Friday, September 28, 2007

Myanmar's saffron revolution.


An editorial in the latest issue of The Economist calls the recent events in Myanmar "the saffron revolution," a title various other commentators have also used in reference to the protest movement led by Myanmar's Buddhist monks. " A news article in the same publication wonders whether this will be the moment when the world community finally decides to take action to save the people of Myanmar from the military rulers who have oppressed them for decades:
There are reckoned to be 400,000 monks in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma), about the same as the number of soldiers under the ruling junta's command. The soldiers have the guns. The monks have the public's support and, judging from the past fortnight's protests, the courage and determination to defy the regime. But Myanmar's tragic recent history suggests that when an immovable junta meets unstoppable protests, much blood is spilled. In the last pro-democracy protests on this scale, in 1988, it took several rounds of massacres before the demonstrations finally subsided, leaving the regime as strong as ever. By September 27th, with a crackdown under way, and the first deaths from clashes with security forces, it seemed hard to imagine that things would be very different this time.

One genuine difference is that, in the age of the internet and digital cameras, images of the spectacular protests in Yangon, the main city, have spread at lightning speed across Myanmar itself, encouraging people in other towns to stage demonstrations of their own; and around the world, bringing the crisis to the attention of leaders as they gathered in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. The remarkable images from Myanmar have meant that, for a while at least, a country that has been brutalised and pauperised by a callous and incompetent regime for 45 years has the attention it deserves.
As the New York Times reported earlier this afternoon, that Myanmar's army has already begun a massive crackdown on the monks and civilian protesters. Working with a number of Burmese refugees this summer, I learned a great deal about the brutality of the present regime and the great desire within the country for political change. My prayers are with the people of Myanmar in this time of great trial. May the leaders of the world listen to their cries and come to their aid. AMDG.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A Chaldean Jesuit reflects.

When I returned to Ciszek Hall in August after a summer away, I found a copy of the June issue of National Jesuit News sitting in my mailbox. Published six times a year by the United States Jesuit Conference, the NJN is mostly made up of articles and news items of a purely internal nature - notes on what various Jesuits are doing in their apostolates, obituaries of recently deceased Jesuits, and editorial pieces on issues debated within the Society. The NJN's June issue of the NJN (available online for download) contains a very moving piece by Father Denis Como, a Jesuit of the New England Province currently based in Jordan who recently spent two months teaching English to Chaldean seminarians in Iraq. Ordained a Chaldean Catholic priest forty-one years ago, Father Como reflects on how service to Middle Eastern Christians has been a central part of his Jesuit life:
At the age of 24, I received my first apostolic assignment from the New England Province Jesuits - to teach at the high school in Baghdad, Iraq, that opened in 1932. During that period, I discovered a small community of Chaldean Rite Iraqi monks in a desert camp in a place called Dora. The simplicity and openness of their lifestyle has had a lasting influence on me. When it came time for my priestly ordination in 1966, instead of remaining with the Latin Rite, I eventually joined the Chaldean Rite.
Boston was a great place to go deeper into the spirituality of the Eastern churches. As a seminarian, I helped at the Maronite church in Jamaica Plain and took some theology courses at the Melchite Seminary in Methuen. During the summer of 1965, I learned the devotional practices of Iraqi immigrants at a Chaldean parish in Detroit.

I did my final year of formal Jesuit training in India in 1967-68 and became close to the Malabar Christians, many of whose forebears had been introduced to Christianity by the Chaldean monks who followed the waters of the Tigris to Africa and India.

In 1968, the Iraqi government seemed to have jettisoned all my preparations for a life of service in Iraq when the schools were nationalized and Jesuits were expelled from the country by the Ba'athist regime. But my dream never diminished. I found myself back in the Middle East (Jordan) almost five years ago where the once familiar sights, sounds and smells returned so freshly. In my new assignment, my flock was mostly Jordanian but very soon I discovered the Chaldean Iraqi Catholics, as well as other ethnic and religious groups that make up Iraq's astounding spiritual living landscape. The Iraqi Catholic Community of Amman, Jordan, welcomed me with a totality that I had almost forgotten.
Though he doesn't directly address the struggles facing Iraqi Christians who have chosen to remain in Iraq, Como has done his bit to support the Church there through his work at the Chaldean seminary in Arbil. On the basis of his experience there, Como can say that his Jesuit life has truly come full circle:
When I arrived in Arbil, I had the grand feeling of being back in 1960 with Chaldean monks and seminarians. Now, however, I had within me a beautiful carpet of accumulated personal history and it was ready to be used well.

