The Ring of The Fisherman

Today will be a day of “lasts.” Overnight, people held a candlelight vigil to mark Benedict’s last night sleeping in the papal quarters. This morning, he had an audience with the cardinals who would normally have gathered to pay their last respects and bury him. Instead, they each wished him well, and then will turn to the task of choosing his successor.

And later today, the Papal signet ring–the annulus piscatoris–will be smashed using a silver hammer. In keeping with ancient tradition, this is to prevent documents from being forged after the pope’s death, since that was the point of a signet ring: to seal a document.

It hasn’t been used for this function since the 19th century (a stamp and red ink serve the same purpose), and indeed some recent popes haven’t worn the signet. Benedict did, showing the traditional image of Peter the fisher of men, casting his nets from a boat.

This is Peter, who Jesus ordered to “put out into deep water.” That deep water is where the danger is for a fisherman. It’s also where the fish are. As Thomas Aquinas noted, if the highest aim of a captain was to keep his ship safe, he’d keep in the harbor. But that’s not what ships–or the barque of Peter–are built for.



‘night Papa

‘night, Papa

Image from a “dying” Church: Benedict’s final Angelus

And so it ends.

The last great man of Europe takes the stage for the final time, and reminds us that greatness is measured not by political machinations, military or economic might, or even important discoveries, but in staying grounded in the vast messiness of this frustrating and glorious human family with compassion, humility, and gentleness.

He was the teacher we needed at the time we needed him. The Holy Spirit is funny that way. As the world was careening towards armageddon, with almost half its population locked in near-slavery, He gave us a firebrand: a charismatic leader who spoke with a force that toppled nations.

When our greatest enemy was ourselves–our prosperity, our tendency to selfishness, our triviality, our refusal to be taught–he sent a quiet viticulturist of souls. In one of those great cosmic ironies that proves God is a brilliant joker, He sent a teacher to a people unwilling to be taught: a people under the delusion of a radical individualism that says each man is his own Lord and Master, and thus must find his own way by his own light, rather than by the one Light Who illuminates all.

For a people easily distracted by an infinitely multiplying, utterly inconsequential number of small things, he turned the bright beam of his intellect on the big things: the things that mattered: hope, faith, love. In an era when the people who have assumed the mantle of “humanism” are the most anti-human of all, he gave us a true Christian humanist rooted where it must be rooted: in the God who loves.

Non-Catholics can’t possibly understand the connection truly faithful Catholics have to their pope.  He’s not magic, he’s not a god, and oddly enough he doesn’t even need to be holy or even particularly inspirational. (Fortunately, this last part is rare in the history of Christ’s Church.) What he is, is this:  a promise. He is a promise, made by the Incarnate Lord, of a visible leadership that will last for all time, beginning with the flawed, hot-headed, cowardly fisherman who sat at His right hand, and stretching down through the millennia to us today. “Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo ecclesiam.”

And I will miss him more than words can express. He was “my” pope. I read him for years as Joseph Ratzinger, marveling at a mind so sharp it could convey complex points with utter simplicity. As someone called to a teaching ministry, I was inspired by his ability to teach at any level required of him, and teach so well that he also could inspire. There were those who greeted the news of his election with dismay, because they understand the Church primarily through the lens of power and politics and modern obsessions. I was overjoyed, because I understand that the Church’s role primarily is pedagogical. An evangelical church is, first and foremost, a teaching Church. And what better leader for a teaching Church than a wise and compassionate teacher?

Whoever next occupies the See of Peter will also be my pope, but at the age I am and being the man I am, I doubt I will ever have the kind of connection that I had with Benedict. After many years of spiritual wandering far away from my Catholic roots, his was the quiet voice that summoned me back and showed me a new way. He reshaped the way I think. All of the reading and education and influences that went into furnishing my mental apartment is now viewed through a Ratzingerian lens.

