Saturday, December 31, 2022

Benedict XVI Goes Home to God

On this last day of the year 2022, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI—nearly ten years after his historic resignation of the papacy—was called to eternal life. He died peacefully this morning after a brief illness, at the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican, where he has lived in prayer and simplicity since March 2013. He was 95 years old.

Much has already been said on this Blog about the greatness of Josef Ratzinger/Benedict XVI as Pope, bishop, theologian, and man-of-the-Church. In the new year I will have to revisit those pages and ponder anew my gratitude for his life. No doubt the last decade—the final chapter of his life of service to the Lord in His Church—has enriched us all in ways beyond our understanding. His witness to Christ, his brilliant theology, and the depth of his magisterial teaching remain as an accessible legacy for us and for generations to come.

May the God who is Love reward him now in the fullness of the divine embrace, in the glory of eternal life.

“How should we Christians respond to the question of death? We respond with faith in God, with a gaze of firm hope founded on the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. So, death opens to life, to eternal life, which is not an infinite duplicate of the present time, but something completely new. Faith tells us that the true immortality for which we hope is not an idea, a concept, but a relationship of full communion with the living God: it is resting in his hands, in his love, and becoming in him one with all the brothers and sisters that he has created and redeemed, with all Creation. Our hope, then, lies in the love of God that shines resplendent from the Cross of Christ who lets Jesus’ words to the good thief: ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’ (Luke 23:43) resound in our heart. This is life in its fullness: life in God; a life of which we now have only a glimpse as one sees blue sky through fog” (Benedict XVI, Homily, November 3, 2012).

Friday, December 30, 2022

Life at 60 Years Old Seems Strange For “My Generation”

I would like to conclude 2022 by looking forward to a curious event that is approaching on the heels of the new year of 2023–my 60th birthday on January 2. It feels peculiar to be turning 60, in part because I’m a peculiar person. I look at other folks in their 60s (or higher) and they’re still bouncing around all over the place. Whereas I cannot bounce much at all. My body moves like an old turtle, and has for some years. It still moves, but it’s not getting any faster.

Nevertheless, on a gorgeous sunny afternoon like we had today, I will go out and “turtle my way” along the quiet roads of our neighborhood that I know so well, but that have only grown richer with time.

Often my body “feels” older than I am. But the other strange thing is the emotional immaturity that I still find within myself. In many ways I still don’t feel “grown up.” I grew up in the 1970s, when life in the affluent world was changing in so many ways—with many positive developments, but with much that was bewildering, tumultuous, and ultimately disappointing. My generation (the “late-boomers”/early-genX bunch) was “thrown” into a huge world of seemingly boundless possibilities but very little wisdom for how to choose rightly and grow well. There were also dangers and traps everywhere. We fell into them and got hurt, sometimes badly. So we are a bit emotionally misshapen, and I think that causes peculiar kinds of frustration and suffering as we get older.

Still, I have hope for myself and my generation as we move forward, whatever the ways we may still be confused and broken. I made this video today, out in the sun, as I considered these things:

I wish you all a very Happy New Year and continued Christmas Season.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

The Gift of God’s Merciful Love

God has made Himself small. He has come among us in poverty and vulnerability.

The incomprehen- sibility of God is not that of an irrational, alien cosmic dictator who makes up rules that infringe on our otherwise autonomous self-sufficient personality, and who threatens us with violence if we don't comply. This is the strange idea born of servile fear. Indeed, God is truly incomprehensible, but His is the incomprehensibility of Love.

We come to pray to God, and at Christmas we gaze upon the image of a baby.

Not because we thought it would be a good idea to represent God as a baby, but because God really became a baby.

We didn't make this up. It happened. God came into the world. He made Himself "small" so that He could enter into our lives. 

What does this mean for us? We can only grasp this by faith. We can only live the reality of this by trust and love. Let us ask the Lord to stir up this faith, trust, and love in our hearts.

If we let God into our hearts—the God who has become so small for our sake—we will begin to discover what this is all about. God has come to us. God has given everything. He has poured Himself out in Love. He can do this because He is Love.

And He has come to be the One who accompanies us in our misery and leads us out and beyond all of it. The fullness of the revelation of God’s love is mercy.

This baby is God's mercy. The God who is Love wants to be close to us, to save us. His name is Jesus.

Jesus is the gift of God’s merciful Love to the world, to restore—indeed to transform—human beings into His image and likeness. He is the reason for the joy that calls out to our hearts at Christmas.

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

“We Have Touched With Our Hands...The Word of Life”

Today is the third day of Christmas, and the celebration of Saint John the Evangelist, witness of the Word Incarnate.

