Road Warrior is a post-apocalyptic version of an Eastwood Western. The lone gunman in this case is Max (Mel Gibson), still reeling from the loss of his family, who comes to the rescue of a community of innocents besieged by a band of neo-savages. 

[4] Blade Runner (1982): Based on a story by Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner presents a bleak vision of our future, and, more importantly, raises significant and troubling questions about our present—namely, what it means to be human, particularly as we become increasingly dependent on technology. 

Blade Runner (1982)
So, if we’re going to stick with our no-O policy, what’s the purpose of this exercise? For one thing, I’m almost certain my kids will go ahead and watch all these films when they’re out from under our house rules, and I want them to have a record of why I always thought they were worthwhile, despite the “O” ban.

But the bigger point is this: Why are these films, and others like them, saddled with the “O” rating in the first place? Why, for instance, does Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner merit an “O”, but his equally dark and violent Alien (1979) only an A-III? And why an “O” for The Deer Hunter, and not for Apocalypse Now (1979)? The bishops don’t review the films themselves—lay movie critics, presumably following the bishops’ guidelines, actually do the reviewing—so there’s no magisterial authority involved in the ratings. But even so, it does seem like the ratings themselves are somewhat arbitrary, giving rise to doubts regarding their value and credibility.

The arbitrary nature of some of the USCCB ratings is further underscored by the tempest that accompanied the release of Brokeback Mountain in 2005. This sexually graphic film originally received an “L” rating, but it was changed to an “O” after a series of complaints were lodged with the bishops. And that begs a question: If protests can lead to a rating change, how much confidence are we to put into any given rating, or even the entire system itself?

The Hurt Locker (2009)
And, while I'm at it, one more question: What about The Hurt Locker—a phenomenal film about war and warriors, and the winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Picture. It has never been rated by the USCCB—why not? 

Come to think of it, maybe it was a fortuitous oversight (or omission), at least for me. The distressing violenceand the associated, equally distressing ennuiat the heart of The Hurt Locker might have earned it a bishops' "O" rating. In that case, I wouldn't have taken the opportunity to view it with my teenaged son. But with no rating, I felt free to watch it with him, and it proved to be a terrific film that also provided a rich vein of reflection and conversation in the days that followed.

So, out of respect for the bishops, we'll keep using the USCCB rating system, as imperfect as it may be, and we'll maintain our ban on "O"-rated movies in our home. Still, I'll be on the lookout for more oversights and omissions. Rich veins of reflection and conversation are in short supply these days. 

A version of this story appeared in Crisis Magazine

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Good Morning, Walgreens!

On our way to church on a Saturday morning, Nicholas made a request for some music or a Bible story CD or something else to listen to. “No,” I said. “Not this time, Nick. Let’s just have it quiet as we get ready for Mass.

We drove on, but I could sense Nick getting restless in the back seat. Finally, as he turned toward the window and spotted a drugstore, he blurted out, “Good morning, Walgreens!”

The whole episode reminded me of that scene in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus was entering Jerusalem and the Pharisees were trying to shush the crowd. “I tell you, if they keep silent, the stones will cry out,” was Jesus’ reply. And if stones can’t help filling a silent void when joy overflows, neither can a nine-year-old boy who’s excited about making his First Holy Communion the next Sunday. Good morning, Walgreens, indeed!

Nicholas has Down syndrome, and he is exuberant, naturally upbeat, and gregarious—all traits commonly associated with Down’s kids. Every day is truly a gift, and they treat it as such. Every encounter, a privilege; every discovery, a wonder. And the drive to Mass? Not a time for silence, but a time for celebration and joy and flinging out greetings to anyone (and anything) within earshot.

Are there particular challenges associated with raising a child with Down’s?  I suppose, but I’d prefer to put it this way: That Down syndrome itself is the challenge, not the kid affected by it. Sure, there are special therapies, and sometimes special surgeries and medications—all true. But raising any child is challenging—and every child has particularities to deal with, as do we all.

Besides, children are always a gift—the supreme gift of marriage, as the Council fathers taught us in Gaudium et Spes. And their status as supreme gift is not affected in the least by what and how many “particular challenges” they arrive with. Unlike our sad culture that has adopted a consumerist mindset toward kids—expressed in its slavish devotion to contraception, reproductive technologies, and abortion among other things—our Faith affirms the inherent dignity of every child, every human person, no matter their physical or other limitations.

And Nick? He is truly a conduit of smiles—you can’t help it when you meet him. I noted already that he’s receiving Our Lord in Holy Communion for the first time next Sunday, and I can’t tell you how many strangers he’s informed of the fact. Catholic or not, can you imagine receiving that kind of news from a kid like Nick without a rush of warmth? Maybe some tears even? And how long can I be down in the dumps, no matter how hard my day, if Nick comes over, plops down in my lap, and asks me to read another saint story or a chapter from Diary of a Wimpy Kid? Not long, that’s for sure.

Very briefly, say just a matter of hours after Nick’s birth, my wife Nancy and I gave some thought to how we’d adjust to having a child with Down’s. But you know what? It was really just the same as adjusting to all our other newborns—adjusting to receiving a gift, a fantastic, glorious gift. And that’s a welcome challenge any time. 

A version of this story appeared on, Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend.