St. George might be the world’s most popular saint. Really, you might ask, what about St. Francis or St. Joseph? You’re probably not alone in your skepticism, but have you ever heard of the story of a knight saving a princess from a dragon? Well, that’s the legend of St. George. I suppose everyone who has seen a Disney film “knows” about St. George.
His appeal, though, goes far beyond the most famous chivalrous tale. He’s not only venerated by Catholics, but also by Protestants, especially Anglicans. Furthermore, he’s one of the most popular saints in the Orthodox tradition, and even more surprisingly, many Muslims honor him as Al-Khader. It’s hard to find an individual with a more universal religious appeal, outside of Jesus and Mary.
How many saints have a country named after them? St. George has Georgia, and that’s pretty cool. He is additionally claimed as patron of many other regions and countries such as: Aragon, Armenia, Catalonia, England, Ethiopia, Greece, Lithuania, Malta, Palestine, Portugal and Russia. He is the protector of many cities, including Antioch, Barcelona, Beirut, Genoa, Milan and Moscow.
He is also the patron of armorers, butchers, farmers, knights, scouts and soldiers, and he is said to heal those suffering from leprosy, skin diseases and syphilis.
What makes this list even more impressive is that it is far from complete.
Given his past prestige as a preeminent saint, his image has suffered from numerous attacks in the modern era. Many individuals now claim that he never existed. Undeniably, fundamental problems exist with the historical evidence associated with St. George.
The oldest accounts of his life are not reliable, focusing exclusively on seven years of torture in which he was killed three times, each time rising from the dead, before his fourth and final death.
More problematic is Pope Gelasius’ declaration in 494, Decretum Gelasianum, advising the faithful not to read the Passion of St. George because it was likely written by heretics.
Related to the papal document, some scholars believe the “real” St. George was George of Cappadocia, a fourth-century Arian bishop of Alexandria, a theory popularized by Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century.
George, the Arian bishop, rose in prominence as a corrupt contractor, selling bacon to the Roman army, and then after accepting Arianism, he was appointed bishop of Alexandria. His rule was marked by avarice and corruption, and eventually, he was killed by a disgruntled mob. Needless to say, the two claims of St. George being either a mythical figure or a corrupt heretic have hurt his following.
After studying St. George for about 10 years, I am confident that he existed. Skeptics overlook surviving church inscriptions, some of the best evidence for a real St. George. According to tradition, he was martyred around 300, and numerous sixth-century inscriptions that mention St. George still exist, including one at a monastery at Ezra (Zorava) from 515, another at a church in Horvath Hesheq in northern Israel dated to 519, and one more at a church in Shakka in Syria from 535.
Besides these examples of direct evidence of a church dedication, abundant secondary evidence exists for other sixth-century churches dedicated to St. George; including monasteries in Jerusalem, Dorylleon, and Jericho, and churches in Bizani, Constantinople, Edessa and Cairo. It’s unlikely that that a non-existent individual would have produced such a widespread cult in 200 years.
Many people cite Eusebius of Caesarea’s Historia Ecclesiastica as the first reference to St. George. Eusebius recorded the story of a man who tore the imperial edict of Diocletian into pieces and was then martyred in Nicomedia. This silver bullet for the existence of St. George is flawed, however, because the martyr is unnamed. Furthermore, the edict was issued on February 24, making St. Euethius the likely martyr because he was martyred on February 24, 303, at Nicomedia.
The oldest Passion of St. George is a fifth-century manuscript composed in Greek and preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, of which only fragments survive. The Greek Passion served as the basis of Syriac versions, and the oldest Syriac manuscript, written around 600, is at the British Library. While Passions in this tradition are full of fantastic elements, prompting the condemnation by Pope Gelasius, they describe a completely different person than the Arian bishop and portray him as a real individual.
After the condemnation by Pope Gelasius, a canonical version of the story appeared, accepted and promoted by the church, but the apocryphal version remained significant, most notably in the Western tradition. The canonical version started circulating in the sixth century, and the oldest surviving version is in the encomium composed by Andrea, Archbishop of Crete, from the seventh century.
Andrea’s version takes place during the persecution of Diocletian. According to this account, St. George lived in Palestine, but was born of Cappadocian parents. At court, the saint sees the harm done to Christians, and he is moved to give his possessions away and proclaim his faith in God. He then faces numerous forms of torture such as being placed on a wheel with knives, kept in a kiln for three days, and forced to wear heated iron boots, but he is not harmed. The guards and empress are converted by his miraculous resistance to punishment.
St. George then battles with the magician Athanasius, and the saint drinks poison provided by the magician without harm. He also raises a dead man back to life. Athanasius converts to Christianity, and he and the resurrected man are executed. On St. George’s last night on earth, he receives a vision foretelling his death, and he performs numerous miracles for those who visit him.
On his last day, Diocletian tries to persuade St. George to renounce Christianity and offers him half of his kingdom. St. George surprisingly declares he is ready to worship the Roman gods. When he enters the temple and makes the sign of the cross, the idols proclaim that St. George worships the true God, and the statues fall to the ground, breaking into pieces.
The empress then proclaims her secret faith in Christ and is executed. Finally, St. George is beheaded, which marks the end of the Passion.
Though his background and dates vary in nearly every account, they all recount that he was in the Roman army, defied the emperor’s order to persecute Christians, and thus, was tortured and martyred. The widespread collaboration of these basic facts from different traditions of Passions and church inscriptions point to a real St. George as the origin of the saint’s story.
What about the dragon story? For eight hundred years, St. George had no dragon, and most likely, the dragon developed from the emperor who killed St. George. In the first Passions of St. George, the emperor who martyred St. George was called a dragon. Moreover, in early depictions of the saint, found in present-day Georgia, he was killing a man, not a dragon.
