Category Archives: Religion

Why I enjoyed Netflix’s “The Two Popes”

Two Popes posterNetflix’s new two-hour film The Two Popes starring Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Sir Anthony Hopkins as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is theatre, pure and simple. It falls into one of the most classic sorts of plays, a dialogue between two men with similar positions yet very different experiences. While not all the conversations that make up The Two Popes may have happened, according to an article in America, the story that they tell on the screen is beautifully rendered and exceptionally human in its content.

The film begins with the Papal Conclave of 2005 at the death of Pope, now Saint, John Paul II, when then Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was elected as the new Supreme Pontiff, taking the name Benedict XVI. The conflict between Benedict and the reformist cardinal Jorge Maria Bergoglio, the current pope, is made clear from the first moment. Moreover, the two characters are framed as foils for each other: Benedict is removed from the world while Francis is fully a part of it; Benedict is traditional while Francis is less keen on pomp and grandeur of the Papacy and the Church in general; Benedict says he is disliked when observing how Francis seems to make friends with just about anyone he meets.

It is important to understand that while this film tells a story inspired by the recent events of the lives of two of the most important men in our lifetimes, it is nonetheless a story meant to entertain and give the audience a message of hope for redemption, peace, and a willingness to accept change even if it may not be the change we expected. In that sense The Two Popes has a bit of the same spirit that has enriched many a story down the centuries. There’s a sense in this film that if two people with opposing perspectives sit down and talk about their disagreements, that eventually they’ll reach some sort of common understanding, or at least mutual respect. Both Popes come to respect each other out of a mutual understanding of their imperfect humanity, that both men have made mistakes in their lives, yet they still have striven to do good.

The Two Popes does not hold back on the problems facing the Catholic Church today. It acknowledges the scandals and errors that continue to plague the Church now at the start of the 2020s. Yet it takes those scandals, those errors, those misjudgments, and it uses them to breath even more life into these two characters. I enjoyed this film because it’s a well written bit of theatre, depicted beautifully on the screen. The Two Popes, and in particular Pryce and Hopkins’s performances, do what any good bit of writing is supposed to do: make the audience think.

Four Months Later

Screen Shot 2019-11-25 at 11.24.45EST

The simplest way of saying it is that even though I’ve already been in graduate school for the better part of the last four years, I was not prepared for the intensity of work that I have found myself undertaking over the last sixteen weeks. It has now been four months since I left Kansas City for the crown jewel of the State University of New York’s system, Binghamton University. I started on the back foot, as my intended research project became unviable a full two weeks before my departure. Yet I have taken that setback as a good reason to move forward, with resolve, to stay on track and on schedule, and to find another topic to focus my research on.

As most teenagers do, I felt ashamed about the things I had been passionate about as a young child. So many things that I looked back on with joy were simply not “cool enough,” not something that I would want to share with my friends. Yet after starting my undergraduate degree at Rockhurst in 2011, I began to allow myself to open up to those same passions and interests from my earliest years. That said, until now I did not allow topics like zoology, or travel, or natural history to become my primary professional focus; I stayed in the same areas that I fell into in high school and as an undergrad, in politics, theology, and philosophy, and ran with those, completing one bachelor’s and two master’s degrees in that same purely anthropocentric and theocentric vein.

Yet in August, as I found myself without a research topic, the most fundamental part of a Ph.D. in History, I decided to take the initiative and try and incorporate some of those childhood interests into my research. Today, I am beginning what hopefully will be a career-launching research project looking into how Renaissance travel narratives served as vehicles for the transmission of new scientific information, specifically about zoology, from the Americas to the reading public in Europe. I decided to incorporate those old topics that I have always loved to learn about, whether from books or in museums or at zoos, and frame the history that I am writing around them.

