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To everything there is a season

There is a story of a pastor who decided to hire a gardener for the poorly kept parish grounds. Year round the gardener worked diligently, mulching, preparing the soil, weeding, planting, pruning and nurturing the plants with great attention, until one day the pastor strolled into the flowering garden with a neighboring priest, anxious to show off the magnificent new creation.
 
Gesturing to the many different plants and flowers, the pastor said, “I praise God for all of His handiwork!” 
 
With clippers in hand, the gardener stepped out from behind a bush and chastised the pastor saying, “Don’t you go giving all the credit to God. Just remember what this place looked like before I got here and God had it all to himself!” 
 
Attention is a sacred gift. “The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself,” wrote Henry Miller.
 
When we give this kind of attention to others, it becomes a gift of love, one that nourishes and nurtures and helps bring a person into full bloom. When we have this kind of love, our world holds all the beauty of a tended garden. When we don’t, life can become a cold, dreary night.
 
There was a time when I felt like my world had become an eternal winter, and I couldn’t see beyond the moment in time when my father died unexpectedly, leaving me alone to care for my mother, who was a hospice patient.
 
But time goes on. Today, it doesn’t seem possible that my father has been gone almost 22 years. Still, each year, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I am reminded of the last Valentine’s Day we spent together, him unconscious in a hospital bed, me in tears hoping that he could at least sense how much I loved him. He died the next day.
 
When I returned home that night and curled up in my dad’s much-loved recliner, I recalled the words of Paul Gallico, the author of “The Snow Goose,” one of my favorite books as a child: “When two people loved each other, they worked together always, two against the world, a little company. Joy was shared, trouble split. You had an ally, somewhere, who was helping.”
 
This was my relationship with my dad. Gallico’s words spoke to me, not only of what is ours when we are loved, when there is someone in our life who gives us the sacred gift of attention but what we don’t have when that someone is gone, no matter what the reason. It is the aloneness of grief, the dark night of loss, the realization that you are now a company of one.
 
A year later, I lost my mom.
 
When we suffer losses such as these, we often look for reasons why. But, in all honesty, no reason could console us or take away the terrible hurt and emptiness we feel. We may cling to our faith in these inconsolable times, but even faith doesn’t erase the pain.
 
I have found that the only way through it all is to consider grief a season of life, a season of loss that ebbs and flows and forever changes who we are. We never learn about it in school, but life will teach us and Scripture can guide us:
“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
A time to be born, and a time to die;
A time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
A time to kill, and a time to heal;
A time to break down, and a time to build up;
A time to weep, and a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. …”
 
The writer of Ecclesiastes understood there is divine wisdom in all of God’s creation, and that we must embrace that wisdom in our own lives as well. The garden in winter is not dead, just dormant, having prepared for this season during the autumn. When the time and conditions are right, new life will spring forth from roots and seeds hidden from our sight.
 
-- Mary Morrell
--This article was originally published in the Winter 2017 issue of Vermont Catholic magazine.
 
 

Sacrificial ministry is incomplete without the cross

Caution: This article concerns working with the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill and addicts. If your experience of this kind of ministry is limited to the occasional conference talk on social justice in an air-conditioned building, bolstered by small group discussions followed by a tasty lunch, you won’t appreciate it.
 
If you have hands-on experience with the above-mentioned population, who rejected your good intentions at “helping them,” then you will understand the Gospels in their complexity and entirety.
 
For most Christians, the seminal Gospel passage often quoted regarding social justice and ministry to the poor is Matthew 25:35-40: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
 
This Gospel makes clear the various acts to be performed, but the sacrificial act of ministry is not complete without the cross. For ministry to be fruitful the mystery of the cross looms behind every act of charity. An act of love, met with the rejection of the intended recipient, if united with the suffering of Jesus on the cross, can produce spiritual fruit more efficacious than any pious sermon on the preferential option for the poor.
 
