Wednesday, November 29, 2006

At a Bronx school, Latin is the root of all learning.

If you've ever questioned the value of the Latin language, you should read this article in today's New York Times on a new experiment in public education taking shape in the South Bronx:
At the Bronx Latin School, one of New York's multiplying number of small themed public middle and high schools, Latin is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call the MacGuffin: a plot device that grabs our attention while the story has a larger purpose.

The school's larger purpose is simple: to get students, most of them "struggling with literacy," as the founding principal, Leticia Pineiro, said, to read and also to do math at grade level or better.

The three-year-old school is gambling that teaching Latin will initiate poor and working-class students into the mysteries of how any language - especially English - works by illuminating the long-neglected art of grammar and enriching their English vocabulary with Latin roots.

In Peter Dodington's seventh-grade class the other day, the talk was about Latin verbs. With "portat" - he, she or it carries - Mr. Dodington, 61, elicited from his students English derivatives like portable and teleport. That led to a discussion of the Greek root, tele, for far off, which yielded a new understanding of how words like telephone (sound that travels far) and telegraph (writing that travels far) are shaped.

The class then switched to translating the fable about a shepherd saved from having to fight a lion because he had pulled a thorn from its paw. The story was right out of the textbook "Cambridge Latin Course," used by elite private schools, and the students seemed to enjoy translating phrases like "cur lacrimas, leo?" and "cur me non consumis?" "Why are you crying lion? Why don't you eat me?" In the era of Harry Potter and recondite medieval mysteries, the students seemed enchanted by Latin's esoteric, exclusive aura.

"Nobody knows what you're talking about," said a proudly grinning Christian Graham, 14.

A visit to Bronx Latin suggests that its approach may be working. Morever, on this year's state English test, 50.9 percent of seventh graders read at grade level or better while only 31.8 percent of seventh graders in the surrounding South Bronx region performed that well.
Read the rest of the NYT article to learn more about Bronx Latin's promise as well as the considerable challenges that the young school faces. I disagree strongly with the naysayers who might consider Latin a kind of elitist anachronism and question the utility of teaching classical languages to disadvantaged urban students. The real elitism, it seems to me, is the attitude that suggests that education for the poor should focus purely on "practical" vocational skills and treats disciplines like Latin as a useless luxury. Students in the South Bronx have as much right to learn Latin as their cohorts in wealthy suburban school districts and, in some sense, they might benefit more from it. I hope and pray that the experiment underway at Bronx Latin School will be successful. More importantly, if Bronx Latin succeeds, I hope to see other schools like it. AMDG.

Kidnapped priest released in Baghdad.

A sad story that I mentioned last week seems to have a happy ending. Father Doglas Yousef Al Bazy, a young Chaldean Catholic priest from Baghdad, disappeared from his parish on November 19th in an apparent kidnapping. AsiaNews reports today that Father Al Bazy was released by his captors last night and has returned home. Though few details are available, Father Al Bazy is reportedly in good health despite the stress of nine days in captivity. For Iraqi Christians, the news of Father Al Bazy's release offers some light in dark times. The overall situation remains bleak, and we should all heed the words of Chaldean Catholic Bishop Shleman Warduni, who made the following statement following Father Al Bazy's release: "We ask everyone to support Iraqi Christians in prayer, especially as Holy Christmas draws near. Pray for our children who will not receive toys, for our young girls who cannot dress up and for our elderly people who cannot enjoy the deserved serenity that should come with old age. Our prayer gives us the strength to press ahead and to resist in this difficult situation." May we make Bishop Warduni's prayer our own. AMDG.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Finnegans Wake in SoHo.

For the English majors and Irish lit fans out there - my sister Elizabeth, for example - today's NYT has a human interest story on the Finnegans Wake Society of New York, which meets monthly in a SoHo apartment to discuss James Joyce's legendarily opaque magnum opus:
On Thanksgiving Eve, after 15 years of monthly meetings to read and discuss a page or so of "Finnegans Wake," the Finnegans Wake Society of New York was only on Pages 303-5, with 324 to go. James Joyce's novel could be the most difficult in English, with puns in 40 languages, including Esperanto and Volap√ľk.

Until three months ago, the Wake Watchers, as the members call themselves, used to meet at the Gotham Book Mart in Midtown. The store has closed its doors for financial reasons, however, and so the group now converses in the SoHo apartment of its leader, Murray J. Gross, 71, a retired lawyer known from his eye-rolling interpretations of sexual allusions.

