Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bishop Kung Was Tricky That Way

During the night of September 8, 1955, Ignatius Ping-Mei Kung, Shanghai's first Chinese bishop, was arrested by Communist authorities, along with more than twelve hundred Catholic priests, religious, and lay people who worked with him. Few westerners are aware of this fact, but the Roman Catholic Church has had deep roots in China since the sixteenth century, and a large concentration of Catholics live in Shanghai. Bishop Kung was a Shanghai native, and his family had been Catholic for at least five generations.

Bishop Kung was arrested because he would not renounce his loyalty to the Pope and because he refused to lead the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which had been set up by the Communist Party (CP) as a local version of the Catholic Church that would renounce its ties to Rome. Months after his arrest, Bishop Kung was brought out to a show trial that was held in a former greyhound racing stadium where mass trials and executions were held. Fortunately, according to documents discovered by historian Fr. Paul P. Mariani, S.J., author of Church Militant: Bishop Kung and Catholic Resistance in Communist Shanghai, the CP policy was not to kill Catholics, because they didn't want to create martyrs. Fr. Mariani found that the CP had established these goals: "to establish an independent church under the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), to educate Catholics to support this independent church, and to imprison any who stood in its way."

Everyone in Shanghai must have heard about or seen the mass arrests, sometimes of thousands at a time, and everyone would have known about the ongoing executions at the stadium. Bishop Kung probably was not aware of the CP policy of not killing Catholics, and so when he was taken to the stadium he may not have known whether he was was facing death or imprisonment if he did not cooperate. Wearing only Chinese pajamas with his hands tied behind his back, Bishop Kung was thrust before a microphone to confess his "errors."

Instead he shouted: "Long live Christ the King! Long live the Pope!"

Many in the crowd responded, "Long live Christ the King! Long live Bishop Kung!"

The authorities quickly whisked the Bishop away to solitary confinement and prolonged attempts to wear him down. He had a whole floor to himself, he later told reporters, and everyone was forbidden to make eye contact with him, except when they were trying to indoctrinate him. Five years after his arrest, he was convicted of treason and sentenced to life in prison.

Bishop Kung was imprisoned for a total of thirty years, unable to correspond with anyone, even members of his own family. He was forbidden to say Mass, and he was not permitted to read the Bible. Many other loyal Shanghai Catholics endured the same kinds of long prison sentences and either died in anonymity, or were released after decades as broken men and women.

When Bishop Kung Tricked Them Again

I enjoy imagining the frustration of the Communist officials twenty-nine years after the scene in the stadium, when Bishop Kung tricked them once again.

This event occurred in 1984 during an eleven day trip to China by Cardinal Jaimie Sin from the Philippines, whose father had been Chinese. Cardinal Sin asked the authorities to let him see Bishop Kung during his visit to his ancestral homeland. Probably because of international protests about the imprisonment of Bishop Kung, who was on an Amnesty International list of prisoners of conscience, they concurred.

The Communists set up a show meeting on October 27, 1984. They seated Cardinal Sin and Bishop Kung at opposite ends of a long dining table and surrounded them with Communist leaders and bishops of the CCPA. Cardinal Sin and Bishop Kung were not allowed to talk personally to each other, but they slyly used their wits to get around all the machinations that had been put into place to keep them from communicating.

Cardinal Sin was well known as a great joker–he would tell people he lived in the House of Sin, for example–so his part in what happened that night wouldn't be much of a surprise. Cardinal Sin invited each attendee to sing a song during the dinner, which is a common practice in the Philippines. When Bishop Kung’s turn came, he looked directly at Cardinal Sin and began to sing in Latin the words by which Christ made St. Peter the first Pope. "Tu es Petrus et super hanc petram aedificabo Ecclesiam meam (You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church).”

After Bishop Kung sang just a few bars, a Bishop of the CCPA told his superiors of Kung's ruse. They ordered Bishop Kung to be silent, but he looked at Cardinal Sin again and finished the song: “Et portæ inferi non prævalebunt (and the gates of hell will not prevail against it).”

Cardinal Sin was later able to pass onto the Vatican that clear message, that Bishop Kung had never stopped affirming his loyalty to the Pope as the head of the Roman Catholic Church.

Bishop Kung did not know this at the time, but by that time he had been secretly elevated to the College of Cardinals. He found out only after his release–first from prison later in 1985, and then from house arrest in 1988; he moved with his nephew to Stanford, CN to get medical care in 1988. Cardinal Kung said this in an interview in 1999, "One year after my arrival in the United States, I was well enough to go to Rome where I was warmly received by Pope John Paul II. During that meeting, I was told by the Holy Father that I had been elevated in 1979, in pectore, to the College of Cardinals. I kept this a secret until our Holy Father announced it to the world on May 29, 1991."

In pectore means in the heart of the Pope.

Cardinal Kung was finally given his red biretta on June 30, 1991 by Pope John Paul II. "When the Pope presented Cardinal Kung with his red hat in June 1991, the 90-year-old raised himself up from his wheelchair, put aside his cane and walked up the steps to kneel at the feet of the Holy Father. Visibly touched, the Pope lifted him up, gave him his cardinal's hat and stood patiently as Cardinal Kung returned to his wheelchair to the sounds of a seven-minute standing ovation from 9,000 guests in the Vatican audience hall."–"A Hero Dies in Exile" by Brian McGuire, National Catholic Register, Sunday, Mar 19, 2000.

Above: Christ's words to St. Peter are in gigantic letters 2 meters high against a gold background at the base of the drum of Michelangelo's dome in St. Peter's Basilica, illuminated by the light of sixteen windows
Above: "Tu Es Petrus" by Palestrina, sung at the last public Mass of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Tuesday, April 05, 2016

I Once Was Lapsed, and Now I'm Relapsed

I was raised Catholic, but started being lured away from the faith when I was about 15. The root cause of my eventual loss of faith was essentially intellectual snobbery, pride, and ambition. Let me tell you a bit about how it happened that I left and came back again.

When I was 15 going on 16, I had back surgery and was hospitalized for a year. I continued my voracious reading habit in the hospital bed, while continuing to do teenager-type things such as painting my toenails blue and having contests with a friend in the next bed about who could fill the nightly bed pan the fullest by drinking huge amounts of water. I can still see the tolerant nurse's aid, with her starched white cap and uniform, struggling to carry away the brimming metal bedpans.

Every week my sophomore English teacher sent me four or five works of fiction by writers from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Mary McCarthy to Simone de Beauvoir. Most of the authors treated religious belief as a crutch for those who are too weak to stand the existential pain of living in a meaningless universe. In 1963, I got a scholarship to Brandeis University, where I did more class readings that cast religious belief in a negative light. I aspired to being a great intellectual, and so by the middle of my freshman year in college, I had left my crutch (my faith) behind and hobbled off alone.

The freshman cafeteria served rare roast beef every Friday, and one Friday I finalized my rebellion against the Church by eating that rare roast beef.

When I became a lapsed Catholic, at least I took with me a good basic grounding in the faith, from nine years of parochial school and from reading I had done on the side, such as the writings of St. Therese of Lisieux.

In 1964, I dropped out of Brandeis, started hanging around with artists and others on the fringes of society. I continued seeking enlightenment, following the trail of whatever the intellectuals and artists of the world had to say about the nature of truth and reality.

Fast forward to 1976, by which date I had been married and divorced. By then I had a 4 year old daughter and a 6 year old son, and I was living on welfare in Minneapolis, without any family or friends to help me. With the aid of the government child care funding and student loans, I was finishing my degree.