What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the Word of life—this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us. We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1 John 1:1-4).

[Image: William Congdon, “Nativity” (1960)]

The Word became flesh. Beauty, Truth, Goodness, Justice, Love became flesh. The Mystery who makes me exist and who awakens in my heart the fascination with reality and the desire for the fullness of life became flesh. He has come, because He wants to stay with me, to make me His brother, to make us all brothers and sisters of Him, and of one another.

How easy to forget, to study all these things, to study the words and even “the Word” and miss His presence, His wanting-to-be-with-us right now in this moment.

I always need help every day to remember that He is here.

Sunday, December 25, 2022

Merry Christmas 2022

Merry Christmas!

I had to put together our “virtual card” quickly this year. It wasn’t too hard, however, because I had a “recent family picture” on hand. It may look familiar to you.πŸ˜‰

Merry Christmas 2022 from the Janaros… umm… and I’m including Lucia Janaro Rego (she’s the one in the white dress, lol) and her husband Mike Rego. They are having Christmas in New Jersey, and then coming down here on the 28th. So this whole bunch will be together for another “Christmas Week” celebration on the 29th (which happens to be my late mother’s birthday, so that’s another good reason to gather).

More Christmas Day pictures are coming, and may even be added to this post as time goes by. This Christmas was lots of fun for Maria, who was the “star”⭐️ of the party and got the most presents. Meanwhile, I found consolation in having family members together to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who is the source of all our joys, and our strength in the midst of trials.

Thank you, Jesus, for everything.

Here are Papa and Maria saying “Merry Christmas!”☺️


Friday, December 23, 2022

Franco Harris Finishes the Race

Rest In Peace, Franco Harris.🏈

The 72-year-old Hall of Fame running back—who played for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the “glory days” when they won four Super Bowls and fielded one of the most awesome teams in American Football history—passed away unexpectedly at his home on Tuesday of an undisclosed illness. 

His death at this time has an added poignancy, coming three days short of today, the 50th anniversary of a play he made in his rookie season that transformed last-minute defeat into astonishing victory in a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders. Numerous polls of sports experts and fans alike in the U.S.A. have rated it the greatest play in sports history.

I remember this incredible afternoon so well, though it was 50 years ago.

The Steelers trailed 7-6 with only a few seconds left on the clock. On 4th down, Terry Bradshaw threw a desperate pass to Frenchy Fuqua. What followed is best expressed in the words that still echo in my mind:

”And the pass is deflected, incomplete… but WAIT, Franco Harris comes up with the football! FRANCO HARRIS IS RUNNING WITH THE FOOTBALL!! Franco Harris is running down the field. He’s running into the end zone FOR A TOUCHDOWN!!!” 

My father, my brother, and I were there… in front of the radio in our house in Pittsburgh listening to the Steelers radio announcer broadcasting the game to local blacked-out Steelers fans (home games were not televised in the teams’ local areas back then). It was Sunday afternoon, December 23, 1972. Later, we saw the television replay again and again and again, but there was a kind of unforgettable craziness in first hearing it, live, on the radio. The announcers didn’t know how he’d gotten the ball. Everyone was so confused and happy. 

Franco caught the deflection near the sidelines, on the run, inches above the ground. And he just kept running. It was a “miraculous catch”—but that night, our local lovable, quirky, sports talk-show-host Myron Cope coined the term that would come to define the legend: the “Immaculate Reception.”

I was a week shy of 10 years old. I grew up in Pittsburgh in the 1970s… the “City of Champions”!πŸ† I have some vivid and precious sports memories from those years growing up. I saw some great teams, great athletes, and even—in the case of the next approaching 50-year-old memory—the singular, magnificent heroism of Roberto Clemente. 

What makes all these memories most evocative for me is that they were moments I shared with my father.

Franco Harris, my Dad, Roberto Clemente—they have all gone to God now, as the Christmas Season of 2022 approaches. May God receive them into the embrace of His mercy.

Thursday, December 22, 2022

Floating On Liquid Silver

Mid-Winter Riverbank#JJStudios

Here is an old memory. A quarter century ago, when my health was good and I was full of energy, I frequently went boating and fishing on the Shenandoah River. I remember one warm December day on the river. As the sun set at 4:30pm, the calm waters around my boat shimmered briefly with what looked like silver. For a fraction of a moment, I was floating on a mirror of liquid silver. 

I have tried many versions of this digital painting, but I can’t reproduce the color. I’m not sure it’s possible to capture the process of changing hues, glowing light and shadows, reflection and movement on that water. 

