“The Irishman”–A Film Epic of Spiritual Warfare, with a Warning

This review of “The Irishman” from a Catholic perspective was first published in the blog of Notre Dame’s McGrath Institute for Church Life on Feb. 5, 2020. 

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Boomer film buffs might see Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman as a kind of summative look back at the mafia culture depicted by Hollywood over the last few decades. But this film’s conclusion, in which an aged hitman attempts to make a genuine confession and find forgiveness with the aid of a priest, makes it a cautionary tale for our times.

It’s a war epic in a way, delivering more than three hours of spiritual warfare being lost, or barely waged, over the course of the life of Frank Sheeran (played by Robert De Niro), and across moments of American history spanning the second half of the 20th century. Sheeran’s early experiences as a soldier in World War II shape his later life. As he treats the effects of this war with materialistic coping mechanisms, he is afflicted by what could be called a case of “post-traumatic sin disorder.”

For me, the story hits home on the deepest level in the two encounters Sheeran has with the priest as he numbly awaits death in a Catholic nursing home. The priest sees that the hitman is unable to feel penitential remorse for the lives he has snuffed out, including that of the dubious, narcissistic mentor he had adopted decades ago. His confessor reminds Sheeran that an apology to God, an effort to reconnect with the incarnational truth of a love that overcomes brokenness, is ultimately an act of the will rather than emotion. Sadly, the criminal’s will is almost as badly damaged as his submerged, confused feelings. But, when the priest returns, the viewer is left with some hope. A door is left open, literally and figuratively. Perhaps Sheeran will still be healed, thanks to the stubborn Catholic faith that has been present (although sidelined and superficial) throughout his life.

Growing up when gangland hits occasionally made news and films like The Godfather became box office successes, I never understood the co-existence in legendary mobsters of extreme violence and Catholicism. The Irishman, one of the few mafia stories I’ve ever consumed, gave me clues: a culture of death, with “values” based on hierarchical respect, obedience, loyalty, tradition, family, mystery, and a sense of protection, tries to imitate—and dwells in the shadows of—a Catholic culture of life which possesses parallel features. In this regard, the gangsters’ misappropriations of holy things and actions, which Scorsese has planted throughout the film, reminded me of philosopher Peter Kreeft’s observation: “Abortion is the Antichrist’s demonic parody of the Eucharist. That is why it uses the same holy words, ‘This is my body,’ with the blasphemously opposite meaning” (Jesus Shock, 144).

This interplay of good with evil makes Scorsese’s last film timely and chilling. Just as Scorsese uses imaging technology to allow De Niro to play the younger Sheeran so we can see how his coping mechanisms gradually led him to nursing-home numbness, we need to reflect on where spiritual risks are accumulating for generations alive today.

Are we allowing our culture to dismiss Christian values and replace them with a focus on the wrong things? Are our desperate needs for self-protection and our loss of trust in the God-given virtues of humanity—the symptoms of the “post-traumatic sin disorder” Sheeran suffered—causing us to form tribes that play a zero-sum game? For Christians, the ultimate danger is what Sheeran and the priest experienced—the radically hardened heart that can hardly hear God’s voice anymore. The risk is not just that we won’t see the need for Confession and Communion. For some, reconciliation with the reality of God’s love could become impossible if they sufficiently suppress any trace of remorse or impulse toward repentance.

Hollywood might honor The Irishman as a great film about the mafia. I’ll remember it as a film that sounds a warning about the wages of sin and a glimpse of the stubborn hope that repentance offers.

 

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This Just In: 2020 World Communications Day Message

world-communications-day-logo-for-desales-homepage-391x250Hello dear readers and fans of the Kyle Heimann Show on Redeemer Radio in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, I was privileged to help “break the news” with Kyle this morning about the Vatican’s Jan. 24 release of the 2020 message for World Communications Day, or the World Day of Social Communications.

