Sunday, July 22, 2018

In Gratitude for a Fresh Glimpse at Dorothy Day


I can't recall if I sent you a thank-you note for that book, but I'm finally reading through it, and I'm grateful you sent it along.

You mentioned that the author is a friend of yours. If you're in touch with him, please tell him that he has succeeded in coaxing the dying embers of my Catholic Worker enthusiasms back into flame.

I didn't become a Catholic because of Dorothy Day, but I don't think I would've become a Catholic without her – and Peter...and the whole messy Catholic Worker schtick

Deo gratias.

– Rick

Decades ago, in Eugene, Oregon, I read Dorothy Day's autobiography and decided to move to "the city" to find out about this Catholic Worker thing she started. Before I left, I forked over to Harper & Row for a whole box of Long Loneliness paperbacks, and I handed them out to family and friends and strangers. I urgently wanted others to meet this extraordinary woman – to see Jesus through her eyes, to meet him again, as I had, with her help.

Years ago, here in South Bend, I asked the New York Catholic Worker community to sign me up for a bulk subscription to their newspaper. Ever since, every month or two, I get a tight roll of 50 copies in the mail. I spread them out on a table, weigh them down with encyclopedias to flatten them, and then place them in the vestibule and exits at my church. It's not quite the same as passing out copies of Dorothy's autobiography. Still, there's always the possibility that somebody will, out of curiosity, pick up one of the newspapers and discover the Catholic Worker for the first time – and, indirectly, discover Dorothy.

However, Terrence Wright's new book, the one Joe sent me, has brought me up short. I read it eagerly, and I'm looking forward to reading it again. Far from nostalgia, it makes Dorothy's complex legacy and the rollicking CW ethos come alive, succinctly and compellingly. And, for me, it was a powerful reminder of why I've been pushing The Long Loneliness and the newspaper all these years: Because Dorothy Day knew Jesus, and she hoped the Catholic Worker – through the works of mercy and peacemaking and clarification of thought – would help others to know him and make him known.

So, stand by, Ignatius Press. Once I scrounge together the cash, I'll be contacting you for a boxful of Wright, and I'll get back into the book-pushing business.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Our Lady of Good Help

The airport cabbie was blunt. “Champion? It’s a bump along the road – you don’t even slow down for it.”

My wife and I explained that we were looking for Our Lady of Good Help. “Oh, you’re here for the shrine,” he said. “That’s different.”

He was right on both counts. Champion, Wisconsin, is little more than a dot on the map, but the shrine there is a bustling hub. As the only fully approved Marian apparition site in the USA, Our Lady of Good Help hosts thousands of pilgrims every year.

The shrine’s origins dates back to the mid-19th century when Belgian immigrants settled the area, including the Brise family and their teenage daughter, Adele. A cheerful girl despite a disfiguring youthful injury, Adele was both pious and affable.

One day, Adele was walking to the gristmill with a load of wheat. A shimmering lady clothed in white appeared between two trees, but the vision rapidly dissipated. After a second sighting, Adele asked her confessor for advice, and he told her to ask the lady who she was and what she wanted. On the way home from Mass later that same day, October 9, 1859, Adele saw the lady again and made bold her inquiry.

“I am the Queen of Heaven,” came the lady’s reply. “Gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation.”

Adele balked, but our Lady met her objections with a simple formula: “Teach them their catechism, how to sign themselves with the sign of the Cross, and how to approach the sacraments.” Then, before vanishing, the Queen of Heaven reassured the young apostle. “Go and fear nothing,” she said. “I will help you.”

From that moment on until her death in 1896, Adele dedicated herself to carrying out Mary’s charge. Along with a handful of companions, who associated themselves with the Franciscan Third Order, Sister Adele worked tirelessly to build up the faith of the fledgling immigrant community. They built a chapel, a convent, and a school, and when the compound was miraculously spared during the devastating Peshtigo Fire of 1871, all lingering doubts about Adele’s visions were dismissed.

Green Bay Bishop David Ricken declared the apparitions “worthy of belief” in 2010, and in 2016, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops designated the grounds a National Shrine.