I can only say that for me it was a moment in which I was grateful for being alive.πŸ™‚

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

Papa Builds a Tower (…well, He TRIES to, but…)


Papa likes to build towers by stacking Maria’s blocks. Or, rather, he likes to try. But Maria seems to get a special satisfaction from knocking them down…not because she wants to play with the blocks herself, but just because she likes to make “mischief” and get a rise out of her Papa.

It goes without saying that Papa is more than willing to be the “foil”—over and over and over again.πŸ˜†☺️ But you can see for yourselves

While this video is on my YouTube channel, it is not publicly listed. The only way you can access it is through this BLOG, by using the line link provided only on this post: https://youtu.be/_P4W6MwXlQs . Or you can watch it in the screen below.

Monday, December 19, 2022

Winter Scenery

Here comes the Winter Solstice. While Southern Hemisphere places like Argentina bathe in the sunshine of Summer (as well as the World Cup), we in the North are just beginning the long DARK journey through the Winter months. It has been a cold and cloudy month of December, and I have been stiffer than usual. The wide vistas that December usually opens up around here have been somewhat more “muted” since we haven’t had many of those splendid, brief bright December days I enjoy so much.

We have scenery nonetheless, that provides material for JJStudios to work with:

Sunday, December 18, 2022

The World Cup Belongs to Argentina and Lionel Messi

World Cup 2022: Argentina wins it all!πŸ†⚽️ And Lionel Messi—who didn’t need to prove anything to anybody—proved it anyway: he is a champion. His performance throughout the tournament was a Master Class in playing “the beautiful game.” He consistently created opportunities, set up his young teammates with brilliant passes, and did plenty of scoring too. Messi is an inspiration on and off the field. He knows his genius and the whole range of his abilities, yet he remains humble and is a model of a team player. He also seems genuinely devoted to his wife and three sons.

By any measure, Lionel Messi is one of the all-time greats. And his greatest strength is very simple: he loves the game.⚽️ 

Amigos e amigas di ArgentinaπŸ‡¦πŸ‡·: Felicitaciones por una gran victoria.⚽️⭐️⭐️πŸ‘ 

Lionel Messi siempre ha sido una inspiraciΓ³n para mΓ­. 

Todos ustedes deben estar tan felices!πŸ†πŸŽ‰πŸŽŠπŸ’₯⚡️🌟 Woot woot!!!

Saturday, December 17, 2022

For Christmas: “Renew Our Closeness” to Ukrainian People

At Wednesday’s General Audience, Pope Francis made a proposal for the coming celebration of Christmas that I think is worth emphasizing: Let us renew our closeness to the martyred Ukrainian people, persevering in prayer for these brothers and sisters of ours who suffer so much. Brothers and sisters, Ukraine is suffering a lot, a lot. I would like to draw attention to the coming Christmas. It’s beautiful to celebrate Christmas, to have parties… but let's lower Christmas spending a little. Let's celebrate a more humble Christmas, with simpler gifts, and send what we can spare to the Ukrainian people, who are in need, suffer a lot, suffer from hunger and cold, and many die because they have no doctors nearby. Lest we forget: Christmas, yes; in peace with the Lord, yes, but also with the Ukrainians in the heart. Let's do a concrete gesture for them.

How can this become a real gesture for us? There are many possibilities for offering financial assistance as a gift to the Ukrainian people. For example, the Knights of Columbus have established a special “Ukrainian Solidarity Fund”, and there are undoubtedly many other good resources that can be found with a quick Internet search.

I would like especially to recommend AVSI, since I have some eminently trustworthy friends involved in this outstanding group. AVSI is a service organization that provides specific help in various locations around the world. AVSI staff work “on the ground,” collaborating personally with local people in need, engaging in and supporting concrete projects that address real problems, and thus helping to engender and build up local communities. AVSI has been active in Ukraine for years, and has been helping refugees since the Russian invasion began. Any donations to AVSI-partnered programs in Ukraine will reach real people facing desperate circumstances during Christmas and the months ahead. A gift to AVSI will make a difference in the lives of these Ukrainian people.

In any case, let’s follow the Pope’s proposal, and keep the Ukrainians in our hearts this Christmas.

Friday, December 16, 2022

“Come To Our Rescue”

Here are some beautiful prayers from the Roman Liturgy for the third week of Advent. 