From this point, the image shifted from the emperor, a very specific image of evil, to a dragon, a more general image of the devil and evil. Artists probably drew on older traditions of St. Michael, St. Theodore, and other saints who were depicted killing a dragon-like devil.
The first image of St. George killing a dragon dates from the early eleventh century and is located in the Church of St. Barbara, Soganli Valley, Cappadocia. A coin from the reign of Roger I, prince of Antioch from 1112 to 1119, also depicts St. George on horseback attacking a dragon, providing the first evidence of Crusader knowledge of St. George as a dragon-slayer.
From the visual presentation, the dragon story developed, borrowing from ancient pagan stories. Of all the ancient legends, St. George is most often associated with the Greek legend of Perseus and Andromeda.
In that story, Poseidon sends a sea monster to attack the kingdom of Ethiopia. To pacify the monster, Andromeda, the king’s daughter, is offered as a sacrifice. Perseus kills the sea monster, saves Andromeda, and then marries her.
The similarities between St. George and Perseus are numerous with both killing a monster terrorizing society and saving a princess. The two legends are also connected geographically. St. George’s cult was centered at Lydda, not far from the traditional place where Perseus battled with the monster at modern day Jaffa.
To claim St. George is only a Christianized version of these ancient myths would be a gross overstatement. The gap of eight hundred years between the martyr St. George and the dragon-slayer St. George suggests that the saint was more than a mythical figure adopted by Christians, but some elements of St. George’s battle with the dragon might have been borrowed from pagan legends.
The earliest written account of the dragon story is an eleventh-century Georgian manuscript. The story was popularized, however, when the dragon story was included in the medieval bestseller, Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea, written around 1266. From that point forward, St. George had a dragon in the public imagination. Next time, you come across the story of a knight saving a princess from a dragon remember the real martyr who inspired that story and how he stood up to an emperor for his faith and was martyred as a result.
(I have spent the last 10 years studying St. George in the English tradition with particular attention to how his feast day became a nationalistic holiday, and here’s a shameless plug … I recently released a book based on my findings. If you’re interesting in medieval religious history (first two-thirds of the book) or English nationalism (last third of the book), you might want to check it out. It’s an academic work based on my dissertation and heavily footnoted, but accessible to the average reader. It’s available as a paperback
and a kindle
edition. If you have Amazon Prime and a kindle device, you can borrow it for FREE through Amazon’s lending library.)
April 23, 2014 10:43
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Within Catholic circles, the Second Vatican Council is a flashpoint for debate, but there is one point that all Catholics – traditionalists, progressives, liberals, conservatives – agree on: the unprecedented level of change. Consequently, most scholars would argue that the council was the defining event of the modern church, and that nothing had a greater impact on the church since the Reformation.
As an historian of religious rituals, I have been fascinated on how this religious revolution played out on the parish level and how Catholics in the 1960s and beyond reacted to it. There is no shortage of institutional histories of the council, focusing both on the events in Rome and the implementation in the United States. These works, however, concentrate on the hierarchy and their actions in developing and executing changes following the council. Even works that promise a history of the council “from below” emphasize parish priests or records composed by clerics about the laity. The voice of the majority of Catholics seems lost in the historical literature of the modern church.
My initial thought was to do an oral history of the post-conciliar church, interviewing people who lived in the 1960s and 1970s. This approach is limited, however, by the small number of people that could be sampled and also by the lack of accuracy when dealing with distant memories.
In reading about the history of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, I began seeing references to the GIFT (Growth in Faith Together) program and an extensive survey that was part of the program. I discovered that upon returning from Rome, Cardinal Shehan developed a plan to visit every parish (either himself or an auxiliary bishop) in the diocese to discuss the changes that were taking place in the late 1960s. The meetings were contentious, and he described a heightened sense of “anxiety and confusion” in the parishes. He tasked the senate of priests to construct a program to address these issues, and the GIFT program was the result of their efforts.
It was a three stage program, including research, reflection, and response. In the research phase, the entire parish would take a 60 question survey, and then in the reflection period, the parish would break
up into small groups to discuss the results of the survey and pick a few topics to learn more about. Lastly, in the response time, experts would come in and deliver lectures on topics selected by the parish during the small groups phase.
The program was piloted in two parishes in the fall of 1970, and then the senate of priests voted to implement the program in all the parishes. A thorough reading of the GIFT program reveals that it increased tension, rather than diminished it. The response sessions turning into debates, and the Catholic Review saw an eruption of heated letters to the editor in favor and in opposition of the program. Furthermore, the senate of priests’ vote was close with 115 priests voting in favor of expanding the program and 101 voting against it, highlighting the divergent opinions of the program.
The GIFT program lasted from 1970 to 1975 and 21 parishes took part. An impressive 13,796 Catholics responded, and though I am not an expert in statistics, such a high number should provide enough data to make a definitive statement concerning the laity’s reactions to the changes following Vatican II.
Over the winter break, I spent several days shifting through the survey results in the diocese’s archive, located in the basement of St. Mary’s Seminary (It is a closed box and not accessible to the general public). The survey results could provide evidence for many articles, even books, but I was initially only interested in questions dealing with the liturgy.
The simple answer to the laity’s reception of the liturgical changes can be found in question 19: “Changes in the Mass have harmed rather than helped me to worship” and 27% agreed and 68% disagreed (with 5% not answering). These results confirm the standard narrative that the majority of Catholics preferred the new Mass with its use of English and more community oriented worship. Yet, a sizable minority, nearly a third, desired to go back to the old Mass. The traditional percentage is much higher than the often cited numbers compiled by Andrew Greeley, which claim that 85-87% preferred the new Mass. To this point, I was not overly surprised by the results.
