Death’s Déjà vu

judge1I was sauntering through the kitchen a few days ago and there was my wife reading a news story on the computer. She was shaking her head and the headline caught my eye:

UK judge rules against parents, allows hospital to turn off baby’s life support

For understandable reasons, I confused the headline with the following:

Baby’s life-support will be switched off today against parents’ wishes: judge rules

So I asked my wife why she was reading an article about Charlie Gard, the baby who died in the UK last year at the insistence of his doctors and the decree of the court and over the objections of everyone from the parents to the Pope. My wife, a bit shocked (at the story, not me) explained that it involved Isaiah Haastrup, not Charlie Gard.

In other words, it was another case of a hospital in the UK deciding to remove a child from life support, the parents wanting to keep him alive and the court assuming the role of God.  The first headline above is about Isaiah, the second about Charlie.

Charlie’s parents lost all their appeals, Great Ormond Street Hospital pulled the plug and he died. This despite the raising of huge sums of money to continue his treatment.

Isaiah’s parents are still appealing and have a court hearing later this month, but it seems that King’s College Hospital is just itching to pull his plug. I have serious doubts that a UK appeals court will be struck with a random case of sincere Catholic moral conscience.

My wife stared at the screen; I stared at the screen.  It was like a terrible, recurrent nightmare.  I felt a cold, emptiness in my stomach.

Am I alone in seeing the irony that in sophisticated medical institutions, in one of the world’s “great” cities, there is such a disconnect between the caring image presented, the compassion claimed, and reality.

The stated mission of Great Ormond Street Hospital is “The child first and always.” Apparently, Charlie Gard existed somewhere beyond “always.”

King’s College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust remains rated as “Requires Improvement” by the Care Quality Commission (CQC). I expect Isaiah’s parents would agree with that assessment.

Hospitals, courts, government leaders, social-service agencies are all quick to promote how caring they are, how much they want to do the right thing. But none has the wisdom to decide the time of death.  That is God’s alone.

When I wrote of Charlie Gard’s death last July, I had an eerie sense I would be writing of something similar in the future. I have the same feeling now.


Beads over Birds

467Once upon a time, there was a Chicago radio host who tried to help nervous air travelers by loaning them his rubber chicken. The idea was that if you took the chicken with you on the plane you would have no fear – or at least your fears would be greatly diminished.

The rubber chicken was an early foreshadowing of what has become a real pain for airlines and their customers: the emotional support animal. There is a big difference in that the rubber chicken was, well, a rubber chicken as opposed to a live bird.

This came to mind a couple days ago when United Airlines denied a woman’s request to bring her emotional support animal on a flight. In this case, it was a real, live bird – a peacock.

Let me be clear; I like birds. In point of fact, I have a bird who has been living in my home for the past 18 years and is a beloved member of the family: Conrad the green-cheek conure. The green-cheek is a small parrot that hails from the forests of South America.

peacockDespite being a cute, friendly and emotionally supportive bird, Conrad never has and never will accompany me on an airline flight. It would be silly and potentially annoying to other passengers.  Conrad tends to screech during times of stress, which being locked in a metal tube with dozens of strangers would certainly constitute.

A peacock would be much more disruptive.  It is larger and could generate considerably more bird waste. It is hard for me to imagine why anyone would think it is appropriate to bring a peacock on a plane.

But I admit that I don’t know why anyone – other than a blind person with a service dog – thinks they should bring an animal on a plane.  The right to animals on a plane is not in the constitution nor bill of rights.

But in our me-first culture, many people seem to believe they have a right to bring their little poochy-woochy wherever they go. Frankly, being stuck on a plane beside a woman (sorry, but I’ve never encountered this behavior in a man) on a plane with her “purse dog” is discomforting. A non-purse peacock is absurd.

I have friends from South Africa. They never ask to bring an emotional support elephant on a plane.

I have friends from Canada. They never ask to bring an emotional support moose on a flight.

RosaryBut my friends – and I – do have something for emotional support.  It also works for spiritual support.

Prayer: quiet, easy, portable, can be done in any place under any circumstances. A useful tool for prayer is the rosary (as in beads), which is helpful for praying the rosary (prayer).

Unlike dogs, peacocks, elephants or moose, the rosary does not have to be walked, fed or cleaned up after. And when it comes to emotional support, I’ll take my rosary over any 10 pesky peacocks.