I started to notice that people who follow Christian teachings achieved more than the hedonistic, selfish artists that I previously admired. When I think of hedonistic, selfish artists, one fellow art student comes to mind. In an attempt to make original art, he slept and lived in the middle of a huge roll of paper. When he got another art student pregnant, he "supported" her by giving her money for an abortion and comforting her as she grieved afterwards.

It began to dawn on me that God's commandments were protective, rather than being the rules of a Big Meany in the Sky who was trying to steal our joy. For example, it occurred to me that when a person makes a life-long commitment to a single spouse instead of going through a series of "relationships," that person is spared the often-grievous pain of separating from one mate after another and (for that and other reasons) is more free to do good things with his or her life. That observation was a small beginning of growth of my trust in God's benevolent love.

Once I accepted the reality of God and Christ, I tried lots of Protestant churches: Presbyterian, Anglican, Methodist, Evangelical, Charismatic, Full Gospel, even Unitarianism. Eventually none of them satisfied because none provided the Eucharist. The Body and Blood of Christ alone would be powerful reason enough to return to the Catholic Church, but I also became aware of how necessary the Catholic Church's traditions are as guidance in interpreting the Scriptures.

Following are just two examples of where I saw the need for tradition, which I witnessed in a small church associated with a small denomination, the Evangelical Free Church.

In one Saturday Bible class taught by a laywoman, the pastor sat in. The woman interpreted certain passages in St. Paul's 1st letter to the Corinthians [1Cor14:33b-36] according to the historical context. Her point was that in those verses, St. Paul was not forbidding all women to speak, only deploring the disorder being caused by some newly-converted pagan women in the Corinthian Church of that day. Either because the pastor had slept through her class with his eyes open, or because he disagreed, the next day the pastor used the same verses in his Sunday sermon to reiterate that 1st Corinthians forbade women to speak out in Church. Individual interpretation of Scripture led these two individuals to draw totally different conclusions from the same set of Bible verses.

This next example was even more troubling. A Stanford and Yale-trained lawyer who was teaching a Bible class disagreed with the pastor about how the Evangelical Free Church should respond to Christ's "Great Commission" to go out and preach the gospel to the whole creation. That lawyer and his friends broke away and started an even smaller church, called Straitgate! Obviously (to me at least), with only the Scriptures as a guide to faith, the splintering of the Church that started centuries ago is still going on.

This is not to say that I found perfect adherence to the Catholic Church's interpretation of the Scriptures in the Catholic Church on my return. The worst example that I ever witnessed was at a retreat center. First the Franciscan priest stood up and read from the Gospel of the day Christ's words forbidding divorce, and then in his homily the priest said that Christ really wasn't against divorce. When I asked him later how he could contradict the Gospel by saying that Christ wasn't against divorce, the priest said that a theologian said so.

To my mind, that priest and many theologians too could benefit by seeking out what the Church has always taught about Scripture passages before they propose an original insight into the mind of God.

In spite of that priest, and in spite of other venal or misguided or evil priests and Church leaders, I couldn't consider leaving this Church again. The Church is the body of Christ. His Spirit lives in the Church and has guided it since the time of the apostles. The Church has the authority given to St. Peter and the apostles and has the traditions to guide interpretation of the meaning of the Scriptures. As Peter said, "Where else would I go, Lord? You alone have the words of eternal life."

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Thanks for the Memories, Mother Angelica (Part IV: How God-Incidence, Not Co-incidence, Brought Me to Alabama)

Like a bolt from the blue one day, the acquisition of the computer company where I worked in the San Francisco Bay Area by a company in Alabama made it possible for me to see for myself the network and a basilica Mother Angelica had built.

The basilica came into being this way. After the network was thriving, Mother Angelica bought a large amount of property seventy five miles north of EWTN in a much more rural area to build a quieter self-sufficient monastery, and she planned also to build what she called a farm chapel there. Her plans got much bigger when she had a vision of the Child Jesus, and He told her to build Him a temple.

Mother Angelica heard the words that gave her a new mission: to build a shrine honoring the True Presence of Our Lord in the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Five families gave enormous amounts of money for her to realize that vision, fifty-million odd dollars later, the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament was the result.

One day when I went to work at my technical writing job at Cyclades in Fremont, CA, a sign on the parking lot entrance at Cyclades that morning said to go to a nearby Holiday Inn, where we found that Cyclades had been purchased by Avocent, a company in Alabama.

As I drove home that day, I was shaking my head, thinking, you never know when you wake up in the morning what new directions your life might be heading towards. The Avocent tech writing management flew us writers out to Huntsville a few times for training. Both times I stayed over the weekend before flying back, and I drove down to visit EWTN’s campus near Birmingham and the beautiful temple Mother Angelica built in the Alabama countryside in Hanceville.

While I was in Huntsville during the training, my loquacious Tennesee-born boss talked of many things. One of the things he mentioned one time was this weird Alabama TV station with a nun talking on it. Then he and looked at me and stopped himself. I had told him my plans to go to EWTN that weekend, but he had forgotten.

Before I went to the TV studio and the basilica for the first time, I detoured to a chant workshop led and organized by some of the most active leaders and organizers of the Church Music Association of America, in Auburn, AL. The director of the Gregorian chant and polyphony choir I sang in at the time in Palo Alto, Professor William Mahrt, is president of CMAA; I had attended a couple of the inspiring CMAA Sacred Music Colloquia, and so I was surprised to discover three CMAA bigwigs training local people to sing Gregorian chant and polyphony in an ugly little 50s-built church in that small college town in Alabama. It turns out that two of them are choir leaders at that very church.

On another of the weekends I was there, I attended another EWTN family gathering in a convention center in Birmingham. My letter to Deacon Bill Steltemeir, which I mentioned in Part II, included a photo I took of him taking photos of the audience members who had clustered around the stage at the Birmingham EWTN family gathering. I was later able to work with Deacon Bill to arrange for Professor Mahrt to be interviewed about chant and polyphony on Fr. Mitch Pacwa's EWTN Live show. It took a while to get on the schedule, but Prof. Mahrt appeared on December 12, 2007. As you can well imagine, the church musicians I met at the workshop at that little church in Auburn were there too. (You can listen to an audio file of that show here.)

Deacon Bill Shoots Back at the People Shooting Pictures of Him and Other EWTN Stars on the Birmingham Convention Center Stage

Audience of One at the World Over Live Show


Even though the front entrance to the TV studio in Irondale was shut up tight when I got there and nobody answered my knock, I decided to look around for another way in. I drove around the back of the building, and I caught a woman going in a back door to work on Arroyo's news show, The World Over Live. She agreed to take my card to Raymond. That worked out, so I was happily able to finagle my way in to see his show as an audience of one, a year before Arroyo moved the show to D.C. and started having live audiences.

The Temple in the Alabama Countryside

When I drove to the basilica seventy-five miles north the next day, I began to think that I might be on a roll and that I might be able to get to meet Mother Angelica, even though she was no longer active at the network after a major stroke in 2001. After driving miles and miles on Alabama country roads lined with white split-rail fences, I finally came upon the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament basilica facing a spacious open plaza.



Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament

I ran after Deacon Steltemeir after he served at a Vespers service at the shrine. He recognized me because I'd also sent him the photo of Arroyo charmingly squeezing my hand at the book signing. When I told Deacon Bill of my hopes to see Mother Angelica, he told me she was mostly bed-ridden, and she might appear only occasionally behind the cloister grill at Mass. When I was at Mass, I couldn't make out individual faces behind the grill, so she might have been there.

In any case, the glorious works she had brought about in seeking to serve her Spouse were all there for anyone to see. In that basilica built with nothing but the best, with jasper and other precious marble and stained glass, an ornate bronze altar rail, and row upon row of mahogany pews with kneelers all facing the altar. Other impressive sights in the main church were the gold reredos, and the gold eight-foot high monstrance, the second-biggest monstrance in the world, which is mounted over the altar. The tabernacle looks like a miniature temple itself, gilded with 24 karat gold, and its inside back wall is encrusted with diamonds, where Mother Angelica insisted they be placed, where only Jesus can see them!