For the two months I taught English, I became a "big brother" or in reality "a smiling grandfather" to these young men who would all too soon become the priests in villages and towns all over Iraq.

. . .

Friends have asked me, "What next, Denis?" I respond by saying that I simply would like to accompany these young men, women religious, and the involved laity in their efforts to bring God's tender love to their village parishes and towns. Maybe I am just an old man wanting to be part of the life of young people, but I think it is more my need to tell my story. It is really God's story with me. But why? To give them the hope and courage that I received from older people when I was their age. To re-live the liturgy of my life and to discover something deeper than I thought was there before. To sing our song of faith is not to reminisce but to admit that the story continues to go deeper. There is no final cycle even when we find ourselves in God's arms.
My prayers are with Denis Como as he continues his ministry among the Chaldean Catholics of Iraq and Jordan. I pray also for the Iraqi Christians that Father Como has dedicated much of his life to serving, that they may again enjoy peace and security in their own country. AMDG.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bon Voyage, Liz Koczera (and Do Come Back!).


My sister Elizabeth leaves today for Dublin to begin studies in English at Trinity College. In spite of what Liz refers to as "the perpetual gloom of Dublin," I'm sure she'll enjoy herself. My prayers and best wishes go with her as she departs, and I look forward to hearing more about her experiences over the course of the coming year. Bon voyage, Boo! AMDG.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

A return to architectural traditions.

Though it's old news to many in the Catholic blogosphere, the New York Times has caught up with the movement back to more traditional church architecture - a movement that crosses denominational boundaries:
In 1997, St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Houston was a congregation bursting at the seams. The community of 6,600 members was housed in a building that could seat just 675. It took six services every Sunday just to give everyone a chance to worship.

But more frustrating than the lack of space to church leaders was a paucity of spirit in the architecture of the boxy, brick 1950s-era chapel.

The Rev. Laurence A. Gipson, then rector of St. Martin's, started talking to church members about what they might want in a new building.

"In 300 conversations with people, universally, it was clear," Mr. Gipson said. "Traditional worship within a traditional building was the thing that enabled us to draw most closely to God."

Working with the architectural firm Jackson & Ryan, St. Martin's drew up plans for a new building modeled after St. Elizabeth's in Marbury, Germany, a Gothic cathedral completed in 1283. The interior takes its inspiration from the cathedral in Chartres, France, circa 1260.

"If modern architecture is meant to be nonreferential, Gothic architecture's whole purpose is to reference God," said Mr. Gipson, who is now retired. "This building is a great finger lifted toward the sky."

The church's new building has become the focal point of what some architects are calling a revival of traditional religious architecture in the United States, as congregations like St. Martin's have begun to yearn for a return to traditional appointments in their buildings and worship services.

"We're actually seeing kind of pendulum swing back toward some of the great traditions of religious heritage," said Charles J. Hultstrand, secretary of Faith and Form, a division of the American Institute of Architects that focuses on liturgical architecture. "People have missed that heritage, and that's reflected in a good number of new church buildings."
To read the rest, click here. AMDG.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On par.


The Canadian dollar reached parity with its U.S. counterpart yesterday, a development that currency market-watchers and ordinary consumers have been expecting for months. For a very sober Canadian perspective on the implications of loonie-greenback parity, take a look at what Steven Chase has to say in today's edition of the Globe and Mail.

Remembering a time not so long ago when the value of the loonie almost seemed to be fixed in the range of sixty to seventy U.S. cents, I find it hard to get used to the idea of parity. The high value of Canadian currency is certainly going to hit me in the pocket when I buy books from Canada - something I do relatively frequently, as a reader with a particular fondness for Canadian history and literature. Although there's only a limited incentive for them to do so, I hope Canadian publishers and booksellers show mercy on their customers by adjusting their prices downward to reflect the growing difference between the sticker price and the actual value (if there is such a thing) of their merchandise. At the same time, I must admit that I've always cringed when I hear other U.S. citizens boast about how far greenbacks go in Canada or about how "cheap" Canadian goods and services are for people with U.S. dollars. At the risk of indulging in a little schadenfreude, I'm amused to see that the shoe is finally on the other foot. I doubt it will last, but I hope that Canadian consumers enjoy it while they can. AMDG.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Tourists, monks and history.


From today's New York Times, an article on a brewing conflict between monasticism and capitalism in Russia's far north:

Maria Smirnova barreled past the heavy granite walls of the 16th-century Solovetsky Monastery, blaring French hip-hop in her oversized truck to the consternation of the nearby monks whose long, black cloaks billowed in the northerly breeze.

