Notes for “Saints and Scholars” Presentation

Dear Prof. Albarran and Students:

It was an honor and pleasure to talk with you yesterday as part of Holy Cross College’s annual “Saints and Scholars” program. Here are some notes to amplify the thoughts I shared with you about journalism and the field of communications. I called my presentation “To be Catholic Is to Communicate.” You communicated so well, your questions and aspirations were uplifting to me.

  • Who is Bill Schmitt?

Blog at Onword.net

Podcast at “ThatsSoSecondMillennium.net”

Links to recent multimedia content

CV and Professional Experience Summary

Linked-In Profile

Newsletter at BillSchmitt.Substack.com

  • Three reasons to think and learn about communications skills:
  • Communication in all its forms—spanning news, entertainment, design for all media, technological support, artwork, music, and more—constitutes a huge industry or field, with many valuable uses for your talents and skills.
  • Good communication will be part of any routes you pursue into scholarship, the career world, family life, service to others, and your faith. Some thoughts about communication skills: Grow your effectiveness in writing, speaking, presenting your thoughts and ideas to colleagues and audiences. Be comfortable and civil in dialogue and conversation. Listen well. Be avid and patient with learning, wonder, and the willingness to be surprised.  
  • Communication is an ideal path to something we all crave: the truth, which adds meaning, stability, and hope to our lives. We can’t find truth by ourselves. It’s a two-way street and a team effort.
  • Why care about truth? A secular reason and a spiritual reason:
  • Secular: Truth is a glue that holds people together—and it holds us together by anchoring us in a reality so much larger than ourselves.
  • Truth provides common ground for conversation and cooperation to experience life more fully and pursue worldly life / eternal life more successfully. Truth is our truth, not “my truth” alone. The free marketplace of ideas, where different thoughts and insights are exchanged among unique people with individual dignity, builds our ability to think, to know, and live together constructively. John Stuart Mill was a pioneering thinker about this.
  • Our society is vulnerable to our fascination with artificial reality and alternate realities, potentially found through technology or through harmful behavior with drugs, etc. Replacing personal contact and authentic experiences with tools that may “empower” us runs the risk of separating us from others and from encounters with others.
  • Spiritual: If we are on earth to serve God and bring the love of God to others, truth is a major instrument, even if some reality is not appealing. Our hearts are restless until they rest with God because we are hard-wired to want the most truth, beauty, and goodness, and we’re prompted to look beyond our material/secular/consumerist experience.
  • Why I love journalism:
  • Learn interesting things, meet interesting people, convey interesting stories that help other people, and get paid. Indulge you curiosity.
  • Reality wins. As Shakespeare said, “The truth will out.”
  • US founders realized that a well-informed public and pursuit of the common good were essential to America’s liberties and flourishing.

Why I love Catholic communications:

t’s a big enterprise within the universal Church, employing many people of diverse talents and backgrounds, communicating truth in the full spectrum of multimedia ways, including attention to artwork, music, and the value of beauty. Opportunities for satisfying, creative work.

The Church’s mission of evangelization, to spread the Good News, is especially crucial today, and it must use all the means available. The desire to reach audiences is not profit-driven, but more prophet-driven.

With the cycle of generations, there are many baby-boomer workers gradually retiring, and they need to be replaced. Young Catholics who believe in the Church’s work and have a grounding in the knowledge and practice of their faith can find the opportunities for continued learning and service very rewarding while they get to apply a wide range of skills and technologies. Moreover, you can bring new energy and perspectives to the work for the betterment of the Church as human institution—and for the love of the Church as divine institution.

  • Podcasts and online resources:

Grotto Network, from Notre Dame

Aleteia

Beliefnet

Churchpop

Word on Fire Network: Bishop Robert Barron

Magis Center

Credible Catholic: Answers to Questions about Faith

Spokestreet: Podcasts that Invite

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Research Report Prompted Bishops to Start National Campaign

(Story by Bill Schmitt published in The Tablet of the Diocese of Brooklyn, June 25, 2022)

The backstory of the National Eucharistic Revival planned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) includes surprising statistics from a Pew Research Center study revealing beliefs on a subject at the heart of the Church’s mission.

Pew, a nationally recognized, secular, nonpartisan organization that says its objective research is dedicated to “holding a mirror to society,” conducted a 2019 online survey of religious views held by Americans citing membership in various faiths.

Among its findings:

“Just one-third of U.S. Catholics (31%) say they believe that ‘during Catholic Mass, the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus.’ ” Instead, 69% of self-described Catholics believe “the bread and wine used in Communion ‘are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ.’ ”

This conflicts with the Catholic teaching known by many as transubstantiation — the doctrine that the body and blood of Jesus Christ are “truly, really, and substantially” present in the Eucharist. Christ becomes present by the transformation of the whole substance of the bread into His body and whole substance of the wine into His blood.

Among all the Pew respondents, regardless of their faith, 34% were correct in saying Catholicism teaches that the bread and wine “actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ.” Meanwhile, 55% called the sacramental teaching symbolic, and 11% had no answer.

The Pew survey dug deeper among Catholic respondents regarding the teaching of Christ’s real presence. Researchers found that most Catholics who believe in transubstantiation know this is Church teaching. Most Catholics who believe the sacrament is symbolic do not know about the teaching.

Only 50% of Catholics answered this question correctly:

Which of the following best de- scribes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for Communion? (Actually becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ / Not sure/ No answer.)

“Overall, 43% of Catholics believe that the bread and wine are symbolic and also that this reflects the position of the Church,” Pew reported on its website.

Probing further, the researchers said, “About six-in-ten (63%) of the most observant Catholics — those who attend Mass at least once a week — accept the Church’s teaching about transubstantiation. Still, even among this most observant group of Catholics, “roughly one-third (37%) don’t believe the Communion bread and wine actually become Christ’s body and blood.”

Among Catholics who do not at- tend Mass weekly, “large majorities” say the sacrament is symbolic only. And 22% of all Catholics reject the idea of transubstantiation even though they know it is Church teaching.

Belief in the real presence “is most common among older Catholics,” although those reducing it to symbolism constitute majorities in every age group, according to Pew. Among those age 60 and over, 61% say the bread and wine are only symbols.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in paragraphs 1374 and 1375, describes the real presence this way:

“The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique. It raises the Eucharist above all the sacraments as ‘the perfection of the spiritual life and the end to which all the sacraments tend.’ In the most blessed sacrament of the Eucharist, ‘the body and blood, together with the soul and divinity, of our Lord Jesus Christ and, therefore, the whole Christ, is truly, really and substantially contained.’

“… It is by the conversion of the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood that Christ becomes present in this sacrament.”

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

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11 Takeaways from World Communications Day: Remember to “Listen Up” for Weekend Wisdom

In his 2022 message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis has urged that we renew our ability to listen–to God, to ourselves, to others, and to information from many sources. The Vatican released that message in January, but the Catholic Church’s actual day for its annual reflection on values to enrich the means and media of social communication is the Sunday before Pentecost. That arrives this Sunday, May 29.

It is timely, therefore, to use Memorial Day weekend as a time to put the Pope’s message into action. Our activities, possibly bringing us together with family and friends with whom we have not gathered during the Covid pandemic, returning us to the public square to honor the nation’s soldiers and citizens, can help renew our spirits and relationships if we plan to be better listeners. We can be attentive to people whose lives may have taken a negative turn in various ways; they need to be heard. We can participate in discussions about politics and society–to the degree certain topics are deemed appropriate holiday fare–where others’ voices matter and we can welcome different insights.

