Monday, November 22, 2010

A Book Review: American Grace

American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us
Robert D. Putnam and David E. Campbell
Simon & Schuster: New York
c. 2010, 688pp. US$30.
ISBN: 10: 1416566716

In this exhaustive study of religious beliefs and practices in the United States, Professors Robert D. Putnam (of Harvard) and David E. Campbell (of Notre Dame) have provided a convincing aerial overview one of the most vital, dynamic, and fluid components of contemporary culture. Based upon a two-step, comprehensive interview survey (Faith Matters 2006, 2007) involving the participation of more than 3,000 subjects nationally, this comprehensive survey presents a series of findings that both affirm the importance of organized religion and at the same time call attention to important tensions (‘shocks’ and ‘aftershocks) that challenge its traditional role. Religious pluralism in America, they conclude, is thriving, yet shares a remarkable coexistence with polarization.

The authors concur that, unique among citizens of post-industrial societies in the world, Americans are an especially religious and religiously observant people—with more than 83% reporting that they belong to a specific religion, 59% reporting that they pray at least once a week, 40% reporting attendance at weekly services, , and nearly one-third responding that they read scripture once a week. This surprising depth, breadth, and resilience of American religious beliefs and practices, the authors attribute in part to the unique nature of United States society. The absence of a religious monopoly combined with an atmosphere of religious liberty has enabled faith involvement to flourish for more than two centuries.

At the same time that the authors point up to both the vibrant diversity and relative tolerance of contemporary American society with regard to religion, they also note three specific “societal shocks” that have generated current tensions and the emergence of a “fault line” separating evangelical Christians from others . The first, they maintain, was the period of “the sexually libertine 1960s,” which subsequently produced “a prudish aftershock of growth in conservative religion, especially evangelicalism, and an even more pronounced cultural presence for evangelicals, most noticeably in the political arena.” They assert that this evangelical revival emerged in the 1970s and began to recede by the early 1990s— sparked more by personal moral concerns rather than hot-button political issues: “Abortion and same-sex marriage are the glue holding the coalition of the religious together.”

The second aftershock from the Long Sixties—one which they assert is still reverberating—is that “a growing number of young people have come to disavow religion. “The politicization of religion has triggered a negative reaction among osme, mostly young, Americans… they perceive it as an extension of partisan politics with which they do not agree.” America is still a relatively religious country, but one with a growing “swath” of secularism, with approximately 15% of their respondents reporting no religious affiliation whatsoever.

Paradoxically, Putnam and Campbell maintain, that both religious pluralism and religious polarization somehow manage to coexist within American society. This, they explain, “lies in the face that, in America, religion is highly fluid…. Religions compete, adapt, and evolve as individual Americans freely move from one congregation to another, and even from one religion to another.” One third to one-half of all marriages, they maintain, are interfaith. Roughly one-third of Americans have changed religious affiliation during their lifetime. When it comes to religious identity and affiliation, they maintain, brand loyalty in terms of denominational identity is weak and traffic moves freely in and out of specific groups and communities. The consequent churn may cause people to realign into specific, like-minded clusters—but not necessarily bunkers—of coreligionists. On a grassroots level, they cite the Aunt Susan principle: we all have an Aunt Susan in our lives: “the sort of person who epitomizes what it means to be a saint, but whose religious background is different from our own.”

In terms of their consideration of the state of the Catholic Church in US society, the authors point to the maintenance of a steady, consistent bloc of about 25% of all Americans who identify themselves as Catholics—a proportion which has remained relatively unchanged over decades. At the same time, they are quick to note that this proportion has been maintained largely through immigration of Latinos. In contrast, “Anglo Catholics” have been leaving the Church in droves: “In terms of people in pews, the Catholic Church has lost roughly one-quarter of its strength over the last thirty-five years.” Elsewhere, their assessment is even more blunt: “…roughly 60 percent of all Americans today who were reared as Catholics are no longer practicing Catholics, half of them having left the church entirely…” This assessment is not news to anyone who has been following the institutional Church since Vatican II, but it is nevertheless disconcerting for this observant Catholic to see it verified so baldly.

Putnam and Campbell have established in an empirical way what historians and other cultural observers have already noted over time about the vitality and resilience of religious beliefs, values, and practices in American life. In this seminal work, they have effectively described the environment and named the issues at play in our own era.//

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Brother Kelly Cullen ofm (1953-2010)

It’s a beautiful, picture-perfect Sunday morning here in Oceanside, California. There’s a breath of chill in the air letting us know that our winter is on its way. Still, the sun is high in the sky—warm with the promise of another beautiful day. We are so blessed to live here.

As some of you may have already learned, one of our Franciscan friars here at the parish and Old Mission San Luis Rey—Brother Kelly Cullen ofm—died suddenly while on pilgrimage in Italy last week. He was 57 years old. We just received the news on Saturday (November 13), so we don’t have any details to provide you yet. As soon as we learn more, we will keep you informed. In the meantime, please pray for the repose of the soul of our brother—and for God’s consolation and peace for his family and family of friends, of whom there are a great many. Thank you.

For those of you who knew Brother Kelly (in addition to his responsibilities as program director at the Retreat Center, he served as a lector and Eucharistic Minister at the Parish), you will agree that he was a real force of nature. Spontaneous, open, frank, kind and deeply generous, he touched so many people with his humor, his honesty, and his love of the Lord and his love of Life itself. We will all miss his beautiful voice and his nearly infallible recall of almost every film and show tune know to humankind.

We his brothers are still reeling from the shock. Please keep us in your prayers as well.

Before he left for Italy with Kay Sempel, one of our devoted lay Covenant volunteers here at San Luis Rey—they were scouting out hotels, restaurants and sites for a group he was hoping to lead—Brother Kelly wrote this note to his friends. I would like to share it with you:

Praise be You my Lord for my Sisters and Brothers
So Generous and Good to me,
Abounding in Love and Kindness
Showing me Your Most Holy Face.
These, Your Special Children
I shall hold close on my journey
To the town of Francis and Clare
And as the dawn light Seeks to Praise You,
As the sunsets fly Your Brilliance,
As I sit in silence before You at Your Saints’ Tombs,
I shall Lift them Up to You, O Most Holy God
And pray You bless them and all their loved ones
Blessing them with All the Daily Bread they need:
For Life!