That was an incredible gift given not only to me, but to all of us who chose to listen and learn rather than scoff. Now we must give him a gift in return: the gift of letting him go to his rest as he prepares to move on to that final clarity in which he shall know even as he is known; and in which he shall see face to face rather than through a glass darkly. And all we can say will be, “Good night, papa, and thank you.”



The Ring of the Fisherman

In Sickness and in More Sickness

For the past week, and for only the second time in our marriage, my wife and I have been sick at the same time. It was just a nasty winter cold, but this season’s edition seems to stick around for 3-4 weeks. Between my wife’s asthma and complications from my medication, this kind of thing tends to knock us back a bit.

When there’s no healthy person to pick up the slack,we have to try to muster one functional human being between the two of us. I’d say, right about now, we’re mustering about 2/3rds of a partly functional, semi-human being in this one-flesh union thingy of ours.

And it’s at these moments that the point and meaning of marriage come into stark relief. We are here to serve each other. Humanity’s grotesque pride and individualism has turned the idea of serving into something negative, when in fact it’s the whole point of all our life and all our relationships. In the end, the only things that truly matter are those things we do for others.

Service is implicit in our marriage vows. Our first thought should always be about the other. In marriage, we serve our spouse and our children. In their old age, we serve our parents when they can no longer serve each other. In our vitality, we serve our fellow man. Satan fell because, in the words of Milton, he thought it better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. Satan should have known better: one day in the court of the Lord is better than a thousand elsewhere.

“Non serviam” is the rallying cry of the modern man. We are indeed a Satanic generation. As the Lord says in Jeremiah 2:20: “For long ago you broke your yoke and burst your bonds; and you said, ‘I will not serve.’”

But the yoke, in fact, is easy, and the burden light. That is what people forget when they’re always trying to burst the bonds that united them in marriage. It’s why they chase after an illusion of “personal happiness” or “fulfillment” rather than honoring their vows.

People don’t take on a burden of happiness in marriage. That’s not a burden. That’s the easy part! You don’t need vows to stick around when things are awesome and everyone’s happy. You make a promise to stick around when things go bad. That’s what marriage is about. There’s a perfect line in the Kevin Spacey remake of House of Cards: “The nature of promises is that they remain immune to changing circumstances.” Exactly.

The shared happiness isn’t bought with cheap coin: it’s the reward for the shared suffering. In the end, that happiness–and life is the quest of the human soul toward beatitude, which is happiness–will result in shared glory when you both are stripped of suffering, stripped of concern, stripped of all flesh, and stand naked before the face of God.

Sacrifice is implicit in the marriage vow. That’s what the “sickness” part is all about. If you’re not prepared to die for your spouse, then how can you live for him? The prayer of the lover should always be close to your lips: take me not her. I’ve said it a thousand times over sick beds and in hospital rooms, and I’m very blessed to be able to say that prayer for my children as well.

Yes, blessed: it’s not that you want either those you love or yourself to be in a situation where such a prayer is necessary. But in being given the opportunity to choose self-sacrifice, we are being given the opportunity to becomes Christs. And the goal of the faithful is not to be a Christian, but to be a Christ.

Joy is part of it, of course. My marriage has seen far more happy moments than sad. We are all broken, fallen people, but I’m a bit more broken than most. My wife found me, picked me up, healed me, and gave me the other half of her soul. How can a gift that beautiful and sacred not produce joy? There are times I just stare at her in love and amazement and wonder how this living example of grace–this wholly undeserved gift–was ever given to someone like me.

But it will end in sickness and death, because unless the kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it will remain only a single seed. Those words don’t merely apply to our physical end. They apply to marriage as well. Unless we die to self in our marriages we, too, will only remain a single seed. But in that death to self in marriage, we can produce many seeds. We become a new creation, and that new creation becomes new life.

Sacraments are both life and death. Baptism is a death. We die to the world, and are reborn in Christ. Reconciliation is a death. We die to sin, and are renewed in life. Eucharist is a death. We can only taste the bread of life because the flesh of Christ was nailed to the cross.

