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Movie review: 'Let There be Light'

 
"Let There Be Light" (Atlas) is an evangelical Christian drama with a familiar plot: A wayward sinner, in this case a famous atheist, experiences a change of heart.
 
The film is being marketed as a family-friendly event for church groups. The promotion tools include not only a teaching guide with Scripture references but also suggested outlines for sermons. And, in truth, the movie feels as if it had more to do with a religious studies curriculum than with entertainment.
 
Reflecting a small budget, its pacing is torpid, although Kevin Sorbo, the star and director, brings all his charisma to bear as Sol Harkens, a divorced, hard-drinking father bitter about the cancer death of his young son, Davey (Ethan Jones).
 
Sol says he no longer believes in prayer, because "that would mean praying to the very God that killed (Davey)." He's turned his atheism into a best-selling book.
 
Several twists and turns in the dialogue, presumably aimed at conveying cultural and political relevance to a wide audience, come out sounding odd instead.
 
Comedian Bill Maher, for instance, who has long identified as a religious skeptic, is compared to the diminutive mayor of Munchkin City in "The Wizard of Oz." What Maher's stature has to do with the validity or invalidity of his views on religion is not made clear.
 
Sol undergoes a second spiritual crisis after he's injured in a car accident and has a near-death experience during which he temporarily reunites with Davey in a tunnel of light. "Let there be light, Daddy," Davey says. Sol is mystified about this request for a very long time, but eventually figures it out.
 
Which brings us to Pastor Vinny (Michael Franzese). Explaining the Resurrection to Sol, Vinny thinks of himself as a "street guy" who did a 10-year stretch in a federal penitentiary, and "I don't believe things so easily."
 
Vinny then delivers a rough-hewn, "Sopranos"-style sermonette likely to be as quotable, down the years, as the King James Bible: "The empty tomb. What happened to the body?... Jesus gets whacked, right? They stick his body in a tomb, they seal it up tighter than a cement drum. What happens next? Bada bing! The body disappears. ...
 
"Now if he resurrected, that's a miracle. And that's not a little miracle. That's a big mother of a miracle. ...
 
"But nobody ratted out where the body was. Think about that. The disciples, not one of them broke rank. They went to their death sticking to that story. You know why? Because Christ was resurrected. There was no body."
 
Screenwriters Dan Gordon and Sorbo's wife, Sam, who also plays Sol's ex, Katy, clearly know how to put the fun in fundamentalism. Shortly after that, Sol is baptized in a creek, reunites with Katy and searches for a new direction for his life.
 
More unsettling than this straightforward conversion story is later dialogue about Islamic terrorism involving Fox News personality Sean Hannity, who is also the film's executive producer. Appearing on Hannity's radio program is shown as Sol's big break in his newfound evangelization effort.
 
"Are you guys ready for the amount of heat that will be coming your way with this?" Hannity asks. "Your intention is to proselytize. What about diversity? What right do you have to impose your religious values onto somebody else?
 
"What right does ISIS have to cut people's heads off?" Sol responds.
 
Hannity nods. "That's a powerful point."
 
The exchange speaks for itself, and indicates the uneasy blend of sincere religious sentiment and political propagandizing that is "Let There Be Light." More homiletics and less of Hannity would have helped.
 
The film contains mature themes and scenes of excessive alcohol use. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 
 
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Movie review: 'Roman J. Israel, Esq.'

Writer-director Dan Gilroy's drama "Roman J. Israel, Esq." (Columbia) is a generally intriguing character study pitting idealism against the hard realities of contemporary life and the allure of wealth and comfort.
 
Though the film takes left-wing values for granted, even conservatives may recognize its appeal, much of which derives from an intense performance by Denzel Washington in the title role.
 
Roman is a disheveled, eccentric civil rights lawyer in Los Angeles who toils behind the scenes so that his legendary senior partner and mentor, William Henry Jackson, can perform successfully in the courtroom. As the movie starts off, Jackson -- whom the audience never sees -- is stricken by a critical illness from which he is unlikely to recover.
 
Roman tries to take over Jackson's caseload. But his uncompromising attitude soon has him at odds with prosecutors and judges alike -- he's cited for contempt in one of his first appearances.
 
Jackson's niece, Lynn (Amanda Warren), soon makes it clear that the end has come for the unprofitable partnership. Successful high-end attorney George Pierce (Colin Farrell), a former student of Jackson's whom Roman regards as a sellout, is brought in to supervise its dissolution.
 
Desperate for a job, Roman turns to social activist Maya Alston (Carmen Ejogo). But the organization whose local office she heads is not hiring. Instead, Roman is forced to consider going mainstream when George offers him a position in his downtown firm.
 
