Volume > Issue > Last Things

Last Things

By David Mills | December 2019
David Mills, a Contributing Editor of the NOR, is editor of Hour of Our Death (www.hourofourdeath.org). He writes for several Catholic and other publications, and his “Catholic Sense” column appears in The Pittsburgh Catholic and other diocesan newspapers.

Don’t run through the church doors but think about what they mean, writes Romano Guardini in his small book Sacred Signs. “Pause a moment beforehand so as to make your entering-in a fully intended and recollected act.”

For me, the real business of worship began (before I read Guardini) as I knelt after getting settled in the pew. Everything that came before, from blessing myself with holy water at the door to genuflecting to Jesus in the Tabernacle as I entered the pew, was travel time. The significance of entering into the church I did not think of. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Guardini explains: “Between the outer and the inner world are the doors. They are the barriers between the market place and the sanctuary, between what belongs to the world at large and what has become consecrated to God. And the door warns the man who opens it to go inside that he must now leave behind the thoughts, wishes and cares which here are out of place, his curiosity, his vanity, his worldly interests, his secular self. Make yourself clean. The ground you tread is holy ground.”

 

On a friend’s Facebook page, a commenter launched a long, not very coherent, rant about Purgatory being unbiblical. Along the way he said this: “Paul was a Jew who converted to Christianity, the letters written were to specific churches with specific prejudices. So having been Jewish he no doubt could not shake off all old tradition in his line of thinking, kind of like you. It is not important to us because it still is not what Jesus says. Paul doesn’t out rank Jesus.”

It’s the “Jesus trump card” argument. It’s usually a liberal argument, but here employed by someone who writes like the worst sort of fundamentalist. He thinks St. Paul not only wrong but intrinsically wrong and basically untrustworthy. Paul wrote from “prejudices” and “old traditions” that he “could not shake off.”

So the New Testament isn’t authoritative. Only Jesus is. Or rather, his Jesus, not St. Paul’s Jesus. I marvel at this.

 

The headline says, “You Get More Introverted with Age, According to Science.” It’s called maturing.

 

Reading in our local bar, I happened to notice the song on the jukebox. I think because it was a familiar catchy tune but with different lyrics. So I listened carefully. The lyrics were a play on the original song’s lyrics, and really gross and obscene.

It wasn’t obscenity to make a point. It wasn’t satirical or polemical. The band wasn’t trying to make people uncomfortable by forcing them to see something they wouldn’t see without being forced. They weren’t even trying to be clever. That would be defensible.

The band was being gross and obscene just to be gross and obscene. The only pleasure you were supposed to take from the song was the obscene play on the original lyrics. As if you were a dirty-minded and dim 14-year-old. The song was gross and obscene because it was only gross and obscene.

The song declares hatred for meaning. It was a nihilistic act, and not in a dark, existentialist way, as in the classic movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? It’s hard to conceive of people with such hatred for truth. That left me finishing my beer and thinking dark, depressed thoughts about life for the rest of the week.

 

One of the fruits of Francis’s papacy has been greater theological sophistication about who God wants running things and why. Fallen human beings (at the higher levels, almost always men) make every decision in the Church. Most, but not all, try to hear the Holy Spirit. But they also work under the influence of their own commitments and desires (good and bad), sins, egos, interests, ambitions, blind spots, insights and wisdom, and hopes and dreams (good and bad). They make decisions within complicated social systems that have their own interests.

When Jesus ascended to Heaven, He left us in charge. I would have advised against it, but no one asked me. It’s of a piece with God’s creating a creature who’d bring the whole thing down in no time. It’s what He does.

The Church always works this way, even in the election of Christ’s vicar. For all we know, the Holy Spirit would have preferred a parish priest in rural South Sudan to the archbishop of Buenos Aires or Bishop Athanasius Schneider. But He lets the Church choose our popes, with their gifts and their faults.

 

Cynical words from an atheist, but not untrue. David Hume writes that if allowed to compete with one another, clergy will inspire in their adherents “the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavor, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of [their] audience.”

He writes of the radical sects of his day. They were, as we would say, market-driven, and Hume concludes that the solution is to free them from demand: “to bribe their indolence, by assigning stated salaries to their profession, and rendering it superfluous for them to be farther active, than merely to prevent their flock from straying in quest of new pastures.”

I’m not saying the Church shouldn’t pay her clergy a decent, reliable salary. But maybe a little more demand wouldn’t hurt.

