The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

The thoughts expressed here are my personal thoughts and sometimes reflect my political views. As a private citizen I have every right to express these views.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Decline and Fall

It's been a while -- actually, several weeks -- since I last posted anything on the blog. I have an excuse, though. First, some old and dear friends, a couple we've known for over 30 years, stopped by for a weekend visit. As might be expected, we tried to convince them to retire here in The Villages, and had some small success. They actually seem to be considering the idea.

And then, on the heels of their visit, one of our daughters, her husband, and their two beautiful boys (all of our grandchildren are, of course, beautiful), arrived for a week's stay. Diane and I pretty much cleared our calendars for the week, and for me that included blogging, emails, and all the other meaningless things on which I waste my time.

Above: Our daughter, Siobhan, celebrating our grandson Phineas' 1st birthday

I can't overstate how much we enjoyed our time with the two little guys -- Ezekiel Francis (almost three) and Phineas John (one). During their stay we took them and their parents to a few of the more interesting local attractions. Among my favorites is Uncle Donald's Farm, a combination farm and zoo just a few miles away in Lady Lake, FL. Where else can a three-year-old milk a nanny goat, feed a herd of cows, and pet a pot-bellied pig?

Above: Ezekiel and his parents in the hay wagon

A few days later we made the short drive over to the Gulf coast and visited the State Park at Homosassa to get up close and personal with the manatees and other local wildlife. Once again a wonderful time was had by all.

Above: Ezekiel milking a goat

So, you see, I had a valid excuse for staying away from the keyboard, an excuse that has now passed its expiration date.

Spending time with grandchildren got me thinking about the future of our Western culture, a future they will inherit from the rest of us. I hope they're a tough bunch, because they'll need to be a lot tougher than recent generations have proven to be.


Whenever I address the subject of our decaying culture, a lot of folks just label me a pessimist: "There he goes again, fretting about the future, always resisting the inevitable changes that accompany progress." Or they assume I simply can't handle the sophistication and complexities of today's evolving society and instead long for some idyllic past when the bulk of human activity was simpler and more understandable. They're wrong, of course. As a Christian I can be nothing but an optimist and I certainly have no desire to go backwards. Christianity points only in one direction, forward. And it points to a glorious future, a future when all the evil and silliness of humanity fade to nothing under the brilliant light of Jesus Christ.

No, my view of the future of Western civilization isn't based on emotion or nostalgia; it's based on the steady steam of hard evidence that only the spiritually and culturally blind can ignore. Indeed, that anyone doubts the decline of our culture truly amazes me. One need not be an historian to recognize the decline, but some understanding of history is necessary. (That's one of the problems with education today: history is no longer taught.) In the 1940s T. S. Eliot made this point in his marvelous essay, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture, when he wrote that: "...our own period is one of decline; that the standards of culture are lower than they were fifty years ago; and that the evidences of this decline are visible in every department of human activity." If Eliot was correct then -- and I believe he was -- then his comments are even more applicable today. Why, then, do so many people fail to recognize this decline, a decline that today seems to be accelerating?

I believe one reason is a societal failure to recognize the true nature of human progress. Most people seem to equate progress with the technological advances we have experienced over the past several hundred years. In other words, because we can travel anywhere in the world in a matter of hours, or because most people already or will soon carry telephones and web browsers in their pockets, the world must become a better place. I actually had a parishioner tell me recently that "Technology will ultimately make war obsolete. When everyone is on facebook, everyone is a friend." In truth, however, real human progress has little to do with technology and scientific advances, and has everything to do with our movement toward the proper end of man. But this fact apparently escapes most people.

People who think like my parishioner are, of course, easily manipulated by politicians, scientists, educators, business people and others who have a vested interest in keeping the current trends going in the same disastrous direction. Cultural decline and ultimate long-term disaster can also bring very real short-term gains in money, power and prestige to those with seats on the bandwagon.

I have no idea what's going to happen when that bandwagon stops running. It may simply run out of gas; it may run into another going in the opposite direction; or it may drive off a cliff. But one thing's for certain: it's picking up speed and can't keep going for long.

We Christians don't worry about all this because Jesus told us not to. And the folks on the bandwagon don't worry because they see no cause for worry. They think all is just peachy. The people I feel most sorry for are the atheists and agnostics who recognize what's happening but lack the consolation of faith and the knowledge that God turns all to good. It must be a very painful experience for them.

