A Most Remarkable Lent: Pope Says, Draw Near! (Social Distancing, Part 2)


From the Vatican News coverage of the Pope’s homily during Mass on March 18.

Pope Francis has spoken out about our need to draw near to one another. He has done so from Rome, in the heart of a nation well-known for its current reliance on “social distancing”–the medically necessary phenomenon that tames contagions but challenges us in body, mind, and soul.

In his March 18 Mass at the Casa Santa Marta, Francis made valuable pastoral contributions to the growing conversation about how we all can use the mandate for social distancing to derive spiritual growth and wisdom for the future. The sadness of distancing and related COVID-19 containment strategies, which have grown in scope to include the heart-breaking cancellation of gatherings for Mass, is like a huge resolution to give up something for Lent; it demands to be accompanied by hope, trust, and the desire that a greater good will result from this sacrifice.

One splendid outcome would be greater awareness, among Catholics and all people of good will, that the “distanced” life we’re experiencing is the embodiment of an ongoing social trend we must resist. That trend is social polarization, the phenomenon that Pope Francis and many secular observers of public affairs are condemning as a dead-end for constructive communication, inclusive civic cooperation, the “dignitarian” principles of Catholic Social Teaching, and relationships with the Lord through missionary discipleship.

This most remarkable Lent must become a teachable moment when we wake up to the fact that we should not step closer toward the precipice. We retreat from the Kingdom of God by drifting into isolation, defamation, closed-minded outrage, relativism, and escapism through artificial realities. These and other contagions have been growing in the breeding grounds of politics, information media, the digital culture, and secular post-modernism.

Living through today’s experiences of interrupted togetherness, we need to find, and nurture, renewed preferences for the solidarity found in common pursuits, agreements about truth, and the joyful wholeness of a healthy human ecology. “Love always communicates,” the pope wrote in his 2019 message for World Communications Day.  Social distancing is an oddly unfortunate but welcome instrument of survival that combines practical wisdom with the impulse for charity–the humbled recognition that we’re all in this together.  It’s a taste of sacrificial love that should leave us wanting more and realizing that love deserves a brighter future.

If we’re willing to learn its lessons, this realization can strike us in new ways while we’re enduring the vulnerable suffering of man-made separation. Pope Francis captured this message of a fruitful attitude adjustment in his homily for the Mass he celebrated on March 18. Our uplifting pastor at the Vatican reaffirmed that we can learn lessons and skills now that will help pull us away from the precipice of polarization. The lessons come from a God who loves to be near to us even when we seem to have chosen isolation.

Here are a few points he made about the wonderful instinct to draw near to others, as reported at the Vatican News website:

  •   “The Lord gives His people the law by drawing near to them.” The laws he gave to Moses “weren’t prescriptions given by a far-off governor who then distances himself.” We should be drawn to seek a deeper relationship with this God amid our loneliness–the kind of loneliness that arises from social distancing, as well as from social polarization.
  • When God draws near, we too often pull away. “Sin leads us to hide ourselves, to not want nearness. So many times, we adopt a theology thinking that He’s a judge….” People want to be in control of relationships because they don’t want to be vulnerable. God knows this, so he makes himself weak in approaching us–with a weakness which was seen on a grand scale when Jesus came to earth in a manger and sacrificed himself through the shame of the cross.
  • “In this moment of crisis, because of the pandemic we are experiencing, this nearness asks to be manifested more…. Perhaps we cannot draw near physically to others because of the fear of contagion, but we can reawaken in ourselves a habit of drawing near to others through prayer, through help. There are many ways of drawing near.”

That’s the poignant challenge of this most remarkable Lent. How can we spend our moment of intense earthly separation–a separation that even extends to the cancellation of Masses–by bringing the heavenly Kingdom to ourselves and others? Not through physical nearness, but communication through our spirit and human senses–a smile we share, a song we sing, a thoughtful word, a period of listening, a tear we shed over someone’s pain. The March 13 post in this OnWord blog suggested some ways to refresh our talent for such nearness.

