A Little Child Shall Lead Them (and Tell the Story, too)

Enjoy this! I received it from my friend Kyle Heimann, whose morning radio program can be heard here. You can spread the word about his daily Advent emails, which were the source for this video. Happy Advent!

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We Have Met the Candidates, and They Are Us

the-full-story baloocredit

Let’s make this Election Day a kind of “Feast of All Saint-Candidates,” following up on the Catholic Church’s recent “Feast of All Saints.” I’ll explain this modest proposal, but first I’ll acknowledge its flaws. They’re found in the candidates we’re voting for—and, of course, in us voters too.

Indeed, there’s some wordsmithing, or “spin,” going on with my invitation to a feast. No liturgist or other common-sense person would declare Election Day to be a “feast” per se; for one thing, it seems our ballot options don’t often give us much to celebrate.

And my use of the term “Saint-Candidates” carries a touch of disinformation. I’m not suggesting that many, or any, political candidates of any party are saints. Alas, we’re still summoned to vote and to set high standards for the people we select, regardless of their creeds or backgrounds or character flaws.

I use the term in quotes to remind us that the Catechism of the Catholic Church says we are a “communion of saints” (CCC 946) insofar as we are a communion “in holy things” and “among holy persons.” (CCC 948) The book says we are “pilgrims on earth,” very much in need of God’s mercy to work through our imperfections. (CCC 962) “All are called to holiness,” (CCC 2013), although we’re not knocking on heaven’s door quite yet. d

I’m not speaking of “saintly candidates” but of “candidates for sainthood,” who need to tap into the graces shared by the entire communion of saints, including those we honored on the Nov. 1 feast. Today, Nov. 6, is a day for the rest of us, called to make the best of earthly systems of politics and governance that are tainted by the Seven Capital Sins. Those sins are clearly named for our state capitals, as well as Washington, DC!

Even with this watered-down definition, I think it’s worthwhile to ponder on Election Day that there is a dignity in being a candidate for sainthood despite one’s flaws. This is a candidacy we share. It’s important not to lose hope on this day, or in its aftermath on Nov. 7, though we have been subjected to a panoply of campaign commercials in which political opponents have condemned each other as liars, and far worse.

Our collective woundedness is on display in a big way these days. We need to remember, for ourselves and for those on the ballot, that God works through our flaws and mistakes even as he works through the moments of grace that raise us higher, so long as we’re receptive and responsive in prayer and action and good will. While the lead-up to elections may be filled with rallies and noise, persuasion and persecution, the moment of voting can be a time of quiet, solitary humility.

The lack of “saintly candidates” shouldn’t deter us from voting for “candidates for sainthood.” Even if it’s hard to work up a lot of enthusiasm for a particular politician, it’s worthwhile to discern how we pilgrims (fellow candidates) can accompany each other through an election. We listen and then exercise our voting power wisely, even as we share hopeful prayers that God will help us keep our respective “campaign promises.” Marching amid the disinformation, distractions, and distrust we’re supposed to shed along the roadside, we journey in search of communion with our higher natures—our faith, hope, and love. We’re seeking holiness that can’t be found in political allegiances, but in trusting the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

If candidates look like they will accompany us, we might want simply to try accompanying them. They are not products to love or hate, and we must not consume them with resentment or rage. We and they are under construction, sure to face challenges that will change us, and we’ll have to get through those messes together. These are powerful calls to solidarity.

As the Catechism puts it apolitically, “We know that in everything God works for good with those who love Him … For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified.” (CCC 2012)

Now that sounds like a reason for a feast—a feast fit for non-kings. Enjoy the moment of casting a ballot. It’s our grace before the meal, the humble time we realize we’re hungry. We’re being fed, but the best saint-candidates won’t be satisfied until we all can say, along with St. Paul, we’ve run the race that really matters.