And that place where a couple will stand before the altar to exchange their vows in the sacrament of marriage? It’s the same place where their coffins will rest when the mass of the dead is said over their remains.

Marriage is a sacrament. Sacraments are sacrifices. Something is exchanged–given up–and something else taken on. The thing that is taken on is better, bigger, more glorious than what was there before.

Happiness and joy is a natural fruit of love. My wife and I have had more good days than bad, more happiness than sadness. But love is light, and light casts shadows, and those shadows are sickness, sadness, and death. All things will fade: health, beauty, strength.

When we are stripped of it all before the face of God, only the love will remain. And that love will be light, and that light will be eternal.

How to Elect a Pope: A Guide for the Perplexed

Dorian Speed and a group of Catholic bloggers, catechists, and writers are doing their part to fight the stupid.

Every time a mainstream reporter or pundit opens his or her yap about the church, the pope, conclave, the next pope, or pretty much anything having to do with religion, brain cells die. Mollie Hemingway and Joanne McPortland have already cataloged some of more laughable pronouncements that slipped past all those  J-school professional and layers of fact checking, but you can count on more “crow’s ears” and “Is it unusual for the pope to also be the bishop of Rome?” gaffs in the weeks ahead.

That’s what makes so important. It lays out our beliefs and practices in clear language that even a New York Times writer can understand. There are sections on the papacy, the conclave, the work of choosing the next pope, symbolism, and more. People can even submit questions. There’s no more need for journalists to search for a professor dumb enough to ponder if a pope is still infallible when he retires, as if that’s a question that takes more than two letters to answer.

Dorian and friends have done a vital service to the Church, so check it out, share it, and circulate it. If you know any reporters, make sure they see it.

A Short Christian Film From a Master Animation Director

Frank Tashlin tends to be largely overlooked in the history of both animation and live action film, but Looney Tunes buffs will recognize his name from some of the classics of the Golden Age. His animation style is almost always easy to spot. No one in the Warner Brothers stable was quite like Tash: angular figures, hyper-fast editing, exaggerated motion, and strange angles. Along with Tex Avery, he was the major influence on the Warner Bros. style.

He left animation and made a successful transition to film, working with Jerry Lewis, Bob Hope, and Doris Day. His live action work wasn’t well-regarded at the time, but films like The Glass Bottom Boat hold up much better–and appear more innovative–than a lot of mainstream fair of the same period.  Tashlin has been getting more respect lately thanks to the Looney Tunes DVDs and boosters like Leonard Maltin, John Waters, and Joe Dante.

I was happy to see this appreciation of Tash at Cartoon Brew on the centenary of his birth, and surprised to learn that his peripatetic nature brought him even further afield from his roots. In 1947, with the backing of the Lutheran Church, he made a short film called “The Way of Peace,” about human violence and rejection of God, the coming of Christ, and the dangers of the nuclear age in a world without God.

The strangest thing is that it’s stop-motion, with a bit of straight puppetry and stock footage mixed in. There’s some first class talent involved, including narration by Lew Ayers, George Pal’s Oscar-winning special effects man Gene Warren, and Wah Chang, a modeler best known for his work on Star Trek. (He designed the communicator, the Salt Vampire, the Bird of Prey,and other iconic props and creatures. Yes, even the Tribbles.)

Here is the entire film. The print quality is a bit dodgy, but it’s worth your 18 minutes:

A Note From Your Proprietor: I’m sick and on deadline this week, so updates will be sporadic.

The “Amazing” Randi is Just a Nasty Old Eugenicist

Some choice quotes from the favorite skeptic of the atheist and “reason”-based community: magician, bigot, and eugenicist James “The Amazing” Randi:

[T]hose individuals who were stupid enough to rush into the arms of the mythical houris and/or Adonis’s they would expect to greet them, would simply do so and die – by whatever chemical or biological fate would overcome them… [T]he principle of Survival of the Fittest would draconically prove itself for a couple of years, after which Natural Selection would weed out those for whom there is no hope except through our forbearance.