The Everlasting Poor

Poverty_Jerusalem“For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.” – John 12:8

 “For you always have the poor with you; but you do not always have Me.” – Matthew 26:11

 “For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you wish you can do good to them; but you do not always have Me.” – Mark 14:7

Don’t worry. Despite initial appearances, this will not be a scripture commentary

I am not a theologian.  I am just a guy who hears a line from the gospel and spends a decade or two pondering its meaning.

The line cited above in triplicate is part of the story of the woman who anoints the feet of Jesus with expensive oil and dries his feet with her hair.  To me, that qualifies as quite an act of humility.

But one of the apostles (Judas, who would later prove less than trustworthy) expresses his concern that they should have sold the oil and given the money to the poor.  Thus the response of Jesus, basically saying they wouldn’t have him around forever (at least not physically) so chill out and let the woman offer this act of service.  Besides, you will always have poor people – and you always will have the opportunity to do good.

There is so much in this short passage.  First, there is something to be said for honoring Christ.  Tabernacles are made from precious metals – not recycled cardboard.  And churches are designed to be beautiful, to lift our spirits and to honor God.

(Aside: Once upon a time Catholics dressed up in their “Sunday Best” clothes to go to Mass. That was a good thing and some of us still go to Mass in dressed like we care.)

poor boxSecond, this passage suggests that there always will be the poor, or what Pope Francis calls the peripheries.  Maybe that means that no matter how much we care and no matter how much charity/relief work we do, there always will be more that needs doing.

For some reason, this gospel passage meandered through my mind yesterday as I was perusing my favorite Catholic news website, ZENIT.  (Disclaimer: I write for ZENIT, so my feelings about the website are highly prejudiced.)

In any event, I’m looking at the page and many of the stories are uplifting and inspiring. Hey, we try to evangelize here!

But in that single news cycle appeared stories about challenges facing the world that seem like they should have been fixed long ago:

  • World Leprosy Day – someone new contracts the disease every two minutes.
  • Pope Francis’ call for an end to antisemitism.
  • The need to eliminate food scarcity and hunger in Africa.
  • Innocent children dying in terror attacks in Africa and the Middle East.

What struck me was that these four “bad” stories could have been written when Jesus was conducting his public ministry on earth: leprosy, antisemitism, hunger, and innocents slaughtered.  Horrible problems then, horrible problems 2,000 years later.  Perhaps it will be the same 2,000 years from now.

I could get a bit discouraged.  But maybe I’m missing the point. Maybe it isn’t just the poor who will always be with me, but also the sick, the denigrated, the hungry and those who suffer through no fault of their own.

Perhaps God wants to give me – and all the future guys like me – a chance to care and do good.

Pope on a Plane

Pope_Francis_Tacloban_2I’ve come to believe the most dangerous place on earth for Pope Francis isn’t on earth at all but more like 30,000 feet above the earth in a jet.

No, I’m not afraid the jet will crash or be hijacked.  But the Pope is on a plane with a herd of people who ponder every word, every expression, every sigh or clearing of the throat, every look of fatigue or dismay.

Yes, he has no snakes on his plane, but he does have journalists. And even journalists with a pro-Catholic tendency need to get a story.

Stories are built on conflict and controversy.  And it doesn’t take much to make a controversy, as Pope Francis learned last week when he performed a wedding in the jet high over Chile.

I’ll admit I’m a bit of a romantic and a sucker for a mushy story.  So, I thought a couple flight attendants being married by the Pope was, well, rather darling.  They were Catholic and had been married in a civil ceremony and done marriage prep to be married in the church.  But things happened and there was an earthquake, the church fell down, their lives continued and they never got around to the church wedding.

But if you are flying with the Pope, why not have him tie the knot?  And they did.

At that point, I figured they would simply go home and live happily ever after. Perhaps they will, but the Holy Father has been fielding a bit of criticism.  It goes something like this:

So…how are priests going to hold the feet of couples to the fire and make them marry in the church if the Pope does this sort of thing?  Did the Pope have proof they took marriage classes? Did they show him their license?  They obviously have not been living as brother and sister because they have children. Did they have a license?  Who does the Pope think he is?

I think the Pope thinks he is the Pope. He once got into hot water for not judging someone, but this time he got into hot water because he judged this couple ready, willing and able to have a Catholic wedding and he provided it. I still think it is rather darling.