A version of this story originally appeared in Franciscan Magazine, Franciscan University of Steubenville. For more information on Our Lady of Good Help and the shrine at Champion, Wisconsin, follow this link

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Divided by Birth Control? Naah.

“Purity is the beginning of all passion.”

The 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae is coming up in July, but the Wall Street Journal got a jump on the commemorative analysis. “Catholics have overwhelmingly rejected the document’s teaching,” Francis X. Rocca avowed on Saturday, and the upshot of that rejection was captured in his essay’s title: “A Church Still Divided by Birth Control.” Rocca offers as evidence the Pew Research Center’s 2016 U.S. study which “found that only 13% of weekly Mass-going Catholics thought contraception was morally wrong.”

Since “weekly Mass-going” is one of my own criteria for distinguishing between “practicing” and “cultural” Catholics, I was taken aback. How could it be that so few practicing Catholics in this country embrace this essential teaching of the Church?

So, I tracked down the study – and what Rocca reported is true (if you trust Pew Research – which I do). But, as usual when it comes to Catholic controversy, there’s more to the story. A couple easy hyperlink clicks later, and I came across additional Pew data on American Catholicism that I found illuminating. “Most U.S. Catholics rely heavily on their own conscience for moral guidance,” goes the headline, and by “most” the Pew folks mean 74% of the weekly Mass crowd as well as 73% of their “not highly religious” (non-weekly Mass) counterparts – a statistical dead heat.

As the Pew summary noted, the Church herself strongly endorses reliance on our consciences when it comes to moral decisions, but there’s a caveat: We have a duty to form our consciences properly through ongoing recourse to Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium (CCC 1785). Claire Gecewicz, the Pew researcher who summarized the Center’s findings, acknowledges this, but then she goes on to speculate that U.S. Catholics “may not look directly to the Bible, the pope or the Catholic Church’s teachings when making difficult moral choices, but they may be guided by these sources indirectly through their own ‘well-formed’ conscience.”

Is it just me, or is Gecewicz describing something that sounds like circular reasoning?

In any case, I do not accept Rocca’s assertion that U.S. Catholics have dispensed with the teaching of Humanae Vitae for the simple reason that U.S. Catholics seem to be, by and large, unfamiliar with what Paul VI’s encyclical actually teaches – or else, they’ve forgotten what they should’ve heard in their Pre-Cana classes. I admit I have no Pew Research to back me up on this, and I could be totally off base, but I’ll bet your typical weekly Mass-goer who dismisses Humanae Vitae assumes it’s a document exclusively about what you can’t do.

Yet, those of us who have taken the trouble to read the encyclical and ponder Paul VI’s teaching know that it’s mainly about what you get to do – that is, fully experience mutual self-giving in marital intimacy as God designed it, along with all its benefits beyond the bedroom. Conscientiously following the teaching of Humanae Vitae does involve some sacrifice, but it “fosters in husband and wife thoughtfulness and loving consideration for one another,” Pope Paul explained, and it “helps them to repel inordinate self-love, which is the opposite of charity” (HV 21). And that’s just a sample of the Holy Father’s wisdom. There’s plenty more where that came from – we just need to get the word out.

How? The best way is to really live Humanae Vitae. Teach Humanae Vitae. And be unabashedly grateful for Humanae Vitae. It’s true and beautiful and a sign of hope in a confused and confusing world.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Divine Mercy Sunday on the 294

Once I’m past the toll plaza gate, I’m in the
chute. Eastbound or westbound, Ohio or
Chicago, no turning back without
hassle and a fee.
It’s a river, and no matter how many times I
run its course, there are flashes and
splashes of fresh sights and sounds, plus
strangers floating alongside – on their way to
destinations of their own.
And once I drift over to the Tri-State after
sidling into Illinois, I’m committed again. Miles
tick by, and the transponder silently posts my
tribute. It’s the contract I signed when I
flopped down on the current of the
road. The cost accounted for a priori; a free
exchange – cash for mobility. 
Northward lies Wisconsin. Cheese shops, Harleys, and
hills. Headaches and hope – who knows what can
happen? But I won’t make it that far today. About
halfway, I’ll turn around – the funny kind of
turnaround required by the Tri-State: Proceed from the
oasis, a few miles or more, then exit, re-enter, and
back on the current in the opposite direction. 
Another tentative journey to be continued.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

For Dom, After the Rains

Homeward I choose the usual route
Along the river behind the university,
Ignoring the pylons, proceeding.