The greatest lesson so far since arriving in Binghamton has been in patience. Having landed in a town that frankly I would never choose to live in if not for the university, I have begun to learn how to be patient with my surroundings, to bide my time and work so that I can eventually move on to greener pastures, ideally in a metropolitan city of at least 1.5 to 2 million people. I have also had to shed off the last trappings of my childhood and teenage fear of criticism, which has certainly limited my success in the past. Having a good 400 pages to read per week, I have struggled to properly prepare myself in such a way that I feel confident to discuss the topics at hand, many of which, such as Hippocratic medicine, I have little background in.

I believe that all bad things that happen in our lives eventually boil down to fear, our fear of the unknown, our fear of others, our fear of ourselves even. By beginning to learn how to be patient, how to deal with criticism, I am confronting many of those deepest fears that held me back in the past. I know for a fact that I’m not nearly over many of them, after all some fear is a good thing, otherwise I might try to pet the mountain lion at the Binghamton Zoo, and frankly I’d rather keep both of my hands. Still, a little wise individual, in one of the greatest sagas to be produced in our time, once said that “the greatest teacher fear is.” I certainly believe it.

Equality under the Law

Words and phrases are powerful tools, and the emotions that we attach to particular words only begin to stick once certain actions are taken based upon the intent of those words. In the United States the debate over the issue of abortion has long been controlled by the social conservatives on the right. Predominately made up of Conservative Protestants and Catholics, this odd faction have united in their opposition to predominately two main issues: the rights of women to control their futures outside of the will of powerful men, and the rights of people to express their love beyond the traditional Judeo-Christian bounds of love between one man and one woman.

This odd couple has been successful in framing the abortion debate as one between those righteous who support the right of all who are conceived to be born, and thus declaring themselves to be Pro-Life. By declaring themselves, the anti-abortion factions, to be Pro-Life, they have categorically deemed their counterparts, those who support women’s abortion rights, to be little more than misguided homicidal individuals. To correct these tendencies towards abortion, the Pro-Life camp has advised women to let their pregnancy go through, and to protect the innocent life that comes out of the mother’s womb. The first of many ironies and issues with this is that the people in positions of power most likely to offer that advice are either men, or women who follow the advice of those men regardless of what might be best for themselves.

A number of years ago, while writing for Examiner.com’s Kansas City Catholic column, I published an opinion piece calling out the anti-abortion movement as not necessarily pro-life, but more simply pro-birth. After writing that article calling out the hypocrisy of people who are so adamant to protect the fetus, but are content with capital punishment, and who refuse to support “socialist” policies like universal healthcare, and matching the minimum wage to the living wage, among others, I actually received a fair number of threats from readers. Today, knowing and recognizing the infractions being committed against women’s rights by state legislatures from coast to coast, including my own state of Missouri, I cannot sit by silently and watch.

In this country we allow the most despicable of speech because if we limited one type of speech then all free speech would equally be threatened. In this country the same social conservatives who oppose abortion have argued that we cannot have even the most basic control on gun sales because it would threaten all rights to own guns. The bills being passed in the state legislatures, that will certainly be used to challenge the legality of the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling are not just wrong, they are excessively so. They directly target a particular group of citizens based upon their biological sex and make it harder, if not nigh impossible to have a viable livelihood in a number of states. Like the recent set of voter ID laws that target minority voters, limiting their basic right of participation in government, these anti-abortion laws offend the very concept of equality under the law upon which the sociopolitical life of our country is built.

Earlier this week, when the Governor of Alabama signed that state’s bill into law, she expressly noted the religious undertones that have fueled the anti-abortion movement. As long as we have freedom of religion in this country, we cannot have any direct influence from any one religion upon our government at any level. If a law such as this anti-abortion law, which is openly influenced by the religious beliefs of the aforementioned Conservative Protestants and Catholics, becomes official, then the rights of all other people of faith in this country are infringed upon.

If we are going to allow one faith to be practiced freely, all other faiths must have the same protections. Yet it is counter to the very core of Christianity, a faith in a God of Charitable Love, to use our religion to restrict the rights of others. The malice that fuels these bills is a threat not only to women, but to everyone else in this country who doesn’t fit into the narrow vision of goodness that the anti-abortion crowd yearns for.

