Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Catholic. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

What Catholics Can Learn from the Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones has been the biggest pop culture phenomenon in recent memory. The HBO TV series, based on the bestselling novels A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin, captivated the imagination of audiences throughout the world for the better part of a decade. Regrettably, however, Game of Thrones is also a profoundly un-Christian story. Beyond the pervasive vulgarity, the gratuitous and often deeply disturbing sex, and the recurring shock value horror violence, the story presents a relentlessly pessimistic, cynical, even nihilistic view of life, of human nature, and of the world we inhabit. The supernatural world, moreover, as envisioned by the show, is at best amoral, but, one might say, is perhaps even more cruel than the world of humans and certainly offers no hope after the harsh vicissitudes of earthly existence. In fact, in the final episode, the show point blank denies the existence of an afterlife and suggests that the best humans can hope for beyond death is oblivion.

And yet, I must confess that I have spent many hours reading the books, watching the TV show, following online commentaries, and discussing the story with friends. Why? Because the story, for the most part, has been a well-told tale, narrated with great skill and compelling strength. Stories draw people in. The Game of Thrones phenomenon illustrates the immense power of a well-crafted narrative. Tyrion, one of the main characters of the story, puts it well in the grand finale of the show: "What unites people? Armies? Gold? Flags?... Stories. There is nothing in the world more powerful than a good story. Nothing can stop it. No enemy can defeat it." At the heart of the worldwide popularity of Game of Thrones was the strength of the initial narrative structure. As fans felt that the quality of the storytelling declined over time, they complained bitterly. In fact, over one million fans signed a petition for HBO to remake the final season of the show, because they felt dissatisfied with the conclusion. Such is the power of narratives.

As a Catholic observer of the Game of Thrones phenomenon, I have always had a love-hate relationship with the story. I have loved the often masterful telling of the tale – but I have hated the forceful presentation of values and ideas so deeply contrary to my own. How, one might ask, can the Catholic Church counter such a popular cultural phenomenon? The answer, I think, is articulated in another movie, the classic film Ben-Hur, where Messala states: "You ask how to fight an idea. Well, I'll tell you how: with another idea."

The Catholic Church possesses the greatest story ever told, the story of Christ. For centuries, we have proclaimed this story boldly, persuading much of the world of its truth. Over the centuries, our story has inspired some of the greatest creative talents of humanity – composers, artists, architects, poets, and writers. Western Civilization was built upon the Catholic narrative and the Catholic culture that arose from that powerful story.

But in recent decades, our narrative fervor has abated. We seem little interested today in suffusing the broader culture with our story. Many of our own theologians have made a career out of doubting and deconstructing our own narrative. Our church art, moreover, has, all too often, become abstract and grotesque, possessing none of the beauty through which the sacred art of past generations could lift the faithful's soul up to God. Likewise, our church buildings, whose beauty once reflected the splendor of God's glory, now often feel more like meeting halls or parking garages than sacred spaces where we can encounter the Divine. Our once ethereal church music has, very often, been replaced with bland melodies, with even more bland lyrics, that tell very little of our magnificent story.

We no longer have a Catholic culture built upon our narrative. Instead, our lives are suffused by the culture of the world. The fact that a post-Christian story written by the ex-Catholic George R.R. Martin has resonated so powerfully with our increasingly post-Christian society is an apt metaphor for how far our culture has fallen from its foundations and for how far we as Catholics have strayed from the proclamation of our own story.

But it need not be so. We Catholics need only to remember our history – we need only to recall that we do indeed possess the greatest story ever told. We need to keep telling that story to ourselves, to each other, to new generations, and to the whole world. Let us reclaim our zeal for proclaiming the story of Christ. Let us create new art, architecture, music, poetry, and books that express the pathos, beauty, magnificence, and profound hope of our story.

Let us also foster the crafting of fictional narratives rooted in the power of our Catholic story. The immense popularity of The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien shows the impact that Catholic fiction can have upon the world. Let us foster the Catholic novel, supporting and encouraging Catholic writers, young and old. Let us invest in Catholic filmmaking. The great success of recent Christian films shows the hunger our culture has for wholesome storytelling. Let us respond by creating Catholic movies to engage our society.