There ahead, an expanse of
Water in the street, overflowing
From the banks and up to the
Sidewalks on the other side.

I ask, go through? Will I stall out,
Get stuck, or worse? There's risk,
But I have stuff to do and I'm
Tired. Turn around the
Big van, then, bit by bit,
Forward left, reverse right,
And back home by a safer way.

Next time, maybe,
I'll watch you test the
Depths before following.


Sunday, February 18, 2018

In the Wake of Parkland

Here’s a post from my friend Mike:
Curious question, with no comment desired other than indicating your response. Debate is not welcome on this thread. What do you think is the primary reason for mass shootings in the US?   
A. Gun availability and proliferation 
B. Violence in entertainment 
C. The breakdown of the family 
D. Lack of mental health resources 
E. Other (please specify)
Mike got scores of answers, if not hundreds (I stopped counting after a while), and they ranged all over the place, including many who wrote in some version of “All the above.” So did I – here it is:
Abortion, euthanasia, mercy killing, capital punishment, targeted killing, drone warfare. We're immersed in the culture of death, and we've all grown accustomed to solving problems by killing people. So, yes, all of the above (A, C, and D especially), but also a zeitgeist that implicitly condones destroying human life as an acceptable means to reach a variety of ends.
That was on Friday. On Saturday morning, I snagged my Wall Street Journal from the curb and located Peggy Noonan’s column: “The Parkland Massacre and the Air We Breathe.” In it, Noonan articulated and expanded on the same point I was trying to make in response to Mike’s question – a point the column’s sub-title succinctly summarizes: “What’s gone wrong with our culture that produces such atrocities? It’s a very long list.”

Noonan answers her own question with another question: “What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?” Her list overlaps my own, and she adds some more: “The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal.” Noonan speculates that all this cultural upheaval is responsible for a pervasive moral illness in our body politic. “A nation has an atmosphere. It has air it breathes in each day,” she writes. “America’s air looks clean but there are toxins in it, and they’re making the least defended and protected of us sick.”

What caught my attention, however, was the 40 year figure – why forty? A quick scout around the internet finds other retrospectives since Ash Wednesday’s horrific events in Florida utilizing a similar reckoning, more or less. Some go back to just 1999; others go back to the mid-1980s; few go back further than 1978 – that 40 year mark mentioned by Noonan. In fact, according to CNN, only two of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history occurred before then: Austin in 1966 and Camden in 1949.

Why? What happened around 1978?

Consider: Abortion on demand was legalized in this country following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Since then, abortion on demand has become part of the fabric of our cultural consensus – that is, a medicalized form of killing has become a normalized means of addressing challenging human dilemmas.

And it's not just an American phenomenon. A friend recently gave me an essay by actress Patricia Heaton about Iceland’s “success” in eliminating Down syndrome. Heaton astutely observes that Iceland “was not, in fact, eliminating Down syndrome. They were just killing everyone who has it.”

So, without excluding questions of easy access to guns, lack of mental health resources, and the breakdown of traditional mores, here’s my own curious and honest inquiry: Could it be that we’ve just gotten used to killing as a way of life, especially since Roe v. Wade? Could it be that we’re raising one generation after another with that mindset?

And, if that's the case, what can we do about it? What ought we to do?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Unintentional Irony: NPR, Abortion, and Maternal Devotion

I listen to National Public Radio all the time (as my kids can attest) because it’s informative, well produced, and convenient – radio is a terrific medium for those on the go and, what’s more, it’s free!

However, like most mainstream media outlets, NPR leans pretty far to the left, especially when it comes to social issues, and particularly concerning abortion. Probably they’d deny such editorial leanings, and they’d point to the numbers – like, maybe, the balanced amount of airtime they grant representatives from both the pro-life and pro-choice camps. But you can’t listen to NPR long without picking up on a subtle emphasis in tone and language that betrays their pro-choice bias. What's more, pro-choice adherents and their positions are rarely criticized, while pro-life spokeswomen are frequently patronized by their on-air NPR hosts.

