Category Archives: Catholicism

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

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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

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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.

The Pope and the President

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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.

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Reflection on a Year Overseas

London – Eleven months and eleven days ago I moved from Kansas City, Missouri, USA to London, England. Eleven months and eleven days ago I left home and went on a great adventure that has forever changed the way I see myself, and the world. In the past I have said that one of the best ways to begin to know oneself is to understand the places from whence one comes. And, while time away has given me a greater appreciation for all the trappings and comfort of home, it has also given me the chance to explore some of the places from whence my own ancestors came: particularly in Ireland, in England, and in Finland.

As a historian, but perhaps more importantly as an American, this was a rare opportunity that very few of my fellow countrymen could ever hope to achieve. On the last Friday of May 2016, I quite possibly became the first descendant of my third great-grandparents, Juho Heikki and Anna Sophia Kuivaniemi, to return to their hometown of Rauma, Finland since 1879. On the other hand, I followed in the footsteps of my grandparents and was able to walk the roads and visit the town of Newport, County Mayo where my grandfather’s parents were born, and visit the nearby cemetery at Burrishoole Friary where the ancestors of so many of my relatives are buried. So many names from America are carved into those tombstones, yet here on the shores of Clew Bay they are in their original setting.

Yet perhaps most importantly over the past year I have had my beliefs, my understandings, my very philosophy of life and nature challenged time and again by friends and colleagues alike. I am eternally grateful to them all for those discussions, for those opportunities to think anew, opportunities which one day will lead me to act anew. Those beliefs, those views of mine which held water remain, while others have been left by the wayside, abandoned after much debate and discussion. I hope I am all the wiser for the people that I have met, and the great friendships that have been forged. We come from such different corners of the world, with different backgrounds, different views, different languages, yet respect abounds amongst us far more than contempt.

Next week I will at long last be returning home, to Kansas City, Missouri, in the heartland of the United States. I will return to the heat and humidity, and the allergies. Yet I will also be returning to my family, to many friends old and young. I am excited to be coming home once again, and looking forward to being surrounded by all those familiar things, sights, sounds, and smells. I did not realise it until I had been away, that even the softest sensory detail can be missed. Whether it be the sound of the wind whirling through the branches of the trees, or the familiar voices on NPR’s All Things Considered set to the backdrop of Kansas City at sunset, its streets filled with cars heading to and fro. In London I found that on winter nights, when the sky was clear and the street lamps glowed in a distinctly mechanical way, I missed hearing the familiar voice of Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace coming over the radio as I’d often hear at a similar time of night back home.

Yet I return to a country on edge, a country that has seen so much anguish, so much anger, and so much fear over the last year. The signs have been about for a while now. Since President Obama was elected in 2008 nearly every racist, closeted or not, has come out of the woodwork and ensured that the rest of us would have to hear their nonsensical cacophony rattling on. We could ignore racism as the rantings of the mad if it were not for the reality that words plant seeds, seeds sprout actions. Once again, around the world bigotry seems to be in fashion like it was in the 1920s and 1930s. There is always someone available for people to hate or fear. As Woody Allen put it in a recent interview with Catherine Shoard of The Guardian,

It’s in the nature of people to have someone to scapegoat. If there were no Jews in the world they would take it out on blacks. If no blacks, they’d move over to Catholics. No Catholics? Something else. Finally, if everyone is exactly the same, the left-handed people would start killing the right-handed people. You just need an other [on whom] to vent your hostility and frustration.

I know that bigotry has been around for a long time, and probably will still be around long after I’m dead, but I honestly did not really experience it until when I was at least around thirteen or fourteen. I remember some of the boys at school using the word Jew as an insult, which didn’t make sense to me, as I had always gotten along well with my Jewish friends and neighbours. I also never really had anything against African Americans, but after years of hearing from my classmates and friends that “Troost was dangerous,” I was less willing to go to the African American neighbourhoods east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, MO. Subconsciously or not, I was accepting a racist ideology that I consciously abhorred.

Perhaps the best example of my reaction to bigotry comes from a strange experience that I had when I was fourteen, where an individual who I was working with at the time told me to my face, “I don’t like Catholics” knowing very well that I was a Catholic. I was shocked by this, not necessarily because he was saying that he didn’t like me because of my religion, but more so because his dislike for Catholics simply didn’t make any sense. Over the years as I have been exposed to a variety of opinions and ideas, and I have found myself adopting some similar views, whether it be a dislike for one particular nationality, or religion, or political philosophy, or a preference for a particular country over another. Yet each of these blanket opinions have been swiftly overturned as soon as I have met someone who fits into one of those categories.