 

Even pious older people feel jealous of the pious young student. They wish they had the same energy to serve God. “Their years are hard upon them,” writes Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, in his only book, A Student’s Obligation: Advice from the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto. He quotes the Mishnah: “One who studies as a child, to what may he be compared? To ink written upon a fresh paper. One who studies in old age — to ink written upon a paper that has been erased.”

Shapira warns the young against telling themselves they will serve God when they are older: “Faithful student, guard your childhood and be zealous in your youth…. Even in old and hoary age, [piety’s] vitality remains vigorous, its elixirs grow and flourish. The body grows old as its powers weaken, but the fire remains; [the body] is warmed by [piety’s] heat and set aflame by its fire. What fool would lose this, what crazy person would defile and stop up the source of his life?”

The book was Shapira’s last because he survived the ghetto uprising but was murdered by Nazis on the way to a concentration camp.

 

She’d once given a homeless man a raw turnip. Writer Meg Hunter-Kilmer bumbled through figuring out how to respond to the homeless. She felt convicted. “I wanted to look people in the eye, ask their names, and shake their hands. I wanted to offer to pray for them, but it felt so condescending to offer prayers instead of physical help.”

She decided to keep giving to charities, but to carry cash with her. “When I pass a person asking for money, I don’t look away. I grab some cash and hand it over. Then I ask their names and tell them mine, shake their hands and offer to pray for them. Sometimes I stay to chat for a bit and sometimes the light turns and I drive away, but I’ve looked a child of God in the eye and acknowledged their dignity.”

 

But what will they do with the money? “I don’t worry about what they do with the money — it’s not my money, it’s God’s,” Hunter-Kilmer writes. “The money serves to purchase the right to encounter this person and love him. To love Bosco, whose momma loved him enough to name him after such a marvelous Saint, to love Milo, who thanked me not for the money but for shaking his hand.”

 

Our immigration police tried to force severely disabled Maria Isabel Bueso to leave the country, when she has been here, legally, since her youth for treatment of a fatal genetic condition. And has contributed greatly to medical researchers trying to treat her disease and others’. ICE backed down when the public erupted, but had Bueso not had such public support, off to Guatemala and almost certain death she would have gone.

Her case offers a lesson for both politically conservative and politically liberal Catholics. It’s the same lesson: When you turn to the state, you will not always get what you want, and you will get things you don’t want. The state works through bureaucracy, and the inhumane treatment of a disabled woman is what happens when you push a bureaucracy to do something.

 

Government is an ambiguous tool. Its effects are always mixed. For one thing, it operates by rules that are necessarily broad, and it doesn’t make distinctions. It’s supposed to do its work indifferently, in the sense of making no distinctions between its clients (or targets), so it doesn’t allow discretion. It favors clarity over imperfection, even if that clarity is achieved by acting unjustly to many.

In this case, when a bureaucracy works to remove allegedly illegal immigrants, it will tend to remove them without distinction. It’ll grab the felon with multiple convictions and the woman being treated for a brutal disease. In fact, it will tend to go after the latter because she’s easier to find and remove. Even if it prioritizes the felon, low-hanging fruit is too easy to pick to leave alone.

It’s important to understand how government works, precisely to know how to protect people like Maria Isabel Bueso.

 

Father’s wife put a note next to the rectory door: “Never be afraid to inconvenience a mere priest.” An old friend from our days in what I called the Episcopal resistance, the “mere priest” is Fr. David Ousley, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Bridgeport, north of Philadelphia, a parish of the Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.

“It is important for everyone to know what a priest is for,” Fr. David writes in his newsletter. Priests do a lot, from saying Mass and teaching to turning on the air conditioning and taking out the trash. Their people know this, and some don’t want to bother them even when they really need something, maybe counsel or confession, maybe just someone to listen.

“While considerate, such reluctance should be overcome,” he says. “That’s what a priest is for. Every priest wants to do what he can for the good of those around him. Even when he is really, really busy. He wants to do what God gives him to do, even if it is not on the to-do list. So when you need a priest, don’t worry about ‘inconveniencing’ him. That’s why he is a priest.”

 

When culture-warring hurts your brain. An old quote from conservative celebrity Dennis Prager popped up on Facebook recently, because it’s so appalling: “When my wife was a waitress in her mid teens, the manager of her restaurant grabbed her breasts and squeezed them on numerous occasions. She told him to buzz off, figured out how to avoid being in places where they were alone, and continued going about her job. That’s empowerment.”