May God’s Light Shine on You, Brother Kelly.
And may you rest in peace.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Visiting the "New" Old Mission San Miguel: A Work in Progress

Recently, I had the chance to drive up the Coast from southern California toward the Bay Area for a workshop. Right off Highway 101, I made a pit stop at Old Mission San Miguel to visit the friars and spend the night. I hadn’t been to San Miguel in quite a while (I lived there once for a year as a novice) and was curious to see how the restoration of this historic mission (founded in 1797 by Fray Fermin Francisco de Lasuén ) was progressing. The church and adjacent convento area had been heavily damaged by the San Simeon earthquake of December 22, 2003 (6.5 on the Richter scale). Since then, the Mission had been closed to the public until sufficient repairs could completed. Finally, the sanctuary was reopened for worship on the Mission’s patronal feast day, September 29, 2009. But there is still much to be done.

Approaching the site, I was taken aback by the clean, severe outline of the old Mission church itself. The visual effect is arresting. With extraneous vegetation around the church building cleared from the site, the rectangular structure now has a stark, dynamic and surprisingly contemporary appearance. The newly applied white plaster is brilliant in direct sunlight against the clear, deep blue skies of central California. The entire white lime plaster façade covering the sun-dried adobe brick walls has now been completely refinished. Skilled craftsmen, some of them from Oaxaca, Mexico, had been recruited to realize the surface treatment done by means of the traditional rejuelar technique. It is a method in which fired clay tile pieces are set tightly into lime plaster in grooves cut into the wall. The grooves with a rectangular cross section provide a mechanical interlock into the adobe masonry. Ingeniously, a chemical bond formed between the lime plaster and the fired clay, secure the plaster quite securely to the wall surface and structure. (Boletin, 23).

In terms of the church’s interior, visitors already familiar with the sanctuary will be struck by how little appears to have changed over the decades. The effect is, in part, intentional. New replacement windows frames, for example, were given the same chipped and weather beaten appearance as the materials they had replaced. This is, in part, a reflection of a perspective on restoration which holds that a refurbished environment ought not be returned to its original state, but rather, like a piece of antique furniture, should be permitted to reflect in its lived history, knicks, sratches and all.

Other significant changes are easily overlooked. For one thing, most of the 29 vigas, or roof timbers that stretch across the 26-foot width of the room have been either replaced or reinforced. The damaged lintel over the main entrance has been entirely replaced and the area around it reinforced so that one can safely pass through without concern that the whole shebang might come tumbling down.

But what about the magnificent frescoed interior walls, the wooden pulpit, and the wood and plaster reredos that give San Miguel the distinction of being the only one of the Alta California missions with completely intact interior decoration dating from the time church’s construction (c.1821)? The good news is that these remarkable frescoes and church furniture survived the multiple (and major) earthquakes (1857, 1952, 2003) virtually unscathed. The bad news is that they are, nevertheless, quite fragile and still in dire need of attention.

The origin of the interior decoration is a fascinating tale. Spaniard
Esteban Munrás (1789-1850) traveled from his native Barcelona to California via Lima, Peru. Together with a team of trained native Salinan Indians at the Mission, Munras was able to realize an interior decorative scheme with stenciled neo-classical colonnades and Greek key patterning reflective of then-contemporary Continental taste. The overall effect of the interior design is one of airy lightness, freshness, simplicity, and glowing warmth—seemingly in defiance of the structure’s otherwise ponderous five-foot thick adobe walls. Presently, there are just three window openings along the west side of the sanctuary instead of the six in the original construction. One can only imagine the dazzling effect of entering into such a light-filled environment—a startling moment of early 19th century European urbanity in what was then the California wilderness. When one realizes that these seemingly pencilled frescoes have been achieved only with a thin white lime-wash layer over a ½- inch thick earthen plaster surface, one begins to comprehend their fragility—and to marvel at their survival.

Like all of the other California missions, San Miguel was secularized (1834) and the resident friars subsequently sent into exile following the independence of Mexico from Spain. In 1846, the site was acquired by Petronillo Rios and William Reed. Tragically, shortly afterwards, all eleven members of the Reed household who had taken up residence in the Mission, were murdered by a band of wandering thieves. It was not until 1859 that Catholic Church successfully regained title to the Mission buildings (but not adjacent lands) from US President Buchanan. In 1878, the Mission church began to function as a place of worship again.

In 1928, the Franciscans returned to San Miguel after a hiatus of nearly a century. The friars began restoration efforts in earnest and expanded the facility to provide room for a novitiate, or training facility for new members of the order. In more recent decades, a full-service retreat center as well has offered hospitality to church and community groups on an ongoing basis. The friars have served the people of the area in terms of ministry, but limited financial resources precluded any major restoration effort. Until the 2003 earthquake, that is. Following the disaster, a major capital campaign was initiated and to date, about $9.7m of the $15 million goal has been achieved.

Today, once again, the Mission serves as a center of hospitality and evangelization for thousands of visitors who, like myself, drive the length of the El Camino Real, or the King’s Highway from the Bay Area to southern California. And it continues to house a vibrant parish community. In fact, while experts were struggling over the restoration of the historic church and adjacent convento, parishioners embarked upon an heroic project to realize a long-held dream: the construction of a handsome $1.0 million parish center close by. The friars are still and active and vital presence at the Mission as well, staffing both parish and novitiate. At present, in fact, we have six men completing their year-and-a-day formation process in preparation for their first vows next July.

For more than two centuries, Old Mission San Miguel has been well-served by its patron and protector, St. Michael the Archangel. It has not only survived, but overcome a number of disasters, including fires (early on), bloodshed, confiscation, abandonment, and neglect. Not to mention again three recorded earthquakes, all in excess of 6.0 on the Richter scale. The Mission remains, but so do its tremendous and pressing financial needs. If restoration is to be completed, a few more terrestrial “angels” will have to join Archangel Michael to secure the “mission of the Mission” for future generations.// Old Mission San Miguel website:

Reference: “Repair and Conservation of Mission San Miguel, 2004-2009”, Brother Bill Short et al. Boletín, Journal of the California Mission Studies Association, (vol.26: 1 & 2, 2009).