"Today there’s a great deal of ferment about how to promote leadership by women in the Church in ways that don’t involve ordination, a conversation Pope Francis himself has promoted. In a way, however, debating that question in the abstract seems silly, because we already have a classic, for-all-time example of female empowerment in Mother Angelica."—John L. Allen Jr. “We won’t look on the likes of Mother Angelica again.” Let's not forget, St. Teresa of Avila, another cloistered nun who established many religious foundations of both men and women and made lasting contributions to her culture. We don't need a committee to promote this phenomena, God raises up saints of both sexes when they are needed to help save the Church, and to help save us all.

Thanks for the Memories, Mother Angelica (Part III: Mother Angelica Becomes a Role Model for Raymond Arroyo, and for Me)

On January 28, 2006, I saw Raymond Arroyo, EWTN News Director, gave a side-splitting talk about his experiences writing his best-selling biography of Mother Angelica, Mother Angelica: The Remarkable Story of a Nun, Her Nerve, and a Network of Miracles. He was one of the speakers at the EWTN 25th Anniversary Family Conference that I attended in San Francisco a few months after my Israel pilgrimage with Fr. Joseph Mary from EWTN. Most viewers are familiar with Raymond Arroyo's more-staid delivery as EWTN news announcer. The San Francisco audience was practically rolling in the aisles listening to his much-more-relaxed comedic delivery at the conference that day.





I found Arroyo after his talk ended in a "Meet the Author" booth signing books. I told him, “People are saying you’re a riot, Raymond.” “Well, I caused a few,” he replied.

When Arroyo signed my copy of the book, he added below his signature, “May you find strength and inspiration herein.”

I actually did find both strength and inspiration therein. Raymond Arroyo’s biography of Mother Angelica is one of those books that can change your life. What was especially exciting to me was that Mother Angelica’s life story was yet another reaffirmation of the truth that if God wants a work to be done, He gives the ones He calls whatever power they need to accomplish His work.

Most of her life Mother Angelica had been plagued with disabilities. She was in pain most of the time. She’d been cured from a serious stomach ailment as a young woman, but she continually had serious asthma. She wore a back brace. Until her legs were miraculously cured on January 29, 1998, she wore braces on both legs and walked with crutches.

She didn’t have much of an education. She would tell people that God asked everyone else to do His work, and they all said no, so she was the bottom of the barrel. She endearingly called herself a dodo.

“God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something, so that no human being might boast before God” 1 Corinthians 1:27.

Raymond Arroyo's talk about her biography at the EWTN 25th anniversary conference had some serious moments too, when he exhorted all of us to live 1 Corinthians 1:27:

"Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote the first encyclical about the nature of love. . . . It’s the primordial creative power that moves the universe.. . . . Mother Angelica harnessed some of that energy. . . . . Mother Angelica said, ‘I am convinced God is looking for dodoes. He found one: me! There are a lot of smart people out there who know it can’t be done, so they don’t do it. But a dodo doesn’t know it can’t be done. God uses dodoes.’ . . . . Every major thing that God wanted her to do was preceded by suffering. . . . . When she started the network, she was 58 years old. She had diabetes. A twisted spine. . . . . You pay the cost to be the boss. . . . . She was following inspiration and the dictates of her spouse.. . . . The struggle. The cross. That’s her real story. Her life has become a parable. She wanted to reach people.. . . . She did what she did for love of souls, It was never about TV. For God’s sake, be a dodo!"

I was sixty when I heard that, a mere two years older than Mother Angelica had been when she started EWTN. God wasn’t finished with me yet either.

It's One Long Purification

A few months later I interviewed Raymond Arroyo by phone for National Catholic Register, but then the editor sat on the finished interview for so long that I eventually published it at San Francisco Faith newspaper. I can't provide a link to the published article any more, because the archive is no longer available. So I posted the interview as I submitted it before it was edited here. The final title was "It's One Long Purification: What Mother Angelica Taught Raymond Arroyo."

Between mid August and early September of 2005, Raymond Arroyo and his family had endured a dizzying variety of life changing events. First came a blessed event, the birth of the Arroyos’ third child and first daughter, Mariella. And less than two weeks later Arroyo and his family got swept into a disaster of cosmic proportions when Hurricane Katrina hit their home in a New Orleans' suburb.

On Friday night August 26, 2005 Arroyo was rendered sleepless and restless by a premonition, and on Saturday August 27, Arroyo and his wife, Rebecca, grabbed everything they could fit into their car, took their ten day old baby girl, sons Alexander, 6, and Lorenzo, 2, and his mother-in-law, and fled. As he put it, they got out of Dodge. When Katrina hit Louisiana against all predictions and everyone else started evacuating, the Arroyo family was long gone. Everything they had left behind was swept away.

The string of stressers continued. As Arroyo later told the story at the EWTN 25th anniversary family celebration, Doubleday had lined up a string of talk show appearances in New York in conjunction with the release of his biography of Mother Angelica on September 6, but breaking news bumped Arroyo off the shows. The book seemed doomed.

Then Doubleday called at the end of the week to tell him that the book had, somehow, made it to the New York Times Bestseller list even though Arroyo hadn't been able to promote it, and the book stayed on for four weeks. ”Four weeks,” Arroyo exclaimed. “A book about a nun!”

When reporters talked with him in September, Arroyo’s was thanking Mother Angelica, both for taking them into a guest house at her monastery after they lost their home and for life lessons that helped him make it through it all. Here are a few questions and answers from my interview:

Q: You’re having to keep up with your role as the news director and anchor on "The World Over Live,” also traveling to promote the book, while starting your life over from scratch. How are you juggling it all?

A: I’m living in Mother Angelica’s present moment. She had this idea, don’t cling to yesterday. Don’t concern yourself with tomorrow. Just live in the moment that God is calling you to right now.

It’s a cute idea. [He laughs.] But practicing it is difficult . . .. You do learn to do it though. It’s sound advice. I will tell you. It has really gotten me through this whole period. There is so much coming at me between special events in Rome, the weekly live show, a cycle of illness in our home. Rebecca lost a grandmother . . ..

All of this while the book inexplicably went forward. It is still doing what it’s supposed to do. But we’re all paying the price here.

Q: You wrote about how when Deacon Bill Steltemeir first saw Mother Angelica, he started hearing “Until the day you die" every day for a month until he drove down from Tennessee to see her. Was there anything like that with you?

A: Nothing quite like that. I came to do a profile on Mother in 1995. Early in ‘96, she asked me to start a news operation. “It’ll be good for your soul.”

My wife and I were ready. I was covering politics at the time. Politics is a shifting animal, it’s like sand. Yesterday’s hot story is tomorrow’s has been. It’s ephemeral.

Q: You write and speak a lot about Mother Angelica’s life as a parable that shows that God can do great things through you if you cooperate with Him.

A: If you are open to where He’s taking you to. In Mother’s life also you see these great illnesses and sufferings that presaged any major growth for the network. That’s what happens in all our lives. You go through purging experiences, whether they be illness or loss of a loved one or some traumatic event—like the loss of a house.

It prepares you for the next thing He wants of you. It’s a horrible time. Horrific. If you have the faith to cling to the bark like a little baby, if you keep walking, there is this great thing ahead. You have to go through this because you’re not ready for it.

Q: Would you have had those thoughts before you came to EWTN 10 years ago?

A: No. Mother was right. I came down and joined the network, and it was good for me spiritually.

