Threats in the Dark

Many of us city folk have developed a heightened sense of awareness as a first line of self defense against physical attacks. When getting out of my car at the grocery store, I always do a quick scan around me to see if anyone is lingering between other cars, and casually survey my surroundings until I enter the store. When I return to my car, I always lock the doors as soon as I get in rather than wait for automatic locks to kick in once I start driving. I always keep my doors locked when I’m at home.

It’s strange that I didn’t develop that awareness until I moved from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area that had a combined population of almost 5 million to a small metro area in Louisiana with about 250,000 people. In our city, the good and bad neighborhoods have a much closer proximity. Carjackings, robberies and home invasions were not something we heard about in our safe Dallas area suburb, but they are common in our present city. Within a couple of years, I obtained my concealed carry license and learned about situational awareness being the first line of defense.

Now, when I go to stay at my in-laws camp on Cane River in a very rural part of Louisiana, you would think that situational awareness was not that important. And you’d be right, except that it’s a hard habit to break and it takes other forms. Water moccasins, raccoons, armadillos, foxes, bobcats, coyotes and alligators all live here, too, and though most of them don’t show themselves until night time, I always make sure that the fallen branch I’m about to pick up is in fact a branch and not a snake.

Speaking of night time: I’m at the advanced stage of life where sleep becomes difficult. Usually in bed by 9:00 PM, I rarely sleep past 4:30 AM and often arise before then. At Cane River, I ease downstairs, brew the coffee and head for the outdoor kitchen, flashlight in hand. Before opening the glass paned door, I shine the flashlight through it, inspecting right and left to make sure I’m not going to step on any creatures. As I proceed down the steps, I sweep the beam across the yard to warn the armadillos that I’m coming out. Last week I saw one hurtling at a jerky 0.0005 mph from one group of hedges to another. It’s not that I’m afraid of them, I just want to prevent having to change my underwear if I stumble over one in the dark.

Sometimes these precautions have an unintended effect. Yesterday morning, I opened the door and gasped when something scurried across the porch. That scurrying something was my flashlight beam glinting off the glass. Another morning, I walked outside without the benefit of my flashlight and jumped when I saw the shadow of a creature to my right. It was my shadow cast by the full moon. Last week as I walked down the sidewalk connecting the house to the kitchen, something jumped into my path. I leapt straight up and stamped both feet loudly on the concrete to scare a frog away, only to cause the unseen doves perched in the birch tree above me to crash through the branches to escape the giant loon below them. “Nyah!”, I yelled out.

I love the solitude when I’m at the camp alone. With the exception of nightly phone calls with my wife, exchanging waves or an occasional conversation with the neighbors is all the personal contact I have. I feel perfectly at peace and perfectly safe here. I do bring my firearm because I’ve read In Cold Blood, and the sheriff is at least 20 minutes away. I’ve never felt the least bit threatened here, but it’s best to be prepared.

The side of the house facing the river consists of a bank of large windows, affording a beautiful view of pecan trees, lilies, elephant ears and the tranquil water shimmering behind it all. One night a couple of weeks ago, I was seated at the dining table in the house, watching a Breaking Bad episode on my laptop. I noticed a couple of bass boats trolling the bank of the river, their green and red navigation lights signaling their locations.

It’s not uncommon to see night fisherman work the banks after dark, but these two boats didn’t just pass by and move on. They trolled back and forth along the camp’s property, and I had seen one of the boats the night before (a distinctive row of green lights wrapped around its perimeter.). I felt a little uneasy knowing that they could see me in the lighted house from their dark positions so I dimmed the lights while I continued watching the show.

When the episode ended, the next one began playing. Exhausted from a day in the sun, I shut my laptop, made sure all four doors were locked and killed the lights completely. Still seeing the boats, I remembered that my in-laws had told me they felt like any burglary threats would probably arrive by boat since it would be harder for neighbors to spot intruders than if they arrived by the road. With the house secured, I shook off the thought and headed upstairs to bed.

I had been reading in bed for about 15 minutes when I heard a brief loud buzzing noise downstairs. Then a door slammed. I sat up, rigid with alarm. Voices, two or more, speaking casually. Quiet, followed by more talking. 911, call 911. No. The sheriff is at least 20 minutes away. I retrieved my flashlight and my handgun from my kit and, heart pounding, crept to the top of the stairs. I could still hear subdued voices but nothing else. I descended a few steps, flipped on my flashlight and saw no one. No doors busted, no damage. A voice, a familiar voice, within 10 feet of me, but no one was there.

Then I realized that an electronic sprite had awakened my laptop and started playing the next episode of Breaking Bad, the lid still closed. Laughing with relief, I opened the damned thing and closed the browser, ensuring that the threat was terminated.

Situational awareness – too much of a good thing?

Living…and dying

My wife’s brother and his wife own a camp on Cane River in Louisiana. “Camp” is a misleading word. In Texas we would call it a “lake house”, but “camp” is the common term used in Louisiana. A camp can consist of a trailer squeezed on a sliver of land or it can be a large home (even a mansion) isolated on several acres. And Cane River is not actually a river but a 26 mile long lake, dammed on both ends. It looks like a narrow river, a brackish green ribbon with the gentlest of currents induced by the breeze. The last couple of Augusts, I’ve been making a weekly trek to the camp to mow their 5 acre property while my in-laws visit family in the Northeast U.S..

You might wonder how I was conned into outdoor labor in August when the temperature peaks in the mid- to high 90s intensified by 70% humidity, but I love being able to get out of the city and spend a couple of days each week in complete quiet and solitude, riding the big mowers, and getting caked in red dust kicked up by the spinning blades. The camp lies within a subdivision carved from a pecan orchard, and although there are neighbors within a couple of hundred yards, interaction with them is minimal and not unwelcome. At present I’m sitting in the outdoor kitchen and apart from the whirring ceiling fans overhead, the only sounds I hear are a few birds calling and a detail of cows protesting as they push through a stockade, no doubt against their will.