Friday, October 15, 2010

True Conversions No.14: Anne Rice

Called Out of Darkness; A Spiritual Confession
Anne Rice
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008, 245pp., $24.00
ISBN: 978-0-307-39759-1 (bound)

On December 6, 1998, Anne Rice, a financially successful and internationally celebrated author of some twenty-five novels-- starting with the now-classic Interview with the Vampire— made the decision to return to the Catholic faith of her childhood. Not totally a conversion, however; the process and event appear to be more on the order of a spiritual homecoming. Nevertheless, Rice’s decision amazed her avid readers and fans, as did a subsequent decision in 2005 to devote all of her future writing to the exploration of religious themes consistent with her newly rediscovered Christian faith. Published in 20008, Called out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession marks the conclusion of the first decade of Rice’s re-conversion. Now, more securely rooted in her faith identity and commitment, she reflects upon the journey and process which prompted her initial spiritual quest.

The first half of the book is dedicated to Rice’s childhood in New Orleans—the child of a struggling blue-collar family straddling the adjacent, but separate worlds of the Garden District and Irish Channel neighborhoods. She was born into a third-generation Irish Catholic home, and the intimate world of experience she describes is one which would be immediately identifiable to anyone brought up in a similar Catholic enclave (circa 1940-60) in any major urban area in the United States. Here, the Church, most especially the parish church, was the spiritual heart and hearth of both families and entire neighborhoods. The protected and secure world of the Church affected every aspect of life. It marked the passing of the day and the procession of the year according to its holydays: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Corpus Christi. Saints were not only household names, they were members of the extended family and their intercession was sought on matters great and small.

In this highly devotional—and sensual—world of sights and smells and sounds, Rice absorbed an aesthetically-inspired faith: “My earliest experiences involved beauty; my strongest memories are of beautiful things I saw, things which evoked such profound feeling in me that I often felt pain.” Her hopes and longings were part of a dreamlike landscape in which, clearly, God and Beauty were one and the same. At college (Texas Woman’s University), away from home and exiled from this protective Catholic universe, Rice discovered a wider world of experience: one which both shocked and tantalized her. She soon shed her childhood Catholicism and immersed herself in its invitations and offerings.

What seems like a lifetime later, Rice the author returns both to New Orleans and to the Church. Her rediscovery of faith and re-immersion into the aesthetic comforts and consolations of the physical vestiges of her childhood reawaken her childhood longings for God and communion with that God. She buys several buildings in her old neighborhood, including the now-derelict parish church of St. Alphonsus. Other people enter the scene—she reconnects with her Catholic relatives, who to her amazement, are nothing like the narrow-minded and bigoted denizens of her childhood: “ I was picking up the pieces of a Catholic childhood with these significant purchases. I was forming alliances with those still within the fold. I was keeping company with their loving kindness and their daily faith.”

These rekindled relationships, to some extent become real-life replacements for the characters of the novels penned in her years as a self-proclaimed atheist: “The novel (Interview) was also an obvious lament for my lost faith. The vampires roam in a world without God; and Louis, the heartbroken hero, searches for a meaningful context in vain.” Art plus people plus longing plus a willingness to enter into the journey plus a compelling presentiment of being pursued by God—all of this informed and impelled her reconciliation.

In a nutshell, Rice’s conversion has an aspect totally consistent with her aesthetic bent and romantic longings. But is that enough? She seems to have been blissfully unaware and even unaffected by the major convulsions, both individual and societal around her. The major shifts and ensuing tensions within the Catholic Church and the world do not seem to have intruded upon her private devotion: “For just about thirty years, I’d suffered such an aversion to Catholicism that I avoided any mention of it anywhere, including any sustained contact w/ anyone who was Catholic. I’d heard rumblings of big changes in the Catholic Church, horror stories of the loss of the Latin liturgy, of an English Mass. I’d heard that the great church council Vatican II was responsible for this artistic disaster. I’d heard that thousands of priests and nuns had left the church. But I didn’t really know what was happening in contemporary Catholicism.” Who and where are the other inhabitants of the Catholic community Rice has now embraced? What is her connection with them personally,intellectually, spiritually?

The narrative is smooth and apparently seemless. No signs of struggle; not a hair out of place. Even the culminating moment of her decision is described with relative detachment as “ a determination to give in to something deeply believed and deeply felt. I loved God. I loved Him with my whole heart. I loved Him in the Person of Jesus Christ, and I wanted to go back to Him.” At the same time, there are hints of significant subterranean rumblings: the early death of her mother from alcholism; her immersion into the tumultuous world of the San Francisco Bay Area in the Sixties and beyond; her marriage to and subsequent loss of her husband, poet Stanley Rice. The author alludes to these events, experiences, and relationships without drilling down into the substance of their emotional/ spiritual impact on her life and spiritual quest. Her spiritual memoir is more descriptive than revealing.

Finally, there is an interesting Franciscan sidebar to Rice’s account. As a child, she is instinctively drawn to the heroism of the little poor man of Assisi: “I hungered for something beyond martyrdom—the greatness of St. Francis of Assisi, leaving his rich father, to found the Franciscan Order and reform the entire church. I hungered for a spectacular life of extraordinary triumphs, and I don’t think I understood anything really about obedience or humility in terms of this sort of life.” Later in life, a fortuitous discovery of a statue of a crucified Christ reaching from the Cross to embrace Francis serves as a significant personal icon. On a subsequent trip to Brazil, she spies the same, now treasured image: Never had I seen a statue that so reflected the disparate elements of my earlier faith. “Here was the sensuality and excess and the spirituality which I had so loved.” And today, ironically, she is a member of St. Francis of Assisi Church, Coachella Valley, California.//

Sunday, October 3, 2010

The Feast of St. Francis: A Homily Reflection

(Matthew 11: 25-30)
“At that time Jesus said in reply, ‘I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to the childlike. Yes, Father, such has been your gracious will.

“’All things have been handed over to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wishes to reveal him.

"’Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.’"

Today, we honor St. Francis of Assisi. A great saint in the Catholic Church. A great saint in the Christian tradition, revered by members of many denominations. A truly holy man, respected by people of good will who may belong to no particular spiritual tradition at all. Today, after eight hundred years, the figure of Francis continues to attract, edify, and inspire people. But why?