Thank God, we’ll see and hear many people offering an array of guidance for this act of repentance, a turnaround from isolation to fellowship, community, and communion. In addition to prayer and general acts of compassion to the elderly, sick, and otherwise troubled, we can resist the temptation to hoard material goods in a survivalist-style stockpile. Make a list of good alternatives. We can embrace our family and relearn its lessons of patient love. We can become more mindful of the meaning of everyday tasks that we might have performed carelessly, even hurtfully, during busier, distracted times. We can become more aware of, and thankful for, all the people who bless our lives–or other people’s lives–and then develop timeless ways to show that gratitude.

Since this is a teachable moment to remember later when social polarization is percolating, here’s one thing we might give up for this remarkable Lent: our habit of taking things for granted. It blinds us to lessons the Lord wants to teach us as He draws near. We can ask, What’s the Lord trying to teach me right now? During these days of social distancing, it’s perfectly understandable if we talk to ourselves.





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Social Distancing: Viral Strain or a Step Toward Healing?

As someone who’s avidly and anxiously watching the growth of social polarization in America, I squirmed upon hearing that one of the prescriptions for our latest national challenge—managing the COVID-19 pandemic—is a strategy called “social distancing.”

Oh, great. What is this paradoxical term? It evoked all my concerns about trends already dividing us in the realms of politics, news coverage, digital culture, and civil discourse. Pope Francis has warned us that, in light of Catholic culture and values, we must resist today’s tendencies toward outrage, defamation and de-platforming, exclusionary silencing of contrary voices, withdrawal into artificial realities, manipulation of information, weaponization of words, labeling of people, snap judgments, and a demonizing mix of relativism and moralism—all tempting us to toxify or forsake inclusive, constructive communication.

Indeed, the pope has made many comments, in his annual World Communications Day messages and elsewhere, suggesting that social media and smartphone screens make us less social. This week, I imagined him regretting the symbolism, and possible outcomes, of physical distancing: He might say the behavior widens the chasms that erode compassionate communication, offend human dignity, and short-circuit the pursuit of common good and shared truths! He agrees with a growing array of secular opinion-leaders who say Americans need to feel comfortable talking with each other again.

My imagination went astray, I’ll admit. I discovered “social distancing”—most basically, the commonplace guidance to maintain 3-to-6 feet of space between you and another person in order to limit the spread of a virus—is scientifically sound practice. The idea is akin to quarantining, avoiding big crowds, and bumping fists instead of shaking hands. It aligns with Christian principles of charity, community solidarity, and good citizenship. Of course, the Vatican itself is implementing the strategy.

All of this has legitimized distancing, but I can’t help thinking it’s a sad sign of a bigger “dis-ease.” To the degree that the elderly and infirm may have a particular need for the love expressed in a hug or a gentle touch, to the degree that compassion and caring are well-expressed in a kiss of the beloved, to the degree that dynamic group gatherings (as well as meaningful face-to-face encounters with the marginalized) are booster shots for humanity, social distancing is like pulling the light-therapy lamp away from the SAD sufferer. These increases in “personal space” and unused time are snapshots of a contaminated community space that cries out for visits by missionary disciples.

This is a teachable moment when a future shaped by social polarization is uncloaked but the present moment allows us to see we have alternatives. We have temporarily entered a quiet place–almost literally a retreat house–in our lives: March Madness thrills are sterilized, St. Patrick’s Day offers pints but no parades, the electricity of college campuses is replaced by “distance learning” delivering lectures and tests online.

When the virus scare is past, we’ll be able to raise our eyes from the screen. We’ll step out where all of us can exchange lines in the more meaningful scenes we sense we were born to play. As Pope Francis recently said to mark World Communications Day 2020, God, the “great storyteller,” is summoning us as actors to share in, and spread, the current episodes of the timeless redemption tale. “For no one is an extra on the world stage,” the pope wrote, “and everyone’s story is open to possible change.”

