Even to Live

The Pope? How many divisions has he got?
~Joseph Stalin

In a famous photo of Pope Pius XII praying with the survivors of the Allied bombing of Rome, the Pope stands before the shell-shocked victims in his white cassock and greca with arms outstretched and eyes raised to the heavens. Some of the American-dropped bombs had drifted off course and landed in the neighborhood of San Lorenzo, with its famous basilica and ancient cemetery, killing more than 1,500 civilians and destroying the tomb in which the Pope’s parents were buried. By the time Papa Pacelli and his right-hand man, Monsignor Montini — the future Pope Paul VI, left San Lorenzo to return to the safety of the Vatican, the Pope’s cassock and greca were stained red with the blood of the injured and dying. The event was a turning point for Pius XII, who had previously trusted the Americans to keep their word of honor and refrain from bombing Rome, as any aerial bombing was sure to kill civilians and destroy ancient sites held as sacred by Christians around the world. A nobleman by birth and a career diplomat, Pius XII was just a little too sure of his own diplomatic prowess and far too trusting of those who were supposed to be the “good guys”. The Pope learned that in war men readily sacrifice their honor and the lives of others for the sake of power.

The betrayal of the Holy See by the Allies and the carnage wrought by reckless American military leaders — who, unlike priests and popes, do not have to bury the dead, console the dying, wipe the tears of those who mourn, find shelter for the homeless, and feed the hungry who wander among the ruins of war — left a lasting impression on Montini. Both his tenure as archbishop of Milan and his papacy would be marked by a saintly obsession with the well-being of the poor, vulnerable, marginalized, and despised. In fact, it is believed that, as pope, he seriously considered auctioning Michelangelo’s Pietà to raise money for the poor in the developing world. To Papa Montini, the poor were more important than the Pietà!

War. Just a few days ago we honored the anniversary of the end of the First World War ninety-nine years ago. The War-to-End-All-Wars turned out to be the introduction to an era of continual war, bloodshed, and destruction. It is the very same era that you and I live in and think nothing of, so numb have we grown to the suffering and wounds of war — wounds which are usually borne not by us but by others.

Since my seminary days I’ve regarded Pope Paul VI as one of the greatest and most heroic leaders of the Catholic Church in the past 500 years. Underappreciated, misunderstood, and dismissed as the “Hamlet Pope”, he’s not a popular or fashionable figure, yet Papa Montini was a man of populist sentiment, commitment to tradition, openness to the realities of the present day, and astonishing cultural sophistication. (I also feel a personal connection to the pope who ordained the man who made me a priest 16 years ago.)

More importantly, Paul VI saw a future swiftly approaching in which the old ways of relating to the world and each other would fail us. Only now, 50 years later, is the Church and the entire world coming to terms with Papa Montini’s call for a novus habitus mentis — a new way of understanding the ancient realities of faith, politics, life, our world, and the marvels that await us in the Universe.

Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.

The terrifying specter of war as experienced from the inside shocked Pius XII awake and later inspired his protégé, Paul VI, to announce to the world the approach of previously unimaginable conditions that would demand a new way of thinking, relating, living, and imagining the future. The powerful of the world have not, alas, grown wiser or more prudent, but the papacy has remained a dependable voice of reason and insight. When I look at the madness of the world around me, I wonder how Montini would respond. I think he would follow his own advice and apply a novus habitus mentis to the only tools a pope has beyond preaching and diplomacy: the censures of excommunication, deposition, and interdiction.

In the Middle Ages, these moral and spiritual punishments were unleashed against temporal rulers who imposed upon their subjects heresy or immorality; likewise, kings and emperors who violated the sovereign independence of the Pope and Holy See were declared incapable of exercising authority over their subjects, who were absolved from all ties of fealty. Some theologians posited that it was not immoral for such subjects to deprive their illegitimate rulers of property and even life.

If memory serves, ancient censures such as excommunication, deposition, and interdiction were, on occasion, used in time of war. For that reason, it seems to me that there is no reason why a competent ecclesiastical authority — such as a pope, a bishop, or an episcopal conference — might not consider these spiritual, nonviolent tools as a remedy to nuclear war, the threat of which grows daily. (There were no episcopal conferences in the Middle Ages, but certainly the pope could authorize episcopal conferences to use those powers previously reserved to him alone.)

As it happens, Orthodox and Anglican Christian bishops also claim the right to these tools, even if they don’t use them. It seems that Anglican bishops haven’t used these powers since the Reformation, though the Supreme Head of the Church of England could empower them to make use of these censures in order to prevent the annihilation of the world by nuclear war. If, for example, Protestant Christians in the US were loathe to recognize or assent to the authority of the Pope and the Roman Church, they might offer their free consent to the juridical, canonical, spiritual, and moral authority of Orthodox bishops or bishops within the worldwide Anglican Communion, for example. The divisions within the Christian Church since the Great Schism and the Protestant Reformation need not prevent Christians of today from their duty to protect and care for God’s creation — and to save the world.

