Every year, before Easter, the Catholic Church celebrates Holy Week. Holy Week is good time for the smells and bells Catholics. It’s a different week in the liturgical year — palms, parts of the Gospel read outside of the Church, empty tabernacles. And incense. Lots of incense. All designed to let you know that this week is different.

One of the unofficial rituals is carping over the Holy Thursday’s washing of feet. During the Holy Thursday mass there is an optional ritual — the washing of feet. During this ritual the celebrant imitates Jesus’ washing his disciples feet at the last super. This is supposed to remind the celebrant that he is a servant of the community. On occasion the reminder has lasted until Easter.

Now, in a classical “Blessed are the makers of all dairy products” moment, there is a great deal of argument over what kind of people should have their feet washed, ie, should they be men or women? The instructions from the Vatican are quite clear; they people having their feet washed should be men. The 12 apostles, were, after all, men. Some claim we should follow His example. But, others are clearly upset that women are excluded.

What to do?

I have three proposals for modifying the rite.

Proposal one: Jesus didn’t just wash men’s feet. No, the interpretation is rather more particular about it then that. In my modified rite #1, the twelve foot washees must have names identical to the twelve apostles. Otherwise, confusion among the faithful might result and people might not realize that the people having their feet washed represent the twelve apostles.

Proposal two: Jesus didn’t just wash men’s feet. No, he washed first century Jews feet. I’m willing to give in on the first century part, but for proposal two the twelve people having their feet washed must be Jewish. And have names identical to the twelve apostles.

Proposal three: Holy Thursday is considered to be when the apostles were ordained (note: this means they all bailed on Him after ordination), therefor — all twelve foot washees must be bishops. Converted from Judaism. With names matching the twelve apostles.

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“No other act can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep school kid next door, and the snows of yesteryear,”

Norman Mailer on William F. Buckley, Jr.
 

One of the things about growing older is that, one by one, all the iconic figures of your childhood and early adult life die off. Over the years, you watch them parade by on the television, and slowly come to realize that a whole generation of people whose existence you just took for granted is passing away.

Today, William F. Buckley, Jr.—patriarch of the American conservative movement, perennial pundit, and (almost self-parodying) icon of erudition—died at home. He died, at 82, as he would have wanted—quite possibly writing a final witty column for publication. Author of 45 books spanning the literary spectrum and countless articles and speeches, he was found in his study, slumped at his desk. He died, it would seem, as he lived: fighting the conservative fight in the public arena with, we can presume, wit, poise, and civility.

Next to his (in)famous erudition, it was perhaps his civility that most stands out today. In the present partisan climate, replete with vicious personal attacks, rage-fueled diatribes, and emotional ‘arguments’ on each side of the aisle, Bill Buckley stood aloof, refusing to abandon reason for passion. As others flung handfuls of mud, hoping some might stick out of the sheer volume, he refused to be hurried, and fired his own measured shots at his own pace.

Buckley’s greatest gift was his infectious love of life and political discourse, which led many of his rivals and critics to nonetheless enjoy his company. He was a sort of political scamp, impishly speaking his mind and sparking controversy. Just when you’d think you’d figured him out, suddenly he’d issue a statement, perfectly consistent, but utterly different from your assumptions. A moral conservative who proposed legalizing drugs; a former supporter of segregation who freed the conservative mainstream of the John Birchers and Randian Objectivists; a staunchly conservative pundit who enjoyed the company of many on the left: Bill Buckley was frequently an iconoclastic icon.

Perhaps his self-deprecating wit is best exhibited, as the New York Times obituary remarks, by a line Buckley wrote for a KGB official in “Who’s on First:”

Do you ever read the National Review, Jozsef? It is edited by this young bourgeois fanatic.

All jests aside, William F. Buckley, Jr. was the very opposite of a fanatic. Where fanatics are notoriously humorless about their cause, he was all infectious wit and merriment. Where fanatics eschew the company of those who refuse to see the light, he reveled in it. And where fanatics make it clear by every action that human life is subordinate to the holy cause, Bill Buckley made it clear by his every action that the conservative cause exists to serve human life. To him one did not live to be conservative, one was conservative in order to live to the fullest. As if orchestrating a life-long jest this “hammer of the secular humanists” was a vigorous and life-long champion of real humanism.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.

Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
aeternam habeas requiem.