For us as Christians in the Catholic tradition, the saints are not especially significant in and of themselves. We respect, revere, and admire them primarily because we recognize that they were close to God, close to Jesus Christ. And that transforming ‘closeness’, which is so evident becomes tremendously appealing to us.

Here at our parish (Mission San Luis Rey), we’ve been spending a wonderful weekend together to commemorate and celebrate the feast of St. Francis. Last night in the Old Mission Church, we gathered with our Franciscan sisters, parishioners, and members of the Secular Franciscans (as well as our Benedictine brothers from nearby Prince of Peace Abbey) to celebrate the Transitus of St. Francis—the passing of St. Francis from this life into eternal life.

And yesterday, here at the parish, we celebrated St. Francis Day, a “funraiser” for our parish school involving a number of different groups in our parish family. Part of that wonderful celebration was the blessing of animals. Father Luis and I must have blessed more than a hundred pets during the day. People brought lots and lots of dogs, but, understandably, not so many cats at the same time. We also blessed a rabbit, three chickens and a rooster, and a lizard (gecko). It was great, but I confess last year’s blessing was a bit more exotic: we had a horse, a cricket, and a tarantula. Actually, I was hoping for more of the same this time around. I wanted to bless a centipede so I could say, “If I’ve blessed you once, I’ve blessed you a hundred times,” but it didn’t work out.

Seriously, as we were blessing all these wonderful pets, I began to realize—wait a minute, we are not just blessing them; we are acknowledging that these wonderful creatures (“criaturas” in Spanish) are a blessing to us. They bless us with their presence, and they can bring us closer to God, as well. They teach us so much about friendship, loyalty, and affection. No wonder then, that St. Francis should be the patron saint of animals. He understood that our Brother and Sister pets, as God’s own criaturas, contain a spark of Creation, part of the life of the Spirit itself given to them in their lives. And in their closeness to God.

To return to Francis. Everything Francis learned about God, he learned from Jesus. In particular, he learned to get close to God in and through the example of the intimacy of Jesus with the Father. Today’s Gospel from Matthew (Chapter 11) is illustrative. Jesus’ disciples have just completed a mission to the towns of Galilee, their home turf. They have done as Jesus instructed: they have gone to teach, preach, and heal. They return, no doubt feeling dejected and despondent; their message has been rejected. Jesus starts to call out—quite literally—the towns of Galilee for their unresponsiveness. But suddenly, what might have been only a curse turns instead into a remarkable prayer, and even blessing.

We are given a privileged opportunity here to listen to Jesus’ prayer—in language that would appear to come straight out of the gospel of John rather than any of the synoptics. Jesus calls God “Father”, or better yet, “Abba,” or “Daddy”/ “Papa.” He proceeds to observe that God has chosen to reveal Himself to the “childlike,” by which He is referring to his own disciples. Notice this is “childlike” not “childish.” The best part of childlike behavior is the best part of childhood itself: openness, innocence, spontaneity, and joy.

Jesus goes on to speak to these childlike disciples—who, in a way, are proxies for ourselves. He knows full well their (and our own) struggles, pain, frustrations, doubts and fears. And He offers to help to bear the burden—to share the yoke with these “yokels” —as team of draft animals would share the plowing of a field, lightening the burden each of the other.

In this wonderful story, Jesus invites us to get close.--really close—to himself. Francis, for his part, allowed Jesus to get close to him. Again, it’s really what made him a saint. That closeness, that intimacy, transformed his life and filled it with the life and light of Christ. It didn’t turn Francis into a perfect person. Frankly, Francis’s life was pretty messy all the way through—right on up to his premature death in his early forties due, no doubt in part, to the neglect of his physical health. But what changed, deeply transformed his life spiritually was the realization that God had a hold of him and would never, ever let him go. God invites us to get close to Him, as well—to allow him to grab hold of us and to transform our lives in his Love. And along with that invitation comes his promise: that once He has hold of us God will never, ever let us go. //

Images: (top and bottom) from: Artist: Aiden Hart

Friday, September 24, 2010

True Conversions No.13: Tony Blair: A Journey

Tony Blair: A Journey: My Political Life
Alfred A. Knopf: New York
718pp., ill. c.2010 $35
ISBN: 978-0-09-192555-0

“I have always been more interested in religion than politics,” writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Tellingly, this comment is made not in the introduction, but rather as part of the postscript of his recently published and quite compelling memoir. Political memoir, that is. It would be foolhardy to engage in a search for “proof texts” in this writing in order to flesh out any treatment of specifically theological/philosophical underpinnings. Missing altogether here is the tale and trajectory of his spiritual journey from childhood in Scotland and Australia, education at Oxford, his quondam association with the Christian Socialist Movement, his recent reception into the Catholic Church, and subsequent establishment of the international and ecumenically-based Faith Foundation. All of this would necessitate a distinct and separate account altogether and is, perhaps, would be better expressed in a biography rather than memoir. Blair’s reporting is more pragmatic, concrete, and action-based-- the self-description of a man in constant motion: “That’s the purpose of life: striving.”

That said, Blair’s career as a key player in both domestic policy and international diplomacy during his decade of leadership (1997-2007) and beyond would appear to manifest an apparent, if not explicitly stated grounding in a set of core values consistent with the Christian tradition.

Tony Blair is first and foremost a politician—more specifically, a politician in the social democratic tradition of his beloved Labour , or rather “New Labour” party, as he might interject. In fact, his media-awareness (and not infrequent aversion), charisma, and international appeal might well put him in the class of his own as probably the most quintessentially “American” politician Britain has yet produced. The social programs of his administration are part and parcel of the social justice legacy of his party, with its roots in the trade union movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Significantly, Blair’s self-avowed predilection is not for ideological consistency or purity-- of a Left over Right-- but rather for an “open” over “closed” worldview. It is this characteristic openness which enables him to appreciate the gifts and perspectives of both people and movements a more ideologically driven leader might otherwise reject out of hand. As a result, he was able to engage and collaborate with President George Bush on issues such as aid to Africa, assistance in combating HIV/AIDS, and the war in Iraq, while parting company with him—without apparent rancor-- on global warming and much of Bush’s domestic agenda. He was able to meet, engage, and at times collaborate with such mercurial world figures as Silvio Berlusconi or Nikolas Sarkozy without losing sight of his own principles: “Personal relationships matter—this is obvious, of course, but is also completely ignored by people who think it’s florid stratagems and mathematical calculations that drive negotiations and compromise. At all levels, but especially at the top, politics is about people. If you like a leader, you try to help them, even if it stretches your own interests.”

