Tuesday, August 30, 2011

It's no longer an intellectual exercise....

A friend tells a story of when he was a teenager in driver’s education. He had a great grasp on theory from the work in the classroom, but the first time he was actually in the car he had a mishap when he mistook the accelerator for the brake, went over a curb and damaged some landscaping. His instructor informed him that he would receive a failing grade because of the incident. My friend protested, “But I got 100% on all the tests!”

The instructor simply replied, “Son, you’ve got to realize that driving is not simply an intellectual exercise.”

This story came to mind for me as I meditated upon my response to something that has been weighing greatly on my mind this week. With the approach of the 10th anniversary of the attacks of 9/11, I have spent time reflecting on what has occurred in the aftermath of those attacks. Initially, our response as a nation was to launch a “War on Terror.” I recall shaking my head at the level of hubris as our former president made a promise to eliminate evil. Within a short period of time American troops were on the ground in Afghanistan in a quest to find Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the attacks.

No one ever wins a war in Afghanistan; ask the Russians, or the British, or the Persians, or the Mongols, or the Greeks. Of course when the United States went in, much of the opposition consisted of the Taliban ­ the people we armed and supported when they were fighting the Soviet Army.

It appears that the mountainous regions of Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan provide excellent hiding places at least they served well for Mr. bin Laden for the better part of a decade. Meanwhile we began to hear more and more about the evil of Saddam Hussein. At first I wondered if our leaders were confused or I was. I felt somewhat like Winston Smith as I recalled the faint memory that it was somebody with the name Osama rather that Saddam whom we held responsible for the terrorist attacks of 9/11. But it seemed the rhetoric from the District of Columbia began to focus more and more on Saddam and a bit less on Osama and my attention span began to lag.

It didn’t take long before we were engaged both in Iraq and Afghanistan, looking for Saddam or Osama or whoever was the target of the moment. I may have had some qualms about what we were trying to achieve and questioned the decision making of those in charge. But, like most Americans, I was not directly affected so I simply continued to pay my taxes while maintaining emotional distance and a comfortable attitude of moral and intellectual superiority -- in essence saying to myself, “These guys are idiots, but what can you do?” The war was, for me, merely an intellectual exercise.

That changed for me very suddenly on Saturday night when, right before going to bed, I checked my email. I had one new message in my inbox from Joanne Ryan. It was then that I learned her nephew, Michael, had been killed. Specialist Michael Roberts, a 23-year old soldier whom I have known since he was about eight years old, died Saturday when insurgents attacked his military police unit using an improvised explosive device. Michael was on his second tour of duty, having previously served in Iraq.

With Michael's death the war became real. This was the death of a someone who was not just another unrecognized name on an ever expanding list, but a name I knew -- one with a face, a smile, and a voice that I recognized. This was a little kid I once joked with who had become a remarkable young man with whom I shared a beer while listening to his stories of a soldier’s life in Iraq. Suddenly this war that I had managed to ignore, or dispassionately witnessed as if seen in my peripheral vision, was no longer a mere intellectual exercise but a source of deep pain carrying with it an acute sense of loss.

My thoughts these last several days certainly have been on Michael, his parents, brothers and family, and on what might have been. But there have also been thoughts of reproach for clinging so long to the illusory idea that this war does not touch my world. The death of Michael Roberts has given me a heightened awareness of the truth of John Dunne’s reminder, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”

May God give you rest Michael, and may He have mercy on me.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

What we don't hear....

I'm not a big fan of conspiracy theories (you can hear a "but" coming here about now can't you?) however (fooled ya!) I am intrigued by a few things I did not read or hear from the major media sources in the past two weeks. Consider:

Item 1: On August 10, 2011, two new bishops were ordained for the Archdiocese of Chicago. The two men, Bishop Andrew Wypych and Bishop Alberto Rojas are now major figures in serving the 2.3 million Catholics in Lake and Cook Counties, IL. I guess that is less significant the the three men who were going to be spending 24 hours living in a tree in Lincoln Park -- a story the Sun Times did find worth covering at the same time. My lack of a journalism degree apparently prevents me from understanding that editorial choice.

Item 2: Michelle Bachmann wins the Iowa caucus. Question: Who was second? To listen to the major broadcasters you would think it was Texas Gov. Perry or Mitt Romney as the pundits declared that the race for the Republican presidential nomination is now a three-tier race between Bachmann, Perry and Romney. Leave it to Jon Stewart to be the one to question why Ron Paul's performance is being ignored.