Why do I mention this? Not to incite insurrection or disobedience to legitimate civil authority. Rather, it is a reminder that the masters of this world are not as powerful as they believe. And even the poor, the uneducated, the powerless, and the “nobodies” of this world — coming together as a spiritual family — possess the power to change the course of history. All civil authorities, whether king, president, or dictator, depend upon the consent and cooperation of their people and those who are governed may not deny consent to those who govern unless there is serious, legitimate cause. But in times of extreme crisis citizens and subjects should have no qualm of conscience in depriving their leaders of office and power.  All of this is to say that you and I are not helpless victims compelled to participate in the end of the world.

No one can force us to worship at the altar of the God of War.

~BT Waldbillig
November 16, 2017


Invisible Wounds

The ancient hero Odysseus was a man’s man. He was a fearless warrior, a cunning tactician and a womanizer who could drink anyone under the table.

But he also wept. In fact, he cried quite a lot and it seems to me there were two reasons for this. As a hero he engaged life intensely. This means when he hated, his blood boiled; when he lusted, his loins burned; when he loved, his only concern was with the beloved; when he mourned, the world itself could not contain his sorrow. There are times in life when a man should weep, when he cannot help but weep. The man who does not weep is only half a man.

But I think there is another reason for Odysseus’ tears. Perhaps the tears are also an acknowledgment of PTSD.

In the ancient world there was no technical terminology or clinical diagnosis or medical framework in which to understand PTSD, yet surely people understood that war, violence, extreme suffering, and profound trauma leave enduring, invisible wounds. We do well to remember this truth even today.

~BT Waldbillig
October 16, 2017

A Real-Life Wonder Woman

We tend to think of high office as an honor to be sought and a reward to be desired. Yet no one in high office — such as sovereign or president or bishop or teacher or general — stands worthy before those entrusted to their care. Those who are chosen, having accepted the responsibilities of office, cannot but fail in the attainment of an ideal. Still, they can embrace that failure with wisdom, grace, strength, hope, and patient endurance, drawing forth something good and worthwhile from any situation they encounter.

The honor is also a burden

This thought came to me not long ago as I reflected on the trials of my ancestral homeland during the first half of the twentieth century. The murderous folly of the First World War saw Grand Duchess Marie-Adélaïde of Luxembourg forced from the throne, while the nation itself barely survived. Having only recently regained its rightful autonomy, Luxembourg well might have ended up once again as the property of one of the greater powers of the region. By sacrificing the throne in the wake of the First World War and ceding it to her younger sister, Marie-Adélaïde showed humility and wisdom in an age not known for either.

Like Queen Elizabeth II, Grand Duchess Charlotte was born a “spare” and not an heir, so her education and training did not prepare her in the ways one would expect for a future monarch. She was forced into exile along with her children during the Second World War in order to ensure that the entire royal family would not be exterminated by the Nazi-Fascists. While it pained her to be safe and secure while her people suffered brutally, she worked tirelessly to awaken powers like the United States to the realities in Europe. By saving herself and her family, she ensured the survival of the Grand Duchy.

Even today she is honored as a hero and a saint.

There is a famous photo (and even some video) of Charlotte on the balcony of the Grand Ducal Palace presenting herself to the people upon her return from exile. The massive crowd is seen weeping and cheering at her return, but it must have been a moment of joy tinged with sadness and regret. Surely she would have offered her own life in the place of those who suffered and died, but she was only one human being — a woman and not a titan — and therefore she could not stop the cruel fate dealt to an innocent and powerless people.

I imagine Charlotte crushed under the weight of the failure to live up to the impossibly noble and selfless expectations she set for herself when she accepted the crown. I have had this sort of experience in my own life, and perhaps you have, too. It happens quite often that I feel inadequate before the challenges of life or unworthy to undertake a certain path, but in those moments I think on Grand Duchess Charlotte on the balcony of the Grand Ducal Palace summoning more strength than she imagined possible. She was strong for a people who needed strength. She was fearless and composed for the sake of a nation that needed courage and order in the wake of war. I think that the cheering and weeping crowds understood that she had made of herself an Atlas, mighty enough to bear up the entire world. She was nothing more than a human being like the rest of us, but she became something like a titan in that moment when the world needed a titan.

Like Charlotte the Great, you and I are something like titans. If only we could see this reality in ourselves and in each other — how we would change the world and create something we never knew we could.

