Acting Our Age: The ‘Generation Gap’ Regenerates

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This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces” at Please take a look at this publication on Substack.

Current political discourse tends to spotlight society’s divisions based on race and gender. Get ready to deal more explicitly with another source of discord which is literally time-sensitive and ages-old: the so-called generation gap.

We already see—and should probe more closely—the different viewpoints of Baby Boomers (our elders), Generation X, the Millennials and Gen-Z (our kids). Those perspectives are important undercurrents in our debates about economic insecurity, human dignity, advanced technology, our national character, and more.

Dare we add “generational theory” to our necessary but tumultuous encounters with critical race theory, queer theory, etc.?

We can hear previews of the theory—an analysis of societal trends based on the quartet of age groups now dominant in the public square—as the 2024 political season gets under way.

Presidential candidate Nikki Haley warned her Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) audience on March 4 that Republicans have lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight White House races. Her solution:

“If you’re tired of losing, put your trust in a new generation.”

That kind of rhetoric will grow. It is commonplace in news stories quoting strategists who stress over the ages of President Biden (80) and former President Trump (76).

If the Baby Boom started in 1945, Biden is already an outlier, relegated by theorists to a non-mainstream population called the Silent Generation. Among these forerunners of the boom, the Great Depression and World War II were the turning points which shaped lifelong outlooks.

Those crises constituted a tectonic shift in the timeline, which at least one theory calls a Fourth Turning. These transformative disruptions occur in America about once every 80 years.

The landmark 1991 book that spawned such calculations offers plenty of grist for politicization. Some say the ideas advanced by Generations: The History of America’s Future are especially resonant in conservative thought—at least to the degree that they predict the next cultural overhaul.

Neil Howe, who co-authored that book with William Strauss (1947-2007), aims to regenerate excitement about the concepts with his new release later this year. The title will declare: “The Fourth Turning is Here.”

Other commentaries based on the “seasons of history” are already in the bookstores. A member of the Millennials added to our lexicon with her 2020 title, OK, Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind. This January brought The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America.

None of this content actively aggravates a generational fracture in the body politic. But the heightened consciousness of age groups, each contributing sharply different experiences and aspirations to the electoral process, opens the door for a more complicated, and perhaps confrontational, democracy. Especially if crises further erode society’s common ground.

The debate about “saving” Social Security and Medicare will become more urgent, for example, with politicians promising there will be no “cuts.”

But pandering to Boomers will be tricky. The deadline approaches for policymakers to address the whole question of “entitlements.” Younger generations will demand answers to their own financial vulnerability. Generation X is turning 60.

Many in Gen-Z deem home-ownership unlikely. Millennials await a Supreme Court ruling on college-loan relief. Parents wonder about education and jobs for their children.

When these voters look at today’s politicians, they see older faces reflecting concerns and strategies that are not their own. Leadership ranks today look more like the reality of a diverse society, but they ultimately will be judged by performance, not appearance.

A heightened focus on generational groups could become weaponized. Some conservative pundits, going beyond their ad hominem jabs based on old age, spout insensitive comments on the way younger newsmakers look, act, or think.

Superficial assumptions risk offending constituencies whose perspectives were formed over time by an evolving culture and visceral epiphanies about self, other persons, and the world.

We are wise to fear new spotlights on America’s divisions. But we should tap into the broader consciousness of generational theory, which adds a new dimension to our understanding of diversity. That requires appreciating the past, and taking the pulse, of individuals and groups whose years of birth help constitute their identities.

Major national crises are inevitable. We know from the COVID pandemic that age differences matter. Various developments have taught us that memory and outlook, fed by lived experience, will influence how we solve our biggest problems.

Generational theorists, and Americans at large, can agree that the only way to ride out a Fourth Turning, or any turn of events, is to bridge our cultural gaps. We need fair-minded and age-conscious wisdom that embraces a democracy for all seasons of history.

What Makes a University Catholic?

Bishop Robert Barron recently spoke at the University of Notre Dame on the subject of being a truly Catholic university. Here’s his talk. He reminded the audience that the idea of a university actually proceeded from the heart of the Church. Translate that into Latin, Ex Corde Ecclesiaeand you have Pope John Paul II’s 1990 encyclical describing his vision of a Catholic university.

Bishop Barron offered his own excellent description of an open-minded, learning community that knows its mission and helps young people to discern and energize their individual missions. Addressing the deNicola Center for Ethics and Culture, he recalled G.K. Chesterton’s statement that the job of open minds, like open mouths, is ultimately to close on something nutritious. Chesterton also cautioned us, “Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”


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God Unplugged: The ‘Remember Me’ Tour

This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces,” at, on Feb. 27, 2023.

As Lent 2023 begins, it’s time to book another tour with God. Such excursions can be customized—by Him, not us. He’ll give us glimpses of glorious vistas; expose us to scenes that show an urgent need for His mercy and truth; and challenge us with closing remarks: “You are now sent.”

For those who will take the sights, information, and missioning seriously, for those who will welcome the discoveries and implications with a full-throated “wow,” this tour can gear us up for personal growth and more focused attention on society’s well-being.

The metaphor of a tour occurred to me in 2020 when the Covid-19 lockdowns started during Lent and we were beginning to see cultural confusion and disruption accumulate more aggressively.

I saw the “tour” partly as an invitation to inquire more deeply into the spectrum of matters addling the world—and partly as a spiritual “retreat” to help us reflect and ground ourselves for efforts to solve some of the problems. A better response to quarantines than binge-eating or binge-watching.

I did some of the latter, but I aspired to read and write, to pray and plan, to thank God in advance for a renewal that would emerge from such Corona-viral questions as, “What the heck is going on?”

The idea of a tour returned to me in 2022 when Lent began amid newfound fears about war in Europe and signs of an intensifying “culture war.” Questions remained: Lord, what do you want to show us? Help me make sense of the world.

This year, I thought about something cheerier: a recent podcast featuring Christian talk-show host and author Eric Metaxas. He discussed his book, Is Atheism Dead?, in which he explored the idea that the heavens are declaring the glory of God (Psalms 19:2), almost literally.

Metaxas prompts readers to ponder the cosmos as a place of abundant love. Jupiter’s hefty gravity pulls away 99 percent of the comets and asteroids that could otherwise strike Earth, he points out.

Our moon’s ratio of distance and diameter relative to the Sun allows for the unlikely, numinous spectacle of a solar eclipse, complete with corona.

Earth’s air and water are precisely suited to the existence of human beings, Metaxas continues. Science itself is pointing to examples of beautiful orderliness.

The witty broadcaster is not saying anything new here; scholars such as Father Robert Spitzer, SJ, have gone before him with even more detailed proofs of God’s existence.

“The universe is gorgeous,” adds renowned physicist Michio Kaku in a video-interview by the Commonwealth Club about his book The God EquationHe says science and religion should stick to their knitting in their interpretations of physical laws. But, “as long as we keep these spheres separate but complementary, there’s no problem at all.”

Metaxas chooses to use the image of an expedition: “God is saying, now look at this, now look at this, and this,” he said on his podcast. He tunes into God’s sense of humor, noting we get to learn more about the spiritual plane as our earthly science advances.

This is the fun part of the trip I have embarked on for Lent 2023, the stuff of joy we spotlight on Laetare Sunday.

However, God never promised us a tour of rose gardens. He presents beautiful examples of His love for us, but He also wants us to see the everyday indications that we’re taking the love for granted, or resisting it as an affront to our freedom. This second part of the excursion into truth is more difficult for conscientious followers who remain focused on their guide. God sends an ongoing stream of information that serves to humble us, to call us back from worldly attractions and distractions.