I'll have to come back to this subject again soon, but right now other things are pulling me away from my PC.

Blessings and God's Peace.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Signs of the Times

My, my, how things can change in just a few weeks...

As a candidate our new president spent the past two years promising change in almost every aspect of public and private life. And from all indications he's a man who keeps his promises. Some of us, of course, believed him -- which is why we didn't vote for him. Others, particularly those on the left, also believed him -- which is why they voted for him. But a lot of folks seemed to believe that candidate Obama was just kidding, that we had misunderstood him, that he really didn't intend to follow through on all that stuff. For them the important thing was Obama's commitment to change. They weren't really concerned about the specifics. Their mantra? Change is good. The status quo is bad.

I wonder if all these people, most of them believing and practicing Christians, who assured me that those promises were just campaign rhetoric, have since changed their minds. Probably not. No one likes to admit they were wrong and will usually go to extremes of illogic to justify their errors of judgment. Perhaps in time...

But now let's look at just a couple of the president's recent actions from a Christian perspective.

The first is today's bombshell. Of course, it really wasn't that much of a surprise since the president had addressed the issue during the campaign. He announced an executive order that rescinds the previous prohibition on the use of federal funds for embryonic stem cell research. As one Boston research scientist said today, "Now science can take the lead and work unencumbered by all those political restrictions." I believe, however, that he mis-spoke. He really didn't mean "political restrictions." What he meant to say was, "...unencumbered by all those moral and ethical restrictions."


So now the taxpayer -- that's you and me -- will pay for the development of nice, sterile embryo farms, where human embryos will be...what a good euphemistic word for it? Hmm, maybe cultivated would work. Yes., where human embryos will be cultivated so they can be destroyed for use in medical research. Who can object to that?


Another recent action by the president is his choice of Governor Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas as his Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Governor Sebelius, a Catholic and I am sure a very intelligent woman, is also pro-choice across the board. Throughout her political career she has been a champion of legalized abortion and has been closely associated with such pro-abortion organizations as Planned Parenthood, the National Organization of Women, and NARAL, to name just a few. Even more disturbing is her seeming support for compelling doctors, nurses and health care institutions to provide abortion and other "family planning" services. Such a move, of course, would be more than interesting. Would Catholic nurses and doctors walk off the job rather than comply? I would hope so. Would Catholic hospitals shut their doors in protest? I would hope so. That would be the only way to force the government to back off. Who would have thought that it would come to this? I expect that we'll be encountering this and a lot more in the years to come.

The governor has twice vetoed legislation that would have regulated abortion clinics. And she’s known by Kansas pro-lifers as “Tiller’s Governor” because of the tens of thousands of dollars she’s accepted in donations from Dr. George Tiller, the infamous late term abortionist. As you might imagine, the governor is also a strong supporter of embryonic stem-cell research.

Above: Governor Sebelius (center) with Dr. & Mrs. George Tiller at a party held in Tiller's honor at the governor's mansion. Dr. Tiller is a notorious late-term abortionist.

Kansas City Archbishop Joseph Naumann has instructed Governor Sebelius not to present herself for the reception of Holy Communion, in the hope that this will cause her to reconsider her consistent anti-life positions. Sadly, I suspect it will have little effect. Most of the pro-choice Catholics I have encountered seem to hold about the same level of respect for the Eucharist as they do for the Church's Magisterial teaching. I hope, however, that I am wrong. Please pray for her.


There's is so much more to address, but you can find it all on hundreds of other sites. I only want to stress that despite all the craziness, despite all the hate, despite the evil that people choose, God has promised us eternal life. He calls all of us, saint and sinner alike, and calls us all continuously. Never lose hope. To do so is to deny God's promises. Live your faith. And never forget that the sole task of those who have been called by Jesus is to call others to Jesus. That's our job as disciples.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Costa Rica and Grand Cayman

Continuing my commentary on our cruise to the Western Caribbean, our next port of call was Puerto Limon in Costa Rica. Like Panama (at least the little bit of Panama we saw), the poverty of the people was evident in this part of Costa Rica. Once again we joined a tour we had booked in advance of the cruise. This particular tour was advertised as a train ride to a banana plantation where we would observe how bananas were grown, harvested and processed. The description bore little resemblance to reality.
Above: We passed this freighter -- the Hansa Magdeburg out of Hamburg -- as we entered Puerto Limon harbor in Costa Rica. I just thought it was a neat picture.

