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The National Arts Club, New York

The National Arts Club, New York

Rights and Responsibilities

It was a verdict worthy of King Solomon.  In its issue of March 6th The Irish Independent recounted an amazing courtroom exchange between Judge Alan Mitchell and the lawyer for a fifteen-year-old boy from Galway.  The crime?  The youth had missed 91 out of the last 114 days of school.  Both son and parents had ignored a previous summons, and the defense was as earnest as it was simple.  As for school, reported the attorney, the boy “had no wish to be there.”

Ceiling by Tiffany

Ceiling by Tiffany

While such an excuse might carry the day elsewhere, everyone in that courtroom was about to learn that it carried no wieght there.  “If every teenager could direct whether to go to school or not,” said the judge, “there would be anarchy in this country.”  And the judgement handed down?  The boy was directed to choose which of his parents would go to jail for twenty-one days, and which parent would get probation.

That story left me breathless, for two reasons.  First of all, for years one of my most reliable excuses has been a variation of the one the boy had used.  Of course it has taken more elegant forms, like “I’m tied up today,” or “I already have a commitment.”  But in my own mind there is no denying what a good friend “I don’t feel like it” has been to me through the years.  That said, I had always been sparing in my resort to that excuse.  Never for a minute did I have the courage of that kid.  Imagine using it 91 times in a row!  And on something as important as missing school!  I’m a piker by comparison.

lunchThe second thing that stunned me was the willingness of that judge to call a spade a spade. In an  era of no-fault car insurance and victimless crimes, we naturally assume the priority of personal freedom to do any and everything we want.  That far outweighs any responsibility we might have to one another.  This judge, by contrast, had the nerve to suggest that this boy’s life mattered.  He mattered to his classmates and to his parents;  and his actions would someday impact not only them but society at large.  What better way to teach that boy the importance of his actions than by letting him send one parent to jail.

stairsWhen we weigh rights and responsibilities, we tend to put the emphasis on the former, at the expense of the latter.  We are individuals with certain inalienable rights, as the Constitution affirms.  And so we are.  We expect, then, to be respected and left alone to pursue our private happiness.  But we also presume that someone should be there to help us when we fall, and to pick up the pieces when our lives fragment.  It’s the least that society owes us.

Ironically, such a self-absorbed universe discounts our own self-worth.  While we may assume that society owes us a great deal, it implies that we have little or nothing to give in return.  It even hints that we have nothing of intrinsic value to offer, so why should we show up?  Why should we even try to help others?  Horribly, if enough people started to believe this and act on it, the fabric of our community and our family would unravel.

stained glassThe fact of the matter is, most of us sell ourselves short in many ways.  We each have something — even if not a lot — to offer other people.  Our very presence, even if silent, makes some difference to others.  Our perspective on some things may be exactly what someone else needs to hear.  And the wonderful truth is this:  each and every person can make a difference in the life of someone.

You can fault the Irish judge for placing too much responsibility into the hands of a fifteen-year-old.  On the other hand, he made it clear that they boy’s actions can and will impact others, and not just the lives of his parents.  And just as his absence will diminish the lives of his classmates, so will his presence add something of value.  When is there a better time to learn this than at age fifteen?

In short, this judge paid this boy the supreme compliment.  In fact, he told the boy that his life matters.  His participation in the life of the community matters.  What he chooses to do, and what he chooses not to do, matters.  And the same is true for us.

(L-R) Mrs. Ellen Shafer, Fr. Eric, Ambassador Robert Shafer, Fra' John Dunlap

(L-R) Mrs. Ellen Shafer, Fr. Eric, Ambassador Robert Shafer, Fra’ John Dunlap

Notes

+From April 1-5 I was in New York City for a series of meetings, and on April 2nd Saint John’s University president Michael Hemesath and I visited with several alumni and friends of the University.  Among the highlights of that trip was the chance to have breakfast with Fr. Bob Koopmann, past president of Saint John’s, who is on sabbatical.  This semester he is living with the Dominican community at Saint Vincent Ferrer on Lexington Avenue.  Before leaving New York at the end of May Fr. Bob will be giving a concert at Saint Vincent, open to the public.  Details will follow.