Remember what happened to Jesus in John 5:1-16 when He bestowed two healings on the man at the Pool of Bethesda who had been paralyzed for 38 years? The man is healed but nonetheless intentionally betrays Jesus to the authorities for having told him to carry his mat on the Sabbath which led to an intensified persecution of Jesus.
 
Jesus’ act of charity is met with ingratitude, betrayal and suffering. But, did Jesus stop healing the sick? No.
 
So, what do you do when the sandwich you offer the hungry man is thrown with contempt in the garbage? You still feed the hungry. When the water you offer the thirsty one is left behind for alcohol? You still give water to the thirsty. When the clothes you offer the poor family are exchanged for drugs? You still give clothes to the poor. When you offer kindness and compassion to the mentally ill or addicts and they calumniate you? You remain kind and compassionate. But, most importantly, you pray to the Father from the depths of your soul uniting your frustration, hurt feelings and misunderstood intentions to Jesus so that He may elevate those acts of charity to the supernatural heights of mercy which we alone, without the cross, are unable to accomplish.
 
From those heights a shower of grace descends upon the poor, which a mere sandwich, bottle of water, pair of boots or kind smile was unable to achieve by itself. Such is the complexity of social justice and ministry to the poor. Not every recipient of charity is ungrateful, obviously. And many will be kind, pleasant and enjoyable. But don’t let those who betray you and hurt your feelings stop you from performing the good works of the Kingdom.
 
Jesus didn’t stop. And neither did the saints.

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

Movie review: 'Father Figures'

About the funniest joke in the threadbare comedy "Father Figures" (Warner Bros.) concerns the fact that, in childhood, its two main characters -- now-grown and estranged fraternal twins Kyle (Owen Wilson) and Peter (Ed Helms) Reynolds -- had a pet cat named Chairman Meow.
 
That historical pun aside, though, there's precious little that's revolutionary about the film that surrounds this duo.
 
Reluctantly reunited by the second wedding of their supposedly widowed mother, Helen (Glenn Close), bored-with-his-life proctologist Peter and carefree beach bum Kyle are in for a surprise. The man Helen long ago told them was their deceased father was, it seems, just a friend of hers.
 
So their real dad may, in fact, still be alive -- though Helen's promiscuous past makes it impossible for her to identify for sure which of many candidates he might be. This discovery launches the siblings on a road trip during which they visit a series of contenders, the first being famed football star Terry Bradshaw, playing himself.
 
As Terry and the lads toss the old pigskin around on a Florida beach, director Lawrence Sher's formulaic feature debut quickly sinks into a stupor from which only an energetic turn from Katt Williams as a hitchhiker can it briefly emerge.
 
Predictable developments include, most obviously, the gradual repair of the breach between the temperamentally diverse brothers. But subplots concerning Kyle's money troubles and divorced Peter's efforts to get back on track romantically are equally easy to anticipate.
 
Kyle's interest in serving as Peter's "wingman" by facilitating a casual encounter is symptomatic of the fact that the movie's distasteful premise is matched by a worm's-eye view of human sexuality throughout. The resolving plot twist can, however, be seen as vaguely pro-life.
 
The film contains pervasive sexual and some scatological humor, an incest theme, a premarital bedroom scene, about a dozen uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths and constant rough and crude language.
 
The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R -- restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
 

Movie review: 'The Greatest Showman'

The life of pop entertainment pioneer P.T. Barnum provides the subject matter for the big, brash musical "The Greatest Showman" (Fox).
 
Ironically, the film arrives in theaters almost seven months to the day after the demise of the 19th-century impresario's most lasting legacy, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.
 
Though unlikely to engage the youngest viewers, an emphasis on marital fidelity and family values in general, together with the virtual absence of objectionable material, makes this screen biography appropriate for most others. Moviegoers' appreciation of it, however, will likely depend on their taste for the Lloyd-Webber style of Broadway and West End theater, whose approach it imitates.
 