Though Gilroy's dialogue sometimes lapses into political rhetoric, the moral shadings of the two main characters keep the proceedings from becoming dull. George is not the uncaring shyster he at first appears, while Roman turns out to be capable, under pressure, of a serious moral lapse. Once committed, his misdeed and its consequences drive the plot forward and keep tension high.
 
Roman and Maya develop a quasi-romantic friendship but one so discreet it never goes beyond the kissing stage. And the minimal violence in the movie is heard but not seen.
 
Accordingly, parents may wish to consider whether the ethical resonances of this serious-minded picture outweigh the swearing that sometimes crops up in the script -- most often, unfortunately, in the form of the Lord's name being taken in vain -- making it acceptable for older teens.
 
The film contains fleeting off-screen violence, several uses of profanity and a milder oath, a single rough term and occasional crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III -- adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 
 
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Movie review: 'The Man Who Invented Christmas'

Its rather ill-chosen title notwithstanding, "The Man Who Invented Christmas" (Bleecker Street) involves no denial of the Nativity.
 
Instead, this charming fact-based historical drama tells the origin story of Victorian author Charles Dickens' beloved 1843 novella, "A Christmas Carol."
 
Dan Stevens brings brio to his portrayal of the complex writer, whose humanitarian instincts seem, initially, to benefit all but those closest to him. And the film as a whole shares much of the warmth of the slender volume whose creation it chronicles.
 
With his last three titles having failed to sell, Dickens fears falling into debt if his next production is equally unpopular. But, having struck on the idea of a holiday-themed narrative, he struggles with writer's block and with the endless distractions of his burgeoning family's domestic life.
 
A visit from his feckless father, John (Jonathan Pryce), whom Dickens blames for the sufferings of his childhood -- flashbacks show us his grim life as an apprentice in a shoe polish factory -- is a particular source of worry and conflict. Dickens, who fancifully summons up, and interacts with, his own characters, also spars with dour miser Ebenezer Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) who here serves as a naysaying critic of Dickens' work.
 
When his publishers, Chapman (Ian McNeice) and Hall (David McSavage), turn the prospective volume down, Dickens resolves to publish it himself, thus raising the financial stakes still further. He does at least enjoy the steady encouragement of his patient wife, Kate (Morfydd Clark), and of his friend and unpaid literary agent, John Forster (Justin Edwards).
 
The conversion story Dickens' eventually pens finds a real-life counterpart in the amendment of his own behavior. So director Bharat Nalluri's adaptation of Les Standiford's 2008 book has some positive moral lessons to convey about consideration and forgiveness.
 
Since it's also family-friendly in most respects -- a solitary instance of mild bedroom humor is based entirely on inference -- "The Man Who Invented Christmas" will likely prove a winner with a broad range of age groups.
 
The film contains a very vague sexual joke and a single mild oath. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG -- parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
 
 
  • Published in Reviews
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November saint: Albert the Great

Albertus Magnus, or St. Albert the Great, is the patron saint of scientists and philosophers. However, it might also be appropriate to dub him the “patron saint of the curious,” for he was known to pursue truth and wisdom wherever it could be found, even in places that might have appeared unconventional at the time in which he lived.
 
Albert was born in southern Germany about the year 1200, the son of a powerful and wealthy military nobleman. He came of age at a time when the Catholic Church had reached the zenith of its power and influence in the Middle Ages; not only was the papacy firmly in control of things both spiritual and temporal, but literature had produced such master works of Christian allegorical poetry as Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” The renewal of the Church (following the previous century’s controversy surrounding lay investiture) also inspired the founding of mendicant religious orders such as the Franciscans and the Dominicans.
 
Albert was an extremely well educated young man; at the University of Padua, he first encountered the writings of Aristotle, the study of which would greatly influence the intellectual trajectory of the rest of his life. About the year 1223, Albert apparently had an encounter with the Blessed Virgin, which inspired him, much against the wishes of his family, to enter the novitiate of the Dominican Order. From that point on, he took up the study of theology, first in Cologne and later in Paris.
 
As he had at Padua, Albert proved himself an excellent student. He soon became a lecturer for the order, and by 1245 became a master of theology. He taught at the University of Paris and was appointed chair of yheology at the College of St. James.  As famous as Albert was becoming, he would also become known for one of his more brilliant students – Thomas Aquinas, who, like his teacher, would go on to become both a saint and a Doctor of the Church.
 
Albert’s familiarity with the philosophy of Aristotle would pave the way for his protégé’s own studies. In 1248, the two of them returned to the city of Cologne, where they created a Dominican course of study that would include a curriculum for philosophy. So successful and influential was their work that it would survive to the present day as the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, also known as the “Angelicum” in Rome.
 