To tackle this beneficial project, it’s time to recall key points Pope Francis made when this year’s World Communications Day message was posted online on January 24. His thoughts are indeed worth listening to in preparation for this weekend–and for our mission of more fruitful communication all year round, on both the secular and spiritual planes. Here are some takeaways we can memorialize:

  1. He started with bad news. “In fact, we are losing the ability to listen to those in front of us, both in the normal course of everyday relationships and when debating the most important issues of civil life.” He added a galvanizing point to keep us motivated. “At the same time, listening is undergoing an important new development in the field of communication and information through the various podcasts and audio messages available that serve to confirm that listening is still essential in human communication.”
  2. The greatest need of human beings is to be heard. This is an important guide for parents and teachers, educators and parish ministers, educators and communicators of all types. Our sense of hearing is crucial for God’s interaction with us. “Faith comes through listening.” (Rom 10:17) Listening is a humble act and a freeing act. God sets the model because he “inclines his ear” to us.
  3. Sadly, humans have a tendency to close our ears. We even become aggressive in doing so, the Pope says. [This is the polarization we see continuing to grow in America, manifested in a “cancel culture” where we censor others and even ourselves, missing opportunities to seek truth in partnership with others who have experiences and viewpoints to be shared.]
  4. We are foolish if we try to censor God’s voice, too. He is always eager to reveal himself to us as an act of love. We must be ready to “listen well,” to receive his Word with an “honest and good” heart so that it bears fruit in life and salvation. (Luke 8:15) [Our secular society too often shuts out God from our public—and our interior—conversations. We consider ourselves the masters of our own truths, creators of our own realities. God, as the way, the truth, and the life, is our bridge to reality and to each other; if we make ourselves into gods and set ourselves in opposition to others who are “evil” because they disagree with us, we separate ourselves; the ideas of community and the ecology of God’s creation both break down.]
  5. Listening is a profound thing because “there is an interior deafness worse than the physical one,” says Francis. We must bring our whole personhood into the communication process; it is not just about talking points or manipulation of opinion. We are called to share all of the qualities and dignity that come from our being unique children of God. “And we can only start by listening to what makes us unique in creation: the desire to be in relationship with others and with the other. We are not made to live like atoms, but together.”
  6. This communication must start with listening to oneself—“to one’s truest needs, those inscribed in each person’s inmost being.” [We tend to mask every uncomfortable thing that arises in our own lives, perhaps using drugs, or disconnecting from relationships of responsibility and contribution, or retreating into artificial reality, or simply painting a false Facebook picture of an idealized life. I would say we also need to listen to our consciences and act accordingly, but only after we have done the diligent listening and learning which inform our consciences with virtue and wisdom. Ultimately, listening only to oneself is self-destructive because true information and formation come from God’s grace, inseparable from our relationship with Jesus and the wisdom of the Church, and the experiences of other people through whom that grace is working. We must acknowledge our flaws. That opens our hearts to forgiveness and makes us able to forgive others.]
  7. Listening goes awry when it slips into “eavesdropping and spying” or “exploiting others for our own interests.” Pope Francis says these have worsened in the age of social media. We should listen to learn, to take in truth, to encounter God in others through genuine two-way communication. He suggests the best communication is face-to-face. [So often, we say what others seem to want to hear; this decreases freedom and dignity on both sides of the equation. We manipulate and pander to others. We manipulate words and situations. Our actions and institutions become less authentic, less trustworthy. Information becomes propaganda. Meanwhile, information is also weaponized; many cases of “gotcha” communication uncover and narrowly judge something someone said in a different context or at a different time.]
  8. If we listen only to “talking points” that confirm our own biases or promise to bring us power and personal gain, “we often talk past one another” and fail to communicate the richness of our lives as individuals or the potential of our growth in community. [I think of the recent school-shooting situations, where our hearts yearned for a time of quiet, empathic sorrow over the human toll, but some politicians seized an opportunity to further their self-serving argumentation. The argumentation adopts an oversimplification of, even an ignorance about, the many complicated factors that make life’s tragedies and dramas worthy of deeper reflection. We tend to forget what really matters and to move on to the next item on the agendas of institutions and media. All the world’s a stage, and we are performing as narcissistic individuals, writing other persons out of the script. Much of our social interaction becomes theatrical in nature, geared to empower us, and we shape an “attention economy” where we seek to please our audience, capturing their minds and hearts so they are distracted from other information.]
  9. Pope Francis adds that “there is no good journalism without the ability to listen. In order to provide solid, balanced, and complete information, it is necessary to listen for a long time.” Journalists—and all people—must be willing to take in information that surprises them, challenges them, deepens their understanding of the whole story. “Only amazement enables knowledge.” Francis quotes a diplomat who spoke of “the martyrdom of patience” because becoming truly informed requires patience with others, including difficult people. [The Catholic Church fosters a spirit of wonder—and a “Catholic imagination”—that connects empirical experiences to profound mysteries, adding extra layers of insight that will stick with us and increase our wisdom. Our culture suffers from a severe case of attention deficit, snap judgments, and oversimplification. We fail to listen and learn about a number of interconnected subjects over a long period of time; we pragmatically deal with problems in the present moment, or not at all, without incorporating insights of the past and future. Pope Francis highlights today’s immigration challenges, reminding us that we need to look at population flows as more than statistics, and at migrants as individuals whose diverse stories must be taken into account.]
  10. Pope Francis addresses the Covid crisis and its communications aftermath: “The ability to listen to society is more valuable than ever in this time wounded by the long pandemic,” he writes. “So much previously accumulated mistrust towards ‘official information’ has also caused an ‘infodemic,’ within which the world of information is increasingly struggling to be credible and transparent. We need to lend an ear and listen profoundly, especially to the social unease heightened by the downturn or cessation of many economic activities.”
  11. The Pope also speaks of communication in the Church, where “there is a great need to listen to and to hear one another …. Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by him who is himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the word of God.” This “apostolate of the ear” is a segue into discussion of the current Synod on Synodality, which focuses on listening to everyone for the sake of a more authentic Church community globally and locally. “As in a choir, unity does not require uniformity, monotony, but the plurality and variety of voices, polyphony. At the same time, each voice in the choir sings while listening to the other voices and in relation to the harmony of the whole.”
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A Tearful City Regroups with Eyes on Faith

WAUKESHA VALUES CHURCH IN RECOVERY FROM PARADE TRAGEDY SIX MONTHS AGO

(Story by Bill Schmitt published in The Tablet in the Diocese of Brooklyn, May 21, 2022)

Two women visit a memorial to those who were killed during the Christmas parade tragedy in Waukesha, Wis. on Nov. 21, 2021. (Photo: CNS/Cheney Orr, Reuters)

WAUKESHA, Wis. — Viewers of a Wisconsin TV news report on Easter Sunday evening saw Catholics testify to the power of faith and community — not only as Mass attendees but as people recovering from the parade tragedy that struck the city of Waukesha six months ago.

Father Patrick Heppe, whose affiliation of four parishes is called the Catholic Community of Waukesha, told a reporter visiting St. Mary Church that the morning’s liturgy was “a celebration of hope.”

He and the congregation were looking beyond the suffering that began when an SUV crashed into the city’s Christmas Parade on Nov. 21, 2021, leaving six dead and about 70 wounded.

Darrell Brooks, the suspect who drove the SUV that day, awaits an 83-count criminal trial scheduled to begin this October. He has pleaded not guilty and is seeking to have the venue moved from Waukesha County.

But neither the Milwaukee-based Fox reporter nor Father Heppe referred to the judicial process in the recent broadcast. Instead, their focus was on the process of healing.

“We had numerous members of the parish that were injured,” said Father Heppe, who suffered a concussion himself. He described a wave of “people helping people,” including businesses and families. Groups have shared their grief, joined together frequently in prayer, and worked toward forgiveness.