We witness the vanity and foolhardiness of a secular society trying to solve financial, political, and personal problems it has caused.

Scientists, government leaders, big-tech gurus, professors, and pundits have shown us their knowledge is incomplete. Their wisdom deserves a complement—such as Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life—whom we all can study and emulate.

On tours tailored for us, God can use his laser-pointer to shine light on the countless people in many forms of distress, disillusionment, anxiety, and confusion—situations where we can offer aid in small or large ways if God is shedding light in our lives.

Our neighbors are burdened by the specter of war, disease, poverty, marginalization of individuals and whole groups, and bullying at the micro or macro levels. Many hearts are either hardened or breaking.

Some folks rise to the occasion and step forth to solve problems, strive to improve the common good, or simply share in the common pain, offering it up. God can help us to see that He overcomes the darkness. We can also notice that, in many situations, evil plants the seeds of its own destruction, so there is good reason to hope and work with Him in overcoming.

As a participant in the “tour group” I imagine for journalists and news addicts, I am observing the infotainment media with increased diligence.

What do I see? Some serious reporters, in fits and starts, have tried nobly to confront the tsunami of complex stories by reaching beyond their bubbles of audience metrics and hot-take simplification.

Public-affairs fans who pursue a variety of solid information resources are actually receiving graduate-course quantities of coverage that digs into the background of breaking news.

As policy-makers’ houses of cards totter in tandem and chaos dulls many people’s abilities to think things through, avid curiosity-seekers privileged to afford multimedia subscriptions—and the time to consume them—undergo the painful, useful process of being “schooled.”

We’re learning tons about the U.S. Constitution, geopolitics, history, medicine, criminal justice, education, psychology, political philosophy, and human nature. not to mention moral concerns. We’re hearing more experts talk about existential dangers, extinction-level events, and great resets.

Ideally, we see God’s blessing in this knowledge. Thorough exploration of the negatives usually yields insights into the corresponding positives. We can integrate these insights with values we hold as Catholics and then can share this package in the public square. This is practical wisdom, or phronesis, potent to uplift others.  

In a universe where love drives the metrics, we bear real responsibility. So God our tour guide sometimes steps back and goes Socratic. Again, He’s saying, “look at this, look at that,” and He follows up with questions to drive our explorations deeper.

Even as He informs us, He wants to keep us humble and on our toes:

Have you used your downtime to consider principles that might answer today’s challenges? Are you compassionately engaged in making sense of the polarized, post-truth, pro-death realities you see? Are you asking for my help in doing so?

Do you think you know better than me? Where were you when I founded the Earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its size? Surely you know? (OK, these latter questions are from Job chapter 38 in the Bible, but all good tour guides refer back to original sources.)

By this time, I and most tour participants are fidgeting. But this year’s uncomfortable Lenten tour will come to a close soon enough, so be not afraid. With Easter on its way, God will show us we need Him and will not leave us as orphans. (John 14:18)

Imagine Metaxas returning to encourage us with anticipation. He says, as he did in the podcast, “We’re on the verge of a paradigm shift” where science and faith together will give us the trust in God that helps us see the sunrise as well as the eclipse.

I recall a preview of enlightenment that God provided earlier this February, before the Lenten tour began.

It was around that time when Michael Brown, the author of Revival or We Die: A Great Awakening is Our Only Hopeput pen to paper for an article in The Stream, an evangelical, ecumenical publicationThe headline caught my eye: “After Our Corporate Humiliation, God is Pouring Out His Spirit on the Church.”

I don’t know much about this educator and radio host, but I appreciated his resilient hope.

Like me, Brown harked back to 2020 as a watershed, calling it a year-long crisis on many fronts, during which God “put the cry in our hearts and moved us to pray.”

Ever since, Americans have experienced an endless period of social travails, cultural disillusionment, and medical anxiety, Brown wrote. The only reasonable response has been eager expectancy, he argued—asking our troubled questions, pleading for assistance, and preparing to be surprised.

“Why would He move us to pray if He didn’t intend to answer our prayers?,” he asked. “Why would He raise our vision for revival and build our faith for awakening if He only planned judgment and destruction?”

Somehow, he was prescient. Thanks to open-minded news coverage, I discovered “the rest of the story.” It made me say “wow.”

You’ve probably heard about the spontaneous marathon of praise and worship that spanned February 8–21 at Asbury University in Wilmore, Ky. People called this event, which attracted 50,000 people to the Christian school’s campus, a revival or a portent of revival.

Writing in Christianity TodayTom McCall, a professor at the adjacent Asbury Theological Seminary, described the 24/7 prayer meeting as it was still going on. He told of students beseeching the Holy Spirit for an outpouring of active love for themselves and the world.

I surmise the students have traveled on God’s tours through their gatherings and Bible readings many times before. Their faith helped them connect God’s greatness and His responsiveness to humanity’s needs. They offered up their generation’s own burdens of despair, disillusionment, and anxiety, and the Lord heard.

The answers received must be sorted out in the depths of each person’s soul. McCall’s Feb. 13 article about the “Asbury revival” avoided sweeping claims or sentimentalism, but he suggested this was a sight everyone should see.

“As an analytic theologian, I am weary of hype and very wary of manipulation…. And truth be told, this is nothing like that,” he reported from the student event. “There is no pressure or hype. There is no manipulation. There is no high-pitched emotional fervor.

“To the contrary,” McCall said, “it has so far been mostly calm and serene. The mix of hope and joy and peace is indescribably strong and indeed almost palpable—a vivid and incredibly powerful sense of shalom. The ministry of the Holy Spirit is undeniably powerful but also so gentle.”

We are wise to allow our spiritual tours around Christ’s kingdom to include scenes like Asbury University. They can help us remember there is a God, and He’s exactly what we need, and we should be looking for him everywhere there are problems to solve.

The effort to look upward, inward, and all around sets the stage for that “paradigm shift” which is really the purpose of Lent for Catholics.

As with all our pondering of God’s revelations, exploring the wonders of creation as well as the messes made on earth, we need to seize opportunities to diverge from the secular script and our mundane presumptions. This will clear the decks so we can cultivate practical, yet transcendent, wisdom—something old, yet surprisingly new.

It is good that we are here, beginning our 2023 excursions into the mysteries of love. The next step? That’s up to God. But let’s keep our bags packed, ready to wander off-script again, poised for more “wow” moments that might occur at about this time in 2024 and beyond.

Addendum: An Earlier Preview of Coming Attractions

What is it about the shortest month as a time of fresh starts? On February 17, 1967, a group of Catholic students from Duquesne University gathered near Pittsburgh for a weekend of prayer inspired by their recent experiences with “charismatic” prayer in Protestant churches. These Christians were discovering compelling relationships with Christ through His spirit.

You can see a video telling the story of how The Ark and The Dove retreat center that weekend became the Catholic origin point for “baptism in the Holy Spirit” and a landmark for the Charismatic Renewal. It continues to nudge people toward new vistas today.

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Giving Up Virtue Signals for Lent

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Catholic Church’s liturgy for Ash Wednesday (Feb. 22, 2023), other than ashes we will wear on our foreheads, is Christ’s warning against virtue signaling.

People of today’s secular culture, seeking to fill their inner God-shaped hole by looking in the mirror, are prone to present themselves as infallible sources of truth, judges of others, and, to borrow a term from the Wizard of Oz, “good deed-doers.”