Ms. Smirnova, 23, runs an adventure tour company on the Solovetsky Islands, an archipelago in the White Sea of northwestern Russia, about 100 miles from the Arctic Circle.

Though growing in popularity, her business has roiled the monks and some residents, who accuse her of sullying the island's religious traditions and ignoring its bloody past.

The islands, also known as Solovki, are one of the holiest sites in Russian Orthodox Christianity, and the 40 or so monks who reside here consider the land their own. Their predecessors settled here in the 15th century, creating a monastic dynasty that lasted nearly 500 years. They built the white-walled Transfiguration Cathedral, topped with silver cupolas, and enclosed it in fortress-thick walls of granite. An intricate canal system linking dozens of lakes still supplies fresh water to the islands' 1,000 inhabitants.

Fiercely opposed to religion, the Soviets imprisoned or killed most of the clergy members and lopped off the cupolas. Having only recently returned after a banishment of nearly 70 years, many of the monks are now alarmed by the efforts of entrepreneurs like Ms. Smirnova to open the islands to tourists.

Similar conflicts have arisen throughout Russia as the Orthodox Church clambers to regain land and property lost to the Soviet government before they can be grabbed by adherents of the new capitalist ethos.

"This land, is it a means for earning money or is it a holy place?" asked Archimandrite Mifodi, the acting head of the monastery. "The two cannot exist together."
Complicating matters even further is the fact that the Solovetsky Monastery served as a Soviet prison camp during the 1920s and '30s, raising questions about how (and even whether) the islands' dark history under communism should be presented to contemporary visitors. To read the rest of the article, click here. AMDG.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Feast of San Gennaro.


I regret that I haven't been posting much in recent weeks, but I assure any concerned readers that in this case no news is good news. I'm having an enjoyable semester so far, all is well at Ciszek Hall, and the weather is much better than it was this time last year. In the coming weeks, I hope to post more frequent updates on goings on hereabouts.

As a start, I'd like to say something about the Feast of San Gennaro currently happening in the Little Italy section of Manhattan. Now celebrating its eightieth year, the San Gennaro Feast has evolved from a one-day religious festival honoring the patron saint of Naples (whose actual feast day is September 19th) to a massive street fair that lasts nearly two weeks and draws over one million people anually - many of whom, I suspect, are neither Italian nor Catholic. I also have a hunch that the San Gennaro Feast has gotten bigger and more commercialized as Little Italy has gotten smaller and less authentically Italian.

Writer Bill Tonelli had some interesting things to say about this topic in a 2004 New York Magazine article entitled "Arrivederci, Little Italy." In one paragraph, Tonelli neatly encapsulates Little Italy's transformation from a vibrant ethnic enclave (which had an Italian population of about 10,000 in 1910) to a virtual Potemkin village:
Once, Little Italy was like an insular Neapolitan village re-created on these shores, with its own language, customs, and financial and cultural institutions. Today, Little Italy is a veneer - 50 or so restaurants and caf├ęs catering to tourists, covering a dense neighborhood of tenements shared by recent Chinese immigrants, young Americans who can't afford Soho, and a few remaining real live Italians. At the turn of the twentieth century, more than 90 percent of the Fourteenth Ward's inhabitants were Italian by birth or blood. In 2000, the three U.S. Census tracts that constitute Little Italy were home to 1,211 residents claiming Italian ancestry - 8.25 percent of the total, roughly the same as the proportion of Italians in the entire city. (By contrast, 81 percent of Chinatown below Grand Street is Chinese.)
Elsewhere in the article, Tonelli discusses the strategies that have been used to maintain the "veneer" of Little Italy in the form of "an open-air theme park of nineteenth- and twentieth-century European immigration to the Lower East Side." In short, tourism has helped keep Little Italy alive as its Italian population has dwindled.

Efforts to draw visitors to the area that once comprised Little Italy - especially during the San Gennaro Feast - have been a source of some conflict in a changed (and changing) neighborhood. Parts of the Mulberry Street corridor have become increasingly gentrified at the same time that the Feast has physically expanded to cover the full length of Mulberry between Houston and Canal Streets. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, a few of Mulberry Street's new residents object to the noise and traffic that the San Gennaro Feast annually draws to their area. Earlier this year, some community activists urged that street permits be denied for what one Feast opponent called "a terrible burden for the neighborhood." In the midst of the controversy, the pastor of Little Italy's Most Precious Blood Church - the parish traditionally associated with the Feast - offered a memorable variation on the old "you knew what you were getting into when you moved here" argument: "I cannot understand for the life of me how people who are non-Italian want to move into an Italian neighborhood, knowing that Italians live here - and they're noisy people. By nature!" How the voluble priest handled the inevitable response - that most attendees of the Feast don't live in the neighborhood - remains unrecorded.

