More than Gold: Catholics representing in more ways than one at the London Olympics

July 27, 2012

Today, across  the Atlantic in one of Europe’s most storied cities, marks the beginning of the 2012 Olympics, where crowds are cheering, blind archers are making history, and the US flag is being carried by an alum of my school, the University of Notre Dame.

Olympic Fencer Mariel Zagunis, representing the USA and ND at once.

Zagunis’ selection as Team USA’s flagbearer is definitely an honor for Zagunis, and for Notre Dame — still the preeminent Catholic school in the US.  But in a sense, it also symbolizes the imprint the Catholic Church is making on these Olympics.

Catholic schools, for one, are being represented well.  A pair of teen swimming prodigies from Guam and Maryland are students at Catholic high schools, while a Brazilian vollyeball star says she learned many of her values from her Salesian education.

Pilar Shimizu, 16, a senior at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic High School, is the youngest ever-athlete to represent Guam.

Katie Ledecky, 15, who will be a sophomore at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart this fall, has broken Olympic Trial records.

Maria Antonelli, 28, graduated from the St. Joseph Institute in Resende. She and Talita Antunes da Rocha are the 5th-ranked women’s volleyball pairing in the world.

Across the world, Catholic athletes are invoking patron saints to guide them as they compete, like the Filipinos, who are carrying San Pedro Calungsod as their intercessor for the Games.

The Catholic Church is sending more than just athletes to the Games, though.  Not only do the competitors have Sports Bibles offered to them and former athletes as their chaplains…The Catholic bishops of London, in a program called “More than Gold,” are urging Catholic families to open up their homes to the families of athletes in an effort to keep Olympians’ families close and together — certainly a refreshing and welcome effort to support families, after news that the London Olympics Committee provided athletes with 150,000 condoms (with more to arrive upon demand) for the duration of the Games.

Fr. Hilton, a former badminton, rugby, and soccer player, and a current professional bowler, will serve as a chaplain to the Olympians this year.  Who says the Church isn’t into sports?

Keep an eye out for these Catholics as the Games progress.  The Olympics — a worldwide competition — shows how the Catholic Church is indeed still a worldwide institution.


Why Cigars Are Good For You

July 25, 2012

I’m being a little facetious, of course.  And I tend to think weird (i.e. lofty and true?) thoughts when I’m smoking a cigar, as I am now.

But I’m being a little serious, too.  Through my experience, I’ve come to believe that there are certain qualities to a cigar — and to a (moderate) habit to smoking one — that can help us live a better life, and a more Catholic life.

Montecristo Cigars, the favorite of one of Hollywood’s great Catholic directors, Alfred Hitchcock

How, you might ask?

Perhaps it’s the way cigars help build friendships.  Some of the most memorable and meaningful discussions for me have occurred over a cigar — from personal heart-to-hearts about life and love, struggles and fears; to joint intellectual exploration of important ideas, such as the compatibility of American democracy with Catholic hierarchy.  Times such as these are what C.S. Lewis called “the Golden Sessions.”

Perhaps it’s the way cigars help you relax and reflect on life when you’re alone…Those are the moments when you can be with yourself and with God and can say with full honesty and gratitude:  “Life is good.”

It might be in the ideas associated with a cigar.  Its celebratory connotations remind us that after struggle and work come respite and reward, while its connection to class can inspire a lad towards self-improvement and the life of the Catholic gentleman.

Maybe it’s the way cigars clear the mind and sharpen the senses, making you more aware of (and thankful for) the world’s beauty around you — whether it’s a city’s bright lights and passing cars, or nature’s shining stars and whispering wind.  (I recommend an accompanying glass of bourbon or merlot when you’re doing this.)

And maybe it’s simply the way cigars disappear.  Smoke fades, the wrapper burns away, and when it’s gone, you’re left contemplating the transient nature of  life…and the eternity to be gained beyond it.

GK Chesterton: champion smoker and a Catholic champion

Cigars, in short, help you reflect.  They loosen the tongue, they clear the mind, and they help you contemplate…and learning how to contemplate is the first step to learning how to pray, and learning how to pray is the first step to meeting God.  Above all, cigars can be an aid in making you present to the mystery of the here and now — the mystery of finding the eternal God in the ephemeral moment…or better yet, letting Him find you.