Albert’s intellectual interests did not stop there, however. He would become known for his extensive study of natural science, logic, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, ethics, economics, politics and metaphysics. It took him 20 years and eight volumes of writing to complete his explanation of his learning; so great was his erudition that, in his time, his work was considered to be on a par with that of Aristotle.  
 
Albert’s health began to fail in 1278, and he died on Nov. 15, 1280.  Beatified in 1622, he was canonized and declared a Doctor of the Church in 1931 by Pope Pius IX.  His feast day is Nov. 15.
 
Sources for this article include:
americancatholic.org
catholiconline.com
“Saint Albert the Great“. CatholicSaints.Info. 13 January 2017.
Schreck, Alan.  “Catholic Church History from A to Z”.  Michigan:  Servant Publications, 2002.
Schreck, Alan.  “The Compact History of the Catholic Church”.  Ohio:  Servant Books, 1995.
 
 

Blessed John Henry Newman

Known in later years as the “absent Father of Vatican II,” Cardinal John Henry Newman was one of the most profound thinkers and writers of Catholic theology in the 19th century.  His long life – he lived to be nearly 90 – was almost exactly divided between his early years as an Anglican and his final ones as a Roman Catholic.
 
John Henry Newman was born in London in 1801, the eldest of six children. Even as a youth, he was absorbed in a quest for religious truth and, following years of study at Oriel College at Oxford University, he was ordained as a priest in the Anglican Church in 1824.  From 1828 until 1841 he was vicar of the university church, St. Mary the Virgin, and his writing, published in eight volumes as “Parochial and Plain Sermons,” was a great influence on the religious life both there and throughout the country.
 
In 1833, he became very ill and, while spending time in the Mediterranean for his health, he composed what became one of his most famous poems, “Lead, Kindly Light.” He had also begun reading the Fathers of the early Church; their influence led to him becoming a prominent leader in the Oxford Movement, whose members questioned certain aspects of Anglicanism, both political and theological.  As he became more and more concerned about the orthodoxy of the Anglican faith, he found himself moving in the direction of Roman Catholicism. By 1841, he felt he could no longer function as vicar of St. Mary’s; he resigned his position and spent the next four years in prayer and seclusion. In 1845, he was received into full communion with the Catholic Church, and in 1847 he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
 
These moves did not come without personal cost. Many of his former friends, colleagues and even family members ostracized him. In spite of this, he joined the Congregation of the Oratory, which was begun by St. Philip Neri in 1575; Father Newman went on to found two more oratories and eventually became the rector of the Catholic University of Ireland. A prolific writer, he was the author of 40 books, and nearly 21,000 of his letters still survive.
 
Pope Leo XIII named John Newman a cardinal in 1879; he died 11 years later in 1890.  n 1893, three years after his death, the first Newman Center was founded on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania and, to this day, his name is linked to Catholic student centers at colleges and universities throughout the United States.
 
Perhaps one of his greatest contributions to an understanding of Catholic theology concerned the primacy of conscience and the role of the laity in the Church. Though viewed with some suspicion in his own time, his teaching had a profound influence on the shaping of the documents of Vatican II. Beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010, Cardinal Newman’s feast day is celebrated on Oct. 9.
 
 
Sources for this article include:
americancatholic.org
Barry, William. "John Henry Newman." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 10. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1911.
“Blessed John Henry Newman". CatholicSaints.Info. 12 January 2017.
Schreck, Alan.  “Catholic Church History from A to Z”.  Michigan:  Servant Publications, 2002.

 

Jesus, Mary and the rosary

There’s an old jewelry box at my house; it’s tucked away in the bottom drawer of my dresser, and it’s full of rosaries. Almost all of them have some sort of story attached to them, which is one of the reasons they are still with me – that and the fact that just about all of them have been blessed. They form a kind of spiritual anchor for me, and every once in a while I take them out and look at them, running my fingers over the different styles of beads and crucifixes, remembering who they came from or in what circumstances they came my way.
 
One of my earliest encounters with the rosary happened when I was four years old, and I’m sorry to say that it was less than devout. My mother, and many of the other women in the parish, belonged to the Legion of Mary; among other things, they used to do a “block rosary” once a week.  This meant that each member took a turn hosting the prayer at her house. I’m sure that coffee and dessert were also involved, but what sticks in my memory isn’t the food but rather that circle of women, all kneeling on someone’s living room rug, reciting the rosary together.
 
One of the weeks when the gathering was at our house, I was allowed to stay up way past my bedtime and pray with the ladies. This may have been a lapse of judgment on my mother’s part, because before the first decade was concluded, I decided it would be great fun to fall over sideways on the carpet. It was, in fact, so amusing that I did it a few more times before I finally stayed down for the count and fell sound asleep. Needless to say, I was tucked into bed long before the coffeecake was served.
 