When I was at the camp to mow last week, I was walking down the stairs, and I saw a picture of “Papa” on the wall, standing in his driveway wearing a short sleeve white sport shirt and pleated trousers.  He sported white hair and the soft extra pounds that most older men carry.  Although I have seen that picture many times, I burst into tears.  Papa was my wife’s maternal grandfather and she had recently told me (as she has several times over the years) that I remind her of Papa.  He was tall and quiet and gentle. Since he died in 1970 at age 70, I never had the chance to meet him.  I wept because he was dead, his life was over, and he will soon be forgotten.  

Those thoughts about Papa are the types of thoughts I have frequently, trying to reconcile this earthly life with heaven (or hell) after our death.  It saddens me greatly that we will all be forgotten after a generation or two.  I think of all of the suffering most people endure, all of the mistakes and evil we commit, all of the love we have for family and friends. I know that if we make it to heaven, it will be because of Christ’s sacrifice and not because we earned it.  Nothing we do on earth can compensate for our many sins.  I look forward to death (I think…) and an end to this miserable life (it’s not ALL bad!), but in my thinking, I can’t make the leap of passing from our earthly lives to happiness in heaven. First of all, it’s difficult to imagine everlasting happiness.  Second, how we make the transition from our flawed humanity to heavenly dweller is a black box to me.

When I sat down for lunch, I looked up Papa’s grave on and wept when I saw his headstone and read the obituary.  Then I looked up my father-in-law’s grave and wept some more.  I felt guilt over having been so critical of his alcoholism rather than having compassion for him.  I noted the location of the cemetery where he’s buried with the thought that I might visit his grave some day.

Then I looked at some pictures of my wife on my computer.  And I wept even more.  She just turned 70 (the same age as Papa when he died) and her birthday hit ME kind of hard.  Recent pictures of her reveal the effects of aging and I weep for what living has done to her.  I think of the young woman I loved and married and see her in my wife. I feel guilt and sadness about the the times when things weren’t going so well between us.  And of course I wonder how much longer we have together and who will be the first to die. I’ve resolved to making the best of our remaining years together and to focus on cherishing her as my wife.

Not that my wife acts “elderly”.  She’s still working full time as the director of a non-profit organization.  She’s active, though I wished she got more exercise, but her health is otherwise excellent. If she’s like her great aunt (who’s 101), she could live a few more decades. But still, we are into those later years when death becomes more likely.

When I visit an art museum, I am struck that artists create paintings that still inspire people centuries later. It seems important to me that I leave something behind that will inspire people, but that’s not going to happen. It won’t be long after my death that I’ll be forgotten.

Is it simply pride that makes me want to leave a visible mark on this earth? Or maybe it’s my inability to make sense of the cycle of life has been repeating for thousands of generations. The funny thing is, after I die — I won’t care!

Catholic Bishops: Is It All About the Money?

In a previous post, I wrote about how the Vatican is trying to scuttle plans by U.S. bishops to come up with a formal policy regarding public figures receiving the Eucharist when they actively promote immoral behavior such as abortion. A Vatican official, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, laid out a number of steps that must be pursued before any vote on a formal policy, and he said there must be near-unanimous agreement on the policy. The steps and conditions he set forth are so broad that they will likely never be met and a formal policy will never be approved.

Enter Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco. I had heard that he recently released a pastoral letter (“Before I Formed You in the Womb, I Knew You“) and that it was a pushback against those bishops who want to delay any action on a formal policy. Recently, Cordileone appeared as a guest on the Crisis Point podcast episode, “Holy Communion and Pro-Abortion Catholic Politicians with Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone“, hosted by Eric Sammons, editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine. The discussion between Cordileone and Sammons was very informative and I recommend listening to the entire 48 minute podcast.

During their discussion, the archbishop explained that he felt Catholics were confused by the Church’s teaching on reception of the Eucharist as it pertained to what might prohibit any person (not just politicians) from receiving it. He explained the different levels of cooperating with evil, e.g., formal cooperation being when someone publicly supports, encourages and enables an immoral act to take place. Formal cooperation is the most serious form of involvement and the archbishop explained what the lesser degrees were.

Cordileone also explained that there were three phases of pastoral correction that can be taken by a bishop. Step one is talking with the individual involved in the immorality and trying to convince them to stop their participation. In the second step, a bishop can publicly announce that a person is not allowed to receive Communion, thereby notifying all priests in his diocese. If a person is still unrepentant, then the bishop can excommunicate them.

After the discussion of the pastoral letter’s content, Sammons said that the laity, especially listeners of the Crisis Point podcast, were frustrated that no politicians who supported abortion were being denied the Eucharist. It seemed clear that those politicians, particularly Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi were formally cooperating in the evil of abortion since they publicly expressed their support of it and supported laws funding abortion. Sammons respectfully pointed out that Cordileone had been archbishop of San Francisco for nine years, that Pelosi was in his diocese and yet no action had been taken regarding her reception of the Eucharist.

Cordileone’s reply was that they were in the first of the three steps, that some discussion had taken place between Pelosi and him. Out of respect for privacy, he would not elaborate on the discussions, which is understandable. My first thought was he had been her bishop for nine years and they’re still in the discussion phase? Sammons also pointed out that Planned Parenthood had given its highest honor to Pelosi, the Margaret Sanger Award.

Then the archbishop said that Speaker Pelosi had also done things that benefited the Catholic Church, and that he wanted to give her credit for that. For example, she made sure that the Church was included in the COVID relief Payment Protection Plan so that they could receive federal money during the shutdown. BOOM! There it was – the money! It’s always the money! The U.S. bishops are huge supporters of “refugee resettlement” and open borders. Their various charities received hundreds of millions of dollars for those purposes during the Obama years. According to the Millenium Report, Catholic Charities receives about 65% of its budget from the federal government. Fifty-seven government agencies contract with the Catholic Church, for which the Church receives $1.6 billion (per year, I presume).

Did you know that when a charity receives federal funding, they are not allowed to proselytize or even to talk about God to the people they serve? Religious charities have to decide if the funding is more important than being able to share their faith. Catholic Charities fired my son because he tried to encourage a disconsolate immigrant by telling him the story of Job. My son was not trying to convert the man or invite him to Mass. The man had not qualified for the federal assistance that Catholic Charities was administering and he was talking about suicide. After my son shared the story of Job, the man left feeling very encouraged. He had never heard the story before and it gave him faith. (Some time later, my son saw this man at a public park. The man thanked him for his encouragement and could not believe that my son had been fired for simply sharing the story of Job.)