. . .

The group starts its monthly meeting by reading the passage aloud before discussion. Last week's passage opened with the words, "As I was saying, while retorting thanks, you make me a reborn of the cards." The passage closed with
"Item, mizpah ends."

As the group made its way through its textual critique, there was much crunching of potato chips and trail mix, and a prominent refrain during the discussion was, "Pass the wine!" Interpretations ranged far and wide, to subjects as varied as baseball, the death tarot card, the Gap and Allah.

Before the meeting started, Marilyn Apelson, a gray-haired teacher from Manhattan, who has been with the group since the beginning, was searching the row of rusted buzzers at 178 Spring Street. "I can never remember where to ring," she said. As it turned out, Mr. Gross's apartment was under the name "James Joyce."
For the rest (there isn't much more), click here. Starting this post, I was tempted to write something about how the presence of unusual groups like the Finnegans Wake Society makes New York a unique place to live - until I came across the global directory of Finnegans Wake reading groups on the Society's website, which shows that New York isn't at all unique in this respect. One way or another, I respect and admire the dedication of the people who make up groups like the Finnegans Wake Society of New York. If and when I ever read Finnegans Wake myself, I may have to drop in on a meeting of the Society or one of its sister organizations for some interpretive assistance. In the meantime, my studies in philosophy offer more than enough for me to puzzle over. AMDG.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Jesuits leave historic Manhattan parish.

Today Roman Catholics around the world celebrate the Solemnity of Christ the King, the last Sunday in the Church's liturgical calendar. When the start of the Advent Season next Sunday, the Church enters into a new year. This year, the beginning of Advent will take on added significance for the parishioners of Nativity Church on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. After being staffed by Jesuits for the past eighty-nine years, the 164-year-old parish returns to diocesan administration this week. Last night, Father Don Gannon, S.J. celebrated a Mass of Thanksgiving on behalf of all the Jesuits who have served the parish. Attending the Mass, I was touched by Father Gannon's words about what Nativity has meant to the Jesuits of the New York Province and to him personally in his years as pastor of the parish.

The departure of the Jesuits marks the end of a significant era at Nativity. For generations, Nativity has been a beacon of hope and a place of refuge for the immigrant groups who have made their home on the Lower East Side - the Irish in the 19th century, the Italians in the early 20th century, and in recent decades many Dominicans, Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. The parish also holds a special place in the history of the Catholic Worker movement: Dorothy Day was a longtime parishioner, and two of the first Catholic Worker houses she founded are located near Nativity. Many Jesuits have grown in their sense of vocation living and working at Nativity, and as the home of the Nativity Mission Center the parish served as a launching pad for an educational network that has become a national ministry of the Society. As the number of Nativity-model schools has grown, the parish that gave the Nativity Network its name has suffered an ironic decline. Over the last decade Nativity has lost many parishioners to gentrification, as rising rents have forced poor residents to leave the neighborhood and tenements that housed generations of immigrants have been replaced by pricey condominiums and luxury apartments. As the number of people attending Mass at Nativity has fallen, the number of Jesuits available to minister there has also shrunk. Ultimately, the provincial of the New York Jesuits was forced to make the painful decision to withdraw from the parish.

With the departure of the Jesuits, Nativity faces an uncertain future. As I wrote in March, Nativity is on a list of parishes that the Archdiocese of New York has recommended for closing. No date has been set for the suppression of the parish, and for the time being the church remains open while the Archdiocese considers an appeal from Nativity's parishioners. Members of the parish who spoke during last night's Mass of Thanksgiving seemed optimistic that Nativity may be spared. I don't know whether this optimism is justified, but I can say that I was deeply moved by the words of appreciation that the same parishioners expressed for the Jesuits who have served at Nativity. Though they were clearly sad to see the Jesuits go, the parishioners who spoke last night showed no hint of anger or resentment at the Society's withdrawal from the parish. In this regard, these parishioners model a kind of spiritual freedom that I find truly admirable.

In his homily last night, Father Gannon shared how his sadness in leaving Nativity is tempered by a sense of gratitude for the many graces that he has found there and the many lessons he has learned from the parishioners. As the Jesuits leave Nativity, I hope that parishioners and priests alike are able to retain this spirit of gratitude for all that has been accomplished over the past eighty-nine years as well as a sense of peace and hope for the future. AMDG.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving at Ciszek Hall.