This has come to be called “virtue signaling,” defined by Oxford Languages as “the public expression of opinions or sentiments intended to demonstrate one’s good character or social conscience or the moral correctness of one’s position on a particular issue.”

The term is a rhetorical weapon often aimed by conservatives toward so-called “woke” liberals whom they deem to be making statements and taking stands hypocritically—talking the talk without walking the walk.

Meanwhile, liberals have argued that their critics, who question their pursuit of the moral high ground, are themselves virtue signalers because they claim to “know better” about the dubious value and authenticity of progressive stances.

The Mass readings for Ash Wednesday offer definitive rejections of the emptiness and danger on both sides of this debate. We’re told humility and a profound knowledge of our sinfulness are the better alternatives for the sake of this worldly life—and eternity.

“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise , you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.’”

That’s from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6.

When you give alms, Jesus continues, “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

Even in prayer, go quietly to your “inner room,” unlike the show-offs who sadly have already “received their reward,” Jesus instructs.

The Old Testament reading for the day, chapter 2 of the Book of Joel, offers this guidance:

“Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment.”

Ad hominem punishments we try to impose on others, claiming to know and evaluate their hearts while we ignore the hardness of our own hearts, only lead to a downward spiral of quashed conversation, unsustainable and lacking the happiness of virtue and valor.

Mass-goers will recite part of Psalm 51, which prescribes the upward spiral our secular culture desperately needs. As we debate-lovers look into our respective mirrors, we are wise to rehearse the peaceable message that establishes a more level playing field:

“Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me.”

Although it’s not in the liturgical readings, we might think of Falstaff’s remark in Henry IV, Part 1: “The better part of valor is discretion.” In the case of this Shakespeare character, he is not a particularly honorable person, but at least sometimes he knows when to hold his peace.

At the same time, Ash Wednesday can help us think of the word “Asé,” pronounced Ah-shay, a Nigerian version of “Amen” sometimes used by Black Christians in their worship. It combines an affirmation of someone else’s message and a commitment to “make it so” in our own lives.

This is certainly the dual hope inside everyone’s Amen when they are receiving the Blessed Sacrament, which is the greatest takeaway from every Mass.

The complex dynamics of wearing ashes are about to return for another year, leading into a Lenten season where the politically charged term “Great Reset” finds its most important meaning—on the individual and spiritual, not global or political, level.

We will experience some mockery and some admiration. We will be signaling our virtue and our desperate need for virtue. We will line up to get something that affirms our personal identity and redefines our identity in terms of humble dust and creaturehood.

These combinations constitute a mystery of trust and hope that should make us fall silent rather than gird for confrontation. The mystery can be our guide as we hear the day’s Mass readings, savoring their power to signal where true virtue resides.

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Don’t Be Resigned to Quiet Quitting

This commentary first appeared in “Phronesis in Pieces” at on Feb. 7, 2023.

For a phenomenon whose name implies otherwise, “quiet quitting” sends a loud and clear message to all of us sharing responsibility for society’s well-being.

We need to be concerned about the physical, psychological, spiritual, and economic implications when millions of Americans are said to be minimizing their effort and engagement in the nation’s workplaces.

And our concern should increase when this quiescence is accompanied by other developments, such as the Great Resignation and continued weakness in labor force participation.

Evidence of that resignation trend comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report that over 20 million workers quit during the second half of 2021.

The third ingredient in our stew pertains to long-term worker willingness. Here’s evidence for that:

Last month, a piece in Forbes reminded us that the official U.S. unemployment rate has remained low partly because the data count only persons who are seeking jobs, not people who are out of the labor force.

The percentage of civilians over 16 who are working or actively looking for work hit a high of 67% in the 1990s, but this “labor force participation rate” slid to a low of 60.1% as the pandemic hit in April 2020, and it is still below 62.5%, according to investment firm “” As a result, many employers have seen a labor shortage and are unable to hire all the people they want.

What’s going on? Much of the explanation appears benign, or at least it is not entirely new.

Regarding quiet quitting, Forbes points out that businesses have always had their share of less-than-fervent staffers who were “phoning it in.” One rule of thumb, true or not, is that 20% of employees accomplish about 80% of the work.

Some reluctance to put in extra effort or extra hours can be traced to various kinds of personal disorientation from the pandemic, disenchantment over bosses who expect workers to be available 24/7 through smartphones and easy messaging, and employees’ desire to take advantage of the gig economy for extra income.

As for the Great Resignation, much of the workplace shrinkage throughout the Covid-19 days was neither voluntary nor temporary. Now, we see people remain reluctant to return to office environments because of health factors or other frustrations. They opt for part-time jobs or virtual-office (even long-distance) connections.

The rate of labor force participation also has been reduced by cushions of payments from government Covid benefits—and by all of the symptoms already mentioned.

Another key component: The Baby Boom generation is retiring or semi-retiring, relocating or withdrawing from workloads. Meanwhile, by one account, members of one in five U.S. households need to take care of ill or aged family members. And post-Covid viewpoints (including financial circumstances) have discouraged long commutes, raised the bar for acceptable salaries or workplace conditions, and encouraged people to rethink their job-life balance.

Such factors add up to major shifts in how individuals in this society think, act, and interact. Many of the stories could have happy endings.

But let me add several other observations, either as expansions of the list or as inclinations operating in the background. These may be causes for immediate concern or simply radar blips to monitor. This awareness can build our practical wisdom about the evolving needs of our brothers and sisters:

·      Recall the survey reported by NBC News in late January that revealed 71% of Americans believe the country is “on the wrong track.” With this dismay holding relatively steady since October 2021, NBC said, “We have never before seen this level of sustained pessimism in the 30-year-plus history of the poll.”

·      Such a loss of hope or resilience makes it difficult to summon up enthusiasm for workplaces and projects. When your country is on the wrong track, the same might be true of your finances, your family, your career expectations, and your sense of well-being. These considerations could fuel the upward trend in such problems as anxiety, depression, addiction, even suicidal or nihilistic thoughts.

·      Meanwhile, we tend to have less confidence in key institutions as admirable, trustworthy resources. We hesitate to sign on to an organization’s mission, or we have less confidence in the structures that anchored us in the past. That can threaten our self-confidence, too.

·      Incentives for personal excellence have been diminished in some people’s eyes by a sense that meritocracy now matters less in performance metrics. This prompts fears that managers and colleagues judge us based on the “baggage” we carry—or on the baggage they carry.

·      Organizations with a muddled sense of purpose are less equipped to give people a sense of accomplishment, progress, and dignity. Purpose is especially hard to identify in enterprises where nothing of inherent value and genuine interest is manufactured or imagined. Plenty of office jobs focus on repetition, statistics, and bureaucracy, rather than people, and these staff members may feel more replaceable.

·      When a company cannot reward us with the appreciation of important work done well, with talents activated and needs met, we will insist that the company reward us in other ways, perhaps with an on-site spa or extra “headroom” for our separate pursuits of meaning and happiness.

·      Many Americans have become increasingly addicted to their social-media communities, video games, and other forms of digital distraction. It is easy to retreat into artificial or virtual realities where our views will be confirmed and our “victories” will yield dopamine hits. Entertainment addicts may prefer to work in offices with lots of free time and fun time.

·      People of all ages, especially young adults, feel less comfortable in face-to-face circumstances where the different views and backgrounds of others make it more difficult to trust, converse, and work as a team.

Except for these things, everything is fine! I believe it was pulpit-pundit Archbishop Fulton Sheen who said many years ago, “Modern man has achieved half the requirement for salvation. He’s miserable.”