Resquiat in pace, Bill!

I heard the news today….Oh Boy!

I built a bookcase for a local primary school. It was a roll-around cart and employed brightly colored laminates of red, blue and yellow. I imagine it’s still there in the library, cheering up the children. What I should have constructed was a cart in shades of grey.

As I was going to work this past Christmas season, I listened to a local news story about a ‘managed care facility’ in town. [ I would call it an old folk’s home, but you know—not PC]. They were decorating the place for Christmas and had placed a traditional Christmas tree in the commons space. When they began adorning the branches with angels, and other iconic representations relevant to the birth of Jesus Christ, the management stepped in and decreed that all such symbols be removed. Globes and candy canes — ok. Crosses and nativities — verbotten. This would give offense to other religions.

Now keep in mind that this is not a public venue, where misinterpretations of the separation of church and state give rise to moral outrage at the display of the Ten Commandments in a courthouse routunda. [The noise you hear are the founding fathers spinning in their graves.] No, this is a private dwelling, much like an apartment complex, but with cooks and housekeepers. Given the demographics of the County, and the age of the residents, it is fair to say that the majority of them are Christian, with perhaps a smattering of Jews. The intrusion of such politics doesn’t generate anger in the residents as much as confusion.

In their time, the Catholic boys in New York would operate the elevators for the observent Jews on Saturday. Jewish employees would mind the stores while Christians went to church on Christmas. And as much as anything, each of them would at least respect the other’s religion, with at most a “Well, they’re a little strange, those Jews [Baptists, Methodists, Amish, ‘other’]”.

How can people celebrate ‘diversity’ when they seem intent to eliminate every cultural and religious aspect that makes diverse cultures interesting and reduce people’s existence to the least common and least interesting denominator — a shade of grey. What we should be doing is respecting other celebrations and rejoycing in watching others rejoyce in whatever inspires them. I am not Catholic, but my favorite piece of music is a 1610 Vespers, and when performed in a church resplendent with stained glass and liturgical symbology, one cannot help but be awed by the human effort to the spiritual .

Grey’s my favorite color. I felt so symbolic yesterday.

Counting Crows, Mr. Jones

During this past season I wanted to listen to Claudio Monteverdi at St. Johns, watch them light the candles on the menorah over Chanukkah, watch the feast of Idul Fitri in Jakarta, and in general participate in all of the wonderful things that make cultures and traditions unique — and not be symbolically grey.

Giving offense to no one offends all.

On January 22nd, 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down their decision in the case of Roe vs. Wade. Thirty-five years later, we’re down to about 1.2 million abortions in the US per year (down from 1.5 million at the high point) and abortion is legal in all 50 states for almost any reason. This leaves me with but one conclusion: the pro-life movement has been a complete and utter failure.

After 35 years of voting for “pro-life” candidates (a code word often meaning “Republican”), the political arm of the pro-life movement has little to show for their efforts beside parental notification laws in 34 states and a partial birth abortion ban that Justice Kennedy practically begged someone to challenge. All, in all, the pro-life movement has had marginally more success than American Medical Marijuana Association despite the “support” over the years of many prominent politicians. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me for 35 years running, and I’m a pro-life activist.

To the credit of the pro-life movement, more and more people are realizing that doing the same thing over and over again will not yield different results. Germain Grisez admitted as much a few years back, but he never had the audience to make enough of a difference. On January 20th, in a move guaranteed to generate a firestorm of letters from irate EWTN fans, Fr. Benedict Groeschel invited a man to his show by the name of Msgr. Phillip Reilly, who was willing to speak the truth and unmask the pro-life movement’s work for what it is: a failure. Msgr. Reilly realized this a few years back and decided to try a radically different approach: no more shouting and yelling, no more making young mothers feel like they were evil incarnate because they were contemplating abortion. Msgr. Reilly founded the Helpers of God’s Precious Infants. The weapons he chose were not sound bites, placards or the ballot box, but rather prayer and love… for the baby, the doctor and most especially, the mother, regardless of what choice she made inside the clinic. The approach is not particularly new — prayer & sidewalk counseling has been around for a long time — but his willingness propose it as a model opposed to the traditional shout and vote approach was quite impressive.

Whether folks will listen to Msgr. Reilly or not is anyone’s guess. But perhaps come January 22nd, next year, there will be be a little less failure… and a little more hope thanks to Msgr. Reilly. There are a lot of moms out there who could use it.