We are “grieved,” “walking amid passing things,” “await[ing] with heartfelt desire” for the “saving advent” of Christ. Our hope is in the Lord, to whom we cry, “come, we pray, to our rescue with the protection of your mercy.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2022

JJ is Frustrated, Perplexed, and (As Usual) Exhausted

These are days filled for me with personal frustration and perplexity, as well as anguish over many catastrophes in the world, and above all this vicious, corrosive war. There is no end of the war in sight, and we have no right to presume that we will escape its ravages. God help us!

I’m not going to hide it. I’m “anxious and concerned about many things,” and I feel like there’s less and less that I can say or do. In three weeks I will be 60 years old. I know, that’s not very old, but it’s “a little bit old”—as in “I-remember-when-my-grandfather-turned-sixty” oldness. Life is “powering down” in new ways after four years of big family changes. I don’t know how that mixes together with the health problems that have already long limited my “productive” activity. So far, it doesn’t seem to mix very well. Or, perhaps, I just don’t yet understand the new rhythm of things. I’m not even sure what that “rhythm” is, because things are still changing, and the possibilities going forward are vast for us and for those five people who used to be little kids under our roof. Children grow up—thank God!—and they become physically and emotionally independent from their parents. I won’t deny that certain aspects of our lives have “gotten easier” or at least less complicated logistically speaking. But we never stop being their parents, and our love for each of them accompanies their lives in ways that—at this stage—we are more aware of than they are. I think I have learned not to “worry too much” about them. (I should note that everyone is doing fine right now.πŸ™‚) 

And yet, I get into moods where I look at the world with a new kind of trepidation, and I wonder with no little fear about the future our grownup children may have to live through—indeed, the ominous events we may all have to face. I have read many accounts of the terrible evils endured by families in the 20th century, scattered apart by war, dictatorship, famine, genocide. Now in 2022, we comfortable modern Western people can no longer pretend that these are just stories from the past….

There is much to pray about. There is much that prompts us to cry out to God.

So I’m turning 60 years old. As a scholar, author, and—in whatever way I can still manage to be—teacher, I may be approaching the most fruitful decade of my life. I have learned many things, but I don’t know how to share the abundance of what I have been given. Maybe new forms will arise that I can use to communicate. Or maybe my active work is nearly done, and I am soon to be overcome by death or incapacity. Lord, have mercy on me.

As usual, I live constantly on the edge of exhaustion, but now I fear that other new factors are contributing to it. Writing is becoming harder. It demands more of my diminishing resources of energy and mental flexibility. I continue to study and ponder many things, but I don’t have the energy to share much of what I’m learning. At least, not now.

Writing is also harder because our society is becoming increasingly illiterate. It’s a strange new kind of “illiteracy” in which everyone seems to be reading and writing more than ever, but without understanding or patience. “Reading” stops at the level of impressions, which are superficially collected into labels. We crave simplistic images, which signal our ideological tribe (or our enemy’s tribe), which yield a primal experience of belonging and a pseudo-vitality of collective affirmation through the weaponization of words in wars of denunciation that have no rules. Everyone is outraged, and no one is listening.

In the last century, we saw whole nations endure “government” by rage—totalitarian rage—that used words in the service of vindictive and utopian ideologies. This was called propaganda. Today, we have multiple power groups raging against one another—we have contrasting ideologies that generate contrasting forms of propaganda. Their noise dominates what was once called “the field of discourse.” What is a writer to do?

Well, I’ll just have to keep writing. I shall write as well as I can, for as long as I can. It often feels futile, and I am tempted to get discouraged, but I intend to persevere (please pray for me) and leave the results in God’s hands. I’m doing more art too, although that is harder for me to do well, even with the ever-increasing digital aids that are being developed. Art has its own (often obscure) ways of pointing to what matters, or even “speaking” when words have been corrupted.

In any case, I will continue to study and learn in whatever way I can, in whatever circumstances I find myself. Most of what I learn these days only makes me realize how little I really know and how much I have taken for granted. The world is full of so many events, so many stories, so many different peoples, so many needs, so much anger and resentment, so much suffering.

I can’t do much to relieve the suffering that we see all around us in the world today, but I can grow in empathy, or at least in awareness (which is the beginning of empathy), because empathy takes time, and must overcome the powerful instinct to run away from other people’s suffering. But with God’s help and through his mercy, I can begin to suffer with them. I can offer my own loneliness and frustration, which hardly seems like much, but it is “mine”—inseparable from my “self,” which is constituted as a need and desire that I cannot fulfill by my own power (and I have lived long enough and failed often enough to know this is true).

Suffering is unique to each one of us, yet (paradoxically) it is something we all endure. Even in our greatest loneliness, our most solitary cry to God, there is a mysterious space for compassion, for offering mercy toward one another. This is because we are never really “alone.”