You can see the announcement of the message, furnished through the Zenit news service. The brief but prayer-provoking text can be found at this link. Thank you, Pope Francis, for more great words about the peace-making power of words–from Scripture, from our relationships, and from our hearts and minds.

I will be posting more about the 2020 World Communications Day message here, drawn largely from a second on-air conversation I had with Kyle Heimann on Jan 28. Keep checking the Kyle Heimann Showpodcast links to see when my interview has been posted.

Meanwhile, these two items came to my attention: 

  • Religion News Service has an article, “Four Catholic Solutions to Toxic Politics,” written by Rev. Thomas Reese, SJ, long-time Vatican observer. It’s worth looking at, especially its recommendation that we raise awareness of Catholic Social Teaching, which is potentially a strong bridge between “left and right” to help heal our polarized culture.
  • The latest Jordan Peterson video I located  (definitely not the most recent) included observations relevant to the renewal needed in our news media. As he points out in this You Tube talk about belief in God, he is quite familiar with the world of television interviews and journalistic discourse. He expressed dismay that he is asked the most complicated questions about human existence and given one minute to respond. This is part of what he said:

“There’s something downright sinful about answering a really complicated question in a minute because it sort of suggests complex questions have answers that take one minute. And they don’t. They have answers that take, God–sometimes they take decades, and sometimes they take thousands of years…. The format itself works against the kind of thought that’s necessary to actually have the discussions that are necessary.”

(The World Communications Day logo used above is the 2019 logo used by DeSales Media Group, the Catholic communications arm of the Brooklyn Diocese. I am seeking official permission to use their graphics for this purpose. They are an excellent multimedia resource for Catholic news.)
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Welcome to New Readers — What’s News in Your World?

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A special welcome to you if you’re visiting my blog because you heard me interviewed this morning on the “Son Rise Morning Show” on the EWTN Radio Network.  I’m a consultant who serves a number of clients through multimedia journalism, writing, editing and marketing-communications. My particular passion as a Catholic with a background in higher education, as well as in public affairs and people connected to science and religion, is the values-informed renewal of society’s use of communications media during this era of polarization.

You can learn about my reflections and presentations regarding these subjects by reading this “OnWord” blog and visiting other sections of this website. Many of my viewpoints are summed up on my thought-leadership page. This also includes a list of national and local interviews in which I’ve been privileged to promote greater awareness of today’s media challenges.

Pope Francis has been my primary source of inspiration on these matters. In 2018, I self-published a book of reflections which received the Seal of Approval of the Catholic Writers Guild. All my commentaries aim to reflect the Pope’s frequently stated belief that Catholic insights can advance a united effort–among people of faith and secular leaders alike–to make our exchanges of news and information more fruitful for the common good.

My website offers other pages with biographical information, including a resume and additional links to my work in journalism, book authorship and media outreach. You’ll also learn about my latest accomplishments and ongoing activities on Linked-In and other social media. Please consider following–and joining–my endeavors on behalf of our culture’s pursuit of truth and human dignity via meaningful encounters and inclusive conversations!

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Texts from the Pope: Be Smarter Than Your Phone

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Image accompanying podcast of “A Closer Look” —  Sheila Liaugminas’ Relevant Radio interview with Bill Schmitt on communications

Amid our “New Year’s” preparations to enter the next decade of this digital age, Pope Francis has made news once again. He’s a consistent voice among world leaders, alone in calling for renewal in today’s distracted, oddly uncommunicative smartphone culture.

In an address in St. Peter’s Square on Dec. 29, 2019, he reflected on how Jesus, Mary and Joseph “prayed, worked, communicated” together in their discernment of God’s plan. He then inserted a casual, contemporary question to young people who were gathered for the Feast of the Holy Family.

“In your family, do you know how to communicate with each other, or are you like those kids at the table—each one has their own cell phone, chatting?” Pope Francis asked during his Angelus address. He commented on the second scenario. “In that table there is a silence as if they were at Mass, but they don’t communicate with each other.”