Back to the interview with Cordileone. The archbishop stated that a bishop has to consider several things when deciding to take any action regarding a public figure. He said it’s possible that instituting Church discipline could embolden the other side. I’m trying to think of how much more emboldened the other side could be than it already is. Aren’t the Catholic pro-abortion politicians already flaunting their independence from Church teaching? Aren’t they already pushing full steam for unrestricted abortion?

Cordileone also said we need to build up a momentum, that people need to have a revulsion toward abortion before the Church acts by denying Communion or excommunicating a public figure, otherwise it could backfire. Perhaps the archbishop means there needs to be a groundswell of public opinion, but a newly released poll shows that 74% of regular Mass attendees believe that pro-abortion politicians should not present themselves for Communion. Other findings from the poll show even more support for the Church’s pro-life stances and duties. (The poll apparently did not ask specifically whether or not bishops should ban politicians from Communion.) It would seem that among faithful Catholics, there is the momentum that Cordileone says is required.

I want to give Cordileone the benefit of the doubt and say that he leans toward prohibiting pro-abortion public figures from receiving the Eucharist, but that a desire for unity among the bishops and the Vatican wins out. Or perhaps he’s just afraid of stepping too far out. Who wants to be the first bishop to ban a pro-abortion politician from the Eucharist? Volunteers? Anybody? Cordileone’s arguments against taking action sound weak to me, and I know he’s a lot smarter and more educated than I am, so surely they sound weak to him, too, don’t they? And maybe his example of Pelosi’s financial aid to the Catholic Church was just a poorly chosen example. Perhaps she baked cookies for a bake sale or sold kisses for $1 at the parish bazaar. Unfortunately his example makes it appear that she bought off the Church, whether or not the COVID and similar funding have any influence on whether or not the bishops discipline the politicians.

Suicide is not an option

Saturday evening, September 20, 1986. Two days after my 32nd birthday, my wife and 3 small children sped down Central Expressway in Dallas. We were heading to my parent’s house across town for a belated birthday celebration that evening when one of my sons announced from the back seat that he felt sick to his stomach. Not wanting to risk an upchuck in the back seat, I took the next exit and headed back home. Upon our arrival at home, I punched in my parent’s phone number. Mom answered and when I delivered the news that we’d have to delay the celebration, her demeanor changed from chipper to terse. It puzzled me – why would she be angry that one of my kids was sick? It was my birthday celebration being delayed, not hers.

Around 5 A.M. the next morning, the phone rang and my wife picked it up from her side of the bed. I don’t remember what she said to the person who called, but she hung up and said to me, “It was your Dad. Your mom hung herself.” I bolted out of bed, crying out “No, no, no. Oh God, no!” I hurriedly dressed, got in the car and made the trip down Central Expressway that we had started the evening before. It was just dawn, with few cars on Central or highway 635, the sky colored pastel pink and baby blue. I have no recollection of my thoughts during that drive.

The coroner and police cars were parked in front of my parent’s small pink brick house that they had bought in “Dutch Village” 26 years earlier. I remember being 4 years old when they decided to have a house built there. The sales office was actually a Dutch style windmill and I couldn’t believe we were going to live in a windmill village, just like a fairy tale. I don’t even remember being disappointed when our completed house didn’t resemble a windmill at all.

The single car garage door was open and the city men were in there, so I entered through the front door of the house. Now after 35 years, I only remember Dad being inside and perhaps the police chaplain. I don’t remember much about what was said, except that Dad kept saying he was afraid this would happen. He said she seemed very angry on Saturday night and he got the feeling that she would try to kill herself. Although he tried to stay up all night on a kind of suicide watch, he finally gave in and went to bed. When he awoke and didn’t find her in the house, he opened the garage door to see that she had hung herself.

After Mom’s body was removed, we drove to my younger sister’s house about 15 minutes away. Phone calls were made and my other sister and her family drove in from Houston that afternoon. The next few days were miserable as we not only tried to cope with Mom’s death but also with blaming each other, trying to keep the peace, selecting Mass readings, encouraging each other, making funeral arrangements. One vivid memory I have is hearing that quarterback David Archer led the Atlanta Falcons in victory over the Dallas Cowboys.

We met with the pastor of the Catholic Church that Mom had stopped attending. Normally at Catholic visitations held the evening before the funeral Mass, a rosary is prayed, and I think the rosary is the one prayer that my Mom continued saying with my Dad. Because Mom was a convert and most of her side of the family was Baptist, the priest said to avoid offending the Baptists, we should only pray one decade (10 Hail Marys) of the rosary. We reluctantly agreed to that.

The day of the funeral was a beautiful sunny day. The family limo driver’s last name was Yeager. I sat in the front seat with him and learned that he was related to Chuck Yeager, the famous test pilot. Waiting outside were several of my coworkers from a small computer consulting firm. The firm was owned by evangelical Protestants and most of the employees were of similar faiths. The priest’s homily was bizarre as he quoted the “great Buddha” and from Kahlil Gibran’s book, The Prophet. I was both embarrassed and furious that Father was so ignorant of Protestant sensibilities. They already believed that Catholics were not “saved”. He only confirmed that we were also kooks. Fortunately, no family or friends ever mentioned the homily, but I felt like he had soiled my mother’s funeral.

My mom’s suicide had been preceded by an unsuccessful attempt several years earlier. My parents had a bitter marriage and after one argument, Mom had swallowed several sleeping pills. Dad found her passed out, called an ambulance and after a couple of days in the hospital, she survived.

My parents met with a Catholic counselor, a former Carmelite monk, for some time period. Mom seemed to be not as depressed and it didn’t seem like she was suicidal any more. Much later I started seeing the same counselor after being recommended to him by a friend. I didn’t realize he had been (but no longer was) my parents’ counselor until my first meeting with him. After my parents ceased counseling, it seemed like their situation grew worse and that my mom became angrier and more depressed. I felt like her general mood was hostile and I remember telling my counselor shorty before her death that Mom had changed, that there was something wrong with her, but a risk of suicide did not occur to me.