After conversations with countless people in the past six months, Father Heppe pointed out, “Each one, without exception, has said, ‘If it wasn’t for my faith, I wouldn’t be able to get through it.’”

Two experienced observers, who made presentations at a symposium this March titled “Waukesha, Built on Faith,” pointed to a long history of hospitality and solidarity in this locale not far from Milwaukee.

Waukesha, a city of about 70,000 people, has shown “a tremendous responsiveness to changing demography” through schools and other institutions, according to Father Steven Avella, a Marquette University historian who has chronicled the Catholic Church’s impact in the Midwest.

Despite ups and downs in attendance, Catholics and those of other faiths have preserved a skyline of beautiful churches built during immigration waves of previous centuries, Father Avella told The Tablet. They have been strengthened by an influx of Hispanics from various countries in the 20th century.

He sees a continuation of “the tradition in Waukesha of meeting people where they are and assisting those in need” with secular and religious resources.

Priests and others in the Catholic Community of Waukesha have shown a great capacity to listen to people’s grief and anger without the conversations getting bogged down in political divisiveness—a big challenge in pastoral ministry today, he said.

The Church has contributed strength through its worship: “People out here in Wisconsin are cultural Catholics. This is where their families were, and this is what they do.”

“Religion helps you make sense of your life,” Father Avella said. He credited “the dimensions of Catholic worship” that provide comfort —“vestments and lights and flowers and bells … all the things that appeal to so many different senses.”

Bonnie Byrd, executive director of the Waukesha County Historical Society, said she has respected, from a non-Catholic perspective, many religious denominations that came to town along with waves of immigrants over the decades—Germans, Italians, Hispanics, and more.

“We are a city that is full of spires,” Byrd told The Tablet, referring to churches and synagogues where distinct groups gathered but then proceeded to reach out beyond their tall buildings.

The “Built on Faith” symposium where she spoke was part of plans developed by a vibrant civil society of non-profit organizations, churches, and others for multiple celebrations of local history, she recalled.

The city, incorporated in 1896, was marking its 125th anniversary when last year’s heartbreak came.

The 58th annual parade was also continuing a beloved tradition of outreach beyond Waukesha, inviting schools and teams to march alongside locals, Byrd said.

“The character of our city was demonstrated in tremendously beautiful and moving ways in the aftermath of the tragedy,”  Byrd added. She called it “a shared experience” that has prompted ongoing acts of kindness, gifts from donors, and local grants for new projects “as we all continue to grieve and process and look forward to who we are and what’s next.”

Asked about his city at the six-month point, Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly said, “We’re still working through a lot.” But “a lot of good things … are happening.”

A group called “Waukesha Strong” has sponsored a day of healing. A collection has yielded almost $5,000 to start work on a permanent memorial.

The busy agenda includes collaborations for upcoming Memorial Day and Fourth of July parades.

“Therapists are working with people to create stars of hope” that participants can hold up, Reilly told The Tablet.

And yet, another reminder of the strength of faith in the Waukesha community: The city is gearing up for its 59th Christmas Parade, scheduled this November.

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

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A Day to Learn the Threat of Can’techesis

Many people are observing May 3 as National Teacher Appreciation Day. Lord, I want to be in that number! Even though this is a commemoration on the secular calendar, not a faith-based celebration, we all would agree that countless educators, at all grade levels, deserve to be saluted as heroes.

They elevate our minds and hearts, wills and emotions, helping us to grow in the phronesis—a practical, virtuous wisdom for action—which can help us serve God and society well.

A more contentious concept of this day arises from our society’s appreciation for teaching, rather than appreciation for particular teachers. It’s a day to ask whether Americans, in every line of work, sufficiently honor the highest principle of educating–passing along to younger generations the most essential knowledge, understanding, and values-rich behaviors with which older generations have been gifted.

To bestow such honor, we need firm structures and enthusiastic approaches within which we can consistently provide formation and information that anchors us.

Such structures do not indoctrinate people or close minds if they are based on an honest search for truth. Organized, prioritized, and dynamic structures allow and encourage debate because the exploration of reality can go on collaboratively, with respectful trust and patient prudence. Conversations where people come equipped to explain their views, analyze the merits of other views, and make democratic virtues more sustainable respect our need—and expand our desire—to keep teaching and keep learning in orderly, constructive ways.

Therefore, the word that sums up this day for appreciating education is catechesis. Dear teachers, hey everyone, does our society mostly catechize ormostly can’techize?

The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines “catechize” in these two ways:

  • To instruct systematically, especially by questions, answers, and explanations and corrections—specifically, to give religious instruction in such a manner
  • To question systematically or searchingly

Increasingly, I fear we are not a catechized culture.

This meta-problem in modern-day education of all sorts has been recognized most clearly in the Catholic Church, which is an enduring and universal structure for catechizing, and literally appreciating good catechesis, about our creaturehood in a world hungry for meaning.

Many Catholics bemoan their observation that young people have not been richly or rightly catechized, perhaps over decades now. We in the Church have not always taught the essentials of the faith to future generations in ways that cultivate fertile fields for growth in the family of God. Sometimes, the essentials have not been clearly identified or prioritized, leaving a weak structure upon which to build lives attuned to our kinship in human nature and the divine order.

This lens helps to highlight the Church as a microcosm of the challenge and urgency of catechesis. And it reveals that the family is another crucial setting because it centers our experience of love, our learning about what’s important, within everyday experience.

Because households have been weakened as anchors in America and in much of the world, we need to boost our appreciation of teaching in two fundamental institutions—the Church and the family. In many cases, of course, the process of catechesis is conducted well, allowing people to develop instincts of phronesis in their individual lives and to share that gift with others for the betterment of society and the achievement of our highest goals. But what I call can’techesis, the inability of people to nurture this growth, has spread broadly nevertheless.

Most institutions have not catechized well. Civics courses and explorations of the structure and spirit of our culture sometimes fall short of energizing the robust citizenship America’s founders said our democracy requires.

Another example: The medical profession seems unclear the value of its traditional Hippocratic Oath as a core statement of ethics to be maintained. Is it overridden by marketplace demands, technological abilities, and self-centered drives for power?

As of today, May 3, many professionals in government, the law, politics, and other fields are reeling from the thought that someone in the highly revered institution of the US Supreme Court might have subverted the pledge to keep confidential the development of a Court opinion. A leaked document reported to be a draft of the majority decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has sparked fears of an unprecedented violation of judicial propriety—injecting suspicion into a structure of trust deemed vital for full, free, and fair deliberation.

Most of us would say our best teachers have been those who challenged us, who took valuable truths and top-priority insights they had garnered and joyfully handed them down to us in rigorous, thought-provoking, well-ordered ways. They allowed us to say yes to things that made our life better while also empowering us to ask follow-up questions, just as Mary did when she received an ultimate, uncomfortable truth in the Annunciation.

Our appreciation of teachers must go hand-in-hand with a deepened appreciation of everyone’s role in teaching and learning the most enlightening, sometimes almost unbelievable, realities that reflect the dignity of our lives. We need to ask, as members of families, parishes, communities, and institutions, how we can get better at systematically instructing, questioning, answering, correcting, and searching so as to revitalize the goals and methods of catechesis in education.

[Image is from Clip Safari collection of Creative Commons designs.]

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Lenten Consecration that Speaks to Mary–and Us

This post was published in the blog of Fr. Robert Spitzer’s Magis Center on April 8.

Bill discussed the post with co-host Matt Swaim on the Son Rise Morning Show on EWTN radio on April 5; hear the interview by linking to the archived program for 2022.04.05 and advancing to the 1 hr – 5 min point in the program.