Thankfully, as I grew older, my appreciation and respect for the rosary also grew.  When my CCD classmates and I made our First Communion, for instance, one of the gifts each of us received was a rosary, and one of the things that made it special was what it was made of. Rather than crystal or wood or something like that, these beads were white and glowed in the dark. That might not seem like a very big thing, except when you are seven and monsters have visited you in your dreams; then you could always find your rosary, glowing gently on the nightstand next to the bed. Many nights Mary lulled me back to peaceful sleep as I clutched the beads that protected me from things that went bump in the night.
 
I went through the rosary box recently, and it was like a visit with old friends. But mostly it was a reminder of how protected and loved I am. Life, on occasion, presents different “monsters” to me now, but praying the rosary reminds me that, no matter what happens, Jesus and Mary are never far away.
 
 Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 
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Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, June 19, 2016

Zechariah 12: 10-11, 13:1; Psalm 63;

Galatians 3: 26-29; Luke 9: 18-24

"O God, you are my God whom I seek; for you my flesh pines and my soul thirsts like the earth, parched, lifeless and without water." (Ps 63:2)

"Then [Jesus] said to all, 'If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.'" (Lk 9:23)

It is rather ironic–or maybe not ironic at all and simply God's plan–that these readings would be assigned to this particular Sunday in June. This weekend in the Diocese of Burlington Bishop Coyne will ordain Mr. Joseph Sanderson to the transitional diaconate and Deacons Matthew Rensch and Curtis Miller to the priesthood. Following their ordinations, Deacon Sanderson and Fathers Rensch and Miller will either assist at or celebrate Masses of Thanksgiving at which these readings will be used. How these readings speak to those of us in Holy Orders! Both quotes above are great beginning points for those to be ordained priests and a reminder for someone like me who is already a priest.

The journey to the priesthood begins when the candidate realizes his "flesh pines and...soul thirsts" for God. While all people experience this call, the one to enter Holy Orders realizes in the depths of his heart and soul that God has called him to enter an ordained relationship with him. "This sacrament configures the recipient to Christ by a special grace of the Holy Spirit," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1581), "so that he may serve as Christ's instrument for his Church. By ordination one is enabled to act as a representative of Christ, Head of the Church . . . "

The priest feels drawn into a life in which he gives himself totally, body, mind, heart, and soul, to Christ and his Church. Through the priesthood, he satisfies the thirst of his soul as recounted in Psalm 63. This relationship with Christ then overflows into service to God's people. It is a total giving of one's self, and thus it is a joyful life marked by simplicity, obedience, and celibacy. The heart, mind, body, and soul are given to God.

Jesus makes it clear that anyone who wishes to follow him must "deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow [him]." On Good Friday, the priest holds the wooden cross for all to venerate. He knows from his own prayer that it is only through the cross of Jesus that salvation and redemption will come to God's people. The individual crosses of the people must come to the cross of Christ, which is a window to resurrection and hope. The priest has given his life for that cross, and now leads others through it. A priest's life is not a career. He does not seek advancement or career opportunities. His life is set before him. He sets out to minister in the places the Church needs and directs him, as that is how he knows and hears God's will. The priest knows it is not about him, but about Christ and his Church.

The celebrations of the sacraments are the center of the priest's life. His life comes together fully in those moments. He has felt God's call into a deep, unique relationship with him that is marked by prayer. He celebrates the sacraments in humility as he himself is in need of the forgiveness and healing of those same sacraments he provides for God's people. He does so in the person of Christ, for it is Christ who baptizes, forgives sins, and anoints through the priest. It is Christ's body and blood that is made evident upon the altar in the Eucharist.

The priest has felt the need of Christ in his own life. He has given his life for that relationship. He now brings that relationship to each person he meets in celebrating the sacraments, healing God's people. Indeed, he is an icon of Christ, for it is through him that the faithful see Christ, the one to whom the priest is configured through Holy Orders.

Msgr. Bernard Bourgeois is the principal of Rice Memorial High School in South Burlington. Msgr. Bourgeois may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. (See official on page 3.)

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Life issues and social justice

As a child in the 1950s, I recall the Church being insular and sharply divided from
the world around us. That began to change as we approached Vatican Council II. We heard words like “ecumenism,” “social justice” and “liturgical renewal.” There was even a daring concept of celebrating the Mass in the vernacular, the language commonly spoken in the location of the Mass.
 
As the council unfolded, laypersons were invited to take on new roles in the Church, both liturgical roles and in various ministries in the Church. Both men and women could now serve in the sanctuary as lectors and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion. Mass could be celebrated with the priest facing the people instead of with his back to the congregation.
 