Of course, our best guess is that this country is teeming with meaningful, rewarding jobs and engaged, productive workers.

But any shrinkage in our collective sense of the purposeful workplace is food for thought. It clues us into the need for transcendent goals—and a transcendent God whose truth, beauty, and goodness elevate our everyday activities. When we answer to a loving and just judge (and Savior), when the clear criterion is virtuous vigor for His sake, even mundane work becomes more worthy of our best efforts.

In a community fed by the Holy Spirit, we can avoid the contagion of quiet quitting that already erodes the diligence in our religious practices, classrooms, criminal justice efforts, civic life, caring accompaniment of the marginalized, and adherence to moral disciplines.

Structures and relationships of fairness and fruitfulness can help us find our balance. They remind us that we are pilgrims on this earth, with charity and co-responsibility as the metrics. If we are doing a job for the sake of supporting a spouse and a family, in the context of neighbors and institutions with shared values, we find that our daily bread is a joy to earn, receive, and share.

To the degree that fear, idleness, isolation, and frustration have replaced this ethos, the economic and social developments discussed here are bad news for the culture as a whole.

They point to the vice of “acedia”—quiet quitting that has metastasized at the spiritual level. Thomas Aquinas called acedia “disgust with activity.” describes how all-encompassing this stance of withdrawal can be. One author defines acedia as “spiritual sloth.” A litany of its symptoms includes: weariness, fatigue, melancholy, gloominess, feeling overworked, discouragement, dejection, instability, boredom, disenchantment, depression, mediocrity, laziness, loss of interest, lack of fervor, compromise, a repulsion to the things of God, a deprivation of the meaning of life, despair of attaining salvation, and, “above all, an overall compelling absence of joy and hope.”

This wide net captures the scope of the risk we run if we leave God home when we go to work. If more people are drifting away from our contributory structures and institutional anchors, especially the Church, if we try to go it alone or “just get by,” individuals and society can lose their balance as stewards of today’s fast-moving marketplace. The virus of acedia hurts its host, and it is highly contagious.

Seekers of practical wisdom for the sake of the common good must guard against society’s drift from quiet quitting to full-blown acedia. We must remind our brothers and sisters in the workplace and in the public square that we desire a purpose-driven community in which everyone plays a meaningful role.

The world needs more champions of enthusiastic investment in good works, echoing Jesus’ parable of the talents. And there’s this Epistle message:

“Whatever you do, do from the heart, as for the Lord and not for others, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the due payment of the inheritance; be slaves of the Lord Christ. ” (Colossians 3:23-24)

Add to that Jesus’ message that we are our brothers’ keepers, with a responsibility to mentor our fellow workers in the field. We’re called to remind others that their whole life has value. We should appreciate their skills, as well as nurture their highest aspirations when they look for jobs—or, even better, discern their vocations.

We can debate about jobs-report data, but the motivation to rein in quiet quitting will come from actions of accompaniment. These enhance everyone’s spiritual resume.

Evangelizing the culture, we must spread the news that our unique contributions can receive great rewards—in the form of daily bread for now, but finally in advancement to the saintly labor force modeling the business of love.

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On World Communications: Love is News We Can Use

An updated version of this commentary will be posted today as a special edition of “Phronesis in Pieces” at

Pope Francis, posting his 2023 World Communications Day message, has reinforced the sense of urgency and purpose he consistently connects to our use of the media. He has reiterated a Christian “mission” to spread charity through authentic encounters with brothers and sisters everywhere during this “dark hour.”

The Vatican previewed this year’s message, “Speaking with the Heart: The Truth in Love,” on January 24, the feast day of St. Francis de Sales. Marking 100 years since that saint was declared the patron of journalists, the pope cites the Bible’s instruction to make our communication edifying so that “it may impart grace to those who hear.” (Ephesians 4:29)

“Today more than ever, speaking with the heart is essential to foster a culture of peace in places where there is war, to open paths that allow for dialogue and reconciliation in places where hatred and enmity rage,” Pope Francis says. “We need communicators who are … committed to undoing the belligerent psychosis that nests in our hearts.”

The pope calls for Christians to reject divisive rhetoric, “as well as every form of propaganda that manipulates the truth” for the sake of ideologies. Francis warns that words can lead to “heinous violence.” They instead must build trust in a way that “helps create the conditions to resolve controversies between peoples.”

In this week’s preview of World Communications Day, which the Catholic Church has observed on the Sunday before Pentecost since 1967, the pope recalls the model for journalists set by Francis de Sales (1567–1622). That French saint reached out in highly personalized writing, where “heart speaks to heart” through tenderness and “truth in charity.”

Pope Francis explicitly uses the 2023 message to add a third “principle of communication” to two about which he wrote for the most recent World Communications Days.

In 2021, he called for communicators and all Christians to “Come and See”—to be seekers of truth with an eagerness to learn truth by experiencing Jesus, and then to encounter Jesus, one-on-one, with people whose voices were unheard.

In 2022, he urged that we “Listen with the Ear of the Heart”— with humility and compassion—so we become “attuned to the same wavelength” and find common ground amid our mutual frailties.

This year, his instruction to “speak with the heart” entails conveying the truth boldly and frankly, but with a charity that avoids society’s inclination toward manipulation and polarization. Communication must be “a genuine antidote to cruelty.”

His call to “overcome the vague din” of media presentations, with their inclination to “exploit the truth” by injecting disinformation or malevolence, reminded me of my concern when watching or reading some news pundits. Hungry for a full, fair serving of facts, we risk being diverted by presenters who lure us into their arena of negativity. They spend much of their time discrediting our leaders and institutions and even mocking their media competitors and our fellow citizens.

On a happier note, this week’s papal call for kindness, integrating respect for human dignity with the need for comprehensive learning, including uncomfortable facts, reminded me of the power of positivity. This quality, less apparent in the media than it used to be, still draws nourishment from our culture’s roots in Judeo-Christian values.

For example, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists contains a section headlined “Minimize Harm” as guidance for news-gathering. It instructs reporters and editors to “treat sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

Ethical journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” the code says. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

The guidelines also call for fairness, compassion, and respect for the rights of private citizens to exercise some control of their personal information.

All these recommendations go hand-in-hand with the pope’s call to communications professionals: They should “reject the temptation to use sensational and combative expressions,”—mirroring the spirit of Francis de Sales as a “saint of tenderness.”

Nevertheless, the secular ethics code is only part of the mix of social, cultural, political, and psychological forces governing the practice of journalism—including the pseudo-journalistic role now played by many non-professionals. We have become our own “publishers” in social media, or avid “consumers” of news. Our stew of information and motivation travels through corroded pipes of confirmation bias and algorithms that promote engagement through enragement.

In the tumult of today’s media, Pope Francis calls for journalists to see their profession as “a mission” which adds to the public’s diet of “clear, open, and heartfelt” communication. In the 2023 World Communications Day message, he envisions an information world—including the subset of Church news outreach— that shuns the artificial, the self-centered, the strategically contrived, and the intentionally false.

Communication is key to all that we do as a Church, as a society, and as a world, the pope says. Our relationships with God and our brothers and sisters make communication a high-stakes game where papal advice has value. And Francis cautions that faltering interactions of truth and trust among nations make things more urgent. He points to “a dark hour in which humanity fears an escalation of war that must be stopped as soon as possible, also at the level of communication.”

