Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Two Very Different Anniversaries

Ten years ago today, the Iraq War began.

I was a senior in college, and I remember quite clearly that day as I was watching the opening rounds of the NCAA Men's Basketball tournament with friends. Being college students, there were beverages of various kinds being consumed, and I'd like to blame what happened on the beverages, but I can't. Alcohol only lowers inhibitions, so the reactions I observed and did nothing to challenge were indicative of a sickness already inside many of us.

Knowing that basketball fans would get upset if their games were interrupted by breaking news, CBS chose to insert Dan Rather into the commercial breaks instead. A team would take a timeout, and all of a sudden there would be greenish night-vision footage of bombs falling on Bagdad.

If a blind person were in the room, they would have had no way of knowing if guys were cheering for a clutch free-throw or a bright green explosion that probably meant innocent civilians were, at that very moment, dying because of a disagreement over weapons of mass destruction that didn't actually exist.

I didn't join in the cheering, but I didn't do anything to challenge it, either. The scene was so surreal I didn't know what to say, but I'm certain a part of me didn't want to risk a negative reaction from my friends or get accused of being "unpatriotic". So I sat silently as others cheered on a war that, to them, seemed a mere spectacle playing out on our TV screens, just like the basketball games.

This memory becomes even more tragic when I recall that fifty-five years ago today, Thomas Merton wrote about his famous epiphany of the previous day while on a rare journey outside the monastery walls. Merton records in his journal:

Yesterday, in Louisville, at the corner of 4th and Walnut (today Muhammed Ali Blvd.), suddenly realized that I loved all the people and that none of them were, or could be totally alien to me. As if waking from a dream- the dream of my separateness, of the "special" vocation to be different. My vocation does not really make me different from the rest of men or put me in a special category, juridically. I am still a member of the human race- and what more glorious destiny is there for man, since the Word was made flesh and became, too, a member of the Human Race!

Thank God! Thank God! I am only another member of the human race, like all the rest of them. I have the immense joy of being a man! As if the sorrows of our condition could really matter, once we begin to realize who and what we are- as if we could ever begin to realize it on earth. ~Journals, vol. 3 (A Search for Solitude: Pursuing the Monk's True Life), pp. 181-182

I'm not so naive as to believe that one single thing could solve all the world's problems. But if the President of the United States, a bunch of beer chugging frat guys, and everyone else shared in Merton's simple but profound realization that we are all, indeed, one great human family, perhaps we would be much more reluctant to go to war.

At the very least, we certainly wouldn't cheer as bombs exploded on our TV screens during March Madness commercial breaks.

May the epiphany of fifty-five years ago help prevent us from making tragic mistakes like the one that began ten years ago today.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Pope Francis and what his name might mean

Upon yesterday's news that Cardinal Bergoglio had been elected pope and taken the name Francis, a wave of speculation as to what the significance of this name is and what he intends to do as pope. Given how secretive the Vatican is, tea leaf reading is all we have to go on.

Since Bergoglio is a Jesuit, I initially thought he might have been referencing St. Francis Xavier, one of the great early figures in his order and a famed missionary. Although if he was really planning a Jesuit coup at the Vatican (which wouldn't be the worst thing in the world), he might have called himself Pope Ignatius.

It turns out that he is referencing the more well known St. Francis of Assisi. Francis is beloved around the world, even by non-Catholics and non-Christians, because of his love for the poor, his care for creation, and his zeal to reform the church. An early story about Francis is that he heard Jesus saying "rebuild my church", which he first thought meant simply the chapel in which he was praying, but later came to understand it meant the church universal.

Incidentally, it's pretty cool that a couple of seagulls were hanging out on top of the chimney that was being closely watched for white smoke while inside, right about that time, the newly elected pope was taking for himself the name of the saint who famously preached to the birds.

One significance of Francis' papal name I haven't seen referenced yet, other than briefly at the end of Thomas Reese's piece on the National Catholic Reporter, is St. Francis' role as peacemaker and pioneer of interfaith dialogue.

In 1219, in the middle of the 5th Crusade, Francis and his fellow friar, Illuminato, traveled to Damietta, Egypt, and crossed the battle lines to speak with Sultan Malik al-Kamil. While Francis did not convert the sultan or broker peace between the warring civilizations (it's debatable whether he intended to do either), he came back saying that Christians should live peacefully with Muslims and that the two faiths agree on more things than those they disagree on.

The best account of this meeting I've read is Paul Moses' The Saint and the Sultan. The link is to the hardcover edition, but it's available for Kindle, too.

The legacy of mistrust between Islam and the West that began in the era of the Crusades is still with us, so Francis of Assisi's legacy as an interfaith peace-maker is as crucial as it ever was.

Right now there is no way of knowing if Pope Francis had this in mind when he chose his name yesterday. Hopefully, he will sit down for an in depth interview soon and shed more light on which aspects of St. Francis he intends to emulate in his pontificate.

One might be more inclined to read the Christian-Muslim implication into the pope's choice if he were from Africa or South Asia, where Christians and Muslims interact frequently. Francis' homeland, Argentina, is only 2.5% Muslim, according to a 2010 Pew Center report, and South America has the sparsest Muslim population of any continent. Interfaith dialogue in South America tends to be between Catholics and other Christian groups.

Whatever the case, we need more St. Francises (Franci?) in the world. Not just in Rome, but in Nashville, New York, Bejing, and everywhere else. Perhaps this pontiff will inspire a whole new generation to discover the legacy of Francis of Assisi, and perhaps even a few to go and do likewise.