Our tour guide was an interesting enough fellow, a Costa Rican who worked as a realtor when he wasn't guiding tours. (I suspect, however, that he was as interested in selling vacation and retirement homes as he was in describing the sights.) The tour started badly when road construction forced our bus to take an alternate route. This in turn caused our train ride to start later than planned and left little time at subsequent stops.
Above: Our "banana plantation tour" train.

The train, probably 50 or more years old, wasn't a total bust. As it chugged along the track at the edge of the rain forest, we spotted a three-toed sloth up in a tree, and had an even more interesting encounter with a troop of howler monkeys. After perhaps a half-hour we stopped in the middle of nowhere and were invited to join our guide and his associates at a grubby little beach. There we were treated to a glass of soda or Costa Rican beer which we drank as we stood there looking at each other. All very odd.

Above: Diane and I standing around on the odd little Costa Rican beach

The train then returned us to our bus and we drove to the banana plantation. Unfortunately the plantation, for whatever reason, wasn't operating that day so we saw absolutely nothing. Indeed, I never saw even a single banana. We spent about 10 minutes there, looking at nothing in particular, reboarded the bus, and returned to the pier.

On the pier we wandered through a large flea market and bought gifts and other goodies and souvenirs -- the highlight of our brief stay in Costa Rica.

The photos below are of: (left) howler monkeys hanging out in the trees; and (right) one of the vendors at the flea market on the pier.














Leaving Puerto Limon we spent the next day at sea and arrived at Grand Cayman early on the morning of February 28.

Above: At sea, en route to Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman, as one might expect, is clean, neat and very British. Our prearranged tour there consisted of a trip on a glass-bottomed boat from which we could observe the undersea life that populates the local coral reefs. We also had a look at a old wreck from the early 20th century. The captain of our tour boat then donned scuba gear and dove under the boat so we could observe him feeding the fish. All very interesting.

Above: Diver feeding fish under our glass-bottomed tour boat

After our little boat ride, we climbed aboard a very uncomfortable bus for a tour of the island. Our guide, a local chap named Chico, apparently hadn't grasped the idea that tour guides are supposed to talk. He said perhaps 100 words during the entire tour, and most of those were in response to questions. In his defense, the fact that the bus had no PA system might have been a contributing factor.

Above: Diane holding a young sea turtle at the Turtle Farm

The tour also included a visit to a Sea Turtle Farm, where we observed these amazing and very large (up to 500 lbs.) animals. We also had the opportunity to hold some of the little ones. For Diane and me this was the highlight of the day's activities. Predictably, the tour included a visit to a shop that specialized in rum, rum cakes, and t-shirts -- probably owned by Chico's cousin. We also drove to a small town called Hell. You can imagine the kind of souvenirs offered there.

Above: Here I am at the gates of Hell

Afterwards, Diane and I had a surprisingly good lunch at George Town's local Margaritaville Cafe and then roamed in and out of the shops along the main street, eventually buying some serious bling for the beautiful Diane. We set sail that evening and 36 hours later were back in Miami.

Above: Fishermen cheating death off the Port of Miami breakwater

And that, folks, is the condensed version of our trip to faraway places with strange sounding names. Despite the less than stellar tours, the cruise was very enjoyable and provided both of us with some needed R & R.

Above: the Jewel of the Seas in port

I actually took over 900 photographs on the cruise, and posted over 100 of them online. If you want to view some of these, you can see them on flickr.com, either individually or as a slide show. Click here.

Jonah and the Gospel

As a little break from my description of our recent Caribbean cruise, I thoght I'd share my homily from daily Mass this past Wednesday. The Scripture readings were Jonah 3:1-10 and Luke 11: 29-32

_____________________________


People who believe God has no sense of humor have obviously never read the Book of Jonah. It’s really a very funny book. Because of this, and because it’s only three pages long – Jonah is also one of my favorite books of the Bible.

There’s so much to like about this book. Just consider the characters we encounter. They’re not only interesting, but they’re all actually likeable. Even Jonah, with all his hang-ups and bigotries and fears, is likeable – probably because in him we see so much of ourselves.

But the rest of the characters…the pagan sailors who toss Jonah overboard, the Ninevite king, the people of the city, they’re all wonderful characters. Even the animals are remarkable in that they join the population of Nineveh in doing penance. They fast, they put on sackcloth, and they repent. This is one remarkable city!