Now that we’ve been distanced, it’s a good chance to become good students, learning our lines and integrating the “motivation” of our characters so we’ll be ready when the box office reopens. Here are a few ideas for optimizing the current circumstances of sluggishness and separation:

  • Bridge the gaps between people with more spacious respect. In maintaining a few feet of “social distance” during everyday civic life and commerce, let’s adopt better ways of being noticed, expressing ourselves in an appealing way, communicating respectfully, and appreciating the full value of interactions. We’re not rock ’em-sock ’em robots. We’re all human beings, with unique qualities and contributions to be discerned by ourselves and others. Let’s take in the full view of every person as an end, not a means, while extra time and space provide us the chance to do so. When appropriate, remake what used to be “small talk” into larger, longer, even louder talk. Greet and depart by giving people a big wave. Smile broadly and declare, “Stay healthy!” Don’t feel like smiling? Make a (germ-free) Vulcan hand gesture, accompanied by “Live long and prosper!”
  • Attend the modestly sized meetings in your community, and participate. Don’t become a home-body. Since you can’t go to a basketball game, go to a city council meeting, or become active in the club you joined as a lukewarm member two years ago. Entertain yourself and others by keeping civic life interesting. Attend and pay attention. Take note that there are a couple of top-players or interesting rookies among your club’s leadership! No celebrities or sports stars, but folks worth getting to know! Your seat has space around it, so fill it with gravitas; say constructive things as a contributor, not a spectator. Don’t leave everything up to the guy next to you; he’s not there! Make a simple joke—helpful, since the comedy club is closed!
  • Make full use of your time at home with the family since mom and dad have canceled their business trips and siblings are home from college. Discuss dinner plans in advance, drawing tips from menus you’ve googled. Enjoy conversations around the table, and decide what film you’ll all watch together. Take advantage of cheaper popcorn.
  • Take a social approach to the media. Among families and friends, show at least a few of the Facebook and Instagram pages you’ve followed as a solo reader. Look up the pages of people and families that everyone knows; suddenly they become more important, better understood, likely to be “liked” or “followed” by a few more people. Expand horizons by trying a few TV or YouTube channels you never watched before, perhaps ones you disagree with. Discuss those conflicts. Realize you’re shedding your confirmation bias.
  • Vet your tweets and responses before you send them. Pretend you’re the President, but don’t rush into that! Ask a friend or relative how they might rephrase your latest Twitter creation. If you see a comment that enrages you, ask for input on whether the source is a jerk who’s best ignored, or perhaps a modern-day prophet who states his case clumsily! Play a game where teams compete to hone your tweet to exactly the maximum number of characters.
  • Incorporate prayer and pondering. Increase the time you spend alone forming a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. First and foremost, seize the available silence so you can reflect or meditate each day. If you need to be busy, make a dent in that pile of edifying books you’ve wanted to read. Or surf the Internet, prudently, to study spiritual points that somehow didn’t make the news, or to catch up on questions of the secular world, or to research an event in historical context. Always ponder the discoveries afterward, as Mary would, with an openness to the Holy Spirit’s insights. Establish Catholic playlists of blogs or podcasts or performers who make you say, “I wish I had said that.”
  • Remember to thank God for your health and to pray for all those friends and relatives who are sick or vulnerable. Then, plan to visit them, either in-person or virtually. Send grateful emails to the professionals who are caring for your loved ones. Include a link to something inspirational or fun.

Social distancing can open up a whole new spectrum of distance-learning opportunities.  Your retreat from some things can create a new closeness to alternatives. You may look back with gratitude on the extra quiet and extra time brought to you by order of our health-science gurus.

After COVID-19 has disappeared, we’ll need to find the right balance between low-touch scientific wisdom and high-touch spiritual renewal. Let’s remember the habits we developed during our retreat, such as cherishing communication and conversation as acts of human intimacy and empowerment. We’ll place a higher value on news and information, despite the torrents of data pouring out of our media, if we have become better sorters and interpreters of what’s important and what’s real. We’ll place a higher value on other people if we shared the frustration of closed sports arenas but responded by preparing for encounters with open minds.