Danny Thomas (born Amos Alphonsus Muzyad Yaqoob), Jan. 6, 1912-Feb. 6, 1991.

Success has nothing to do with what you gain in life or accomplish for yourself. It’s what you do for others.

—Danny Thomas

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Many Americans today have probably never heard of Danny Thomas, as he belonged definitively to the twilight of the Golden Age of Cinema (starring in the 1952 remake of The Jazz Singer) and the dawn of the Golden Era of Television (starring in, what else, The Danny Thomas Show and producing such shows as The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Andy Griffith Show, and The Mod Squad). And before all that, he was a stand-up comic touring the Midwest nightclub circuit under an anglicized form of his given name, Amos Jacobs.

In any event, it is not for Danny’s entertainment talent that we honor him today. Of all his long work in the studios, only a couple of his many shows are still shown frequently. But though most do not know him by name, nearly everyone knows him through his greatest legacy: The St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

At an early moment in his career, when the nightclub circuit was looking particularly grim (he was languishing in Detroit, no less), Danny knelt down in prayer and asked St. Jude Thaddeus (patron of hopless causes) to “show me my way in life.” Soon Danny found himself in Chicago and his career finally moving. When he next went to St. Jude in prayer at another turning point, he pledged to build a shrine if he ever had the means to do so.

His career took off, and Danny found himself wondering just how to fulfill his vow. Working with a group of businessmen in Memphis, he hit upon the idea to build a research hospital dedicated to curing the most catastrophic diseases afflicting children. A key point here: Danny Thomas didn’t just found a hospital—which after all can only treat the children that come through its doors—he founded a research institute dedicated to researching, applying, and publicizing cures for free.

And Danny did more than just found the place, he returned to the community of his birth, Lebanese Americans, to secure ongoing funding. From his efforts, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) was founded—with the sole purpose of supporting St. Jude. Today, ALSAC—still exclusively dedicated to St. Jude—is America’s third-largest health-care charity. Thus, the efforts of Danny Thomas and the Arab-American community produced a fundraising powerhouse that today transcends ethnicity, geography, and ideology to reach across America.

With an initial focus on pediatric cancer, St. Jude has helped increase the cure rate of acute lymphocytic leukemia from 4% to 80%, seen its budget grow from $1 million per year to $235 million, and branched out to study HIV-AIDS (devastating the children of Africa) and numerous cancers. Today it engages in cutting edge gene and stem cell therapies and is a highly rated scientific institution.

Leaving aside the 4900 patients seen each year, St. Jude has saved the lives of thousands upon thousands of children around the world through its contributions to basic and clinical research. Protocols developed at St. Jude have helped raise the survival rates for childhood cancers from under 20% to around 70%, with several key cancers having survival rates 90% or higher. And now it sets its sights on the diseases and therapies of the 21st Century. In the best American fashion it does not simply treat the symptoms of the ills it fights, it seeks to eliminate the root causes.

All from the vow of a stand-up comic, with help from a few Memphis businessmen and the unstinting assistance of the Arab-American community. Danny Thomas represents precisely what is right about America: he had opportunity, seized it, succeeded, and then stopped to consider how he could use his success to improve the world.

Of course, as with our other Great Americans Walt Disney and George Marshall, there are detractors. Some point to the sheer impossibility of curing childhood diseases and the tendency of charities to metastasize over time. To these folks the size and scope of St. Jude aren’t strengths but weaknesses—weaknesses that a group of smaller more focused institutions wouldn’t have. Others point out that as nasty as the diseases St. Jude fights are, they’re nothing compared to the childhood deaths from starvation, war, and exploitation. Wouldn’t all those millions be better spent fighting these more lethal, but far less scientifically “sexy” killers? Doesn’t St. Jude commit the classic American blunder of the Big Plan when less ambitious, more targeted efforts would work better?

There’s a point to all the carping, to be sure, but it still misses the point. Here, as always, the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good. Trying too hard to get the perfect solution is a great recipe for doing nothing. While others carp, hopeless cases still find hope at the place Danny built.

Still, I don’t think Danny would mind if those critics of his got busy building their competing visions. They might give ALSAC a run for the money, but I can’t help but think that Danny would just look down and urge them on.

After all, there’s still more than enough childhood misery to go around, sadly.