Blair readily espouses “an impatience with ideology and a hearty common sense about human nature.” At times he appears to delight in upsetting the conventional wisdom that people ought to operate within the narrow confines of a specified worldview. Does this expose him as a rank opportunist, or conversely, as a more prescient actor with an appreciation of ambiguity, subtlety and nuance? Depends if your are a fan or critic.

It is Blair’s impatience with received narratives and hidebound ideology that impels him (and challenges his readers, as well) to look at some issues with new eyes. During his decade of political power, he was forced to address any number of complex and often frustrating international crises ranging from Kosovo to the Northern Ireland peace accords to the ongoing deadlock of Israeli/ Palestinian relations. Domestically, his administration dealt with significant paradigm shifts in the role of government in areas of health, education, immigration, and criminal justice that have their analogs in every society.

It is not necessary to share Blair’s partisan views on all or even any of these issues. By his own admission, he either erred or even stumbled badly through several of them. What is informative, refreshing, and inspiring is his overall orientation and disposition . He is neither the sanguine moral relativist nor the affectively disengaged policy wonk. Rather, Blair avers over and again that his approach to issues often has its basis moral values rather than pragmatic or technocratic concerns alone. This is reflected most clearly, perhaps, in his insistent and consistent-- almost counterintuitive stance-- in favor of military engagement in Iraq. It is a position which generated widespread controversy both within Britain and internationally at the time. Some critics regard as his signal folly, while Blair has consistently stood what he considers to be his moral ground.

But what moral ground? What specific values? Who and what has shaped this particular world leader’s perspectives, informed his choices, or sustained him in his convictions, especially in the face of widespread public rejection? In this respect, Blair is uncharacteristically silent, making only passing and somewhat scant allusion to either salient formative experiences or any specific spiritual epiphany. Early on, for example, he mentions that he is deeply stirred by a viewing of Schindler’s List—struck by the moral complaisance, the “passive assent” of the guilty bystander to the depredations of Nazi terror. In passing, he makes mention of a seminal figure in his own moral development—his friendship with fellow student and future Anglican priest Peter Thompson, referring with admiration to the latter’s “muscular Christianity.” (a la C.S. Lewis?) In his discussions with Ulster Unionist Ian Paisley, Blair reveals that “we were both fascinated by religious faith as well as being people of faith.” Later on, Blair expresses respect for the ideas of Hans Kung on the nature of changing society and its rules. The Sower and the Seed, he reveals, is his favorite parable. And….?

These hints and passing references to belief and personal moral underpinnings are, unfortunately, both scant and scattered. What is largely unarticulated in this otherwise vast (700 pages) and sometimes overly articulated narrative is a sense of the ideas and convictions that have shaped and sustained the worldview and decision-making of one particular human being strategically located at the decision-making epicenter of some of the most significant and, often controversial issues of our time. Significantly, Blair does not reveal his sources-- at least not in this environment. Yet, clearly he has them. Otherwise, how would he have been able to withstand the unbelievable pressures and stresses of a limelight decade on the world’s stage? Is he just being coy, or is his reticence more deeply rooted in a personal belief system he considers inappropriate to discuss in a public forum? As one of his confederates, Alistair Campbell, indicated early on in Blair’s administration: “We don’t do God.” Really?

Arguably, we live in a contemporary culture deeply affected by a certain moral relativism, but Blair has infrequently a decidedly and often decisively moral stance frequently at odds with that culture—and one certainly not based on the perception of national self-interest alone. He offers, for example, primarily moral arguments for military interventions in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Fine. But one wants him to drill down even further: What are the source and basis of his moral decision making?

The ‘journey’ Blair alludes to in the title of this work is not, then, one of any direct conversion experience, political or otherwise. Rather, it is the description of his growth in public leadership , his decade-long metamorphosis from opposition figure to effective governing agent: “At first we govern with a clear radical instinct but without the knowledge and experience of where that instinct should take us in specific polity terms. In particular, we think it plausible to separate structures from standards… In time, we realize this is wrong; unless you change structures you can’t raise standards more than incrementally.” The call to leadership is a given; its fulfillment depends upon one’s response, rather than reaction to events over time. The arc of this learning curve is long.

Blair concludes this fascinating discourse on his political journey with a curious and oddly ironic remark: “… it has never been entirely clear whether the journey I have undertaken is one of triumph of the person over the politics or of the politics over the person,” he states. It is a subtle, perhaps even humble admission. But one suspects that there’s more to this man. Much much more.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Irish Franciscans, 1534-1990

The Irish Franciscans: 1534-1990
Edel Bhreathnach, Joseph MacMahon & John McCafferty, editors
Four Courts Press: Dublin.
464pp, illus. c. 2009
ISBN: 978-1-84682-209-4

This epic and epochal work is the third and presumably final volume of an historical trilogy tracing the history of the Franciscan friars in Ireland from their arrival in the thirteenth century through to the 1990s. Its publication in 2009 makes it an appropriate festschrift commemorating the Irish contribution within the context of 800 years of the Franciscan order’s existence. In his foreword, the current Minister Provincial for the Irish province, Caomhin O’Laoide, notes that this work is a cause great delight, gratitude and consolation: “Consolation—in that however difficult our own times are, there have been worse periods from which the Franciscans emerged with life and vitality.” The ensuing collection of 18 essays by 14 separate authors proceeds to chart, in quilt-like fashion, the varying fortunes of the Franciscans in Ireland over the past half-millennium. A scholarly work, brought about by the collaboration of the Irish friars and a team of experts, this compendium of current research is nevertheless quite accessible to the nonacademic reader and makes for stimulating reading.

The volume is divided into two distinct sections—the first charting the history of the Irish friars chronologically over the past five hundred years. The second half of the volume consists of a series of discrete articles of topical interest, ranging from such diverse themes as the contributions of exiled Irish scholars in the area of Franciscan philosophy and theology (Bernadette Cunningham)—the evolution of the Irish Poor Clares (also, Cunningham), the founding of the Secular Franciscan movement (Patrick Conlan), and the development of Irish Franciscan friary architecture (Michael O’Neill). An essay on St. Anthony College, Louvain, by Micheal Mac Craith ofm, is written in the Irish language; an English summary would have been helpful.