After Vatican II, we saw the Church engaging the world around us in a completely different way.
 
We recognized the need to enter into dialogue with other Christian denominations to explore the possibility of reunification of Christianity. We began to hear about topics like racism, discrimination and social justice. The Church was more open in its criticism of injustice in society.
 
Topics like war, disparate treatment of minorities by the criminal justice system, treatment of undocumented immigrants, the natural environment and a living wage became topics addressed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and local bishops.
 
Yet within the Church, we saw dissent emerge. Some sought to radically change certain moral teachings on issues of sexuality, contraception and abortion. With Pope Paul VI’s encyclical, “Humanae Vitae” (“Of Human Life”), Catholic understanding of sexuality and the teaching on contraception were beautifully affirmed. Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, “Evangelium Vitae” (“Gospel of Life”) again affirmed those teachings and emphasized that moral law given by God cannot change.
 
Human life issues (abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia and capital punishment) continued to receive prominent attention from the bishops and Catholic laity in local and political arenas.
 
The Church needs to engage society on both human life issues and issues of social justice; it is not one or the other.
 
Catholics know from scripture that the human person is created in the image and likeness of God. Hence, all human beings have an inherent dignity: There is something about each person that is a reflection of God to those around them.
 
Catholics must hold in their heart two great commandments: Love of God above all else and love our neighbors as ourselves. The Church must continue to proclaim that message not merely as an abstract concept, but in concrete terms: Life is sacred. Human beings are to be treated as a precious image and likeness of God; they are to be accorded full human dignity, and this includes just treatment in all particulars of their existence in a just society.
 
As members of the Church and followers of Jesus Christ, we must act to further those teachings and to incorporate them into our own attitudes and behaviors.
 

Fatima’s message still relevant

In 21st-century arrogance, some might say, “Seriously! You are bringing up Fatima when there is strife around the world; when there is incredible division in the country; when poverty and problems in the healthcare system abound! And moral standards are deplorable.”
 
Yes. That is right. Are we any different from the world a century ago toward the end of  “The Great War?” The message of Fatima, given to three children tending sheep in a town in Portugal beginning in May 1917, is really quite simple: Pray and repent; do penance. Without such a conversion, there would be another great and tragic war. That prophecy surely was fulfilled in World War II.
 
The world has not undergone the conversion that was called for at Fatima. In fact, conflict and hostility have grown. Terror attacks happen somewhere in the world almost daily. A number of nations now have at least some nuclear weapons capability. Sporadic use of chemical weapons has continued despite international treaties banning them. Conventional anti-personnel weapons have been directed at civilian populations. Multiple genocides have plagued the world over the last century. Disrespect for the sanctity of human life and human dignity abound in most parts of the world. Rather than an increase in prayer, repentance and conversion there has been a significant apostasy throughout the world, especially in the industrialized West.
 
Accompanying that apostasy have been pervasive exploitation of persons through social and economic systems that enrich a small segment of the world population and impoverish others. The natural environment has undergone significant devastation, increasing the burden on the poor.
 
So what does Fatima have to do with us today? In a word: Everything! And Fatima still beckons us, as a world, to repent. It will only be with prayer, repentance and conversion that the world will realize peace.
 
Questions of justice and peace were prominent themes in the prophets. Isaiah wrote, “Justice will bring about peace; right will produce calm and security” (Is 32:17). These themes appear throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament, along with charity, truth and freedom.
 
Church teaching has repeatedly pointed out the inextricable links among truth, justice, charity, peace and freedom. Pope Paul VI said it very succinctly and directly: “If you want peace, work for justice.” (1)
 
Vatican Council II teaches, “The social order…must be founded on truth, built on justice and animated by love; in freedom it should grow every day.” (2) And the U.S. bishops have affirmed: “We are all called to be a Church at the service of peace, precisely because peace is one manifestation of God’s word and work in our midst.” (3)
 
Some, very properly, might ask what concrete things they can do to have a positive impact on a world in turmoil. I suggest four specific steps:
 
1. We can pray daily for peace, justice, truth and charity and for the conversion of sinners. We can do some penance, some sacrifice in reparation for our own sins and those of others.
 
2. We can model moral behaviors in our own lives through truthfulness, justice, love, peace and purity.
 
3. We can share our faith with others.
 
4. As citizens, we can communicate with our elected representatives, senators and other public officials regarding specific matters of justice, peace and the common good; and we should hold them accountable if they fail to deliver.
 