“We need to retake communication within the family. Parents, children, grandparents and siblings must communicate with each other,” Francis said, suggesting removal of the phones from the dinner table. “This is your assignment for today…. May the Holy Family be a model for our families, so that parents and children may support each other mutually in adherence to the Gospel—the basis of the holiness of the family.”

This address, relayed by a variety of media including The New York Times, allowed the Pontiff to launch into 2020 his ongoing message about communication–a warning about opportunities we’re missing for personal conversations that are authentic, responsive and purposeful. His quotes were light-hearted, but they pointed toward a serious pastoral diagnosis.

It’s one of the lesser noticed but intensifying themes set forth in his remarks throughout 2019 and preceding years. Francis goes to the heart of our world’s crisis of social polarization. He says our “digitalized culture” risks making people more isolated, trapping them in their own perceptions of reality and blocking the pursuit of common ground.

Opportunities for values-informed dialogue are the sweet spots where truth can be sought and shared respect for human dignity can be cultivated. Modeling such conversations through diverse, relaxed, grass-roots encounters, unburdened by the torrent of data, persuasion and snap judgments in our digital diet, will help us address the profound challenges which trouble and divide our society. Good decision-making must start at the local level—in vibrant communities and secular public discourse, and in core institutions where the Catholic Church provides stewardship, such as families and parishes.

We can expect the Pope to keep pushing for such renewal in communication, recommending caution about the misuse of digital phones and scrutiny of all our media whose desirable, constructive attributes do have a dark side.

During 2019, Francis spoke about the technology’s risks and rewards in various texts. They included his message for World Communications Day, a section of his Apostolic Exhortation Christus Vivit (regarding the Vatican’s synod on young people), his homily for Pentecost Sunday, and others.

In April, according to a Vatican Radio audio found here, Francis urged students at a Rome high school to avoid a slavish addiction to their mobile screens.

“Phones are for connecting,” he told them. “Life is for communicating.” Young people should engage in dialogues marked by a diversity of people and opinions; he noted the Second Vatican Council’s commitment to an honest search for truth that promotes justice and solidarity in society.

“Without the search for these values, there can be no true co-existence,” he said. This is something for which “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” He has written that he sees genuine communication as an act of love tied to the virtues of community and communion.

Pope Francis’ obvious passion for a values-based reboot of our current information ecology suggests he will remain a prophetic voice for peace on the world stage. People of good will in the secular and religious spheres, including those providing parish ministry, missionary outreach and support for today’s distressed families, need to put the Holy Father’s insights into motion.

Catholics and all people desiring the common good should utilize their best networks and resources to encourage more attentive, skillful and compassionate communicators. Our investments in each other–around meeting tables and dinner tables alike–will help heal the social rifts worsened by relativism and materialism. These are the rifts which now prompt us to label, demonize and marginalize others so we can feel in-control.

We must overcome small thinking in order to build more inclusive structures and encourage more humble collaborations driven to discern the merciful will of the God who is in control. As we enter a year that threatens to bring more fractious politics, international tensions and information wars, we need to review the guidelines Pope Francis has been promulgating. They can lift up our eyes from the smartphone screen to the “big picture” where hope is found, where communication can get its good reputation back.

(See my Dec. 24, 2019 post published in the blog of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Magis Center: Did Christmas give us everything we have been “shopping” for?)
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Small Talk: On the Way from Distraction to Action

The post below is my Nov. 1, 2019, contribution to the Magis Center blog. Rev. Robert Spitzer, SJ, PhD, is president of the Magis Center, whose missions include the revitalization of belief in God and pursuit of the highest levels of human happiness, love, and freedom. The podcast above is my interview on the Kyle Heimann Show on Redeemer Radio, the radio stations in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, discussing Pope Francis’ suggestions for Catholic values to ease social polarization and to revitalize journalism and communication for the purpose of more inclusive and constructive secular communication.