Now I’m not saying that smoking cigars is a moral imperative; there’s no real morality (or immorality) connected with it at all.  It’s a luxury, a pleasure that should be enjoyed in moderation.  Yet it is a pleasure that can be edifying — not just physically and mentally, but spiritually as well.  (Maybe that’s why liberal California tried to pass a law placing an extra tax on tobacco recently…)

What are your guys’ thoughts?  Is this too much of a stretch?  Maybe I should start being a little more coy about my favorite habits…

a helpful note:  To those interested in picking up this venerable habit but are poor college students like me who wince at cigars’ sometimes high prices, might I recommend Trader Jack’s?  Tobacco might not be top-notch, and the wrapper is often poor quality.  But for the sweet aroma and long ashes, it’s a solid bargain for beginners at $1.50 each. Read the rest of this entry »

Five quick (Catholic) thoughts on the Fortnight for Freedom

June 25, 2012

If you’re Catholic, you probably have heard about the Fortnight for Freedom declared by the US Bishops last Thursday (and if not, here‘s a friendly reminder :)).  And whether you’re Catholic or not, you likely have heard about the controversy over the Federal Government’s healthcare mandate that employers provide contraception and family planning to employees — even if it violates the employers’ conscience.  You might also have heard about certain “compromises” being offered by the government, but these are more acts of lip-service and public image than they are actual concessions:  Numerous Catholic (and other religious) organizations remain nonexempt.

Whatever way you look at it, this is governmental compulsion that violates religious liberty:  An employer should be free not to provide contraception if she is morally opposed to it, especially if she is being required to pay for it.  Contraception is not a health care need, and if the employees don’t like that, they can switch jobs.  (This is like forcing Jews to serve pork at a restaurant or Muslims to serve alcohol at their weddings.)

Religious liberty is a fundamental right.  The right to worship and follow our religion’s teachings is as much a right as the right to life.

That’s why many people — Catholics, Protestants, faithful religious, and other people of good will — are taking a stand.  (Check out the video above to get an idea of this…it’s pretty stirring.)  The US Bishops are leading the way, and they have declared 14 days for Catholics to discuss, study, advocate for, and pray for the preservation of religious liberty in America.

Anyway, it’s the 5th night of the Fortnight, so I thought I’d offer 5 quick thoughts on the Fortnight for Freedom.  Only skims the surface of the issue, but hopefully it can get you thinking — and praying — too.

  • I may be new to Catholic history in America, but I can’t think of another time when a reaction like this happened on such a wide-scale: across the nation, on every level from bishops to laypeople, and with every just means available (legal, educational, political, prayer).  Yes, Catholics are far from a united front, but this may be the closest we’ve been to one in recent memory.  Maybe. (More on this thought from Catholic Online.)
  • Not only that, but other Christians, religious, and people of good will are coming together to stand against the tide of statist secularism in defense of religious liberty.  (Word on Fire‘s Fr. Barron discusses this here…learn some English history while you’re at it!)
  • The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops states on its website that the Fortnight of Freedom is a “special period of prayer, study, catechesis, and public action.”  Note that “prayer” comes first, because that’s where all our efforts should start.  We’re nothing without God.
  • As religious liberty is a fundamental right, Catholics have always been committed to its defense throughout history.  In fact, in the early years, Catholics may have been more committed to freedom of religion in America than the first “Americans.”
  • Be careful.  The coming assault on the church won’t be like what you saw in For Greater Glory, with priests killed and churches ransacked.  Rather, it’s going to be very PC, very subtle, in which Catholics who resist will be portrayed as “insane zealots” while Catholics who stand by idly or, worse, support the mandate, will be portrayed as restrained and rational by the media and government.  Read Fr. Longenecker’s reflection on this here.

Even with that last point in mind, it’s important that we keep hope!  And keep praying!  Pray for our rights.  Pray for our bishops, our priests, our religious, and all members of our Church.  Pray for our allies, our political leaders, and our nation.  Pray for peace, justice, goodness, and above all, pray for Truth.  So pray!  And pray hard, because there remains a nation’s heart to be won.