Finally, we need to bear in mind that it is 100 years since The Blessed Mother’s Fatima messages. God may bless us with a profound transformation in the direction of world peace or with a series of incremental improvements over a period of years, culminating in a more peaceful and secure world. Our participation in all of this simply requires that we remain true to our prayer and our other efforts.
 
Ultimately, the outcome is in the hands of God.
 
      _________
 
 
1 Message of His Holiness Pope Paul VI, for the Celebration of the Day of Peace, Jan. 1, 1972.
 
2 “Gaudium et Spes” #26.
 
3 “God’s Promise and Our Response,” U.S. Catholic Bishops, 1983

-- Originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 

Inequality of basic needs

Pope Francis noted in “Laudato Si’” how environmental degradation has a disproportionate adverse impact on the impoverished of the world.
 
That is quite easy to see in the developing world. However, it is a little more subtle here in the United States and in the rest of the industrialized West.
 
Take the city of Flint, Mich., and its crisis of lead in the city water. By every measure, this community is a poor and primarily minority population. Unemployment in Flint runs about 1 percent above the national rate. More than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty. In 2015 the median household income was under $25,000 -- less than half of the national median household income. Less than 83 percent of its residents are high school graduates and only 11.2 percent are college graduates.
 
The combination of population characteristics in Flint is often associated with a relatively powerless population.
 
In contrast, more than 91 percent of Vermont residents are high school graduates and more than 40 percent have higher levels of education.
 
Flint has been in the news because of its water problems.
 
Prevention of lead poisoning has long been an essential aspect of running public water systems.
 
Lead poisoning was recognized in ancient Roman and Greek times; it was known to be toxic to the human body and to have an adverse effect on the human mind.
Without rehashing all the details from Flint, changes made to the water system resulted in lead being leached from antiquated lead pipes.
 
The process lacked due diligence for the safety of the residents. There was also a failure by public officials to alert the community to the hazard after the problem was recognized. Delays in remediation and communication of the hazard were costly to the health of many children.
 
A child’s brain is particularly vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning; lead poisoning results in reduced intellectual and emotional growth along with behavioral problems. Those health and social problems will continue impose burdens on these impoverished families and society for decades to come.
 
Flint’s poverty clearly played a role in this tragedy. City officials, perhaps operating in very good faith, saw an opportunity to reduce the cost of its water system and moved to take advantage of the savings without having done a sufficiently thorough engineering analysis that would have identified the potential problems and prevented the disastrous consequences. A more prosperous city might not have seen the need to take the risk or revamping the water system.
 
This is but one example of lead or other toxic chemicals in the drinking water, the air or the soil in less-affluent communities in the United States. Lead has been ubiquitous in paint on the walls of older housing stock in poor communities. Lead can even be carried in dust and transported by wind. The consequences of these hazards fall on the impoverished residents of those communities. According to a report from Reuters News Service, high levels of blood lead in children have recently been identified in nearly 3,000 other U.S. locations, including large cities and small towns.1
 
In Vermont, the chemical PFOA2 has migrated in ground water to North Bennington from a manufacturing plant in Hoosick Falls, N.Y. PFOA is suspected of causing cancer. Vermont officials and company officials have endeavored to respond appropriately to the needs of local residents, but in this situation it is hard to predict what the final economic and health burdens for residents will be.3 These burdens are worse for the poor since limited financial resources limit options to remedy a problem.
 
The moral imperative is clear. Health effects of hazardous materials must be properly and pro-actively addressed by public officials and private sector decision makers. There can be no excuse for exposing human beings to risk of significant harm, whether by overt action or by failure to act. With deteriorating infrastructure and increased budgetary pressures, I fear the problem may even get worse. The effects will disproportionately harm the impoverished and the voiceless.
 
 
Footnotes:
1 www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa- lead-testing/
2 PFOA: Perfluorooctanoic acid, a chemical used in producing Teflon.
3 www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/nyregion/vermont-town- is-latest- to-face- pfoa-tainted- water-scare.html?_r=0


--------------------
Originally published in the 2017 spring issue of Vermont Catholic Magazine.
 
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The importance of Jackie Robinson

In the history of the modern American civil rights movement, three iconic moments are typically cited:
 
• May 17, 1954: The U.S. Supreme Court hands down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, declaring segregated — “separate but equal” — public schools unconstitutional.
 
• Aug. 28, 1963: Two hundred thousand Americans participate in the March on Washington and hear Martin Luther King Jr. proclaim his dream of a country in which his children will be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; 10 months later, Congress enacts the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
 
• March 3, 1965: Civil rights marchers are assaulted by police tear gas and Billy clubs on the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Ala.; five months later, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs into law the Voting Rights Act, vindicating the Selma marchers’ cause.
 
These were noble moments, worth remembering; I certainly cherish my memories of encounters with Bayard Rustin, who organized the march that made Dr. King a national eminence.
 