I don’t know if there are “typical” effects on the survivors of those who have committed suicide. Naturally there is the grief you would experience at the loss of a loved one, a grief that can be crushing but given enough time, most people’s lives typically resume some sort of normalcy. An added dimension when someone commits suicide is trying to find out why they chose that option. How could they feel so bad that they’d want to kill themselves? Who made them feel bad? Who was mean to them? What was wrong with their upbringing? Who didn’t love them enough? That can pit family members and friends against each other. I’m not even going to try to answer those questions here. Maybe no one is to blame.

I had started seeing the counselor because I felt like my temper was getting the best of me and I didn’t like that. The initial assessment of the counselor was that I might see him for a few months and be on my way, but after Mom’s death I continued seeing him for the next 20 years, with a few breaks interspersed. Depression had cast its pall over me, a dark blanket covering my head. My work at the consulting company required me to drive in heavy traffic across the Dallas/Fort Worth area and the work as a developer was solitary as I was often working in little computer rooms or closets tucked away in warehouses. I didn’t just feel isolated – I actually was isolated and needed a change.

I had heard that a coworker from a previous employer was a manager at an insurance division of a major retailer. A call to her resulted in interviews and my taking the job, with my friend as my manager. Even though it was a major corporate environment, it had some independence from the retail parent and it seemed to be well managed (in fact it was the only profitable division in the corporation). I was most impressed by the friendly environment and it was the tonic I needed to help lift my spirits. My performance reviews were positive and I became somewhat known for my technical abilities.

As usually happens in a corporation, good performance results in more responsibility, which often results in more stress. My second-line manager put me in charge of coordinating the division’s data center move from Ohio to Dallas. It was new territory for me and required some overtime, though not an unreasonable amount. There were just so many details and the timing of the switchover had to occur so that the company’s business operations were not affected. I remember standing at the copier one night and a coworker asked me how it was going. Fighting the urge to burst into tears, I told him it was pretty stressful and I’d be glad when it was over. The move took place without a hitch, much to my relief.

When the next special project came around, I was selected for its team of two – a manager and me. It was then that the effects of my mom’s suicide really hit me – years after she had died.

We were to learn a new software development methodology and a new technology and develop a marketing system to replace several helter-skelter systems that different marketing groups had developed in-house. We attended three weeks of classes to learn the new methodology and the development tool. I found it extremely confusing and was nervous about trying to use it. After we completed the course, my new manager told me he was going on vacation for two weeks. He left me to start conducting meetings with the new methodology and using the new tool. We had watched videos on how to conduct these “joint application development” meetings, but it remained a mystery to me and seemed to require a special talent that I didn’t think I had.

I just couldn’t figure out where to begin on the project. So what did I do? I doodled. I sat at my desk and doodled on my calendar and doodled on a legal pad. I paced the aisles. I think I had episodes of dissociation as I walked down an aisle dragging my hand along the wall, thinking “this wall is real. I can touch it.” I was unable to sleep at night. I remember being terrified that I was going to kill myself. If I had a thought that was similar to something Mom had said, I’d think that was an indication that I was just like her. My mom was an artist. I was artist – NO! Mom would say, “I can’t go on like this”; I would think “I can’t go on like this.” NO! It felt like I was in a dark whirlpool that I had no control over and I was being sucked down into suicide.

A user manager had also been assigned the project and had attended the classes, too. I met with him and he really had no idea of how to conduct these meetings either. So we just scheduled a few meetings with the marketing departments and used the old method of gathering specifications, foreswearing the new methodology. My stress was compounded by the fact that the marketing departments seemed to take offense at having their systems replaced (it turns out they had not even been asked about it.). When my manager returned, I showed him what information we had gathered so far. He was not pleased that we were not using the new methodology.

Finally one night, still unable to sleep, I thought to myself, I’m not going to let this job kill me. I’ll quit if I have to. I decided I would meet with my former manager and tell her that I couldn’t do the job I was given in the manner they wanted it done. The next morning, I did just that. Within a day, the project manager was replaced with someone that I had worked with before and the situation immediately improved.

Another action I took was to tell my counselor about what had happened. He encouraged me to see a psychiatrist to get started on anti-depressants. The psychiatrist got me started on a couple of medications. My mental state stabilized and the project lasted a year before being pulled in favor of a complete company wide system replacement.

I say that my mental state stabilized, but I was left shaken by the experience. I felt somewhat fragile and I became perhaps overly aggressive in trying to prevent feeling overwhelmed again. My managers and coworkers probably didn’t like the “new me”, but it was better to protect myself than to be popular or even liked.

It would be some years before I realized I was no longer fragile, and that in fact I had become much stronger. I endured other very stressful times on the job without having a breakdown. I’ve had some disasters in my personal life that I’ve weathered, again without falling apart. I quit anti-depressants several years ago after having taken them for about 15 years. I’ve wondered if I really needed them in the first place because they can bring problems of their own, but I don’t want to say that no one should be taking them.

William Styron, the author of Sophie’s Choice, wrote a memoir called, “Darkness Visible” which was an account of his personal experience with severe depression. It’s a short book and it has been 20 years since I’ve read it, so my recollection of it is minimal. I do remember him saying that people who haven’t been depressed cannot understand how someone can be in so much mental pain that they want to kill themselves. Indeed, an occasional friend would encourage me to just move past Mom’s suicide. They didn’t understand that I wasn’t even thinking about her suicide – I was just struggling to cope with life, having been weakened by her act. Styron also gave some statistics about suicide, and all escape me except that if someone close to you commits suicide, there is a much greater chance that you will attempt it. I had intuited that myself after Mom’s failed attempt to kill herself. Her younger brother had just killed himself a few months earlier. I felt like that had opened her mind to it. I don’t think people normally consider taking their own lives, but once that taboo has been breached by someone close to you, it presents itself as a real alternative.

The most important thing Styron wrote was what his close friend kept telling him during his depression: Suicide is not an option. His friend refused to allow it as a way out. Styron said it was one of the most important factors in preventing him from taking his own life. On rare occasions over the years, I’ve had to repeat that to myself: Suicide is not an option. It’s also a statement that I’ve used when dealing with a close relative who has attempted suicide on more than one occasion and suffers from depression and bipolar disorder. It is something I can say with conviction. Take it off the table. Don’t allow it as a possibility.