I believe the Holy Father has a message. The message isn’t that marriage prep courses aren’t important, couples should live in sin and the rules of the faith don’t matter.

What matter most is mercy and love. As this little controversy has brewed, a particular verse from First Corinthians has been running through my mind…a verse I bet the pope knows well:

  13  1If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.

      4Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, 5does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, 6does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; 7bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

      8Love never fails; but if there are gifts of prophecy, they will be done away; if there are tongues, they will cease; if there is knowledge, it will be done away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part; 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will be done away. 11When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.13But now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.


The Adulation of Hypocrisy

Captain Renault: I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! – From the classic scene in Casablanca, made in 1942

Bill Clinton speaking (2015)Twenty years ago – January 17, 1998, news broke on Drudge that then-president Bill Clinton had “relations” with a young intern in the White House.

That was the moment when I thought our nation had lost discretion and decorum.  It wasn’t only that I was disappointed (hardly shocked) that the leader of the free world might engage in illicit sex.  No, it was the explicit nature of how the media described the “affair.” And following that came the hypocritical outcries from politicians and press suggesting they had no idea such things ever happened.

Last year we witnessed the Weinstein scandal in Hollywood.  Goodness…a movie director asking pretty girls for favors in exchange for stardom.  Everyone in the movie industry was shocked – the same people who are churning out movies and television shows filled with violence, profanity, nudity and explicit sex.

And in the past week, politicians and political pundits are protesting the profane pronouncements of our apparently potty-mouthed president.  My goodness, a president using disrespectful language.  The language was so awful, but newspapers reprinted it in headlines and critical politicians repeated the words while lambasting the president for using it.

Having spent time in newspaper offices and public-relations agencies, I can testify that President Trump could not utter any word that a large percentage of reporters, senators, congressmen, corporate executives, teachers, police officers, firefighters, soldiers and, yes, sailors, utter on a regular basis.

Matthew_Getting_Mouth_Washed_Out_With_SoapI am not endorsing or excusing foul language.  But even a cursory examination of history would suggest swearing has been a problem for a long time.

In 1738, Edmund Gibson, Lord Bishop of London, published “An Admonition against Profane and Common Swearing.” He hoped to save an increasingly coarse culture from further descent.

On August 3, 1776, General George Washington ordered that there be no swearing by the soldiers under his command. I guess his ears were ringing.

And as a Christian, I’m aware of the Second Commandment: “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

I’m also aware that the Gospel isn’t gentle with hypocrites.

“You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” – Romans 2:1

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” – Luke 6:41

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.” – Matthew 23:27

How sad it is that people of power and influence behave badly.  But the hypocrisy permeating our culture is horrifying.  Most of us are behaving badly and we need to start behaving like Christians. We need Jesus as our role model, not Captain Renault.

Lessons from the Flu

fluI have the flu. It hurts.

I’m saying that not because I’m looking for sympathy. I’m just one of a few million people who have the flu.

I mention it to put everyday life in perspective.

Most of us have dreams: places we want to visit, career levels to achieve, a book to write, a hit song, getting all the kids through college.  Sometimes our dreams are practical and materialistic: a new house, a fancy car, mink coat, a bass boat.

If you have one or more of these dreams, you probably don’t let them dominate your every waking thought, but they pop up now and again.

The flu changes all that. Over the past 24 hours, goals and objectives that seemed to important faded behind the immediate desires to have joints that don’t ache, a stomach that holds solid food and eyes that can focus.

Today the old saying “if you have your health you have everything” ran through my mind a few times.  Simply feeling OK seems much more important than having a bulging savings account or a redecorated dining room.

The flu certainly can’t be seen as a force for good in the world.  It kills people, although I believe all it will do is make me miserable for a few days.  But the flu has brought me back to the basics of focusing on the present and having an ongoing conversation with God, asking for his comfort and patience.

Ravioli – the Next Generation

1227171934aThe moment had been creeping up on me for more than a quarter-century, but I didn’t see it coming.

Not the time. Not the place. Not the circumstances.

I sat in my kitchen, just a couple days past Christmas 2017. Four other people bustled about the kitchen rolling dough into pasta, mixing cheese and spices, putting together dozens and dozens of ravioli made from scratch. The task required patience and attention to detail and the love of good cooking I recall from my grandma’s kitchen and the kitchen of my wife’s grandmother.