Annual observances of Lent seem to have become more profound than ever. That might be an observation caused by my getting older as a member of the Baby Boom generation. But it did not escape my attention when Ash Wednesday in 2020 seemed to usher in the global trauma of Covid or when this year’s time of penitence began as we experienced how tragic and confounding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be.

And now I sense an extra level of intensity, as if the insights of Lent are coming not only in gentle zephyrs to individual souls, but via a megaphone to hordes, even to the human community at large.

Is God using these traditional 40 days of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving–comprising a “teachable moment” that draws us closer to Him amid human weakness and reliance on His love–to remind us of inconvenient truths? Does God use such moments? I figure He is always calling to us, and full communication simply relies on our participation and readiness to observe the signs of the times, to “harden not our hearts.” The decibel level of His recent calls, which have literally gone “viral” and have smashed through our digital screens with scenes of war, ought to inspire our responsiveness.

So far, the invasion of Ukraine has helped to kick our practice of almsgiving into high gear, via charitable donations. And the practice of fasting has taken on greater relevance as the world considers inflation, fuel use, supply disruptions, and food shortages. What about the third practice of Lenten discipline?

World as Community, World as Confessional.

On March 25, the Feast of the Annunciation, Pope Francis led us in prayer at a deep level–a ritual of recollection and confession, along with an appeal for grace and remorse for decades of social and personal sin. As Catholics say at Mass, “I confess” that I have increased our world’s burden of guilt by “what I have done and what I have failed to do.”

Like that liturgical “Confiteor,” this acknowledgement of evil emanated from individual hearts and kindred groups. These groups constituted the whole Body of Christ but also included amalgams such as nationalities or age cohorts. Baby Boomers, for example, knew what they were acknowledging.

The Pope’s appeal for grace took the form of consecrating all nations–and “especially Russia and Ukraine”–to Jesus through Mary. The pontiff made this a global and local act, accompanied by bishops around the world.

All of this struck me as a source of great hope and fraternal solidarity amid the terror of war and the tragedy of social polarization. The Pope’s call to prayer temporarily toppled walls which prevent so many people from transcending their individual self-sufficiency, tribes of self-imposed identity, and hatred and fear grounded in politics, pride, and power games. Catholics came together in their weakness and need. Nowadays, remorse and humility may be the only paths where throngs find a unified voice.

Focusing on the world’s outreach to God, I was struck by one other remarkable circumstance of connection and recollection. Alongside this glimpse of solidarity transcending borderlines and demographics, I marveled at a whole generation–loosely speaking, “older folks” who belong to a few generations–coming together to make a universal act of confession.

Examination of Conscience and Consciousness.

Pope Francis is 85. So many world leaders–I’m especially aware of those in the United States–can be called members of what Americans know as the “Silent Generation” (born between 1925 and 1945) or the Baby Boomers, born after World War II. As a Boomer, I thought broadly of people in these age groups when I heard Francis’ introduction to the consecration prayer:

We have forgotten the lesson learned from the tragedies of the last century, the sacrifice of the millions who fell in two world wars. We have disregarded the commitments we made as a community of nations. We have betrayed people’s dreams of peace and the hopes of the young. We grew sick with greed, we thought only of our own nations and their interests, we grew indifferent and caught up in our selfish needs and concerns. We chose to ignore God, to be satisfied with our illusions, to grow arrogant and aggressive, to suppress innocent lives and to stockpile weapons. We stopped being our neighbor’s keepers and stewards of our common home. We have ravaged the garden of the earth with war, and by our sins we have broken the heart of our heavenly Father, who desires us to be brothers and sisters.

The Pope’s words constituted for all humanity–and especially for those who have shared his 20th century experiences–an examination of conscience which is not only humbling, but humiliating. As sleepwalking societies, we have been waking up jarred by enormous sorrow.

It is a burden that cannot be relieved on the human plane, where confession and forgiveness do not come easily. This burden helps to explain the cognitive dissonance in society today. In a world where God is overshadowed by a crazy-quilt mix of relativism and moralism, finger-pointing and narcissism, shallow, simplified thinking and intricate, negative emotion, we see that we have slipped down the slope that older generations could have aniticipated as leaders and followers.

Therefore, I think of Pope Francis’ consecration of Russia and Ukraine as a present-day annunciation of sorts. Surely I’m not the only person for whom this Lenten event, so profound for the Church and the world, was a soul-piercing announcement of responsibility borne by a negligent world, and likewise by me as an individual and as one in a generation that drifted from its North Star–and its Star of the Sea.

This penitential season is something to take personally as well as panoramically. The original annunciation to Mary was all about reconciliation based on one woman’s courage to say yes. Pope Francis made this present-day annunciation partly about members of 20th-century “me generations” who too often said no, or simply didn’t respond, to offers of grace.

We still can pray for echoes of the original Annunciation outcome, which was a miraculous birth reconciling God and mankind. The Pope last week spoke to us as well as to Mary: Please say yes for new generations, for all generations, who can learn from the past and the present while building a future that is attentive to–even consecrated to–transcendent truths.

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The 2020s: For Your Penance, Stay Reflective

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One of Lent’s greatest gifts is a soul that’s been cleansed in a good confession. Another great gift, but a heavier lift, is the examination of conscience which prepares that soul for Reconciliation.

For at least two years, many of us have sensed the Lord calling Christians to a fresh perspective and a clean start on a global scale. We have had to acknowledge that the world is a mess. A pandemic, riots in many locales, chaos in governments and media, and war in Europe–along with anxiety over finances, economies, the global environment, and our human ecology–have enervated and implicated lots of folks.

We can welcome this Lent as a time of spiritual reckoning, a chance to realize our continuing need to watch and pray, a launching pad for heightened circumspection backward and forward along life’s accelerating timeline of crucial change. May the informal examination of conscience which follows–a modest proposal for scanning our sinfulness in the 2020s so far–help us gear up for perpetual reflection and perpetual renewal concerning big-picture realities. If we ask God to bless this mess, I can imagine Our Father reminding us He’ll check regularly to see if we’re cleaning our rooms.

Another metaphor: Before we enter the confessional, I can imagine being asked for two checklists.

First, an updated progress report downloaded from our consciences. Am I softening my hardened heart? Am I still holding on to systemic pride, claiming Christian privilege from an abundantly merciful God? I might be called out for going through the motions and flat-lining in my trajectory of spiritual growth.

Second, an action plan listing steps I can take in the upcoming months to improve my performance and demonstrate my focus, to contribute values and virtues to the Church’s treasury (and remedies to the secular world’s mounting deficits of Godliness). Imagine there’s a new human-resources director in town; making the metrics is getting harder. Every full-time disciple must bear his or her load.

With those notions in mind, here are first steps toward progress-report questions for a sin-scan examen. Remember the Good News: This is primarily a self-diagnostic exercise, and rich mercies will still be applied during the sacrament. We are encouraged to be creative within the necessary strictures. And, as with many tests, it helps if we show our work.