Of course, all of this really bothers Jonah. You see, the Ninevites aren’t Jews. They’re pagans. As far as Jonah’s concerned, they and their wicked city deserve to be destroyed. And it’s Jonah and his antics that make the book so amusing. He actually tries to hide from God, and then when God is merciful to the Ninevites, Jonah can’t resist. He argues with God; he pouts; he gets very upset that he played a part in the city’s salvation. Anyway, if you’ve never read Jonah, or haven’t read it in a while, read it tonight. You’ll enjoy it.
Jonah waiting and hoping for the destruction of Nineveh

In some respects Jonah is a prelude to the Gospels. It’s a prophetic book of good news, a message of repentance and mercy and forgiveness. And like the Gospels, Jonah is a book about hope.

Now, it’s important to understand that Jonah is not an historical book; rather it’s a sort of parable. Historically, we know the people of Nineveh, the capital of the militaristic and totalitarian Assyrian Empire, never really converted and turned to the one God in repentance. And we know that the Jews of that time never tried to evangelize the Assyrians. Both nations were far too busy hating each other to engage in such holy activities.

You see, Jonah is not a book describing what really happened; it’s a book describing what could have happened. It’s a book of the possible. It’s a book that shows God’s people what they could have accomplished in the world had they only trusted in God and brought Him to others. In Jonah, God is telling His people: “Look, everyone is repenting of their sins. Even the Ninevites, the hated Assyrians, are repenting. And because of their repentance, I have shown them my mercy. I will surely do the same for you, my chosen people, if you too will only repent and turn away from sin.”

God is telling us two things: never despair with the world; and carry His message of hope to everyone. If Jonah’s preaching can bring about mass conversions and repentance, imagine what Jesus can do! Not just isolated individuals, but families, towns, cities, entire countries can come to believe. They can declare a fast, pray for forgiveness, and become a model for the rest of us. This is the same Lenten message to which each of us is called to respond. And it’s a message straight out of today’s Gospel reading.

How did Jesus phrase it? “Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.” Jonah’s sign for the Ninevites were the prophetic words he spoke. To prophesy means simply to speak what God is speaking when He is speaking it. Jonah's timely and prophetic words carried the awesome convicting power of Almighty God, a power that brought about repentance in a people enslaved by sin. It’s this immediate and total repentance of the Ninevites that demonstrates and proves the remarkable power of prophecy.

It’s the same way in the Gospels. The stories of repentance that we encounter in the Gospels are all about accepting Jesus’ invitation to turn back to God, and to do so joyfully. That’s what we should focus on during this Lent. That’s what we should desire. That’s what we should be praying for this Lent. Just as the Ninevites needed Jonah, we all need signs of repentance from our brothers and sisters in the Church. For as we all eventually learn, you and I can’t do this on our own.

So let’s pray today for signs, and for the wisdom to recognize them, and for the will to follow them. And let’s pray too for perseverance for ourselves and for each other that we may turn to God and discover the mystery of joy and freedom in that turning.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

More on the Cruise

Okay, here's another chapter on our cruise to the Western Caribbean, I hope you're not tired of reading about it.

After Cartagena we headed for the Panama Canal and arrived early on the morning of February 25th. This was certainly one of the highlights of the cruise. The building of that canal almost 100 years ago was truly a remarkable accomplishment! Now operated completely by Panama it certainly brings some serious revenue to the Panamanian government. The cost for our ship to pass though the Gatun Locks and return was approximately $350,000.

From the Gatun Locks we entered Gatun Lake. At that point we and our friends left the ship via tender and went on a pre-paid tour of those same locks, followed by a trip to the town of Portobelo. The visit to the locks, this time from ashore, was especially interesting. I've included a few photos below so you can get a feel for what we saw.
Above: the Gatun Locks as we passed through early that morning

Above: two small but obviously powerful locomotives towing a container ship through the Gatun Locks

Above: the locks from the observation platform. Notice the tight squeeze for these larger ships.

Our tour guide was a bit odd -- I won't bore you with my reasons for saying that -- but he next took us to the city of Portobelo where we visited the local church, famous for its statue of the Black Christ (El Christo Negro). (See photo below.)
We also viewed the town's old Spanish fortifications and met some of the locals intent on selling us their native handcrafts. They were largely successful. I've included a few photos (below) of the local folks I met as I wandered around.


