This is Part III of a series. See also, Parts I, II, and Part IV.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Thanks for the Memories, Mother Angelica (Part II: How I Saw First Hand the World Wide Scope of ETWN)

In the fall of 2005, I got first-hand experience of the reach of EWTN, even though I still had never watched another show. I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land with three priests as spiritual directors, and one of them was Fr. Joseph Mary Wolfe from EWTN, who I came to respect immensely.
Fr. Joseph (left) in Jerusalem
I learned from Fr. Joseph that he had started at EWTN as an engineer in 1985 and that two years later after much gentle cajoling from Mother Angelica, and even though, as he said, he had other plans, he became the first religious member of MFVA, the Francisan Missionaries of the Eternal Word, a clerical association of men that Mother Angelica founded to serve the network and her monastery of cloistered Poor Clare nuns of Perpetual Adoration.
Fr. Joseph wearing the habit designed by Mother Angelica with an embroidered monstrance on the front, waiting at the Holy SepulchreFr. Joseph in the Amsterdam train station (facing away from the camera) with his matching back pack.
During a layover in the Amsterdam airport on our way to Israel, Fr. Joseph was recognized by a Filipino couple who were also passing through, and they asked me to take a photo of them with him. Later in Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem, I was deeply moved by seeing some beleaguered Palestinian Catholics, who were suffering even then back then, who eagerly came up to talk with Fr. Joseph Mary because they recognized him from seeing him celebrating Mass on the network. "What did they say to you?" I asked Fr. Joseph later. He said that they told him with great emotion, "EWTN gives us hope."

One day months later I sent a letter to Deacon Bill Steltemeir, chairman of EWTN. I mentioned in my letter that I had started watching EWTN after my Israeli pilgrimage that previous November when I met Fr. Joseph Mary Wolfe. And, I added, Fr. Joseph was such a good pure priest, I started watching EWTN Masses to see if I could see more of him.

You have to know that Deacon Bill was a bit of a teaser. Deacon Bill wrote me back, and in his letter he mentioned that when he repeated to Fr. Joseph what I had written about him being such a good pure priest, that Fr. Joseph blushed!

Fr. Joseph attended Mother Angelica during the last three days of her life from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, and he gave her Extreme Unction and the Apostolic Blessing before she died. She had a sharp sense of humor, so I think she wouldn't mind if I mention that the Apostolic Blessing at the time of death is sometimes referred to as the "Get Out of Purgatory Free" Blessing, because it remits all the temporal punishment due to sin. I pray I can get me one of those. 
Fr. Joseph Accompanies Mother's Coffin to the Cloister

This is a part II of a series. See also Part I, Part III. and Part IV.




Thanks for the Memories, Mother Angelica (Part I: First Impressions)

"Cloistered nuns on television are without doubt the most ridiculous things that could happen. It just evolved.
Mother Angelica on 60 Minutes in 1984

“I don’t know what my ratings are. I just don’t think the Lord went around counting heads. One time He lost everybody. When He announced the Eucharist, He lost everybody. Then He looked at His apostles and said, Are you going to go away too? He wasn’t afraid to blow it all."–Mother Angelica in a 60 Minutes Interview with Morley Shafer, 1984

Mother Mary Angelica of the Annunciation, abbess of the Poor Clares of Perpetual Adoration, and founder of EWTN, Eternal Word Television Network, in Alabama, died Easter Sunday, March 27, 2016.

The first time I saw Mother Angelica was on a video that I borrowed from the library at Our Lady of Peace Shrine in Santa Clara, some time around 1990. One of the parishioners had recorded an appearance by the church’s saintly pastor, Father John. J. Sweeny, on the Mother Angelica Live Show. I knew that Mother Angelica founded a Catholic TV network called EWTN, that you could get it on cable, but I didn’t know anything else about her, and I never had watched EWTN before.

The show with Fr. Sweeny in it probably aired some time in the late 1980s. My first impression was that Mother Angelica was an odd character for a media celebrity. She was a portly old nun even back then, still wearing a habit (actually, a big plus in my mind, because it counteracted the memories of other Franciscan sisters I’d seen at a retreat house one time, who were "dancing the gifts” of bread and wine up to the altar wearing sweat shirts and blue jeans). On that show and on every other show I saw her in, Mother Angelica wore oversize glasses.

She was constantly sniffing her ever-running nose and swallowing. She wheezed a bit. She frequently paused to take sips from a big mug. She even seemed to burp, quietly, from time to time. She apparently had stomach problems, in addition to many other serious ailments; she has been quoted as saying she took a lot of Maalox.

She didn’t quite seem to be on top of the conversation that night. Fr. Sweeny started to tell the story of how he was assigned as pastor of Our Lady of Peace Church in 1969, about how he built a church and shrine to the Immaculate Heart of Mary on the outskirts of Santa Clara in the middle of pear orchards, and how the city had grown up around him with high-tech companies and hotels surrounding the thriving church.

Mother innocently derailed Fr. Sweeny's story by lamenting about building projects that eat up agricultural land, and his story never really got back on track. He had a lot of stories he could have told that night, about how he instituted Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist in 1976, how the church and even the rectory living room were full of homeless statues that other parishes had thrown out, how the parish attracted people who loved the reverence of the Masses there and the old devotions, the rosary processions, and the novenas, who lined up for hours at the confessionals that were open before every Mass, and who knelt happily to receive Communion from priests only at the altar rails.

There they were, I thought watching the show, these two obviously saintly people who loved the same things about the Church, mild Father Sweeny and brash Mother Angelica, but who were not quite able to make a connection.

I don’t think Father Sweeny ever got around to telling the part of his story about how he planned to build a giant aluminum statue of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at the shrine, and how when the diocese made him shorten it to 32 feet, he then made up the difference but putting the statue on a 12 foot knoll near the church between the Yahoo headquarters building and highway 101. An image of the statue on its knoll did flash on the EWTN screen for a few moments during the show. Commuters can still see that statue of Our Lady with her motherly arms held out towards them on their way to and from work every day, although dear Fr. Sweeny has long since passed away and Yahoo has moved somewhere else.
Yahoo, Immaculate Heart of Mary Statue, and Highway 101, Santa Clara, CA
What the commuters used to see from 101 as they whizzed by Yahoo and the Immaculate Heart of Mary Statue at Our Lady of Peace parish
About Mother Angelica’s quirkiness, I thought, maybe she was having a bad night. But then, as I was writing this, I glanced at a video clip playing in a browser in another window on my computer which I’ve tuned to EWTN--where they are remembering Mother Angelica in non-stop programming. Mother was about 40 in the clip I caught just now, and she said, “If you go in front of the camera and can only say, ‘Ahh, ahh!’ in the Spirit, somebody out there’s going to love it.” That maybe was the clue I needed to understand her appeal.

She didn’t need to be a smooth professional. Since 1978, she had been doing the same thing. She knew all she had to do was obey her Spouse, get herself from the cloister to the studio on time, pray with all the staff before she went onstage for the unscripted show, trust the Spirit, and be her authentic Jesus-loving and people-loving self, in sickness and in health. In brisk middle age and tottering old age, she kept it up. And millions of somebodies out there did love it.

The Pirate Nun Who Kept Winning Souls for Christ and His Church
She kept on drawing souls to Christ and to the Church, even after a stroke in the year 2001 led to her having to wear an patch over one eye and left her with a twisted mouth and slurred speech. I just read a testimony today where a man tuned into EWTN to mock the comical looking "pirate nun" but ended up secretly listening to what she had to say instead. Eventually, he was led by what he heard from her to a complete conversion and healing of his heart and his life.

