What Success and Leadership Look Like in the Kingdom of God.

Today is a day that Christians historically have remembered the last meal that Jesus spent with his disciples before his crucifixion. The account of this meal in the Gospel of John is filled with some amazing moments. Perhaps the most powerful for me is the moment where Jesus kneels down and begins to wash his disciple’s feet.

This moment is scandalous to the disciples. They are horrified that their Rabbi (a highly honored position in society) is taking on a role reserved for slaves and servants.

Jesus tells them that this small act of service should be seen as an example of what success and leadership look like in the Kingdom of God.

As we continue to explore how Holy Week can inform how we live, I think it is essential that we take a moment to prayerfully reflect on how we might be called to model our lives and actions after the example that Christ set.

What would it look like for your life to embody scandalous service?

I am reminded of a pastor friend of mine who came to volunteer at Hope Clinic one day and asked me to find the messiest, stinkiest, grossest job. I really appreciated that. He demonstrated that his heart was really centered on serving.

In our own lives, do we run toward the stink? Do we seek out ways to serve with humility and faithfulness? It’s what Jesus did. Becoming an Easter people is all about trusting God enough with our lives that we can lay them down for others.


Quote of the Day

Pope Francis: “The tragedy we are experiencing summons us to take seriously the things that are serious, and not to be caught up in those that matter less; to rediscover that life is of no use if not used to serve others. For life is measured by love.

 


Pope Francis: Creativity of Love Can Overcome Isolation


via Vatican news:

The Pope said he was thinking about children and young people stuck at home, those who have to face these difficult moments alone, and the elderly.

“I have in my heart all the families,” he said, “especially those who have a loved one who is sick or who have unfortunately experienced mourning due to the coronavirus or other causes.”

Pope Francis expressed his appreciation for the “generosity of those who put themselves at risk for the treatment of this pandemic or to guarantee the essential services to society.”

He called them “heroes.”

The Pope said he is also thinking about those facing financial difficulties, those in prison worried about themselves and their families, and the homeless, who have no home to protect them….

“Let us try, if we can, to make the best use of this time: let us be generous. Let us help those in need in our neighborhood. Let us look out for the loneliest people, perhaps by telephone or social networks. Let us pray to the Lord for those who are in difficulty in Italy and in the world.”

Despite the isolation imposed by social distancing measures, “thought and spirit can go far with the creativity of love,” said Pope Francis….

This is what is needed today: the creativity of love.

 


Will the Coronavirus Deepen Our Extreme Individualism or Foster Solidarity?

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At a time when many Americans remain in their homes, only venturing out for essential needs, other Americans were going to packed bars to drink the night away. As some are separated from their loved ones who are desperately sick, perhaps on the brink of death, other Americans have been flying to Florida to party at the beach.

The response of the Trump administration to the coronavirus pandemic has been similarly reckless. Early action to prepare for the crisis, get testing capacity ready, ensure an adequate supply of needed medical goods, and encourage the social distancing necessary to contain the spread of the virus was absent. Instead, US President Donald Trump downplayed the threat and dismissed concerns about it as a “hoax” designed to undermine his presidency.

As the gravity of the crisis became more apparent to all and the potential for economic catastrophe loomed, Trump finally shifted away from such rhetoric, but it not clear that the administration has the desire or ability to respond swiftly and adequately to the crisis.

The crisis has revealed the emptiness of ‘America First’ isolationism. Populist nationalism offers no solution to many of the most critical global challenges we face, from climate change to global pandemics. And the costs of this head-in-the-sand approach are now plain for all to see—at least, all of those who are following the facts rather than dismissing factual reality as fake news.

The moral bankruptcy and recklessness of American libertarianism is also clear. The United States still lacks a system of universal healthcare—something that kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, but is acutely problematic at a time like this. As businesses are forced to shut their doors, American workers are wondering how they will survive without an adequate social safety net. While some with libertarian inclinations have said that now is the time for robust government action, others continue to grasp tightly to a destructive ideology that is far too popular in the US.

These mentalities contribute to what Pope Francis has described as a ‘throwaway culture’. Everything is judged by its immediate utility. Human beings are treated as objects to be discarded when they are no longer of use to those pursuing their naked self-interest. Autonomy and choice trump human dignity and social justice.

Hyperindividualism has taken root in the United States. It drives this throwaway culture. And it is present on both the left and right sides of the political spectrum. In a country that has long prized individual initiative, it has reached new heights, threatening not only the vulnerable, but also the very foundations of our republican institutions—and that was before the present crisis.

This extreme individualism and the throwaway culture it generates offer the allure of freedom, but have instead delivered misery for countless Americans. There is a loneliness epidemic in the United States with a growing number of people experiencing chronic loneliness, lacking meaningful connections, and having fewer intimate friendships. Deaths of despair—from suicide to drug and alcohol poisoning and abuse—have exploded in the last two decades. As civil society has receded, isolation and despair have advanced.