Optimism and Belief

Cloud-line

In my life, there have been two things standing as constants: optimism and belief. I have embraced these two guiding principles, and striven in due course to live a better life as a part of the wider human community through them. For me, my faith as a Catholic and as a Christian is an inherently positive one; it is a faith in Resurrection, in Union with the Divine Essence, in the fulfilment of the circle and restoration of humanity to paradise.

Yet to allow this faith to persist I have found myself inherently optimistic, always expecting the best from people, and looking at even the darkest of situations with the hope that is required to believe in something greater than Reality. True, this is blind faith, something entirely counter to the principles of our scientific age, yet in the end is not blind faith equally necessary in a scientific setting? After all, we have yet to learn all that there is to know about nature, our sciences are as of yet unfinished in amassing the totality of reality. Therefore, if we are to accept science as an effective and prosperous measure of nature, then we must also accept that that measure is man-made and limited in its scope.

I see those things measured by science each and every day, and I am in awe of their wonder. I see how the Sun rises in the east and sets in the west, how the stars circle in the sky as the year passes. I hear the wind bristling through the leaves of the trees, and across the tall grass prairies. I have known what it means to be caught on the beach at high tide, and to be at the mercy of the awesome tempestuous power of lightning. Past generations might well have worshiped these forces of nature, seen them as gods like Zeus, Taranis, or Ukko, yet I see them as terrestrial, as natural, as real. The true force, the veritable essence to be worshiped is far greater than even the rolling thunder or bristling lightning.

In these circumstances I am reminded of the American hymn How Great Thou Art, yet in the smallest of moments too I am reminded of God’s coming to Elijah on the softest breath of wind in the cave. Divinity and the essence that made all that we know and love is so far beyond our own understanding, yet in that realisation I find my peace.

Often it can be said that I find my belief renewed through music, through that purest, most mellifluous of sound. Some of the most sacred moments of my life, the most moving moments in the story of my belief have come in moments of music, from operas like Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte to the Pilgrim’s Chorus in Wagner’s Tannhäuser to great orchestral outbursts of emotion as in Stravinsky’s Firebird and most all of Mahler’s symphonies; yet equally spiritually potent for me are the more recently composed naturalistic Mass settings that I sang with the Rockhurst University Chorus while an undergraduate student there from 2011 to 2015. Music has long been said to be the Voice of the Heavens, and certainly it has appeared to be so to me.

Yet what I find the most fulfilling to my belief in the Divine is humanity. In the Christian tradition we believe that humanity was “Created in the Image and Likeness of God.” For me, this means that our souls particularly were made in the Divine Image, but that our bodies also have Divine inspiration. When I see humanity, with all our faults, all our problems, all our pain and anguish, I can’t help but be swept off my feet in grief. Yet at the end of the day I always remember the old adage echoed by Little Orphan Annie, “Tomorrow will be a brighter day.”

I believe that one day that will come true, that one day all will be sorted out in our capitals, our courts, our executive palaces. I believe that one day we will march through our cities, not in protest or in anger, not out of anguish or to alleviate our suffering, but because we are celebrating that most essential characteristic of our humanity: liberty. I believe that someday all humanity will walk together, singing in unison, a multitude of voices, of languages, of cultures and creeds making one song. I believe in optimism, and I am optimistic about my belief.

We Stand Together

18946991_10213047198957274_893548281_o.jpgAt this point in time, after so many terror attacks around the world in recent years, my initial reaction to the attack in London last night was somewhat muted and reserved. I was not surprised that it had happened; yet I was nevertheless deeply distressed that innocent people would be so brutally assaulted. The three attackers, their identities as of yet unannounced by the Metropolitan Police, will spend eternity lapping in the seas of ignominy, far from the verdant peaceful halls of rest that they may wished to have known.