Something I realized after Mom died, was that she had talked about killing herself. But I didn’t know what to do about that. I didn’t know that people who talked about it were likely to at least try it. Even though she had attempted it before, I didn’t realize it indicated a probability of her doing it again. But I learned. When someone talks about suicide, take it seriously, tell them it’s not an option, and try to get them help.

The Vatican cuts Biden a break

It’s funny how homilies from daily and Sunday Masses provide food for blog posts. I find it’s becoming more frequent that I am getting more riled up by homilies rather than encouraged or edified in my faith. Perhaps it’s just that I’m getting more contrarian in my advanced age. Nah…that’s not it. I think it’s that the trend of redefining words, traditions, science, laws and whatever else forms the structure of our culture has invaded the Catholic Church as well.

When we lived in the Dallas area, we were regularly treated to heresy in homilies. That would be “heresy” with a small “h”, as I’m not theologically trained enough to pronounce them to be actual named heresies. I’m talking small potatoes stuff, for example — the miracle of the loaves and fishes was not really the multiplication of those borrowed foodstuffs, but it was the miracle of love among people sharing the food they’d brought. Or how about, the parting of the Red Sea that allowed Moses to flee from Pharaoh’s army? Well, it was really just a marshy area that had dried out over some time period that allowed the Israelites to escape. One homilist even seemed to hint that the Eucharist was not the mystical body and blood of Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned in a previous post, one happy result of our move from Dallas to a smaller city was that we were no longer hearing heresy from the pulpit. Not that every homily is necessarily inspiring, but we haven’t had to exercise what I call “interpretive listening”, i.e., filtering out the garbage – until the last few years. To be honest, the occurrence of these homilies is infrequent and the offending content usually involves putting a spin on an issue rather than some type of heresy.

Why did this start happening within the last few years? Hmmm…let me think…oh yeah! Pope Francis was elected! His inclination to offer an opinion on any issue, the harsh judgments he offers on those with whom he disagrees, his willingness to “make a mess”, saying Donald Trump is not a Christian and comparing him to Hitler, mocking Catholics who lean to the more traditional side – the Pope says and writes a lot that needs “clarification”. The priests in our parish actually don’t defend the Pope very much and generally act as if he hasn’t said anything controversial. They focus on the positive aspects of what he says and does. Fair enough.

Another change that occurred about a year and a half ago was the appointment of a new bishop over our diocese. Bishop X is a social justice warrior and appears to get his talking points for his sermon from leftwing sources (probably the Jesuit “America” magazine, National Catholic Reporter, or maybe even CNN or the New York Times.) A week after George Floyd’s death, the bishop delivered a homily about the terrible systemic racism in our country. This was before any facts about Floyd’s death had been released. We decided we would try to avoid attending Masses if it had been announced that the bishop would be presiding. One Sunday he surprised us and I dreaded having to hear another SJW homily from him, but to my surprise his homily was non-political and merely involved his use of a “garden weasel” tool as a prop. But not to be disappointed, at the end of Mass, he made this statement (paraphrased but close to his actual language): “Our country is not known for welcoming people of different races. The Asian community is experiencing a wave of hate crimes and we must pray for an end to that,” etc., etc..

What? Our country only welcomes a million legal immigrants a year with 28% of those being Asian and 50% being Mexican or other Latin American. The U.S. has been so unwelcoming that the percentage of the white population has decreased from 80% in the 1980s to 65% today.

The wave of hate crimes affecting Asians was news to me, and I read a lot of news. It turns out the Red media (CNN, MSNBC, WAPO, NYT, et al) were all pushing the new narrative about Asian hate crimes. I don’t get my news from the liberal propagandist organs, but apparently the bishop does. Whether there is a rash of violence against Asians or not, I don’t know. I have read that a large percentage of attacks that do occur are perpetrated by other people of color.

I’ve written before about our bishop’s directive to have the entire diocese pray a novena to St. Joseph for unity in our country and that God would give Joe Biden wisdom as our president. (No mention of asking God to change Biden’s heart about his support of abortion.) Idle question: Will God grant wisdom to someone in the throes of dementia? Will he grant wisdom to someone who is materially cooperating with the slaughter of almost 700,000 innocents per year? Wisdom? Really? How about praying for God to have mercy on Joe Biden?

Which brings me to last Sunday’s homily. When they meet this June, the U.S. bishops (USCCB) were planning on taking a vote on whether or not to draft a document that clarified their position on withholding the Eucharist from Catholic politicians who openly opposed Church moral teachings, especially regarding abortion. A couple of weeks ago, Cardinal Luis Ladaria, a Vatican official, sent a letter to the president of the USCCB strongly warning him against such a vote. It seems Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, N.J. and Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, IL, had visited Ladaria a few days prior to him sending the letter. Those are two of the most left leaning cardinals in the U.S. and have opposed any official stance on the issue, so one can assume that they were the influence behind Ladaria’s letter.

The gist of the letter and statements made by leftist bishops was that no vote or official position should be decided without (1) discussion among the bishops and (2) discussion with the political leaders. Those discussions would have to include all of the other “life issues” of grave importance, such as immigration, health care, poverty and so on. Oh, and also the bishops would have to discuss if a position prohibiting the reception of the Eucharist would just apply to politicians or to everyone and how would that determination be made. Then after all of that discussion, an official stance must be near unanimous. So you see, they could arrive at a unanimous consensus and produce an official policy in about, oh let’s say – never?

So on Sunday our pastor began his homily saying that we had probably been hearing in the news about the postponement of any action on that question about politicians and the Eucharist. He said he wanted to give us the real story about what had happened. But it turns out the real story is just about what various news accounts have reported, with the exception that Father placed an emphasis on unity being so important within the Church and especially among the bishops. It’s true that Ladaria’s letter said it was important to avoid division among the bishops and that division would hurt the mission of the Church to bring the gospel to the world, so I guess unity was the watchword.

Did you know that Adolph Hitler was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic? Yep. If Hitler was president of the U.S. and was openly sending people to gas chambers, I wonder if the Vatican and the USCCB would insist on such unity before taking a position on denying Communion to Hitler. I wonder if they would insist on endless discussions among themselves and with the politicians. I know, that’s not really a fair comparison. During Hitler’s reign, when the Church did speak out, Hitler just stepped up his executions, so the Church opted for silence while working quietly to help the persecuted escape Germany. But Biden does not yet pose such a threat.