Perhaps the stakes are highest on the personal plane, where St. Francis de Sales speaks of cultivating relationships “in the heart and through the heart.” They are the kind of communication through which “we come to know God.” The pope cites this “criterion of love” to ground his latest guide to communicating, just as he used the principles of “come and see” and “listen well” in his 2021 and 2022 messages.

Together, these principles summon us not only into fruitful communication, but also into healthy community and communion. The linkage of these three terms helps to explain why the Church has invested in messages about the secular media for nearly 60 years.

Ultimately, the integrity of this trio of high-sounding terms relies simply on our individual lives as seekers, receivers, and speakers of truth in the light of Christian love and peace. As Pope Francis wrote, echoing what Francis de Sales discerned centuries ago, “we are what we communicate.”

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.

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When to Play the Empathy Card

First published in “Phronesis in Pieces” newsletter at on Jan. 17, 2023

A recent study of empathy from Cambridge University prompted me to think about the role of that virtue in the pursuit of practical wisdom.

CNN’s report on this research focused on the finding that women around the world performed better than men on a standardized test of “cognitive empathy.” On average, the results held substantially true in 57 countries, independent of such factors as geography or cultural backgrounds.

My basic reaction was twofold: First, it was no surprise that women excel in empathy. Second, it was good news that thought leaders had encouraged, in some small way, discussing empathy at our tables of moral deliberation in a world of relativism and polarization.

My next reaction was to inquire further into how science defines empathy as a positive force. Might this discussion yield something more than a headline about male-female differences?

I like to think of compassion, or empathy, as part of the checklist for modern-day explorations of “phronesis,” a quality Aristotle discussed in his Nicomachean Ethics. He called it a kind of wisdom—I would say it’s virtuous wisdom—which gathers insightful knowledge and applies it to practical judgments and decisions enhancing the common good and true happiness. Going beyond scientific knowledge, I see this as common sense informed by Judeo-Christian values.  

Please think of my values-added approach to phronesis as “Aristotle Plus.” Of course, this renowned pre-Christian Greek hardly needs a premium channel, but I avidly hunt for content which fits comfortably with practical thinking while also resonating with my Catholic roots.

You might call the compassionate, open-minded component of phronesis “a muse you can use”—a kind of evangelization that Catholics should make part of their programming. These days, the Church can offer helpful reminders about God to people who seem to struggle without Him. An embrace of both faith and reason will enable our secularized culture to tackle its urgent challenges in other-centered, problem-solving ways.

By my lights, empathetic people are inclined toward genuine “encounters” with others. Pope Francis uses this term when he calls for Catholics—and all people of good will—to venture beyond the church doors, to reach out and listen, especially to the marginalized.

Instead of trampling on the inherent dignity of those without a strong voice in the public square, we must strive to know and appreciate the unique experiences and aspirations of all, so they become part of our common-good calculus.

Because I equate empathy with compassionate caring, I also think of another pope. John Paul II spoke of key gifts—receptivity, sensitivity, generosity, and maternity—that we must bring to others if we are to answer a mandate issued by the Second Vatican Council—“to aid humanity in not falling.”

It’s no coincidence that John Paul saw these gifts as central to “the feminine genius,” which he discussed in a 1988 apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.

“Catholic Answers” commentator wrote in 2005 that “the Church has called women to be the stealth weapon of the twenty-first century” because they bring those gifts to people whose spectrum of suffering echoes in today’s society.

This point invites criticism from many people who would charge that Catholicism precludes other ways in which women could bless the world, such as ordination to the priesthood. I ask that we set aside that debate for purposes of this discussion, just as we downplay the journalists’ focus on a male-female empathy contest.

I believe all people, in our diversity, should contribute our best traits to the overarching goal of keeping humanity from falling. And I return to my question: What is this thing called empathy, and how can we use it?

It turns out that the Cambridge scholars were not measuring the characteristic as I simplistically defined it.

CNN explained that the article in the multidisciplinary journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at “cognitive empathy” as an intellectual viewpoint toward interactions and relationships. This entails individuals’ ability “to understand what someone else might be thinking or feeling, and they are even able to use that knowledge to predict how the person will act or feel going forward.”

Say a person tells you he or she had an uncomfortable family reunion during the holidays. Using cognitive empathy, “you understand how that bad time makes the person feel.” Once you put yourself in that person’s shoes, you “are even able to use that knowledge to predict how the person will act or feel going forward.”

This is different from “affective empathy,” or “emotional empathy,” the connection made when you feel another person’s emotions and respond with your own appropriate emotion. That’s the definition I had assumed.

Say a person is crying about a broken relationship, so you “feel sad too, and feel compassion for that person,” as CNN put it.

The Cambridge researchers have posted questionnaires that test for both forms of empathy. But, for their new findings, they used the “Eyes Test” to explore the cognition, or “theory of mind” that kicked in. They showed participants photos  of different people—actually, only of the area around a person’s eyes, forming a facial expression. For each face card, the researchers asked what the person was thinking or feeling.

Their key finding seems to be that more than 300,000 participants, spanning the globe, performed this analysis, and the pattern of their answers showed that this “cognitive empathy” was largely independent of such factors as local culture, and even age and language.

As with most studies, the scientists’ key determination was that this finding reveals the need for more research. For example, we might probe the social or biological reasons why women outpace men on the empathic path.

I am always in favor of asking more questions. I also acknowledge that I might be missing or misinterpreting the full potential of this study. But, reluctantly accepting the empathy definition provided, I return to my curiosity about empathy as a virtue that contributes to wise engagement.

It sounds like the cognitive version is relevant to phronesis because it is indeed practical. If one can analyze facial expressions or statements and thus walk “in another person’s shoes,” and then can predict how that person might feel or act in the future, this might help devise an action, or intervention. That could be virtuous insofar as it benefits the person and achieves broader goals.

In comparison, affective or emotional empathy sounds like a mere feeling of compassion that should be an easy assumption among those at tables of deliberation in the public square.

So cognitive empathy is empowering, and emotional empathy is an endearing background feature? I offer several cautionary notes. First, I wonder if there are really two empathies, or rather one tool to be wielded and one quality to be nurtured. Second, I wonder if men and women wield the tool differently. Third, I wonder if any kind of empathy can be measured using facial expressions.

The researchers spotlighted here, setting the rules for the version they studied, were focused on the person perceiving rather than the person perceived. In this cognitive mode, we speak of the other, but we risk minimizing the other as a face in the crowd, or worse, as essentially a lab animal to be assessed and acted upon accordingly.

Only the perceiver is empowered, and the power has a flimsy justification, based on a shallow interaction and unverified judgment.

Can a “theory of mind” toward which we gravitate in one-on-one situations be generalized to yield problem-solving steps affecting a community or the common good? This open-ended claim to understand people may be the train of thought at Cambridge College in Boston, which offers an “empathy certificate.” It may be the dubious goal of some folks studying social psychology.

With all due respect, I hope we can minimize control games, where we extend our supposed predictive powers beyond one person’s facial expression to a whole category of actors or potential actions. This oversimplifies complex human inclinations.

Cognitive and psychological methods to interpret and label people appeal to today’s advocates and influencers as influential tools. Our society loves to group individuals together into opposing (rather than collaborating) camps in order to create talking points which polarize.

For example, problem-solvers might ask us to change the nickname of a pandemic because it can make some people violent. The Hill gave this warning in a September 2020 article: “The use of the phrase ‘China virus’ by top administration officials , including President Trump, has coincided with a surge in discrimination against Asian-Americans, according to a new study.”