Hugh Jackman leads with his chin in playing Barnum with bring-on-the-lions enthusiasm. Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon's script, meanwhile, traces its protagonist's rise from impoverished beginnings to worldwide fame with the kind of occasionally challenged, but ultimately unquenchable, optimism that might have appealed to novelist Horatio Alger.
 
Barnum gains support in his ascent from his childhood sweetheart, Charity (Michelle Williams), who eventually turns her back on her wealthy and well-bred parents to marry him. Also shunning a genteel background to bolster Barnum's career is his unlikely business partner, New York socialite Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron).
 
Assembling an ensemble of such unusual figures as Lettie Lutz, aka the Bearded Lady (Keala Settle) and dwarf "General," Tom Thumb (Sam Humphrey), Barnum turns a large profit by exciting the curiosity of the masses. Tensions arise, though, when he shifts his focus away from these loyal performers and friends to concentrate on backing the American premiere of Swedish diva Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson).
 
Barnum risks his fortune in the effort to promote Lind, hoping thereby to gain the elite standing that has previously eluded him. The fact that this breakthrough may require him to shun those on whom he has built his success fails, initially at least, to deter him.
 
He is equally blind to the danger his absence on the road with Lind poses to his bond with Charity and their children -- not to mention the foreseeable temptation arising from the beautiful soprano's prolonged company.
 
There is an implicitly pro-life message underlying director Michael Gracey's feature debut since its treatment of the social outsiders with whom Barnum surrounded himself strongly vindicates their inherent dignity and entitlement to respect. The picture's portrayal of Carlyle's convention-defying romance with African-American trapeze artist Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) is equally in line with Christian morals.
 
Both these aspects of the plot, however, betray historical naivete in projecting a contemporary outlook backward onto Victorian-era America. The audience is left with the impression that all the gaping inequalities of Barnum's day might easily have been effaced by a few brassy songs delivered with the requisite zest.
 
Still, parents on the lookout for wholesome holiday fare will probably refrain from such nitpicking as, perhaps with teens in tow, they take in a love and success story that's old-fashioned in the best sense.
 
The film contains some nonlethal violence, a mild oath and a racial slur. 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.
 

Book review: "Humility Rules: Saint Benedict's Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem'

“Humility Rules: Saint Benedict's Twelve-Step Guide to Genuine Self-Esteem.” By Wetta, J. Augustine, OSB. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2017. 188 pages. Paperback: $17.95; Kindle: $9.15; Nook: $10.99.

If your spiritual goal for Lent is, in part, to break bad habits and attitudes and replace them with better ones, then Father Wetta’s book may be just the guide you are looking for. Unlike giving up chocolate or a favorite television program (although either of these things is good if it leads you closer to God) Wetta, a monk at the Benedictine Abbey of St. Louis, proposes something dramatically counter-cultural instead – giving up the pursuit of our own self-esteem in order to embrace a life of self-abandonment. In other words, as the title of his new book says, it may be time to let humility rule.

The virtue of humility has gotten a bad rap in the last few decades because it is largely misunderstood. It is often confused with the destructive notion of “putting oneself down” when, in reality, it is a genuine raising up of the true self. “[St. Benedict]”, Father Wetta notes, “is not focused on self-love, self-praise, self-aggrandizement, or self-promotion—not focused on the self at all, but on how to relate to one another and to God in light of our strengths and weaknesses. But such clarity of vision begins to develop only when you take the focus off yourself and devote yourself body and soul to a higher purpose.”

St. Benedict’s “Rule” calls this ascent to a higher purpose “The Ladder of Humility," and Father Wetta’s book is structured around each rung. Reading through his description of each – “Don’t be true to yourself, don’t follow your dreams, put your worst foot forward” for instance -- may inspire some to run rapidly in the opposite direction. Don’t be deceived, however; this is no dour monk writing to ruin your life or drag you down into a “slough of despond." Rather, it is a call to reality, to genuineness and to what really matters in life – both here and hereafter. As a bonus, it is written in such a way that a 21st century reader can understand and appreciate the truth of what the author is saying, even when those truths are as old as Creation itself.  As Wetta puts it, “…my goal here is to make St. Benedict’s handbook a bit more accessible—and perhaps a little less medieval.”