Jesus did say, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” Maybe unity is not all it’s being cracked up to be.

Figuring out where I belong

One of the exhausting aspects of the COVID/Wuhan/CCP virus panic is trying to figure out where I belong on the spectrum of beliefs about it. I remember when the news first broke about the virus and a travel ban between the U.S. and China was put in place. Interesting but no big deal, I thought. Yeah, there were reports of some spotty outbreaks in the U.S., but I remembered the bird flu, the swine flu, SARS, Zika, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and the rest, not to mention all of the scares that “Science” and the media like to inflict on us with regularity.

Then one evening, my wife (a/k/a “The Blond Bombshell”) and I stopped into our local Jason’s Deli where we were informed that by order of our mayor, it was the final day the restaurant could be open for dining-in to protect us from the Wuhan Flu. I was shocked. Is this America? What kind of weak minded man was our mayor? I avoid taking the local paper or watching any T.V. news at all, so I was unaware that such actions were being considered. I found out soon enough that the entire USA was locking down, including stores (except those deemed “essential”) and all worship services.

When the mayor’s mask mandate was instituted, my gut reaction was that it was ridiculous. I had not read any of the studies of the effectiveness of masks, but I knew there had been some fairly bad disease outbreaks and it was rare to see anyone wearing a mask. Occasionally a coworker would wear a mask if they were ill to prevent infecting others, but no healthy people wore masks. At first my wife and I complied with the mask mandates, but then I started reading opinions, bloggers, articles by doctors, even studies on the CDC’s website, most of which pointed to the futility of wearing masks. In my first post I wrote about the decision to stop wearing masks and then the decision to start wearing them again.

I guess like most people, I try to find news sites, bloggers and columnists with whom I generally find agreement (almost exclusively on the right/far right/dissident part of the spectrum.) But even among those, there has been a lot of disagreement over wearing masks. There is even more disagreement in opinion about the COVID “vaccines” among the those sources I read.

There are those that praise President Trump over the rapid development and distribution of the vaccine and encourage everyone to be vaccinated. There are others who see the entire COVID panic planned and executed by Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci and the others who engaged in an uncanny simulation of a pandemic prior to COVID’s sudden eruption. They see the vaccines as part of a nefarious plan, a means to distribute some weakening biological component to an unsuspecting public, perhaps to reduce the population of the earth.

Yet others see less of a physical threat to the public, but see it more as a means of control, eventually requiring vaccine passports to travel, buy groceries and otherwise participate in our economy. They also see it as a way of pitting Americans against each other. That, to me, is one of the most insidious aspects of masks mandates and vaccinations. Within families or social groups, it’s common to find differences between liberal and conservative members, but with the COVID issues, even die-hard conservatives are split between the masked/vaccinated and the unmasked/unvaccinated. I’ve had conservative friends ask if we’ve been vaccinated and when hearing that we’ve not, assure us that that’s okay, it’s our choice. Except they usually go on to explain why everyone should be vaccinated. (“It’s to protect other people” is a common rejoinder.)

In case you’re wondering why we haven’t been vaccinated, here are my reasons in no particular order: (1) The vaccines utilize a technology (mRNA) that has not been in widespread use in humans prior to COVID; (2) There was relatively little testing done with the vaccines and they are not approved by the FDA but have only an emergency use authorization. Long term testing is being done real-time with the population; (3) 50% of doctors and health care workers refuse to get vaccinated; (4) Fauci is an admitted liar and his recommendations and pronouncements contradict each other; (5) I don’t trust the CDC or any government agency any longer (thanks Comey, Clapper, Brennan, et al); (6) The vaccines were either tested on aborted fetus cell lines or produced with aborted fetus cell lines; (7) Bill Gates was involved.

Moving away from the COVID issue, there are a few issues where I have little to no ambivalence. Gun ownership is one of those (no restrictions except on violent felons.) Abortion is another (never permitted.) But my Catholic faith in general is an area where I struggle to figure out where I belong. I’m old enough to have experienced a few years of attending Latin Mass prior to Vatican II. I recall following along with my St. Joseph Missal, reading the English translation, and singing the traditional Catholic hymns. When the Novus Ordo Mass was introduced, the Missals were discarded for paperback missalettes and the hymns were replaced with “modern” worship songs led by an attractive mom who actually roamed in front of the altar as she waved her arms leading us in song. It was quite lively.

“Folk Masses” eventually became a thing, usually led by nerdy looking young people and I thought some of the songs were good, even emotionally moving. When raising my family in Plano, TX, we attended a church that had folk Masses and traditional music Masses, though the choir director wasn’t Catholic and neither was his traditional music. Before Mass, he would rehearse songs with those in the congregation already present. One day he wasn’t getting the participation he wanted so he chastised us saying “You are the congregation. The hymns are the congregation’s. You are supposed to sing. Now sing!” My thought was “those hymns aren’t mine and I’m not going to sing, A-hole!”

By the time my kids were in high school, Life Teen was a thing, which meant we attended the rock band Mass. At first I liked it. The band was good and both of my sons participated in it. Eventually, it seemed like the band was the focus of the Mass with the choir area with the band being in front of the church near the altar. And I could see some band members joking around during Mass and it seemed like it was more of a performance for them. It seemed like it was all about getting the kids filled with emotion, feeling good during Mass.

My kids went off to college and we settled into floating around to different parishes and tried to tolerate whatever music was played and the off-the-wall homilies delivered by priests and deacons. By then, my view of the Catholic Church (at least in America) was that it didn’t really believe in anything. You could just choose what you wanted to believe in. Oh, there was a Catechism and something called a Magesterium, and “Rome”. Our parish was quite progressive, even having parish “mission” where some guy taught everyone how to be a “clown for the Lord”.