I caught some of the San Gennaro Feast last night, on my way to dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant with one of my fellow scholastics. My companion and I avoided most of Mulberry Street on account of the heavy foot traffic there, but we did manage to duck into Most Precious Blood Church, which was open late to accommodate Feast-goers. On the way out of the church, I picked up a copy of the parish bulletin, which featured an interesting apologia for the Feast of San Gennaro. Here is much of the text, quoted verbatim:
A few months ago, there was much talk in the Mulberry Street area, mostly in the upper sections of Mulberry Street closer to Prince and Spring Streets, that some of the people there wanted to close the feast down this year due mainly to the unruly crowds that it attracts, drunkards, [and] dirty habits that people bring with them from the outer boroughs as well as the surrounding states, perhaps, and many other reasons that are for the most part concocted and totally illusionary. They brought these to the attention of the Community Board.

Very fortunately, the powers that be got wind of what was going on and before you knew it, many of the board members of the Figli S. Gennaro as well as parishioners got together and were able to silence those voices, many of which just recently moved into the area and tried to impose their views on our community about what we could or could not do.

When many of these businesses opened up in that area [i.e., the upper section of Mulberry Street], we did not see any of our people go down to tell them that we did not like them in our area; that we thought their wares were much too expensive to be even shown in the windows in our area, that their prices were much too steep for our area. We just let them in and if they could pay the steep rents, then God bless them, let them be!!! But they should not come down and tell anyone else how they should live, or what they may or may not do.
Later on, the text in the bulletin contends that "[f]or the most part, the people visiting here are very respectful people, well behaved, and well-mannered. They certainly do nothing to antagonize anyone." I have no reason to doubt this, though my experience has been that even the most well-behaved people can still create a lot of noise and congestion when gathered in sufficient numbers. The harsh words that the Most Precious Blood bulletin directs at gentrifying newcomers (not to mention people from "the outer boroughs" and "surrounding states") are both angry and poignant; one can read in them a great sadness at the loss of an old sense of neighborhood identity now memorialized (for better or worse) by the San Gennaro Feast.

The conflict between old residents upset about demographic change and the effects of gentrification and new arrivals who fail to appreciate the attitudes and traditions of old-timers is not unique to Little Italy. One can find evidence of similar conflicts in erstwhile ethnic enclaves across the United States and beyond. There's no easy way to resolve the tensions between old and new that surface during events like the San Gennaro Feast. Nonetheless, my hope is that the old and new residents of Little Italy (and analogous neighborhoods elsewhere) can somehow rise above their differences and find ways to live together in harmony. This year, that will be my prayer to San Gennaro. AMDG.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Works of Congar, Dulles banned from U.S. prisons.

In today's New York Times, there's a story on a controversial new move by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to curb the spread of religious extremism behind bars by limiting the titles available in prison libraries to certain pre-approved texts:
Traci Billingsley, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Prisons, said the agency was acting in response to a 2004 report by the Office of the Inspector General in the Justice Department. The report recommended steps that prisons should take, in light of the Sept. 11 attacks, to avoid becoming recruiting grounds for militant Islamic and other religious groups. The bureau, an agency of the Justice Department, defended its effort, which it calls the Standardized Chapel Library Project, as a way of barring access to materials that could, in its words, "discriminate, disparage, advocate violence or radicalize."

. . .

The Bureau of Prisons said it relied on experts to produce lists of up to 150 book titles and 150 multimedia resources for each of 20 religions or religious categories - everything from Bahaism to Yoruba. The lists will be expanded in October, and there will be occasional updates, Ms. Billingsley said. Prayer books and other worship materials are not affected by this process.

The lists are broad, but reveal eccentricities and omissions. There are nine titles by C. S. Lewis, for example, and none from the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Karl Barth and Cardinal Avery Dulles, and the influential pastor Robert H. Schuller.
Also excluded from the list, according to a graphic included with the NYT story, is the great French Dominican theologian Yves Congar. Long under an ecclesiastical cloud for his innovative work, Congar was vindicated at the Second Vatican Council and died a Cardinal. Even so, Congar, Dulles and company are apparently radical enough in the eyes of the federal government to be kept out of prison libraries. Though I suppose there are studious and thoughtful convicts who would appreciate the opportunity to read Congar and Dulles - or, for that matter, Barth and Niebuhr - I suspect that many more prisoners will complain that they're being denied the consolation of reading the works of Robert Schuller than will fume over the banishment of Congar and Dulles.