If last year I enjoyed a cold and snowy Thanksgiving in Michigan, this year I'm having a chilly and rainy holiday in New York. In both cases, the warmth, festivity and fellowship of a Jesuit community celebration make up for the severity of the weather. The main components of Thanksgiving at Ciszek Hall are a community Mass (which we had this morning) and a turkey dinner (which we'll have this evening). In between, each member of the community is free to celebrate the holiday as he wishes - some by entertaining visiting family and friends, some by playing or watching football and some (like myself) by catching up on reading and perhaps watching a movie or two after dinner. Each of us is also expected to assist in the preparations for tonight's dinner. Those gifted in the culinary arts are involved in cooking the meal and baking various desserts. People like me who do not possess such gifts help out with more mundane tasks like setting the table and cleaning up afterward. In short, everyone does his bit.

To readers who celebrate today's Thanksgiving Holiday, I wish you a very happy and joyful celebration. To those for whom today is not a holiday, I hope you're able to recall the ways in which God has blessed you in the midst of your ordinary routine. To all, I extend my prayerful best wishes. AMDG.

More trouble for Christians in Lebanon and Iraq.

The last few days have seen more bad news for the beleaguered Christians of Lebanon and Iraq. On Tuesday morning, Lebanese cabinet minister Pierre Gemayel was gunned down in Beirut by unknown assailants. A member of a prominent Maronite Catholic family and the son of a former president, Gemayel enjoyed strong support from many of his fellow Maronites and attracted a mix of praise and scorn for his criticism of Syrian influence in Lebanon. Gemayel's funeral, held earlier today in Beirut, offered a display of unity among anti-Syria Maronites, Sunni Muslims and Druzes as well as signs of the sectarian divisions that threaten to tear Lebanon apart. These divisions include fissures within the Maronite community itself. As the New York Times reports today, some in the crowd at Gemayel's funeral had harsh words for rival Maronite leader Michel Aoun, who is regarded by many as an ally of Hezbollah and a supporter of Syria. In response to Gemayel's murder, Pope Benedict XVI and Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir have both issued calls for peace and unity in a country that has suffered decades of war and division. I hope and pray that these calls will be heeded, and I ask you to join me in this intention.

As tensions rise in Lebanon, the situation of Christians in Iraq continues to deteriorate. On Monday, AsiaNews reported on the disappearance of a Chaldean Catholic priest in Baghdad. A young and dynamic pastor involved in youth ministry and ecumenical relations, Father Doglas Yousef Al Bazy disappeared from his parish on Sunday and is thought to have been kidnapped. If this is indeed the case, Father Al Bazy would be the latest in a string of Christian clerics who have been abducted in Iraq in recent months, including a Syrian Orthodox priest who was beheaded in October. Quoted in the AsiaNews article, Chaldean Catholic bishop Shleman Warduni suggests that the kidnapping and murder of priests may be part of a deliberate effort to drive Christians out of Iraq by "target[ing] those people who are most involved in the Christian community, [especially] the younger and more courageous ones, almost as if to give a warning to those who persist in hoping that they will be able to continue living in the country." Meanwhile, the international Catholic relief agency Caritas has suspended its operations in Mosul after persistent extortion efforts by Islamic militants in the city. Until now, Caritas Mosul had persevered in its mission of serving people of all faiths (ninety percent of its clientele were Muslim) despite the effects of war and social unrest. In recent months, however, Caritas Mosul was inundated with phone calls from an anonymous Muslim group that threatened to commit acts of violence against the Catholic relief agency's employees unless Caritas paid the group an exorbitant sum. Unable to work in the face of continued efforts at intimidation, this week Caritas Mosul closed its doors. This unfortunate event is only the latest in a series of setbacks for Iraq's troubled Christian communities. Prayers and action on their behalf are urgently needed. On this Thanksgiving Day, as we give thanks for God's many blessings upon us, let us also ask for the Father's blessings upon his suffering children. AMDG.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Jesuit seismologists in the Bronx.

Today's New York Times has a neat article on Fordham's 96-year-old Seismic Station, an earthquake-tracking facility long run under Jesuit auspices:
Last month, early on a Sunday morning, an earthquake struck the Hawaiian Islands, damaging schools, roads and businesses. It shook people awake, caused widespread power failures and jolted a machine about 5,000 miles away in the Bronx.