Like Pope John Paul II was doing at this point in his life during those years, she kept appearing in public even as age and disability deformed her. She only stopped appearing in public when another stroke took away her ability to speak.
Pope John Paul II and Mother Angelica in younger days. They were great admirers of each other.
Flash forward a few years from Fr. Sweeny's appearance in EWTN. One of his parishioners from Our Lady of Peace became a priest and professed member of the men's foundation that Mother founded before Fr. Sweeny's death, and Fr. Sweeny attended his ordination and profession where he took the name Miguel Marie. I saw Fr. Miguel Marie Soeherman today on EWTN officiating at the Divine Mercy chaplet that was prayed for Mother Angelica.

Fr. Miguel Marie in 2016
Fr. Miguel Marie in 2016

This is Part I of a series. See also Part II, Part III, and Part IV.







Thursday, March 17, 2016

When Should You Put Your Mom Down?


** Satire Alert ** Dr. Mors provides some practical guidance for dealing with some "difficult decisions" that many of us will face in the not too distant future about putting down our parents, if current trends continue.

How To Make A Decision You Never Want to Make
By Doctor Justin Mors, Psy.D.

Bill H. is a salesman for a computer networking equipment company in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's usually a pretty macho guy, but when his 72-year-old mother, Rose, told him that an oncologist had diagnosed her with cancer of the jaw and that nothing more could be done, Bill burst into tears. He knew what he had to decide, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

Bill is a long-time client of mine. He called me later that night. Punctuated by sobs and silences, our conversation lasted nearly an hour. "I really don't know what to do," Bill said. "When do you put a parent down? How do you decide? She is old-fashioned, so she doesn’t believe in suicide.

"I know she is wrong, but somehow I can’t blame her for sticking to her old beliefs. She's from a generation that thought that it was a person's duty to fight for life until the last breath. I hate to euthanize her, and some of our family members would probably hate me for it, but I can’t bear to see her suffer." Bill is an only child, but he has some fundamentalist Christian cousins back in Texas who he knows are going to put up a big stink if they got wind of any notion of their aunt being put down.

Bill admitted he was making a lot of money in his programming job, and he told me that he had considered funding some experimental non-covered treatment that might help his mother out of his own pocket. But then he reconsidered. He decided she wouldn't want to be a burden on him.

He has his own life to live, his own bliss to follow. His goal is to retire when he is fifty, and by his canny investment strategies, he expects to be reaching his goal in two years. He never wanted to get married and have a family. And he's chomping at the bit to take advantage of the nest egg that he's been building so he can finally be free of a job. He's got a bucket list a mile long. He spends every vacation mountain climbing, and there are a lot of very big mountains on that bucket list. He knows his mother wouldn't want him to have to give up his dream on her account.

Caring for parents who are sick can cause huge amounts of stress. And we hate being forced to see our parents weak and ravaged by sickness when we would prefer to remember them as they were when they were full of vitality. We hate to see them suffer, we really do.

In our era, medical practice provides ways to mercifully shorten both their suffering and our own. But even so, oftentimes it is just plain painful to decide when to let them go. And sometimes we face opposition from narrow-minded people who don’t understand the progress we as a society have made in the area of compassionate end of life.

Bill and I spoke three or four times over the next couple of weeks while Bill agonized over the decision. The oncologist had urged him to euthanize his mother right away before Rose’s condition worsened, but Bill had clearly decided against that. He was apparently planning to put her down "when he was ready," and he thought he wasn't ready yet. One evening, he said he'd talked to a compassionate care counselor who'd told him that Rose would tell him, maybe not in words, when it was time to go, that Bill should watch and listen to for cues. He asked if I thought this was the right course.

At the time, I couldn't quite say. But if I had been able to articulate what I thought that night, it would have been this: Human beings, even when severely disabled or devastated by illness, avidly cling to life, sometimes even to the last breath, even when their lives have no quality at all--from a rational point of view.

They may cling to outmoded beliefs that it is wrong to end their own lives. Or they simply may not be able to decide for themselves when it's time to die, because especially under those circumstances they often aren’t capable of such abstract thought.

I personally didn't look to my wonderful parents, Ted and Betty, to tell me when it was time for them to go, one diagnosed with congestive heart failure, the other with colon cancer. The responsibility and the hard decision, it seemed to me, was mine, not theirs. Right after each of them was diagnosed, I made quiet arrangements with the end-of-life specialist to have him put them down before they endured any prolonged suffering—-my own choice, not a hard and fast recommendation for others.

In the context of this most personal decision a child ever makes, as in many other types of decisions, there are no universal truths.

Bill ended up postponing the decision for two months, until the tumor in his mother’s jaw had swollen to grapefruit size. When he called me again, I told him it was obviously time, and he finally went ahead and had her put to sleep.

Later, he called this the most wrenching period of his life. His relationship was floundering because Bill had been torn between the claims of his mother and his lover. His lover was upset about the time Bill spent attending to his mother’s affairs. His lover would complain about being left out because Bill started to visit Rose occasionally towards the end, even though she didn’t even recognize Bill some days. He told his lover that it didn't matter so much that she didn't recognize him, he recognized her, but that sentiment just elicited a snort from his partner.

After Bill finally ordered the euthanasia, in spite of the fact that he was convinced he had done the right thing, he missed his mother more than he ever imagined was possible. It was hard for me to relate to him at that point, his emotionalism seemed so unmanly and irrational. Bill cried deep wrenching sobs as he told me how much more horrible he felt because he knew he had no right to expect any sympathy.

Weeks later he told me he was plagued with recurrent dreams. In the dreams, he was a two year old with pneumonia. His mother was rocking him to comfort him while he fretted and feverishly pushed her away. When the dream ended, he would partly wake up. He would sit up in his bed and wail and reach his arms out for her just like he was still a little boy, until he would realize it was only a dream. Then he would continue to wail because he experienced the pain of her loss again every time the dream ended. His lover called him pathetic and began to sleep on the couch.

For months afterwards, Bill was depressed, and he could not bring himself to make all the sales calls he needed to meet his quotas. Predictably, the inheritance Bill had a right to expect from his mother’s estate had dwindled during the time he had delayed. And, as Bill had feared, his cousins were outraged when they somehow heard about the euthanasia. Fortunately, with the compassionate end-of-life laws on the books, there was nothing the cousins could do but complain.

The message in this is that his prolongation of his mother’s life took its toll on both his relationship and his finances. The wait had only delayed both the grief and the reckoning he eventually had to face with his narrow-minded relatives in any case. I frankly told him that was a shame.

To help your parents let go of life is as integral a part of the parent-child relationship as to make a cheering phone call on Mother’s and Father’s Day or to drop by for some of Mom’s home cooked food from time to time.

Above all, it is vital not to forget that our first responsibility is to take care of ourselves and get on with our lives.

One doctor I know tells patients that euthanasia should be performed "when the sick or aged person can no longer live a fully-human life. Sometimes the patient is willing and able to make the decision about when it is time to go—and sometimes only the child in conference with the end-of-life specialists knows when that really is."

The Netherlands has led the way for compassionate end of life care for many years. The same year that the laws were changed in our country to allow euthanasia and assisted suicide, tens of thousands of cases were performed in the Netherlands. Of these, about half the patients did not request or consent to being put down. One Amsterdam doctor explained in an interview that it would have been "rude" to discuss the matter with the patients, as they all "knew that their conditions were incurable."

One nurse practitioner in a rehabilitation center tells her patients, “I would not want to live if I couldn’t climb mountains any more.” She and the attending doctor, who have a responsibility to help keep the managed care costs down for the HMO that runs the center, find this can be very effective when she speaks to a bed-ridden or wheelchair bound invalid. More often than not, her patients will see her point, spare their children the difficult decision, and ask for an end-of-life injection themselves the next time the doctor comes around.