What piqued my interest was question 23. This question, unlike the other questions, changed several times, and I have not determined the reason behind the shift. Its three versions with survey results are: I like to participate actively at mass: 75% agree and 24% disagree; There should be more lay participation in Sunday Mass: 35% agree and 64% disagree; I would prefer to take Communion in my hands: 17% agree and 82% disagreed. The first two versions reveal that people wanted to be part of the Mass, but not front and center.
Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York distributes Communion at St. Patrick's
Cathedral in New York June 21, 2013.(CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
The version relating to the reception of Communion in the hand is perplexing for a variety of reasons. First, the 1970s were not a traditional era. As seen above, most people approved of the main liturgical changes, and when it came to social issues, they were exceedingly liberal, with 68% disagreeing with the church’s teaching of contraception. Second, it is also curious that there has been nearly a universal switch. I have no statistics about current practices, but from my own personal experiences, almost everyone receives Communion in the hand.
Communion in the hand was not authorized by Vatican II; though in some countries, like Germany and the Netherlands, the practice became more commonplace after the council. To address the question, Paul VI surveyed the world’s bishops on the topic, and released a document, Memoriale Domini, to explain the church’s position. Below are the questions sent to the world’s bishops and their responses.
1. Do you think that attention should be paid to the desire that, over and above the traditional manner, the rite of receiving holy communion on the hand should be admitted?
Yes: 597 No: 1,233 Yes, but with reservations: 315 Invalid votes: 20
2. Is it your wish that this new rite be first tried in small communities, with the consent of the bishop?
Yes: 751 No: 1,215 Invalid votes, 70
3. Do you think that the faithful will receive this new rite gladly, after a proper catechetical preparation?
Yes: 835 No: 1,185 Invalid votes: 128
Since the majority of bishops opposed the vote, the pope issued a clear and poignant statement on Communion in the hand. “The Apostolic See therefore emphatically urges bishops, priests and laity to obey carefully the law which is still valid and which has again been confirmed. It urges them to take account of the judgment given by the majority of Catholic bishops, of the rite now in use in the liturgy, of the common good of the Church.” He, however, left open the option of a local conference to continue the tradition of receiving Communion in the hand, if the practice was already in place.
As an historian, I have two questions related to Communion in the hand. First, why was this reform the one that no group wanted? The pope and bishops, who a few years before passed sweeping liturgical reforms, came down on the opposite side on this issue. The laity also favored the majority of the liturgical changes, but not this one. What made the traditional practice of receiving communion, kneeling at a communion rail and on the tongue, so popular even with a progressive generation?
Secondly, how did the shift happen so rapidly? My first memories of going to Mass come from the mid-1980s, only 15 years after Memorial Domini, and Communion in the hand had already become the norm. How did a practice go from being unpopular to the universal practice in 15 years or less?
Of course, these questions on the reception of Communion touch on more than one aspect of the liturgy. Its significance relates to the meaning of Communion, the role of laity, the changing of the liturgy in general, and much more. I am interested in hearing your thoughts, especially if you lived through these events in 1970s.
April 10, 2014 04:13
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Are you ready for a crazy statistic? Pope Francis, who just completed his first year as pope
, had a favorability rating of 79 percent midway through his reign. Surprisingly, Pope Benedict XVl about halfway through his reign in April 2008 had a favorability rating of 83 percent. It’s shocking that the pope demonized and held to be unpopular by almost everyone in the media had a higher approval rating at one point than the pope celebrated daily in the news.
Least, I seem dishonest. Benedict’s average for his entire reign was around 74 percent and Francis’s average over the entire year was 83 percent. Pope John Paul II was higher than both, averaging in the low 90s.
I am the last person to argue that approval ratings matter in religion, but I find these statistics useful because they complicate the standard narrative of the past year. Benedict was backwards looking and thus unpopular, and Francis is forward looking and therefore popular. That’s just not true.
This blog is not intended as an attack on Francis or a defensive of Benedict. Quite the opposite. My target is the imagined tension between the two popes, and the prevalent view that change is the key to success in the church.
Pope Francis greets people as he arrives for Mass at the parish of Santa Maria
dell'Orazione on the outskirts of Rome March 16. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Undeniably, the current pope has made a huge impact in his first year. I have often used him as a source of inspiration for many blogs, and according to recent surveys, the majority of Catholics think the church is heading in the right direction and Catholics are more excited. The “Francis Effect” however has not materialized into concrete changes in practice. There has been no noticeable change in the number of Americans that claim to be Catholic or in church attendance, and less Catholics have reportedly gone to confession in the last year.
What is the pope’s role in the renewal of the church? I think he said it best in a recent interview: “I don’t like the ideological interpretations, a certain ‘mythology of Pope Francis’. If I’m not wrong, Sigmund Freud said that in every idealization there is an aggression. Depicting the Pope to be a sort of superman, a type of star, seems offensive to me. The Pope is a man who laughs, cries, sleeps calmly and has friends like everyone. A normal person.”
Catholics are often accused of worshiping saints and the pope. To many, they seem like our versions of celebrities or stars, but there is the huge difference. Celebrities are an end in themselves. The pope finds it offensive that he has been made an end unto himself; rather, he can lead us to the true end, the One who has already saved us.
As a historian, I believe the success of the church was not due to the leadership of great members of the clergy, but almost, in spite of them. In the above quote, the pope is highlighting that people looking for a pope-superman that will save the church might be disappointed. You’ll find a normal person.
Moreover, the beauty of the church is its timelessness in the face of change. Different popes come and go but the church remains the same. Every pope has a different personality. Some have been holy men and others have been great sinners. It’s the doctrines that remain constant which ground the church and keep its identity intact, which leads us back to the statistic I cited at the beginning of the article.
Don’t let popular columnists and pundits frame the narrative: Catholics want a revolution, the pope is leading a revolution, and therefore, he is popular and viewed as a superman or star. This does not correspond to the approval ratings of John Paul or Benedict, who were not revolutionary minded.