One evening I attended Mass at another Plano parish. Talk about progressive. The church building was round with metal poles extending at angles to the ceiling and banners hanging down around the conical ceiling. It was intended to represent a large tent signifying we were on a journey or maybe we were just camping – I dunno. I remember the entrance procession had altar servers, an “altar woman”, a reader, a deacon carrying a football and a priest. Before Mass, the deacon spoke and tossed the football from one hand to another, giving some kind of pep talk about what we were about to experience in Mass. I distinctly remember the priest had a minor roll in Mass. Wherever possible, one of the laypersons or deacons would do the reading, and introduction to the homily, other prayers. Then when there was a part that the priest absolutely had to perform, he would do that part.

We eventually moved to a nearby state in 2006, to a much smaller city. It was a breath of fresh air. There was much more orthodoxy in our new parish, with no heresy from the pulpit. It was still Novus Ordo and there were still “guitar Masses” in addition to a traditional music Mass, but its choir was not very good and the director’s voice was past its expiration date. The church building had been remodeled, perhaps in the 60s or 70s, with abstract stained glass windows and “statuary” that was, ummm…procreative in nature? Think phallic, fallopian, ovum, birth canal — that kind of thing. We helped fund another renovation that turned it into a more beautiful, traditional setting.

My sons moved their families here shortly after we did, but they started attending the local cathedral that had an excellent choir which they joined. We started attending Mass at the cathedral and they convinced me to join the choir. The choir director was young, talented, and the choir was top notch. It was extremely moving to be part of it, looking out from the choir loft in the back of this historic cathedral, over the congregation, huge wooden beams arching over them in the ceiling above, traditional stained glass windows depicting the mysteries of the rosary.

The pastor at the cathedral had slowly reintroduced the abandoned Tridentine Mass (“Latin Mass”), offering monthly on Saturday mornings, then later weekly for one of the regularly scheduled Sunday Masses. When a new bishop was assigned, the Tridentine Mass was again restricted to Saturday mornings. I attended a few of the Tridentine Masses but spent a lot of the time lost in the missalette as the instructions for kneeling, standing and sitting for “High Mass” and “Low Mass” were hard to locate, and other congregants also seemed lost as they failed to perform the correct action. The trick was to try to watch someone who looked like they knew what they were doing and do whatever they did. The translation of the Latin prayers seemed more descriptive and less “dumbed down” than the English used in the Novus Ordo and I liked the tradition of the Tridentine Mass.

Over time, one of my sons moved back to Texas where his family joined a parish that only offered the Tridentine Mass. He went all in on the Latin Mass and started a Gregorian chant choir at the parish. Whenever we’d visit we would attend their Mass. I began to appreciate the solemness and reverence of it. One thing I noticed was that the personality of the celebrating priest had very little impact on the Mass. The only time his personality was obvious was during the homily, which he read directly from his papers. In Novus Ordo Masses, the priest seems to fill multiple roles – emcee, entertainer, and celebrant. Their personalities are front and center and affects the tone of the Mass. Occasionally a priest will embrace the emcee/entertainer roles, especially those visiting priests that are presenting a Mission the following week. They’re dramatic and funny and really trying to make a splash to get you to attend the Mission. It’s just too much for Mass.

I think that if a Tridentine Mass was available near me every Sunday, I would attend it instead of a Novus Ordo Mass. The difference I just spoke of regarding the impact of the personality of the priest is one of the factors in my preference. I think the personality should not impact the Mass – the Mass is not entertainment. But what has changed my thinking more is finding out that Vatican II did not dictate that the Novus Ordo Mass replace the Tridentine. The Novus Ordo was post Vatican II and was rather forced upon the Church by modernists. The Tridentine was not banned and was supposed to be allowed to be celebrated, but the modernists were successful in stamping it out. (It’s been awhile since I read about that and I’ll try to locate a source of this information and post it at a later time.). But the Mass changed from the priest offering the sacrifice for the congregation, to the priest leading the congregation in offering the sacrifice of the Mass together. The Novus Ordo reflects the Vatican II emphasis on the laity’s role in the Church. But to me it feels more like the hippie trends of the 60s (“I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony – Coke! It’s the Real Thing!”). We’re all hippies, holding hands at the Our Father, Kumbaya, we feel good, the priest is good, the Mass is good…sorry, got carried away there.

The problem is, most people don’t feel good after Mass. After decades, the Mass responses are rote – they are so familiar you can hardly think about the words your are saying. If they’re sung, it’s even worse, like hearing the same song over and over again, year after year. People say they just don’t get anything out of Mass. The Church has tried to become Protestant in having an interactive liturgy, but they are suffering the same fate as Protestants, which is dwindling attendance. Even if the music is terrific, emotional experience is still cheap and will eventually leave you empty. One thing our pastor has said a few times – we don’t come to Mass to get something out of it. We come to Mass to offer the sacrifice to God. I feel like the Tridentine Mass reflects that sacrificial offering better than Novus Ordo.

A word about Latin Mass parishes. I find they can be a little (or a lot!) off-putting. Their mere existence is going against decades of post-Vatican II practices and teachings. As such, the parishioners can be hard core traditionalists, sometimes legalistic and heavy handed. They are basically starting from scratch in building a parish around the Tridentine Mass. Most of them are younger people and have few older people to guide them. Their priests are on new ground, too, so the going can be rough. Even within the small parishes there can be “trad” vs. “rad-trad” conflicts (that’s “traditional” vs. “radical traditional”.). I don’t know enough about those differences to expound any more. As for me, I’ve long thought many issues are not black and white, that there’s a lot of gray. Does that make me a “trad”? Probably, if I’m even that.

So that leaves me still figuring out where I belong…

COVID’s Catholic Martyrs?

Opinions vary regarding the Roman Catholic Church’s response to the COVID-19 panic. Our pastor revealed as much the first Sunday after the prohibition against Mass was first lifted in our state. He had heard from parishioners who said they would not attend Mass unless everyone wore a mask and from parishioners who said they would not attend Mass as long as masks were required.

I sympathize with our pastors and their assistants. When they are ordained, they take a vow of obedience to their bishop. If the bishop agrees to obey civil authorities and closes churches, what choice do the priests have? If the bishop demands compliance with mask mandates, can a priest refuse to enforce that?