The authors offer quite literally a ‘blow by blow” description of the Franciscan experience from the initial effort to suppress monastic (and mendicant) life in Ireland under the English King Henry VIII (starting in 1539) to the struggles and challenges of contemporary religious life. One comes to appreciate the complexity and nuance of the various struggles the friars were engaged in over time. Suppression of religious orders and houses in the 16th century, for example, as described in essays by Colm Lennon, Mary Ann Lyons, and Raymond Gillespie--was by no means a straight-line, unidirectional development. Rather the trajectory of the friars’ fortunes is perhaps more aptly described in terms of a two-step-- as both well-placed benefactors and even, at times, civil authorities colluded to create a “protective network of well-wishers” which made the survival of the friars possible. The fortunes of the friars appeared to rise and fall as well, according to the course of least and/ or greatest military resistance to English rule, culminating in the ultimate re-conquest of the island by Cromwell’s Puritan-led troops in 1649-50. In the face of the subsequent imposition of the notorious penal laws (not to be relaxed until the late 1770s) the Irish friars once more faced the threat of virtual extinction.

In the face of such daunting domestic oppression, the friars adapted a number of strategies for survival, most notable among which was the establishment of a network of Irish colleges on the Continent (St. Anthony’s College, Louvain, 1607; St. Isidore’s, Rome, 1625; and, the College of the Immaculate Conception, 1629). These offshore institutions—along with other efforts which did not survive long-term-- served several vital functions: they allowed for the training of Irish friars who would return home, often surreptitiously, to engage in essential pastoral work. They also provided spiritual support and succor for exiled Irish troops and nobility. They further provided for the preservation of Irish language , identity, and culture—a culture which was being systematically decimated in the homeland. Finally, they provided an intellectual arena in and from which Irish friar/scholars could engage as full participants in debate and dialog on the major theological, philosophical, and ecclesial issues of the Catholic Church at large in the post-Tridentine era. No mean achievement for an exile community.

Ironically, though not surprisingly, the friars seem to have shone most brilliantly in their very darkest hour, and under the most trying of circumstances—the life and scholarship of friar Luke Wadding serving as a parade example. Conversely, in times of relative peace—during the course of the 18th century, for example—the friars appear to have lost their way. As author Joseph MacMahon – a friar himself-- writes: “Many external factors—the penal legislation, the prohibition on receiving novices and the assault on the colleges—had a detrimental impact upon them, but the main cause of their decline was the fact that they did not have a clear vision of their identity and mission. They gave the impression of drifting helplessly through choppy and unfamiliar waters not knowing when, and where they would land, if ever.” A sobering reflection upon any era.

Through their reference to source materials-- some of which have only become available in the past few decades through the close cooperation of the Franciscan friars and the University College, Dublin-- this team of scholars has provided an objective and detached historical overview of the order in Ireland. The friars’ relative progress—or lack of progress at times—provides both an inspiration and cautionary tale as contemporary Franciscans in Ireland and internationally seek to discern the movement of the Spirit in these demanding times.

Monday, September 13, 2010

72 Hours at Mission San Luis Rey

(Above): The historic church at Old Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside, California (founded 1798). Capacity: 350. Visited by more than 250,000 tourists annually. (Below) The Serra Center at Old Mission San Luis Rey, Oceanside (completed 1996). Capacity: 1600. Visited by members of our 6,000 family parish weekly: Please note. These buildings do NOT move (except during an earthquake, God forbid); everything else around here does. Constantly.

September 10
9 AM

I’m sitting in my office; the door is locked. No visitors. Teleconferencing with other members of our Province leadership about finances. The meeting lasts a full three and a half hours, with one 15-minute break. I don’t want to see another financial report. Ever again.

3 PM.
Home at the friary. Father Larry is returning from his vacation in New Jersey. Father Adrian is returning from Ireland tonight (who’s going to pick him up at the airport?) Father David is packing for a two-week trip to Kazakhstan. Father Luis and Brother Kelly are flying in from a meeting in Oakland. Brother Rufino is arriving for an overnight (he arrives and departs unseen). Another guest, Father Juvino, a diocesan priest from Goa, India, has been here just two days. The only friar one home for sure is Brother Mo (85), who is in his room watching a baseball game.

6 PM. Getting ready for the ninth annual Rotary Club Crabfest, a community-wide celebration/ fundraiser held in the Mission Gardens. Even before it starts, it’s been a great success: sold out, all 500 tickets. Both the Mission as well as the Parish social concerns office are beneficiaries. Veterans bring their own tools to crack crabs; a parishioner who owns a bakery got up at 2am to make 65 loaves of French bread.

The weather and garden setting are perfect; the music is great. The guests, representing every part of community life in the area, are relaxed, happy, and ready to eat! The Rotarians are working hard; the serving goes like clockwork. (Later on): I left the party early, gave up the ghost at 7:30 and took to my room. Slept through all the great music, missed some of the fun. This morning the courtyard is clear; the retreat center is preparing for weekend visitors.

September 11

7:30 AM The ninth anniversary of 9/11. The flags in front of the Mission are at half-staff. The parish chapel (capacity 250) is full for morning Mass. Not unusual in our 6,000-family parish, but today is special just the same.The mood is somber; people remember where they were, what they were doing, how they reacted that day. Lots of spontaneous petitions during the Prayers of the Faithful—for the victims of Sep.11, for our military families (we’re next door to Camp Pendelton). For peace. After Mass, the Knights of Columbus lead about 100 worshippers in a scriptural rosary, part of a nationwide commemoration.

9 AM
This weekend's parish bulletins are ready and a few early birds have already snapped up advance copies. I head over to the Serra Center to give a short presentation to the English-speaking catechists in our religious education program (900 kids, 60 catechists). Brief talk on Franciscan spirituality, then off to hear confessions (Sacrament of Reconciliation). There’s a long line; the allotted one-hour time slot turns into almost three. Afterwards, I go next door to spend an hour with the Spanish-speaking catechists and give another presentation, along with a “dinamica” to get people moving. Lots of feedback and suggestions about what the parish needs.

