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.


5 Non-Religious Books to Make You a Better Catholic

September 9, 2011

St. Justin Martyr proclaimed that aspects of Truth can be found in the philosophies of even the pagans.  Indeed, in my own experience, my greatest understanding of Church teachings and values have come from non-Catholic — even non-religious — sources.

Below is a list of 5 books that, I think, have really made me into a better and prouder Catholic.  I also write this post to encourage you, too, to seek Truth even where Truth is not obviously manifested; St. Ignatius of Loyola urged us to find God in all things.  As we know, God can make Himself be known in the most unexpected of ways.


1)  Virgil’s Aeneid
The Ancient Roman nationalistic epic that immortalizes the Trojan Aeneas’ journey to fulfill his destinyPutting aside personal desire and doubts, Aeneas trusts in Fate and in pietas (duty to family, country, and the gods) and founds a new nation in Italy, a nation whose fame will be limited by the stars: Rome.

Everyone has an ideal, a comfort, a belief that drives them through life.  For me, it is my trust in God’s Providence.  The Aeneid really propagates the idea that there is a divine plan for us.  Even when we suffer, even when we are confused, we should have the humility to let go of our own ambitions and hesitations and allow Providence to take us where we’re meant to be.

The Catholic Church teaches that God puts us in certain situations for a reason.  He gives us certain talents, surrounds us with certain people, gives us certain duties because He wants us to do something with them.  This is the idea of Providence, and if we only use our free will to submit to God’s will, we can truly find who we are.

2) Keiichi Sigsawa’s Kino no Tabi
Novel series turned anime—follows Kino and her motorcycle Hermes as they travel from city to city.  Through her travels Kino sees how man destroys himself.  But she also finds beauty in the world, and she learns.  That’s why she keeps traveling.

This novel taught me to really reflect on my experiences and to learn from them.  As Catholics we are called to live in the world and do good works, but we are also called to withdraw into quiet contemplation and prayer every once in a while.  Kino no Tabi really gave me a joy in doing this.  Whenever I meet someone, whenever I experience something, I always take some time to ponder why.

3)  Beaumarchais’ The Figaro Trilogy
Three plays that celebrate the virtue and wit of the common man and woman against the foolishness and follies of the aristocracy.  Beaumarchais was a liberal, and The Figaro Trilogy became a precursor to the French Revolution.

What makes the Figaro Trilogy ironic is that though it helped fuel the French Revolution, which is oft-characterized by its venomous anti-Catholicism,  it yet promotes one of the hallmark virtues of the Catholic Church:  Forgiveness.  Two plays in the Trilogy — “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Guilty Mother”–explore the truth that the ones we love most are the ones who hurt us the most.  Yet we are always called to forgive, because ultimately forgiving and being together is more worth it than being vengefully bitter.

As Catholics we too are called to forgive each other.  And while the Church always holds us to high moral standards, She is also extremely generous in Her forgiveness. As the deathbed convert Oscar Wilde aptly stated:  The Catholic Church “is for saints and sinners alone.”

4)  Plato’s Republic
The Good, and how to find it in your soul and in society.

Written in the 4th century BC, this book obviously predates any sort of Christian institution.  Yet throughout its history, the Catholic Church has looked to Plato as a model for finding God.  For me, the Republic has served as a sort of guide.  I need to find God with my whole being, but only after I subjugate my passions and will to my conscience.  The Republic has also taught me that if one has truly ordered his/her soul well, the Good will show in his/her works and actions.

5)  HW Crocker III’s The Old Limey
The Old Limey follows the adventures of an old British general as he seeks his kidnapped goddaughter in the streets of LA.  He is hopelessly lost in the heroic idealism and glories of Britain’s past, which, set against the backdrop of the modernistic, materialistic, and pragmatic Southern California, looks ridiculously yet entertainingly absurd.

The Old Limey is actually written by a solid Catholic, H.W. Crocker III, yet it has no explicit Catholic message.  The Old Limey is brilliant because it is essentially a modern Don Quixote.  Don Quixote and Nigel Haversham both live and fight for ideals that their modern worlds have discounted.  As Catholics it is easy to feel like them:  The world is always telling the Church to modernize and progress, yet the Church continues to stay true to her teaching and values.  The Old Limey inspired me to really hold true to and fight for Catholic ideals, with the singular devotion of an old Spanish knight or British general.

Books Catholics Should Read: “Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome”

July 25, 2011

What makes biographies of great men so invaluable is that they are essentially lessons in leadership.  British historian Anthony Everitt’s compelling portrayal of the Roman emperor Hadrian in Hadrian and the Triumph of Rome is no exception.

Hadrian was an intriguing man.  Not only was he a Roman emperor, but he was also an architecture enthusiast, a poet, a hunter, a hard drinker, and a climber of volcanoes to boot.  The most important things we can learn from him, though, are his lessons in leadership: 1) A leader is not over the people, but with them; he is their greatest servant.  And, 2) a leader does not need to pursue groundbreaking change to make a difference; it enough and more to put limits on one’s own power and to consolidate and perfect existing practices and standards.

The notion of servant-leadership is nothing new to Catholics, since we see it so clearly in Christ in the Gospels.  Hadrian, too, demonstrates this type of leadership. Consider this famous anecdote:

When Hadrian was on an imperial tour of the provinces, a woman asked him to consider her appeal.  When Hadrian answered, “I haven’t the time!” the woman responded, “Then stop being emperor!”  This struck home for Hadrian, who dropped all he had to listen to the woman.