On the other hand, it’s common to hear in homilies the importance of attending Mass and receiving the Eucharist. We’re told the Eucharist is the “source and summit of the Christian life.” It’s a source of grace, a help to achieve holiness, to overcome sin in our lives. As a lifelong Catholic, I’ve taken the Sunday obligation to attend Mass very seriously, only once skipping Mass as a matter of misguided principle. I found it appalling during the recent panic that no Catholic in the entire world could attend Mass in person. (I’m sure there must have been some private or underground Masses being celebrated.)

Although the government’s restrictions on businesses and the mask requirements are keenly felt, the local parishes’ enforcement has had the most oppressive effect on me. I find it difficult to breathe while wearing a mask. Several months ago, waiting for daily Mass to start, it was a little stuffy in church and I was feeling a little faint. I noticed that four people sitting in nearby pews had their masks pulled down below their noses, a practice I had seen at every Mass. At first I just pulled my mask down, too, but then the absurdity of that action struck me.

For several people, wearing a mask was just for show, something they put up with to be allowed to attend. The priests had not been asking people to pull their masks up over their noses, or to make sure the masks were properly sealed around their mouths and noses. If they had truly thought the masks protected people, they would have demanded that people would wear their masks properly. The priests were apparently satisfied that everyone was wearing a mask in some manner. So, I said enough of this theater. I removed my mask (gasp!) and breathed freely. One woman seated near me stood up and moved to the other side of the church. I presume if I had merely kept it pulled below my nose, she would not have moved.

For several weeks, my wife and I did not wear masks to Mass. Thankfully no parishioners said anything to us, but it was difficult to concentrate on the proceedings when all I could do was think of what I would say if someone confronted us. Then one Sunday, the pastor asked that everyone wear masks. Since we were the only people not wearing masks, I felt singled out and from then on, bowed to the pressure to wear a mask. (Being 6’4″, it’s difficult not to stand out in a crowd.)

Contrast the Church’s response to COVID with the response of Catholic clergy in 1873, when our city was hit by the third largest yellow fever epidemic in U.S. history. During that time, five priests and a number of nuns died of the fever while attending the sick and providing the sacraments to the faithful. Some of the priests voluntarily came here to replace those priests that had died or were near death, knowing that yellow fever had killed a quarter of the population. Our diocese has begun the process to have the five priests canonized as saints. The diocese’s news release said “Each priest made the free and voluntary offer of life and heroic acceptance of a premature and horrific yellow fever death, in the act of charity.” It also said the cause for sainthood “is proceeding during a time of pandemic is a noteworthy historic parallel.”

What is the “noteworthy historic parallel?” I don’t see any heroic actions being taken by any clergy during the current panic. The continual harping about “this time of pandemic”, praying for those sick with COVID, the front-line health care workers and those who have died from COVID stokes the panic. (I’m not callous to those who are sick and die of COVID, but I object to the singling out COVID as somehow being more tragic than other forms of death.) The only parallel I see is that a bunch of people in both eras were sick. In the first era, contracting the disease almost guaranteed death, and men and women gave their lives in service of the diseased. In the second era, the disease has a survival rate in excess of 99% and the clergy ran for the hills.

At daily Mass today, the first reading was Acts 14:19-28, which recounts the story of St. Paul being stoned by the crowds, then picking himself up and continuing to Derbe to proclaim the good news. The celebrant was rather moved by St. Paul’s example and in his homily recounted the reading, adding a bit more detail to make the story more vivid. He told of St. Paul being struck by stones and falling to the ground, then getting up, dusting himself off and going to the next town. He encouraged us to follow the example of St. Paul, but to me his words rang hollow.

A couple of weeks ago, a different priest said it wasn’t enough to just sit in the pew every day, but that we needed to evangelize the world as called for by St. Pope John Paul II. He asked how many of us understood the book of Revelations or could explain Genesis to someone. Yes, I know – we Catholics in general have a low Biblical IQ. The point is the priest is calling us to evangelize the world when most of us consider ourselves lucky to even be able to attend Mass during this “pandemic”.

In fact, over the last few months, both priests have been belittling people or demeaning the efforts of people who attend daily Mass. Most recently one of them said “it’s easy to sit in the pew every day…” and once triggered, my irritation kept me from paying attention to his actual point. My thought was: “Hey Father, most of the people here are senior citizens with arthritis, bad backs, foot pain, insomnia and other assorted ailments that are just trying to get through this half hour struggling to stay awake. And the worst part of it is having to listen to your homilies!” Easy to sit in the pew – indeed!

One of the priests likes to accuse everyone of being experts and knowing better than anyone else. One of those accusations was related to our bishop’s “call for unity”, echoing the cry of one Joe Biden, rumored to be President. Father said Pope Francis was the pope and the one true symbol of Jesus Christ on earth. He said we Catholics needed to put our differences aside and that our unity as Christians would be a witness to the rest of the world (I get stomach cramps just typing that sentence.). Never mind that many of those Catholics aligned with Biden stand firmly opposed to Catholic teaching and opposed to our country and its flawed heritage. As with most calls for unity or compromise, it’s the conservative or traditional side that has to do all the compromising. Nevertheless, Father said the bishop had called on all parishes in the diocese to pray a novena to St. Joseph for unity and for Joe Biden (rumored to be President). Where was this call when Donald Trump was president? My response to be accused of thinking we’re all experts: “Speak for yourself, Father. I’m no expert but I’m pretty good at spotting liars, charlatans and those acting in self interest.”

Look, I know we all need to improve in virtue, in holiness, in knowledge, in our dedication to God. But the priests can encourage these things without also berating us. How about prefacing their encouragement with the positive acknowledgment that daily Mass attendance is a good thing and commending us for our effort?

So what’s my point? It is this: The priests are encouraging us to engage the world, be brave, speak the truth, gain knowledge, be more like the martyrs, while at the same time belittling us. Yet these brave priests participated in the shutdown of the Church, denying the sacraments to their flock. Yes, they were obeying their bishop, but did they or any of their brother priests ask the bishop for permission to violate the lockdown orders and hold Mass for those people willing to take the risk? I for one would greatly admire any priest who had offered to celebrate Mass and I would have risked arrest to attend, not because I’m a hero but because I think the Eucharist and religious freedom is that important. Once they’ve shown that kind of bravery, then they’ve truly earned the right to talk about the sacrifices of martyrdom. Otherwise, their talk is cheap.