The Universe would be a better place because of us — imperfect, weak, flawed, and beautiful beings that we are!

(Photos above: Portrait of Grand Duchess Charlotte; Charlotte with Prince Felix at her abdication in favor of Grand Duke Jean; Prince Guillaume — heir of Grand Duke Henri — and Princess Stephanie; statue of Grand Duchess Charlotte. To me they are like Family — an invincible source of hope and strength.)

~BT Waldbillig
October 15, 2017

The Choice Is Always Ours

A plucked flower will wilt and die. A fallen leaf will turn brown and crumble to dust. But for a brief time both still hold on to life and beauty — and so does the world.

The story of the sainted children of Fatima, Portugal and their purported encounter with the Virgin Mary one hundred years ago today is bound to be as incomprehensible to non-believers as it is inspiring to fervent devotees. Controversy and saccharine piety aside, the message communicated by the children was essentially a meditation on impermanence and mortality — not just as they relate to any of us individually but as they relate to the very existence of our world. The mysterious “secrets” of Fatima were visions of suffering in the world on a scale previously unimaginable and of wars so destructive they might annihilate the planet. You don’t need to be a Rosary-rattling Catholic to see how the past century bore witness to this, and you don’t need to believe in other-worldly visions to know that we turned life into a nightmare for ourselves and for others.

But there is another side to the Fatima meditation on impermanence: as surely as we have power to destroy the world, we also have power to save the world. Undoubtedly the world as we know it will one day pass away, but for now it’s here, all around us. We needn’t be victims of fate or destiny, passively awaiting the end of all things. Rather, we can become ferocious warriors dedicated to an impossible mission, a mission to save this world — for the present moment, at least.

Our world nearly came to an end more than once across the past century — but it didn’t end. The next century will be no less dangerous and precarious. The message of Fatima still holds true: it’s up to us to decide what will happen. Together, as a spiritual family of fearless warriors, we have the power to save the world once again.

~BT Waldbillig
May 13, 2017

Now That’s What I Call Family

After some lively debate — which entailed reasonable arguments pro and con, and plenty of snobbish stupidity on both sides — the American fastfood giant McDonald’s opened a restaurant a stone’s throw from Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

For Italians, food and family are sacred. I still remember fondly a meal I once shared with a good friend many, many years ago along the Via Appia and in the shadow of the tomb of Caecilia Metella, the wife of Marcus Crassus. Crassus, as I learned from my high school Latin teacher, Mrs. Lowe, formed the political alliance known as the First Triumvirate, in cahoots with Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great, in order to bypass the Roman Senate and make war with the Parthian Empire. The war was, as war always is, a disaster.

Just the other day I read on the website of the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera that under the patronage of the Papal Household and the Apostolic Almsgiver (the Pope’s charities manager) and in cooperation with a respected Italian benevolent organization, the new McDonald’s will provide 1,000 meals for the poor, homeless, and hungry every Monday. Every Monday — not bad.

The men who lead the Church in Rome have access to incredible financial and practical resources and some of them are even personally wealthy. Now, the purpose of wealth in the Church, in my opinion and according to the ancient Fathers, is to provide for the poor, the sick, the outcast, the marginalized, the mentally ill, the hungry, the imprisoned, the unlucky, etc. Not all of them do this — they’re just men, after all — but some do, though it’s quite rare to hear about these acts of loving-kindness. My guess is Pope Francis wanted to set a personal example for his brothers in the College of Cardinals.

The first truly modern pope, Paul VI, once praised my native land, the United States, when he said that even though there is no civil or legal obligation to help others, people in the U.S. have always performed acts of corporal mercy — feeding the hungry, offering water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick and the imprisoned, ransoming the captive, burying the dead — with open-handed generosity and spontaneous compassion.

But before we Americans pat ourselves on the back for our perfect teeth and unparalleled magnanimity, we should re-read the early Christan Fathers. Saint Basil the Great of Caesarea would mock our self-congratulating and self-serving Gospel of Prosperity, but of course he came from a family that took their spiritual path seriously. You and I lack their dedication.

Now more than ever we need families like Saint Basil’s. His siblings — Macrina the Younger, Naucratius, Peter of Sebaste, and Gregory of Nyssa — were every bit as hardcore and unrelenting as Basil in their commitment to the spiritual and material wellbeing of others.

My fellow Americans would do well to read this before they put on their gilt crosses, mount their polished pulpits, and lecture the world.