But these ravioli makers were young: my daughter (half Italian on her mother’s side), her husband (plain old American like me), my son (half Italian on her mother’s side), his wife (pure Irish). All four are within a couple years pre or post thirty.

Two other people shared the kitchen with us: my daughter’s three-month-old twin daughters.  They weren’t much help with the actual making of the ravioli, but I expect they will be someday.

My wife learned to make ravioli from her mother, her mother learned from her mother, who I assumed learned from her mother.  My wife taught my daughter, who will someday teach her twin daughters.  This particular day, she was teaching her husband, her brother and his Irish wife, who proved to be most skilled in the practice of raviolian arts.

An aside: I never have learned the ravioli part of marrying into a large Italian family, but I learned how to make pizza dough from my wife’s grandmother and I’m pretty good at it (for a non-Italian).

But as you might expect, this isn’t really about making ravioli or pizza, but a generational changing of the guard. A few years ago, my wife and her mom would make the ravioli…now it is my daughter.

It seems like only yesterday that my wife and I were young marrieds heading off to Christmas Eve dinner at her grandma’s house.  This year, we went to my daughter’s house. The menu featured the same pasta with sauce made from garlic and oil.  Just like grandma made – really.

As I sat in the kitchen watching the ravioli parade forming, I found my mind bouncing from various times and places.  The times and places blended together and told me that despite all the squabbles and sacrifices, family topped everything else.

I was a young man at my wife’s grandma’s house for the holidays.  I was a little boy waiting for Christmas morning.  I was a young father wrapping presents for my children and getting ready for midnight Mass. I was in Ohio, New Jersey, Illinois, and Indiana, all the places the family had at some point called home.

My grandma’s cookies were glorious and her mashed potatoes never had lumps.  Same with my mom.

Now, home and family were these wonderful young people making food in our kitchen. Their laughter, joking, sharing, coaching, and teasing were beautiful to observe.  Maybe this was the moment my life was prepared to receive.

Resolved to be Unresolved

resolutionsAs the end of 2017 looms, talk turns to the making of resolutions for the new year. In this, I am a non-participant, perhaps even an anti-new-year-resolutionist.

My reason for eschewing New Year’s Resolutions is simple; if there is something that I should change about my behavior, I should start right now, not on some “special” date.  And to be frank, the only things special about January 1 are it being a Holy Day and it is time to put a new parish calendar on my office wall.

Most resolutions I hear people tour have to do with behavior, either physical or spiritual.

The physical resolutions: lose weight, eat more vegetables, give up chocolate, exercise more, run the Boston Marathon, learn to play the piano.

The spiritual resolutions: be kinder to others, be more patient never miss Mass, don’t swear, start each day with a meditation, don’t shop on Sunday.

Of course, some people make particular and practical resolutions:  finally clean the garage, paint the porch, keep the garden weeded.  But these practical resolutions have no connection to the first of the year.

Come to think of it, neither do physical or spiritual resolutions. If something is worthy of a resolution, it is worthy to address right now.

If I think I need to be more patient, why wait until January 1 – or if I forget on January 1, 2018, wait until January 1, 2019. I should not be patient about making a resolution to be more patient.

Of course, if someone makes a resolution that will improve their life and they stick to it, more power to them.  It probably works for some folks.

Based on the history of the world the past couple centuries, I hope world leaders will have enough sense to resolve a few things:

  • Don’t get involved in a land war in Asia.
  • Don’t invade Russia (especially in winter).
  • Promote peace and justice.
  • Stop corruption and greed.
  • Feed and clothe those in need.
  • Protect human life.
  • Find a path to peace in the Middle East.
  • End religious persecution.

I know, I know, I sound like a contestant in a beauty contest.  But I really do want world peace.

Dangerous Expectations

expectationsA priest I’ve known for many years always wishes me a “Blessed” Christmas this time of year.  Never a “Merry” Christmas.  Never a “Happy Christmas.”  And most certainly, never “have a good one.”

After he had done this a couple times, I overcame my natural shyness and asked why he doesn’t say “Merry” like everyone else.  He smiled (with a smile a little like the Cheshire cat) and explained that Christmas isn’t really about being Merry, but about receiving the greatest gift God could give us: His only son.

It was his little way of reminding people that Christmas isn’t really about sugar plum fairies, trips to the mall or a reindeer with a red nose.

Christmas is about the arrival of the Word made flesh, mankind’s ultimate get out of jail free card.  I may have original sin and am not worthy for Him to enter under my roof, but Christ was born to give me a simple (perhaps not easy) path to eternal life.