One might think that the coronavirus crisis will only make things worse. But maybe not.

Perhaps forced isolation will allow Americans to see that we need meaningful connections in our lives—even those that bind us in some way.

Perhaps more Americans will come to realize that no person is an island. Everything we accomplish in life is dependent on others. And our actions—for better or worse—inevitably affect others. As we sacrifice our freedom of action to ‘flatten the curve’, we might come to see that sacrifices we make for the common good can save lives and protect human dignity. We might recognize that real freedom requires responsibility—that it is more than license.

The threat of coronavirus may open American eyes to the fragility of life and universal vulnerability of human existence. Illusions of control and absolute autonomy are being shattered. It is clear that our flourishing depends on the behavior of others. The comfortable individual existence many have focused intently on constructing is being exposed as a house of cards.

A firmer foundation for human flourishing is solidarity. It has the potential to foster the community that we crave as social beings. Instead of grasping for comfort in imagined invincibility, it can offer real support in shared sacrifices and vulnerability.

If solidarity grows stronger, it can help us respond not only to the crisis at hand, but the economic insecurity, senseless violence, bigotry, and environmental degradation that preceded it. It can inspire us to turn from plutocracy, isolationism, and xenophobia toward a greater commitment to social justice, the protection of human life and dignity, and ending the throwaway culture. And it can help to restore and revitalize democratic institutions and norms.

Perhaps by living apart, Americans will learn how to live together.


Quote of the Day

Pope Francis: “We will be judged on our relationship with the poor. When Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you”, he is saying, “I will always be with you in the poor; I will be present there”. This is at the center of the Gospel, so much so that we will be judged on it.”


The Irishman in the Silence and Still of the Night

This article contains spoilers of the films The Irishman and Silence.

“Well before the light, hold me again with all of your might in the still of the night”

When it was announced that Martin Scorsese was making a film that starred Robert DeNiro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino, a film that focused on the killing of Jimmy Hoffa and the world of organized crime in the mid-twentieth century, most people probably expected a film similar to Goodfellas or Casino, one that portrayed the excitement and temptation of that criminal world along with the eventual comeuppance that comes for these characters. Yet The Irishman, Scorsese’s latest masterwork, recalls just as strongly his more explicitly religious works, films like Last Temptation of Christ and Silence. In this film focusing on the life of Frank Sheeran and his connections to both Jimmy Hoffa and the mafia through famed boss Russell Buffalino, there is a contemplativeness and a consideration of issues of morality that make The Irishman not just another addition to the list of Scorsese’s great films about American organized crime, but also a meditation on life and the choices one makes throughout it.

Scorsese’s use of the song “In The Still of the Night” by the Five Satins throughout the film, perhaps most notably at the film’s opening when we first encounter the elderly Sheeran, establishes that this is a story about reflection and contemplating what one has done with their life, particularly when they are nearing the end and thus exist “in the still of the night.”

We first encounter Sheeran in an assisted-living home, Scorsese’s camera making its way to him through a long tracking shot while the Five Satins’ song plays. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, Scorsese acknowledged that a connection could be drawn between The Irishman’s opening shot and the famed Copacabana shot in Goodfellas even though both what the camera shows us and how it moves is quite different. Scorsese uses the extended tracking shot in Goodfellas, following Henry and Karen’s entrance into the famous nightclub by bypassing the line and going through the kitchen, to both display the life Henry leads (getting past the rules to get ahead, in fact all the way to the front) and to display the intoxication and magic of this life and world that would draw in Karen and Henry.

Scorsese uses the same type of shot to tell a different story in The Irishman. The camera slowly moves through the halls of the assisted-living home, passing a priest talking with someone while doctors and nurses move around elderly men and women in wheelchairs, past a statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, while a song from many years ago plays on the soundtrack. While the movement of the camera in Goodfellas is floating, almost ethereal and magical, in The Irishman it has the staid and somber feel of someone going to give an important confession or revelation, a solemn march that makes it evident this is going to be a somber and considered story about reflection and assessment.

This opening, deliberate and carrying with it an appropriate weight, establishes that The Irishman will function as a cinematic examination of conscience for the Sheeran character.  The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an examination of conscience as “prayerful self-reflection on our words and deeds in the light of the Gospel to determine how we may have sinned against God,” a vital component of properly receiving the Sacrament of Penance. That act of reflection occurs as Sheeran recalls a trip he and Russell Buffalino took, driving to Russell’s niece’s wedding, that also precipitated Sheeran traveling to Detroit to kill Hoffa. By drawing upon these memories, he can recall the choices he has made and the life he lived. Sheeran tells this story after everyone he’s ever known has died; he is left with only his memories of the choices he made. The film stresses the ways in which those other figures, important ones in Sheeran’s life, all kind of fall away as time progresses. In addition to seeing Russell age and deteriorate before our eyes, viewers see title cards when certain figures are introduced in the story that say how and when the character dies. Yet as everyone moves on, Sheeran remains. He is, as he tells a nurse who checks up on him towards the end of the film, “still here” and “alive.” Being the only one left, Sheeran is left in the still of the night as it were, left alone to reflect upon the life he has lived before it will inevitably end.