Our Lady of Victory, pray for us!


Prayer for the Protection of Religious Liberty

O God our Creator,

Through the power and working of your Holy Spirit,
you call us to live out our faith in the midst of the world,
bringing the light and the saving truth of the Gospel
to every corner of society.

We ask you to bless us
in our vigilance for the gift of religious liberty.
Give us the strength of mind and heart
to readily defend our freedoms when they are threatened;
give us courage in making our voices heard
on behalf of the rights of your Church
and the freedom of conscience of all people of faith.

Grant, we pray, O heavenly Father,
a clear and united voice to all your sons and daughters
gathered in your Church
in this decisive hour in the history of our nation,
so that, with every trial withstood
and every danger overcome—
for the sake of our children, our grandchildren,
and all who come after us—
this great land will always be “one nation, under God,
indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

We ask this through Christ our Lord.


Catholics in America: an Introduction to the Series

June 16, 2012

Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote that America is, at once, the most democratic country in the world and the one where Roman Catholicism would make the most progress.  This is peculiar, because nearly everyone recognizes America as a “Protestant nation,” going all the way back to the Puritans of Plymouth Plantation.  One need only look at our economics, laws, government, and even everyday customs and sensibilities to see the imprint of Protestant Christianity on American society.

Yet Tocqueville’s observations have been surprisingly prophetic.  Back in 1776, Catholic numbers were negligible.  But today, Catholics form the nation’s religious majority at nearly 25% of the population, and it seems that we see them everywhere in the news, media, and pop culture.

Moreover, through the years their contributions to the nation have been undeniably essential to America’s identity.  It was Catholics, for example, who helped formulate the American ideal of religious freedom (in Maryland).

It was Catholics (Spanish colonists in Florida and the far West, and French colonists in Louisiana) who prepared the way for America’s dream of Manifest Destiny.

Catholics drove America’s industrialization through their immigration (Irish, Germans, Austrians, Poles, Italians, French Canadians) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it’s humble Catholic immigrants today who take a lot of the jobs no one else wants (Latin Americans, Filipinos, Vietnamese, Indians).

Catholics filled the armies, started businesses, and got into government.  Today, Catholics on every level are leading the way in protecting America’s traditional and most cherished rights — above all, the rights to life and religious liberty.  In short, Catholics have become as much of Americans as their Protestant brethren.

July 4th is coming up, and as we celebrate the founding of our country and how far we as a nation have come, I thought it would be neat to do a little series on the history of Catholics in America — a tribute to their struggles, their dreams, their contributions, and their triumphs.  Three posts to come as we anticipate the celebrations on the Fourth of July.

Part I. Colonizing a New World, Cultivating the Old Faith:  from colonial times to post-Revolution – what you didn’t know about the role of Catholics in the new Protestant nation

Part II. Immigrant Infiltrators or Loyal Fighters and Workers?:  from the 1840s to the 1960s – on the explosion of Catholic immigration, and America’s paranoid response to the “foreign, monarchist, and papist threat”

Part III. (Divided) Defenders of America’s Traditional Values:  from JFK to today – how Catholics, divided but impossible to ignore, are increasingly finding themselves at the forefront of America’s most important issues.

How silly we are to those Europeans, take 2. (Oh, and Catholic Matters is back!)

June 8, 2012

There are a lot of benefits to a semester abroad in Rome: Amid the majestic churches and grand ruins, and in between breaks for Ferrero Rocher coffee and panini lunches at the corner bar, I also got the chance to see the pope, chat up Italian women in their native italiano (sort of), educate myself in fine Tuscan wines and Sicilian cinnamon liqueurs, and learn from the example of such manly men as this political genius:

“I am the Jesus Christ of politics. I am a patient victim, I put up with everyone, I sacrifice myself for everyone.”

The pitfall of all these distractions, of course, is that I neglected Catholic Matters for a good 4 months.  And for this, I sincerely apologize.  However, after a period of presumed death comes life with renewed vigor:  Categories have been reorganized and rejuvenated, new ideas for future posts abound, and there are even rumors of a new partner blog called The Catholic Gentleman being tossed around…

Anyway, I think it’s appropriate that my first post back in America be about my Catholic experience in Europe.  Because I have to say, it wasn’t quite what I expected.