We are never alone. This has to do with the wonderful mystery we are preparing to celebrate soon.⭐️ We don’t have to feel sentimental about it, and it’s okay if our feelings are a mess. What matters is to remember that what we are celebrating is true. It really happened. A companionship began in a moment of history, a companionship that accompanies each one of us, in all our circumstances, in all our sorrows, destined to endure forever.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Advent With Christina Grimmie

It’s December 10, 2022—and I am remembering Christina Grimmie after six-and-a-half years. It’s hard to believe so much time has passed. Three of my “kids” are now older than Christina was on the final day of her earthly life. But her music has remained as one of many ways in which she is a bright light in these days of preparation for Christmas, and in the joy of the Christmas season. I wrote about her YouTube Christmas music five years ago on this blog (HERE) and I still love these songs, although one of the internal links is no longer active on that post. Since then, compilations of her Christmas material have been posted on YouTube.

Christina’s life reached its fulfillment while she was still young (and, by any measure, it was an unusually full and joyful life). But our time-in-this-world continues to move and change; we continue to journey, following the “signs” of our days, months, years (for some of us, many years) and longing to find where they are leading. The road passes through obscure places, but there are also lights, like stars in the night sky, that guide us along the way, and remind us that what we seek—what we are awaiting—is not a fantasy of our own making, but the fulfillment of a promise.

We especially need lights to break through the long nights of this Advent 2022. So often, violence seems to be putting an end to fragile human aspirations, smashing them, extinguishing them, suffocating them. We need to remember that our hope is in the One who came to dwell with those who suffer violence—the One whose Love is greater than all the powers of this world.

Christina Grimmie’s 2014 rendition of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” helps us to remember. Watch and listen as her inimitable voice brings a touch of “soul” to this traditional Advent hymn:

Friday, December 9, 2022

Juan Diego: A Simple, “Ordinary” Man…

Today is the feast day of Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. You may have missed it, because it ranks as "only" an optional memorial.

Who is Juan Diego? Even now, he is largely hidden from us.

He was always loved by the simple people who came for centuries to the church on a hill in Mexico City to see his wondrous cloak. But not much was said about him in the past. Some tried to deny that he ever existed, though most didn't go that far. After all, we had his cloak.

When I was young and Catholic in the United States, he was just "the guy" in the story of the amazing and scientifically inexplicable image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Wow, the incredible tilma and its image! There were the studies, the cactus fibers, the miraculous preservation of the cloth, the mysterious colors, the eyes, etc. And millions of conversions, of course. (All of these things are fascinating and important, I hasten to add.)

But who was Juan Diego?

I must say, it never seemed to matter much.

I can recall that it flashed through my mind: "Just 'plain' Juan Diego? These Marian visionaries are usually saints or at least blessed, but he's 'just plain Juan Diego.' Seems odd. Wonder why."

But I didn't give it much thought. Nor did I think too much about this particular way that Mary had chosen to be present as a merciful, loving mother for me in my own history, on my own continent.

Only later did I begin to learn that the Virgin of Guadalupe is an enduring and vital presence at the center of the American continent, and indeed a profoundly personal presence for me, just as she wishes to be for every person who visits her in that place.

As with so many other things, the man who taught me to love Our Lady of Guadalupe was the man who taught me to love Jesus Christ, to love the human person, to love my own life. Saint John Paul II made five pilgrimages to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe during his pontificate. He brought to her a love that convinced me there was a person there, not just a remarkable artifact.

The tilma is Mary's way of "using media" to be present to her children.

But you see, whenever I try to talk about Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin, even now, it seems natural to pass him by and go right to Mary.

I don't think he has a problem with that.

Here is a "saint" who is so humble that his identity is almost entirely transparent to the Mother of God. It is true, he is a patron of indigenous peoples of America, as well as all lay persons. He is an exemplar of the “ordinary person” in the Church who is called to the persistent and joyful labor of evangelization.

Juan Diego was just a poor man who encountered the beauty of Jesus living in Mary, and followed. He gave himself over to a humble place in a great and mysterious story. And he remains standing behind the Merciful Mother, giving her a place where she can give Jesus to us.

I pray to him every day. I am convinced that he is one of the greatest saints of the Church. He stands forever in a humble relationship to Mary, her "dearest and smallest son" and in this way so much like Jesus.

John Paul II brought Juan Diego out from behind the tilma. I was there in the plaza of the basilica twenty years ago—on July 31, 2002—along with millions of pilgrims throughout the city. And I was convinced that I was watching a saint canonizing another saint.