Likewise, for the sake of peace and order, decision-makers may want to censor the free marketplace of ideas, blocking information that disagrees with authoritative sources; we might easily suspect a malevolent intent behind comments which otherwise would increase knowledge—and deserve First Amendment protection.

There are certainly situations in which the virtue of prudence does warrant devising precautionary limitations for the common good, based on our instincts about, and our concern for, the volatile chemistry of people and circumstances.

But overall, I prefer the adoption of emotional empathy—a habit of compassion fed by sharing, and learning from, experiences with people in their diversity and dignity—as the fundamental aid in pursuing wisdom. Both leaders and followers can and should share this habit, creating a common ground for truly interactive conversations.

Some may argue that compassion is a given in public discussions based on equity, diversity, and inclusion; mere “emotion” adds no efficacy when we are solving problems. Not so fast! We often catch leaders and followers alike forgetting empathy in their calculus. This sensibility is indispensable but elusive, particularly when a crisis inclines us toward quick fixes, snap judgments, groupthink, exercising power, or saving face. In such cases, the quality of mercy is strained.

Let’s keep the sense of mystery when we play the “empathy” card from the phronesis deck of virtues. Amid today’s frayed solidarity, we should scrutinize our assertions that we “understand” human aspirations, relationships, and dignity. Some things, such as the complicated interplay among people, and between souls and their God, are beyond our understanding. Compassion centered on hearts, not on minds, is a humbling wisdom we can promote in Church evangelization.

Affective empathy syncs up the souls of the governing and the governed. It empowers people on common ground. It expands our perceptions and allows transformative encounters. It elevates everyone’s sensitivity, receptivity, generosity, and maternity.

The report from Cambridge University decided that empathy—at least one kind of it—knows no boundaries. We think we can read a person like a book. But we also need to love people as stories which are incomplete, interactive, and dynamically hopeful.

Those scientists determined cognition through face cards. That is not the whole story. An empathy card belongs in everyone’s deck of wisdom, but how we choose and use it at the table of deliberation, pursuing win-win situations, will display our virtue.

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A Toast to Dr. King and New Wineskins

A January 16 reflection from Michael McLoughlin in America magazine talked about the need for new wineskins that can hold new wine—in particular, the wine of change and redemption which Christ offers us in the New Testament.

The piece pointed us to notes that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had written for a sermon in 1954. They fit perfectly with the Gospel reading about wineskins for Martin Luther King Day 2023. Those notes show the civil rights leader’s wonderfully creative and connective mind; they spotlight a great blessing, and responsibility, namely receiving a gift.

Pope John Paul II cited receptivity as one of the key elements of the “feminine genius,” which he discussed in his 1988 apostolic letter, On the Dignity and Vocation of Women.

Receptivity is a trait possessed by persons—and also by societies. The dictionary defines it as “the ability, willingness, or quickness to receive or accept ideas, requests, experiences, etc.”

This openness is powerful, not passive, because accepting ideas, heeding requests, and undergoing new experiences is often hard work. It disrupts the status quo and requires some kind of reset. We might call such willingness “reset-tivity,” and we should acknowledge that resets, great or not, are likely to be long-term undertakings that build upon an existing foundation.

The acceptance of new wine as a delightful gift requires the preparation and caretaking of new wineskins. Dr. King, in writing his sermon, pondered that there are times in history when circumstances are ripe for change, when a whole population is poised at a turning point that must be faced wisely.

It appears Dr. King had hope that America was entering such a time in the 1950s: People knew the status quo, in race relations and in the accompanying dilemmas of inequality and marginalization, was unacceptable. But he knew his message, which was coming from the Gospel itself, would require a long, hard journey of reconstruction. It could only happen if we love one another and hold on to the best qualities in ourselves.

As with persons, a society must be receptive and proactive in order to learn from, and integrate, the wisdom of Christ who desires to make all things new. One hopes a culture that has been evangelized to pursue wisdom will be open to the elevated, transcendent insights which God offers us in time.

Dr. King brought Americans a new insight about ways to overcome racial division in light of the need to overcome divisions in the human family based on income, class, power, pride, fear, and hatred. As he indicated explicitly later in his career, he knew the nation’s capacity for a sweeping overhaul would require unusual leadership–people with dreams, not merely with complaints or vague blueprints.

Our society has benefited from the seeds of Godly wisdom Dr. King planted, but it has not yet been sufficiently receptive to let those seeds blossom fully into the necessary institutional structures and practices, as well as personal habits of the heart. Those take time, talent, vision, and vigor to build.

We must rededicate ourselves to prepare new wineskins that can preserve and distribute the blessings of love, respecting the dignity of all and enriching the content of our character. Our present day seems to contain all the chaos and discontent that would signal big change ahead.

But the chaos also reveals flaws in our character. We need leaders who embrace the Good News as a guide for the path ahead. The public square is dominated by loud voices shouting bad news about our structures and ourselves.

Without faith and hope, without an appreciation for the power of new wine to renew us, many of us say the only way forward is to disrupt much of the progress we have made or to destroy institutions with ephemeral urges to start from scratch:

Dump the old wine! Do away with wineskins! They’re only crude satchels made of leather! Start fresh with some new elixir of happiness, maybe a new recipe, perhaps one stored in modern cardboard boxes with handy spouts!

Instead, we must have the humble self-confidence, patience, and common sense to prepare new wineskins, knowing what will work and dismissing what will fail. During the transitions of attitude and aptitude that inevitably emerge from time to time, we can continue drinking the wine of blessings already received; God will even see to it, as Jesus did at Cana, that we receive surprising, joyful previews of the new wine that will fulfill our faith. That should urge us on toward constructive, peaceful changes which benefit us all.

One website that discusses wineskins qua wineskins instructs us to be careful as we get ready.

“Due to their unique nature, a wineskin requires some initial care and maintenance for maximum use,” says an article posted at It continues:

“A wineskin is made of organic material [such as goatskin]; it takes some preparation and maintenance by the owner. Before pouring in the first amount of wine to store, the wineskin must be heated, rubbed, inflated, rinsed with water, and filled with wine for five days, which is then discarded. Then, the wineskin can be used for storing drinking wine.”

Dr. King saw that true receptivity to the message he was preaching must engage both the mind and the heart–both the intellect and emotions, as he put it. We must personally greet the change promised in the Gospels by offering God our delight in the new hope he offers, in tandem with a society that is organically geared for stability, kindness, and effort.

Our imagination must be well-grounded, like Dr. King’s. Then we can toast to what we receive and share it with all who see that the table has been set for a feast.

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.

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O Come, All Ye Fretful

First published in “Phronesis in Pieces” at on Dec. 31, 2022

I came away from Christmas Mass this year with a heightened appreciation of those who had joined the congregation as, let’s say, occasional visitors.

Some of them attend on Christmas and Easter largely because it’s a family event or it’s a time “to be seen.” These examples of “peer pressure” were once reinforced by America’s Judeo-Christian culture.

One can understand folks feeling various pressures. A lot of people acknowledge in their hearts, and increasingly in their minds as a practical matter, that our society can go sadly—and dangerously—astray without a recognition of God. It is right and just to give Him a social shout-out.

We pilgrims, or wanderers, also know Him as the everyday origin of charity, dignity, mercy, justice, and enduring meaning. At a minimum, we know we need to “represent” because He is our source of consolation and care—if not the first responder, the A-Team we call in case of emergency. He is somehow a member of our families, or a part of our ancestry who deserves to be recognized, no matter how awkwardly.