But I know other adult children—a growing number, according to doctors—who, like Bill, allow their parents with poor quality of life continue to live on and on, most of them because they have old-fashioned if not outright medieval beliefs. Like Bill’s fundamentalist cousins, they claim sanctimoniously that euthanasia is fake mercy.

They say that compassion should lead one to share another's pain, relieve it as far as possible, and comfort the ill and dying, not to kill a person when we cannot bear the person’s suffering. Note the use of the emotionally charged word “kill” instead of “compassionately end a life.”

Euthanasia opponents who believe in God say that because God is the giver of life, God alone has the right to decide when to end it. They believe that suffering can have a great benefit for the individual and for the world when the person who is suffering “offers it up” (which begs the question of whether there is a God at all or why a God would want such offerings). They say that a final illness is can be a grace-filled transitional time of preparation for eternal life and that it should not be cut short by human intervention.

Opponents also paint a narrow-minded picture of the current state of health care practice when they protest that people should not be encouraged into suicide. And they are outraged at the thought that people may be euthanized without their consent.

Those out of touch moralists don’t have a clue how maudlin it sounds when they say that true compassion means that we care for people--not we kill them when they are ill or defective in some way that makes us uncomfortable. There’s that judgmental use of the loaded word “kill” again.

Such beliefs fly in the face of everything we know in our day about the primary importance of taking care of our own needs. As my favorite philosopher Ayn Rand sagely wrote in her books, survival of the fittest mandates that we minimize the costs to society and realistically not waste our time and money on those too weak to take care of themselves.

Admittedly, it is hard to think clearly at such moments, but one must keep in mind that what good parents want above all is what is best for their children. You can console yourself with the assurance that if they were able to think clearly at the time, your parents would really want not to be a burden, distress you with their pain, or cause you financial loss.

As my conversations with Bill reminded me, keeping them alive past when it is time for them to go is not to anyone’s benefit.

Legislation for what is cynically called compassionate end of life care has already been passed in many states, and euthanasia with or without patients’ consent is already commonplace in the Netherlands and other countries. This satire is based on an article in Slate magazine titled “When Should You Put Your Dog Down?” By Jon Katz. Because so many of the ideas Mr. Katz propounded in 2003 sound like what people say these days about "mercy killing," I wrote this fictional article.

There is nothing new in the attitudes expressed in this little satire. I found a good example of the very same attitudes described in a work of fiction from the middle of the twentieth century, in Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, which was written in the 1940s. Agatha Christie wrote it during WWII when thought she might die in the London bombings, then it put away in a bank vault. It was finally published in 1975, the year before Christie died.

Judith, Captain Hastings' beautiful twenty-one year old daughter, and a sympathetic character loved by both her father and by "Uncle" Poirot, was one of the group gathered together at the guest house in the book; she was in love with a married doctor who was married to an invalid wife. Judith quite vehemently expressed her philosophy several times without much authorial comment. She was adamantly sure that when anyone is making anyone's life miserable or is useless, that person should be eliminated. "Old people, sick people should not be allowed to ruin the lives of others!"

When a murder case was discussed in which a father was killed by one of his daughters because he was too controlling, Judith said, "I think she was very brave." When asked what her lover the doctor would think, Judith blurted out that he thought the victim had it coming to him. "Some people just ask to be murdered." "I don't hold life as sacred as you people do," she interjected.

In a conversation at dinner table in the story, "everybody knew" that the "unfit" should not be kept around to drain the resources of the "fit" and contaminate the gene pool. The only real question seemed was whether the unfit should be put out of the way if they didn't ask for it. She called killing such a person putting someone out of their misery. "It shouldn't be up to the patient." And, she added, especially when a loved one's life is useless, "someone who loves them" has to take the responsibility," and be brave enough to do the right thing even at risk of being tried for murder.

Nowadays in 2016, most people don't talk openly about getting rid of defectives so they don't contaminate the gene pool (even though we quietly kill most babies with defects before they are even born in these dark days). But the idea that a sick parent should be put down when the time comes, which already seemed perfectly obvious to educated upper class unbelievers in the 1940s, is obviously getting more acceptable to everyone every year--except to a dwindling few who still hold that life is sacred. These days the deterrent of possibly being prosecuted for "mercy-killing" is being stricken from the laws in many places, and we don't even have to sully our own hands. In more and more countries and states, a Doctor Death or his nurse assistant will do the dirty deed for us.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

It's Curtains for Poirot! I Wept, But Not for the Reasons You Might Think

**Spoiler alert! This post is about how the TV version of Agatha Christie's Curtains, Poirot's Last Case, was ruined for me by the insertion of gratuitous rosary clutching, and by other generally inept muddling of the original plot.**

Poirot Has Taken Up the Rosary in the TV Series
I read all of the Hercule Poirot mysteries my mother frequently brought home from the library when I was young, mostly because I read everything that came into the house. Full of adolescent intellectual pretensions and dreams of becoming a "famous writer," I binge-read Agatha Christie's books without much enthusiasm, holding my nose in the air because everyone knew the stories weren't great literature.

As I speed read through the books, I  felt manipulated by the way Christie presented the clues, because I resented that I could never guess the ending. Like the novels, the shows in the TV series never give you all the information you need to solve the mystery yourself. First one person seems to be the killer, then another, then a third. It always ends up that everyone is potentially equally guilty until Poirot takes center stage and proudly makes the dramatic revelation of the real killer at the end.

Agatha Christie knew what she was doing with this phenomenally successful formula. She was probably laughing at her critics who called her lowbrow, all the way to the bank. Her books are said to be the third ranking most popular best sellers of all time, just below the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.

The formula doesn't bother me when I watch the TV shows. A great part of the Poirot shows' appeal for me is from the locales in which they are shot and from the mores and manners of the idle rich good looking people in their 30s attire. Dear Poirot, who was played deftly by David Suchet, was always a gentleman and a charming reminder of distressingly lost manners and morals.

I binge watched the first seasons of the Poirot shows that were online when I first got Netflix, and I was quite content to watch dandy and dapper little Poirot have his light and whimsical interactions with Hastings and Chief Inspector Japp and Miss Lemon and watch the clues pile up in all their superfluity—until Poirot would sort out the relevant from the irrelevant and tell us who did it.
David Suchet as Poirot in the first TV episode, The Adventure of the Clapham Cook
Then there were none left to watch. I marveled at David Suchet's surprisingly villainous Augustus Melmotte in the 2001 British four-part adaptation of the Anthony Trollope novel, The Way We Live Now. Then I was happy to learn from an Youtube interview with Suchet that he would be appearing in a final season of Poirot, after a many-year hiatus.

I finally got to watch the last season over this last month. and when I got to end of the final show, Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, a few days ago, I wept.
Why Did They Do It?

I didn't cry for the sentimental reasons that one might expect, not because I was saying goodbye to mon cher ami, Poirot, the character who had amused me for so much of my life. Not that at all. I cried from disappointment and frustration with how the writer, the producer, and the director muddied the plot with many uncalled for changes, and I cried with resentment about how they ruined the character of Poirot for me, with what seem to me to be not too subtle digs at his and my Catholic faith.

How Agatha Christie Did It

I didn't remember the original novel, so I read it again after I saw the final show. In the book, Agatha Christie showed Poirot as obsessed by knowing that there was a killer at work behind at least five murders that had been splashed all over the papers, a killer whom the law would never be able to touch. The book starts when the widower Hastings is on a train to Styles, which had been the scene of their first sleuthing collaboration in the book The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Styles is now a run-down guest house. Poirot has summoned Hastings to help him. Judith, one of Hasting's four children who are all living on their own, has come to the guest house there also, assisting a scientist who is lodging there for the summer with his invalid wife and performing experiments in an outbuilding.