This despite the fact that pro-lifers are speaking up for a marginalized and persecuted class of humanity that can’t speak up for itself – the very kind of sub-group that NPR likes to draw attention to and defend. Even so, sometimes the NPR editors make programming decisions that buttress the pro-life cause, despite what seems to be their intention otherwise.

Case in point: Two unrelated stories that appeared on two different shows on the same day a couple weeks back. In the afternoon, there was a story on All Things Considered about pro-choice pioneers in Chicago that provided illicit abortions prior to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The underground group went by the name “Jane,” and they developed an elaborate, clandestine system to evade the law, connect with women who sought abortion, and then perform the procedur themselves – despite a lack of medical training. The ATC segment featured early Jane enthusiasts, including Martha Scott:
Scott says she performed hundreds of abortions. It's a relatively simple procedure, but she acknowledges that there were risks to what they were doing. Some clients ended up in the emergency room; some had to undergo hysterectomies. “You're messing around inside somebody else's body. It’s not necessarily given that you won’t do harm,” Scott says. “It wasn't perfect, by any means. But we were dealing with women who really didn't have other options.”
By itself, it’s a typical NPR abortion puff piece, and it paints the pro-choice scofflaws in the best possible light. The members of Jane are what NPR’s largely progressive listening audience would call abortion heroines, after all, who risked jail time, unemployment, and social ostracism in order to facilitate the termination of unwanted children. Yet, in all the years (decades) that I’ve been listening to Public Radio, I can’t recall a single comparable story lionizing the peaceful pro-life activists who risked all the same things in order to bring pregnant women alternative, life-affirming choices.

Even so, NPR itself highlighted that alternative perspective earlier in the same day that the Jane story appeared. It was a Story Corps segment during NPR's Morning Edition that featured a conversation between April Gibson and her teenage son, Gregory. When Gibson got pregnant as an unmarried teen, she apparently didn’t consider abortion an option – or else she couldn’t. “I just took care of you,” she tells Gregory in the Story Corps segment. “I did what I was supposed to do.” Maybe she didn’t really have other options; maybe she didn’t have folks like Scott and her ilk proffering cheap termination services.

From an NPR point of view, that sounds like an injustice: Gibson shouldn’t have been compelled to any baby-related “supposed to do.” I’m guessing All Things Considered might’ve preferred to relate Gibson’s story as an cautionary tale: “See what happens when women don’t have choice? They have to take care of a baby.”

But Gibson tells her own story with confidence and joy, and she makes it plain that she has no regrets. “I couldn't believe what people told me about myself or about ‘those people’ like me,” she tells her son – and us. “This is my baby, and I love him, and I can feel something. It’s not a fairy tale, it's not a failure. It's just a process, and now we're here, 16 years later.”

It was a moving testimony, and I couldn't help thinking about Gibson and Gregory later in the day as I listened to the story about Jane. All those hundreds of abortions that Martha Scott and her friends performed, and the hundreds of Gregorys who perished as a result. Their moms might’ve been convinced that they were justified in resorting to a dangerous permanent solution in order to address whatever crises they were in at the time, but there’s no doubt that they also missed out on what Gibson calls “a process” – that is, the mysterious unfolding of lived life with all its tragedies and sorrows, its hopes and possibilities.

Gibson doesn’t mention abortion in her conversation with Gregory – she might even be pro-choice, for all I know – but it’s very clear that she’s glad he’s in the world. No doubt, all those many women who took advantage of Jane's abortion services were facing excruciating circumstances, or else they wouldn't chosen such an extreme solution. But how many of them had a chance to talk with somebody like April Gibson, who could've assured them that there was still hope? The hardships she endured as a single mom, the doubts and sense of failure – no fairy tale, as she says – were clearly well worth it. It’s an outcome she could’ve never predicted at the time of her pregnancy, but that makes her decision to “just take care” of her baby – to do what she was “supposed to do” – all the more valiant.

Happily, it's a valiancy that Gregory himself both recognizes and cherishes. As he told his mom at the end of their conversation, “You’re just the greatest person that I ever know. And I just want to be like you.”

Me, too. Thanks for your heroism, April, and for sharing your story – and your son – with the world.