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It’s Saint Francis’ Feast Day! Any Implications?

the-full-story baloocredit

These are days for recognizing fragility. How vulnerable we are to destructive temptations–and to others’ accusations that we are sinful. We tend to let our recognition of sinfulness drive us apart, but it actually should draw us together. We share a desperate need for mercy but too seldom find it among human beings. We too seldom grant mercy to others because we resist seeing our own flaws mirrored in the heartbreaking news of everyday life among institutions and individuals.

October 4 is the Feast of Saint Francis of Assisi. In establishing an order of laypeople, today called the Secular Franciscan Order, he instructed them to be “brothers and sisters of penance” as they follow a Gospel path toward humility, peacemaking, and a love affair with the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

In the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Bishop Kevin Rhoades has called for October 5 to be a day of prayer and penitence among all Catholics, recognizing that only a shared understanding of everybody’s need for conversion–for what business consultants would call “continuous quality improvement”–will keep us journeying together.

Otherwise, as seen in current news from the worlds of politics and religion, our fears and resentments threaten to create a “search and destroy” world. Who will defend us? The center will not hold unless we place top priority on seeking God’s wisdom and sharing God’s love, with help from both faith and reason, both mercy and justice.

We need to wake up each morning to two headlines: First, remember the Good News (aka the Gospels) that God is our savior and vindicator, bringing good out of our suffering if we follow him and align with his purposes. Second, as veteran editorial cartoonist Rex F. May (known as Baloo) depicted so well in the drawing above, “everybody is implicated” by dint of our all-too-common flaws. I’m thankful to Mr. May (reachable today) for his permission to use this copyrighted drawing from decades ago because it reminds me of St. Francis’ summons to a life of ongoing conversion.

The beloved saint urges that we keep on walking, humbly but uprightly, once our blithe assumption that “seldom is heard a discouraging word” has been revealed as fake news. When we take a hit in the headlines of life, we must turn to the Peace Prayer: Grant that I might not seek so much to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand.

Pope Francis has called for a “journalism of peace” that helps us grasp the full story of our lifetime journeys together. Information media should prompt us to pursue truth, not weaponize it. The Pope wrote about this in his 2018 World Communications Day message, officially presented in May, and I wrote some reflections on that message in my book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? 

Pope Francis had something else to say in 2018 about recognizing our mutual need for better information alongside personal formation. According to the online publication Crux and its editor John L. Allen Jr., the Pontiff had this to say in January at his first General Audience of the year:

“To measure ourselves by the fragility of the clay with which we’re made is an experience that strengthens us. While making us deal with our weakness, it also opens our hearts to invoke the divine mercy that transforms and converts.”

If we read between the lines in the headlines this year, or any year, we’ll be confronted with the “Everybody Implicated” message constantly. That’s a good thing, but let’s face it: these headlines will hurt. Fortunately, we can find an element of humor and hope in Baloo’s cartoon if our values and relationships teach us that the quality of mercy is not strained and healing our woundedness is something we can all work on together.

“Everybody Implicated” could be click-bait for a scorched-earth, apocalyptic drama. May it lead us instead into a full story that is not pathetic, but empathetic. Like any good headline in any good news medium, it can jar us on our way toward deeper truth. At the risk of hyperbolic misinterpretation, three cheers for a gift of succinct prophecy well-suited to St. Francis’ feast day. Baloo foreshadows a “journalism of peace” that puts humility on the front page where it belongs.


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“Farsighted” Decisions and Nearsighted News

You’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Steven Johnson has produced a book that serves as a valuable response to that celebration of spontaneity. Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions that Matter the Most makes more sense to me as someone who has written about our need for conversations in the American “public square,” our use of information to solve problems and reduce polarization, and our responsibilities as producers and consumers of journalism in service to society’s pursuit of wisdom. I plan to ponder Johnson’s book. I Didn’t Read It, But I Did Respect the Author on Book-TV (#DRIBDRAB) when I watched him in mid-September.