Theologically speaking, peripatetic Christians are indeed poised to receive wonderful things in return for a return to the sacramental life, a list topped by the Holy Eucharist, the complete presence of powerful grace, engagement in the Church’s highest form of prayer, community solidarity, and spiritual refreshment.

But, as our priest presiding at the vigil Mass boldly (but gently) reminded everyone, Communion is a sacred event whose participants are practicing Catholics. The Church welcomes all and is an instrument for everyone’s growth in God’s love, he said, but this might be a time for one to ask the Lord for a blessing and/or simply remain in the pew.

Some attendees may see this guidance as an undue infringement of their freedom. Worse, knowing one’s place and “staying in your lane” are forms of embarrassment, acknowledgements of guilt or imperfection. They are the opposites of virtue-signaling, which is currently trending in culture!

Here is the bottom line: In light of the personal admissions and reevaluations being suggested, if we take seriously a truth-speaking priest, and the Church, there is a price to pay for attending Mass.

A serious charge is codified in the Bible: “Therefore, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 11:27) That’s something all congregants, no matter the frequency of their presence, need to remember.

And it occurred to me at Christmastime that various attendees might feel the Mass exacts still another price of admission. This is an unwelcome tax levied not by the Church, but by today’s secularized, therapeutic, self-centered culture.

The secular discouragement of loving relationships with Jesus Christ only frustrates our innate hunger for a more excellent way and our the heart-felt desire to fill our “God-shaped hole.” (This latter idea has roots in Acts 17:22-27 and, much later, in comments by Blaise Pascal.)

Those attentive to this vacuum in themselves and in society might find it taxing to get through the early parts of the Mass, not to mention the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The Mass starts us off by asking God for mercy. What, did we do something wrong?

The Confiteor can hit us with a sledgehammer of humility. We are confessing to God—and to our brothers and sisters (OMG, they are our brothers and sisters)—that each one of us has “greatly sinned” in a variety of ways. And we can’t point fingers. We have to tell everybody, “I need your prayers.”

Then the Church challenges us further in the context of our responsibility to a God who came to save us from the mess we have made.

The church’s seasonal visitors might notice the poignant specificity of The Gloria; it is a prayer echoing the angels as they celebrate the first Christmas! The awesome power and promise surrounding Jesus’ birth is described in Luke 2:13-14. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to people of good will.”

TV viewers informed by the better angels of our culture will remember that a little child, Linus by name, used that quote to lead his friend—and multiple generations of audiences—to learn the Good News. Hear it proclaimed here: “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

The initial prayers of Mass tell us to praise and adore Christ as our savior, and to give God thanks because all glory must go to Him. He alone is holy. Alas, that means we dare not play God.

Scholars and pollsters will tell us that people have fallen away from the Church—and from Mass—for lots of important reasons. Younger Americans are non-joiners who want to define their spirituality for themselves. Christian teachings make them reticent. They say religion causes violence. They doubt dogmas that conflict with observable facts.

But I observed another reason for society’s departure from the pews—and for the Christmastime exception that proves the rule. There is a culturally imposed unease some Mass-goers face in pausing their prerogatives so they can be surprised by joy.

My family and I found a few available seats in the back of the church, but perhaps we weren’t as uncomfortable as some of the newcomers. I came to a new respect for all those people awkwardly abandoning their weekend routines to be dutifully present at Mass. (They didn’t know where to sit. And neither did we.)

I realized the Church is beautifully countercultural, and our liturgy is wonderfully confounding from beginning to end. We all experienced it at the vigil. Even before we saw our priest, we had to squeeze in and humbly follow the directions of the ushers.

After Communion, a business-attired man seated next to me checked his phone and nudged his family to slip away as the final hymn began. They might have had reservations somewhere.

As a child of a culture that has become more and more secular, I’ve behaved and thought like that gentleman plenty of times. In his family’s presence, I truly found brothers and sisters.

My family stayed for the whole hymn, partly because we have become comfortable with Mass, and Christmas, as providential breaks from the tedium of being on our own—and enduring the “good grief” Charlie Brown always saw society imposing.

All of us in that congregation needed to pray for each other, to forgive each other, and to turn to God for the glory we crave. We cannot take this awareness for granted if we want to heal our culture through the humility of truth and trust. Without the Mass, a summons to incarnational faith, hope and connectedness, my family and others might all be on the verge of slipping away, or going astray. We would be using our “reservations” as excuses to leave a vacuum in our God-shaped holes.

Worse, to avoid paying the price of admission, we would be AWOL in the church, and in the Church. Keeping vigil, we were wisely challenged to know our place, including our place in the glory of Christmas.

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs.

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Priest’s Word to the Wise: Love to Study, Study to Love

This book review first appeared in The Tablet, newspaper of the Brooklyn Diocese, on Dec. 3, 2022.

“Theology” can be an off-putting, academic word. But a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn has emerged on a mission to enrich Catholics’ everyday lives through that field of discipline, whose name simply means the study of God.

He is advocating his pursuit to others who preach the Gospel—and model it for the sake of people in the pews—with a new book, Theology as Prayer: A Primer for the Diocesan Priest.

“It’s not exclusively for priests,” according to Father John Cush, a native of Windsor Terrace. He asserted in a recent Tablet interview that seminarians, ordained deacons, consecrated religious, and laypersons will find life more meaningful as they encounter God using the works of great theologians.

The book, co-authored with Monsignor Walter Oxley, focuses primarily on suggestions for the parish priest. Serving a diocese, his tasks allow limited time for spiritual reading but generate many opportunities to teach, and demonstrate, “pastoral charity for the people he will lead,” Father Cush wrote in the early pages.

Reflection about God through solid theology has one purpose, namely the salvation of souls, he wrote. “Without this truth firmly established in the minds of priests and seminarians, when problems arise, they can be tossed to the wind, following whatever trend so pleases them, leading to a promotion of decline and a reverse of progress.”

Convinced that prayerful study can help to integrate personal holiness and dynamic love throughout a priest’s life, Father Cush this year joined the faculty of St. Joseph’s Seminary and College in Yonkers, NY.

He previously completed his Doctorate in Sacred Theology (S.T.D.) at the Pontifical Gregorian University and served as academic dean at the Pontifical North American College.

Years before his multiple advanced-degree assignments in Rome, Father Cush attended high school at Cathedral Preparatory Seminary, Elmhurst, and studied English and Philosophy at St. John’s University, Jamaica, graduating in 1994.

He went on to priestly formation at the Cathedral Seminary Residence of the Immaculate Conception in Douglaston. Ordained in 1998, he ministered to two parishes—Good Shepherd in Marine Park and St. Helen in Howard Beach.

His return to the United States in 2022 has allowed him to visit his Windsor Terrace home. He contributes frequently to The Tablet. This Yonkers-based professor of systematic theology also reaches out nationwide as the new editor-in-chief of a leading magazine for clergy, Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

“I’m loving every second of it,” Father Cush said of his primary job—preparing seminarians. He has welcomed a challenge set forth by St. John Paul II, who called for integrating “the four dimensions of priestly formation”—the human, spiritual, intellectual, and pastoral.

Aspirants to the priesthood must start with a life of Christian love and prayer, Father Cush told The Tablet. “Unless we have the foundation on the human level and on the spiritual level, our priests won’t really be effective ministers of the Gospel.”

All study of theology should be done “in a spirit of faith,” as he instructed in the book. “With the help of the Holy Spirit, whom you implore before your reading, you are allowing the meaning of the text and the deeper intentions of the theologian to permeate into the deepest recesses of your heart.”