Instead, the narrative should read: Catholics want to encounter Jesus through the church, John Paul, Benedict, and Francis all accomplished this in a variety of ways (but with different styles), and that’s why they are loved by the faithful.
March 18, 2014 10:16
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
The cultural chasm between religious individuals and American society is swelling. On a personal level, I feel distant from the current trends in politics, television, movies, and music. It’s becoming harder for individuals with Catholic sensibilities, for instance, to tune into the Grammys or scan across Yahoo’s headlines without feeling lost.
Amidst the vast difference between my own beliefs and the accepted principles of secular culture, I have been contemplating how we can dialogue with people on the other side. How do we avoid hiding in our own little clique of likeminded individuals? How do we cut through all the angst and biases? How do we share the message of Jesus with others when our basic premises are so different? Over my next three blogs, I am going to share some my thoughts on this daunting task and also critique what I see as a failed approach used by many well-intending Catholics.
I often find myself losing several hours hopping from one blog to the next, and the predominate trend is that authors praise the actions of their target audience and sham members of the opposing side. These types of articles are popular, and the success of online media is measured in clicks. I know that I get a huge boost when I write an article condemning the liberal policies of Obama, the biases of the media, or the crazy antics of Miley Cyrus. Additionally, stories that praise people in our inner circle, such as a feel good story about a Catholic athlete, do just as well.
People like, no love, these types of blogs. There is nothing inherently wrong with them, and looking back, I tend to write in this style pretty frequently. Yet, it’s a problem if this is the ONLY type of content that is generated.
Reading the Gospels, it’s obvious that Jesus did not follow the approach of the modern blogger, but took the opposite approach. He did not confine his message to the religious elite of his own Jewish community and heap accolades on its leaders. In fact, he was harshest towards them. Conversely, he was nearly silent on the Romans, which were the “other” that many Jews wished the Messiah to attack. He also moved freely within taboo communities – tax collectors, prostitutes, Samaritans – which I imagine ancient bloggers would have attacked without relent. If Jesus went after these groups, he would have been a local hero instead of hung on a cross, but he would not have saved the world.
Pope Francis is a contemporary example of an individual following the example of Jesus. He has been generous and welcoming to groups typically cast aside by the Catholic community, and he has been hard on faithful, orthodox Catholics.
An orange hat rests on the popemobile as Pope Francis greets the crowd during
his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Jan. 15. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
While the former and predominate approach is popular within the community, the tactics used by Jesus and Pope Francis can be unsettling. It’s confusing that the pope has been selected as Advocate’s Man of Year and that he received a thank you note from NARAL Pro-Choice America, and at the same time, loyal Catholics have been chastised in his interviews and homilies.
Even in this state of confusion, the approach of Jesus and now lived out by the pope is vastly superior to the more popular approach seen in many Catholic blogs. What’s the point of dialogue? What’s the reason for writing a religious blog? The author should aim to change people’s hearts. More specifically, one should want their readers to move closer to Jesus.
The first approach I described focuses on blaming others and heaping accolades on those that think similar to the author. No one changes after reading an article using this style. The writer will be praised by his fans, but it will not impart a change of heart because they’ll think they're perfect and that other people are to blame. Additionally, those holding the opposing view will not be open to the message of the article because they’ll be turned off by the language and refuse to listen. No hearts will be touched. No one improves. Largely, this happens because the purpose of the author was not to further conversion but to win an argument or to feel good about their side of the cultural struggle.
The first key to dialogue is to get people to listen, especially people typically opposed to the religious message. Jesus was able to get people to listen. Pope Francis is making people listen, too. The message of Catholicism is not for a select few but for everyone. Thus, we need to dialogue with this in mind.
The second point is to challenge everyone that is listening. This aspect is far more important than the first principle, but it is often overlooked, especially by more progressive individuals. Jesus did not just approach people with different beliefs, embrace them, and say everything is okay. He listened to them, and then asked them to change. Let’s not confuse association with condoning a behavior. If you spend time with someone, it does not imply that you agree with all their choices. On this point, many people have misread Jesus’ actions, and more recently, Pope Francis’ gestures. Jesus urged everyone he encountered to live a life of greater faith and to sin no more.
The expected change should be different for everyone, depending on their stage in life. It’s appropriate, for example, for a priest to challenge people attending a daily mass to do fifteen minutes of daily mental prayer and spiritual reading, but in a discussion with an atheist, he might challenge that individual to do a charitable act.
One brief clarification before we end. I equated the pope’s method with the style of Jesus in the Gospels. I should note the content carries different weight. Jesus’ words in the Bible are the pinnacle of our understanding of the faith, while the pope’s tweets are inspirational, they don’t carry the same theological authority. So, I was paralleling the method more than giving equal weight to their content.
What are our conversations like? Do we always focus on others as the problem? “Look how bad those people are… they’re destroying our country.” That’s a dead-end exchange, which produces no good. Instead, our dialogue needs to be accessible to all and challenging to everyone. Push your foes to change their hearts, push your friends to amend their lives even more, but push yourself the most.
Finally, dialogue needs to be rooted in love, and I’ll explore this point in more detail in the next blog.
February 21, 2014 05:05
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
One of the hot topics during our family’s Christmas gathering was Catholic education. My oldest niece is a senior in high school, and as with everyone her age, she is consumed with selecting a college. Her parents are allowing her some freedom, but prefer that she attends a college with a good, Catholic environment.
They were all impressed with The Catholic University of America. For my sister and brother-in-law, it was local and had a good religious atmosphere, and for my niece, it had solid academic programs and quick access to the city.
I spent many years at CUA, earning my doctorate, and my sister asked my opinion of the school. I enjoyed my time there, and heartily approved. Then, I heard the price - $52,852. (I had my tuition covered through a teaching assistantship).