+On April 3rd I attended an awards ceremony at the offices of the Mission of the Order of Malta to the United Nations.  Hosted by Saint John’s alumnus Ambassador Robert Shafer, I was delighted to have the chance to visit with several friends of the Order, including Michael and Cecelia Grace, members of the Western Association.

(L-R) Fra' John Dunlap, Honoree, Mr. Michael Grace

(L-R) Fra’ John Dunlap, Honoree, Mr. Michael Grace

+On April 4th Saint John’s University alumnus John Thavis spoke at Saint John’s on his new book The Vatican Diaries.  As I wrote in an earlier post, the publication of his book could not have been better timed, and it was gratifying to see the windows of bookstores in New York featuring his tome.

+On April 5th I flew to Phoenix.  While there I will be fortunate to visit the bindery where the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible is  being completed.

+While in New York I got to visit the National Arts Club, one of my favorite spots in the city.  Built ca. 1840, it was rebuilt by Governor Samuel Tilden as his townhouse around 1870.  Today it fronts on Gramercy Park, with much of its original decoration and design intact.  The first pictures in this post are from that gracious home.

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February 25, 2013 051The Vatican Diaries

I was not the first to dream that particular dream.  As a lowly graduate student, toiling away on my dissertation, I entertained the highest of hopes.  If I wrote well, mine would be among the few dissertations that got read.  No dust would bury it on a shelf with countless other unread tomes.

That was not to be, of course.  I did finish it, but along the way I picked up a few nuggets of wisdom.  The first came from reading a dissertation by a wunderkind of the medieval studies world.  I was shocked when I read it, because it was so awful.  “I can do better than that,” I thought to myself.  But it was a real eye-opener because of one simple fact.  The writer adhered to the old saw about dissertations:  “The only thing better than perfect is done.”

That was something that my own advisor had drilled into all of his doctoral students.  “If you’re destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life’s work.  And if you’re not destined to be a great writer, then don’t spend a lot of time on your dissertation.  It will just get in the way of your life.”  Sustained by that thought, I finally got it done.

February 25, 2013 058Sad to say, the world was not waiting for my work on 13th-century Leonese history.  Medieval Spain was not on anybody’s radar screen, and no political turmoil since then has caused CNN to call me up for expert commentary.

I’ve grown to accept my place in academic oblivion; but every now and again envy raises its ugly head.  I gazed in awe when my colleague who wrote on Kossovo became the go-to guy during the Balkan Wars.  For a brief span, he showed up regularly on National Public Radio and some of the other networks.  What a lucky break — his day in the sun had finally come.  But when the war ended, so did his celebrity.  Today no one remembers Kossovo.  Nor can anyone remember Professor What’s-his-name, the expert on that obscure place.

More recently the networks have beaten a path to Norman, Oklahoma.  It’s not the logical place to find out about Syrian politics, but one professor at the University of Oklahoma has hit the jackpot.  He had studied the arcana of Syrian political divisions; and now he too enjoys the briefest of moments in the sun.

February 25, 2013 062I say all of this by way of introduction to John Thavis, a 1973 alumnus of Saint John’s University.  For thirty years John worked as the bureau chief in Rome for Catholic News Service.  Through all those years, he kept eyes and ears open, and he met some of the most interesting people on the planet.  On retirement he penned a volume on the inner workings of the Vatican, and months ago his publisher decided to release the book on February 20th.  And so, a few days after Pope Benedict announced his retirement, The Vatican Diaries hit the bookstores.  John had won the lottery.  Now the interviewer has become the interviewee.

John’s points are few and simple.  First, if you think the Vatican is a monolithic absolutist state, you are laughably wrong.  If you assume that all members of the curia speak from the same page, you have lots of homework to do.  Lastly, if you imagine that everyone in Rome is a rabid careerist, you’ll be surprised.  John maintains that an awful lot of people in the curia go about their business trying to build up and serve the people of God.  And they do it quietly, to the best of their ability.

February 25, 2013 028John does not expect the reader to take this on faith.  In great detail he recounts various episodes, being careful to weave into them his primary theses.  His chapter on the Lefebvrites and the Tridentine Mass is an excellent case in point.