My hope for an easing of polarization and outrage may be just as exaggerated as my initial resistance to the tactic called social distancing. But, in the spirit of Catholic solidarity and Pope Francis’ messages about communication, I’m betting the cross of individual separation with which we’re battling a communicable disease today can represent a “via dolorosa” leading us to redemption tomorrow–a healing of human  togetherness that we just can’t stop talking about.

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Pope’s 2020 Message on Communications: Tell Good Stories

832-PopeSaidToTellStories-BillSchmittFrom Jan. 28, 2020 podcast–Bill Schmitt discusses Pope Francis’ call for communication

Pope Francis’ message for the 2020 World Communications Day urges Catholics to be good storytellers–that is, people who know a good story when they hear it and faithful communicators who spread the definitive story of salvation and hope among all generations and to all people.

The pope calls us to remember who and what we are in God’s eyes, to bear witness to what the Holy Spirit writes in our hearts, and to reveal that everyone’s story “contains marvelous things.” He builds upon an array of pastoral guidance he has provided in recent years to energize the flow of insight and information in our personal encounters and in our societies; our purpose is to strengthen the connections that can sustain well-grounded communities moving forward in truth, happiness, and love.

This message, 54th in a series of annual texts representing the Catholic Church’s desire to bring Gospel wisdom to and through global communications media, was posted on the Vatican website January 24, on the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of journalism. World Communications Day doesn’t arrive until the Sunday before Pentecost (May 24, 2020), but Pope Francis has never been slow or silent in his passion for renewal in the use of the mass media and the digital culture, which have shown tendencies to divide people and offend human dignity.

Here are some major “talking points” from the latest message, which takes as its title a passage from Exodus 10:2, instructing the Israelites to pass along the good news of God’s love and salvation–“That you may tell your children and grandchildren: Life becomes history.”

  • Pope Francis says: “I believe that, so as not to lose our bearings, we need to make our own the truth contained in good stories. Stories that build up, not tear down; stories that rediscover our roots and the strength needed to move forward together. Amid the cacophony of voices and messages that surround us, we need a human story that can speak of ourselves and of the beauty all around us. A narrative that can regard our world and its happenings with a tender gaze. A narrative that can tell us that we are part of a living and interconnected tapestry.”
  • Stories, in novels or news articles, films or songs, or in other forms, have the power to influence our behavior and sense of identity, to shape our convictions about right and wrong. We have a responsibility to spread good stories at a time when much storytelling is conducted to exploit or isolate people or to lead them toward greed, idle gossip, violence, and falsehood. “Often on communications platforms, instead of constructive stories which serve to strengthen social ties and the cultural fabric, we find destructive and provocative stories that wear down and break the fragile threads binding us together as a society.”
  • We can identify the good stories that should be shared widely by learning from our faith. The Bible is “the great love story between God and humanity,” the story of a loving creator who intricately weaves us and gives us life “as an invitation to continue to weave the wonderful mystery that we are.” Jesus, whose parables reached people concretely through their everyday experiences, stands at the center of the love story. He is incarnated in human history to fulfill “both God’s love for us and our love for God.” Throughout time, we are “called to recount and commit to memory the most significant episodes of this Story of stories ….” Jesus, as the Word, is the “quintessential storyteller” who also “becomes the story” that is always timely.
  • “Since God became story, every human story is, in a certain sense, a divine story,” says the pope. “In the history of every person, the Father sees again the story of His Son who came down to earth. Every human story has an irrepressible dignity. Consequently, humanity deserves stories that are worthy of it, worthy of that dizzying and fascinating height to which Jesus elevated it.”
  • If we allow the Holy Spirit to write on our hearts, we are freed from regrets and sadness. “Telling God our story is never useless: Even if the record of events remains the same, the meaning and perspective are always changing. To tell our story to the Lord is to enter into his gaze of compassionate love for us and for others.”
  • In this way, we share in God’s story and spread it to others. “With the gaze of the great storyteller–the only one who has the ultimate point of view–we can then approach the other characters, our brothers and sisters, who are with us as actors in today’s story. For no one is an extra on the world stage, and everyone’s story is open to possible change. Even when we talk of evil, we can learn to leave room for redemption; in the midst of evil, we can also recognize the working of goodness and give it space.”