  • Have I been open to all “takeaway lessons” I can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic, from the war in Ukraine, from the best and worst of people’s behavior? If I’m observing good and evil in worldly and spiritual conflicts, how are these insights fine-tuning my approaches to God , to other people, and to myself? (Here, think … heroism, self-sacrifice, and signs of servant-leadership on one side? cowardice and confusion, untruths and betrayed trust, and horrific disregard for human life on the other?)
  • To the degree policies or other conditions during the pandemic changed my life’s schedule in the past two years, have I made good use of additional empty hours that became available? Have I tended to waste my extra time or resources, perhaps indulging myself in unhelpful distractions, or worse, in actions that harmed myself or others? (Here, think … binging on entertainment or self-absorbed habits during lockdowns?)
  • Have I formed habits of fear, suspicion, or disengagement that prevent me from full participation in family life, friendships, and important communities? Are there relationships or lines of communication that I need to re-energize? (Here, think … my vital connections to the sacramental life and a worshiping community in the Church?)
  • Have I been inclined to assume a role that belongs only to God–such as judging a person’s soul or essential nature rather than the person’s action? Have I initiated or supported dismissive or divisive stances toward people in my life, with “holier than thou” instincts leading to punishment or polarization? (Here, think … “canceling” people, deep resentment toward those who differ with my truth claims, snap judgments based on a single error when a person could apologize, “God’s not finished with me yet”?)
  • Do I allow my appetite for news to point me toward media, influencers, and subjective forces whose offerings are primarily driven by ratings, greed, power, and pride? Do I maintain a healthy skepticism, alongside a lively curiosity, encouraging me to pursue full understanding and genuine wisdom rather than merely titillating headlines? Am I digging for bigger, broader stories that include compassionate outreach to marginalized people and unheard voices? (Here, think … high standards for mainline media and social media, seeking multiple viewpoints? learning infused with wonder and appreciation? “confirmation bias” that closes minds and hardens hearts?)
  • Have I dismissed the power of prayer, the need for grace, and the virtues of faith, hope, and charity as the principal lenses through which to view challenges in my life (and the lives of others)? Do I lean toward a “take control,” “just do it” decision-making style that favors efficiency, shallow thought, and blame-shifting? Am I the plane’s pilot, relegating God to passenger or co-pilot status? (Here, think … authoritarian inclinations? or a preference for a God who “writes straight with crooked lines”?)
  • Have I paid special attention to needs for healing, guidance, and encouragement which may have grown among my friends–and especially within my own family? Am I mindful of the painful experiences and emotions of my spouse and children during chaotic times? (Here, think … the deepest relationships warrant consideration of long-term implications, wanting the whole good for a person, including their future in heaven? are the easy, short-term solutions more compassionate or less?)
  • Have I found myself asking “what is truth?” Am I letting society’s manipulative messages, immersion in lies and fakery, short attention spans, and artificial realities weaken my own honesty and my commitment to truth? Am I forgetting the maxim, “Reality wins”? (Here, think … lies destroying people, relationships, and bonds of social trust? am I tempted to adopt the relativism of secular society, not realizing that, without recourse to God’s ultimate truth, there is no basis for truly inclusive problem-solving?)
  • Is today’s oversexualization of human identity leading me to give my sexual consciousness and instincts broader leeway for expression? Do I recognize males and females possessing particular genius from God, invaluable as an integral–but not overriding–part of one’s complex, unique human dignity? Have I supported sexuality as a buttress for the meaning of the family? (Here, think … does one modify definitions of families or communities in ways that can erode their key strengths? do we want the best for each person regardless of their sexual orientation?)
  • Am I properly grappling with fundamental concerns like the plights of hunger and poverty around the world and in my own town? Am I sensitive to the unjust gaps in income, education, and empowerment which negate everyone’s equality in God’s eyes? Do I see this problem’s connection to violations of the right to life from womb to tomb? (Here, think … can one raise awareness by citing how these gaps have shown themselves in the pandemic, in war and violence, in short-sighted solutions?)
  • Despite a moral dissatisfaction with the status quo, do I live a life of forgiveness and humility? Am I standing against bitterness, anger, demonization, and a violent spirit, or am I leaning toward these tendencies? (Here, think … does assuaging social guilt through a display of righteousness indicate laziness or hypocrisy? does the removal of God from one’s moral system still leave room for forgiveness? can the Church be an instrument for protecting democratic freedoms with classical liberal thought?)

Pope Francis recently addressed an urgent need of the world by coupling his Marian consecration of Russia and Ukraine to introductory statements–ultimately, an examination of conscience to rend and galvanize humanity’s heart.

It seemed right and just for us to pause for this cross-examination before seeking the Lord’s healing mercy and acting upon the loving wake-up calls Our Lady has sent to us. Her promises and prophecies during apparitions are often quite specific, and she asks that we consider and act upon particular things.

Thus, we can smile about the notions of sin-scans and action plans as discussed at the start of this blog post, but there is something valuable about specificity, focus, and rigor that keep our spiritual lives relevant. We are not called to be the Pharisees who obsessed about every detail of multitudinous laws. But our Church is an enduring champion for right ways to do things–and generations of kids from Catholic schools have grown up with an advantage in professions where clear, community-minded assessments and effective, responsible performance are essential.

This decade seems to be starting out in an especially messy way, and the Church can help straighten things out. There is clearly much she can do to wield her virtuous influence, but, as the imaginary human resources manager mentioned earlier in this post knew, everyone must bear their load so we can avoid slippery slopes in our own life and in our shared mission.

We should continue to ask the Lord to bless our mess. But, as Pope Francis showed when he preceded his Marian consecration with a poignant global statement of contrition, we must accept consistent responsibility for the messes we help to make as individuals and in groups. We should be sure, with Our Lord’s and Our Lady’s help, to avoid messing up the blessings that are the reason for our hope as individual Christians and as local and global communities entrusted as our brothers’ keepers.

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Ukraine and “Just War Theory”

THE IMPORTANCE OF JUST WAR THEORY

published by The Tablet on March 5, 2022

By William Schmitt

PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 prompted many commentators to focus on critiquing strategies and predicting side-effects like higher U.S. gas prices. Catholics were among the global voices providing broader viewpoints — such as Christ’s call for peacemaking, compassion, and justice — to help understand the evolving crisis.

Pope Francis, facing requests to intervene as a moral authority and having rebuked the “diabolical senselessness of violence,” declared Ash Wednesday, March 2, to be an international day of prayer and fasting for peace in the turbulent region.

UKRAINIAN ARMED FORCES
Service members of the Ukrainian armed forces drive military vehicles past destroyed buildings on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels in Shyrokyne April 21, 2021. (Photo: CNS /Oleksandr Klymenko, Reuters)

As Lent approached, prospects for conventional diplomatic solutions seemed to fade, although influencers discussed ideas like establishing an official “neutral” stance for Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden and other leaders from NATO and the United Nations together condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for his assaults on democracy and international law, already leading to speculation about a quick victory.

A tough new level of sanctions was imposed on Russia, and both sides spoke of potential reprisals. Meanwhile, Ukrainians endured the physical suffering of multi-pronged attacks.

According to news reports last week, innocent civilians took up guns to resist Russian troops, or sought refugee status beyond their borders, or took shelter in their hometowns.

Leaders’ descriptions of their policies made reference to components of the “just-war theory,” a long-standing product of Catholic philosophy that has helped shape geopolitics.

The theory’s application of virtuous principles sharply limits the conditions under which countries may resort to the battlefield.

For example, the U.S. has spoken of avoiding direct military clashes with Russian troops, reflecting a desire to prevent escalation into a “world war” between nuclear powers. NATO’s financial sanctions were targeted toward the business sector, not toward effects on innocent civilian lives.

For his part, Putin on Feb. 24 called the invasion a “special military operation” and defined his dubious idea of a just cause: He aimed “to protect people” who have been “subjected to genocide by the Kyiv regime,” to strive for “de-Nazification of Ukraine,” and to “bring to justice those who committed multiple bloody crimes against citizens, including Russian citizens,” according to an English translation.

Much planning of next moves now can be guided appropriately by the just-war theory’s checklist for prudent policy, which has influenced papal pronouncements as well as international law.

