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The Synod, Just Once More, for Now

As we’ve seen in previous synods, they can be subtly, and not so subtly, rigged. Our American bishops nominated moderates as delegates: Cardinal Dolan, Archbishop Broglio, Bishops Barron, Rhoades, and Flores. This week, Pope Francis chose Cardinals Cupich, McElroy, Gregory, and O’Malley (Tobin participates as one of the synod organizers), and Fr. James Martin, S.J. And Victor Manuel Fernández, ghostwriter of Amoris Laetitia, whom he also named to head the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith – a confusing but reliable Argentinian gatekeeper.

Some people have begun arguing that this is all a quarrel among self-important pezzi grossi, activists, and ideologues – irrelevant to their lives. And that it’s far more important to put energy into staying faithful and confronting the sharp threats to Catholics everywhere – especially since the Vatican seems to have little interest in helping them do so. Anyone might be forgiven for turning away from the whole self-referential mess of the Synod on Synodality and let what happens, happen. Which it’s likely to do anyway, no matter what people on the inside or outside, do or say.

For many people, that’s the right choice. The Synod is already winding itself up over things like “welcoming” people, particularly LGBTQ+s who will largely never turn to the Church, welcoming notwithstanding. Meanwhile, faithful Catholics in every developed country are facing aggressive proselytizing by LGBTQ+ activists who have captured the “commanding heights of the culture,” as the Soviets used to say. And are regularly called “haters” of sexual minorities and women seeking abortions.

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‘Sound of Freedom’ with Jim Caviezel

Had this been a poorly executed film, I’d have been tempted to praise it anyway because it’s about the criminal and sinful practice of kidnapping children and selling them as sex slaves. . . and because the estimable Jim Caviezel is the star. But it’s a good thriller featuring fine performances.

So here’s the story of director Alejandro Monteverde’s movie. (Mr. Monteverde is the director of the wonderful 2006 pro-life film, Bella.)

But first, the film features Mr. Caviezel, Mira Sorvino, José Zúñiga, Eduardo Verastegui, Gerardo Taracena, and Bill Camp (who gives the film’s best performance). It’s written by Mr. Monteverde and Rod Barr and produced by Mr. Verastegui.

Tim Ballard (Mr. Caviezel) leaves his position as a Special Agent with U.S. Homeland Security Investigations to become a freelance operative in order to rescue kidnapped kids from cartels, who, in turn, sell the children to human traffickers in Latin America, who, in turn, send them all over the world (including the United States) to be raped by pedophiles.

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A Synod of No Surprises

Passing through the D.C. Metro recently, I noticed a (muted) Pride-Month poster – rainbow strips peeping between black bands – and a caption that read something like, “The Metro Authority believes that transportation is for everyone.”

Washington PR consultants doubtless did very well out of this ad campaign – as “consultants” of all kinds tend to do in our society – speaking out bravely against a view (Public transportation for white Christian nationalists only?) held by absolutely no one. But unlike the Instrumentum Laboris (IL), the Vatican’s recently issued Working Document of the Synod on Synodality, at least the D.C. Metro does not believe that the central value of transportation is transportation itself. The Metro actually embodies the once-obvious human view that the value of transportation means moving in predictable ways from one place to another, towards a specific goal, for an identifiable reason.

The IL opens with a proclamation: “The People of God have been on the move since Pope Francis convened the whole Church in Synod in October 2021.” Really? Meetings have certainly been held. Long and windy and vague texts produced. All this, it’s said, better to preach the Gospel.

But what is that Gospel?

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The Gentleman from Verona

Romano Guardini (1885-1968) was born in Verona in Northern Italy, but while he was very young his family moved to Mainz in Germany, where his father was Italian consul. Except for regular trips to Italy, he lived in Germany during his formative years and wrote in German. For many thinkers, this history might be a mere biographical detail. In Guardini’s case, it has considerable significance.

He was a beloved figure among his students and had an enormous influence on the Catholic Church and European culture in the twentieth century – and beyond. He inspired later thinkers as diverse as von Balthasar, Pieper, Giussani, Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), and Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis). His influence probably owes something to his dual heritage, which combines German academic rigor with a gentler Italian humanism.