Found at this site (See the entirety of the Magis Center and Credible Catholic websites):

Thanks to Paul Nicolaus for a recent review examining scholarly research on the kind of happiness we might experience en route to the office each morning.

Nicolaus’ online post for Oregon Public Radio, (“Want to Feel Happier Today? Try Talking to a Stranger”), reminds us that today’s culture appreciates minor chit-chat when riding elevators to higher floors—without fully embracing the call to raise society’s real happiness to higher levels.

Nicolaus acknowledged that “far too many of us,” when we share a vertical trip with another person, will fiddle with our cell phones rather than say “good morning” or even make eye contact. He cited studies favoring a different approach. They show minor social interactions with strangers we encounter can put us in a better mood and make the day more pleasant.

In other words, “we might just be short-changing our own happiness by ignoring opportunities to connect with the people around us.”

Experimenting with conversation

One research duo assigned experiment participants to enter a coffee shop and purchase a beverage. Half were told to “get in and get out,” and the other half were told to “strike up a conversation with the cashier.” The latter group “left Starbucks in a better mood… and they even felt a greater sense of belonging in their community,” according to the psychological diagnosis.

A behavioral scientist’s research with bus and train commuters concluded that those who interacted with fellow passengers had “a more pleasant ride.” They learned the initiation of a conversation tended to be more enjoyable than they had feared, Nicolaus reported.

Yet another researcher found that, when someone made simple eye contact with people, it made recipients of that “brief acknowledgement… feel more socially connected,” at least temporarily.

Nicolaus cited this conclusion from one scholar: “Happiness seems a little bit like a leaky tire on a car…. We just sort of have to keep pumping it up a bit to maintain it.” Offering a compliment or starting a conversation with a stranger “could wind up putting a smile on your face and theirs.”

What’s your reaction to the article?

What’s your reaction to the article? Here’s mine, drawing from Fr. Spitzer’s outline of the four levels of happiness:

  • This research generally sets the bar low for human conversation and openness to real encounters. Nicolaus sees much of the data celebrating small talk for its personal, immediate gains at level one—a “pleasant ride,” or “feeling more socially connected.” Those reasons are fine on a bus, but let’s not stop there.
  • Fortunately, the story does offer some important inspiration for baby steps we can take beyond level-one happiness. Recall the experiment that concluded one’s outreach to a stranger might also brighten the moment for the recipient, not the initiator alone. Consider Nicolaus’ insights about the optimal benefits—a sense of belonging, the start of a conversation. These reflect an intuition that some forms of instant-gratification behavior can open the door to short-term and long-term happiness perspectives.
  • Realizing this, perhaps I’ve looked away from my smartphone and boldly risked rejection by saying “good morning” to someone. This particular wisdom in choosing real-life communication reflects Pope Francis’ warning about the dangers of our digitized culture. “Social media” paradoxically can leave us “orphaned” if we fail to notice and share in the blessings of our diverse “fellow travelers.” Smartphones offer many immediate and short-term advantages, but using them to control, or retreat from, a random elevator encounter contributes to isolation and disempowerment, rather than long-term happiness at level three.

Mere eye contact and pro-forma small talk are seldom sufficient anywhere. All of life is a journey during which we need to build authentic connections and dialogues. Society’s current trends toward distrust and polarization dry up the opportunities of shared happiness for everyone and even level-one pleasures of outreach for individuals. To paraphrase the famous Pogo cartoon quote: “We have met the stranger, and he is us.”

Feeling happier today and beyond

The message of Nicolaus’ headline holds true: try talking to strangers if you want to feel happier today. But what happens in the days that follow? We are reaching out to a dynamic human and spiritual ecology where higher levels of happiness need constant “pumping up.”

Advice from the recently reported research appeals to us at level one happiness, but it’s time for deeper study: what contributive possibilities might we create if the stranger we approach responds, starts talking, and invites us to listen?