Johnson said he sees the irony in the eight-year gestation period this book required after he first started taking notes on the subject. The result is a connection-making resource whose assessment of how we think—and how we should think—incorporates insights from neuroscience, psychology, probability theory, philosophy, and even literature. He suggests every high school student should take a similarly interdisciplinary course covering our thought processes at their best; it’s crucial preparation for what he calls the occasional “full-spectrum decisions” in our lives. We need to know these decisions will take some time and will benefit from a substantial mental toolkit.

This is a secular book. I don’t know whether Johnson would mind this additional suggestion: A Catholic or other faith-based school could expand this course into an exploration of “discernment,” a promotion of one’s spiritual toolkit alongside one’s mental abilities, and a revelation that the sciences, liberal arts, and humanities all belong in our high-stakes syllabus. Students and their families need this reminder today as the tendency in planning one’s college career is to emphasize particular, narrow fields of study rather than the full spectrum of learning that prepares us for those full-spectrum decisions.

Those decisions include such questions as whom one should marry, where one should live, and which job one should take. There are many variables to be considered in each of these judgments whose consequences are profound for oneself and others.

Yet, in many people’s minds, “the science of complex decision-making has been stagnant for 250 years,” Johnson points out. Most people use one form or another of the standard “pros and cons” table of two lists—an approach that is seen explicitly described in writings from more than two centuries ago.

This is where Johnson’s book starts making a world of difference. He notes that decision-making theory actually has become much more advanced in recent decades. Instead of focusing on a “whether or not” choice about one single option, today’s updated scholarship urges us to make “which one?” choices after we have expanded the number of options and made prudent predictions about the directions in which each of them will point.

Importantly, echoing the recommendations in Pope Francis’s message on journalism for the 2018 World Communications Day, this expansion of choices and insights requires welcoming a diversity of inputs from people with different perspectives. It demands a consciousness of future consequences, not merely a snap judgment about what solves the immediate problem immediately. It requires us to think imaginatively and purposefully, perceiving where bad decisions might lead and generating alternatives that can create more freedom and clearly better outcomes. The reading of great novels, Johnson points out, boosts our imagination by helping us see how a variety of characters in different situations handled their life choices in distinctive ways, with a range of results.

We often trap ourselves inside one story, our own self-centered and pre-shaped narrative, he warns, when actually we need to spin many stories that incorporate the possibility of good or bad or even “weird” outcomes. (For a related exploration of maximizing our freedom to choose wisely, sometimes by thinking outside the box, check out the “Ted Radio Hour” program on “Decisions.” That recent NPR show, especially its discussion of “choice architecture,” reveals how careful we should be in managing our decisions and our contexts for making them.)

Saint Francis of Assisi was all about generating alternatives so as to nurture good decisions. He accepted God’s call to “rebuild my church.” At first, he expressed his acceptance in a personal, material-centered, arguably narrow way—namely, by repairing a broken-down church building. But God set him free to view his mission more imaginatively, allowing both constructive sacrifice and contrarian joy, and even a willingness to look “weird” in the eyes of others so as to offer them truly “alternative” information and formation. Embracing the Gospel, with its wealth of stories about good choices and bad choices, and especially about the overriding choice to pursue Christ’s peace and human wholeness, he cultivated “full-spectrum decisions” based on a full-spectrum toolkit.

His litany of remedies is expressed in the much-loved Peace Prayer of St. Francis, which is very Franciscan even though it was not written by the saint. That source of connections between the City of Man and the City of God, with its ability to transcend the instinctive, self-centered “pros and cons” way of thinking, must have influenced Pope Francis in his World Communications Day message on journalism. As I say in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? The Pope’s Words of Hope for Journalism, the Pope concluded his message with a paraphrase of the Peace Prayer focused on news as an aid, not an obstacle, in society’s pursuit of healing and peace.

The flow of news, when it is prudently managed and shared generously, with a love for people and their diverse stories as well as an accountability to past, present, future, and the timeless, with the goal of seeing connections and starting conversations, can be an excellent tool for society’s decision-making. It might even help us realize that more of our decisions are more important to more people than Johnson assumes in his book. Whereas the “Blink” approach is well-suited to the mind frame of breaking news, speed, and excitement, the “Farsighted” approach is the better one for discerning about things that matter—and, more basically, respecting communication because things do matter.