Some inmates may take comfort in the words of Timothy Larsen, a Wheaton College professor quoted in the NYT article. Asked to comment on the list of "approved" religious texts for prison libraries, Larsen said, "I'm particularly glad that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is there. If I was in prison, I would want to read Dietrich Bonhoeffer." For my part, I agree with a legal scholar who opines in the article that the "[g]overnment does have a legitimate interest to screen out things that tend to incite violence in prisons," but I'm not sure that the approach being taken is either an appropriate or an effective way to further that interest.

Instead of formulating an exclusive list of books that are allowed in prison libraries, the government might be better off compiling a list of books that are not allowed - anticipating, of course, the controversy that would arise over the inclusion of particular titles. If this approach were followed, the Federal Bureau of Prisons would be forced to articulate specific reasons why the people in its charge should be prohibited from reading particular books. If there's something in the writings of Yves Congar and Avery Dulles that would incite prisoners to riot, I'd be very curious to hear what it is. AMDG.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Notes on the Nativity of the Theotokos.


By Your Nativity, O Most Pure Virgin,
Joachim and Anna were freed from barrenness;
Adam and Eve, from the corruption of sin and death.
And we, your people, freed from the guilt of sin,
celebrate and sing to you:
The barren woman gives birth to the Theotokos,
the nourisher of our life!

Today the Church in both the East and the West celebrates the birth of Mary of Nazareth, a humble woman chosen by God the Father to become the mother of His son. Recalling Mary's birth, we celebrate a doubly joyful event. As the Festal Kontakion quoted above reminds us, the birth of Mary brought joy to an elderly couple that had no other children. For Joachim and Anna, the birth of their daughter and only child was a miraculous sign of God's providence. At Mary's birth, Joachim and Anna likely felt the same kind of joy that Abraham and Sarah would have felt at the birth of Isaac, and which Zachariah and Elizabeth would feel at the birth of John the Baptist. The birth of Mary is a joyful occasion for us, too, as the Festal Kontakion likewise reminds us. Mary, "the nourisher of our life," played a unique role in salvation history. The great event of Mary's birth anticipated and made possible an even greater event, the birth of her Son. In becoming human, God entered into a particular human family - the family of Mary, Joachim, Anna and all their ancestors. In celebrating Mary's birth, we celebrate the great mystery of our salvation. AMDG.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Father Joseph M. Kakalec, S.J., 1930-2007.

Yesterday afternoon I belatedly learned of the passing of Jesuit Father Joe Kakalec, who died in Philadelphia this past Sunday at the age of 77. Father Kakalec was something of a legend in Philly, as you can gather from his obituary in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
In the 1970s, the Rev. Joseph M. Kakalec harnessed the power of Philadelphians by creating a coalition of neighborhoods. A decade later, he organized suburban communities when problems of crime, poverty, and deteriorating housing overflowed from the city.

Father Kakalec, 77, who died of renal failure Sunday at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, was remembered yesterday as a soft-spoken Jesuit priest who brought people together to improve their neighborhoods.

He was the "George Washington of the modern neighborhood movement," said Edward A. Schwartz, a former City Councilman and city housing director. In the 1970s, Schwartz said, neighborhood activism was considered reactionary and suspect. "Joe gave it moral leadership. He had enormous ability to connect with people one-on-one."

"He could make blacks and whites, men and women, comfortable with one another," said Allen Hornblum, a professor at Temple University and former director of the Southeastern Chapter of the Americans for Democratic Action. He gave people the confidence to fight City Hall, Hornblum said.
I met Joe Kakalec twice, years after his career in community organizing had ended. The first time when was when he was staying briefly at Georgetown University, our common alma mater (he graduated in 1953 and I in 2001). The second time was last November, when I was in Scranton for a weekend to help promote vocations to the Society of Jesus. At the time, Father Kakalec was engaged in pastoral ministry to Byzantine Catholics at a parish in Scranton. In a couple of conversations over the course of the weekend, Father Kakalec shared some of his own story with me and encouraged me in my vocation. On Sunday morning, I visited his parish and assisted him at the liturgy. Grateful for Father Kakalec's hospitality and kindness during my brief time in Scranton, I had hoped to see him again. I regret I didn't get the chance, at least not on this mortal coil. I'll be praying today for him and for all who mourn him. Give, O Lord, to thy priest Joseph eternal rest, and may his memory be eternal! AMDG.