The appropriateness of this song that recalls the “still of the night,” a time of  silence, manifests itself in perhaps the film’s most interesting and controversial character, Sheeran’s daughter Peggy, played by Lucy Gallina as a child and Anna Paquin as an adult. Peggy is a silent figure for most of the film, a choice that has led many to accuse Scorsese of diminishing the woman’s place. But her silence throughout the film, her still and constant presence, gives her a power she would not have otherwise. In essence, Peggy is the voice, or perhaps more appropriately the presence, of morality in the film. Throughout The Irishman, we see her as she silently and stilly watches Sheeran, observing and seeing if not what Sheeran does, then the kind of life he’s led.

The moment when Peggy speaks the loudest—both figuratively and literally–is in the wake of Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance and death. As the news is reported on the television and her father watches, Peggy asks her father why he hasn’t called Hoffa’s widow regarding Jimmy’s disappearance, seemingly making the connection regarding her father’s involvement in Hoffa’s death. This was the final straw–the ultimate transgression–in Peggy’s eyes. Despite seeing Frank engage in so much illegal and immoral behavior throughout the film, it is this rebuke by his daughter, otherwise silent beside him and suffering while seeing these acts, that solidifies this understanding of him in our eyes. As the elderly Sheeran says, “My daughter […] disappeared from my life that day.” While the amount of dialogue that the character has is quite slight compared to characters played by DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci, her importance is all the greater. She is the specter of morality, the eyes of God as it were, there in the silence.

A connection can be drawn to Scorsese’s adaptation of the novel Silence because of the importance that silence and the moment of declaration plays in each. In that film, two Portugese Jesuits travel to Japan to investigate whether or not their former superior has apostatized and minister to the hidden Christians. One of the priests, Father Rodrigues, wonders why God remains silent amidst the suffering of the Japanese Christians and, as he is captured by the Japanese authorities and pushed to apostatize, his own suffering. In voice-over monologue, Rodrigues says about God, “The weight of your silence is terrible. I pray, but I’m lost. Or am I just praying to nothing?”

In the climactic moment of the film, Rodrigues finally hears the voice of God as he is faced with the choice of stepping on a fumi-e as a way of publicly apostatizing, breaking that silence. As all other sounds drop out, we hear the voice of God finally speaking, telling Rodrigues: “Step on me. I understand your pain. I was born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain.” Finally, in the closing moments of the film, we witness the following exchange in voice-over between Rodrigues and the voice of God:

Rodrigues: Lord, I fought against your silence.

God: I suffered beside you. I was never silent.

Rodrigues: I know.

[pause]

Rodrigues: But even if God had been silent my whole life, to this very day, everything I do, everything I’ve done… Speaks of Him. It was in the silence that I heard Your voice.

God is with Father Rodrigues throughout Silence, suffering along with him. In The Irishman that silent presence comes in the form of Sheeran’s daughter, perhaps the figure most excluded from the world in which Sheeran is living, whose presence has true power and value.

The film ends with Sheeran, having grown old and infirm, beginning to concern himself with death and morality, precipitating a turn towards religion, specifically Catholicism. This begins as Sheeran sees Russell, who is now wheelchair bound and nearing the end of his life as well, going to a church service while they are both in prison for the crimes they committed earlier in their lives. Sheeran looks skeptically at the former crime boss, but Russell says to him, “Don’t laugh, you’ll see.” Sheeran has conversations with priests, attempting to pray, and eventually makes a good confession to one of them. Yet Sheeran struggles, unable to feel sorrow and remorse even as he attempts to reconcile himself. But despite the imperfections of his initial turn back towards God, Frank is still striving after something, if not redemption then forgiveness. In that same conversation with the priest in which he acknowledges he does not feel remorse, Sheeran asks himself “what kind of a man makes a phone call like that,”–a reference to the call Sheeran makes to Hoffa’s widow after his disappearance becomes public, with Sheeran not acknowledging his own role in Hoffa’s death.