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Echoes of Hope from a Journalistic Legend: Seymour Hersh

hersh   Book TV’s coverage of a June 2018 interview with veteran New York Times journalist Seymour Hersh, discussing his book, Reporter: A Memoir, yields a video that is compelling almost to the point of exhausting.

No action-hero scriptwriter in Hollywood could set a pace as fast as Hersh’s mind, which can hyperlink from idea to idea a few times in the space of one sentence. His memories deliver a human context behind major national headlines. He clearly cares passionately, still today, about the news he’s describing. At one point, interviewer Paul Holdengraber, director of public programs at the New York Public Library, notes that Hersh described himself as an “aggressive learner,” and that fascination with facts definitely comes through. Also, part of the energy and suspense Hersh provides is his refreshing unpredictability, in which he criticizes President Trump sharply but also pulls no punches in critiquing the past behavior of Democrats and non-politicians. #DRIBDRAB *

The other riveting feature of this video comes from occasional quotes Holdengraber occasionally throws into the mix. An excerpt from early in the memoir reminds me of Pope Francis’ May 2018 message about journalism, about which I reflected in my recent book, When Headlines Hurt: Do We Have a Prayer? Hersh is recalling the different journalistic environment in and around the 1970s, when his editors allowed him to invest time and corporate money in digging for interesting, important stories and there was less competition from the endless punditry and round-the-clock news cycles of cable TV.

Today, he comments, “We are sodden with fake news, hyped-up and incomplete information, and false assertions delivered non-stop by our daily newspapers, our televisions, our online news agencies, our social media, and our president. Yes, it’s a mess.”

Hersh is quoted as recalling that people used to trust The New York Times on the basis of hard work and sound judgment that went into stories–even the stories that disturbed them or with which they disagreed. Nowadays, many news consumers trust only the news providers who hold perspectives with which they agree.

At another point in the discussion, Holdengraber quotes from Thomas Pynchon’s novel, Gravity’s Rainbow. “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”

Another quote comes from a 1946 essay by George Orwell: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

A gadfly might say that the “post-truth” era had already begun in Orwell’s eyes.

You can make your own judgments about Hersh based on his reactions to comments like these and the many tales and insights he offers. You’ll find several points of intersection with the insights of Pope Francis from his message for the 2018 World Communications Day, about which I have written. These points include the need for trust and truth, a love of the role of journalism in empowering citizens, and boldness in seeking the truth while not feeling “possession” of the whole truth or contemplating its weaponization against “enemies.”

Reporter: A Memoir. * Didn’t Read It, But Did Respect the Author on Book-TV. #DRIBDRAB.








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Accordion in “Africa”–Truly the World’s Instrument

Here’s something you don’t see–or hear–every day! A great performance of the great Toto song, “Africa,” with an accordionist in the band. And not just any accordionist, but the one and only “Weird Al” Yankovic. Enjoy it, courtesy of the Nerdist site.

And I do think you’ll enjoy it because I’ve become more and more of an advocate for the accordion during my 2017-2018 year of personal growth, career expansion, and so-called “refirement.” My embrace of the accordion–you really do embrace it, you know–has included a return to performing the accordion as a soloist and group member, as well as teaching the accordion with The Music Village around this region, offering an accordion course with South Bend’s Forever Learning Institute, and even writing songs again like I did during my young adulthood on Long Island.

The accordion is such a versatile instrument, beloved in many cultures! I’m inspired by one of my students, who grew up listening to Tejano music and wants to learn the accordion so he can bring that vibrant Hispanic sound to others. I’m learning about that from him! Want to hear some Tejano music? This video by Siggno was recommended to me.

The pattern of American immigrant groups bringing their accordions with them is repeating itself. On Long Island, lots of families with Italian and German heritage made sure their kids learned the accordion. In South Bend, the large Polish heritage population flocked to a wonderful accordion teacher, the recently deceased Gene Van, to make the accordion part of their life in America. Weird Al’s father, Frankie Yankovic, used his polka music to become something of an American celebrity in his day, half a century ago.