The pope concludes with a prayer to Mary, asking her to help untangle our paralyzed memories and to help us recognize “the good thread that runs through history.” He prays, “Help us build stories of peace, stories that point to the future. And show us the way to live them together.”

This call for “stories of peace” recalls the Holy Father’s message for the 2018 World Communications Day. There, he called upon journalists–and upon all people, since many of us today play a journalistic role by selecting and spreading particular stories via social media–to honor truth, shared values, human dignity, and genuine encounters of learning and listening. This would lead to a “journalism of peace,” he said.

Francis’s insistence that “no one is an extra on the world stage” recalls his 2019 World Communications Day message, which highlighted the need for real communities based on inclusion and trust. This need is great at a time when social media are promoting false communities which exclude, isolate, construct false realities, and engage people by enraging them. A real human community recognizes that its strength comes from the unique qualities and value of each individual called to play his or her part for a common good found in authentic communication, community, and communion.

The theme of storytelling and outreach through the tangible experiences spanning human history echoes the pope’s 2019 apostolic exhortation, Christus Vivit. He expressed special concern about young people who are in danger of losing touch with ultimate realities and must be welcomed into flesh-and-blood communities to learn, contribute, and feel valued.

More recently, Pope Francis has urged young people to accept responsibility to participate in learning through families, schools, and communities; they should avoid addiction to their smart phones and keep them away from the family dinner table, he said late last year in an address on the Feast of the Holy Family.

In his suggestions for constructive sacrifices during Lent this year, he urged giving up the sense of indifference toward others that has spread globally. He advised fasting from defamatory, harmful “trolling” and gossip online. With such messages, he was instructing Catholics to be more open to sharing everyone’s stories by listening and being ready to share the quintessential story of God’s love and salvation which unites all human beings through time.


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Look Up in Anger?

I write a lot about social polarization and our need to renew the ability to hold constructive, civil conversations among people who don’t see eye-to-eye, who don’t understand where another person is coming from. There’s a lot of anger in this world, and I’m coming to understand that even the best conversations, if they are taking place among real people in honest relationships, will occasionally have an angry tinge.

A friend of mine, a fellow professed member of the Secular Franciscan Order, recently wrote a blog post about the admission that we may even feel anger in our relationship with God. Expressions of anger toward God are nothing to be proud of, but, as my friend says below, God meets us where we are and accepts our “come as you are” prayers. In conversations with the Lord, as in earthly conversations around our workplace or community, the acknowledgment of negative feelings can open the door for healing.

We can deepen the relationship, or rather God can deepen the relationship, even in the presence of anger provided we value the relationship as an integrated whole. We must see its end-goal as charity in truth, not as a personal victory in a zero-sum game of relativism and pride. Road rage can blind us, but basic anger is a call to self-control; God must have given it to us in order to sharpen our sight, to make us ask good questions, and to galvanize us for constructive action.

We can make the best of anger when we’re aiming higher, looking upward plaintively to from the Way, the Truth, and the Life, not gazing inward at our egos to reinforce our own understanding or emotion. All conversations need to be real encounters on lawful thoroughfares subject to red and green signals, not collisions of autonomous vehicles randomly entering life’s intersections.

Here is the insight from my friend, David Seitz, OFS, whose blog can be found at tauministries.com. Discover him on YouTube as Franciscan Dave.


Hey God! I’m Mad at You!

January 15, 2020     By David Seitz


“Hear my voice, O God, as I complain.”

Psalm 64 has one of my favorite opening lines. The Holy Spirit inspired the Psalmist to give us words that tell us it is alright to complain to God, to be angry with him at times.

Psalm 44 also reads, at times to me, as a complaint. I can see the Psalmist raising his fist towards heaven as he exclaims

“Yet now you have rejected us, disgraced us…You make us like sheep for the slaughter…you sell your own people for nothing…You make us the taunt of our neighbors, the laughing stock of all who are near…my face is covered with shame at the voice of the taunter.