Another bonus is Father Wetta himself; although he takes what he is saying seriously, he does not take himself so. (A mark of humility?  Perhaps….) For example, the illustrations that he includes throughout the book, though drawn from medieval sources, have been given a decidedly modern – and humorous – spin. He also draws upon his own often quirky life experiences to illustrate his points (he is, for instance, also known as “the surfing monk” who was once almost eaten by a shark off a beach in New Jersey. He invites the reader to look it up – I did, and it’s true.)  In keeping with his other vocation as an educator – he teaches English, classics and theology at the Priory School, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he also coaches rugby and serves as director of chaplaincy – each chapter ends with a homework assignment. Don’t worry though; these exercises are designed to deepen and extend for yourself what Wetta has explained on the page.  I got to the point that I actually looked forward to doing them.

So why bother with humility? Because it brings us closer to God.  “…humility should never be confused with mediocrity,” Father Wetta concludes.  “Perfect holiness is the purpose for which we were created, so we can’t allow ourselves to be comfortable with the status quo. The minimum is not enough. ... Does this scare you? It should. But it should also thrill you, because it means you are infinitely important and always loved. ... So get to it. You know the steps, now climb the ladder.”

Author bio:

Augustine Wetta is a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of St. Louis in St. Louis, Missouri.  In addition to earning two degrees in theology from Oxford University, Father Wetta also has a bachelor's degree in Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations from Rice University and a master's in English from Middlebury College in Vermont.

Before entering religious life, Wetta learned to surf and was a lifeguard on the Galveston, Texas, Sheriff Department Beach Patrol. He has also worked as a professional juggler (“The Flying Fettuccinne Brothers”) and as an archeologist.
 

In Memoriam, 2017

This was a tough year for losing friends. At one point, I got so tired of writing obituary columns that I wrote a kind of pre-obituary so the friend in question could read it before his death. Before the civil year ends, let’s remember seven giants who will be sorely missed.

                Michael Novak (1933-2017). Mike Novak was one of the most creative Catholic minds of our time, a philosopher whose thinking ranged all over the human landscape. He made a far better moral case for free enterprise than anyone before him; he had a penetrating insight into the American idea and the dangers besetting it; he probed the depths of both religious experience and secular nihilism with precision and compassion. Prior to his death on Feb. 17, the last thing we talked about was Super Bowl LI, which was entirely in character. RIP.

                Peter L. Berger (1929-2017). I began reading him in 1970, when his classic, "A Rumor of Angels," was assigned in a course on Revelation and Faith – and I kept reading him for more than 45 years. We became friends and colleagues in the mid-1980s, and I discovered that, in addition to his insight into society and its dynamics, Peter Berger was one of the funniest men alive, a walking encyclopedia of jokes who used his native Viennese wit to both sharpen conversations and deflect silly conflicts between overinflated academic egos. Berger also had the intellectual humility to admit that the data falsified his early claim that modernization necessarily means secularization, so he began thinking and writing about the complex interaction of modern social, cultural and economic life in a world that remained stubbornly religious, at least outside of a dying Europe. Andrew Greeley once sniffed that the only numbers in his fellow-sociologist’s books were at the bottom of the page: That was fine with the millions who learned to think about sociology as a form of philosophy, not a subdivision of statistics, from Peter Berger, who died on June 27. RIP.

                Cardinal Joachim Meisner (1933-2017). For nine years, his Diocese spanned both sides of the Berlin Wall. Then he was sent to Cologne, against fierce opposition from the forces of Catholic Lite, where he tried to reignite Catholic faith in one of Catholicism’s German heartlands. Meisner reveled in telling me stories about his banter with the Polish pope who loved to kid him about the German propensity for Polish jokes. He died on July 5, full of concern for the Catholic future but with calm confidence that the Lord’s truth would prevail. RIP.