To the outside world, Pope Benedict’s decree that re-authorized the use of the old rite of the Mass appeared to be a case of turning back the clock.  And it provoked howls of protest in certain quarters.  In context, however, he had something entirely different in mind.  In one fell swoop he broke the monopoly on the Tridentine Mass held by the ultra-conservative Lefebvrites.  If you could attend the rite in a church in communion with Rome, why would you go to a schismatic church?  Benedict shrewdly gambled that most old-rite enthusiasts did not especially care for the right-wing political and social baggage of the Lefebvrites.  On this he is likely correct.

February 25, 2013 075Meanwhile, Pope Benedict also guessed there would be no stampede back to the Tridentine rite by mainline Catholics.  And to put his own money where his mouth is, Benedict has let his actions speak in tandem with his words.  As Thavis notes, Benedict has had eight years as Pope to celebrate his own Tridentine-rite Mass.  He has yet to do it.  And he’ll never do it while he’s pope.

Throughout his book Thavis knits together a fascinating tableau of gifted and inept individuals who serve at the highest levels of the Church.  Some are unabashed careerists.  Some worry about the welfare of their individual departments, oblivious to the bigger picture.  And not a few get so wrapped up in local issues that they forget how the public forum might misread their words and actions.  In short, Thavis suggests that hasty generalizations about Vatican policies can easily miss the mark.  When it comes to the Vatican, there is always more than meets the eye, except when there is less.

February 25, 2013 006Of course there’s lots more to the Vatican than just politics.  To the world it can appear to be a well-oiled machine.  But from the inside there are elements of a Marx Brothers movie. To cite but one example, Thavis narrates the return flight of a papal trip to Africa.  As a storm delayed flights, the vintage 707 carrying the pope and his entourage of tired aides and journalists circled the Rome airport, with little prospect of landing.  Dangerously low on fuel, the pilot decided to fly to Naples.  No one in Naples was expecting the Pope at 1 am.  From the airport they went to the train station, where they boarded a two-car train back to Rome.  Meanwhile, one can only imagine what the homeless in the Naples rail station thought.  At 2 am they had just seen the Pope and a pack of tired reporters straggle through their station.  Who would ever believe a story like that?

Then there is the delightful chapter on Fr. Reginald Foster, the papal Latinist.  He remains the world’s greatest Latinist, and certainly was among the least pious employees at the Vatican.  While he loved his work of translating papal encyclicals, he’d tell anyone within earshot that “no one will ever read these things.”  His unauthorized tours of the Vatican offices became the stuff of legend, not least because he worked just down the hall from the Pope.  I can only guess what went through Garrison Keillor’s mind when Fr. Reginald pointed to a door down the hall — “The Pope works there.”  For that courtesy Reginald got honorable mention on A Prairie Home Companion.

February 25, 2013 032I don’t want to spoil The Vatican Diaries for you, because you should read it for yourself.  It’s engaging and entertaining; and it will upend your stereotypes about the Vatican.  It really is a trove of information, presented with not a little affection for the subject matter, and with no hint of an ax to grind.

So I applaud John Thavis for his career and for this new book.  And I congratulate him for his incredible timing.  How in the world John got the Pope to announce his retirement just days before the publication of The Vatican Diaries is beyond me.  Now if I could just prevail on John to get the new pope to move to Leon, or even Castile, I would owe him big.  Maybe then my own day in the sun might finally arrive.

February 25, 2013 015Notes:

+Last fall I had the opportunity to make a presentation on The Saint John’s Bible, at Saint Mary’s University College in Calgary, Alberta.  While there I participated in the making of a video on the Bible at Saint Mary’s, and only recently did I obtain the link to the video.  The president, one faculty member and I all speak on The Saint John’s Bible, and I thought perhaps you might enjoy seeing what I do with some of my time when I am away from the monastery.

+During the past week I was home at the abbey the entire time.  I filled my time by catching up on work in the office, by doing laundry, by ironing, and by reading The Vatican Diaries.  What a great week it was.  I also enjoyed the snow.  As the pictures hint, we are running out of places to put it.

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