Poirot is feigning being paralyzed as part of his plan. In the book, Poirot tells Hastings that he knows who the killer is who has been the guiding hand behind all five of the murders and that the killer is one of the group gathered at Styles. He won't tell Hastings the killer's name, he says, because he is convinced that Hastings will give the game away with his "speaking countenance."  Poirot calls the killer "X."
The Group Gathered at Styles
Significantly, Shakespeare's Iago comes up in the conversation of the people at the guest house after dinner one night.  Similar to how Iago goaded Othello into killing his wife Desdemona by making Othello think his wife was unfaithful, X deftly manipulates people who would not otherwise kill into committing murders, by making them think things that aren't true or distorting things that are true, shaming them or making them fearful or otherwise manipulating their emotions with words and innuendos planted always at the most effective moment.
Laurence Fishburne and Kenneth Branagh as Othello and Iago
X's manipulations been responsible for at least five killings before the story  begins. Since all the murders X is responsible for were carried out by others, X can never be convicted in a court of law. Poirot also neglects to tell Hastings that he has moved into the Styles guest house and enlisted Hastings' help because he has decided to execute X himself. He is feigning being paralyzed as part of his plan.

Before Poirot can carry out his planned execution, X is able to provoke the guest house owner to shoot (but fortunately not fatally injure) his nagging wife, and X has helped precipitate another woman's attempt to poison her husband, which only went wrong when Hastings inadvertently turned the table on which the cups were placed, which caused the woman to drink a poisoned cup of coffee she had prepared for her spouse.

To show how powerfully compelling X's manipulation can be, even the good Hastings is only narrowly prevented by Poirot from poisoning a man. Hastings had been manipulated by X into believing the man is going to hurt his daughter. A major theme of this book seems to be that anyone can be a killer.

Anyone Includes Even Poirot

Poirot believes that he must act before any of the other murderous seeds that X has planted in the minds of any of the others at the guest house bear fruit in any more killings.  He asks Hastings to invite X to his room. After Hastings leaves, Poirot tells X what he knows, tells him he is going to execute him, shoots him, and arranges everything to make it look like a suicide.

Poirot asks Gods' forgiveness; he believes the murder is justified because it will remove the killer and protect innocent lives, but he admits he is not sure that what he did is forgivable.  After he writes a letter to be delivered to Hastings four months later — which explains everything — Poirot has the last in a series of heart attacks that were shown throughout the episode.

Poirot chooses not to take the amyl nitrate that helped him survive the earlier attacks, and he dies. The formerly good Poirot joins the ranks of killers whom he has pursued his whole career.
"Yes, my friend, it is odd — and laughable — and terrible! I, who do not approve of murder — I, who value human life — have ended my career by committing murder." — from Poirot's letter to Hastings delivered four months after Poirot's death (from the novel)
The Saddest Thing of All

The saddest thing of all for me about the way the book was written is to think that Poirot's act of killing would have quite probably damned Poirot to hell.  Also of concern is the fact that is not clear whether Poirot's not taking the medicine that was keeping him alive was a suicide or not. The way Christie wrote the story, Poirot asked God to forgive him before he died, but how God will judge Poirot is not  clear.

The dreadful thought of Poirot being not only dead but in eternal hellfire hangs portentous in my mind, even though he was only a fictional character. The biggest thing I always am concerned about when I hear about a death is whether the person in a state of grace. All of us must die, but as the saints have told us, much more important than the facts of anyone's death is where that person will spend eternity.

How They Went Wrong

The creators of the TV series went way off track in their visually and morally bleak version of Curtain, which they set in winter instead of summer with lots of British gloom and thunderstorms. They turned Poirot into an angry man who rages inexcusably cruelly at his friend, Hastings. There is some of that in the book, but the things Poirot says to Hastings and the way he treats his friend in the final show is hateful and distasteful.

They muddled the plot immensely by hiding from Hastings the fact that Poirot knows who the potential killer is, and by omitting the plot device from the book in which Poirot calls the killer "X."  If Poirot doesn't know either who the victim will be or who the killer is, his actions don't make sense. And what is Hastings supposed to do? He thinks he is supposed to help stop a murder.  But really he is supposed to help Poirot commit one.

One thing is for sure, in Poirot's mind, Hastings can't do anything right. The guest house owner's wife is shot, a woman is poisoned, the hapless Hastings almost poisons a man, and Hastings is left just as clueless as he was at the start. It's not his fault the way the story has been ineptly re-written.

Poirot is constantly railing at Hastings how he doesn't have any grey cells, that he has lard for brains. "I say, that's a bit rough," replies poor Hastings to the last sharp jibe.

Christie was brilliant at the art of creating complex plot details that dovetailed together. So it is inexcusably clumsy that when the makers of the TV version took out some plot elements and added others, they didn't rebalance everything about the story. As one wag wrote about changes made by producers and directors to another of Christie's stories: "If they think they can do better, they should write their own novels. They could then muck those up to their hearts' content."

The TV version of Curtain breaks the rules of dramatic unity by moving away from Hastings' point of view three times to show Poirot alone with his thoughts and his rosary. The use of the rosary seems to be part of a pattern in the shows created after 2003, when the series producers started stressing Poirot's Catholicism in a way the author never did. Poirot's previously uncrackable self-assurance about the rules he lived by is shown to be cracking, which it never does in the novels.

For another example of similar changes in another episode, the end of Murder on the Orient Express in the TV series has first raging at the murderers who have taken the law into their own hands to execute a criminal who had escaped justice, and then they show Poirot in tears about his wrenching decision to allow the murders to get off, while he is clutching a rosary. The raging, the tears, the wrenching decision, and the rosary, none of these are in the book.

Most shocking to me about one of added scenes in Curtain is that they showed Poirot holding his rosary beads tightly at the same time he mutters he will damn the killer's soul to hell. This uncalled-for insertion smacks of anti-Catholicism. At the very least it shows an incorrect understanding of Catholic beliefs, and it paints Poirot as deeply evil.  His high-mindedness has turned into a vicious desire for revenge.
To me, a rosary-praying Catholic would be likely to have the kind of faith that would lead to trust in God (Vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord). Instead Poirot comes across as a twisted egotistic religious crackpot, and the rosary is made to seem part of Poirot's evil religiosity.

One of the most popular canards of our era is that religion is the blighting source in the human soul of self-righteous judgmentalism and violence, and the BBC promoted that canard in the final Poirot mystery with a very heavy hand.

While God's judgment against Poirot was not certain for the murder he committed in the book, the balance was tipped against Poirot in the TV version, in which the crime of taking the law into his own hands and breaking the sixth commandment was compounded by the writers' additions.  When Poirot spits out his desire to send the killer to eternal damnation, the series final Curtain has been transformed from a formulaic murder mystery into a revenge tragedy, either by choice or inadvertently.