We see the priest one more time in the final scene of the film, in Sheeran’s room at the assisted-living home saying the final words of the Sacrament of Penance and removing the purple stole from his neck, implying that Sheeran has experienced contrition and made a good confession. In the final shot of the film, as the priest leaves Sheeran’s room, he asks for the priest to “leave the door open a little,” and we see Sheeran sitting, framed by the slightly open door as the screen goes black and “In The Still of the Night” plays one final time. This calls to mind something that Hoffa himself did, as he would leave the door to his room open, which Sheeran noticed during their travels together. On the symbolic level, it reflects an openness by Sheeran for true contrition and forgiveness, in turn reflecting our own potential for penance and redemption. But it is something that can only come in the silence and “in the still of the night,” in which we must both examine our consciences and asses our sins as well as experience the feeling of forgiveness. Scorsese uses Sheehan, seemingly teeming with sin, just as he used the character of Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, to convey that we are all in the world of sin and transgression, yet if we make a proper examination of conscience and ask for forgiveness, it can still be achieved.

The Irishman tells many different stories over the course of its three-and-a-half hour run time. It tells the story of organized crime in America as experienced by one man; it depicts the rise and fall of an important historical figure in Jimmy Hoffa; and it tells a story about the interplay between crime and business in America and how certain people became involved in that interplay to make their way in post-war America. In addition to all this, it is an extensive and thorough meditation by Scorsese on sin, our flawed human nature, and the need to do penance, as the film functions as an examination of conscience for the Sheeran character. Isolated from his family while all the figures he has known throughout his life fade into death, Sheeran grapples with the end of his life and what it has been. Left alone in the silence and “the still of the night,” Sheeran examines his past and assesses the transgressions that he has committed. Sheeran grapples with these sins and a desire to receive absolution for them, and Scorsese tells a story about someone who must address the life they’ve lived, what they have done and what they have failed to do, all before they reach the end of it.

Dr. Thomas Bevilacqua is a visiting lecturer in the English department of Florida State University. His dissertation, which he is currently revising into a book manuscript, examined the figure of the pilgrim in mid-twentieth century American Catholic writing.


Highlights of the Pope’s Special Urbi et Orbi Blessing

Embed from Getty Images
via the Vatican:

For weeks now it has been evening. Thick darkness has gathered over our squares, our streets and our cities; it has taken over our lives, filling everything with a deafening silence and a distressing void, that stops everything as it passes by; we feel it in the air, we notice in people’s gestures, their glances give them away. We find ourselves afraid and lost. Like the disciples in the Gospel we were caught off guard by an unexpected, turbulent storm. We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented, but at the same time important and needed, all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other….

The storm exposes our vulnerability and uncovers those false and superfluous certainties around which we have constructed our daily schedules, our projects, our habits and priorities. It shows us how we have allowed to become dull and feeble the very things that nourish, sustain and strengthen our lives and our communities….

In this storm, the façade of those stereotypes with which we camouflaged our egos, always worrying about our image, has fallen away, uncovering once more that (blessed) common belonging, of which we cannot be deprived: our belonging as brothers and sisters….

Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”…

You are calling on us to seize this time of trial as a time of choosing. It is not the time of your judgement, but of our judgement: a time to choose what matters and what passes away, a time to separate what is necessary from what is not. It is a time to get our lives back on track with regard to you, Lord, and to others. We can look to so many exemplary companions for the journey, who, even though fearful, have reacted by giving their lives….

In the face of so much suffering, where the authentic development of our peoples is assessed, we experience the priestly prayer of Jesus: “That they may all be one” (Jn 17:21). How many people every day are exercising patience and offering hope, taking care to sow not panic but a shared responsibility. How many fathers, mothers, grandparents and teachers are showing our children, in small everyday gestures, how to face up to and navigate a crisis by adjusting their routines, lifting their gaze and fostering prayer. How many are praying, offering and interceding for the good of all. Prayer and quiet service: these are our victorious weapons….

Faith begins when we realise we are in need of salvation. We are not self-sufficient; by ourselves we founder: we need the Lord, like ancient navigators needed the stars. Let us invite Jesus into the boats of our lives. Let us hand over our fears to him so that he can conquer them….

The Lord asks us and, in the midst of our tempest, invites us to reawaken and put into practice that solidarity and hope capable of giving strength, support and meaning to these hours when everything seems to be floundering. The Lord awakens so as to reawaken and revive our Easter faith. We have an anchor: by his cross we have been saved. We have a rudder: by his cross we have been redeemed. We have a hope: by his cross we have been healed and embraced so that nothing and no one can separate us from his redeeming love. In the midst of isolation when we are suffering from a lack of tenderness and chances to meet up, and we experience the loss of so many things, let us once again listen to the proclamation that saves us: he is risen and is living by our side….

Embracing his cross means finding the courage to embrace all the hardships of the present time, abandoning for a moment our eagerness for power and possessions in order to make room for the creativity that only the Spirit is capable of inspiring. It means finding the courage to create spaces where everyone can recognize that they are called, and to allow new forms of hospitality, fraternity and solidarity.