Saint John Paul II was suffering so much at that time, it was painful to look at him even from a distance. But on that day, there was something luminous about him. I can only describe it by recalling my impression at that time; I saw John Paul as though he were pierced with the form of the Cross on his whole body. And yet, he moved—almost miraculously—for it was Crucified Love that carried him.

John Paul II came to Mexico because he loved Our Lady of Guadalupe and he loved "America"—which for him was one great continent—and he loved the "Ecclesia in America."

It was love that transfigured him in those moments on that day. And I thought to myself, "This is what it must have been like to see Saint Francis of Assisi." This was the impression that came to me, spontaneously, as I watched this magnificent, wounded, broken lover of Christ, the man who was the outstanding witness to the Gospel in my lifetime: Saint John Paul II.

He left an unforgettable mark on the Church in America during that journey. Many remember it primarily as the occasion of his last international World Youth Day celebration, held in Toronto. But Toronto came after the pilgrimage to Mexico to be with Mary and to honor the one she called "Juanito."

It strikes me that poor Saint Juan Diego was "overshadowed"—even at his own canonization—by the stupendous presence of the great Saint John Paul II. But once again, I don't think that the humble Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin had any complaints about that.

These two great saints, and our Merciful Mother, help to sustain in me a “supernaturally realistic” hope for the future of “America,” the future of all the peoples who share this common land.

————————————————————

I worked up a couple of Juan Diego Digital Art pieces today at JJStudios. In both the portrait above and the “tilma scene” below, I began with photographs of small statues, replaced the backgrounds, and used a variety of virtual tools (including those that allow me to “work by hand”) to shape and “sculpt” these digital images.
.


Thursday, December 8, 2022

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Saint Ambrose: A Roman Governor Becomes a Bishop

Today is the feast of Saint Ambrose, and his story really is a great conversion story. Here is the text that appeared in my column in the February 2019 issue of Magnificat:

In the fourth century, Roman society was in a difficult transition from a thousand years of paganism (that had shaped its laws and modes of governance) to the newly “official” Christianity of Emperor Constantine and his successors. Many Romans in powerful positions became merely nominal Christians, and some even tried to manipulate the Church. Others were sincerely convinced of the truth of the Gospel, but saw difficulties in reconciling that conviction with their political position in the society of late antiquity.

Aurelius Ambrosius was one of the latter people. He was born in Trier in Gaul (where his father was Imperial Prefect) around 340, into a family of Roman nobility that also had a Christian lineage. He was given a thorough education in preparation for a political career. Though enrolled as a catechumen, he was not baptized in his youth. Wealthy Christian families in Rome generally delayed the baptism of their children, and men committed to government service often remained catechumens indefinitely, as exercising worldly power seemed incompatible with the demands of Christian living.

Ambrose rose to become Governor of Milan. Although he knew the basics of Christianity, tried to live an upright life, and was known and respected for his fairness and equanimity, Governor Ambrose was not ready for baptism even as he approached middle age. As far as he could see, his office required him to belong to what was still a pre-Christian world and to use the sometimes brutal means of that world when necessary.

Still, he had no taste for violent measures. Ambrose preferred persuasion, and he excelled at it. During his governorship, the affairs of the Church in Milan were in an uproar as the upholders of Nicene orthodoxy battled against the Arian party. After the (Arian supporting) bishop died in 374, partisans of both sides nearly rioted over who would succeed him. Governor Ambrose was compelled to intervene to restore the peace. Instead of calling in soldiers, however, he spoke to the people of Milan about the necessity of concord.

Here God’s grace was mysteriously at work. Even as the governor’s words brought the people together, the Holy Spirit inspired within them an unusual but prophetic intuition and desire: that Governor Ambrose himself should become their new bishop. They took up the cry, “Ambrose for bishop!” This was not, however, what the still-unbaptized Emperor’s consul had expected. He resisted what was ultimately a call for his own conversion. In the days that followed, he tried to convince the people that he unworthy of being a bishop. He was a civil official who had used torture and shed blood. He was weighed down with worldly riches. He was bound to the Emperor’s service. When the people continued to insist, Ambrose fled the city and went into hiding. But they sent an appeal to the Emperor himself and received his approval.

Only then did Ambrose lay down the burden of his worldly office. The call of Jesus Christ surrounded him from every side, and he realized that it was time to say, “Yes.” He was baptized on November 30, 374 and was ordained bishop a week later, on December 7. He put aside Imperial power to become a shepherd, and thereafter he dedicated all his intelligence, eloquence, and judiciousness to preaching Christ and serving His Church.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

Happy 20th Birthday, Teresa!