The story that can change hearts, that can save souls, that can transform the world has been entrusted to us. We must, therefore, proclaim it with fidelity, courage, enthusiasm, and love.

Photo Credit: Promotional photo for the Game of Thrones series.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Fire, the Lampstand, and Our Lady of All Nations: A Reflection on Notre Dame

On the morning of Monday, April 15, I felt a strong desire to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special prayer reflecting on the sorrows of the Virgin Mary. I try to pray this prayer every day, and I was planning to say it later in the day, but my desire was growing to start it right away. Just then, I glanced at my Twitter feed and saw that Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was on fire. I quickly looked at news sources and watched in utter horror as the top of the building was engulfed in flames.

No words could describe my grief as I was witnessing what seemed like the destruction of one of the most magnificent jewels of Western civilization. So much history, culture, art, and spirituality has been connected with and has been symbolized by this one building, dating back to the 12th century. For a while, I could not stop watching the livestream of the conflagration, listening intently for the slightest bit of news. But in time, I turned off the sound and started to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, while still watching the raging fire devouring the resplendent building. At that time, it seemed that the roof had collapsed, and the interior was being completely annihilated by the flames.

My grief only grew during the day. In January, I had the good fortune of being able to visit Notre Dame on a long layover in Paris. I attended morning Mass and toured the building, taking many pictures of the priceless artwork. I climbed the north tower, where I could see the famed gargoyles from up close and could admire a panoramic view of Paris. But now this venerable old building of marvels seemed to be on the brink of complete collapse.

As I watched the livestream, I could not help but think that the conflagration was a metaphor for the state of the Catholic Church in much of the Western world today. We are facing the greatest crisis in Catholicism since the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the scale of the decline is arguably far greater than during the 16th century. In many formerly flourishing Catholic areas the Church is little more now than a burnt out shell.

A chilling line from the Book of Revelation haunted me during the day. Christ says to the Ephesians: "Yet I hold this against you: you have lost the love you had at first. Realize how far you have fallen. Repent, and do the works you did at first. Otherwise, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent." (Revelation 2:4-5)

The burning of this awe-inspiring gem of Western history also reminded me of the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. In so many passages, he depicts the fallen buildings and monuments of a once great society that has collapsed due to its own corruption or has been destroyed by enemies. The conflagration of Notre Dame seemed to me like an apt metaphor for the fall of Western civilization which we are witnessing today.

We have abandoned our roots, we have turned away from the blessings that once gave us greatness. We have forgotten how to build a magnificent world and how to maintain it. The West is now collapsing. We are falling. We are becoming the burnt out shell of our former glory. Such were my gloomy thoughts as the fires raged in Notre Dame Cathedral.

But as the day unfolded, I found hope unexpectedly. As the heroic firefighters subdued the flames, good news started to emerge. The interior, which initially seemed to have been completely destroyed, turned out to have been relatively untouched by the devastation. The gilded cross above the main altar shone bright in the initial pictures of the interior. The beautiful statue of the Pieta, Our Lady of Sorrows, situated under the cross, her arms open, also survived intact.

If the fire was a metaphor for the state of Catholicism in the West, then the miraculous survival of so much beauty inside was perhaps a metaphor that all is not yet lost. The Catholic Church, though bruised and battered in the West, has not yet fallen. Our lampstand has not yet been taken from us. We have work to do. We have so much to offer to a world that needs so desperately the grace entrusted to us by Christ.

The spontaneous outpouring of grief, support, solidarity, and love on social media, not just from Catholics but many people from all walks of life, showed that the majestic Cathedral and what it symbolizes still resonates deeply in our society. Notre Dame embodies something that people need deep down in their hearts and still want on some level, even if they cannot articulate that desire. As the fires raged, perhaps another fire was being kindled in the hearts of many – the desire to return to our spiritual roots. So it seemed as so many on social media shared a clip of the crowd that had assembled near the building singing the Ave Maria. That beautiful clip, capturing the most beloved prayer to Our Lady, will forever be associated with the public response to the conflagration. In fact, the crowds sang and prayed for hours outside.