That brings me back to my “accordion advocate” role. To sample how the versatile accordion can connect generations, world cultures, and musical styles with a virtuosity and wit that creates absolute hilarity, catch this video of Weird Al and two celebrity friends performing his polka version of the soundtrack from the Broadway musical, “Hamilton.”

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All Politics Is Local? That’s News to Me!

I grew up reading the New York Daily News and other local papers available on Long Island. Perhaps the biggest take-away message from my newspaper habit–and the most influential message, since I wound up becoming a journalist–was that local news is fun.

The clever headlines were fun. The mix of content, from serious to light-hearted, from dense text to compelling pictures to so many other eye-catching elements, was fun. The flow of lively local news–on TV and radio, too–helped to convince me that New York City was a great place, despite all its problems (from which I was isolated). There was energy in the air, some of it foul-smelling but always ripe for communication and conversation.

I came to believe the policies and politics which kept cities vibrant, as well as the civic life of everyday citizens whom I met vicariously, were things I could and should learn more about. The essay I wrote as part of my successful application for graduate study at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs comprised my reflections on a Newsday special report critiquing Long Island’s local governments.

Many aspects of my life were steered by the good news and the bad news I digested in a local context, feeding my imagination and aspirations to empower me for the world. No less a leader than Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill assured me that “all politics is local,” so it made sense.

This came to mind recently when I read about the slashing of jobs at the Daily News, with something like a 50 percent cut in the newsroom staff and an expected re-focusing on “breaking news.” It doesn’t make much sense. From my new vantage point in Indiana, it seems there’s a glut of “breaking news,” and much of it is actually predictable and repetitive, or distasteful and disempowering. Much of it comes from Washington, where the news is often broken–in more ways than one. (Earlier in my career, I loved covering government news in Washington, so you might say today’s brokenness breaks my heart.)

Some breaking news is wonderfully exciting to report and to read, but that occurs more at the local level. This breaking news comes with context, prompting intelligent conversations and challenging us to take intelligent actions as a community.

I expect this kind of breaking news–and local news in general–are going to keep shrinking because cities have fewer local reporters and the national media prefer national stories, commented upon by national celebrities, on shows featuring national advertisers with big budgets. Newspapers like the Daily News will have their distinctive voices further overwhelmed by remotely activated multimedia megaphones that either make information all sound alike or make it sound astoundingly different from one network to the next, leaving audiences and communities unsure what to say or do.

This reminds me of the principle of subsidiarity, a key component of Catholic social teaching, which says higher levels of government ought to let lower levels of government handle the situations that can best be handled locally. This allows for exceptions when larger crises demand the support, or subsidies, that only larger organizations can provide, but it celebrates the empowerment of civic life that more directly engages individuals, families and communities to get them talking and acting together. The local level is where Pope Francis sees much of the missionary work of the Church taking place, where people leave their pews to go out to neighborhood peripheries and accompany their brothers and sisters on complex journeys of joy and sadness, sin and saintliness.

Journalism and news organizations would benefit from applying the principle of subsidiarity more often, with locally owned media covering local events and supporting the processes by which families and community organizations work together to encounter the problems, pleasures and people they can understand best.

As section 1879 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.”

That resonates with me. In a sense, I found my vocation in the newsstands, newspaper racks, and local news shows of New York. There, I sensed society and social cohesion were being celebrated. Even during those years of my youth when society’s cohesiveness was said to be breaking down, the message in the media–at least in a Marshall McLuhan kind of way–honored the goal of social cohesion, the fact that life goes on, the idea that it’s a crazy, needy, newsworthy city in which we all should get along.

At least some of the breaking news suggested that conversation was still possible, thanks to first-hand evidence that a critical mass of folks embraced the goals of truth and trust. Journalists cultivated big ideas with big possibilities when they covered local news–and when we read it. They were having fun, and so was I.

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