Here is Teresa Janaro, on the left in 2004 (when she was around Maria’s age) and on the right, as she is now. Below is “Aunt Tee” with her one-and-a-half year old niece.☺️

Twenty years really is a “generation,” a segment of time that history is made of.


Sunday, December 4, 2022

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Gazing Upon China With Saint Francis Xavier

On this December 3rd, I can’t improve much on the summary I made last year of the life of the incredible Saint Francis Xavier, missionary to East Asia. He was no seeker of earthly power or riches; he was a man on fire with the love of God, with a passion to witness to Jesus through all the world. He preached in India, was the first Catholic missionary in Japan, and longed to reach China—where he finally died of an illness (having reached the limits of human endurance) on an island seven miles from the coast of the southern province of Guangdong. The ardor of his missionary heart brought a great many people to Christ, shined the light of the Gospel explicitly in nations where it had never shone before, and planted seeds—many of which have yet to grow, blossom, and bear fruit. But others have grown and bloomed, and many more grow secretly.

The seeds planted by Francis Xavier and those who followed after him (indeed, also those who preceded him) have already borne worthy fruit. His Jesuit brethren reached China, and they learned to propose the Gospel in all its radical newness, but also as the fulfillment of China’s profound “religious” wisdom traditions, its reverent humanism, and its ancient yet childlike wonder in front of the order, harmony, and beauty of the world. Along with other missionaries, the Jesuits came with respect for China’s great culture, and they fostered patiently the encounter of Chinese people with Jesus.

Their witness made possible the conversions of a number of the elite class in the late-Ming Dynasty period (early-to-mid 17th century) including Li Zhizao, Yang Tingyun, and Xu Guangqi—who are known as the “three pillars” of the Catholic Church in China. In the subsequent centuries, Christianity’s growth in China was small but significant. It faced persecution at various times, while also spreading more widely (sometimes in ambiguous forms) after the British forcibly “opened” China to Western “trade” in the 19th century. There was much that was shameful in those days, when British companies traded vast quantities of Indian opium for Chinese tea, initiating and sustaining a widespread opium addiction that was previously unknown to China. 

Though never colonized, China suffered greatly under the weight of Western political and economic powers. Meanwhile, Protestant and Catholic missionaries came in large numbers, but frequently it proved difficult to distinguish the Gospel from a huge influx of other secular European ideas. Many of these ideas from the West were good, but they often reached the declining Qing Dynasty-era Chinese society in a “mixed bag” of European views and practices already distorted by Europe’s dominant mentality, which was characterized by a post-Christian, materialistic, technologically manipulative hubris.

The 20th century was a period of unprecedented upheaval and astonishing change for the whole world, but it all came with peculiar intensiveness to China, the world’s most populated country. The Church grew, and there were many genuine advances rooted in an increasingly worldwide recognition of the dignity of human persons. But along with these came wars and destructive ideologies, especially what might be called the “ultimate Christian heresy,” Marxism-Leninism, which endeavored to spend every resource of human idealism, intelligence, and hope on the violent and futile effort to break the world and then refashion it as an egalitarian utopia. Under Mao Zedong, China became a strange and tormented laboratory for all manner of experimentation with human and natural ecology in disastrous attempts to create the New Communist Human Being.

After Mao’s death in 1976, China’s Communist Party apparently “pivoted.” It exchanged its exhausted and discredited utopian materialism for a more pragmatic consumerist materialism, but it still maintained its power and its willingness to crush without mercy any deviation from its all-invasive dictatorial grasp. China is ruled today by a vast militarized and bureaucratized neo-Fascist PartyState that is accountable to no one and keeps many secrets. They permit their power to be constrained, it seems, only to the degree necessary to maintain a minimum of credibility on the “world stage,” to do business and expand their influence in globalized markets (which is unavoidable in today’s world), to make a show (a rather poor show) of humanitarian and ecological concerns, and to make treaties and diplomatic and trade agreements with other countries.

But surely there is more to the story of today’s China. Impulses toward the good run abundantly through the veins of this enormous nation. There is much constructive work, dedication in good faith to caring for people, genuine love and self-sacrifice, preservation or rediscovery of the best of a four-thousand-year-old tradition, and genuine new questions in the face of present circumstances. I know, too, that there has been immense suffering, patience, quiet dignity, moments of surprising heroism, and the pervasive cry of a billion-and-a-half hearts that are not satisfied by the Party Line or increasing profits or the combination of both that Chinese Communofacism currently offers as its ideal for happiness.