One little girl was especially photogenic. She was selling small bracelets, but I think she made more money posing for pictures. (See below)

More tomorrow...




Wednesday, March 4, 2009

We're Back Home in The Villages

Well, we're home...back from our little 10-day jaunt in the Western Caribbean. Diane and I actually had a wonderful time, and we especially enjoyed the ship, Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas. Our stateroom, with its nice little starboard-side balcony, was roomy enough for the two of us and there was a surprisingly large amount of storage space -- a good thing since we brought so much "stuff" with us.

While we were aboard we just took it easy, and enjoyed this rare opportunity to experience at least a taste of true leisure. We read quite a bit. Diane played cards with our friends (I'm not much of a game person). And, sadly, we ate far too much, an all too common vice for those aboard cruise ships. The food was excellent, even tempting me to expand my culinary repertoire beyond the usual meat and potatoes. I ate many things I could neither identify nor pronounce, all apparently prepared to perfection. Those of you who know me well would be proud.
The eight of us -- three deacons and our wives, plus another couple from our parish -- were seated together each evening in the dining room. Our waiter and his assistant, two very pleasant young Turkish men with the unusual (to us at least) first names of Eyup and Ayhan, took wonderful care of us during our time aboard. Eyup was the more controlled and reserved, while Ayhan was certifiably wild and crazy. But both were extremely competent and always helpful and cheerful. They made our evenings a delight.

This is our friend, Walter, and our waiter, Eyup.

...and here's Diane with Ayhan

The wines, too, were very good, as were the "drinks of the day" that I occasionally sampled after finding a nice quite spot to read one of the books I brought with me. The waiters and waitresses seemed to find me regardless of where I hid. Even the most obscure corner of the ship wasn't safe from those offering odd-colored drinks with little umbrellas sticking out of them.


The eight of us (above, left to right): Deacon Walter; my wife, Diane; Deacon Joe; Joe's wife, Anne; Ed's wife, Dot; Walter's wife, Ellen; Ed; and me.

Although I took one of my little Asus Eee laptops with me, I posted to the blog only once. First of all, at 55 cents a minute Internet access wasn't cheap, especially when the system was slow. And secondly, I really didn't feel like doing any more "work" than was absolutely necessary. I paid a few bills, answered a few emails, and that's about it. The result? I returned Monday to an inbox crammed with nearly 350 emails. Most were junk, but almost 100 deserved responses. Tuesday was a busy day.

In my previous post I described briefly our visit to Labadee, Haiti, so I'll move on to the other ports we visited and give you my impressions.

First, these cruise ships spend so little time in port that one can do no more than develop a vague impression of the place visited. A visit of only a few hours can easily distort one's understanding of a place and its people. For example, our final stop, Grand Cayman, is generally clean and relatively prosperous. And yet, I found the people there less interesting and certainly less friendly than those we encountered at other places that were, on the surface at least, far less inviting. Despite the obstacle of language, for me interacting with the people of Portobelo, Panama and Cartagena, Colombia was far more interesting than chatting with the Canadian salespeople or British ex-pats we encountered in Grand Cayman.

Our second port of call was Cartagena, Colombia. We hired a tour guide named Blanca at $20 per person and piled into a rather ancient van for a rapid tour of the city. The tour wasn't too bad. We visited Cartagena's most famous church, that of St. Peter Claver, whose remains are visible at the base of the main altar. This remarkable priest -- the slave to the slaves -- devoted his life to ministering to and caring for the black slaves who were brought to the new world and sold in the human flesh markets.

The skeletal remains of St. Peter Claver (above)


Push cart in Cartagena's old section.

Following our guide, we walked through much of the old section of the city (see above photo), unsuccessfully dodging the ubiquitous street vendors, and buying little goodies along the way. This part of Cartagena, at least, is really quite attractive, but on our (rather scary) drive up the mountain we passed the homes of the very poor, squatters who live in the kind of shacks one encounters throughout the world wherever severe poverty exists. On top of the mountain, I was privileged (for a small fee of one US dollar) to hold a three-toed sloth who seemed completely uninterested in me or anything else. (See the photo below.)

I actually developed some small affection for the little guy, although any long-term relationship would necessitate surgical removal of whatever gland secretes the odor that surrounded him (and me).

I'll continue with a description of our cruise tomorrow. In the meantime, greet each day of this Lenten season with the joy that comes from being a people of faith. God bless you all.