Guardini’s greatest and best-known books – The End of the Modern World, The Spirit of the Liturgy, and The Lord –have remained in print and influenced generations. The End of theModern World was particularly prescient. In 1950, Guardini could already write that it was easy to describe the modern age because, “in all crucial respects the modern world has come to an end.”

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Cinematic Cynicism: a Review of ‘Padre Pio’

There may never have been a more cynical attempt to market a motion picture nobody would otherwise go to see – by giving it a title (and a poster image to go with it) that has next to nothing to do with the film’s actual content.

That poster features the film’s “star,” Shia LaBeouf, who is on screen for about as long as the donkey he rides in on in an early sequence of Abel Ferrara’s Padre Pio.

This is a publicity poster for the new drama “Padre Pio,” which premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival and will be released in U.S. theaters and on demand June 2, 2023. (OSV News photo/Gravitas Ventures)

Padre Pio? Mr. LaBeouf impersonates the Italian saint who was marked with the stigmata of Christ, but we never see those holy wounds*** or get any sense of this character’s saintliness in a film that’s really about class war and the rise of fascism in Italy. Benito Mussolini came to power at just the time depicted in the film.

Maybe that could have been an interesting movie, but the scenes of the meetings and conversations of the would-be socialist revolutionaries and fascist bully boys of Padre Pio have all the gravitas of a low-budget telenovela. Mind you, the struggles of the poor in Italy against the entrenched upper classes were very real.

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You Do Belong Here

We’re quite prone, in these days of political hysteria and fragility, to blow up discrete incidents – sensationally circulated on social media – into cosmic proportions. But every now and then something does turn up in the worldwide churn of pixels that shows a boundary has been crossed. That happened, I believe, last week in Canada, when a public school teacher told a Muslim student who was protesting Pride Month events by skipping class that if he didn’t respect LGBTQs by participating, “you don’t belong here.”

I’ve been waiting for this to happen for over two decades. The teacher has been described in the press as “unhinged” and an exception. But we know that’s not true. In Canada, the United States, several European countries, and beyond, “gender ideology,” as Pope Francis has rightly called it, is a new form of “cultural colonization.” It’s everywhere – and aggressive. (Query: then why doesn’t he confront that relentless proselytizing instead of indulging its representatives?)

It’s not only faithful Muslims who are coming to be regarded as outside the house of democracy. It’s Catholics, evangelicals, conservative and orthodox Jews, and ordinary parents who want their children – especially their young children – to be left alone on controversial matters in schools and other public venues. And not to be kept in the dark – or outright lied to – by government employees.

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Caravaggio’s Road to Damascus

It’s the Year of Our Lord 34, and Saul is on his way to Damascus to persecute “the Way,” as Luke puts it in Acts 9. Then – all of a sudden – BOOM!

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

I imagine a force accompanying the flash of “light from heaven”: a kind of silent explosion, as of a vacuum suddenly created or vacated. In any case, it knocks Saul from his horse. The horse is a disputed detail, not found explicitly in the text and partly an artistic embellishment, although Christ does say to Saul, “get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Note: Get up.

To me, this is the most fascinating and epoch-making of all the Biblical stories of the apostolic era: no blinding light, no Apostle Paul. It’s a moment painted by many artists, including twice by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610): once in 1600 in The Conversion of Saint Paul (now in a private Roman villa, the Palazzo Odescalchi Balbi); and a year later in Conversion of Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus (in situ at the Cerasi Chapel of the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, also in Rome).

It’s interesting to note that the Odescalchi Conversion was a reject and the Cerasi a second attempt to please the patron who’d refused the first. (This happened a number of times in Caravaggio’s career.)

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Simple – and Not So Simple – Gifts

Today is Memorial Day. It’s altogether right and fitting to remember that we’re here today because hundreds of thousands of Americans, ordinary people called to extraordinary things, willingly gave up their lives. It’s one of the deepest  human ways of seeing ourselves in light of what Edmund Burke called our “unbought grace of life.”