When It is Not Enough to Kill Somebody

As you may know, revenge tragedies were a favorite form of  tragedy during the Elizabethan and post-Restoration periods of English drama. English revenge tragedies of those times were modeled after ancient dramas, but they included a new element in the Christian era, because everyone was aware of the judgment that awaits every soul after death.  The avenger no longer would be satisfied by killing; the avenger would only be satisfied if he could make sure the person he kills is in a state of mortal sin, so that person will go to hell.
And Jesus said, "Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell."Matthew 10:28.
Shakespeare's Hamlet is the best example of the revenge genre. Prince Hamlet, as we all know, was goaded by an apparition of his father to kill his uncle, Claudius, because Claudius had gained the throne of Denmark and his father's wife by the murder.  In Act 3, Scene 3 of the play, Hamlet comes upon his uncle on his knees praying, and he thinks, what good would it do to kill Claudius at that point? It could result in sending the uncle to heaven, whereas perfect revenge would require him to be sent to hell.
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven. if he am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
No!
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes."
It's a stroke of ironic plotting on Shakespeare's part that Hamlet doesn't realize that his uncle is on his knees because he is trying unsuccessfully to repent.  In his soliloquy, unknown to Hamlet, Claudius comes to realize that he cannot sincerely ask for forgiveness because he still enjoys the kingship and the queen that he gained from his crime.  Claudius' prayers rise to heaven, but his thoughts stay on earth, so he knows he will still be damned because he is blocked from the grace of final repentance.
Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart as Hamlet and Claudius
My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.
The Big Questions

The question often raised in revenge tragedies is this:  Are the protagonists who are enacting private revenge  heroes or villains? The book version of Curtain leaves us with the same good question.  Is Poirot, who kills for what he thinks are good reasons, a villain or a hero? Hasn't Poirot become no better than the murderers he has brought to justice all those years? And how will his plea to God for forgiveness be answered? Poirot does seem to have same lack of true repentance as Claudius did.

The way the TV series ends raises even more troubling questions. Hasn't Poirot's desire not only to kill but to damn X, which is uttered while he is clutching rosary beads, made him even more of a hypocritical villain and damned him even more certainly? And at the moment of his last heart attack, when Poirot grabs for his rosary instead of his amyl nitrate popper that would save his life, what are we to make of that?
Poirot reaches for his rosary instead of the amyl nitrate that will help him survive
Now can you see why I cried?


Where’s the Holy Spirit in the Contraception Debate?

I just came across this letter that I wrote in response to “Pew View: Doctrine + Reality = Disconnect ± Hypocrisy,” a Guest Commentary by James P. Walsh and “Both sides are wrong” a letter to the editor by Woody Nedom in the March 16, 2012 issue of The Valley Catholic, the San Jose, CA, diocesan newspaper. I still find it appalling that the bishop's newspaper would print articles and letters strongly critical of Church doctrine on contraception and other moral issues.  See also a related post I wrote  titled Contraception and the Average Catholic, which  describes my experiences with how a "moral" theologian  taught at the bishop's Institute for Leadership in Ministry against the Church's prohibition of contraception and other doctrines.



James Walsh’s Guest Commentary in The Valley Catholic is an angry stew of an article, mixing praise for John Rock as the inventor of The Pill and of in vitro fertilization with chunks of criticisms of Catholic Church doctrines, which he labels as disconnected with reality, backward, and hypocritical. In the same issue of The Valley Catholic, the first letter, by Woody Nedom, in the "Letters to the Editor" section refers to the Catholic bishops’ “irrational opposition to birth control” …. “a doctrine that should no longer exist and that harms the credibility of the Church.”

“What is such an article doing in a diocesan Catholic newspaper? And “Why is such a letter prominently featured in the same issue?” are questions that a devout Catholic might well ask. So I’m asking. [It won't surprise you that I never got an answer.]

Left: John Rock, the only Catholic doctor who signed a petition to legalize birth control in 1931 [From the the Wikipedia article on John Rock.]

Walsh’s article is heavily seasoned with his beliefs that Church doctrines victimize women, minorities and the poor. Without citing any proofs, he also states that the same doctrines somehow benefit old males and those perverted priests who have preyed on the young.  It appears as if he throws in a completely off-topic mention of the sex abuse scandal with an aside about the old male hierarchy to try to make his stew more palatable to the like-minded.

Also, oddly enough, Walsh throws in a blurb about the 2008 book, The Fertility Doctor: John Rock and the Fertility Revolution, even though book reviews are not usually published about books that have been out for four years.

Rock is no hero. Rock, along with many others, wanted the Church to join with the Protestant denominations who abandoned the universal Christian condemnation of contraception starting in 1932. Walsh and Nedom are in the camp that believes that Pope Paul VI’s restatement of the ban on contraception in Humanae Vitae was due to that pope’s “weakness and timidity.”

None of those who despise Humanae Vitae seem to be able to glimpse the evident work of the Holy Spirit in how that so-called weak and timid Pope was able to stand up against the so-called “experts” and reaffirm the Church’s traditional teaching on this matter. Part of what seems to be lacking in opponents of that document is Faith in the discernment of the Church’s Magisterium.  Also lacking is an understanding that Church doctrine is not defined by majority vote.

In spite of the spiteful contrary claims, the Pope prophetically predicted the damage to the status of women, to the family, and to society that would result if birth control became the norm. If you haven’t read Humanae Vitae yet, read it. You might just be amazed at how true his predictions were about the harm that would come if contraception was fully accepted.


Fortuitously behind the scenes, and far away from the Vatican, by the grace of God, a Polish Archbishop and doctor of philosophy had been teaching for years a reasoned defense for the Church’s position against contraception, that was published as Love and Responsibility. . The young Archbishop Karol Wojtyla was one of the experts consulted by Paul VI before the pope released the encyclical.  The arguments of the Krakow archibishop were not used in full in the encyclical, which author George Weigel says is a large part of the reason why the encyclical was not received with more acceptance.

When Wojtyla became Pope, he presented his philosophy of marital love in a series of talks to papal audiences that has become collected under the title Theology of the Body.

I can’t begin to address all the misinformation about how contraception reduces the “need” for abortions. But I remember speaking in 1989 with a high school counselor who provided birth control information to her students, who frankly admitted that out of wedlock births and abortions have skyrocketed since education about contraception was made widely available. It is completely unnatural and has devastating consequences to teach that the intimacy that belongs in marriage should be encouraged inside and outside of marriage, for the pleasure alone.

The natural outcome of intimacy between a man and a woman is conception. When a pregnancy results, which it often does, no matter what form of contraception is used, the conception of the child is seen as a failure. The woman who conceives is often blamed and abandoned, and the child who is conceived is often killed.

At the time when The Pill was being touted as “natural birth control,” no one, including the experts knew how The Pill works. Now it is agreed that The Pill uses hormones that put the woman’s body into a state of false pregnancy for year after year and inhibit ovulation. Doctors know now that The Pill has serious consquences for women's health, with highly increased risk of breast cancer. They also have discovered that The Pill also is an abortifacient.

Eggs often do get released, and conception often does occur, but The Pill makes the lining of the womb inhospitable. Metaphorically speaking, the conceived child then dies because there is no room for him in his mother’s womb.

Walsh notes that that his parish bulletin in 2011 listed 28 twins, a contrast to only one set of twins in his first Communion class, and sees in this explosion of twinning the result of the work of John Rock.  What Walsh doesn’t note is that the Catholic Church forbids in vitro fertilization.

Here are a few reasons why: In vitro fertilization starts with the use of pornography and masturbation to obtain the father’s sperm, continues with the use of dangerous doses of hormones administered to the woman to achieve the creation of multiple fertilized eggs (known as human beings to those of us who care). When any of the new lives that are conceived are found to be imperfect or superfluous, they are destroyed.  Those multiple sets of twins Walsh saw in his parish bulletin were most probably the survivors of what would often have been sextuplets if the doctors and the parents had allowed all of the “superfluous” children to live.

Walsh writes that Rock lived and died within Boston’s Irish Catholic Church, but as I read once in a New Yorker article, Rock left the Church when it didn’t accept his pitch that The Pill was a natural form of birth control. And Rock died in New Hampshire, not Boston.

"Heaven and Hell, Rome, all the Church stuff--that's for the solace of the multitude," Rock said. … "I was an ardent practicing Catholic for a long time, and I really believed it all then, you see." From “What the co-inventor of the Pill 
didn't know about menstruation 
can endanger women's health” March 10, 2000 
ANNALS OF MEDICINE
Who do you trust?