Having spent a lot of time in higher education, I know that tuition costs have escalated across the board, but there is something wrong with charging a teenager $52,852 for one year of college. Indebting a young adult with $211,000 in loans is not Catholic, and borders on being immoral.
After recovering from the shock, I reviewed a lot of other Catholic colleges. While many are cheaper than CUA, it pains me that all the schools were over six figures for four years of education. In good conscience, I could not recommend these schools to my niece unless she received a substantial scholarship.
My own family is at the opposite end of the spectrum, with my son entering kindergarten in the fall. I desperately want to send him to our parish school, and if we made some sacrifices, we could afford to send him there. Cutting out money budgeted for cable TV, going out to eat, and vacations would get us halfway there, and teaching extra classes would cover the other half. Here’s the problem. We have another son, and we would like to have more children. Since our parish has no family discount, what will we do in the future?
Over the Christmas break, I also spoke with my brother-in-law’s brother, who has six children in Catholic elementary and high schools. He spends over $50,000 a year on tuition. That’s not cable and Starbuck’s. That’s our entire post-taxes income.
Here’s the crux of the issue. Unless you have one or maybe two children or you’re incredibly wealthy, Catholic education is out of reach. That’s saddens me greatly. As a teacher, I understand the importance of education. Outside of the family, school is the most importance influence on a child.
Why is Catholic education so expensive? First, it is not going to the teachers. For a short time, I taught at a Catholic school. My mother, two siblings, and countless friends have also taught at Catholic schools, and the pay is, well, not very good. Catholic school teachers work just as hard but are paid far less than their public school counterparts, and they deserve our gratitude.
From a historical perspective, I see two main causes in the increase of tuition costs at Catholic schools from fifty years ago. First, the number of nuns, brothers and priests teaching at Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Baltimore dropped from 2,122 in 1964 to 1,328 in 1974, and lay teachers, who required a salary, increased from 605 to 1530. In the same era, the number of parochial schools dropped from 108 to 87. I assume as a result of increased costs. The second cause, for which I don’t have any data, is the drop in parish contributions. Suffice it to say, fifty years ago, a lot of people threw a dollar in the collection basket, and today, a lot people still throw just a dollar in.
What can be done? It seems unfair that individuals who send their children to Catholic schools have to pay twice: once for public schools through taxes and again for Catholic schools through tuition. If a voucher program could be initiated, allowing some of the tax money paid by the individual to go to a Catholic school, it would make Catholic education far more affordable. The power of choice and competition would also improve the whole school system – public and Catholic.
Secondly, Catholic schools could trim their budgets. My greatest pet peeve is massive sports programs at Catholic schools. I am a huge fan of sports, and I think everyone should play sports to increase physical health, discipline, and teamwork. I don’t see the benefit of stadiums and state-of-art workout facilities, and hypercompetitive interscholastic leagues. I wish the fundraising for football teams could go instead to scholarships.
Thirdly, it takes the whole parish community to lower costs. It can only be done if everyone chips in with their time and money. Everyone needs to help, but I have a special petition for the uber-wealthy Catholic. It might be nice to have a building named after you or to purchase new, flashy technology, like SMART Boards for all the classrooms. Yet, education can be done without any of these exciting products. I suggest endowing a scholarship fund for Catholic schools. It’s not flashy, but if I had money, that’s what I would do with it.
You see many of these principles playing out in home schooling co-ops. They are a community effort, built by volunteers without the frills of some of the more expensive schools. They are affordable and focused on building up the faith.
However, I prefer Catholic schools and want to save them. School administrators have to make a very important choice. Enrollment is declining in many of their schools. How are they going to increase it?
Are Catholic schools going to become schools for the elite with the excessively high tuition pushing away many Catholic families, especially large Catholic families? Are the large donations going to build grand buildings, top sports program, and high tech classrooms? Or, are administrators going to everything they can to lower tuition costs? Both strategies might attract students, but the former will mean more elites, and the later will result in more Catholics.
January 07, 2014 12:05
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Pope Francis has proved to be a headline maker. Time’s “Person of the Year” sneezes and the world’s news agencies go crazy. Well, not exactly.
Two weeks ago, the pope revealed, as an aside, that he was a bouncer, and the news seems to be everywhere. On the other hand, the pope joked that he was a pharmacist and handed out rosary beads packaged in what looked like a medicine box, and it received little mention outside of Catholic circles.
A Google news search reveals 10 times more articles were written on the bouncer story than the handing out of rosaries
, and both pale in comparison to the coverage of the pope’s recent economic statements.
People forget that the pope is not a politician or economist, but a spiritual leader. After leading the Sunday Angelus, on Nov. 17, he provided sage spiritual advice. Handing out nearly 20,000 boxes containing rosaries, he told the massive audience that the rosary is “spiritual medicine” and “good for the heart.”
Younger Catholics might consider the rosary old fashioned, and a waste of time. Experience, however, reveals that it is a powerful prayer, which can heal and bring one closer to God.
My sister recently passed on a story about a chance encounter and the power of the rosary. She is a member of the Sisters of Life, and during Advent, the Sisters stand outside their convent, singing carols and offering hot drinks to people passing by the convent. My sister recounted a story that began four years ago when they were caroling … .
A woman walking by stopped to take in the sights. Her hair was dyed pink but there was a sad searching in her eyes. I greeted her and asked her name, “Casey,” she responded.
Talking about familiar carols segued into conversation about how much her life had changed since she’d sung those songs as a child. She was working as a “dancer” and shared some of the pain and burdens she was carrying and the lack of confidence she had in herself, in life, and in God. And her eyes spoke further, of her desire to know it could be otherwise.
I was happy to be with someone with such an open and searching soul. It’s a strikingly beautiful thing in this world, and I told her so. I prayed “Dear Lord, love through my eyes, my words, my presence. Help her to know how precious she is!”