This befell us though we had not forgotten you; though we had not been false to your covenant; though we had not withdrawn our hearts; though our feet had not strayed from your path. Yet you have crushed us in a place of sorrows and covered us with the shadow of death. It is for you that we face death all day long and are counted as sheep for the slaughter. Awake, O Lord, why do you sleep? Why do your hide your face from us and forget our oppression and misery?

Isn’t that how it is sometimes? I’m doing everything right and yet life is not going my way!

Psalm 77, too, voices a complaint to God.

“Will the Lord reject us forever? Will he show us his favor no more? Has his love vanished forever? Has his promise come to and end? Does God forget his mercy or in anger withhold his compassion?”

It is good to reflect that when we come before God it is alright to express anger, frustration, anxiety and fear. I have talked with many people over the years who feel that it is not acceptable to approach God in prayer with these negative emotions. Prayer is for praise, they say and for thanksgiving, or bringing our intentions before Him. If you are not giving praise or thanks, you need to change your attitude before you approach God.

I admit, there was a time in my life when I would have expressed the same feelings. In prayer, we seek God’s presence and his consolation. Negative emotions in prayer seem to bring the opposite of what we desire. Over the years, as I have prayed with the Psalms daily, it has occurred to me that the prayer book inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all of Sacred Scripture, has given us God’s words to use for expressing complaints, anger and frustration.

As the Word of God made man, Jesus expressed these negative emotions. We seem to forget that Jesus, in his human nature, was subject to human emotions. We feel good when we read the stories of Jesus showing mercy; healing the lepers, giving sight to the blind, raising the dead, curing the crippled and expelling demons. We love the compassionate Jesus. We must also love the Jesus who displayed anger. The Gospel of John in chapter two and Mark Chapter eleven describe the event of Jesus cleansing the temple. He makes a whip and chases out the merchants, he overturns their tables and exclaims that His Father’s house is a house of prayer, not a den of thieves. Jesus expressed his anger with a bit of violence!  In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 23 we have the book of woes. From verses 15-29 Jesus uses strong and angry language to chastise the scribes and the Pharisees. “Woe to your scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.” He invokes these woes seven times as he calls them out for their pride, their religiosity which had the effect of leading people away from God.

In Mark, 3:5 we read “Looking around at them with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart” Jesus was reacting to the Pharisees challenge because he healed a leper on the sabbath.

In his book, Becoming and Ordinary Mystic, Albert Haase, OFM, a Franciscan friar explains,

“we pray from where we are, not from where we think we should be…Everything is appropriate to bring before God. Nothing needs to be excluded. Anything that is a source of joy, shame, fear, worry, anger, or confusion, trivial or unseemly as it may be…There’s no wrong way to pray….except when you stop being honest and transparent with God. Authentic Christian mystical prayer…is a conversation that encourages us to share with God everything about our lives – our thoughts, struggles, joys, sorrow – even those emotions and feelings we consider inappropriate to show God.”

Haase explains what he learned from one of his spiritual directors, what he calls the “come as you are” prayer. God meets us where we are. You do not need to be in a “right” frame of mind to approach God in prayer. What is going on with you right now? What are you dealing with right now? What are you feeling right now? God knows. We cannot hide ourselves from God. Bringing your anger, frustration and any other negative emotions to God in prayer allows us to own them, acknowledge them and turn them over to God. We may not get immediate relief from what we are feeling or our current situation, but when you share your most raw and vulnerable self with God you can’t help but deepen your relationship with Him. Relationships are built on honest and open communication. Be Honest with God, even in your anger.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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This Just In: 2020 World Communications Day Message

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

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

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

Meanwhile, these two items came to my attention: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Texts from the Pope: Be Smarter Than Your Phone


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experimenting with conversation

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

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

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

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

What’s your reaction to the article?

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

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

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

Feeling happier today and beyond

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

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

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

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Arise from Sharkness! How Leaders Win with a Silly Song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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