There, in an underground vault at Fordham University, a small steel cylinder picked up a tremor. This little device and generations of its predecessors have been recording the rumblings of the earth for nearly 100 years at the Jesuit university. Since 1910, when a chemistry instructor, the Rev. Edward P. Tivnan, installed a seismograph in the basement of the administration building, Fordham has been the site of the oldest seismic station in New York City.

It is an unlikely place to measure the earth's vibrations: inside a musty room 28 feet below the comings and goings of a borough of 1.3 million known for many things, but not tectonic activity. Yet over the years the university's William Spain Seismic Observatory has become a respected if little-known registrar of the world's natural and unnatural trembling, including earthquakes, China's first atomic explosion in 1964 and the more local seismic occurrences, Grand Central-bound trains.
After Father Tivnan, the Seismic Station came under the direction of another Jesuit, Father Joe Lynch, who seems to have been a remarkable figure. As the Times reports:
For more than 60 years, the observatory's keeper was the Rev. J. Joseph Lynch, an earthquake expert whom students, city officials and reporters frequently consulted for seismic instruction and information. "Earthquakes are like snakes," he told a reporter for the New York Times in 1952. "They avoid people more than is generally realized."

In 1960, a typical year, Father Lynch recorded about 250 large earthquakes. . . .

Jesuits, known for centuries for their interest in the natural sciences, were instrumental in the development of seismology, and Father Lynch was one in a long line of Jesuit seismologists whose faith in God infused his work. In the early 1950s, he conducted seismic tests in Rome to help the Vatican search for the tomb of St. Peter.
Though I'm not a scientist, I've always been inspired by the Jesuit Order's dedication to scientific research. I'm far from alone in this respect; I know many other non-scientist Jesuits who take great pride in the scientific work of the Society. I know at least one Jesuit who credits his vocation to the Society's ministry in this area. As a high school senior, he happened upon a Jesuit vocation advertisement with a photograph of a priest looking through a telescope. Though he had no scientific aspirations (he now teaches German) this future Jesuit knew that he had found his vocation. If these men can find God in scientific investigation, he thought, then I'd like to join them. I had a somewhat similar experience in my own discernment, as I shared in this September post. Reading about Jesuit seismologists in today's newspaper, I found another opportunity to give thanks for the gift of finding God in all things. AMDG.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Father Benno G. Kornely, S.J., 1928-2006.

Jesuit Father Benno Kornely, a longtime retreat leader and spiritual director, passed away yesterday afternoon at Colombiere. A Jesuit for sixty years and a priest for forty-seven, Benno died a few weeks short of his 78th birthday. After spending most of his early years in the Society working in Jesuit high schools, Benno devoted the last three decades of his life to retreat work. He served at a number of Jesuit spiritual centers in the Midwest, including the Jesuit Retreat House in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the Colombiere Center in Clarkston, Michigan, the Jesuit Retreat House of Cleveland, the Milford Spiritual Center near Cincinnati and Manresa Jesuit Retreat House in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. I met Benno at a gathering of Detroit-area Jesuits shortly after I entered the Society, and I was immediately struck by his friendly, generous and gentle manner. A few weeks later, I had the chance to interview Benno as part of an assignment for a novitiate class on the vows. On a busy day during which he had to attend several meetings and prepare for others, Benno set aside an hour or so to meet with me to share some thoughts on his life in the Society and his experience of the vows. During that conversation, I found Benno to be a deeply insightful and spiritually astute man, one who was generous enough to set aside many other responsibilities to meet with a first-year novice and humble enough to thank me afterward for giving him an opportunity for reflection.

I don't remember much of what Benno said during our interview a couple years ago, but I remain grateful for his generosity and his good example. Benno remained in residence at Manresa Jesuit Retreat House for most of my time as a novice, and whenever I found myself at Manresa for a retreat or a Jesuit gathering I would usually stop by his office to say hello. During my second year in the novitiate, ill health forced Benno to move to the Jesuit infirmary at Colombiere. By then, I was away from Detroit - first in Chicago and then in Lima - and thus I never got the chance to visit with Benno once more before I took vows. Though I regret I never had the chance to say goodbye to Benno Kornely, I take comfort in the thought that he is now among the great company of departed Jesuits who continue to pray for the Church and the Society in heaven. Requiescat in Pace. AMDG.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

A win from the blue.