3 PM
Quick late lunch, quick late nap. Then, literally across the street to the annual hoedown benefit for our neighbors at the Ivey Ranch, a great community-based noprofit organization that enables both disabled children and adults (especially Wounded Warriors—returning vets with combat injuries) to experience healing and growth through equestrian training. What could be more Franciscan? Try Canine Companions, in the same complex. They match up disabled folks with guide dogs. And then there’s Casa de Amparo, too, which helps women and their kids who are victims of domestic violence.

I have to skip the dinner at Ivey Ranch so I can get back to the parish for the 5pm Mass. The Gospel from Luke 15 is about the woman with the Lost Coin. After Mass, a woman approaches me: “I’ve lost my husband.” “Oh, I’m so sorry. When?” “Just today.” “Today? Oh my.” “Yes, Father, he was just here a minute ago, but I can’t find him anywhere.” “Oh (relief). I’m sure he’ll turn up.” (He was waiting for her in the parking lot the whole time.) Case closed.

September 12
8 AM

“Meet and greet” as people leave morning Mass at the Old Mission Church. The sound system is working better, but no cantor this morning. David, the accompanist, did his best, but he’s not a singer. He was not amused…. I head over to the Serra Center to chat with members of our Guamanian community who are in charge of food sales this weekend: the standard cupcakes and doughnuts, plus wonderful soups—chicken noodle and corn w/ chicken. Not my usual breakfast, but tastes great!

9 AM
Say ‘hi’ to people coming out of the 8 AM Mass and then head over to another meeting hall, the McKeon Center, to welcome parents (English-speaking) who are registering their kids for religious ed/ sacramental preparation. I tell them (and I really mean it): I don’t know how you all do it. You have such busy lives with work, driving the kids to practices of every kind, taking care of relatives, dealing with financial stress and under/unemployment sometimes. And yet, you’ve made the decision to rear your children in the Catholic tradition—at a moment when we’re not exactly the most popular denomination on the block.

Back to greet people arriving for the 10 AM Mass, making a detour to bless one very large van. Run into lots of families with kids: “How’s school going?” “Good.” A burly, middle-aged man approaches me. John. Turns out he is Armenian and a truck driver. “I passed this place twelve years ago and promised that I would visit it some day. So here I am with my wife and mother.” Three women (sister all—one from Pennsylvania, another from West Virginia). The third one from New Philadelphia, Ohio. (Hey. That’s my mom’s hometown. We hug. Six degrees of separation. Works every time).

The “lost coin” theme continues: I misplace my keys (ALL my keys) and a volunteer from the parish library tells me: “Father, I can’t find one of our books, but I’m embarrassed to tell anyone. The title is Where is God? (I’m not making this up). We both pray to St. Anthony. I get my keys back by noon; haven’t heard anything about the library book yet.

12 Noon
Spanish Mass. This is the weekend of Independence Day for Mexico and, I am reminded by a lady who shouts it out during Mass—that of Central America as well. Father Luis is presiding; Fr. Adrian and I are there to show solidarity. The choir members, along with a lot of other worshippers are dressed in green/ white/ red combinations, in homage to the Mexican flag. The Serra Center is packed; the mood is jubilant. And the kids are noisy, but so what. Luis tells the people: “Let’s continue this Eucharistic feast by going across the way to our “Fiesta Patrias.” We applaud all the members of the parish Hispanic Committee/ Comite hispano and then bless the four young women “candidatas” who are vying for the title of “reina”/ queen of the fiesta.

All afternoon

Fiesta time. Cool, sunny weather. Families relax, stroll around the grounds, listen to great music, dance, and eat and eat and eat. The vendors are out in full force: carne asada, tamales, enchiladas, elotes, tortas, pupusas, aguas, flan—you name it. All of it incredible. Fr. Luis and I meet, greet, and eat. And eat.

6 PM
I take a break for a sick call and a nap. Back to “meet and greet” for the 5pm liturgy and make sure Fr. Tom has everything he needs for Mass. In the sacristy, he’s eyeing the bag of homemade oatmeal cookies a parishioner gave me. I gave him my “don’t even think of it” look, then relent and offer him one for after Mass. He accepts. Back at the fiesta, it’s time to listen to the mariachias, join in a bit of the dancing, and then get up on stage announce the winner for the pageant and crown this year’s queen. All the candidates are given warm applause and each receives a scholarship award to help her with her studies. After the coronation, I head home to crash.

September 13

9 AM
This is the Serra Center (again). Please note: it does not move. Except during an earthquake, God forbid. Everything else around here does. Constantly. Peace and all good!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Meeting our Mentors: The ExMinProvs

ExMinProvs? By way of introduction and explanation, the Franciscan universe is organized into approximately 117 mostly geographical entities called ‘provinces.’ The work and life of each province is directed by an elected Minister Provincial in consultation with a group of advisors, or ‘definitors’ who assist him. Former ministers provincial are sometimes referred to affectionately by the moniker "ExMinProvs."

I am myself a definitor in my province and serve as part of a six-member consultative team elected to assist our provincial minister, Fr. John Hardin (Numero Uno) and his vicar, Fr. Ken Laverone (Numero 2). Six times a year, we gather for 4-5 days at one of our retreat houses to consider the business of the province and make plans, recommendations and decisions. Basically, it’s like doing jury duty. We sit sequestered for long stretches of time, reviewing in detail an array of complex issues (financial, legal, personnel, etc.,) and hold consultative votes on specific agenda items. Discretion goes with the territory; all of our discussions are confidential. The process is thorough and generally effective; it can also be bone- tiring and soul-wearying. By the end of most sessions, we're ready to take the very next plane home.

Often our meetings are predictable and routine, but our most recent Definitorium session (August 29- Sep 2) was a welcome exception. For one entire morning, we suspended our working agenda to listen to presentations by a panel comprised of all five of our past ministers provincial-- hence, the term “Ex-Min-Provs”. For several hours, these extraordinary men mentored us collectively and spoke about the challenges and opportunities they encountered and experienced during their terms of leadership. In doing so, they provided not just an historical reflection on their time in office, but more importantly, valuable insight into the meaning of leadership over time in the Franciscan context.