You see, you often hear from the American media that Christianity in Europe is fading away — that the breathtaking churches, teeming with beauty, history, and sanctity, are empty.  The Left, of course, delights in showing this to demonstrate the triumph of secularization and statism over religion.  But the Right just as eagerly contributes to this portrayal, too:  We are warned that we must not go the way of Europe, which has “lost touch” with its Christian roots.

As excited as I was for Rome, I was bracing myself for some of this: beautiful yet empty churches.

But obviously, it’s more complex than that.  A few of the Masses I attended, I was disappointed to find, were actually lacking in participants.  However, you have to ask yourself why, exactly, the churches were empty.

It could be that in Rome there’s a church literally on every block, and that every church has at least 4 masses every Sunday — so mass-goers, of course, would be dispersed.

It could also be that many of these churches have long been declared national historic treasures — and who wants to go to Mass with tourists taking pictures of you while you pray? (I, at any rate, found an unassuming church, devoid of tourists, next to my school building that was filled to capacity every Sunday and even on feast days.)

Moreover, the fact is, for many of the Masses I went to, the churches were full — far from the empty-church image I was taught to envision.

Just go to an Easter Sunday Mass at the Vatican to see that European Catholicism is far from fading away.

When some friends from France visited me in California a week ago, talking about attending John Paul II’s beatification and already making plans to go to World Youth Day 2013 in Rio, I was convinced:  There remain good and strong Catholics in Europe yet– a lot, actually.  Sure, Catholic Europe isn’t what she used to be, but she’s not totally lost, either.

Instead of believing the common misconception that old Europe has lost her faith, perhaps it’s better to see many of our European counterparts as like us.  Imperfect, struggling against the tide of modernity.  But still proud to be Catholic, still finding strength in the millennia-old Church that stands for Truth.

So instead of condemning them, let’s pray for them.  Because they surely are doing the same for us.

Reflections from Ash Wednesday: quick to the fast, slow to the pride

February 23, 2012

I have both a(n in)famously effective metabolism and an incredible love of food.  (It’s the Filipino in me, probably.)  This means that I like to eat, eat well, and eat pretty much constantly; the director of my study abroad program has already learned to bring my table second and third plates of food during lunch and dinner.

This is how I look like when I don't get food every 45 minutes.

I think that’s why the idea of fasting on Ash Wednesday has always been tough for me (even with the Church’s allowance for 1 full meal and 2 half-meals in the day).  And to be honest, yesterday was the first day in which I took fasting seriously.  Growing up, I remember being in awe at my dad, who consumed nothing but orange juice and water on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  For my part, even when I had turned 18, I said to fasting, “Umm, I’ll have my hearty meal of fish, thank you very much.”

But yesterday, as I passed on breakfast and snacks, partook in a paltry lunch, and refrained from an overly filling dinner, I realized two things about fasting on Ash Wednesday.

First, it’s great preparation for Easter.  Fasting and giving something up for Lent is not necessarily about mortifying the flesh.  It’s about remembering the important things in life.  We make ourselves live without what we like and sometimes even without what we need because we know that all we really need — and what will truly satisfy us — is union with Christ.  Yes, we sacrifice to emulate Christ’s own example of sacrifice; yes we sacrifice in repentance for our sins.  But we also sacrifice because it helps us overcome the distractions in our lives, so we can fully receive Christ at Easter more willingly and appreciatively.

Second, fasting (and sacrificing during Lent in general) is a remarkably humbling experience.  Now, before, I always made a point not to talk about or show off what I was sacrificing: I’m wary of comparing my sacrifices to the sacrifices of others and of falling into petty pride, and, after all, “your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”  But what I realized yesterday is that sometimes, it can be good to talk about your sacrifices (and their accompanying struggles), because it offers the opportunity for fellow Christians to support each other.  So often yesterday, I let slip to my fellow Catholics how hungry I was and how much I wanted meat; they proceeded to strengthen my will and keep me accountable throughout the day.  It was enormously humbling to see all of us struggle with the fast together.