But I believe there was a fourth iconic moment in America’s journey from a land fouled by segregation to the most racially egalitarian nation on the planet. The man at the center of that fourth dramatic moment was an American legend whose accomplishments should rank as high as anyone’s in the pantheon of civil rights heroes.
 
On April 15, 1947, the Brooklyn Dodgers opened their National League season against the Boston Braves at Ebbets Field. The Dodger first baseman that day was Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play in a major league game since the infamous “color line” was drawn in the 1880s.
 
At UCLA in 1939-41, Robinson was perhaps the greatest amateur athlete in the country, a star in track and field, football and basketball.
 
After service as an Army officer in World War II, he was playing shortstop for the
Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League when he was signed to a minor
league contract by Branch Rickey, a cigar-chomping Methodist and the Dodgers’ general manager.
 
Rickey was determined to break the color line, and he deliberately chose Jack Roosevelt Robinson to do so.
 
And not because Jackie Robinson was a mild-mannered wallflower. Robinson was to be a warrior with a difference, however: Rickey, an adept psychologist who believed in the essential fairness of the American people, wanted a man with the courage not to fight back against the racist slurs, beanballs and spikings that were sure to come his way — except by giving an unforgettable performance on the field.
 
Which is what Jackie Robinson, the immortal Number 42, delivered.
 
Grainy black-and-white videos today remind us of a truth the baseball world learned 70 years ago: There has never been anything more exciting in baseball, including the majestic home run and the overpowering no-hitter, than 42 stealing a base, especially home. Rather than hollering back at bigots during his rookie year, Robinson beat them with games that helped lift the Dodgers to the National League pennant and brought them within one game of a World Series victory over the
Yankees (who didn’t sign an African-American player until Elston Howard in 1955).
 
It was a performance for the ages. And it changed America.
 
In this entertainment-saturated 21st century, it may be hard to recall the grip baseball had on the national emotions and imagination in 1947. But as the late
Columbia University cultural historian Jacques Barzun used to say, whoever wants to understand the heart and mind of America had better understand baseball.
 
On April 14, 1947, that nation-defining pastime still embodied the nation’s original sin. The next day, Jackie Robinson began to accelerate a change in America’s heart and mind. That change made possible Brown v. Board of Education, the Civil Rights
Act and the Voting Rights Act.
 
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the GW Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.
 
This article has been published in the summer 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.

 

Theology isn't math

During the heyday of the Solidarity movement, a famous Polish slogan had it that, “For Poland to be Poland, 2 + 2 Must Always = 4.” It was a quirky but pointed way of challenging the communist culture of the lie, which befogged public life and warped relationships between parents and children, husbands and wives, colleagues and neighbors. For Poland to be something other than the claustrophobic Soviet puppet-state it had been since 1945 – for Poland to be itself, true to its character and history – Poland had to live in the truth: It had to be a country in which 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
That Solidarity slogan harkened back to George Orwell’s “1984.” In Orwell’s dystopian novel, a totalitarian state maintains social control by obfuscating reality, using what the British author called “Newspeak” and “doublethink” to compel its subjects to acknowledge as true what they know is false. Thus one of the more odious of the characters in the novel, a regime stooge whose job is to break the will of “thought criminals,” explains that if Big Brother and the omnipotent Party say so, two plus two doesn’t necessarily equal four: “Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once.”
           
Which brings us to a tweet earlier this month from Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a prominent figure on the current Roman scene.
            
I don’t use Twitter, so its syntactical wonderland is a bit foreign to me. And having had previous experience of Father Spadaro’s capacity for provocation-via-Twitter, I’m prepared to think that, in this case, he may have been trying to say something other than what he seemed to be saying. But as his tweet rang ominous bells for anyone familiar with Orwell or Solidarity, it’s worth reflecting upon.
           
Here’s what Father Spadaro tweeted (in linear, rather than Twitter, format): “Theology is not Mathematics. 2 + 2 in Theology can make 5. Because it has to do with God and real life of people.”
           
Now that was not, so to speak, a tweet in a vacuum. It was a message projected into an already-overheated Catholic conversation about the proper interpretation of the apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia. In that context, the charitable reading of the tweet is that Father Spadaro was reminding us of the obvious – that pastoral care is an art, and that the priest dealing with complicated and messy human situations is not like a first-grade teacher drilling six-year olds in addition.
 