Today's Boston Globe has a story looking at the winning campaign of Carol Shea-Porter, a first-time candidate who managed to defeat a two-term incumbent congressman in New Hampshire's 1st District despite having little money, little attention from the media and no support from the political establishment. As the Globe's Rick Klein writes:
Shea-Porter is one of the very few people in the age of big-money campaigns who can watch "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and truly see herself. She's of a political breed that many believed was extinct: the angry citizen who decides to run for Congress - and wins.

No other newly elected representative came from as far off the national radar screen as Shea-Porter, a 53-year-old community activist who never before ran for public office. She defeated Representative Jeb Bradley last week in a race that shattered the myths of what it takes to win a congressional seat.

She had no slick ads or Washington consultants. Her campaign was run by a medieval scholar who worked alongside a nutritionist, an accident investigator, and a pair of court reporters. The Democratic establishment brushed her off as unelectable. She was outspent 5 to 1.

Yet Shea-Porter won with a grass-roots, fiery message centered on opposition to the Iraq war and the president's agenda. She spoke to crowds of as few as three, encouraged her neighbors to spread the word, dogged her opponent at town hall meetings. And she won a congressional race that few thought winnable until close to Election Day.

"We could hear the rumbling on the ground, and that's why we never, never thought we could lose," Shea-Porter said. "It's easier if you get to run those big ads or whatever. But we worked relentlessly, relentlessly, night after night after night."
Read the rest here. Whatever your political convictions, I hope you can find some inspiration in this story of an underdog who prevailed against the longest of odds to win a seat in the United States House of Representatives. Though national and local trends clearly played in Shea-Porter's favor, I still find the victory of her shoestring, word-of-mouth campaign quite remarkable. As an aside, I also like something I read about Shea-Porter in another Globe story from last week. When Carol Shea was in high school, her guidance counselor discouraged her from following her dream of going to college, advising her to enroll in secretarial school instead. Not only did Shea reject this advice but, according to the Globe, after she graduated from the University of New Hampshire she visited her old high school to tell her counselor "not to make decisions like that for young girls." In Carol Shea-Porter, we find a winning candidate who made up for her lack of resources with sheer determination and force of personality. Reading stories like hers, it's hard not to feel some pride at the realization that our system still works as it should. AMDG.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Notes on the Memorial of St. Joseph Pignatelli.

Today the Society of Jesus remembers St. Joseph Pignatelli, who worked tirelessly to unite dispersed Jesuits during the decades of the Suppression. Descended from Italian and Spanish nobility, Pignatelli grew up on family estates in Saragossa and Naples. Despite his privileged upbringing, Pignatelli encountered tragedy at an early age: both of his parents died by the time he was ten. After spending a few years at a Jesuit college in Spain, Pignatelli entered the Society of Jesus at the age of sixteen in 1753. As a young priest, Pignatelli found himself among the five thousand Jesuits expelled from Spain and its territories by King Charles III in 1767. Pignatelli and his brother Jesuits found refuge in the Papal States, where they remained until Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus in the papal bull Dominus ac Redemptor issued on July 21, 1773. In the years that followed, Joseph Pignatelli played a leading role in efforts to preserve a sense of brotherhood among the tens of thousands of former Jesuits who were dispersed throughout Europe. From his base in Bologna, Pignatelli kept in touch with former Jesuits across the continent and built up a library of books on the history, spirituality and way of proceeding of the Society.

Though Dominus ac Redemptor formally suppressed the Society of Jesus throughout the world, the Jesuit Order continued to exist in Russia, where Catherine the Great refused to promulgate the bull of suppression. As the political climate in Western Europe began to shift in favor of the restoration of the Society, Pignatelli made contact with the Jesuits in Russia in the hope of resuming his own affiliation with the Society and reestablishing a Jesuit presence in Italy. Pignatelli ultimately achieved both of these goals, welcoming a delegation of Jesuits from Russia in 1793 and pronouncing vows in the Society for a second time in 1797. In rapid course, Pignatelli became master of novices and then provincial of the Jesuits in Italy. In the last decade of his life, Joseph Pignatelli welcomed many former Jesuits back into the Society and worked to pass the traditions of the pre-Suppression Society onto a new generation of Jesuits. Though he did not live to see the formal restoration of the Society by Pope Pius VII in the 1814 bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, by his heroic efforts Pignatelli helped to keep the Company of Jesus alive. On this day consecrated to Pignatelli's memory, today's Jesuits give thanks to God for the invaluable contribution offered to this least Society by our brother Joseph. AMDG.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Notes on the Memorial of St. Stanislaus Kostka.