How can I say that I hate someone or fear someone simply based upon their nationality, religion, politics, or even based upon the colour of their skin? It makes no sense. Bigotry of all kinds makes absolutely no sense!

I am proud of who I am. I am proud to be Seán Thomas Kane, or Seán mac Tómas Ó Catháin as it is in Irish. I am proud to have been born in Chicagoland, and to have lived most of my life in Kansas City. I am proud to be my parents’ son, and my grandparents’ grandchild, a nephew of my aunts and uncles, a cousin of my cousins, godson of my godparents, and a friend to all my friends. I am proud to be of Irish, English, Welsh, Finnish, Swedish, and Flemish descent. I am proud to be an American citizen. I am proud to have been a resident of the City of London for the past eleven months and eleven days. I am proud to be a historian, a writer, a filmmaker, an occasional musician and sketch artist. I am proud to be a Catholic.

But beyond all of these categories and more within which I fit, I am most proud, and most humbled to be human. We are all unique, we are all different, yes, as the crowd shouted up to Brian, “We are all individuals!” But most important of all is that we are all human. If we consider less what separates us and more what we have in common then surely we will be nicer to each other, and have better lives. If those in my country screaming against immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Latinos, and all others considered what they have in common with the rest of us then surely they would think twice about their words and actions.

I am not proposing any sort of edifiable change, any sort of reform for our prisons, our city planning, our law codes, or our schools, all that will come next. What I am proposing is the essential necessity for any reform to happen. We must have a change of heart. We are all human.

Why Kansas City’s Catholics must Come Together

Let me begin by admitting to the fact that I haven’t written anything for this site in some months. After having written so frequently, so fervently on many a topic, I found myself exhausted, unhappy with the prospect of setting my thoughts to ink and paper. However, the greatest, most pressing issue at hand for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph, my home diocese, is one which brings my pen forth from its stupor.

As many will know, I have been highly critical of the now Bishop Emeritus Finn. His authoritarian leadership style, as well as his suppression of any official dialogue between social conservatives, liberals, and moderates within the diocese left me unwilling to offer anything but criticism towards his administration. All that said, I do not intend to demean his character. I have met Finn, on a number of occasions. On my first assignment as a journalist, at the 2009 National Catholic Youth Conference which was held here in Kansas City, I interviewed both Bishop Finn, as well as his counterpart from across the border, Archbishop Naumann. I found both men highly intelligent, and Finn in particular to be quite friendly and personable. For one thing he actually remembered my name, and stopped to ask me how I was doing the next time I was in the same room.

In most regards, as a liberal, I have frequently found myself in disagreement with my friends and colleagues. In recent years, as I have began to shed the scales of fear, I have in turn become more outspoken in my views, more willing to speak out when something that I find something good, or ill in the world. Let me be clear, though, to those who do not look on my views and persuasions favourably, that all that I believe, all that I espouse, is founded upon the two greatest commandments given by God to humanity: to love God, and love one’s neighbour. It is for this reason that I do not seek to insult Finn’s honour, only to speak out against his actions.
On Tuesday, I celebrated, and breathed many a sigh of relief. At long last, the leadership of the Catholic Church in my adopted city does not outwardly favour my fellow Catholics whose views are on the opposite side of the aisle from my own. Yes, I say yes, all things are political! All things are related to politics, especially in the Roman Catholic Church! Any body as old as ours, as powerful as ours, as wealthy as ours, any body with named “Roman” must be political by nature. We may not like that fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. It is better that we embrace the truth than continue to deny it.

I write today to my fellow Catholics in Kansas City with a simple request. We must work together again, as we have in the past. We must heal the wounds that have been wrought over the past ten years. We must reconcile, and as one body in Christ reunite our increasingly divided diocese. Liberals, conservatives, moderates, Tridentine Mass attendees, as well as those who prefer a more progressive type of Mass should come together, work together, to build a better diocese, a better community.

This coming Sunday, I will be at my home parish, Saint Francis Xavier, for Mass with the parish community that my maternal family has been a part of for five generations. I ask my fellow Catholics here in the Kansas City-St Joseph Diocese to do the same. Let us all pray for our diocese that we might reconcile and reunite. Let us also pray for our most recent Bishop Emeritus, as he moves into the next phase of his life, that he may think of his time here in Kansas City, and consider both what he did, and that which he chose to forgo doing. Let us also pray for our Pope, Papa Frank as I call him, that he might find the best candidate, with God’s guidance, to become our next bishop.

I thank you all for your attention, and ask God for his blessings upon each and everyone of you, no matter whom you are.