But then the question inevitably arises, what is the relationship of truth to pastoral care? And why suggest, even in Twitter-world, that there are multiple “truths” – a convention of the post-modern academic playpen that leads by a short road to the chaos of “your truth” and “my truth” and nothing properly describable as the truth?
As for theology, the word means speaking-of-God, which in Christian terms speaking of the One who is Truth – the Truth who makes us free in the deepest meaning of human liberation. There are many ways of doing theology, and not all of them are strictly syllogistic; St. Ephrem the Syrian and St. Thérèse of Lisieux, doctors of the Church, were not logicians. But if theology decays into illogical forms of Newspeak, it is false to itself.
           
It was providential that Christianity had its first “inculturation” in a milieu – Greco-Roman antiquity – where the principle of non-contradiction was well-established and something couldn’t “be” and “not be” simultaneously. That cultural environment was where Christianity found the conceptual tools to turn confession and proclamation – “Jesus is Lord” – into catechesis and creed. Suppose the first “inculturation” had been in a setting where it made perfect sense to say “Jesus is Lord” and “Jesus is not Lord” at the same time – like the culture of India two millennia ago? It made a great deal of difference that the first formative centuries of Christianity took place in a culture where 2 + 2 always equaled 4.
           
Applying the truths of the faith to the complexities of life is not a matter of logic alone. But if attempts to do so are illogical, in that they stretch truth to the breaking point, they’re unlikely to be pastorally effective. Because the soul needs truth to be free.       
 
 

A reflection on “A Man for All Seasons”

On Dec. 12, 1966, the film “A Man for All Seasons” was released. And if it’s impossible to imagine such a picture on such a theme winning Oscars today, then let’s be grateful that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences got it right by giving Fred Zinnemann’s splendid movie six of its awards in 1967 – when, reputedly, Audrey Hepburn lifted her eyes to heaven before announcing with obvious pleasure that this cinematic celebration of the witness and martyrdom of Sir Thomas More had beaten “The Sand Pebbles,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “Alfie” and T”he Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” for Best Picture.
           
Intriguingly, though, “A Man for All Seasons” is a magnificent religious film – perhaps the best ever – despite its author’s stated intentions.
           
Robert Bolt’s introduction to his play, which led to the movie, makes it rather clear that author Bolt saw More less as a Catholic martyr than as an existential hero, an approach befitting the hot philosophical movement of the day (which was, of course, the Sixties). As Bolt put it:
           
“Thomas More…became for me a man with an adamantine sense of his own self. He knew where he began and left off, what areas of himself he could yield to the encroachments of his enemies, and what to the encroachments of those he loved. It was a substantial area in both cases, for he had a proper sense of fear and was a busy lover. Since he was a clever man and a great lawyer he was able to retire from those areas in wonderfully good order, but at last he was asked to retreat from that final area where he located his self.  And there this supple, humorous, unassuming and sophisticated person set like metal, was overtaken by an absolutely primitive rigor, and could no more be budged than a cliff….
           
“What attracted me was a person who could not be accused of any incapacity for life, who indeed seized life in great variety and almost greedy quantities, who nevertheless found something in himself without which life was valueless and when that was denied him was able to grasp his death.”
           
Yet this portrait of Thomas-More-as-Tudor-era-existentialist doesn’t quite convince, because Bolt, perhaps in spite of himself, gave us a different More in his drama and later in his screenplay – a More who “grasps” his death, not as an existential stalwart, a courageously autonomous “Self,” but as a Catholic willing to die for the truth, which has grasped him as the love of God in Christ.  Thus when More’s intellectually gifted daughter Margaret, having failed to argue him out of his refusal to countenance Henry VIII’s divorce and subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn, plays her final card and cries, “But in reason! Haven’t you done as much as God can reasonably want?”, More replies, haltingly, “Well…finally…it isn’t a matter of reason; finally it’s a matter of love.”
           
And not love of self, but love of God and love of the truth. For the God who is truth all the way through is also, St. John the Evangelist teaches us, love itself. And to be transformed by that love is to live in the truth – the truth that sets us free in the deepest and noblest meaning of human liberation.
           
There was something worthy and inspiring about certain aspects of existentialism: not the soured existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre, which quickly decomposed into nihilism, but the heroic existentialism of a Albert Camus, who could not abide the anti-clerical Catholic progressives of his day and who sought a world in which we could be, as he put it, “neither victims nor executioners.” But it was Sartrean existentialism that won the day, at least insofar as one can trace a line from Sartre to contemporary narcissism, displayed today in everything from temper tantrums on university campuses by over-privileged and under-educated barbarians to voters across the Western world who seek relief from their grievances – some quite legitimate – in adherence to some pretty dreadful characters.
           
In this unhappy situation, we need the real Thomas More: the Thomas More who bore witness and ultimately “grasped his death,” not to vindicate his sense of self, but as the final and ultimate act of thanks for his having been grasped, and saved, by Truth itself, the Thrice-Holy God.   
 
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