That will be a better ride for the longer haul, marked by kindness that’s spontaneous, not strategic. Whatever we do with our smartphones, we’ll send the message that we’re not just commuting together—we’re accompanying each other.

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Arise from Sharkness! How Leaders Win with a Silly Song

sharkCBS journalist Bob Schieffer offered a lesson we all should chew on when he saw a deeper meaning in the World Series victory of the Washington Nationals.

During his Oct. 31 “Evening News” commentary, he showed us how the team’s “Baby Shark” phenomenon had helped everyone rise above the usual political song and dance.

We saw Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor saying this about the teachable moments when America’s capital city found joy in its national pastime and the Nationals players: “For a couple of weeks, they gave us something that all of Washington, DC, could unite around. A miracle indeed.”

Schieffer suggested the team’s path to success began when it adopted the silly tune and gestures of “Baby Shark” as its brand statement. “The idea was so goofy, it made the team laugh. They started having fun, got to know each other.”

As they won game after game, their fans “went crazy,” said the smiling reporter. The new anthem echoed inside and outside the stadium. Athletes danced in the dugout. When the final triumph came, even snarky and sharky Washingtonians joined in celebrating the power of an exuberant spirit, alive with the sound of music. They had discovered an unimpeachable source of bipartisan wisdom on how to play ball. (Even when it’s hardball.)

Our good journalist searched the experience for a takeaway message that would invite engagement rather than enragement, ongoing communication rather than bitter separatism. Schieffer summed it up: “Is there a lesson there for all of us? When you relax and get to know the people you work and deal with, it’s not only fun, it’s much easier to get things done.”

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“A Journalism of Abundance”

worldcommday logo       My efforts in research and reflection on Catholic values as an aid to renewal in today’s practice of journalism are pointing me toward a few areas of focus. One of those areas has the virtue of prompting a catchy name for the thinking I invite all people of good will—Christians and those affiliated with other faiths or no particular faith—to share in.

Shall we ponder the idea of “a journalism of abundance”? This is a call for bigger-picture perspectives helpful not only to professionals in the established institutions of journalism, but to the millions of news-consumers who have become de facto journalists. These are the people actively influencing the flow of news, information and ideas by dint of their creation of online messages in our digitized culture, especially via social media posts.

A Journalism of Peace

The first force behind my suggesting this name is a phrase Pope Francis used in the commentary on journalism he presented in his message for World Communications Day in 2018. He prescribed for all of us the embrace of a “journalism of peace.” This idea incorporated a genuine respect for the dignity and impact of journalists. Recall that his message last year concluded with a prayer for journalism that riffed on the well-known Peace Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi, in which we seek to become instruments of the Lord’s peace.

It’s a challenging, contrarian prayer because we’re committing ourselves to respond in personal ways to a spectrum of problems that plague individuals and societies. In everyday encounters, we take on the goals of healing hatred by sowing love, despair by bringing hope, darkness by shedding light, and more.

Neither Pope Francis nor Saint Francis (scholars say the prayer, while Franciscan in spirit, was not written by the saint) are calling us to generate “peace” by pretending the bad news about this earthly life doesn’t exist. There’s nothing Polyannaish in this view of a journalist’s role.

Rather than asking news-consumers and news-producers to ignore or downplay unfavorable, depressing stories, the pontiff urges using these stories as launching pads for a stream of more stories and tougher questions that increase our understanding. He recommends delving deeper into the media content that too often propagates hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness and sadness in people’s lives.