The importance of that path tends to get lost amid the unrealistic expectations of the season:

  • Everyone who really matters to me will send me a card and come to visit.
  • I’ll send out hundreds of cards and decorate my home to look like a scene from the Nutcracker Suite.
  • I will get exactly the gifts I want.
  • Every gift I give will be the best gift the person receiving it will get.
  • The entire family will gather around the table for Christmas with a perfectly prepared turkey in the center and a photographer from Hallmark present to record the moment.
  • The cookies I bake will be even better than the ones grandma made from the same recipe in the old days.
  • There will be snow for Christmas, but only 3-4 inches and the temperature will be such that it sticks on the lawns and trees and the roads remain clear.
  • The Church service will start on time, the choir will be exquisite, all the children in the congregation will be well-behaved and the service will conclude in under an hour.

Reality will likely fall well short of expectations.  I’ll be lucky to get an email out, I’ll burn the turkey and grandma would be ashamed of my baking.

That is where the “dangerous” part of expectations kicks in.  There can be a wide gap between what we picture in our minds as the perfect Christmas and what actually occurs.

This may be disappointing. For some folks, it can be depressing – I mean medically so.  To unmet expectations add exhaustion, sleep deprivation, last-minute gift panic and too much eggnog and you have a recipe for misery.

And if I’m heading in that direct – even a little bit – I need to remind myself of my Father friend’s wish for my “Blessed” Christmas.  Even if I get a clip-on tie with lighted Santa nose and the gingerbread men are the consistency of hockey pucks, Christmas is a greatest blessed I can ever receive.

And being so blessed, well, makes me feel Merry and Happy.


Frankenstein vs. the Pope

frank2Frankenstein has been the subject of many movies, some campy classics and some rather awful.

Frankenstein with Boris Karloff (1931, is likely THE Frankenstein flick, although there were earlier versions – and a couple dozen later ones.

I admit my favorite in the genre is Bride of Frankenstein (1935). There is something about Elsa Lanchester’s piercing eyes and frizzy hair that touched my taste for the terrifying.

frank3There is a Frankenstein movie for nearly every taste:

  • Son of Frankenstein (1939)
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942)
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943)
  • House of Frankenstein (1944)
  • Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)
  • I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (1957)
  • Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965)
  • Alvin and the Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein (1999)
  • Lady Frankenstein (1971)
  • Young Frankenstein (1974)

Just to be clear, I’m not recommending you go out and watch any of these.  And in that this is but a fraction of the “Frankies” that have been made, you may think it odd that I believe we need one more.

I’m talking about the yet-to-be-made Frankenstein vs. the Pope.

Frankly, this show won’t have a Frankenstein, but a Canavero.

Sergio Canavero is an Italian doctor who says he will perform the first human head transplant.  He plans to do this in China, the medical authorities in the United States and Europe being understandingly opposed.  He claims to be on the road to medical history, having successfully transplanted heads and bodies of animals and human cadavers.

The doctor says the operation that is supposed to put a living head on a living body not its own requires a couple dozen surgeons, will last 24 hours and cost $100 million.

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Spock's_Brain_Star_Trek_1968The closest anyone has ever come to doing something like this was on the original Star Trek, when Dr. McCoy had to restore Spock’s brain after it was stolen by aliens. Wait…that was a television show. It wasn’t real. It was science fiction.

But rather than looking for inspiration from fictional characters or space aliens, I look to Pope Francis.  He recently gave a talk on how we should face the challenges of technical advances in medicine.

He made three key points:

  1. The first is the centrality of the human person, which must be considered an end and not a means.
  2. The second principle it is necessary to remember is that of the universal destination of goods, which also regards those of knowledge and technology.
  3. The principle remains that not all that is technically possible or feasible is therefore ethically acceptable.

I don’t think Frankenstein – I mean Canavero – responds favorably to any of the three points.  But he falls especially short on the third.

Maybe this diabolical doctor really can perform a human head transplant. I seriously doubt it.  And even he admits that if “successful” the resulting being probably wouldn’t live very long.

But for the sake of argument, let’s assume he can do it. Could there be any greater example of something that shouldn’t be done just because it could be done?

The one consistent theme in all the old Frankenstein flicks is that Frankenstein – the doctor — ends up in disgrace. Frankenstein vs. the Pope will end the same way.