Letting a predator circumscribe your life (by forcing you to figure out where not to go) is not empowerment. Neither is leaving him free to molest any number of other women, some perhaps not as forceful or confident or secure as Prager’s future wife. Not reporting what was criminal sexual contact to the police is not empowerment either.

What she did is, at best, a work-around. Otherwise known as dis-empowerment.

 

Elsewhere, Prager dismisses criticism of a man in authority (religious authority) caught with pornography on his computer. He slaps it down as an example of “fear and loathing of heterosexual male nature,” which is, he says, “a major problem in American life.”

What a low view of men. Thanks, Dennis.

 

Another item from the alas still Calvinist Joe Long: “Do you find the Biblical command to ‘love your enemies’ difficult? I used to, also. Then I called one of my enemies and cut a deal. He’s going to love my enemies for me, and I will love his for him. That way all of our enemies get loved.”

 

This column’s grumpy observation. On Christmas Day last year, my wife and I went to Mass at a very famous, very big church in a major American city where our second child and his wife live. The Mass was lovely. The celebrant was, I think, a bishop. And his homily was…astonishingly pointless and trivial.

And long. He said nothing wrong, but he said nothing particularly relevant either. He chuckled a lot. I don’t remember enough of it to give examples, but as a proclamation of the Gospel, it was worthless. And I mean without worth.

I could, and I don’t exaggerate, have preached his homily in two minutes, maybe three, and done it far better. I tried to force myself to be receptive, and I couldn’t. But I’m not complaining for myself. He had several hundred people in front of him, a good number undoubtedly at Mass only once or twice a year, and he gave them not a single reason to come more often.

He undoubtedly meant well. He surely thought he was saying something valuable. But if he did, he is, alas, shallow and without self-awareness. Perhaps not his fault, though I’m not inclined to excuse the vanity of clerics.

But it is the fault of someone who lets men like that mount the pulpit at a Mass with hundreds of people who need — for their happiness in this world and the next — to hear the Good News of that baby in the manger clear and hard. Yes, he’s a bishop or higher cleric. No, that doesn’t mean he has to preach when he can’t, when he has so little sense of the amazing story he’s been given to proclaim.

 

The Church wastes a huge amount of her capital, her unique opportunities to speak to people who put themselves in the position of hearing what she has to say. Christmas Mass might be the biggest of these. Even the culture conspires to get people into church this one day a year.

But instead of asking, “How can we use these rare, precious chances to proclaim the Good News we have to proclaim?” the Church asks, “Who’s on the rota?” or worse, “Who’s got the status to do the big Masses?” It’s business as usual in an institution that serves its own institutional interests.

 

Which institutions do, of course. We know that. It’s basic sociology. Knowing that, the Church should play against it. By, for example, finding priests who can preach at Christmas Masses and bring to people who come once a year the tidings of great joy.

Yes, the priest who loves Jesus and just tells the story as he sees it can preach a convicting homily. He can simply talk about what that baby in the manger means to him. Assuming the baby means something to him.

You don’t actually need all the craft to be a good preacher. You just have to see the thing you’re talking about and love it and say honestly and plainly what you have to say about it, while really seeing the people to whom you’re talking. Love Jesus and love His people, and you’ll have something to tell them.

You have to spend some time preparing, of course, but not that much. A man saying, “I love Jesus and here’s why,” who speaks because he loves you too, will move you no matter how inept a speaker he is.

 

A warning to us verbal types. Spirited conversation can encourage as much as books do, writes Dorothy Day in her lesser-known autobiography, From Union Square to Rome. “It helps me to glimpse the meaning in things and jolts me out of the rut in which I have been ambling along. I am spurred on to the pursuit of knowledge by a renewed love of knowledge.”

But. “Often talk is an escape from doing anything. We chatter on and on to cover our feelings and hide from ourselves and others our own futility.” Facility with words can draw one away from the truth, the way a long-distance runner can get himself lost in the woods.

It also makes us think less of others who may see better than we do. “This exaltation of the articulate obscures the fact that there are millions of people in this world who feel and in some way carry on courageously even though they cannot talk or reason brilliantly. This very talk may obscure everything that we know nothing of now, and who knows but that silence may lead us to it.”

 

©2019 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

 

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