The latter includes the Geneva Conventions — a group of treaties also called the Humanitarian Law of Armed Conflicts.

Although just-war thinking took shape with input from such role models as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, the discernment tool is often unknown, or deemed irrelevant, or downplayed as incomplete for today’s circumstances.

Likewise, its implications can be misunderstood or distorted, especially in an age of intense propaganda, manipulation of words, “psychological operations,” and advanced war technology.

John Davenport, a philosophy professor at Fordham University, told The Tablet last week the just-war theory has an important role to play in addressing Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The theory needs to be more widely known, Davenport said, and “it should be taught as part of understanding global affairs” — equipping leaders to go beyond “realpolitik,” an old term for policies based on pragmatic, not morally-based, factors.

He said the Church-based principles “point toward a rules-based order” in the world — criminalizing nationalist aggression and empowering democracies through a focus on political and human rights.

But the just-war theory is no panacea for peacemaking, he acknowledged. The pursuit of international justice and freedom must be continuous, with risks of rights violations being called out and addressed forcefully by the vast bulk of democracies on every continent.

“There needs to be a new institution,” according to Davenport. NATO is too small, and the United Nations has many non-democratic influencers, so those vehicles cannot provide the necessary stewardship for peace.

Also, while an array of confident democracies will typically discourage aggression over time, the stewards must be willing to take strong action when tyrants do emerge.

Father Joseph Nangle, a Franciscan who speaks widely for the international group Pax Christi (“Peace of Christ”), said advocates for today’s nonviolence movement reflect their philosophy with a grammatical reminder: Do not break up the word with a hyphen because it is an integrated, positive approach — indeed, “an active verb.”

Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, in his “Word on Fire” video supporting the just-war theory, acknowledges that there has been “a great tradition of nonviolence within Christianity.”

It started with Christ’s blessing for peacemakers in the Beatitudes and his guidance to “turn the other cheek,” and it proceeds through the social justice movement and the peace movement of the 20th century.

Today, organizations like Pax Christi, extending from their Catholic roots to work on expanded missions of justice, community, and the environment, have local chapters for study, prayer, and discussion, including in the Brooklyn Diocese.

On the day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Pax Christi USA issued a statement saying it “urges the international community to stand united against the invasion of Ukraine and in support of diplomacy and dialogue to bring this crisis to an end.”

The group continued: “We urge the United States and NATO to refrain from pursuing military responses and to pursue solutions that address the context and complexity of the root causes which gave rise to the crisis in the first place.”

Pax Christi “ambassador” Father Nangle called attention to a campaign the international group is conducting: a Catholic Nonviolence Initiative. The plan entails widespread implementation of lessons from Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” on the theme of “care for our common home.”

Father Nangle also cited Pope Francis’ 2017 message for the World Day of Peace as part of evolving understandings.

There, the pontiff sought to spread a nonviolent ethos among world leaders and all people by discussing the effect of violence on the world, with possible echoes in 2022:

“Violence is not the cure for our broken world. Countering violence with violence leads at best to forced migrations and enormous suffering, because vast amounts of resources are diverted to military ends and away from the everyday needs of young people, families experiencing hardship, the elderly, the infirm and the great majority of people in our world,” Pope Francis wrote.

“At worst, it can lead to the death, physical and spiritual, of many people, if not of all.”

story reprinted with permission from The Tablet … see this and other stories by Bill Schmitt at the Tablet website

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Between the Lines, Young Writers Reveal Hope

Posted in the Magis Center’s blog on Sept. 8. See all the resources of the Magis Center.

As most of you are aware, Magis is fully engaged in communicating Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. One of our guest writers, Bill Schmitt (who also happens to be a longtime friend of Father Spitzer), teaches English at the college level and has chronicled some observations from his classroom experience. We at Magis found Bill’s reflections on the topic of “virtuous communication” illuminating and worth sharing.

Students in my freshman English class at a small Catholic college in Indiana turned the tables on me. During the past three semesters, I taught them important skills for writing essays and polishing their grammar. But, as I will show you, they taught me on a grander scale. They revealed their hunger for meaningful self-expression in the turbulent marketplace of data. They also helped me glimpse the breadth of the learning suited to young, idealistic communicators—the personal formation, a Catholic formation, that will help them manage tsunamis of information.

Many parents and teenagers focus on a college’s ability to impart knowledge for career success. However, they should not downplay the wisdom which leads minds, hearts, and souls toward ultimate happiness and culture-healing.               

I thank my faith-filled department chair for encouraging me, right from the start, to foster both of those goals as an adjunct professor—educating writers for proficiency and cultivating a Catholic imagination within the campus community. I kept updating the syllabus for my “Writing and Rhetoric” course. One might say it became “a little bit business and a little bit heart-and-soul.”     

“Virtuous communication” became a favorite theme in that syllabus. I added time-tested resources to read or view. I conducted style exercises pressing students to “get to the point.” Then, I followed up: What is your point? How and why have you formulated it this way? Are you considering your reader? What will add value to this information and to the conversation opportunities for that reader and others?                   

The students’ responses to these questions and to all our course activities (including “virtual learning” outside the classroom when Covid required) got me thinking: Curricula incorporating virtuous communication, linking indispensable skill-building with values that help to address the dangers of social polarization and our manipulative digital culture, can be among the most distinctive, intellectually potent offerings on today’s faithful Catholic campuses.               

We can envision relevant “information age” classes as gateways, revealing to students (and their families) our many connected assets. They will discover a holistic “core curriculum” that students—at least those cultivating the three theological virtues—are likely to appreciate. It recognizes both their need to build careers and our Church’s need to elevate God’s disciples who will enter the global “mission field.”               

Allow me to pitch this idea, intended as an encouragement to supporters of Catholic education across all the disciplines, amplifying voices from my classes. I have clipped quotes from essays they submitted for grading. The texts are gently edited, and some of them may reflect a bit of pandering to the professor, but I vouch for their validity. Their essays indicated that assigned readings and reflections—plus key themes embodied by authors, online videos, guest speakers, and my recollections from a multimedia journalism career—helped make their semester’s potential launch pads for servant-leadership through words and mind frames.               

At least that’s my interpretation of what they wrote after we had discussed such subjects as respect for language, footnotes, and compositions as vessels of truth; enthusiasm for storytelling and sharing ideas as authentic “witnesses”; confidence enabling creativity and curiosity; and the notion that robust communication is a team sport, not a narcissistic indulgence in verbal and visual junk food.   

Because a rhetoric course today must assess the media and messages of the internet, we explored the good and bad in online immersion—the juxtapositions of compelling expressiveness and disappointing passivity within artificial realities and confirmation bias.               

I saw students genuinely intrigued by diving into the poetic imagery of Maya Angelou, the compelling homiletics of Bishop Robert Barron, the political philosophy of John Stuart Mill, the handy tips for public speakers from our local “Toastmasters International” chapter president, and the reader-centric humanism undergirding the checklist of rules in the classic Elements of Style. 

By far the best tour guide for the course’s Christian trajectory was Pope Francis. Our spring 2021 reading list included the papal messages for the Church’s “World Communications Days” (WCD) of 2018, 2019, 2020, and 2021. I will not claim Francis is a flawless communicator, but he did expand upon many factors influencing post-modern interactions. He pointed to remedies in Church documents, in the genius of Scriptures and saints, celebrations of the divine as portals to the really real, and prayerful calls to emulate Jesus as the great storyteller.               

What did my students say about their semester-long journeys?               

First, one must acknowledge that some said they had not been prepared for the zeal of virtuous communication during their high school years. One repentant essayist said she had habitually handed in papers without re-reading them “because I was always in a rush to turn them in on time.”