They died attacking innocents; their last actions in this life were in the spirit of chaos. With all that said, they were still human, and as a Christian I believe they, like the rest of us, were made in the image and likeness of God. So, as time passes and I think on their final acts, I will be helpless but to consider them as humans, like the rest of us, and so mourn their poor decisions and pray for their souls, that eventually they, and their victims, might find peace.

We are all human; we all start our lives with that one equalising factor. If terrorists, warlords, and fearmongers seek to divide us, we must constantly remember what unites us. For the sake of our future we must stand together. In the wake of the latest attack we have a choice: to retaliate with ever increasing violence and terror, or to stand taller and remain above their cowardly and weak tactics. When they offer war we must offer peace. When they taunt us towards destroying all they know and love, we must not validate their evil by doing so.

Our societies and governments are founded upon the basic principles of constitutionalism. They are built on the principle that no one should be above the law. Justice is the rudder of our ship of state. Every time we treat anyone as less than their rightful station, every time we jump to conclusions about a person without facts or evidence, every time we respond to terror with terror, baying for blood, we undermine that omnipresent principle of justice for all. After all, once we begin to look out from beneath our blinders and consider the people around us, we will surely see another human being with feelings and hopes, with dreams and desires not unlike our own.

I did not know the men who attacked the crowds on London Bridge or in Borough Market. As of the time of publication the police have not released their names. Nor did I know the seven people whom they killed. I do not know what they were like, what they dreamed about at night, who they loved, or what their favourite things were. What I do know however is that they were all humans like me.

In my culture the golden rule is to treat others as you would want to be treated, and while these attackers certainly did not do that, how can I stand by that rule without seeing them as humans. Sure they were flawed, after all what they did is reprehensible to the highest degree, but all the same they were human. I hope that all involved, perpetrators and victims alike can find peace in this life or in the next. At the end of the day if we want the terror to cease, we must stand together as one common humanity. We must be the change, the light that will douse the darkness. The day we cease to preach and live love is the day we give in to terror and chaos.

The Pope and the President

Embed from Getty Images

Today a rather oddly stacked meeting took place in the splendid halls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican. It was a meeting between two men who could not have possibly been more ideologically or culturally opposed to each other. Yet there they were, Pope Francis and President Trump standing side-by-side. Their meeting was a diplomatic affair, in part to appease the conservative Catholic base that had aided Trump in winning the presidency in November 2016.

I was unsurprised when a few weeks ago the news broke that Trump would be visiting Pope Francis in the Vatican, after all every American president since Eisenhower had made a visit to the Holy See to meet with every pontiff since Pope Saint John XXIII. Yet I found myself hoping, even praying, that Pope Francis would bend traditional diplomatic protocol ever so slightly and arrange for his meeting with the new president not in the splendour of the Apostolic Palace where all the temporal power and wealth of the Church is to be found. Rather, I hoped the Holy Father would invite the President to meet him in one of the Vatican’s charitable centres, perhaps in the homeless shelter that Pope Francis opened in January of this year, or in one of the city-state’s soup kitchens.

If there is one trait that the current United States President does not understand, let alone practice, it is humility. During his visit to the Eternal City he should take the time to visit the Basilica of Saint Lawrence outside the Walls (San Lorenzo fuori le Mura). It was here in the third century that Saint Lawrence, a martyr of the Early Church, was buried. When asked by the Prefect of Rome to hand over all the riches of the Church to the Imperial Treasury, Lawrence responded by gathering all of the poor and destitute who had benefited from the Church’s charity and brought them together to line the street leading to the centre of the old Christian Quarter.

When the Prefect returned, Lawrence announced that he had gathered the riches of the Church together in one place for the Prefect to view. Lawrence then led the Prefect down the street, showing him the great mass of people before him, announcing, “These are the riches of the Church.” For his efforts, Saint Lawrence was grilled alive, yet his message rings just as resoundingly now as it did eighteen centuries ago.