We spoke about Christmas and Mary as a mother who always leads us to the baby Jesus. “Do you know that you can talk to her like you’ve talked to me? That she knows your heart and wants to take care of you?” Casey was listening with a smile and glistening eyes. I spoke about praying the Hail Mary and the power of the rosary. She asked if I had one for her. Reaching into my pocket, my heart sank.
Just a few weeks prior, my father had given me his rosary – a beautiful wooden one with a large crucifix. I loved it. Yet in the moment when Casey asked, I knew it was for her. Placing it in her hands, I said, “This belonged to my father, but it is yours now.” Hesitating, she took it, and I invited her to walk with me to the crèche in the little garden next to our convent. We paused, looking at the simple figurines.
“Where is the baby Jesus?” Casey asked. “Oh,” I said, “He’ll arrive in the manger on Christmas day, although it sure feels empty without Him… Jesus may not be in the crèche now, but He lives in our hearts. He desires for Christmas to happen in our hearts. We only need to say, ‘Yes, come Lord!’”
in St. Peter's Square holds a figurine of the baby Jesus as Pope Francis leads
the Angelus at the Vatican Dec. 15. Children observed an annual tradition by
bringing their Nativity figurines for the pope to bless. (CNS photo/Paul
After we spent some time in silence there I thanked Casey for entrusting her story to me and assured her of my prayers, leaving her alone in front of the rustic scene. After a few minutes of quiet she slipped out into the night.
Two weeks later, the doorbell rang; it was Casey. She explained, “A couple of weeks ago I came by, the night you were all singing, and a Sister gave me her rosary. Would you mind telling her… that night I left my job at the strip club, and gave my life to the baby Jesus.”
Four years later, just last week, I was in Manhattan walking near Bryant Park with a group of Sisters when a woman approached looking happy to see us, and asked us to pray for a heart procedure she was about to undergo. As she spoke I recognized her face – and yet she was so changed. I placed my hand on her shoulder and said, “I know you, I know you!” Casey looked at me with a smile and replied, “You gave me the rosary! I still have it and pray it every day. And I know that God loves me.”
So many people are hurting and suffering, and they are seeking help. They seek escape in alcohol or drugs, or try to cure themselves by going to therapists. They forget that they have a mother and father in heaven, waiting to hear from them, waiting to heal them. Perhaps this advent season, it is time to dust off the beads in the drawer and pray the rosary.
December 16, 2013 10:21
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Matt Walsh’s recent blog on the Thanksgiving/Black Friday controversy titled If You Shop on Thanksgiving, You Are Part of the Problem surprisingly takes aim at the American consumer. Typically, outrage concerning the increasing hours of Thanksgiving shopping is directed at major retailers, but Walsh points out that retailers need customers. If people did not shop on Thanksgiving, then the stores would not be open for the holiday.
It is easy to complain about the changing tradition of Thanksgiving. Last year, I warned that the traditional Thanksgiving family dinner could go the way of the Dodo bird, into extinction. I wrote about the sad transition:
At one point, our country valued giving God thanks, and for one day a year, we collectively expressed our gratitude to God for our food, homes, family, and country. The former importance of Thanksgiving is a testament to the Christian heritage of his country, but sentiments have changed, greatly diminishing the significance of the holiday. In its place, Black Friday has arisen.
Black Friday represents America’s obsession with stuff. In a few days, millions of Americans will wait hours in line, trample those who get in their way, and then fight to grab the latest must-have item, all in the name of a bargain. More than another event, Black Friday demonstrates the materialism and greed that has infiltrated our culture.
As I have continued to reflect on the sad state of Thanksgiving, I have begun to realize that the hostile takeover of Thanksgiving by Black Friday is not the main the problem. More troubling is that the cultural struggle is to keep two, ONLY TWO, days for God and family: Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Thanksgiving is one of the few days of the year reserved for family
Nearly everyone concedes there are 363 days a year for shopping. The only difference is that “social conservatives” are arguing for only 363 days of shopping, and the retailers are pushing for 365 days. That’s not a big difference.
Christmas already has become so absorbed by consumerism that it’s hard to find a young child that values the birth of Jesus over presents and Santa, and sadly, we’re witnessing the decline of Thanksgiving before our very own eyes the past few years.
Somehow, you are considered a countercultural radical if suggest two days, let me repeat TWO DAYS, with no shopping. That’s not the Catholic perspective. Rather, a clear priority exists in our faith: God, family, and then somewhere toward the bottom, shopping.
We need to abate our obsession with shopping, and find time to rest every week. It’s pretty clear in the Bible: “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God.” And in the Catholic Catechism, “On Sundays and other holy days of obligation the faithful are bound . . . to abstain from those labors and business concerns which impede the worship to be rendered to God, the joy which is proper to the Lord's Day, or the proper relaxation of mind and body."
We shouldn’t embrace Sunday as a day of rest just because is a commandment and emphasized in the Catechism. It is also a wonderful and enjoyable practice. Growing up, I loved Sundays. We would get up leisurely, go to Mass, have a family brunch, and then play games as a family. There was no shopping, no activities, not even homework until the evening. It was a day for worshiping God and leisure time with the family. I cherished it.
If you are too busy Monday through Saturday that you must shop on Sunday, then you are too busy. Look at your schedule, and take something out. The 34 hours of television the average American watches per week, might be a good place to start, but do not skimp on God and family time.
Moreover, think of all the retail workers who are required to work on Sunday. They cannot go to church, they cannot rest, and they cannot spend time with their families.
Some might counter that it’s an economic necessity for stores and restaurants to be open on Sunday. I would respond that Chick-fil-A seems to be expanding even though they are closed on Sunday. Likewise, Paramus, New Jersey is one of the largest retail centers in the world, doing $5 billion in retail sales per year, but none of it on Sunday because of the town’s strict blue laws.