Another admitted a utilitarian approach to research, and hence to learning: “I would begin writing my essay without any outline, and then as soon as I reached my first argument in my first body paragraph, I began my research.” Now, after this college course, he said, “I am able to give the reader a much better chance at fully grasping and understanding the argument I am making.”               

Our method of fine-tuning student essays incorporated peer review, where everyone’s work was “edited” by at least one classmate. A student essayist was grateful for “the conversations that revolved around how to better structure my essay so that it would make the most sense to the reader.” This was openness to diverse perspectives.       

Additional replies reflected expansions of students’ perspectives:               

A lesson about solidarity: Our pen-wielding pilgrims were attracted to the inherent goodness in communicating well, without indifference or malice. In his 2019 WCD message, Pope Francis connected communication, community, and communion—a unity found when persons seek the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Desires for common ground can help us rise above polarization. Students described it this way:

  • “Pope Francis says, ‘God is not Solitude, but Communion; He is Love, and therefore communication because love always communicates. . . . In order to communicate with us and to communicate Himself to us, God adapts himself to our language, establishing a real dialogue with humanity through history.’ I was not reflecting God in my communications because I was not communicating intentionally with others and the world around me.”
  • “[Drawing upon Pope Francis and Ephesians 4:25,] I hold the responsibility to my community to remain truthful and ensure that all parts feel heard, excluding no one and including diverse opinions. After understanding my place on the social network, I then encourage others to understand their part in the community and help promote virtuous communication.”               
  • “Pope Francis says it best when he says true communication is about forming relationships between people. . . . Communicators must treat information as if it were a prized possession.”      

A lesson about seeking truth in a relationship. Students realize they usually receive only part of the facts in a news story; their hunger for truth must drive an outward gaze and proactive curiosity. Rather than settling for relativism or the first Google search result, they like the idea of using the internet to conduct more panoramic inquiries and stepping out to hear the voices of the marginalized. My essayists reacted this way:           

  • “Through dialogue, by proper use of language, the online community grows together. I stopped relying on social media and sought first-hand experience by the ‘Come and See’ approach [citing the Pope’s title for his 2021 message]. It encouraged me to rely less on what I might already know and forced me to see for myself. Communication is done through encounters.”           
  • “[John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, argues] how a marketplace of varied, distinct perspectives will present points of consideration toward this ultimate objective [of virtuous communication]. Without this universal mindset, though, a widespread ‘copy and paste’ mentality will offer only passive credence rather than active refinement to existing thoughts and ideas.”           
  • “After reading Pope Francis’ address, I have tried to attend more events that I find interesting, whether it be in person or virtually. I feel more comfortable watching the events live . . . so I may talk with my peers about what occurred and not tarnish or misconstrue what actually happened.”           

A lesson celebrating God in heartfelt stories. Students can discover storytelling as integral to good communication—an idea Pope Francis confirms (in his WCD 2020 message) by noting God’s storytelling prowess in Scripture and Jesus’ ability to touch people’s lives through parables. Francis warns that many stories are destructive; they may be mere narratives (or algorithms?) that are pre-determined and prejudicial. Stories shared passionately with others over time—and shared with the Lord in a relationship of discernment—are models for embracing history and solidifying culture. I received these comments:

  • “We can use story to get factual information into the hands of people to drive more communicative conversations that are not censored.”           
  • “My communications regimen mostly consisted of Morning Drive on the Golf Channel, Squawk Box on CNBC, and The Wall Street Journal app on my iPad. . . . [They] produced the information that intrigued me the most, drove my passions the most. . . . The regimen [for communicators] needs to consist of topics that spark passion. . . .”   
  • “As Saint Augustine said, ‘We have books in our hands, but the facts are before our eyes.’”
  • “I have become more aware than ever of who I follow [in media] and what I see, for every day I make sure that my intake is positively impacting my growth as a human.”

A lesson about helping us navigate through life. In a world where myriad media are a pervasive and mixed blessing, excellence in communication brings focus and accessibility to our interactions. This excellence begins with basics like competent grammar and outlines. But the students learn it goes much farther than competent grammar and outlines; it must be the product of wise, diligent persons who use all the tools for countering our “post-truth” tendencies. Students want to use their talents as instruments of peace found in trust and reality. The resources of Catholic wisdom—and a liberal arts education properly understood—provide anchors and navigation for immense creativity within guard rails of consistency and coherence. Reflections included:       

  • “I did not allow time or space in my day to have real communication with other people. But now I can see that communication is more than emails or news stations. I have enjoyed hearing about classmates’ favorite podcasts and listening to new ways people are using music to tell stories, like Lin Manuel Miranda. . . . My main takeaway is that communication is more fluid and broader than I originally thought, and it influences every aspect of my life because I am always interacting with other people. With something so important and foundational, I want to add my lens of the Catholic faith so I can be a virtuous communicator.”               
  • “Through our grammar practice, I had fun trying to make the sentences more concise because it reminded me of making slogans. . . . I am getting more determined to pursue advertising. In Pope Francis’ 2021 Communications Day message, he spoke of the importance of pursuing actions and not just spectating. I always thought I should be a spectator, but now I want to do more. I am even interested in starting a podcast with one of my friends.”               
  • “I did not like to write or express my opinion for the world to see. However, after taking this course, I have realized the importance that communication has on the world, and I, as a writer and student, have an opportunity to put a positive impact on the community through my communication.”
  • “The solution isn’t limiting conversation when the topics get hard or uncomfortable; rather, it’s keeping these difficult conversations going to inspire real change and real action.”
  • “I am reminded that my opinion and thoughts that are represented in what I write and share with this world hold great power for change, and I cannot let that opportunity go to waste.”               

These lessons suggest that the enticement of plentiful, recognizable “skills for tomorrow’s communications workplace” can help to reveal Church-rooted education uncovering where worldly and heavenly insights intersect. Beyond a livelihood, students envision a life well-lived. Of course, college disciplines other than writing and rhetoric are ordered to these same discoveries.As Pope Francis and other “mentors” taught us in our course, the best “directions” for a journey toward worldly and eternal rewards connect all that is good: Scripture, Catholic Social Teaching, and catechetics about God-given dignity; a spirituality of communion; morality, ethics, and logic; admiration for good governance and “civics” embracing local, national, and global community; humility and curiosity in the sciences; respect for history and tradition; and appreciation of true beauty in arts, music, and all talents gifted by the Creator.               

My students helped me deduce how Catholic college students can benefit from their experience learning and utilizing these intersections of ideas as writers and rhetoricians. That awareness seems more urgent than ever in a world craving everyday evangelization; such training can be a big boost for four years well spent. Since love is the greatest virtue, Pope Francis is wise to remind us that “love always communicates.” One student reminded me this way: “I have found resources I trust, information I’m passionate about, and ideas that I hope to learn more about in the future. I never want to become stagnant or flatfooted with my communications. I’d be neglecting to focus on one of the most important and amazing parts of being a human being—the ability to connect and grow with others.”

Bill Schmitt

Bill Schmitt is a journalist, educator, and marketing-communications specialist who recently completed his third semester as an adjunct professor of English at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. He served on the communications staff of the University of Notre Dame from 2003 to 2017, managing many projects and joining in a wide range of multimedia, interdisciplinary collaborations. Since then, his freelance work has included feature-writing, editing, podcasting, and blogging, with much of his work centered on the Catholic faith. Bill holds a BA from Fordham University and an MPA from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs. Find his blog at OnWord.net and more career information on Linked-In at billschmitt-onword.

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Jordan Peterson Returns, and We See Ourselves

Reprinted from the blog of the Magis Center, as published June 12, 2021. 