Fasting isn’t about proving yourself as “the holiest” amongst your peers.  Rather, fasting helps you realize that you are part of a worldwide community of believers, all of whom, in some way or another, are fasting and sacrificing alongside you in preparation for Easter.  So, with Ash Wednesday over and with Good Friday coming soon, let’s pray to be humble yet firm in our Lenten fasts and sacrifices.

Venice, 1571: When Merchants become Soldiers

February 14, 2012

Think about Venice, and some of the first images that come to mind are those of enterprising merchants, romantic gondoliers, and masked partiers.  (I saw a lot of masked partiers, at least, at Carnevale di Venezia last weekend!)

But did you know that the Venetians can also properly be known as saviors of Catholic Europe?

In 1571 — in the wake of the Protestant Reformation — Europe was in shatters. Protestant-Catholic infighting was tearing apart France and Austria.  Britain had established a new church revolving around the Queen, thereby effectively withdrawing from Christendom.  Spain, the last great Catholic country, was more interested in gold and silver in her colonies in the New World than in aiding her Catholic allies.

The Ottoman Turks knew this.  Christian Europe was divided, but the Middle East, Asia Minor, and North Africa were united under Islamic rule.  Already the Ottomans were encroaching upon Austrian lands, and they had their eyes set upon ruling the Mediterranean with their superior navy.  It appeared that Europe — let alone Venice — could not possibly stand in their way.

Venice, that famed island city of capitalistic merchants, had always been more interested in money than war.  The Venetians had ignored the Pope’s calls for Crusade in previous centuries; the Muslims were customers of the Venetians, after all — “infidels” to be sure, but infidels with a pretty penny can make attractive clients.

But when the Ottomans seized Venice’s territory of Cyprus — massacring the garrison at Famagusta after it had surrendered in the process — the Venetian merchants finally shelved the abacus to strap on the armor and answered Pope Pius V’s call to form a Holy League in defense of Europe.  On October 7, 1571, 60,000 Venetian, Spanish, Maltese, Genoan, and Tuscan Catholics — rosaries in hand — clashed with 80,000 Ottoman Turks and Janissaries.  The point of conflict was a small bay in Greece called Lepanto.

Venice, the “new guys” as far as Catholic European coalitions go, still distinguished herself as a leader in battle.  It was a Venetian – Agostini Barbarigo – who commanded the Catholic left, and though he was killed by an arrow through the eye when he lifted his visor to issue orders, he had helped to ensure a smashing victory for the left wing of the Catholic navy.  It was the Venetian flags of St. Mark’s Lion that led the charge.

By late afternoon, the Christians, vastly outnumbered, lost 50 ships and 7500 men but freed about as many Christian prisoners.  The Ottomans, in a massive rout, suffered nearly 20,000 casualties and lost 210 ships.  When the Catholic navy’s ships docked at Venice — with Turkish flags trailing in the waters behind them — Europe was in celebration, and Pope Pius V would later declare October 7 the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, later to become Our Lady of the Rosary.

None of that could have happened if those Venetian merchants, gondoliers, and masked partiers had not put aside the distractions of their daily lives to answer the call to become soldiers for Christendom.

Today, we find ourselves in a spiritual battle, as Christendom ever finds itself under assault.  Christians continue to be persecuted by the Communist Party in China, while the rest of the world (outrageously) remains silent.  The media aims to discredit the Church’s authority through misguided and overblown scrutiny.  And in America, in the name of “freedom” and “justice,” the gift of marriage and the lives of the unborn continue to be ravaged by a confused generation.

Before he died, Pope John Paul II said that we were entering a new era of spiritual battle, when the forces of Satan would be stronger than ever.  This could be the last battle, or it could not be.  But as with any spiritual battle, we need fighting Catholics — Catholics willing to be soldiers for Christ in the way they live their daily lives.  The Venetians did it and succeeded.  If we pray and look to their example, so can we.

N.B.:  heavily relied on HW Crocker III’s account of the Battle of Lepanto for this blog post.  I recommend you read it, too, if you’re looking for a thrilling and inspiring read.