Today the Society of Jesus remembers St. Stanislaus Kostka, a young Pole who overcame considerable adversity to fulfill his dream of becoming a Jesuit. Born into a noble family, as a young man was sent by his parents to study at a Jesuit college in Vienna. A devout youth with an ascetical disposition, Stanislaus became convinced that he had a vocation to the Society of Jesus. After a mystical experience that confirmed his sense that he was being called to enter the Society, the sixteen year-old Stanislaus asked to be admitted as a novice. Though the Austrian provincial wanted to admit Stanislaus to the novitiate, on account of the young man's age he had to seek the permission of the Kostka family. To the provincial's chagrin, Stanislaus' parents refused to permit their son to enter the Society. Not to be deterred, Stanislaus left Vienna and walked over four hundred miles west in order to appeal to the German provincial, who happened to be Peter Canisius. Sympathetic to the teenager's predicament, Canisius agreed to admit Stanislaus to the Society and arranged for him to enter the novitiate at Sant' Andrea al Quirinale in Rome. After only ten months as a novice, Stanislaus Kostka took ill with a fever and was confined to the novitiate infirmary. On the morning of August 15, 1568, he died at the age of seventeen. Beatified in 1605 and canonized in 1726, Stanislaus Kostka is specially remembered in the Society as the patron saint of Jesuit novices.

In many Jesuit novitiates, it is customary for the youngest first-year novice to preach on the Memorial of St. Stanislaus Kostka. Nowadays, the youngest novice in any given class is sure to be older than Kostka was when he died; from time to time, young men still enter the Society at eighteen, but novices as young as Kostka are practically unheard of. Nonetheless, the tradition of having the Holy Innocent (i.e., the youngest first-year novice) preach today is a means by which today's novices can recall the memory of their patron. Asking the intercession of St. Stanislaus Kostka, I pray that God will bless the novices of the Society of Jesus and that the example of Stanislaus and other Jesuit saints will inspire others to join this Company. AMDG.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Hermit nun is anything but reclusive.

It seems I've been posting a lot about Iraqi Christians lately, but nonetheless I'd like to call your attention to an interesting article in today's Boston Globe:
For a hermit, Sister Olga Yaqob is remarkably extroverted. She ministers to students at Boston University's Catholic Center, criscrosses the country giving talks on campuses, and uses public transit because by looking at other passengers, "I do feel that the world wants me to pray for them."

Yaqob, 40, is the only canonical hermit in the Archdiocese of Boston, remaining in solitude and contemplative prayer every Saturday while conducting a public ministry the rest of the week. Yet as metaphor, hermit fits her life story as Yaqob tells it. She has often stood outside the community, be it growing up in Iraq's microscopic Christian minority or leaving her family and their ancestral church to become a nun.
Click here to learn more about Sister Olga. Some details in the Globe story require clarification and/or correction. Sister Olga grew up in the Assyrian Church of the East, an ancient Christian church which is neither Catholic (contrary to what the Globe says) or Orthodox. The Assyrian Church of the East is separate from the Chaldean Catholic Church, which is in communion with Rome and includes monks and nuns. Nonetheless, Sister Olga didn't have to leave the Assyrian Church in order to become a nun; on the contrary, with her bishop's permission she founded a community of religious women that was evidently the first in the modern history of her church. Despite her status as a pioneer in the Assyrian Church, Sister Olga's spiritual journey ultimately led her to Roman Catholicism and to a new life as a canonical hermit and campus minister in Boston. Her story - which includes an unexpected Jesuit connection - is worth reading.

I'm not all that surprised that a hermit like Sister Olga would pursue an apostolic vocation. In my limited experience, I've run into a couple hermits - both, strangely enough, at Russian Catholic parishes. One of these hermits apparently lives out a purely contemplative vocation, but the other is involved in ministry to the homeless and people with AIDS. Modern manifestations of eremetical religious life take many forms, as Sister Olga's story shows. Today, I'll be praying for Sister Olga Yaqob and her vocation as an apostolic hermit. AMDG.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Chaldean archbishop calls for Christian unity in Iraq.