Any weeping and wailing over the Poor Little Kids who would perish by immediately gobbling down pills and injecting poison, is summoning up crocodile tears, in my opinion. They would – and presently do – mature into grown-up idiots, and Darwin would be appalled that his lessons were ignored.

I’m sure Darwin would be appalled, but not by what you think, you cankerous old monster.

But wait! There’s more!

I’m a believer in Social Darwinism. Not in every case. I would do anything to stop a twelve-year-old kid from doing it. Sincerely. But in general, I think that Darwinism, survival of the fittest, should be allowed to act itself out. As long as it doesn’t interfere with me and other sensible, rational people who could be affected by it. Innocent people, in other words.

This word “innocent” you use: methinks you’re a bit confused about its meaning. It tends to be applied to people who don’t advocate the murder-by-inaction of those weaker than themselves, but please, continue showering us with the wisdom only found in the mind of a man who’s really good at card tricks and self-promotion:

These are stupid people. And if they can’t survive, they don’t have the IQ, don’t have the thinking power to be able to survive, it’s unfortunate; I would hate to see it happen, but at the same time, it would clear the air.


Questions: Why would it be unfortunate?  Unfortunate for whom? If it’s a good for society, there’s nothing “unfortunate” about it. If there’s something unfortunate about it, then it’s not a good for society, and your grotesque worldview is dust and ashes.

And these stupid people you’re talking about: are they stupid because they failed a test, or because of a belief system? Should, say, religious people (whom you hold in contempt and certainly believe are stupid) be allowed to die? Say, if our houses catch on fire, should we be allowed to burn alive for the greater good?

If not, why not?

What measure of intelligence are we talking about? For instance, say you need your car fixed, and there’s a mechanic who can’t read, write, or do higher math, but he can disassemble and reassemble a car engine. I have a relative like this, so it’s not an abstract question. Should he be allowed to die? If so, then who’s gonna fix your damn car? Do we have a “stupidity exception” for useful people?

What about aging magicians? I’m really not quite sure what you’re contributing to the world right now. You seem a little arthritic and, based on the rot coming out of your mouth, your brain is clearly decaying. Senility can’t be far off, if indeed it isn’t already here.  If someone smarter or healthier than you tried to kill you or allow you die through inaction, would I be wrong to stand by idly and let it happen?

If not, why not?

Oh, and my family is totally screwed:

I think that people with mental aberrations who have family histories of inherited diseases and such, that something should be done seriously to educate them to prevent them from procreating. I think they should be gathered together in a suitable place and have it demonstrated for them what their procreation would mean for the human race.

A suitable place? You mean, like a camp? Where we can, y’know, concentrate all the unsuitable and untermenschen? Spiffing idea!

Self-styled skeptics (as opposed to, say, Forteans) are just so very tedious. There is no unexplained phenomena they cannot explain away, even unto the point that their explanations become absurdly tendentious. Their skepticism is a religion unto itself, just like evangelical atheism. I traveled in Fortean circles for a while, and never met one “skeptic” who wasn’t vain and egotistical. This anti-humanism bubbles below the surface of the entire movement.

So, dear “skeptical”/atheist community, please fill in the blank:

“The difference between the views of James Randi and Nazi eugenicists is _______________. “

Go ahead, take your time. I’ll wait. You embraced him. You own him.

Will we see him at the next Reason Rally? I bet we will. They do so love their hate.

H/T Fortean Times

9 Ways To Keep Lent

Cardinal Ratzinger and Bl. John Paul II

Pope Benedict gave us a gift yesterday. He gave us a Lent that would focus our minds on Christ, the Church, and His People in a way no one has ever experienced.