It would be wonderful to have one day per week where there is no traffic, no shopping stress, no running around. Even if a person is not religious or even Christian, they would agree that some down time with those that matter the most is a good thing.
Matt Walsh points out in his blog that there is a level of hypocrisy in individuals who complain about stores being open on Thanksgiving and then go shopping on Thanksgiving. I find it equally odd that proponents of family time and defenders of traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas practices fail to mention the collapse of Sunday as a day of rest.
I see the root cause of the increased amount of shopping on Thanksgiving not due to greedy retails stores or even shoppers hungry for a good deal. Rather, it is due to the blurring of sacred time and profane time, or more specially, the decline of sacred time. Sacred time is special time set aside for God, when worldly activities are suspended. Once the idea of sacred time, with Sunday at its center, decreased in importance, it was only a matter of time before all holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas included, were overrun by consumerism.
Are you upset with the collapse of Thanksgiving? Then, do something. Matt Walsh suggests we set out by not shopping on Thanksgiving. It’s a start, but we need to go farther than building a cultural defensive wall around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I suggest we begin by re-sanctifying time, holding holy each and every Sunday.
November 26, 2013 04:23
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
A few years ago, my oldest son, who was 2 at the time, was throwing his first epic tantrum. After about 15 minutes, I decided to document his “performance” by recording a video of it on my phone. I thought about showing it to him when he was older and uttering the stereotypical: “see what you put me through.” With him still in full screaming mode, I played back the minute long video that I had recorded.
Surprisingly, he instantly stopped the tantrum and sat next to me, intently watching the video. When it was finished, he asked to watch it again, and after three viewings, he calmly walked away, acting as if nothing had happened.
The strategy I stumbled upon proved to be successful in ending future tantrums, and now, I merely breakout my phone during a fit and he runs away, ending the screaming. Last week, my second son, who is 16 months old, threw his first tantrum, complete with falling on the ground, crying, and kicking. I shot and then showed him a video of his outburst, and he, too, quickly calmed down. Although being younger, the phone ended up in his mouth at the end of episode. Afterwards, I thought that I might be on to a universal parenting tip.
Why was my method successful? Children are drawn to watching videos. You could easily stop a tantrum by showing them a video of the Wiggles (“hot potato, hot potato”), but once that video ends, another fit will likely ensue. I am not a psychologist, but if you reward bad behavior, then your children will continue to misbehave.
It’s undeniable that the video draws them in. After recording the video, I typically step back and tilt the screen away from my son as I begin watching it. His curiosity is peaked, and it becomes irresistible for him to watch it. Next, the naturally calming effect of watching a video makes him open to absorbing a new perspective. However, it is the content of the video that triggers a substantial change in his behavior.
Children are born self-centered. They don’t have that ability to think from any other perspective than their own. If they are thirsty, they want a drink now, no matter if mommy and daddy are busy. One of the most important tasks of parenting is to teach your children how their actions impact other people.
When a child is throwing a fit, you cannot rationalize with them. Good luck with that. You can try to explain to them how ridiculous they look until you turn blue, but they will not listen. However, you can show them how ridiculous they look. Hopefully, when they see themselves on the video, they will realize that they are doing something wrong.
Recently, leaks about the NSA surveillance program have revealed that the government is collecting information about our Internet, email and phone use. An argument could be made that recording all this activity could deter people from doing something that would inflict a great deal of death and destruction. My general distrust of the government makes me a little weary of the program, and it seems like a step closer to the panoptic Big Brother.
A more apt analogy to filming a tantrum can be found in the spiritual world. In one sense, our entire life is being recorded, and I have an intuition that in the instant after our death, it will all be played back to us, the good and the bad. How will we feel about it? Content with our actions or discomforted, like a toddler after a tantrum?
Which leads us to the question, what type of Christian are we? Are we a phony Christian? That is, are we friendly to everyone when interacting face to face, but disparage others behind their backs? Do we present ourselves to others as an ideal family, but argue and disrespect each other when no one is looking? God does not care how we appear, but who we truly are as individuals.
One key to the spiritual life is not to wait until the last moment in our lives to review our past actions. One traditional practice is to perform a daily examination of conscience. Every night replay the day in your mind, thanking God for the many blessings and asking forgiveness for what we have done wrong. No one should be too ashamed of their sins to ask for forgiveness. Everyone make mistakes, and God is more than willing to dispense his mercy. We just need to ask.
I hope my parenting tip works for your child’s tantrums. More importantly, I hope we realize that we are all like children and need to review our daily actions. Ask yourself before engaging in an activity, if my parents, my spouse, my children, God or even a future you, saw me doing it, would they approve? Would they be proud of my actions?
October 18, 2013 03:13
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Well, the pope has done it again. His recent interview has unleashed a torrent of coverage. Even though, he distinctively stated that the church needs to talk less about abortion, gay marriage, and contraception, the media has exploded with articles on these very topics. A quick Google news search yielded 950 articles written on these topics in the last 24 hours.
The coverage has been amusing. The worst offense was NARAL's Facebook post, which simply stated: "Dear Pope Francis, Thank you. Signed, Pro-choice women everywhere."
Okay, what's going on with the coverage of pope? Here's what I think is happening...
Editor: I want you to cover the Pope.
Reporter: But, I cover sports, and I really don't know anything about religion.
Editor: No problem. You just have to take a few quotes out of context and use the words controversial, groundbreaking, radical, and the like.
Reporter: I thought our job was to enlighten the people, not sensationalize the news and thereby confuse them.
Editor: Hahaha, you are new to this area. When I started covering Pope Benedict, my editor instructed me to do the same things, expect use words like backwards, archconservative, medieval, and so on. My articles were wildly popular. You'll do just fine.
Does the media purposely distort the sayings of religious leaders in order to make news out of something that is not newsworthy, or are they completely ignorant of church teachings? It's probably a little of both.