The book’s co-authors make practical suggestions. Based on Church tradition, they show how theological texts can lead to meditation and purposeful conversation with God. They also give tips on how a busy pastor might set up time periods and circumstances where contemplation is possible.

Father Cush shows intellectual heft by describing noted theologians in valuable mini-biographies which, he promises readers, will “whet your appetite.” His menu of prospects includes Hans Urs von Balthasar, Bernard Lonergan, Henri Cardinal de Lubac, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, and Pope Benedict XVI.

Speaking with The Tablet, Father Cush expressed thanks for the inspirations of Monsignor Oxley, another Doctor of Sacred Theology, who contributed extensive experience as a spiritual director serving clergy and parishes.

Their book was published this summer by the Institute for Priestly Formation.

But the technique of spicing theologians’ thoughts with practical tips and prayerful intent has a precedent in Father Cush’s first book, The How-To Book of Catholic Theology: Everything You Need to Know But No One Ever Taught You.

Published by Our Sunday Visitor in 2020, it explained to a wide audience that the study of God isn’t only for saints and scholars.

Humans instinctively seek deep, authentic relationships, Father Cush said. “They want time to study about someone whom they love—Our Lord. When you fall in love, you want to know everything there can be about that other person. That’s hopefully what the study of theology does for us—as priests, as lay, as deacons, as religious people—as we go forward in our own lives of faith.”

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Game of Kings, King of Games

First published in “Phronesis in Pieces” at on Dec. 19, 2022.

The world of political reporting groans with a desperate need for graduates of the Shelby Lyman School of Journalism.

This is a problem because there is no Shelby Lyman School of Journalism, and most people don’t remember its namesake. Lyman did exist (1936–2019), but he never practiced journalism per se.

He did write a popular chess column that appeared in dozens of newspapers for years. And, most famously, he was the TV anchorman, you might say, covering what The New York Times has called “one of the most ballyhooed competitive events of the 1970s, a Cold War confrontation in Reykjavik, Iceland, between the two most brilliant chess players in the world.”

Lyman volunteered during the summer of 1972 to host a pioneering endeavor—live coverage for PBS stations of the World Chess Championship match between Brooklyn native Bobby Fischer and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky.

Some of the combatants’ 21 games consumed copious time, but Lyman did not tire. Fans called for more, so coverage of the rounds (which were riddled with controversy) was even allowed to pre-empt Sesame Street.

An informal New York Post survey of bars in the city revealed that most of them had their single TV tuned to PBS’s slow-paced sport, according to a blog at The coverage drew the highest ratings of any show that had appeared on the young public network. At some points, an estimated 2 million viewers were said to be tuned in.

Lyman broadcast the series of programs from a bare-bones studio near his upstate New York home. A 35-year-old Harvard grad with no media experience, he invested TV time in the regimen which chess experts like him typically adopted at other high-level matches—namely, back-and-forth banter about how the game was going and what the moves meant.

He sparked detailed, esoteric, but oddly appealing dialogues with a few chess-club champions seated around him. He shifted cardboard chess pieces on a demonstration board whenever a bell rang to announce that Fischer or Spassky had made the latest move. This news was phoned in from spectators in Iceland.

While he carefully updated one board to show the current state of play, Lyman could walk over to a separate “analysis” board, where he and his panel of commentators could critique moves and visualize options or opportunities. They discussed the likely gambits the players were forging in light of all 64 squares as a connected whole.

Participants’ differing insights, looking backward and forward, sounded like this: Fischer was “setting up a couple of threats,” or “he was justified in moving that pawn.” Spassky’s queen was “being harassed” by major and minor pieces, or he initiated the “Schliemann defense.” You can pick up the lingo by watching these videos of “Chess Chat” and a follow-up Lyman broadcast in 1984.

I was a rising high school sophomore in 1972, with no training in journalism yet and little exposure to the art of play-by-play sports coverage, except for some Mets games. But I found the “color commentary”—and the “suspense” of waiting ten minutes or more for the next move—downright addictive.

The experience nurtured my zeal for a kind of “Washington bureau” vocation that seems old-fashioned to many. I never mastered the model, but I admired its focus on rigorous curiosity and enlightened dialogue, alongside the necessary dedication to solid research, deadline reliability, and well-crafted writing.

Extra qualities of this ethos include: patient but proactive waiting for a federal government that was designed for a deliberative pace; responding to “breaks in the action” by asking questions of knowledgeable sources; sharing varied visions of the possibilities ahead; and trying to read the minds of newsmakers without grasping for instant headlines or jumping to narrative-based judgments.

I do not question other forms of journalism, practiced by professionals with different approaches. But I like to think uncomplicated, inquisitive engagement at the intersection of knowable facts and human nature constitutes the ethos—or the curriculum—of the Shelby Lyman School.

Today’s coverage of national policy-making would benefit from a larger cadre of political reporters who are allowed and able to take time, to piece together a spectrum of details, and help their audiences see a big picture containing clues for fresh, constructive ideas.

Don’t assume that such journalists would be bland geeks, lacking strong opinions or the ability to build and inspire an audience. Back when I finally did study journalism, at Fordham, I recall discovering I.F. Stone (1907-1989) as an admirable variation of the Lyman paradigm.

His newsletter about Washington, I.F. Stone’s Weekly, became influential through its simple perspicacity—his willingness to delve into transcripts and government documents that revealed what people in power actually said and thought.

Communicating the fruits of his phronesis, his virtuous pursuit of wisdom in service to the common good, he became a progressive thought-leader who helped to advance such causes as civil rights.

Whatever causes and values formed the whole of Lyman’s good life, one of his goals was to promote a game he saw as a source of meaning and happiness. He is quoted as saying:

“Chess is a dramatic event. You could hear the swords clang on the shields with every move. They went at each other. The average person is turned onto chess when it’s presented right. Trying to figure out the next move is a fascinating adventure—an adventure people can get into.”

I have one more reason for promoting a “school” that exists only in my imaginative metaverse: You might say that all participants in the political arena and the public square need to be fans of chess, or at least of its thought patterns.

In these days when serious societal concerns are viewed through lenses of entertainment, persuasion, and gamesmanship, you might say we often must choose between two models of play—the good order of chess or the demeaning chaos of Rollerball.

There are plenty of smart, powerful leaders playing their “long game” of strategy regarding particular issues—or broad goals on a global scale. They hold a full complement of castles, knights, and bishops, and they naturally aim to control the “whole board.” While they are preoccupied with their high-stakes chess matches, they benefit when we are distracted by the bursts of sound and fury, the dopamine hits of bread and circuses, the rules of manipulation and confusion, which were portrayed in Rollerball, a classic 1975 film.

The latter arena generates play-by-play announcements from the loudest voices and biggest egos, armed with the most compelling statistics (or clickbait), grabbing and wasting the sporadic attention of hyped-up crowds.

The former arena is the quieter, more personal, more nuanced setting where an informed public enjoys taking a serious thing seriously. We are waiting and watching for each successive move, encouraged to think and converse about individuals’ gambits and incremental steps toward victory. Who is doing what, to what end, in what context, with what implications?

Our announcer for this “Game of Kings” coverage, applicable to politics, should be some future Shelby Lyman. Not weighty in the world’s eyes, but still the show’s anchor, he or she will help us all to become better analysts—and, eventually, better players in contests where the world needs champions.

Image from ClipSafari, an online collection of Creative Commons designs. Photo of Shelby Lyman from the U.S Chess Federation.

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