Not long after I completed this morning's post on the situation of Lebanese Christians, I came across this article on developments in Iraq. Chaldean Catholic Archbishop Louis Sako has called for a meeting of leaders of all the Christian denominations in Iraq, with the goal of formulating a common strategy to defend the rights of Iraqi Christians and stem the tide of Christian emigration from the country. Archbishop Sako's call comes a little more than a week after the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued an open letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice calling on the U.S. government to do more to help beleaguered Iraqi Christians. Though the effect that Archbishop Sako's appeal and the USCCB letter will have remains to be seen, both developments give me hope that Christians inside and outside of Iraq are beginning to take a more proactive approach to an increasingly desperate situation.

Archbishop Sako's proposal and the USCCB letter both face great challenges. The "general conference" of Iraqi Christians that Archbishop Sako envisions will succeed only if leaders of the various Christian communities in the country can look past sectarian differences in order to work together on common concerns like the protection of religious freedom and economic development in Christian areas. The USCCB letter goes beyond platitudes by suggesting specific steps the U.S. government could take to improve the situation of Christians in Iraq. If the letter is to have any effect, its release must be combined with persistent and effective lobbying efforts by the U.S. Catholic Bishops - including greater efforts to educate people in the pews about the plight of their coreligionists in Iraq. Archbishop Sako's appeal and the USCCB letter both offer a glimmer of hope for Iraqi Christians, but much more still needs to be done. AMDG.

Lebanon's Christians struggle to preserve a balance of power.

Though it's not on a level with last month's front-page story on the plight of Iraqi Christians, today's New York Times has a brief article on the situation of Christians in Lebanon. Having once played a dominant role in Lebanese politics, the country's Maronite Catholic community now struggles to deal with shrinking numbers and declining influence:
Lebanon is facing a political crisis that has two faces: the emerging power of Lebanon's Shiite population, evident in Hezbollah's political strength and press for power, and the Christians' feeling of isolation and vulnerability . . . Lebanon's Christians, whatever their political allegiance, are trying to hold on to their place and power in Lebanon - shading a conflict over control of the government with political and social dimensions that cut to the heart of Lebanese national identity. Lebanon remains the most pluralistic society in a region monopolized by the two main sects of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. In Lebanon there are 18 different confessional groups.

The problems faced by Lebanese Christians resonate regionally, as Christian Arabs, whether Maronite here or Copt in Egypt, increasingly ask if there remains a place for them in an Islamic Middle East.

Carved out by the French as a haven for Christians, Lebanon has struggled to avoid confronting the reality of demographics - that the Christian population has shrunk, perhaps far more even than most here will admit. The definitive way to determine who is a majority or a minority - taking a census - is so taboo, no one has dared even raise it.

That is an undercurrent, if unstated, in the battle for control in a place where Christians, Shiites and Sunnis are supposed to have equal shares of power - even while everyone knows that the constituencies are not equal in size, not even close.
Though the NYT article generalizes a bit too much in some areas and makes some questionable assertions - for example, it isn't obvious that Lebanon is "the most pluralistic society" in the Middle East - it nonetheless serves a valuable purpose. My hope is that articles like this one help finally to bring the plight of Middle Eastern Christians to the attention of American policymakers and the general public - two groups that share a dangerous tendency to oversimplification in their understanding of Middle Eastern politics. I also hope and pray that Catholics in the United States may develop a stronger sense of solidarity with our suffering brethren in the Middle East, be they Chaldeans in Iraq, Copts in Egypt, Maronites in Lebanon or Melkites in Israel and Palestine. As we share in communion with one another, I pray that we may also work to lift up the voices that need to be heard. AMDG.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

No alarms and no surprises.

As some readers of this blog know well, before I entered the Society I was deeply involved in electoral politics. Since my position as a vowed religious precludes partisan political involvement, I now follow elections as an interested spectator instead of a participant. I still have strong political opinions, and I still share them among friends who understand that in this realm I speak only for myself and not for the Church or the Society. The public identity that comes with my vows and the initials following my name require me to be somewhat circumspect in any public comments I may make on political matters. As readers of this blog can easily determine from things written by and about me in the past, I am a Democrat. Democrats come in many shapes and sizes, and I'm one of the Bob Casey variety. I don't hide this fact, but it's also not a piece of information that I volunteer in apostolic situations. Whenever I act, speak or write as a representative of the Church and the Society, I have a responsibility to keep purely personal opinions in the background.