Such a compelling reminder of what it means to be a leader!  Hadrian, moreover, made sure to live among the people, whether with senator or soldier.  He also reminds us that to have power doesn’t mean you have to flaunt it:  When he was on the march with soldiers, Hadrian wore the same armor and ate the same food as everyone else; the only luxury he allowed himself was a sword with an ivory hilt.

The second lesson in leadership that Hadrian shows us is the foolishness of imperium sine fine, or “power without end.”  Hadrian, unlike his predecessor Trajan who nearly expanded Rome out of existence (through his Pyrrhic Parthian expedition), sought to consolidate Rome’s power by putting an end to her expansion.  Hadrian saw no need to add glory to his name by expanding Rome; the greatest glory was to be found in stabilizing Rome as she was.  Too often, today, we see amateurish leaders who think they need to do something extreme or innovative to make a difference (whether by creating unnecessary programs for school clubs, or by passing national laws with dire consequences).  They can learn a thing or two from Hadrian, who was comfortable enough in his leadership to perfect things as they were rather than pursuing things that were impractical and impossible.

Hadrian was a man of his times.  But what made him a great one were his principles in leadership.  He had the integrity to limit his own power, as well as the courage to make himself the Roman empire’s greatest servant.

Content: Though sources on Hadrian are woefully spotty, Everitt uses nifty detective (and sometimes, guess) work to paint a credible picture of Hadrian’s life and times.  The focus of the book is, of course, Hadrian’s reign, though close to half of it deals with the political landscape leading up to Hadrian’s accession.
Part biography and part-social history are combined into a nifty narrative that reads like a novel.  However, there are times when Everitt attempts at irony and wit, yet they failed to make an impression on me.
Catholic?: Catholics be warned – Everitt has a decided dislike for Christianity (as well as a grave misunderstanding).  However, it’s Hadrian’s example we are meant to examine; Everitt’s religious opinions are easy to overlook and dismiss.

Overall: 4.5/5

Does Christ live only in the hearts of the poor?

July 8, 2011

So because of my horrid hour-long commute to and from downtown Los Angeles for my summer job, I’ve been able to tune into the radio news a lot more.  I’ve been particularly intrigued by the debt limit talks — not just because I’m feeding my new interest in economics, but mainly because I’m fascinated by Obama’s antagonization and even demonization of the rich.

Skip to 1:40 to get to what I’m talking about.

According to Obama, because some people get rich — hedge fund managers, corporate jet owners, oil and gas companies — other people suffer, from the student who can’t go to college and the medical researcher who can’t cure cancer to the seniors who have to pay more for Medicare.  (And to Obama, it’s the government’s responsibility to tax the rich to correct these wrongs.)

The antagonization of the rich is really nothing new.  With our elementary logic and imaginations, we almost automatically  perceive rich people to be selfish, self-indulgent, and self-entitled and poor people to be selfless, hard-working, and virtuous.  The rich prey on the poor; it’s common sense Darwinism.  Take Publius Clodius Pulcher, who built his political career on inciting the impoverished masses against the wealthy aristocracy.  Also take the book Radical Compassion (which I had to read for a Portland service immersion last winter), whose basic thesis was that the Catholic Church can be truly Christian only when it rejects everything else except the hearts of the poor, because that is where Christ lives.

But this antagonization of the rich and idealization of the poor doesn’t work.  (For one thing, if the rich are subject to certain vices, so, too, are the poor to their own.  But that’s another discussion.)  As Catholics, as Christians, we’re  called to love.  But I find that the attack on wealth is motivated not by justice, but by jealousy — and as such it inspires not justice, but jealousy.  And I think it all too much betrays a lack of trust in God.  It betrays a lack of trust in the truth that God can sanctify all things, including wealth.

One of the most compelling novels I have read (Brideshead Revisited) includes this quote from an aristocratic woman:

“It used to worry me, and I thought it was wrong to have so many beautiful things when others had nothing.  Now I realize that it is possible for the rich to sin by coveting the privileges of the poor.  The poor have always been the favorites of God and his saints, but I believe that it is one of the special achievements of Grace to sanctify the whole of life, riches included.”

God is present not just amongst the poor.  He can be present anywhere.

Consider how the wealthy are able to provide jobs (and thus impart wealth) to the poor.  Consider the example of rich bankers in Ancient Rome who, when the Senate House burned down in 53 B.C., saved the rest of the City from the fire by hiring on-the-spot firefighters — out of the “self-interest” of wanting to save their financial records.  Consider, too, this youtube video posted by a facebook friend, which states that the wealthy are basically the “test-market” for any product before it is perfected and made available to the greater public.

They didn’t intend it, but good still was produced.  These are acts of self-interest, and yet they somehow benefit everybody. These are just examples of how God can sanctify wealth; these are examples of how God can live amongst the wealthy, too.  And these examples don’t even take into account the instances of sincere altruism by those who have the money — scholarship founders who provide inner-city students with the opportunity of private school, for example.  Lots of good can come from the wealthy — whether intended or not.  God brings out the good either way.

Christ can live in the hearts of the poor.  But every good Catholic — every good Christian — should remember that Christ, in His infinite goodness, can live in the hearts of anyone.  Rich people included.