                Joaquin Navarro-Valls (1936-2017). He brought the Vatican press office into the (first half of) the 20th century, was sorely missed since he left that post in 2006, and died on July 5. RIP.

                Father Arne Panula (1946-2017). For 10 years, he ran the Catholic Information Center on K Street in Washington, D.C.: Swamp Central, if you will. In that decade he became the foremost priestly embodiment of the New Evangelization in the nation’s capital, a fisherman of souls always on the lookout for a convert to bring to the faith, a lapsed Catholic to bring back into the fold or a lukewarm Catholic in whom to reignite the fire of the Holy Spirit. He was living proof that doctrinal clarity and priestly charity work together – a brilliant man who wore his vast learning lightly but was prepared to deploy it evangelically to bring men and women to Christ. Before his death on July 19, his last months were a powerful witness to faith and hope. RIP.

                Michael Cromartie (1950-2017). We were colleagues at the Ethics and Public Policy Center for 28 years and friends for longer than that. His infectious humor won a legion of friends and admirers and he worked diligently to make the “faith angle,” as his forum for journalists was called, accessible and comprehensible to the press. The antithesis of the politicized evangelical, he was, first and foremost, Christ’s servant, and he died in Christ’s peace on Aug. 28. RIP.

                Cardinal Carlo Caffarra (1938-2017). A brilliant moral theologian, he had a great impact on Synod 2015, where his five-minute exposition of what conscience means taught a lesson to more than one confused or ill-informed bishop. He died on Sept. 6 – technically of cancer – in some respects from a broken heart at current ecclesiastical contentions. RIP.

 
 

The crèche and the gap

For the past decade or so, I’ve been assembling a mid-sized Judean village of Fontanini crèche figures, including artisans, herders (with sheep), farmers (with chickens and an ahistorical turkey), vintners, blacksmiths, musicians, weavers, and a fisherman or two (one awake, another sleeping). Like the colossal Neapolitan crèche at the basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, it’s a reminder that the Lord Jesus was born in the midst of humanity and its messy history: the history that the Child has come to set back on its truest course, which is toward God. The messiness of history is a caution against letting sentimentality take over Christmas; so are some challenging truths about Mary, Joseph and their place in what theologians calls the “economy of salvation.”
 Why challenging? Because Mary and Joseph were called to both form their son in the faith of Israel and then give up, even renounce, their human claims on Him, so that He might be what God the Father intended and the world needed.
When Luke tells us that Mary kept all that had happened to her and to her boy “in her heart” (Lk 2:52), we may imagine that she was pondering what the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar once described as a great detachment: at His birth, Jesus “detached himself from her in order to tread his way back to the Father through the world.” Some will welcome the message He will preach along that messianic pilgrimage; others will be resistant. And that resistance (in which the Evil One will play no small part) will eventually lead to Calvary, where the sword of sorrow promised by ancient Simeon in Luke 2:35 will pierce Mary’s soul. Then, in the tableau at the foot of the Cross, as captured by Michelangelo in the Pietà, Mary will offer the silent affirmation of God’s will to which she once vocal assent at the Annunciation: “Be it done unto me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).
The last recorded words of Mary in the New Testament – “Do whatever He tells you” (Jn 2:5) – underscore that the role of Mary, who receives the Incarnate Word of God at the Annunciation and gives birth to Him in the Nativity, is always to give her Son away: to point beyond herself to Him, and to call others to obedience to Him. Thus what Balthasar described as a “detachment” applies to Mary as well as to Jesus: Mary detaches herself from whatever her own life-plans might be, and from whatever her maternal instincts to keep her Son close might be, in order to fulfill the vocation planned for her from the beginning – to be the model of all Christian discipleship, which is the abandonment of my will to God’s will for my life.
Then there is Joseph, another model of self-gift and self-renunciation. Hans Urs von Balthasar again: “In the background of this scene of birth there also stands Joseph, who renounces his own fatherhood and assumes the role of foster father assigned to him. He provides a particularly impressive example of Christian obedience, which can be...very difficult...to accept, especially in the physical sphere. For one can be poor by having given everything away once and for all, but one can be chaste only by a daily renunciation of something which is inalienable to man.” And that makes Joseph a model for those who struggle daily to live, by grace, the truths they affirm about human love.
 “Mind the gap” is the ubiquitous instruction found on the London Underground, cautioning passengers against stepping between the train and the platform. It’s also a pithy but accurate description of the drama of the Christian life. For we all live, daily, in the “gap” between the person I am and the person I was called to be at baptism. The quotidian effort to minimize that “gap,” which means cooperating with God’s grace, is the warp and woof of the spiritual life. So the complement to the Fontanini characters surrounding our family crèche – each of whom represents a personal and unique “life in the gap” – is a small “Mind the Gap” Christmas ornament on our tree. For the Child born in Bethlehem is the bridge across the gap, and the angels atop the tree announce his birth.
A blessed Christmas to all. 
 