I awoke yesterday at 6am to learn–on Facebook–that the pope had resigned. The news spread across the world almost at the speed of thought. When Gregory XII resigned 600 years ago, how many people knew? Or cared? In the modern media age, everyone knew, and many cared very deeply. We were connected to the life of our pope through electronic media, and now we are connected to the end of his reign. It was an unprecedented moment, and we should take a moment to appreciate the unity new media creates in our Church.

It also gives us a chance, going into Lent, to pray for our Church, the man who led it, the men who will choose his successor, and that successor. At this pivotal time in our faith and our history, Benedict has given our Lenten prayers a new purpose.

You’ll see a lot of tech woven throughout the items that follow. It’s how my brain and my life are wired, so it’s natural that my worship and my Lent should be wired the same way. I used many methods to pray and worship over the years, long before I had any gear that would assist. I like it much better this way. Everything is one place, accessible, handsomely formatted, searchable, and with me wherever I go.

Your techniques will be different. Everyone has to make their own Lent. This is mine:

1. Prayer for Benedict, the Conclave, the Church
These will be at the forefront of our minds as we make our way through Lent. Our focus is always on God in the Trinity and the suffering of the Incarnate Christ, but as Catholics we arrive at that focus in myriad ways. Christ founded the Church and established the papacy on the rock of Peter, so it is right and proper to pray for both the current successor to Peter, and the next, whoever he may be. My prayers for the weeks ahead suddenly have a theme.

2. Daily Mass
Last year, my wife and I made a commitment to daily mass throughout the 40 days of Lent. I know many people make daily mass year round, but it’s just not something we can do when we’re getting kids off to school and starting a day. This year, we’re going to try again, because it was such an incredibly fulfilling way to keep Lent.

We knew we wanted to make daily mass, but also knew it could be challenging, so we said each day: we’ll try. And each day, we made it. Rather than a whole 40 days of commitment stretching before us, we only had one day of commitment. And then the next. And the next. In that way, step by step, we made it all the way through without missing a day.

Universalis for iPad

3. Liturgy of the Hours
This is one of the great gifts of the Church: a deep, fulfilling, preset course of reading full of scripture, prayer, and meaningful juxtapositions in readings. The Divine Office is a spiritual treasury that people need to discover and claim as their own.

I make an effort to pray Vespers and Lauds and do the readings every day. Do I make it every day? No, I don’t. Sometimes I just get the Mass readings in. That’s life, and I stopped fretting about it long ago. If you’re interested in doing the Hours, that’s the first thing you need to get past: this idea that you have to read it all and, if you miss some, you’ve failed or need to make it up. No, no, no! Just keep going. If you missed morning, try evening. If you missed both, try the next day. Maybe you’ll only get in one or two in the first week. Well, that’s two more than you had before.

Lent is a perfect time to try the Office. You have a purpose and a commitment: this is how you’re keeping Lent. Forget giving up the chocolate. That’s small beans. It’s nice, and we are certainly challenged to fast, but God would much rather hear from you and have you reading His word.

There are some easy ways to do this. I use a Universalis app on my iPad, which includes everything: all readings, mass readings, and hours. You can read the whole thing online for free, or you can download versions for PC or Mac. I bought a license years ago because I use it regularly, and a worker deserves his wage. There are also $14 apps for iPhone/iPad  and AndroidiBreviary is another option, and it’s free.

I get fairly slack on praying the full Office during Ordinary Time, so I make an extra commitment to praying more of it during Advent and Lent.

4. The Audio Divine Office

The other app I use is Divine Office, which has audio versions of the various Hours as well as the complete text. It’s an excellent app and some people will prefer it to Universalis. I’m used to the feel of Universalis, so I only use Divine Office for the audio files, which can be downloaded for offline use.

Honestly, I run hot and cold on the narrations. Some of the readers just emote too much. I don’t need a performance. I just need text read to me when I’m out and about and can’t keep my eyes on a book, or at the end of the day when I’d rather listen than read. There are free sample versions available for some of the hours, or you can get the whole thing for $20. It’s an excellent piece of software.