I know that it is the Lord of Heaven who truly permits and sustains and governs all things, the Lord who has drawn close to every human heart in Jesus Christ.

For this reason (and, ultimately, what other reason is there?) I continue to have hope for China, and for Chinese people, in the present and in times to come. It has been more than five years since I took up in earnest the study of China and other East Asian cultures—a project I began when I realized how little I knew about this immense part of the world. After five years of continuous application to study and some written work of my own, I find myself with more questions than when I began. Perhaps they are at least more intelligent questions.

Saint Francis Xavier, however, did not arrive at the threshold of China in the 16th century because he merely had “questions.” He was driven by the love of Christ, and by love for these millions of people with whom he wanted to share the surpassing joy of knowing Christ. He was certain that Christ was the reason why each one of them had been made. Though I have a weak faith and a fickle heart, I have the same certainty that Francis Xavier had. I hope that my own labors can participate somehow in the mission he sought to carry out.

I will probably never “cross the border” into China, but as I study its history and learn about its people, I glimpse their beautiful and special qualities, their historic and current problems, their particular (and terrible) sufferings, and—once again, with amazement—the fundamental common humanity we share and the common destiny toward which we journey together. I hope to carry them in my heart, offering them to the infinite mercy of Jesus who loves us all. I will continue to study hard and write more, to learn what I can and ask questions, to encourage further dialogue and understanding between West and East, and to contribute to engaging problems and even facing dangers down the road—all in the hope of drawing closer together in Christ and sharing together the joy of eternal life.

Friday, December 2, 2022

“We Need a Life that Raises Us From the Dead”

I want to share excerpts from the text we have been working on. It helps me to be reminded of the truth every day by listening to words like these, by being challenged and encouraged by the reality they signify:

" ‘I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die’ [John 11:25]. This, only this, is what we need, what everyone needs. This is the only thing necessary. We need a life that raises us from the dead, from every death, from every face that death and evil take on in our personal life, family, community, and the entire world. All the rest is a thousand things that worry us and make us anxious without being necessary, because they never respond to the true need of the heart, of every heart…

" ‘If Christ is enough, what is all the rest? Hunger, desire, work, politics, passion, sentiments, [concerns about] war: What are all these things?’ [this was a question many people asked]. All of this is longing for Christ, all of this is the concrete face of a cry, of the need for Him, the thirst for Him, the emptiness in life if He is not there. So, in embracing Christ I am not renouncing all of these things; I am not saying that all of this is nothing. I am affirming even more that all of this truly wants to be full of reality. If I do not embrace Christ, if I do not let Christ enter my house, my house remains empty as a home, and nothing has meaning any more, not the table, not the chair, nothing. Acknowledging that all of this is reaching out to Him makes every instant of our daily life the place of the verification of His presence, that He is present."

—Abbot Mauro-Giuseppe Lepori, O.C.S.O. (CL Fraternity Retreat 2022)

[image: “Raising of Lazarus” (1961) by William Congdon]

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Saint Charles de Foucauld, the “Universal” Brother

For the first time, we mark December 1 as the commemoration of Saint Charles de Foucauld. 

His words below, excerpted from his letters, are expressed in the ardent language of late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century French Catholic spirituality (a language, we should note, that sustained missionaries who courageously preached the gospel all over the earth). At the same time, the words of Saint Charles—the little brother of Jesus, the “universal brother”—express a heart drawn by Jesus far beyond the limits of any particular culture, a heart opened and wounded by the love of Jesus for all humanity, and sent into the desert to seek out the poorest and most forgotten of his brothers, to share their humble lives, to be radically available to them, to suffer with them and in solitude, to die alone and—apparently—forgotten deep in the Sahara on December 1, 1916.

“Pray very much: when we love we want to talk endlessly to the being we love, or at least look at him endlessly: this is what prayer is, familiar converse with our Beloved: we look at him, we tell him we love him, we rejoice at being at his feet, we tell him that this is where we want to live and die.

“What would we speak of if not of him who is our life, for whom we breathe, for whom alone we want to live, to whom we belong unreservedly and for ever, body, soul, mind and heart, all to him, all for him!

“And how divinely good he is to allow ants like us to love him. One look from him would be too much for us: him, infinitude, sovereign and infinite perfection! …us, such tiny, ungrateful, sinful creatures. 

“But not only does he look at us, he makes himself one of us; he 'takes delight in being with the children of men'; he watches over us and leads us in all our ways; he makes himself the least among us, suffers with us, for us and on behalf of us for thirty-three years, and dies through us and for us, bathing us and sanctifying all of us with his divine blood. How happy we are!”