— George Weigel
Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies
Ethics and Public Policy Center

 
 
 

Movie review: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi'

Despite the high price of a movie ticket these days, patrons are unlikely to come away from a showing of the engrossing sci-fi epic "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" (Disney) feeling shortchanged.
 
Vast in scale and operatic in intensity, this 152-minute visit to that galaxy far, far away is both satisfying and, for the most part, family-friendly.
 
With the mayhem inevitable in a movie about a war kept gore-free and only minor blemishes on the dialogue, parents may be more concerned about the nonscriptural notions centering on the famous Force that are here collectively referred to as the "Jedi religion." Teens able to take this fictional faith, a sort of dime-store Taoism, as just one more element in a fantasy world will benefit from lessons about the value of hope and the true nature of heroism.
 
The "Star Wars" saga has often been characterized as the Iliad of contemporary culture. So perhaps it's fitting that the opening of writer-director Rian Johnson's eighth episode of the narrative initiated by George Lucas in 1977 finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) imitating Homer's Achilles by holding aloof from the great struggle in which he once took an active part.
 
Rather than sulking in his tent, as Achilles did, Luke is leading a solitary life of self-imposed exile among the small stone huts of a distant planet. (These scenes were shot on the Irish island of Skellig Michael, site of a medieval monastery.) His isolation is interrupted by the arrival of Rey (Daisy Ridley) who has come as a messenger from Luke's twin sister, Leia (the late Carrie Fisher).
 
As the leading general of the embattled Resistance -- the latter-day version of the Rebel Alliance for which Luke once fought -- Leia urgently needs her brother's famed skills as a warrior if the struggle against the fascistic First Order (successor to the evil Galactic Empire), and its malignant leader, Snoke (Andy Serkis), is to continue.
 
Luke refuses to join the conflict. But he does agree to train Rey in the ways of the Force. Rey will need the power of this mysterious spiritual energy, the source of Luke's own prowess, when she eventually confronts Leia's son, Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
 
Originally a good person, Ben has gone over to the side of darkness and now serves as Snoke's chief lieutenant. Even so, he still has some elements of good remaining in him, and his ongoing moral struggle has the potential to sway the outcome of the intergalactic battle.
 
Though it gets off to a slow start, once it hits its stride "The Last Jedi" sweeps viewers along with stirring action and audience-pleasing plot twists. While not as taut as last year's "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," this sprawling installment of the great franchise makes, in the end, for a more memorable experience.
 
The script's portrayal of the Force as capable of endowing those who cultivate it either with goodness or iniquity may strike moviegoers of faith as establishing a false equivalence of power between these two poles of morality. Some may even see in this an implicit denial of the rule of divine providence and God's ultimate supremacy over sin.
 
Yet, in keeping with a Christian worldview, characters do make their ethical choices more or less freely. And the idea that a change in basic identity should be reflected by a change of name echoes a recurring trope in Scripture -- and in the Church's sacramental practice.
 
Audience members young or old are unlikely to spend much time meditating on these aspects of the picture, however. Instead, they'll be content to ride this cinematic whirlwind while it lasts and leave its mythos behind them like so much popcorn on the theater floor.
 