5. Magnificat Lenten Companion

I was a subscriber to Magnificat for years before I started doing the regular Office, and I still get their books and companions each season. This is a great supplement, and would work fine as the sole devotional for people who don’t want to commit to a full course of readings.

6. The Homilies of St. Thomas Aquinas
In my Verbum software I have a large collection called  Ninety-Nine Homilies of S. Thomas Aquinas Upon the Epistles and Gospels for Forty-Nine Sundays of the Christian Year, translated by John M. Ashley (London: Church Press Company, 1867). It’s part of their 34 volume Medieval Preaching and Spirituality Collection.

I’ve never read any of these homilies, and there are two for each Sunday in Lent and Easter. I’m planning to read one a week this year, which will be made easier since I can download the whole  book right into my Verbum app on iPad and read them offline, rather than being stuck on a PC screen. You can find a public domain copy here.

Since I’m in a class on Patristics right now, the Church Fathers will be my other companions for the journey. It’s a pretty heavy reading load, but it comes at a good time.

7. The Ratzinger Stations 

We’ll be doing Stations of the Cross, and probably the Seven Last Words, at our parish. I also hope to make time this year to pray the stations written and prayed by Cardinal Ratzinger in 2005, shortly before his elevation. They’re not only beautiful: they’ll be a small tribute to the man as he moves into his own via dolorosa.

By the way, if you use an ebook reader or tablet, you don’t need to print those stations. You can just push them to your device using any number of Google Chrome plugins. For Kindle, I use Send to Kindle by For iPad, I use either the Intsapaper or Clip to Evernote plug-ins.  You’ll find them in the Chrome store for free.

8. Mobile Reminders

I already wrote about Avocado and how it allows my wife and me to synchronize our lists and schedules and connect throughout the day. We both get reminders to pray the Angelus at noon, and if we’re together in the house (we both work at home) we pray together. If not, each knows the other is probably praying at the same time.

There are many ways to work mobile and desktop reminders into your prayer life. It’s certainly easy, for those who have Siri, to simply tell it to remind you do pray Vespers at a certain time in the evening, or to tap out a quick prayer intention in any number of mobile note-taking apps so you have it with you for your prayers. Evernote is a bit heavy for making quick prayer intention notes, but Simple Notes, Notes, or, literally, hundreds of other programs can do it as well.

Or you can just scribble it on a piece of paper. You know, like the cavemen did.

9. Fasting

We’ll all be fasting as well. I already make an effort to observe the Friday fast, so this isn’t a huge change for me. I will add additional days of fast for Lent, but I don’t often make a particular effort to give things up. The additional time devoted to extra reading and prayer kind of automatically means I won’t be goofing off, watching TV, wasting time on the internet, or playing games as much, which is why I do it.  It kind of creates its own fast by taking time from leisure and committing it to reading and prayer.


As I said at the start: this is my way of keeping Lent. Yours will be different, so feel free to share it with us. Any tools? Any books? Any devotions you’d like to recommend?

Magnificat for Lent in Digital Formats

The Magnificat Lent and Advent books are wonderful companions for the journey. Now that they’re rolling out on more and more readers and devices, you can get these little gems for a buck and have them delivered in seconds.

You can find some information on the 2013 Magnificat Lenten Companion here. It’s the usual excellent collection of essays and prayers, with daily readings and meditations  for the entire season. It has good recordings of 4 chants for Lent and 3 for Advent, as well as a “German Way of the Cross” by James Monti and more. I wouldn’t think of entering Lent without one.

The print version goes for $4 and can be ordered from the website. The electronic versions are available in the following formats:

Bishop O’Connell on Benedict’s Resignation

My local CBS affiliate (Philadelphia) tends to do good coverage of the Church: even-handed, expansive, and not obsessed with scandals uber alles.

They did an interview with my bishop this morning that I thought was respectful (they even address him properly) and gave this fine academic and shepherd a chance to explain the news in context.

I can’t embed it, so watch it here.

My earlier comments on the news are here.