Probably 25,000 dead on the American side in the Revolutionary War; around 620,000 (both sides) during the Civil War, i.e., the struggle to preserve the union and put an end to slavery. More recently, 58,000 in Vietnam. Another 7000+ in Afghanistan and Iraq. And more, sadly, to come.

For all the controversies surrounding every one of these conflicts, we – who despite our troubles, by historical standards, live lives of rare tranquility and ease – need to remember them with no little gratitude.

That is how civics teachers in schools once would have presented this holiday. I wonder what they do these days, when our public institutions show every sign of being mentally, morally, and spiritually disturbed?

I’m not a Civil War buff. But friends who are have taken me through sites in Virginia, which are historically fascinating and deeply moving. According to one source, deaths in the war between the states were “approximately equal to the total of American fatalities in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, the Spanish American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War, combined.” For us in 2023, it’s especially urgent to remember these body counts when a nation forgets sacrifice for the common good and tears itself apart, as ours seems to be doing again.

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To What Shall We Compare the Present Age?

One of the most remarkable features of the Gospels is how Jesus effortlessly tosses off unforgettable sayings, the kinds of phrases only the greatest thinkers and poets produce – and only rarely. As the American writer Randall Jarrell once put it, “ A good poet is someone who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times; a dozen or two dozen times and he is great.” Jesus was – clearly – much more than a poet. But it’s still striking that he could say more memorable things in a few minutes on ordinary days than any figure in history. Pity the myopic Biblical scholars – or the many people now influenced by them – who believe that a gaggle of fishermen, tax collectors, and itinerant preachers just made a lot of it up.

Christ’s often-simple sayings bulk so large that it’s taken millennia of theologians, philosophers, saints, mystics, martyrs, priests, bishops, and popes even to begin to grasp what He said. And yet, at the same time, His words have spoken to the hearts of average people, not only in his day, but over ages, in “diverse” cultures, despite what seemed impossible obstacles. Aquinas thought one of the greatest Christian miracles was how a few humble men from a cultural backwater were able to convert the greatest empire (Rome) then in existence. A matter of sheer historical fact – and he lived before the Faith spread to the Americas, Africa, Asia, and the whole world.

That all this seems threatened now, and on every front, is reassuring in one way; it suggests that as dark as things seem at present, in both the Church and the world, the Gospel has shown itself to have an unsuspected power that cannot be predicted. It has always exceeded what we might “reasonably” expect. And could do so at any moment, even today.

In another way, it’s right to be worried because the present age seems not only mired in the usual human tangle of sin and ignorance. Our Western non-culture seems hell-bent on not only opposing but wiping out the very memory of the best that made us who we are.

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Living through an Apocalypse

When the history of our times comes to be written, scholars won’t be able to ignore how much recent years have been marked by widespread feelings of apocalypse. That’s, of course, assuming that there are any historians who survive. Because from threats of nuclear war to climate change, from AI (artificial intelligence) to the digital technologies damaging our very bodies and brains, from the virtual erasure of the sex “binary” (i.e., women and men) to a media hell-bent on encouraging social division, it at least feels like the radical end – of something. Maybe everything. And not just for eccentric sects gathering on hilltops, waiting for the end. There’s a sense that the next year-and-a-half or so will be decisive both in American electoral politics (and society), and in the way the Synod on Synodality will affect the self-understanding of the One, Holy, Roman, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

So, what do you do in apocalyptic times – real or imagined?  There’s the way of the world, and the way of wisdom.

The way of the world is hysteria – and, in fact, a strange liking for the constant agitation of the news and social media. If nothing else, it masks existential boredom, the kind of boredom that many people in developed societies feel on a daily basis when basic needs and even luxuries are readily available in relatively calm and peaceful settings. This achievement – the dream of ages – has come at the cost of regarding virtually the entire created universe as mere energy and matter to be exploited and manipulated for human benefit. Under the circumstances, for many people, it’s better – and easier – to let loose moral outrage in fights over climate change or racial “privilege” or recently invented “genders,” than to face the fundamental problem: the bleakness of modern materialism.

The way of wisdom, by contrast, is what it’s always been: a realistic acceptance that we all die, that an end will come, someday, even to the earth, the sun, the very created universe.

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