Donald Trump is a fairly successful man. He’s done well for himself crafting a business empire based primarily on his name brand. Yet his brand of gaudy luxury cannot compare to that which is truly worthwhile in life. I have found that as much as wealth, power, and prestige can bring me happiness in the short term, it does not bring me long-term fulfilment. I have found some other qualities, love, charity, compassion, and a general sense of goodwill to be the true key to happiness.

I have seen what power can do to people, and know all to well that I want as little as possible to do with it. All I want in life is to be with the people I love, to see that they fare well, and to ensure that the generations to come have a better life than I could possibly imagine. While having some wealth can certainly contribute to this, enough to ensure that in the confines of our economic system my family will not have to worry, that money ought to always be of secondary importance to all of us. We need money to live, but we should not live for money. Unfortunately for him, and for the rest of us it seems that President Trump has yet to figure that out.

Embed from Getty Images

“We care for our own kind.”

IsolationismWith a rise in nationalism worldwide, we have also seen a rise in isolationism from both the extreme right and extreme left. In my view, nationalism and isolationism are blood brothers, and will always go hand-in-hand. In fact, the only way in which an isolationist nationalist government would ever consider interacting with its neighbours would be either through coercion or full force of arms. This is the world that was seemingly far better known in a time now past, a time when it was far more likely for the likes of Germany, France, and Britain to go to war with each other rather than sit around the negotiating table and work out their differences peacefully. Today, in Western Europe and North America we have known this sort of negotiated peace since 1945. It is a peace that has led to my father and I never having had to go to war, unlike the generations before us.

While the political structure established in the wake of the Second World War and expanded with the fall of the communist states in Eastern Europe, has led to unforeseen stability, prosperity, and international goodwill amongst its participants, the trials of the 2000s and 2010s have shaken that stability to its core. From the War on Terror launched by the United States in response to the Attacks of September 11th to the Great Recession, faith in liberal democracy and in capitalism are at an all time low.

I can’t blame those who do not trust the current political and economic systems, after all at least economically capitalism is structured to benefit most those with the most capital, leaving the rest to try and catch up. But when catching up to the wealthy is increasingly nigh impossible, it is understandable that some would be left dissatisfied with the system.

There is one effect of all this pain and negativity being felt around the world that can only have disastrous consequences for us all. I was reminded recently of an old saying, “We take care of our own kind” that one might have heard in generations past. With this comes the idea that we should stick to the social, political, religious, and ethnic groups to which we belong, that I as a middle class Irish American Catholic Democrat should not have anything to do with anyone who is not like me.

This is isolationism in its purest form, isolationism not on a national level but on a local house-by-house level. It means that I should sever all ties with my best friends, who are from Bulgaria, Finland, Venezuela, and Ecuador. It means that my neighbourhood, which is pretty well mixed between Protestants, Catholics, and Jews ought to be sorted out, and that each of us be given our own couple of streets to live on. It means that as a Democrat I should stay as far away from any Republicans, and that we should keep to ourselves so as to ensure we do not step on each other’s toes and cause any trouble.

I’ll be frank; I can’t possibly do any of that. I respect, admire, and in a way love my friends too much to send them packing, and my neighbourhood is better off because of its religious diversity. Furthermore, having seen the divisiveness of the 2016 election, I know all to well that if we Democrats do not talk with our Republican relatives, friends, and neighbours that we will not be able to heal the wounds of division that have wrecked our country so horribly.

But considering those words, “We take care of our own kind,” I am left thinking even more; and you know what, I think I can actually agree with this. It’s best to only care for people like you; it’s best to only be friends with people like yourself. The most optimal way to live one’s life is to solely live it with likeminded people around. After all, that way there won’t be nearly as much conflict within social groups. So yes, I’ll take care of my own kind, after all I’m human, and it is my duty as a human to care for the rest of humanity.

Isolation, and its bedfellow nationalism, serve no real purpose, and in the end are self-cannibalising; because isolationists forget that we do share that one common bond, our humanity, through which we can never fully cast each other asunder. So, let’s take better care of each other and get over that idea that our differences are bigger than what brings us together.