Every time I read an article about the church, I see a potential blog, clarifying what the church actually teaches and how the article distorts an out of context statement. Specifically, Benedict was made to look like a backwardness conservative, and Francis is made out to be a radical progressive.
Pope Francis greets a child as he arrives to lead his general audience in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Sept. 11. Addressing a group of Catholic gynecologists Sept. 20, the pope condemned abortion as the product of a"'throwaway culture."(CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Undoubtedly, there has been a major shift is the way the message has been delivered. In the past few months, I have learned that appearances are very significant, but I also discovered that the "experts" exert little to no effort in discerning the substance of what they are reporting.
The Catholic blogosphere spends so much time clarifying what is in the news. Every new "controversy" is followed by hundreds of blogs trying to defuse the storm. As a blogger, I am tired, and I think many Catholics have a similar sentiment.
The saddest element of this trend is that the last two Popes have developed beautiful, nuanced theologies. Numerous times, the whole message has been overshadowed by one line, and the vast majority of people miss the whole message, only learning of one contentious line through the news.
I would suggest reporters invest in a little book called the Catechism of the Catholic Church. When reporting on a topic, lookup the relevant section in the Catechism. If the text is similar to the new, controversial statement (it almost always is), then it is NOT new and NOT controversial. I doubt that this will happen, but we can always hope.
For us Catholics, we need to invest in doing the extra work. Never get your religious reports from the media. Instead read the entire interview, homily, or speech of the pope. Seek out non-traditional media reports, written by an individual adept at theology for analysis. You'll find yourself less frustrated, far more informed, but also more inspired.
I'll leave you with a quote from the pope:
We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity ... I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems.
If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith - a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.
In this perspective I would now like to continue by completing ... what matters above all is to tend one's personal relationship with God, with that God who revealed himself to us in Christ.
That is, the quote is from the "archconservative, backwards" Benedict, which shockingly resembles the "controversial, progressive" section of Francis' interview.
September 22, 2013 08:21
By Dr. H. P. Bianchi
Ten years ago following John Paul II’s condemnation of the invasion of Iraq, I penned an email to my friends and family. I explained that the pope was not speaking “ex cathedra”, but rather, he was making a personal statement. As such, it was not infallible, and Catholics were, therefore, not bound to accept his statement as an official teaching of the church. Moreover, I argued that the pope was wrong, and I cited numerous examples from history when popes erred on political stances.
My email, which still is in my sent box, was riddled with the standard pre-war jargon. It was not a preemptive war, I wrote, but a defensive war against a constant aggressor in Saddam Hussein. We could not appease him, like the great powers did with Hitler in the 1930s. The credibility of the United States and the United Nations demanded action.
I even cited a section of the Catechism: “Peace is not merely the absence of war... Peace cannot be attained on earth without safeguarding the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons.” Thus I maintained, peace could only be achieved in Iraq, if we went to war.
I was wrong. In retrospect, I do not believe the war was justified. From a historical perspective, it was far longer and more costly (in innocent human lives) than anyone anticipated. The current state, 10 years later, is on the brink of collapse, and the whole region is in turmoil.
If there is one bright spot for me in this sad episode, it is that I learned a great lesson. In 2003, I was a cocky, know-it-all 23-year-old, and without consideration, I dismissed the opinion of one of the most brilliant and holiest individuals of our time. Additionally, I believed in our political leaders (WMDs and all) over the wisdom of the church. Today, I am far more cautious.
It seems like déjà vu. Another president, ironically a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, is pushing for war in the Mideast. On the other end, a new pope is calling for dialogue and prayer. I do not know what the best approach is to the bloody civil war in Syria, but this time, I am more inclined toward prayers over missiles.
Many people have laid out the case against the war. The prospects of a positive outcome are slim as the rebels are backed by al-Qaeda, and the chemical weapons (as well as American weapons) would likely fall into the hands of terrorists. Even with a victory, a post-Assad regime would mean the elimination of ancient Christian communities and other minorities as well, through mass killings and a forced exodus. In short, the violence and tension would only increase after the regime fell.
Additionally, the United States does not have a longterm plan. Bush argued, with oversimplified logic, that America should topple dictators and bring democracy to the Middle East. It was a plan, a bad one, but people could rally around and fight for the cause of freedom. As I understand our current position, our strategy is not to get involved in Syria’s direct future, but only to supply weapons and launch missile strikes. It does not seem sensible to provide more weapons and missiles to a region that already has too many, and then, just leave.
The Iraq war has left me with a bad taste for war and politics in general. So, what should we do with Syria? The pope has suggested prayer and fasting. To many, he must appear naïve.
At the time of Jesus, many in the Jewish community wanted a messiah to lead a military revolution against the Roman Empire. Instead of a warmonger, they got a prayermonger. On the crucifix, the symbol of our faith, he offered a prayer of forgiveness for his Roman tormentors, not a call for revenge.
In the early church, Christians faced a long and brutal persecution from the same Roman Empire. They did not launch an armed resistance, but like Jesus, they prayed for them. In the end, God rewarded their persistence in prayer.
Sadly over time, the church drifted away from the message of prayer instead of war, but in the last two centuries, stripped of her power, armies, and state, she has rediscovered it. In the world of realpolitik, recent popes would have been bad politicians, and even worse generals. That’s okay, because they have been good Christians.
In the future, military action may be justified, and I’ll support our nation. In the interim, I will follow the call of the pope to fast and pray
(especially this Saturday) for Syria. Sorry Obama, this time I stand with the church.
(My conscience is troubled by the fact that we are not doing enough for the people of Syria, and perhaps, the missile strikes will help them. My position against the strikes, however, is confirmed by the numerous westerners and western religious
living in Syria that have asked Obama not to expand the American war effort)
September 03, 2013 04:42
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By Dr. H. P. Bianchi