Notre Dame means Our Lady. She is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God. The cathedral houses many beautiful depictions of Mary, among them several images of her from other parts of the world. While the building is a symbol of French culture and history, spiritually Notre Dame belongs to all the world. Our Lady is not just the Lady of Paris or of France, but, as we might call her, Our Lady of All Nations. As the world mourns for the cathedral that has so majestically honored our Blessed Mother for so long, let us invite the people of the world into Our Lady's open and outstretched arms, so that she can enfold us all in her motherly embrace and lead us to that true peace that only her Son can give.

Photo Credit: Initial picture of the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral after the fire released to the media and widely circulated on the Internet.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

How Medjugorje Transformed My Life

Almost a year ago, my wife and I traveled to Medjugorje for two days. The experience was powerfully transformative for both of us. In the video below, I describe how my life has changed since that brief visit to the town of Medjugorje.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

August 9, 1945: The Death of the Rome of Japan, the Heart of Catholicism in East Asia

Nagasaki was historically the center of Catholicism in Japan. In fact, the city was once known as the Rome of Japan and was seen as the center from which East Asia could be evangelized. St. Mary's Cathedral in the Urakami district of Nagasaki was the largest Catholic Church in East Asia. Until, that is, the second atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Japan exploded over the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The targeted area was just five hundred meters away from the cathedral. The cathedral, along with the entire district, was destroyed, as was the center of Catholicism in Japan.

The following articles describe the impact of the atomic bomb on Catholicism in Nagasaki:

The first one focuses on the miraculous survival of priests dedicated to praying the Rosary in Hiroshima, then recounts a similar miracle at Nagasaki.

The priests who survived the atomic bomb

The second describes the historical development of Catholicism in Nagasaki and offers a spiritual reflection on the destruction visited upon Catholicism there.

The Catholic Holocaust of Nagasaki — "Why, Lord?"

The third article describes the history of a statue of the Virgin Mary, pictured above, that survived the bombing of the cathedral.

1,000 Torch Bearers Carried the Virgin Mary in Nagasaki. Here's Why

The last entry is the Wikipedia article on Takashi Nagai, a Catholic physician, who survived the attack on Nagasaki, after which he led a life of exemplary prayer and service, earning him the title Servant of God, the first step toward sainthood.

The Life of Takashi Nagai

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Beautiful Town of Lourdes

February 11 is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. Below are some pictures of the enchanting town of Lourdes, France, from my visit there in October of 2015. Situated at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains, Lourdes is a beautiful little town, complete with a Medieval castle overlooking the area. Lourdes is the site of a series of 18 apparitions of the Virgin Mary to Bernadette Soubirous in 1958, over the course of several months. During one of the apparitions, Mary directed Bernadette to find a spring in the grotto, instructing people to drink from the water and to wash themselves with it.

The grotto of the apparition has been well preserved. Pilgrims are able to enter, touch the walls, and view the location, now behind Plexiglass, where Bernadette found the spring. A beautiful church complex was built over the rock formation in which the grotto is located. More recently, under the promenade leading to the grotto, a huge, modern-style basilica was built, large enough to accommodate 25,000 people, making it the third largest basilica in the world. This underground church might initially strike visitors more as a backup parking garage rather than as a church, but the space has a power of its own in its aggressive starkness. Ironically, the basilica is named after St. Pius X, who was not exactly a fan of modernity.

5 million people visit Lourdes every year. Pilgrims can drink from the water and are able to bathe in it through an elaborate, stream-lined process. Visitors can also tour the buildings where Bernadette lived while she was at Lourdes. From March through October, thousands of people participate in a nightly candle light procession, involving multi-lingual prayers. A nightly Eucharistic procession is also held in the underground basilica. Close to the grotto, a life-sized set of the Stations of the Cross winds up the side of a wooded hill, inviting pilgrims to a prayerful walk, with a stunning view of the surrounding area.

Lourdes has a profound spiritual power, and from a spiritual perspective, the experience of this shrine was an amazing spiritual highlight. On the other hand, the rows and rows of shops selling all kinds of articles of commercialized religion can be disturbing and spiritually deflating. God and mammon are both present in this place - it is our choice which we embrace.