Item 3: A group of young girls from St. John Cantius marched through Chicago and up Michigan Avenue carrying bright yellow balloons emblazond with the word "LIFE". These balloons were strung together as a rosary. From one pro-life site that did pay attention to the event we hear:

For the school girls, there were lessons to be learned in the response of onlookers like the homeless people who gave high fives, street preachers who burst into the singing of Gospel songs, and in the semi-truck drivers who shook the streets sounding their truck horns in approval.

“I was completely ecstatic the whole time. I loved seeing how many people on a random street corner were thrilled. It is a lot more than we tend to think,” said one participant.

“A passerby tweeted, “A balloon rosary in the air. My faith confirmed:)”, while another surprised Chicagoan wrote, “What the ...giant balloon rosary, with cross just floated heavenward from the Michigan Avenue bridge.”

After coming to the Chicago River the girls launched their balloon rosary with the Wrigley Building and Trump tower as a backdrop. It made for a compelling video, but one that was completely ignored in the major print and broadcast media.

I can speculate as to why the media seems to have such a selective awareness of events, but doubt that it would be of much use. I am encouraged to recall that Jesus told us that "... the ruler of this world has been condemned." Therein lies my hope.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Why wear that collar?

From the time of the restoration of the Diaconate as a permanent order in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, barrels of ink have been spilled regarding the issue of whether permanent deacons should wear clerical garb. In some dioceses, it is assumed that deacons will wear "clerics" so that they are readily recognized as members of the clergy.
Other dioceses, including my own Archdiocese of Chicago, have an established practice that permanent deacons not wear the collar unless they are actively engaged in areas such as prison ministry or hospital chaplaincy in which the wearing of such distinctive garb helps facilitate that ministry.
For myself, as I have commented to the Vicar of Deacons on several occasions, "I don't like wearing a tie. why would I want to wear a Roman collar?" Well, those days may be at an end for me and this change has caused me to reflect on what the wearing of the collar might mean.
A few months back, our parish began to serve as a temporary home for a congregation of Chaldean Catholics who had sold their facility which they had outgrown but who did not as yet have a larger church in which to celebrate Mass. As my pastor had another obligation on the first weekend our visitors would be at the parish, I was to be the member of the clergy to represent the St. Lambert parish community to welcome our guests. While my own parishioners have been long used to seeing me in my role as deacon, I was an unknown to this other congregation and not readily identifiable as a deacon.
It was then that my pastor suggested that he would like to see the deacons in the parish wear clerical garb on Sundays to both serve as a ready identifier and reinforce in the minds of all the people the clerical status of deacons. So that we would not be mistaken for presbyters, the pastor suggested we wear black trousers and grey clerical shirts. Like it or not, I was going to be wearing a Roman collar.
Last weekend was the first time that I wore that collar. I anticipated some remarks from friends and parishioners questioning whether I was bucking for a promotion or trying to pretend I was a priest (the type of comments I would make were I in their shoes). But the reactions I got weren't quite the ones I anticipated.
Most people seemed to feel that it not only looked good, but that it seemed appropriate. There were, to be sure, several people who addressed me as "Father", but no more than normal. I was surprised however when one parishioner -- with whom I've been acquainted for several years, but with whom I have had little interaction -- approached me to ask a few questions regarding the Scriptures. It may have been coincidental and only because the pastor was engaged in conversation with someone else while I happened to be standing there -- but she had not done anything like that before and I could not help but think the wearing of the collar had increased my credibility in her eyes.
Again, the reactions were positive and affirming and led me to reflect on what the collar means and, more specifically, what it means to me. All of my life, I have accorded special respect to those men who wore Roman collars, a respect that was directed as much to the person as to the position. However, I know all too well the person that I am and that I am the same person with or without the collar. I know that I was not ordained because of any qualities particular to me, but simply in response to an undeserved calling.
Suddenly I am caused to view the collar in a different way and I can only call to mind the words of Jesus expressed in Matthew 11:29-30, "Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light."
Suddenly it began to make sense to me. At least in my case, the collar is a yoke, serving to indicate one who is but a beast of the field whose only purpose to do the bidding of the Master. Considered in that light, I can not only wear the collar, I find it quite appropriate.