So meet the five ExMinProvs. Their shared experience of leadership spans the past forty years of life in the Church and the Order. Several of them were trained by men whose experience of Franciscan life, in turn, reaches as far back as 1950:

Father John Vaughn: Minister Provincial 1976-9; Minister General of the Franciscan Order (OFM), 1979-1991). His initial six-year term was cut short by his election as Minister General of the Franciscan Order (OFM), a post Fr. John held in Rome for a total of twelve years. A prudent, soft-spoken man, he is respected for his ability to listen deeply to others and to serve as a conciliatory voice in discussions of ‘hot button’ issues affecting the Order and the Church. He has brought a heightened sense of international awareness to our province and the Order.

Father Louis (Louie) Vitale: Minister Provincial (1979-1988). Louie moved up from to the position of MP with the election of John Vaughn. A former US Air Force pilot, after completing a doctorate in sociology at UCLA, he went on to become a prominent figure in peace and justice work nationally. In recent years, he has been arrested and jailed on multiple occasions for acts of civil disobedience at places such as the Nevada Desert Test site (for atomic weapons research) and Fort Benning, Georgia (site of the controversial School of the Americas).

Father Joseph (Joe) Chinnici. MP (1988-1997) With a Ph.D. in history from Oxford University, Fr. Joe presently works as a professor and academic dean at the Franciscan School of Theology, Berkeley, CA. In all of his work, he has consistently stressed the necessity of reclaiming and renewing our Franciscan history and intellectual vision. During his tenure as Minister Provincial, he responded to the gravity of the issue of clerical sexual abuse with transparency and compassion.

Father Finian McGinn: MP (1997-2003). An accomplished linguist, Fr. Finian holds a Ph.D. from Fresno State University and worked with the Hmong immigrants in California’s Central Valley. As Minister Provincial, he brought a keen sense of awareness of our increasingly multicultural Order and society.

Father Melvin (Mel) Jurisich: MP (2003-2009). Also an educator, Fr. Mel served as Provincial Secretary for more than two decades prior to his election as Provincial. His by-word has been ‘transparency’—a willingness to share accurate and meaningful information with friars and the public at every level.

These men have been the heavy hitters of our Province. Individually and collectively, they have risen to positions of leadership during times of intense turmoil and growing polarization in both the Church and society. Each has succeeded in a significant way in maintaining a ‘center of gravity’ in our community life and service in the midst of this upheaval. As a province, we have been blessed; we appear to have received the ‘right’ leader at exactly the moment when we needed him most. These are all capable men who have been able to discern the ‘prevailing passion’ of the time and to channel that energy into the fulfillment of the deeper goals of our Franciscan vision.

So, what pearls of real wisdom were we able to gather? The ExMinProvs laid out for us the tremendous re/evolution of structures and issues that have emerged over the past forty years in the Order, the Catholic Church, and in society as a whole: the impact of Vatican II; the movement to a less hierarchical, more consultative style of leadership and participation; collaboration with the laity, and the adaptation of decision-making processes and structures to deal with increasingly complex issues. They organized their comments into five general categories of discussion: governance; dreams and their realization/ frustration; self-care; challenges, and the distinctiveness of the Province of St. Barbara

“We discovered that feeding the poor was not enough,” reflected Fr. John Vaughn. “We needed to change structures.” By the end of Vatican II, friars were leaving a quasi-monastic environment in order to serve people more directly. Friars were now intensely involved in hospital work, in parishes, and among immigrant farmworkers—especially in California’s Central valley. The shift in ministries was contemporaneous with rapid changes in the structure of religious life. As exMinProv Joe Chinnici noted, “In the period 1961-72, approximately 110 friars left the Province (out of a total of about 400).” Those who remained, reflected Mel Jurisich, had to deal with the serious issues of “ the loss of fraternal life, loneliness, and (the need) to rely upon (one’s) inner resources. We became more individualized in order to survive.” There was a hardening of attitudes on social issues and lifestyle choices (“I’m poorer than thou”) and a sense of increasing isolation.”

Institutionally, friars had to deal with a steady stream of complex issues— both intramural and societal-- that their predecessors had been spared: participation in the Social Security system (friars had not participated in the system until about 1970 because of an expressed desire to maintain strict observance of the vow of poverty), sexual abuse, health care for the elderly, possible bankruptcy. “We needed to see the bigger picture beyond ourselves, “ Father Mel observed. “And to understand that it takes time to move people forward together.” In the matter of Social Security, for example, it took friars nearly 12 years to agree to enroll in the government program. Addressing the ramifications of the sexual abuse cases has consumed much of the energy of leadership from 1993 to the present. Realignment, or ‘right-sizing’ of ministerial commitments has been a matter of discussion for more than a decade now.

All five ExMinProvs concurred that in today’s Church and world, crisis management is normative. In each of their administrations, “circumstances shaped one’s ability to lead as each generation faced new issues”, as Chinnici observed. Rather than being consumed by crisis, though, he suggested that future leaders learn “to shape the agenda given to him/ them so as to turn it towards the good and further the deeper goals of the (Franciscan) vision.” In practical terms, he suggested, this requires that the leader “discover the prevailing passion-- internationality, justice, Franciscan vision, culture, transparency, and so on.” Any given issue needs to be subsumed into the larger whole in order to “enable persons to… move forward.”

Remarkably, given the enormity of the tasks each and all of these men have had to undertake, none of them voiced any bitterness or resentment. Each appears to have developed the capacity to ‘lean into’ an issue rather than be overwhelmed by it. To seek help and advice, as Louie put it “from people who know a heck of a lot more than I do.” And to keep before them ‘the greater vision of life’ that Chinnici has articulated: “the dignity of the person, the need to create fraternity in mission, the decentering (sic) of politicization of issues towards something greater which we hold in common, (and) the inclusion of all in sorting out the tensions.”

The leadership of the Franciscan province of St. Barbara, like that of many other religious communities in the Catholic Church today, continues to struggle with the need to deal with the world one has inherited, to muddle through the messiness and complexity of daily life, and to face squarely both one’s own shortcomings as well as the reality of the unforeseen consequences of one’s decisions. The problems won’t go away, but they can and must be addressed in terms of the greater vision: “We’re not corporate CEO’s,” concluded our present Provincial Minister John Hardin, “ nor should we act like them. We Franciscans have our own culture and way of looking at the world.” It is the trust in that Spirit-led ‘way of looking at the world’ which continues to feed our dreams and guide both ex-, present, and future provincial ministers.