Reflecting that spirit, but eager to rise above it, I feel duty-bound to bring the good news that a spiritually enriching drama, reflecting and nurturing genuine online intelligence grounded in faith and reason, is “now playing” in the otherwise random world of You Tube. This series, more like an organic, ongoing promulgation of related interviews and presentations, features a protagonist along with his interlocutors, friends, critics, and play-by-play commentators. It constitutes for me what marketers of yesteryear would have called “Must-See TV.”

This content is in-tune with today’s chaotic times of social transformation—and with Catholics’ increasing awareness that, as bishops’ dispensations disappear and our culture’s need for healing grows, now would be a good time to head back to church.

What might this timely, compelling, and edifying content be? It is the return of Jordan B. Peterson, Ph.D., the Canadian psychologist, author, and public intellectual who retreated from computer screens last year. He had built a huge following since the mid-2010s through an immersion in political controversy and an emergence of his secular insights via countless public appearances and online talks. He also produced a best-selling book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Jordan Peterson Before His Health Crisis in 2019

After provoking new thoughts on an array of topics close to the human heart and spirit, after leaving millions inspired or angry, confounded or curious, and after drawing praise from Bishop Robert Barron for pointing non-believers toward religion, Peterson entered a severe health crisis in 2019.

My Magis Center blog post last June joined in the prayers for his recovery and the praise of his unique role—an “accidental evangelist,” an agnostic scientist craving order and caring about persons. He had been especially successful in telling young people that now would be a good time to find and pursue their missions of ultimate meaning and responsibility to themselves and others. This roadmap toward the sacred steered clear of any stated beliefs about God’s existence.

Peterson’s profound, stoic call to help stem the world’s tendency toward the chaos of evil nudges the “nones,” restless in their competitive, vulnerable positions, to envision an adventure as a champion for the common good. Through the lens of Father Spitzer’s four levels of happiness, this nudge can yield a life-changing crossover from the self-defeating trap of the second level to the greater freedom for sustainable fulfillment found at the third level.

Of course, as Bishop Barron, Father Spitzer, and other Catholic voices point out, such an achievement, which finds too little support in our narcissistic culture, still leaves the individual without the connection to God and transcendent love found at the fourth happiness level.

As an ailing Peterson carried his cross last year, I wondered: Might he return to the public spotlight even more powerful in motivating his fans to cross their bridges when they have come to them—proceeding from a self-absorbed, doubt-plagued culture in two steps, in baby steps, to levels three and four?

Peterson Returns—Has His Health Experience Opened Him to Level 4?

Peterson’s struggles against physical depletion and pain have continued to take a toll, but he reappeared to announce his first phase of recovery and public engagement in a video last October. In 2021, he has resumed making his own podcasts and meeting with some interviewers. He is promoting a new book. In various video contexts, he seems open to more explicit, positive references to personal religiosity and to God as a necessary alternative to atheism—but also as an immensely challenging presence in one’s life.

Now, the thought-leader speaks often of gratitude for an upward trajectory in health and the blessings of charitable support from fans. During a recent “return engagement” with Bishop Barron, he spoke of his wife’s interest in the rosary. When Barron promised his ongoing prayers upon the conclusion of the video—nearly two hours in a conversation of graduate-school caliber—Peterson again expressed thankfulness, a trait he had called close kin to faith: “I need all the blessings from God I can get.” 

Among other highlights of that discussion, the psychologist offered advice that continued his role in today’s omnipresent dramas of decathlon-level testing. If the Catholic Church is saying its members must be fully conformed to a Christ of salvific self-giving, he told the Bishop, it is not presenting that awesomely compelling invitation with sufficient urgency. Barron agreed.

Those browsing through You Tube archives of Peterson’s latest videos will find him in agreement with voices such as Father Spitzer, who instructs us (through the release of his Called Out of Darkness books and his EWTN Universe series) to see the plot thickening amid signs of tragic cultural torpor. Both men would align with Barron and many others in saying all people of good will must now discern how the plots of their own lives can become more clarified and energized.

A Culture Desperate for All Four Levels of Happiness

The battles at the borders of all four happiness levels seem to be intensifying. Potential pilgrims who may be stalled at various milestones need reminders to pursue a happiness radically different from social norms of polarization and narcissism; they need to see that, amid their pursuits, beneficial escape routes and bridges to higher levels do exist.

To the degree that our culture takes on post-Christian traits, more of those still frustrated by life at the boundaries of the first three levels may choose a strategy that Peterson deeply fears—no longer seeking the good, not even choosing errors that at least appear to achieve a good, but choosing evil for its own sake. This is a path toward deconstruction, destruction, and even self-destruction. Some may see it, Peterson suggests, almost as a way to punish God (assuming He exists!) for creating the dismal world they perceive. In this scenario, one can imagine those unable to find, define, or imagine true happiness lobbing missiles of demonization, cancellation, and manipulation across the happiness borderlines. That threatens collateral damage to truth, trust, social cohesiveness, and the virtues of faith, hope, and love. Will everything except the community and communion of the fourth level be weaponized?

Fortunately, there is good reason to answer no to this question. Peterson (who does not use Spitzerian models of happiness to develop his scenarios) seems to have adopted, and resumed, his multimedia productivity precisely to keep pushing back against the prospects of darkness and despair in human life. Of course, it is rare to see a smile forming on his face, but he is holding true to his (stoic?) roadmap for meaning and contributive responsibility. He still speaks and writes about steps toward order and bridges toward progress.

Bishops Barron and Holding out Hope

Additional hope emerges from Bishop Barron in the aforementioned video, where he rejects Peterson’s hypothetical about-face toward a scorched-earth battle plan of evil. People inherently pursue what they see, however stupidly, as an apparent good, Barron insists; within this pursuit, God remains present as the ultimate, unconditioned good, ready to invite people out of the worst situations. My interpretation: The “good news” of level four, the Kingdom of God, can make pilgrims’ baby steps joyful and unitive; the whole pathway remains intact, although we Catholics must diligently point toward the best answers.

The 2021 Season of Jordan Peterson

With plot elements such as these, the “2021 season” of Jordan Peterson-linked presentations promises to remain motivational and riveting. Whether or not one agrees with his politics, it is good to see this persistent scholar resuming his long march against chaos. Even better, the broader digital arena will continue to bring us many other voices commenting on, or otherwise illuminating, Peterson’s secular-but-spiritual scripts. (As just one example among many, he discusses politics, post-modernism, digital culture, and faith with biologist Brett Weinstein.)

New dimensions of insight have been added by Peterson’s own via dolorosa. His health perils, concurrent with a worldwide “code blue,” should inspire all of us to continue our pilgrimage toward healing as we carry our respective crosses.

Now would be a good time for us to gather not merely as an audience around our screens, but as brothers and sisters delighted to re-encounter each other—in church pews and in conversations desiring discovery. May our consumption of “online intelligence” encourage us to stay tuned to the panoramic pursuit of true happiness, level by level, person by person, episode by episode.

Cover Image: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0

Read Also:

Happiness and the Jordan Peterson Factor

The Greatest Danger Facing America Today According to Bishop Barron

[Video] What is Happiness? Here’s a Basic Overview

Bill Schmitt is an adjunct professor in the Department of Humanities at Holy Cross College in Notre Dame, IN. He is a freelance writer and editor who has worked on four published books and numerous communications projects for the University of Notre Dame and Purdue University. As outlined in attachments on Linked-In, his background in journalism and marketing-communications now extends to numerous appearances via podcasts and Cathoiic radio, plus news stories for the diocesan Today’s Catholic. Bill holds a BA from Fordham University and an MPA from the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.

 
   
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