The above paragraph is a lengthy preamble to a semi-obligatory statement on yesterday's elections. Though readers familiar with my political past are no doubt curious what I thought of last night's election results, I've made a prudential judgment to avoid political blogging as much as possible. Friends who want to trade opinions on the outcome of particular races are welcome to e-mail me, but beyond that readers who want to know what I think about this general subject will have to content themselves with whatever clues they might find in this post. AMDG.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

In Scranton.

This afternoon I depart for the University of Scranton to take part in events related to tomorrow's National Jesuit Vocation Promotion Day. Scranton has produced a respectable number of Jesuit vocations in recent years, and I hope and pray that this trend continues. I don't know whether my humble contribution will make a difference, but I'm looking forward to getting to know a new place and to doing my bit to help the Jesuits of Scranton promote vocations to the Society. As always, your prayers are greatly appreciated. AMDG.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Two days for the rest of us.

It's a commonplace of Jesuit life - or perhaps of religious life in general - to engage in lighthearted speculation about which of Ours might someday be canonized. When I was an undergraduate at Georgetown, I once purchased a well-worn breviary at a book sale. Various scribblings and notes within the book attested to the fact that it had belonged to a long-deceased Jesuit who had taught at Georgetown. Hoping to learn something about the priest whose breviary this had been, I brought the book to one of my Jesuit mentors. As he parsed the delicate, tissue-thin pages of the breviary, my mentor said, "You should on to this book - it could be a second-class relic!" The implication, offered somewhat in jest, was that the original owner of the breviary was a true saint.

Much more recently, as I was preparing to move into the Jesuit community that I would live in during my Long Experiment in Chicago, more than one Jesuit told me that a couple of my future housemates were numbered among "the saints of the province." After only a few days living with the men in question, I saw that the "saint" moniker was well-deserved, for each modeled the Christian virtues and the vowed life in a quietly heroic manner. The Jesuits I'm talking about may never be canonized, but it hardly matters. Their brother Jesuits think of them as saints, and so do many of the people they've served. I pray and believe that God sees them as saints as well.

Yesterday, Roman Catholics around the world celebrated the Feast of All Saints. Today, we celebrate the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, popularly known as All Souls' Day. These two days are unique in all the year; in fact, I like to think of All Saints and All Souls as "two days for the rest of us." Though the Church calendar is filled with commemorations of saints and blesseds, these are the only two days devoted to those we don't necessarily know by name. On the Feast of All Saints, we remember the countless saints who have lived and died in relative obscurity, known only to God and to the people who were close to them on earth. On All Souls' Day, we remember all the faithful who died in the hope of the resurrection, particularly our own deceased relatives and friends. Taken together, these two days provide an opportunity to remember people who may never have achieved any sort of public notoriety, but who remain close to us and close to God.

There's a wonderful exchange in Robert Bolt's play A Man for All Seasons that captures something of the way I feel about these two days. This exchange (also preserved in the film version of Bolt's play) takes place between Thomas More, soon to be named Chancellor, and Richard Rich, an ambitious young man seeking public advancement. Urging Rich to accept a teaching position that has been offered to him, More says, "Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher. Perhaps even a great one." "And if I was," Rich replies, "who would know it?" More answers, "You, your pupils, your friends, God. Not a bad public that."

Living the Christian life, one may at times be tempted to ask, "If I became a saint, who would know it?" Sainthood (in the sense of personal holiness) is something all Christians should strive for, though few of us will ever become canonized saints. However, if we seek to be holy in the hope of attracting public recognition, we're really missing the point. For all the saints we remember in the liturgy there are many more whose names we will never know. The witness of these anonymous saints has as much value in the eyes of God as that of the saints we recognize publicly. At the same time, we who has been inspired by the example of towering figures like Ignatius of Loyola can no doubt also recall the impact made in our lives by saintly men and women whose quiet witness will never attract much notice. Over the course of these two days and during the following month, we should take some time to remember the parents, pastors, teachers and mentors who have offered us guidance and inspiration. These are the saints and faithful departed who will remain known only to us and to God. Not a bad public that. AMDG.