The film contains frequent but bloodless combat violence, a scene of torture, a couple of mild oaths and a few crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II -- adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 -- parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
 

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.
 
 

Books for Christmas

It’s been a good year for publishing – at least in the sense of a lot of good books getting published – so here are some for the readers on your Christmas gift list (in addition, of course, to "Lessons in Hope: My Unexpected Life with St. John Paul II" [Basic Books], by your scribe):
                
"The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism," by Thomas Joseph White, OP (Catholic University of America Press): Father White is one of America’s most impressive younger Catholic thinkers (and its most impressive banjo-playing Catholic thinker). His work exemplifies the Catholic renaissance inspired by St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, and his book makes the searching skeptic think, and then think again, about what the fullness of Catholic faith means.
                
"Charles Borromeo: Selected Orations, Homilies, and Writings," edited by John R. Cihak (Bloomsbury): The saintly 16th-century archbishop of Milan, Charles Borromeo – who was shot at the altar for his reformist efforts, recovered, and then pleaded for his assailant’s life – is obviously a man worth getting to know. Msgr. John Cihak’s fine introduction to Borromeo’s life and work helps us distinguish true from false reform in the Church at a moment when that’s a crucial issue for the 21st-century Catholicism.   
                
"An Introduction to Vatican II as an Ongoing Theological Event," by Matthew Levering (Catholic University of America Press): I’ve been amazed to discover in recent years just how little young and engaged Catholic millennials know about the Second Vatican Council and what preceded it – a gap in their historical knowledge that often leads to a distorted view of today’s intra-Catholic contentions. Give Dr. Levering’s fine book to anyone you know who falls into that category, or indeed to anyone who wants to know the Council and today’s arguments over its proper implementation better. It’s reader-friendly and written for non-specialists (although I can think of some theologians on the port side of the Barque of Peter who could benefit from studying it, too).
                
"Accompanying, Discerning, Integrating: A Handbook for the Pastoral Care of the Family According to 'Amoris Laetitia,'” by José Granados, Stephan Kampowski, and Juan José Pérez-Soba (Emmaus Road Publishing): The buzzword title ought not put anyone off from giving this engaging and trustworthy guide through the thicket of family life issues to every priest, deacon, marriage-preparation minister, and marriage counselor on their gift list.
                
"Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived," edited by Christopher J. Scalia and Edward Whelan (Crown Forum): How could anyone not love a man whose favorite lunch was pepperoni pizza and red wine? Well, a lot of people didn’t love Justice Scalia during his lifetime, but this posthumous collection of his speeches may change even the most hardened of hearts and minds. For it not only introduces the man in full but helps explain why he was one of the most influential jurists in American history, in a class with John Marshall and Joseph Storey. Antonin Scalia was a serious man who took his craft seriously, loved his family and country, and wrote with courage, passion, and wit, especially in dissent. Little wonder that he was given, by his priest-son, Paul, the finest funeral homily since Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s homily at the funeral Mass of John Paul II. 
                
"Leading a Worthy Life: Finding Meaning in Modern Times," by Leon R. Kass (Encounter Books): Generations of students at the University of Chicago found in Leon Kass and his late wife Amy the kind of teachers for which every student and every student’s parents should long. In this collection of essays, some jointly written by one of the all-time great husband-and-wife teams, readers meet wisdom and decency honed by a deep reading of everyone from Homer, Aristotle, and Moses to Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and C.S. Lewis – and by a lifelong love for the Chicago Cubs (which, after the 2016 World Series, can no longer be dismissed as a sign of grave psychic distress). 
                
"Kenneth Clark: Life, Art, and 'Civilisation,'” by James Stourton (Knopf): A charming biography of the great art historian, who once said that entering the Catholic Church (which he seems to have done on his deathbed) was like a painting entering the Louvre: “It would find itself in some pretty queer company, but at least it would be sure that it had a soul.” 
 
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