~BT Waldbillig
January 13, 2017

Among the Tools of Survival

Every Latin student learns a fair bit of military history, translating ancient texts that describe Rome’s exploits. There’s Caesar and the Gallic Wars, fought against my ancestors, the Belgian Celts (“Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres”); the legendary Spartacus and the Servile Wars, those ancient slave uprisings that found their way into a wildly popular television series a few years ago; and the Punic Wars, with the mighty Hannibal and his legendary his Alps-crossing elephants.

Just about a week ago we marked the anniversary of the Battle of Cannae, which took place on August 2, 216 BC. At the end of a day of fierce fighting, the Carthaginians (led by Hannibal) lost fewer than 6,000 men while the Roman losses numbered greater than 60,000, thanks in large part to Hannibal’s famous double-envelopment ploy. The carnage was terrifying, even by Roman standards. One historian tells us that the Carthaginians slashed the thighs and tendons of the Roman fallen so they couldn’t flee. As Hannibal surveyed the site after the battle, Roman soldiers offered him their necks, hoping to be put out of their suffering. To this day, the Battle of Cannae and Hannibal’s tactics are studied in places like the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Back in those days, warriors suffered PTSD as surely as some do still today, even if there was no clinical diagnosis. The suicide of Ajax from the story of the Trojan War is undoubtedly a description of something resembling unbearable battle trauma, the effects of which linger in the bodies and minds of survivors.

I keep re-reading Anne Carson’s preface to her translation of Euripides:

“Grief and rage — you need to contain that, to put a frame around it, where it can play itself out without you or your kin having to die. There is a theory that watching unbearable stories about other people lost in rage and grief is good for you — may cleanse you of your darkness. Do you want to go down to the pits of yourself all alone? Not much. What if an actor could do it for you? Isn’t that why they are called actors? They act for you. You sacrifice them to action. And this sacrifice is a mode of deepest intimacy of you with your own life. Within it you watch [yourself] act out the present or possible organization of your nature. You can be aware of your own awareness of this nature as you never are at the moment of experience. The actor, by reiterating you, sacrifices a moment of his own life in order to give you a story of yours.” (Anne Carson, Grief Lessons: Four Plays by Euripides)

We seem to be rediscovering that — along with therapy and pharmacology — the stage, cinema, literature, music, dance, tattoo and other arts are indispensable tools of survival and healing for our brothers and sisters who wander the world bearing wounds you and I cannot even imagine.

~BT Waldbillig
August 9, 2016

Avian Insight and Canine Wisdom

I’ve long struggled with insomnia. For the past fifteen years or so, I’ve resorted to herbal remedies, prescription tablets, breathing exercises, diet changes, and the like with little success. These days I occasionally take a melatonin supplement but mostly just take the advice of a good doctor I had some years back who encouraged me to make the best of an unsatisfactory situation. When I can’t sleep, I get out of bed and read or do some writing, take a walk, or play with the dog. (Full disclosure: Sometimes I lazily watch TV; that was the one thing my doctor counseled against! What can I say, I’m far from perfect.)

Lately, in the full throes of summer, I’ve been waking up quite early, often before 5:00 a.m. This morning Dante and I went for a long pre-dawn walk and ended up strolling down Saint Nicholas Avenue and over to my favorite street in the neighborhood, Convent Avenue, where I always gawk at the incredibly beautiful old townhouses. We passed a few older individuals with push carts hunting for glass bottles and aluminum cans, and on a side street I noticed a sign at the entrance to a community garden. ‘Cooling Center, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.’ — the garden is transformed into a refuge for people with no access to a cool space during these brutally hot summer days.

This reminded me just how easy it is to be out of touch with the day-to-day, practical challenges many people face. Sometimes these problems are quite serious and can become matters of life and death. For a low-income, elderly person with no family or friends, a couple of days of intensely hot summer weather can be a death sentence. That’s something you and I probably don’t think much about. We don’t have to.

Not long ago I read about a sort of theological war being waged among the cardinals of the Catholic Church over a recent document by Pope Francis. I recognized some of the names on both sides — some are men I once knew, some are thinkers I once admired. It struck me that while the cardinals are bickering over a theological document, the refugee crisis in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond continues to rage. Every day children become orphans, women are raped, entire families are slaughtered, and human beings slowly die of hunger and thirst.

I can’t help but think of the Melkite, Maronite, and Chaldean friends from my seminary days. Some of them grew up in the Middle East; almost all have family there. For them, there’s nothing abstract or distant about the horrors of war.

Somehow papal documents and cardinalatial quarrels seem far less urgent in light of such unspeakable suffering.

Truth be told, over the past few years I’ve learned more from my mongrel dog and from the birds in the nearby park than I ever learned from a cardinal, theologian, saint, or guru.

Maybe that’s how it should be.

~BT Waldbillig
July 21, 2016