How to Read the News

As I read Francis’ remarks, I think he would recommend greeting any particular story with inquiries like these:

  • Is this the whole story? Are we hearing the multiple sides of the story? Are we interpreting and simplifying it only according to our pre-existing assumptions, the dominant narratives?
  • Is it indeed a true story? Or is it largely a piece of manipulated disinformation that distorts the facts to serve a cause, an interest group or instincts toward power, greed and self-centeredness?
  • What is the context of the story? If it’s based on “breaking news,” can we learn some of its history? Can we think about the background of the protagonists and the circumstances? Can we consider how it fits into bigger stories—like enduring themes of justice, human dignity, the complexities/flaws/virtues of people and social relationships?
  • What are the implications of the story? Is it proper to respond immediately with laughter or tears or prayers or plans for constructive collaborations? Should we react with hatred for an individual as well as anger about a behavior or underlying condition? What lessons can we learn for the short-term or long-term future? Is this hardening or softening our hearts? Is this distracting us toward an obsession or knee-jerk reaction? Is it confirming a prejudice that might lead us astray? Or are we too easily steered toward indifference and forgetfulness as a news anchor completes the report and then says, “Now, here’s the weather forecast”?

There’s an abundance of factors for the consumers and generators of this news to consider. Almost every story is more complicated than its media presentation can convey, especially if we receive it in the form of a tweet or a headline or a 10-second video.

No media presentation about a person or event can hope to tell the whole story in one fell swoop, just as no “objective” story that gives us merely the “5 Ws” plus a soundbite from “both sides” can capture the whole truth. If the information is substantive, it deserves ongoing coverage over time. An objective approach must emerge from a diligent, impartial process of seeking the whole truth always.

Curiosity Brings Us Back

In some sense, it’s healthy to question the story and how it’s being reported. Even better, it’s wise to let the story raise fresh questions in our own minds that will lead to further research, consideration and caring. The best response is a basic curiosity about the world that drives us toward fuller understanding so we can grow as responsible moral agents who fit a story properly into our world view and into our to-do list for future action. Ironically, our natural instinct of curiosity is often deadened by the tsunami of information and promotional messages that hits us each day, encouraging us to engage in a mental triage. This abandons some important knowledge to die along the roadside of the information superhighway.

The news we share must be in a framework of abundance, not limitation or lazy selectivity. There’s so much to know! There are so many sides to a story and so many factors that deserve to influence our response! I remember that this sense of the world as a cornucopia of things to learn was at the core of my desire to become a journalist. This view intensified as I came to realize that every human being involved in, or influenced by, a story has unlimited dignity to which we owe respect and responsibility, even fascination.

Journalism is indeed a community activity—a widely shared process of producing, consuming, sharing and reacting to news, not as isolated individuals seeking entertainment but as members of various communities that should make the world better for the common good.

Pope Francis and the whole body of Catholic wisdom and values (along with many treasures of secular wisdom and common-sense, common-good thought) convey these callings in countless ways. But they’re too easily forgotten in our sensation-immersed, self-focused lives. We can get too busy, too prone to narrow down the fire-hose flow of information to maximize convenience rather than grow our relationships with each other and with the God who created us as a human family.

We’re especially prone to seek the convenience of ignorance or hard-heartedness when we feel trapped by constraints upon our luxury and well-being, when we’re “looking out for number one,” when we see life as a zero-sum game or when we see people through a judgmental lens of “our overriding truth.”

We need to guard against journalism becoming an instrument for reinforcing these limiting points of view. Pope Francis has wisely warned that our digitized culture makes it easy to isolate ourselves into “my bubble” of prioritized information, my artificial reality.

Use of the news in this way deprives us of the great joy of curiosity. Remember those curious cats with nine lives. There’s immense satisfaction (even entertainment in the best sense!) available from learning, listening encounters with people whose qualities, purposes and crosses are made uniquely by God. We discover differences we can make in their lives, as the Peace Prayer tells us!

Let’s also remember, a bit more somberly, that the limitations, manipulations and isolations we might impose on people, reaffirmed by improper uses of news, are causes of hatred, injury, doubt and despair. This robs us of peace as individuals and as a society.

Francis’ call for a “journalism of peace” can be seen as a “journalism of abundance.” A sense of abundance—as God accompanies all of creation through every day’s trials with His healing mercy and transcendent love—is not just a source of great stories and essential news. It puts us in touch with the story and the Good News.

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